Gardening in New England (Zone 5), local events, politics, whatever I might be thinking about.
Monday, November 19, 2007
Who does this look like?
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.)
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)
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.)
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...
"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
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.
Sunday, July 29, 2007
July Goes Out Like a Lamb
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.)
Thursday, July 26, 2007
Best Chicken Ever Goes Down
The problem with depressed retail in Adams and
I haven't had any connection to the retail business since I was in college. And I can't think of any retail concept crying out for a presence here. Except possibly for a bike shop with espresso and ice cream, since the Ashuwillticook ends right at the center of
Apart from a casino, does anyone have a retail wish, or an idea for something they think could do well in Adams or
Thursday, July 19, 2007
Rainy Day Project
Naturally, this meant a peg board, as I had in my last (
Now I can instantly find my plumber’s snake (for the slow shower drain) and my small screwdrivers (to fix a lamp cord-switch), and all my other projects will go much more quickly. (Just 10 minutes for the shower drain which has been plaguing me and my understanding wife for months.)
Do any of you have any exciting rainy day projects, done or as yet undone, to share?
Friday, July 06, 2007
How’s Your Garden?
Naturally, if this phenomenon (i.e., a great year) is real, and not a figment of our imaginations, it must be due to some aspect of the weather. While we’ve felt a bit sticky from humidity, it seems to me that unlike last year, we haven’t had much very hot weather. (I understand that right around 86 degrees F is the point where most plants stop growing and start suffering.) We also have had plenty of rain, fairly regularly, but not so much overcast weather that things are suffering from a lack of sun.
Here’s a flower bed of mine a week ago (6/26/07). You may note Delphinium and Cosmos in bloom, and a few flowers left on Centranthus ruber ‘Coccineus’ and Lupinus (front center and back right). Not very floriferous, I’ll concede, but: It’s the first year for all of these perennials; the Potentilla fruticosa ‘Pink Beauty’ shrub (reddish twigs behind and to right of Cosmos) can’t be expected to be doing any more in its first season (it was supposed to be a “trade gallon” but arrived as a bare-root -- at least Wayside Gardens did give me a half-back credit when I complained); and the area has a bunch of plants scheduled to start blooming by August (four big Dahlia plants around the middle right, Chrysanthemums at left, Liatris spicata ‘Kobold’ just to left of Cosmos, Solidago / goldenrod and Hemerocallis / daylily at back).
Does anyone else in the area have any other theory about the conditions this year, or have anything to report on growth or health of their plants?
Tuesday, June 26, 2007
Best Man's Toast
The Best Man’s speech is a tricky genre in which to write. It has to be in part a roast of the groom and perhaps the bride, the beauty of the ceremony and the bride must be noted, and it also must contain a certain amount of schmaltz. Positive things must be said about love and marriage, but not children or “family,” which might lead to nosy questions. Everything must be in balance lest someone be offended or shocked. “Is he saying the bride’s an alcoholic and the groom a poon-hound?” is something I’ve found myself asking on more than one such occasion.**
Anyway, I got a lot of praise afterwards. Of course I can’t be sure it was not the kind of praise you give the retarded girl for her indecent dancing with her grandfather. (No, this example does not concern a guest at this wedding.)
My one regret is that I didn’t play down or hide from the groom my performance anxiety. Giving the groom fewer, not more things to worry about, is ultimately the job description of the best man.
So here goes, as I had it printed out before me.
Excuse me everyone, if I could have your attention for a moment, I’d like to say a few words.
I’m David Pittelli, and I have the honor of being Brad’s best man.
Looking around today at all these guests, I am thankful that the duties of best man no longer include fending off the bride’s relatives with swordplay.
Civilization has advanced from Anglo-Saxon times, and of course Kim would make a pretty formidable swordswoman herself if it came to that.
So now that I’ve delivered a groom and a ring to the ceremony, it is my final duty and honor to make a little speech suitable for mixed company.
First I would like to thank our hosts, Kim and her parents Ruth and Bill, and Brad and his parents Priscilla and C.C. What a lovely place they’ve chosen for a June wedding.
It's my job to compliment the beautiful bride and also to say something profound about Brad. The first part is easy. Kim, you look stunning, and Brad is a very lucky man.
Like most of us here I know one half of the wedding couple much more than the other.
