Saturday, May 19, 2012

Mexican Oatmeal Soup

I saw a recipe for Mexican Oatmeal Soup that Elizabeth Warren, Cherokee Senate hopeful, had published in a Native American Cookbook, but which can also reportedly be found in The New York Times Bread and Soup Cookbook (1972). I made a few alterations for health, convenience and flavor. It was delicious (of course, or I wouldn’t be posting it!). My picky son thought he’d hate it, but when cajoled into a taste, said he liked it too. The soup is vegan, unless of course you pour it over meatballs or use chicken instead of vegetable broth.

2 Tbsp Extra Virgin Olive Oil
½ Yellow Onion, chopped fine
1 Clove Garlic, chopped fine
½ Serrano Pepper, chopped fine
½ cup rolled oats
1 can (15 oz.) Petite Cut Tomatoes, drained
2 cups vegetable broth
½ tsp salt (If broth is low sodium or unsalted)
Handful of Cilantro (perhaps a tenth of a supermarket bundle), chopped

Heat the Olive Oil in a saucepan at medium heat.
Add the Onions and cook until they get translucent, about 5 minutes, stirring a couple times.
Add the Garlic and Hot Pepper and cook for about 5 more minutes, occasionally stirring.
Add the Oatmeal and cook for about 3 more minutes, occasionally stirring.

Then add the Tomatoes, Broth, Salt, and Cilantro. Bring to a boil and boil for at least 5 minutes over medium heat, occasionally stirring and checking texture. (Naturally, the oatmeal will get softer and the liquid will get thicker over time.) Remove from heat when texture is as desired; serve hot. Optionally, ladle soup into bowls over chopped meatball or chicken.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Obama Against Poker

If Obama can play poker with his Chicago cronies, how come the rest of us can't play it on line?

Click on the headline for a news link from (The story was covered more dispassionately by most major news sources.)

Fortunately, I only use play money online. So I haven't had any funds frozen by the Feds. But it pisses me off that I can't go to Poker Tilt any more. Its software and game options were far superior to games elsewhere. I also doubt that any of the real money players will be better off -- indeed, they are likely to be screwed -- because of this "fraud" investigation. Players were not defrauded, but their credit card charges said something other than "poker" because they wanted it that way, just as people using cards for sex or porn have more discreet charges shown; to my knowledge this is the only "fraud" in question.

*******Update 9/21/11******* Now the Feds are claiming that Full Tilt was a ponzi scheme -- that the owners took out a lot of money and didn't maintain the account balances necessary for the players to actually have the money shown in their balance statements. I don't know if this will be claimed for, or shown, for the other two major sites shut down by the Feds, but obviously this is not a frivolous charge. I have found a pretty good site for play money (PokerStars); they still have cash games, but not for "my area." (Presumably the U.S. I personally wouldn't play for real money on line anyway.)

Sunday, June 20, 2010

If The Windmill-Powered Casino on Greylock Never Gets Built

A band of solar cells all around the moon? Beaming energy in the form of microwaves at the earth? A Lunatic idea. And Murphy's law would seem to dictate that we'd want to design a system so that, even if the beam were deliberately pointed at Manhattan, no one would suffer much inconvenience or heating (let alone instant, smoking death).

But it's an idea that just might work, someday. At any rate, it's great that the modern world can fund and support NASA and academic (and even Japanese construction firm) scientists working on theoretically possible methods of achieving such a sustainable power source.

Why solar power in space and not on Earth?

Why the moon and not in closer, easier to get to, orbit?
1) Crowded space in the lowest orbits and in geosynchronous orbit.

2) Panels in space would considerably shade Earth (but that might be a good thing if global warming becomes a problem).

3) Cost. Cost. Cost.
Theoretically, at least, it could be cheaper to do it on the moon than closer to Earth.

That's because even low-earth orbit is very expensive to obtain (at least $2,000 per pound of payload to low orbit), and geosynchronous orbit costs about 5 times as much. And costs are not going to fall much until or unless we have a cabled space elevator (for geosynchronous).

It is, course, much more work to bring things and people to the moon. (We haven't done it recently, making cost estimates speculative.)

The moon is 250,000 miles away, versus ~200 miles for a rather low orbit and 22,000 miles for geosynchronous orbit; but bringing the material to the moon would not be proportionately more expensive, as we see with geosynchronous orbit being 100 times higher, but only 5 times more expensive, than low orbit. (That's because the cost of getting a mass to low orbit is more set by the need to obtain 18,000 MPH orbital velocity, than by the need to merely lift it 200 miles.)

More important, the Moon, unlike space, is filled with stuff. The trick is to design a system of mines and factories so that a modest amount of materials, robots and people sent to the moon can be be used to mine, smelt and manufacture that stuff into the materials needed to build a massive belt of solar cells all the way around the Moon's equator. (Half of the cells would be in the daylight at any given time; the power would be sent to the main Moon base, which position would always be facing the Earth.)

Consider one way to bootstrap materials: instead of shipping all the water that the base would need, ship hydrogen, which could be used to grab the oxygen from various moon rocks, producing water weighing 9 times as much as the brought hydrogen, and simultaneously producing metals and other elements (e.g., aluminum, titanium, silicon) of perhaps twice the weight of the hydrogen.

With silicon for solar cells, aluminum for electric transmission lines, and titanium for structural elements, you've got essentially everything you need to manufacture your enormous belt of solar cells.

Once the moon base was making more solar power than needed to maintain itself and keep its humans alive, this power could be used to separate minerals without much need for additional resources from Earth. Then a growing proportion of the growing power supply could be sent to Earth by some form of electromagnetic radiation, such as light (laser) or microwaves. Lasers sound rather dangerous to me, whereas there ought to be some radio or microwave frequency that could be picked up by giant antennas, but which would mostly bounce off the Earth if they missed the antenna.

While the Moon transmitter would need only one location (since the moon always keeps the same face to us), the Earth would have to have receivers in three locations, with each getting energy for about 1/3 of each 25-hour "day" when the moon was overhead. The energy received at each would in part be delivered as electricity for immediate use, and in part be stored, perhaps as synthesized fuels such as hydrogen or natural gas (used to generate electricity for the 2/3 of the time that no Moon energy would be arriving), or it could be delivered around the Earth by intercontinental electric transmission line.

So, there are a few problems yet to solve... But this concept is the first I've ever heard that justifies the manned space program as more than just bread and circuses, but without the bread.

Friday, June 11, 2010

The Circle Game

Sometimes I'm amazed at what my children know, and sometimes I'm amazed at what they don't know.

I attended a middle-school graduation ceremony today. The younger students, including my 8-year-old daughter, made up a chorus. Their last song was, as the music teacher informed us, a real tear-jerker -- "The Circle Game" by Joni Mitchell, with the chorus:

And the seasons they go round and round
And the painted ponies go up and down
We're captive on the carousel of time
We can't return we can only look
Behind from where we came
And go round and round and round
In the circle game

Women were wiping their eyes, and I was probably close to sobbing as well. The kids performed quite nicely, but I sensed that they had little idea of what the song was about. I asked my daughter later, "why do you think the song was sad?" Her answer: "because a man is stuck on a carousel?"

Friday, June 04, 2010

NY Times Says Circulation Holding Up to WSJ Assault

That's the headline in a Bloomberg story of June 4 based on an interview with New York Times CEO Janet Robinson.

"We are definitely not seeing any effect in regard to the circulation," Robinson is quoted. But if you read to paragraph 7 of the story, you learn that "The New York Times’s nationwide circulation fell 8.5% to 951,063 in the six months through March, while circulation at the Journal, which includes paying Internet readers, rose less than 1% to 2.09 million, data from the Audit Bureau of Circulations show."

How can such a juxtaposition earn the headline "NY Times Says Circulation Holding Up to WSJ Assault" instead of something like "NY Times Official Puts Desperate Spin on Plummeting Circulation Figures"? (Which would itself be a pretty soft way of calling her a liar.)

It's part of a pattern which could make left- and right-wing talking heads on Fox News look objective. Take a similar article from April 26, which includes this:

Diane McNulty, a Times spokeswoman, attributed the lost print readership to a focus on “quality circulation and high retention rates,” saying the newspaper has kept most readers who have subscribed for two years or more. In an e-mail to employees today, New York Times Co. Chief Executive Officer Janet Robinson and Chairman Arthur Sulzberger Jr. said that “readers and advertisers are very loyal.”

The Journal “will soon discover the intensity of that dedication,” they wrote.

So they haven't this year lost more than 50% of "readers who have subscribed for two years or more"? Is there anyone who would guess that things could be worse than that?

The Times and sister-paper Boston Globe, like many other newspapers, are going down the tubes; demonstrating that they are run by fantasists certainly can't help matters, even if they have Bloomberg headline writers and the Obama Administration eager to bail them out.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

16 Bean Soup

I recently bought a bag of Goya’s “16 Bean Soup Mix.” It's basically a pound of mixed beans, with wonderful variation in size, color and texture. But when the soup was made as directed on the package, it was insipid. I fixed it by adding a chopped up onion, fried with spices. The soup was then delicious, but it called for some more vegetables, which I added the next time I made it.

This is now the best and most nutritious vegan soup I’ve ever had. (And for this carnivore, pretty damn good even compared to a meaty soup.)

Although I gave considerable thought to the pairing of flavors, I'd have to say that other than the beans, water and olive oil, you can probably get away with skipping any (or several) of the soup's ingredients. It is a bit labor intensive, but you also get a lot of soup, either for a big group meal, or for leftovers.

1-lb. bag of 15- or 16-bean mix, e.g., Goya.

2 or 3 bay leaves
1 or 2 cans vegetable [or chicken] broth

1 large or 2 medium yellow onions, to be finely chopped
[optional serrano or other hot pepper, if you like your food spicy, to be finely chopped]
1/2 tsp ground pepper
1½ tsp cumin
1 tsp paprika
1½ tsp flour
2 Tbsp olive oil

3 stalks celery, to be bisected and chopped into 1/8-1/4 inch thick pieces
15 ounce can Petite Cut or diced tomatoes
1 tsp salt

3 carrots, to be chopped about 1/8-1/4 inch, and bisected if fat.
½ tsp curry
~1 Tbsp olive oil

½ pound butternut squash, to be diced
1 tsp cinnamon

1 bundle asparagus. Throw out base 40%. Chop the rest 1 cm long, except very tip, ~2 cm
1 cup cider

Soak beans that morning (if for dinner), or overnight (lunch).

About 2½ hours before serving: Drain the beans; put in a soup pot; add bay leaves, broth and water to bring liquid to 4 cups; bring to a boil and then simmer, covered. Throughout, stir occasionally, adding water if necessary.

Now you have a half hour or so to chop everything.

In a bowl, combine onion [and pepper] with spices. In a large frying pan on medium heat, add 2 tablespoons of olive oil, and when hot, the onion mixture. Mix/flip with a spatula as needed. After frying to some brownness, add onion mixture to soup pot, leaving behind what oil you can. Also add celery, salt, and tomato to pot. It is now perhaps 1½ hours before serving.