In fact, I have known Brad for almost 30 years.
I’d like to help you all get to know Brad as I have.
But, on advice of council…
I’m going to have to invoke my rights under the Fifth Amendment on all of that.
Brad is getting married late enough in life that, no doubt, many have seen him as a life-long bachelor...
Not that there’s anything wrong with that!
Destiny is a fickle mistress, if I’m allowed to use that word tonight.
In Brad’s case, finding a bride was merely a matter of a company hiring both him and Miss Right… after he had driven a few biotech firms into the ground.
I have been married for a few years. And while getting married was the best thing I ever did, my wife and I do have our occasional disagreements.
To deal with them, Brad, sometimes you’ll need a firm hand.
And sometimes you’ll need a delicate touch.
While washing my wife’s delicates the other day, it occurred to me that Brad really is a very good friend. He helped me through many a romantic crisis in my single days. And if you’ve got a difficult construction project, Brad is always willing to lend a hand.
And he’s more fit than he looks.
Which is a good thing, because it’s murder getting an ambulance through
I’d also like to say that Brad is the most level-headed man I know and, along with his generosity, another thing that stands out is his appreciation of quality. And today, Brad, you’ve found a lady of true quality in Kim. It’s been an honor and a privilege to be your best man today.
So finally, it is my considered pleasure to say let us drink to the everlasting love and happiness of Brad and Kim!
* A debate before a prep school of 300. One reason I recently taught that class “Rejuvenating Your Shrubbery” was because I wanted to build up some practice speaking to a little group. Well, I got one student! My legions of fans let me down. It’s a good thing I’m not a cult leader, or you’d all be getting the Kool-Aid… Actually, the class size of one meant I could instead hold it in the student’s garden; and I think that worked out quite well for her and was good practice of another sort for me.
** It is fairly easy to write one-liners which might be funny if you heard them second-hand or in a movie featuring an awful toast, but which would really upset people in a real wedding. (e.g., “…No, we won’t be making midnight trips to
Here are two outtakes – jokes which didn’t quite work for me (the first perhaps too hard to follow aurally; the latter might have worked if I were gay):
I looked up the meaning of Brad’s name and discovered that
I know that whoever said that marriage and family can be work was not kidding. But to me, building a family is like planning and making a garden. The result and even the process are usually pleasant, even if you do get a little dirt under your fingernails. Now, ornamental gardening is my primary hobby. Perhaps to Brad marriage should be seen as an extended fishing trip. But then, ending up with a stinky fish would come to mind – so never mind all of that.
Sunday, June 10, 2007
Plugs of Poop and Hosta
I am always up for labor-saving techniques and experimentation, and I have considered using a bulb planter to do this work. But I hadn’t gotten around to it, or perhaps dared to do it, until I saw a “reader tip” in Garden Gate Magazine this spring, which said the technique worked for Hosta, albeit with the claim that it was most suitable for fall, not for spring divisions. The primary advantage of this technique is that the cylinders of plant fit neatly into holes cut in the ground with the same tool, meaning less time getting pieces to fit, moving loose soil around, and cleaning up. (On the other had, if the plants’ destination is hard, root-filled ground, you should probably do some digging there anyway to prepare the bed before drilling your planting hole.)
For plants in softer ground, the hand-held type of bulb planter works well. But for some of the plants the earth or roots were too hard, and I used a heavier, sharper, foot-pushed bulb tool designed for use in turf.
This plug-planting was fairly easy to do in early May, when the Hostas were just coming up. You carefully orient two or three buds into the bulb planter, then push or twist down as far as you can, until you get through the crown and root layer, and lift up a plug of Hosta roots, soil and sprout.
I moved the Hostas on 5/6/07, and this photo of one was taken on 6/9/07:
Naturally, the Hosta isn’t huge, but it is healthily established, the moving process was easy, and its removal subtracted hardly a whit from the parent plant. (My hand-held planter is 2.5 inches in diameter at the bottom cutting edge, and the foot-pushed planter is 2.25 inches.)