Now add olive oil to frying pan to bring it back to about 2 Tbsp. Brown the carrot/curry mixture, and then add to soup pot.

Again add olive oil to bring back to about 2 Tbsp. Brown the diced squash/cinnamon mixture, and then add to soup pot.

Continue to occasionally stir the simmering, covered pot.

About 20 minutes before serving, add cup of cider and asparagus directly to the soup (no frying). Taste a spoonful (no asparagus, of course) and ponder the salt level and flavor. Keep the soup covered unless you think it needs to boil down.

Most people will find the soup could use some more salt, so you can add some more if you know you don’t have anyone used to low-salt eating, or put a shaker on the table. If you like your food spicy you may also want to put a hot sauce or hot Indian cilantro chutney on the table, especially if you didn’t chop in hot pepper with the onions.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Moscow's Stray Dogs Evolving Greater Intelligence, Including a Mastery of the Subway

This seems worrying:

Poyarkov has studied the dogs, which number about 35,000, for the last 30 years. Over that time, he observed the stray dog population lose the spotted coats, wagging tails, and friendliness that separate dogs from wolves, while at the same time evolving social structures and behaviors optimized to four ecological niches occupied by what Poyarkov calls guard dogs, scavengers, wild dogs, and beggars.

The guard dogs follow around, and receive food from, the security personnel at Moscow's many fenced in sites. They think the guards are their masters, and serve as semi-feral assistants. The scavengers roam the city eating garbage. The wild dogs are the most wolf-like, hunting mice, rats, and cats under the cover of night.

But beggar dogs have evolved the most specialized behavior. Relying on scraps of food from commuters, the beggar dogs can not only recognize which humans are most likely to give them something to eat, but have evolved to ride the subway. Using scents, and the ability to recognize the train conductor's names for different stops, they incorporate many stations into their territories.

Additionally, Poyarkov says the pack structure of the beggars reflects a reliance on brain over brawn for survival. In the beggar packs, the smartest dog, not the most physically dominant, occupies the alpha male position.

Those Russians. Haven't they seen Planet of the Apes? What's to keep us from Planet of the Dogs? How quickly can intelligence and brain structures evolve? Does the Precautionary Principle require that we kill them all, before they enslave or kill us?

Wednesday, August 19, 2009


My wife and I just spent two days in Provincetown (Cape Cod MA). It's one place where the bed & breakfasts' guests aren't stuffy couples in their 60s. Most of them did seem to be married, from Massachusetts or California before Prop 8.

It's hot even on the Cape. I noticed most of the gays are wearing cargo shorts (with trimmer Madras shorts also fairly common) and sleeveless T-shirts, so I can continue to wear my fading collection without fear that I am hopelessly out of style.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Spinach and Egg Pie with Bacon

My daughter ate a healthy meal tonight. Usually one has to point out that dessert is conditional on eating at least a serving of dinner, including vegetable, but tonight she ate so much dinner she had no room for pumpkin pie (a first in this house).

This Spinach and Egg Pie is basically a quiche, except it makes its own crust. I have been experimenting with variants on such egg pies; this is my most successful by far:


* 5 pieces bacon
* 1/2 yellow onion

* 8 large eggs
* 3 Tbsp flour
* 1 oz. parmesan, grated
* 1/2 cup milk
* 1/4 tsp salt
* 1/8 tsp nutmeg
* 2 grinds pepper

* Butter

* 2/3 bag of fresh baby spinach

* 2 oz. cheddar


* Preheat oven to 375F. (Or 340F if you don’t have a microwave.)
* Put steamer on stove with water to boil.

* Put bacon in skillet at medium.
* Finely chop onion and fry with bacon

* Remove the onion bits when lightly browned, to cool.
* Chop the bacon when cooked.
* Meanwhile, combine egg group 7 ingredients in bowl.

* Add cooled onion to egg bowl.
* Puree with immersion blender, or whisk (if eaters don’t mind little pieces of onion).

* Butter 2 liter Pyrex pan (11” * 7”)

* Pour a thin layer of egg mixture into pan, put in oven until set.

* Meanwhile, steam the spinach until just limp.

* Add bacon on top of set egg layer
* Add spinach on top of bacon.
* Pour rest of egg mixture over spinach.
* Grate cheddar on top.

* Microwave for 2 minutes on high, turn and microwave a second 2 minutes.
* Bake for 15 minutes at 375 F, then check for doneness.
(If no microwave, instead cook at 340 F for 30 minutes).

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Pink and Purple Season

The early yellows (Narcissus) are gone, and now it's pink and purple (and mauve) season, at least in my garden, featuring Dianthus (pinks, lower left), Iris, Allium (chives), Lupinus, and Tradescantia (purple near the center, bright pink to extreme right). Not shown: Perovskia (Russian sage), Nepeta (catmint), Digitalis (foxglove). Photo taken June 12; today the clumps of low Sedum (in wall, lower right) showed visible yellow buds, and Alchemilla (ladies' mantle) was starting its chartreuse bloom. Warmer yellows, reds and oranges will become more common over the summer, with Hemerocallis (daylily) and various daisies taking the lead. This seems the most common color progression. Perhaps you have a different scheme?

Monday, May 05, 2008

Frost, Death and Growth

Plant growth is most notable at this time of year, when above-ground growth is just taking off. It was clear in my garden, as from the weather report, that today was the first significant growing day in about a week. For most plants, growth follows temperature in an almost linear response, from zero growth at 40F to maximum growth at 80F (leveling off suddenly, with distress beginning at 86F.)

What had shut things down, of course, was that after weeks with much warmth and without frost, we got a 25F frost in Adams last week, followed by cold and clouds. The frost had been predicted at least 5 days ahead of time on, and so I was ready, and put inverted buckets over the two Weigela "bushes" (a few inches high) I made from cuttings last June. The plants had overwintered successfully, and are generally considered hardy to zone 4, but I wanted to be sure of their safety. Fresh spring growth is far more sensitive to frost than is a dormant plant (if that weren't true, the plants wouldn't bother going dormant now, would they?), and tiny cuttings are less likely to have reserves of energy and bud tissue if they lose their growing ones.

As it happens, none of my other bushes or perennials suffered any significant setback -- a trivial one is mentioned below -- so I probably hadn't needed to protect the Weigelas. (Not that there was a downside to doing so.)

But I had forgotten to protect the one plant obviously sensitive to cold - a just-planted blooming pot marigold (Calendula), which was entirely turned to mush. Not valuing annuals much, or at any rate, not being afraid of losing them, I did not give any thought to that plant even though it was the only thing I had really blooming except for some of my daffodils, and even though it's native to the Mediterranean and Middle East.

So what was damaged? The bleeding heart (Dicentra spectabilis), the one plant which was just starting to open its blooms (the earliest blooming perennial of significant size, to my knowledge, and a great plant in part for this timing), seemed to have had its flowers shriveled a bit even though the plant itself is hardy to zone 3. The flowers and top-growth are still a bit small and limp, but not dead.

Finally, most of the pink magnolia trees in the area saw their magnificent flowers turn to brown mush overnight. Perhaps they had another week in them. Magnolia x soulangeana is hardy to zone 5, but those ratings refer to the plant's reliably not dying, not to its never losing flower buds.

Speaking of hardiness, I once had a conversation with a local woman who told me that she had planted some Gladioli and then never lifted their bulbs, and yet they came back strong for a couple years, until a (probably colder) winter killed them off. I left some Glads in the ground last fall, since the late-planted ones would probably not have the energy to bloom again this year anyway, I felt like trying something else in their place, I am always looking to experiment, and I am lazy.

As it happens, those Gladioli in the normal ground position and in turf all died (nothing came up), while one I had planted in the best-drained position possible (in loose earth just inside the loose rock wall of a 2-foot-high raised bed) has come back this spring, although apparently having split into separate little bulbs (there are several growing points). This makes sense. I had read (e.g., by the late Christopher Lloyd, IMHO the greatest of garden writers) that for many such Mediterranean plants, hardiness is more a matter of drainage than of absolute temperatures. (This winter's snow cover may also have helped.)

Does anyone know of anything else damaged by last week's frost, or have a surprising tale of hardiness?

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Forsythia Time, And the Garden is Needy

Well, tree budding seems to be about two weeks earlier than average. More specifically: The Forsythia are blooming – and this is perhaps the most useful harbinger of spring, and of several spring chores.

When the Forsythia are blooming it is time to:

1) Spread pre-emergent herbicide on your lawn, if you do it at all.

2) Divide Hostas and most other perennials.

3) Fertilize your bushes, if you do it at all.

4) Prune your bushes, which you really ought to do if it has been more than a couple years.

1) Lawn Work
If, unlike me, you care about having a green, uniform grass lawn, you may choose to spread pre-emergent herbicide on your lawn. Such chemicals kill the sprouting seeds which annual weeds rely upon to regenerate, but do not kill lawn grass or other perennials. Still, they are potentially toxic chemicals. Except for corn gluten. Regular corn gluten is an effective pre-emergent herbicide, which also provides Nitrogen and Phosphorus (NPK of 9-1-0). It is sold in garden centers, but not, the last time I looked, in places like Home Depot. If you are to use corn gluten or any pre-emergent herbicide, you really should do it this weekend, before most of the weeds have sprouted.

2) Divide Hostas
Most Hostas are an inch or two tall as of today. It’s easy to see where they are, and even which ones are variegated, dark blue, etc. Now is the time to cut a chunk out of a Hosta, and plant it somewhere else, preferably with half-sun or less, in rich and humusy earth. (A week ago was fine too, but the job becomes much more destructive of the plants once they are all up and flopping about.) Fill the hole up with rich soil, or soil mixed with composted cow manure, water immediately, and water every couple days in dry weather (which we have been having).

Most other perennials can be similarly treated. There are perennials which don’t like to be disturbed, but all those which spread, and/or form “donut” shapes by expanding while their middle goes into decline, are suitable for propagation by shovel, and most even benefit from the shovel and subsequent soil enrichment. (Throw out the dead middle of any donut-shaped plant.)

3) Fertilize Bushes
This is most important with sheared plants such as hedges and most foundation plantings of yew, because shearing removes a lot of nutrients over time. But most shrubs in most locations would benefit from some fertilizer, be it a top-dressing of composted cow manure, some other rich compost, or a granular product (ideally, with at least some leaf compost or peat moss or a natural bark mulch which can break down and add organic material to the soil). If you have Rhododendrons (that includes azaleas), Pieris/andromeda, Kalmia/mountain laurel, Vaccinium (e.g., blueberry) and Erica & Calluna/heath & heather (apart from variegate Euonymous, most broad-leaved evergreens are in this family, the Ericaceae), then I recommend the Holly-Tone acidifying fertilizer, especially if you garden in a limestone area, such as most sites in the Northern Berkshires. Read the instructions. Don’t apply more than recommended. Instead, apply that amount, or half as much. You may repeat such treatment in early summer, but for most plants this second treatment should not be delayed past mid-July, lest you encourage lush growth which will fail to harden before an early frost. Note that many shrubs, notably Rhododendrons, have very shallow roots, so you should not try to dig fertilizers in.