A related idea came to me a couple days ago. I had bought some Delphinium and Lupinus at the North Adams Garden Club plant sale on May 19. Rushing to put them in to suitable-looking empty spots in my raised bed, I did not notice until later that in some of those locations, the sandy soil lacking in humus drained and dried out very quickly. I didn’t want to be wedded to daily watering, and I didn’t want to traumatize the plants – or overtax myself! – by lifting them and working extensively on their beds, but I wanted to do something more extensive than just a top-dressing or mulch. So last week I brought around a container of composted cow manure, and used my bulb tool to remove plugs of low-organic soil, and replace them with plugs of manure. Since the plants had been in the ground less than a month, I was pretty confident I could skirt their roots by keeping a half inch beyond their original pot diameter, and that a few removed roots wouldn’t matter much. I put 3 or 4 plugs of poop around each plant, then watered. Here is a photo of a Delphinium with two holes of bad soil removed, and one already filled with manure:
Naturally, some top-dressing and mulch would also be a good followup. I don’t think I have to fear burning or otherwise harming the plants if they come in contact with pure manure (it is composted, and claims just 0.5/0.5/0.5 NPK percentages). One concern is whether worms or water flow will sufficiently mix the manure or its soluble nutrients with the adjacent soil.
There’s another experiment I will try some day, when I get a proper subject: a somewhat exhausted “donut-shaped” perennial that I have no particular need to propagate, and which has sufficient elbow room all around. Instead of dividing, I will just drill out the middle hole of weak old plant with one or more stabs with a bulb planter, and then fill the hole with composted manure. Treating the plant thus in situ should be easy and without risk of shocking the plant.
Saturday, June 09, 2007
Having moved into a Victorian with some overgrown areas less than a year ago, I am still pleasantly surprised as formerly unknown or unnoticed plants have come into bloom. One side of my property is lined with a “hedge” – not a typical in-town sheared hedge of one or a few carefully chosen types of plant, but a hedge of the sort, composed of a mix of species, many of them sown by birds, that one would find along a small farm field. On Wednesday (6/6/07), fresh blooms led me to discover that much of this hedge consists of mock orange, or Philadelphus – overgrown, however, by more aggressive brambles and bush honeysuckle, and topped by dogwood trees (Cornus alternifolia).
Most Philadelphus grow up to about 10 feet tall and wide, but there are 4-foot cultivars. It does not generally get much respect for its appearance out of flower – it is rather like a smaller-caned lilac – and like the slightly earlier blooming lilac, its flowers are most prized for their scent. But I think they look pretty snappy. I wouldn’t have guessed that they are a good cut flower, but I had this spray in my house for two-and-a-half days before taking this photograph, and it has even opened additional buds since I picked it:
Philadelphus has a very pleasant scent, unfortunately not as strong with my bushes as with most of its many named cultivars. Naturally, a bigger vase with perhaps four such sprays would be more attractive and odiferous.
The fact that several of these bushes have survived and even flowered where they have is testimony to their adaptability and essential toughness. Mine did have black aphids on some young branch tips which were in more congested and shaded areas. Pruning out the affected tips and competing growth should open up the bush enough to reduce its suitability to the aphids.
Philadelphus are fairly vigorous cane-growers, reportedly easy to grow from cuttings throughout the summer. They can take hard pruning, and like Forsythia should have about a third of their older canes cut to the ground each year. This not having been done in over a decade, I have a lot of dead and/or crowded wood to remove, as you can see:
Friday, May 25, 2007
A Paean to Gold and Chartreuse
In colder climates such as my own zone 5, the role of the broad-leaved evergreen is most commonly filled by members of the Ericaceae, the heather family. These include the Rhododendron/azalea, Pieris/andromeda, Kalmia/mountain laurel, and Erica & Calluna/heath & heather. All can be quite beautiful, in or out of flower. But almost all of them must have acid soil, while a few tagged as “lime-tolerant” can really just handle neutral (pH 7) soil, lest they suffer from mineral deficiency, discoloration, slow growth, sickness and even death.
Most of the northeast has acid soil, but as I noted in an earlier post (“Should You Buy Shrubs At The Supermarket?”), the particular mountain ridge I live on (in Adams, MA) is made primarily of limestone, such as is most visible at the Specialty Minerals site on route 8, where the base of Mount Greylock is ground into products such as Tums.