4) Prune Bushes – Especially Hydrangeas
Pruning bushes is especially important for those with a tendency to build up congested and dead wood, such as most Hydrangeas. But almost any shrub needs pruning if it hasn’t gotten it in the last 2 or 3 years.

Pruning is needed for a number of overlapping reasons:
To remove dead, diseased or damaged wood
Remove rubbing or crossed branches
Open up the center to air and light
Make physical space for new buds to grow
Increase flowering or fruiting
Remove non-variegated reversions
Make the shrub more compact or a certain shape, to fit a spot or allow views out a window.
Make the shrub more compact, to look less scraggly
Deal with a fungal, bacterial or insect problem

Don’t Fear Radical Pruning
Even more so than with carpentry, there are several tools for removing wood, none for putting it back. But shrubs are far more forgiving than trees. You don’t have to worry about making multiple cuts so the branch won’t tear out of the trunk. You don’t have to worry about killing yourself. And you don’t have nearly as much reason to worry even about killing the plant. Shrubs aren’t just smaller than trees, they also tend to have multiple stems, and the ability to readily sprout new stems from the ground or close to the ground.

It is very hard to kill a shrub or permanently make one ugly due to pruning. Cutting a shrub all the way to the ground could kill it if hot dry weather ensues and you don’t water it daily, or if the shrub has no dormant buds near its base. But any shrub without such buds would be short-lived anyway, as it would not be able to replace old or damaged stems (e.g., lavender and some other woody herbs, and brooms, quick-growing plants most of which aren’t reliably hardy here anyway.)

There are a few rules to follow, but usually there’s no need to commit to a particular course of action when you start pruning. You first cut out the dead wood, clean out any refuse, and remove any intruders (weeds, seedlings, aggressive neighbors). With the lines of the shrub’s living wood revealed, you may now see that it’s a hideous misshapen mess. In that case, you may go straight to “radical pruning” – to cutting the plant to within an inch of the ground, or to a foot or so of trunk for those with a single trunk at their base (Rhodies, again). More likely, you’ll be merciful to the plant, because a hideous bunch of stems in April can still become a beautiful shrub once it’s leafed out and made new growth. But you will likely see that the remaining plant could still be reduced by a third (or perhaps even two-thirds). So you will remove some of the oldest stems (thicker, or with rougher bark), and you will remove stems with ugly scars or possible signs of disease or infestations.

If the plant is in leaf, and has leaves which are variegated or in colors other than green, you should remove any reversions to solid green. Most variegated cultivars will show such reversions over time. Even if you like the striking combination of areas of green contrasting with areas of a finer two-tone look, it is often best to remove the sold-green leaves since they will likely out-compete the rest of the plant.

For shrubs, like most Hydrangeas, with branches sprouting from the ground, almost all of your cuts will be to the ground. Easy, apart from the possible difficulty of reaching your clippers into the space. For other shrubs, with one or a few trunks which divide as they go up, you will be cutting higher up. Just remember not to cut a branch to some random point along its length, or to where you think that will make the shrub the right overall size. Instead, cut to where the branch sprouts from a larger branch, to just outside any branch collar (the swelling around the base of a branch).

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Ode to My Laziness

I'd like to say
that I've been busy.
Putting up Yule lights
and trimming trees.
But the house was dark,
we holidayed on the Cape,
My only active pursuit
cooking a few meals,
and donating old toys and clothes
in time for a 2007 tax deduction.
The firebush can wait.
My wife is a redhead,
but that's not what I meant and you have a dirty mind.
Perhaps 2008 will be different.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Who does this look like?

What is up with the U.S. Mint? Is commemorating the infamous Ron Jeremy some sort of sick joke? Should the citizens of Massachusetts start dressing up like Native Americans and throwing these coins into the sea? I'm just asking...

Friday, October 26, 2007

Red Marks The Spot

In the normal course of affairs, we can’t expect to see a lot of flower color in late October. This bold circle of red Salvia is the exception which proves the rule; I doubt it could look this good this late in the season (10/25/07, Adams) in one year out of ten.

A more typical level of October color would come from the berries on a female holly such as this one (Ilex, variety unknown, 10/26, North Adams), but this is an unusually pretty and heavily berried example, despite the lack of any obvious nearby male pollen partner.

By design, fruit must follow flowers, so a plant is more likely to be fruiting than flowering in October. But fewer plants use flamboyant fruits for animal attraction than earlier used animals for pollination. This fruit strategy is common to shrubs and small trees, perhaps their greatest strength in the competition with forest trees and other woodland plants. Their berries are nutritious, at least for birds, and the plants use this fact to attract birds. The birds are often aided in their quest by the berries' bright color, frequently red. For the plants, birds' smaller digestive system and lack of molars mean the seeds will pass through the birds undigested. Bird mobility is of course also a positive. At the same time, many berried plants use strategies to keep from being eaten by larger land animals. Thorns are the best-known, but the toxin in poison ivy, whose seeds are meat for birds, and poison for mammals, is another such strategy. (Poison ivy's red leaves are a great attraction to birds, while its actual berries are off-white.)

Flamboyant Foliage
To get really large masses of bright color in October, we have to look to foliage, not flowers or berries, on plants which are themselves pretty massive. Of course, not all foliage is equal to the task. Evergreens generally have only subtle color changes, and with many deciduous plants even peak fall color is muddy or uninteresting. In other cases a shrub’s bright fall foliage is as ephemeral as are its spring flowers. (Even foliage is running perhaps two weeks later than average this year; but it certainly tends to run later than just about any reliable flowers, except for a few little bulbs such as Colchicums and fall crocuses.)

A number of vines have excellent reddish fall foliage. Poison ivy is perhaps the most beautiful. But leaving aside a few special needs, as in places where trespassers have driven one to misanthropy, there are more reasonable options such as the Boston ivy shown above (Parthenocissus tricuspidata, its specific name referring to its three-pointed leaves, 10/26, Williamstown), Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia, named for its groups of five leaflets), and grape plants (Vitis), which are in the same family as Parthenocissus (Vitaceae).

And of course, shrubs and trees which have red foliage all summer, such as this Japanese maple (Acer palmatum, looks like the ‘Bloodgood’ variety, 10/25, Adams) still have red foliage up until leaf fall – not as dramatic looking in fall when other plants are even brighter, but certainly providing a contrast to neighbors which might still be green, or turning yellow, orange or brown.

So, noting that vines are a niche item which needs the right backdrop and a support which is strong and undamaged by heavy shading, what is generally the best source of massive bright red fall color?

There are a number of shrubs which, like poison ivy, attract the eye with brilliant fall foliage. For example, for those of us with acid soil who are considering the blueberry (Vaccinium), fall foliage is just icing on the (edible) cake. But to me, the role of providing a large and dramatic colorful emphasis is best filled by the much-maligned, much-abused, and much-misused Burning Bush (Euonymus alatus, or Winged Euonymus or Winged Spindle). A common bush, found in parking lots, and sneered at by landscape architects who call it the “worst bush ever” you say? Indeed, all true. But it gets a bad rap, in my not-humble opinion. Where it is allowed to grow without heavy pruning or shearing it can be quite beautiful, wherever a spherical 10-foot bush can find at least partial sun, in all but the most extreme soil and water conditions.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Can't Believe It's October (8th)

Having just missed a frost by a couple degrees, two (?) weeks ago now, it seems especially implausible that these unretouched photos were taken today. First, the Hardy Mum I put in the ground a year ago, whose bloom is just peaking, behind an established Sedum that looks like 'Autumn Joy,' whose color has faded from a fairly pure pink toward a more browned purple.

Second, a closeup with a yellow Trollius (globeflower), red Dahlia, and Ipomeia ('Heavenly Blue' morning glory, which has only been blooming for a couple weeks).

The Trollius, whose main bloom was in mid-July, has a new bloom now probably only because it is a first-year perennial. Like its cousin the Delphinium, and most members of the Ranunculus/buttercup family (Ranunculaceae), it likes more moisture than this raised bed would tend to have, but there in the front row by my driveway it's also easy to water.

This weather means any newly-planted shrubs and perennials should be getting well established, provided we have been watering them every couple days when it hasn't been raining. (Established plants generally shouldn't need watering more than once a week.)

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Fall Isn't Only About Foliage

As summer flowers fade, and October themes of harvest, fall and Halloween predominate, gardens are getting more subdued, and more orange. If your gardening energy isn’t flagging, you could fight this with a huge infusion of late annuals, and almost recreate the riot of color of early July. But for those of us who are over age 25 and eschew the use of stimulants more powerful than coffee, it may be more practical to accept the general trend of softer and browner tones, livening them up with perhaps a few points of late-blooming or long-lasting perennials or shrubs (especially roses, such as the ‘The Fairy’ I showed two posts ago).


Gladioli (the magenta spikes seen at left above) are not very long-flowering plants. Their flower spikes look good generally for just a week or so, which period can be stretched slightly if you deadhead the lower flowers (which bloom and fade first) while the topmost flowers are still opening. They are available in any color, but the yellow-to-red spectrum predominates.

Although they are individually short-flowered, you can plant them at any time from the start of May to the end of June or even into July, and they will then flower reliably, if not exactly predictably, about 2½ to 3 months later (by late July, or as late as right now). Their spiky foliage also looks pretty good and healthy for a long season.

My late-planted (6/29/07) Gladioli are almost peaking today. They did not appear affected by the near-freezing morning temperature we experienced the week before last. Late plantings are of course at some risk of freezing off before they get a chance to bloom. On the other hand, in the absence of hard frosts, cooler daytime weather and shortened days should extend any bloom period.

As seen here, I have a clump of Gladioli in my lawn. Gladioli do not mind the low-fertility conditions apt to be found in an unfertilized lawn. You do need a tough step-on bulb-planting tool to get this effect in turf. I think this feature will work better visually if I put a bigger clump next year. In the lawn they stand up vertically; it can be hard to get Gladioli planted in flower beds to do so. You can stake them, or use any awkwardness as an excuse for cut flowers on the table.

Gladiolus corms are not difficult to overwinter, their skin keeping them in good shape under a range of reasonable conditions (unlike Dahlias, whose tubers can shrivel and die if too dry, or get moldy and die if too moist – of course, Dahlias are larger plants, with a much longer bloom season). Late-planted corms are less likely to build up enough strength in their new corms before frosts shut the plants’ photosynthesis down, but like most bulbs Gladioli are fairly cheap as garden plants go.

After frosts have killed off the foliage (or indeed, right now, for earlier-planted ones which flowered more than 6 weeks ago), dig up the corms (or even pull them up slowly by the stem, if they’re in fluffy cultivated earth). To keep them through the winter you should rinse them off, dry them out for 2 weeks on a tray in your basement or garage, then tidy them up by cutting off straggly roots and pulling off last year’s corms. You can store the corms in a mesh bag or panty hose, hanging them up in a dark cool spot such as in your basement. Only the larger corms are likely to flower next year, but you can also save the numerous smaller corms, to plant out next year in some place like a vegetable bed, to bulk up for flowering the following year.

I’ve met a gardener in this area who regularly left her Gladioli to overwinter in the ground. They came back some years and not others, presumably depending on how hard and deep the ground froze in a given year. If you are going to take this gamble, I’d at least recommend putting about 4 inches of loose mulch over them to increase their chances. (We’re in zone 5b in most of the Northern Berkshires, while most Gladioli are reported reliably hardy to zone 8, with thick loose mulch and a position up against your house making them hardy to zone 6, according to my American Horticultural Society A-Z Encyclopedia.)

Hardy Mums

The most common – if not ubiquitous – flowers at this time of the year include the “Hardy Mums,” a form of Chrysanthemum. One can certainly overdo them, but they are healthy and reliable, and available in almost any color except for blue.

Why are Mums always left in pots? Mostly because they’re cheap enough to treat as annuals. Some are not in fact reliably winter hardy here, although they earn their name by holding up well to early frosts. I planted two in the ground a year ago, giving no special coddling or mulching. One survived into this year, and is just now starting to bloom again. I like its orangey contrast with pinky-mauve Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’ as seen here.

Mums like ideal positions, namely full or mostly sun, and moist but well-drained soil. Whether you intend to overwinter them or not, Mums will do at least as well for now in the ground as in a pot, without the need for the regular watering or fertilizing of a pot plant. They are also more likely to survive the winter if they are planted now, rather than after another month in their pots. The only downside to putting them in the ground is if you would consider a death there a demoralizing failure. But if it’s a plant you would otherwise nonchalantly kill off by leaving in a pot outside, why hold on to such a cautious attitude?

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Last Chance To Plant, Until...

Southview asked me in the previous post:
"I bought a couple of lilac bushes (just stems with a couple of leaves) and they just arrived. Should I stick them in the ground now or pot them till spring then plant them?"

Here's my quick advice:

Stick the lilacs (or any plant you have) in the ground now. Preferably in a spot somewhat sheltered from the wind, but that isn't essential with most lilacs, as they are very hardy (mostly to zone 3 or zone 4; we are in zone 5; there are more tender lilac species, but I don't think anyone around here would be selling them).

The notion of a fall planting season isn't only a marketing gimmick, although in a colder climate like ours, the spring season is a slightly safer one for marginally hardy plants. The heat of summer does provide a real gap between these seasons, even in the Berkshires. But it's late enough in the year for this area that heat stress is no longer a factor.

Certainly by now we're in the fall season here (and the first official day of fall is September 23 this year), and the earlier in the fall you put your plants in, the better established they will be when the ground freezes hard (roots grow even after leaves fall, but not once the soil nears freezing).

Last year I don't believe the ground really froze until about January 10, so even November plantings of Zone 5 plants should have done fine, but you can't count on such a mild early winter. Basically, we have a couple more weeks of likely good planting season, although I might consider an October shrub purchase if the price is radically cheap (like 60% off a fair initial price).

Lilacs are not houseplants. Keeping them in the house in pots is actually more risky than planting them out, perhaps even if you have a cold greenhouse. And keeping plants in pots outside would be the one way cold could kill them. Effectively, being in pots tends to reduce hardiness by 2 zones. I believe that nurseries holding potted trees will bury even the hardiest of them in foot-deep piles of mulch.

I do recommend that, after some cold weather, when the top half-inch or so of ground is frozen, and rodents have found other places to spend the winter, you spread 2 inches of mulch around the new shrubs, keeping the mulch a couple inches from the trunk. The mulch layer is primarily meant to reduce sudden freeze-thaw cycles, but will also somewhat reduce the depth of hard freezing.

Most winter deaths for plants claimed to work in your zone, especially of new plantings, aren't due to absolute cold, but rather to dehydration, as frozen roots can't supply water to a dessicating plant. This is a bigger problem with evergreens, especially broad-leaved evergreens like Rhododendrons (I recommend Wilt Pruf or other antitranspirant spray for new plantings). You should note if there's a fall drought (which isn't as obvious as a summer drought) and if so keep the plants well-watered.

But ironically, good drainage actually helps prevent the frozen-dehydrated problem. Soggy ground freezes solid, while soil with proper drainage has air pores, freezes less deeply, and allows meltwater periodically to percolate in.

Naturally, I have not done extensive experimentation on all of this (i.e., with randomly selected plants and placebos), but am reporting the collected wisdom of botanists, arborists and other authors whose expertise I trust. I have seen Wilt Pruf-treated rhododendrons looking much happier than nontreated neighbor plants, and have noted the tendency of well-drained and amended beds to not freeze as hard as other spots.

[One last tip. Don't fertilize any plants other than annuals now, or after about mid-August for most zone 5 areas. Fertilizing will encourage soft new growth -- which will be killed off in cold weather -- and should be held off until next spring, generally when Forsythia blooms.]

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Cuttings For My Garden

Personally I find nothing more thrilling in gardening than the successful propagation of plants. While growing from seed is pretty good, especially for perennials, taking cuttings of plants is positively magical. It is, after all, cloning.

This year I have taken cuttings from two shrubs. The first is a friend’s red-flowering Weigela, which blooms at least twice each summer, fairly unusual in Weigelas. I don’t know if it’s a known or named cultivar, or a lucky find in a seed-raised plant. (Weigelas aren’t known for great foliage or branch or fruit interest when they’re not in flower, so rebloom is an important feature.) The cuttings were taken in late June. I cut off several branch tips, keeping them in a Ziploc bag with a damp paper towel for a few hours before getting to my garden.

Most of the Weigela cuttings had two leaf nodes. For each, I made a fresh cut just below the lower leaf node, removed the lower leaves, and trimmed back the upper node to two half leaflets (i.e., I cut each leaflet in half). I used a single-edge razor blade, but a knife will do if it is sharp.

I inserted the cuttings in some seed starter mix, in 3-inch Jiffy peat pots, and kept them damp and under a clear plastic cover, with perhaps an hour of morning sunlight each day. Basically a cutting is a race to grow roots before wilting or a fungus takes over, but you can’t try to rush the growth with heavy sun or fertilizer, or you will uniformly fail.

As soon as a cutting starts visibly growing, it is also growing roots, and it can be put where its humidity-sealing cover is removed gradually, perhaps an hour a day for a few days, until it is always uncovered. Once uncovered, you will have to water or mist it daily. And then you put it into successively sunnier locations until it is acclimated to where you want to plant it, and you’ll only have to water when the soil is dry.

As of now I have three strong Weigela plants, which have rooted and more than doubled in size, four more plants whose future is in question, as they haven’t grown and are looking rather tired, and about four which succumbed to rot. (You must throw out any rotting ones lest the fungus or whatnot spread to the others.)

The beauty of cuttings is that with access to a healthy bush it’s trivially easy and cheap to take a dozen of them. And with most plants, most of the time, and a modicum of care, that’s usually enough to guarantee a few successes. If you can get Rootone®, TakeRoot® or a similar hormonal rooting product, that often increases your success rate to a clear majority, but with some plants like willows (various Salix species) you can put a stick into the ground just about anywhere, even upside down, and be almost guaranteed of success. (They are harder to keep alive when rooted in a pot.)

Weigelas aren’t quite as vigorous as willow cuttings, but they are known to be easy, so I didn’t bother tracking down Rootone, which I was surprised to learn is not carried by all garden supply stores and nurseries. Of my three successes, I put two into my garden in late August. The third is in a fairly large (perhaps 5-gallon) plastic pot which I aim to bring inside for the winter and place in a window. Hopefully at least one plant will survive cold, snowfall, and/or neglect (the oversized pot will last longer between waterings), making it to spring, and clear sailing for a shrub.

This year I purchased the rose known as ‘The Fairy’ – a smallish but very healthy, adaptable and long-flowering rose with many small pink double flowers. It is known to root fairly easily, with spreading canes which often layer spontaneously where they touch the ground. The Fairy dates from 1932, and so is not under patent.

On the 13th I decided to experiment with this plant, to see if I would have any success under, if not the worst of conditions, then certainly a half-assed attempt to maximize success -- late in the season, with no rooting powder, and using no cover, relying instead on shade, cooler weather, and the harder wood of later-season cuttings being more resistant to wilting.

I trimmed off a disproportionately long cane (partially seen in the top center of the first photo) and made about ten cuttings.

I had used a gloved finger to pop the thorns off to the side, making the material easier to handle, but while the Weigela had been softwood in late June, this roses’ hardwood cuttings were, indeed, quite hard to slice through with a razor blade. I was almost surprised I didn’t get myself sliced in the process. Note the sticky pad, which is a 3-inch square; a fully prepared cutting is to the left of the pad.

Most of the cuttings have three nodes; some have two. I removed the lower two nodes’ leaves, and half or more of the leaflets in the top node, and inserted most of the cuttings, untreated, into the ground. This was in a very well-drained area, a raised bed, which I had double-dug and amended with compost a month previous when I was planting a (rooted) Weigela. It is important that the cuttings area be such well-drained and yet moisture-retaining material, free of competing roots, loosened, but also firmed down. Ideally, experts such as Christopher Lloyd recommend a mix of 1 part loamy soil, 2 parts peat moss, and 3 parts coarse sand or grit (1/16 to 3/16 of an inch).

Four of the cuttings I inserted along the rim (shaded side) of the large pot with the rooted Weigela in the middle. This pot is still outside, getting morning sun on the Weigela, but it will go inside for the winter.

Certainly these late, unbabied rose cuttings are at greater risk than the already-rooted Weigelas. But even fully rooted cuttings are not as winter-hardy as larger, established plants. Altogether I will be happy if I get at least one Weigela and two roses to survive into next year’s growing season; after all, they cost me nothing (I did use about $6 worth of supplies I already had, as noted). I may put something cage-like on top of the outside plants so heavy snow won’t crush them.

How late in the season can you do all this? Softwood cuttings are best taken by early July, so as to be strongly rooted by end of season. Hardwood cuttings are supposed to be doable even into November. But in that case, you can’t expect any growth or rooting until spring. (The cuttings will probably survive, dormant, since having no leaves that late they won’t be losing much moisture.) The limiting factor then may be frozen ground. You could, if planning cuttings, prepare the ground ahead of time and keep it unfrozen with a thick layer of mulch.

Any questions?

Sunday, July 29, 2007

July Goes Out Like a Lamb

A rather interesting daylily (Hemerocallis) fronts some ladies' mantle (Alchemilla mollis) on my rocky slope.

Lupine fronts unfurling Rudbeckia 'Goldsturm.' This photo was taken today. It's not often a perennial Lupine reblooms (the first bloom peaked around 6/30/07). I did dead-head it quickly after its first flower spike was finished, but it's probably only because it's a young (first-year) plant that the rebloom occurred. (I got it at the North Adams Garden Club sale this spring.)