If your soil is really mixed up with limestone particles, you can’t as a practical matter acidify it except by putting in a lot of new soil in a raised bed. But if you already have a Rhododendron, it couldn’t hurt to add an acidifying fertilizer such as Holly-Tone, and perhaps some peat moss, to the surface, then cover with mulch. (Rhododendrons have very shallow roots, so you should not try to dig things in.)
With the Ericaceae impractical for many of us, the preeminent broad-leaved evergreen in this area is Euonymus fortunei, the wintercreeper, especially in a few variegated cultivars such as ‘Silver Queen’ and the similar ‘Emerald Gaiety’ – which have white leaf-edges; and also ‘Emerald ‘n Gold’ – which has golden leaf edges. Many people around here seem to have one of these variegated evergreens, especially the former white/silver types.
I am not generally a fan of variegated cultivars of garden plants, because most of them have reduced vigor, look sickly in the summer, and are very picky about getting enough sun (since they have reduced chlorophyll) but not too much sun (lest their pale portions burn). But these Euonymus fortunei cultivars usually look very healthy, and being evergreen bushes they don’t have to start from nothing each year, but can defend their territory quite well once they are established. The white/silver ones especially can look magnificent at all seasons, provided they are given room to spread naturally.
The variegation of ‘Emerald ‘n Gold’ is claimed to turn an attractive pinkish in the winter, but most I have been watching actually spent much of the late winter and early spring with a lot of their leaves looking like sickly pink-brown winter-kill. Right now, however, all signs of winter damage are gone, and the shrubs’ leaf edges are an especially bright chartreuse, as in this picture:
Unfortunately, I think that most of these bushes aren’t used to best effect. First, these rather slow-growing shrubs naturally have a beautiful form, with branches jutting out here and there in an informal, yet clearly noble, display. But most were placed where they cannot spread to their full size (perhaps 7 feet wide, but probably not for more than a decade after planting), and so eventually they are cut back to relatively smooth-surfaced globular shapes, often with hedging shears. Second, these bushes’ unusual color, especially in spring, calls out for some more dramatic contrast than green & gold versus just green or green & silver. How about some red, mauve or blue late tulips, early peonies, roses or Dianthus, as in the picture in this link from "Kachinagirl"? (I’m not allowed to actually show the photo here.)
By the way, I believe that the mystery shrub with no leaves in “What Would You Do With This Shrub” (April 18) is a Spiraea japonica or Spiraea x bumalda hybrid, such as the popular ‘Anthony Waterer’ cultivar, which will have flattened bunches of pink flowers in another month. Here it is in a photo taken a week ago:
It looks remarkably good for having been such a congested bunch of sticks a month earlier. Such a bush would be: if a Forsythia, or most other genuses, bare-legged; and if a Hydrangea, at least 50% dead wood.
Sunday, May 20, 2007
Savoy Mountain State Forest Blues
I did a day-trip to the Savoy Mountain State Forest today with my family. As a family outing it was less than a success, given bugs in our faces, a wet hiking trail, and a grumpy little girl. But they have a nice looking campground (tent sites with picnic tables and grills, some cabins, bath facilities) which was empty, and a couple of ponds (with perhaps 8 men fishing).
Also, I saw some interesting plants I've never really noticed in the wild before. First, a Trillium erectum (aka purple Trillium, or Stinking Benjamin, seen here with aforementioned little girl). It's a full foot and a half tall, hence its specific name. I only saw one cluster of two of these flowers.
Second, an Erythronium americanum (yellow trout lily) which is closely related to the pink-flowered E. dens-canis (dogtooth violet). These plants were all over, but only two or three were in the full flush of bloom, that I could see, with many holding on to maturing seeds, and many as yet unflowered. Like the Trillium, its flowers nod downward and aren't all that showy from above (but not hard to find due to their brighter color). I have a couple of the similar (yellow) Erythronium 'Pagoda' in my garden, but here's the Savoy wilding:
Finally, it's interesting to see how far the garden Viburnum has come from the wild type we see in our local woods, Viburnum dentatum [CORRECTION: I was in a rush to watch the Sopranos, and misidentified this shrub: it is almost certainly Viburnum lantanoides, the Hobble bush]. Part of the difference is genetic, of course, but part comes from the limited sun in the woods, even along a path. Most wild shrubs are understory plants which grow healthily in the shade. But most can also handle at least half sun, and can thereby gain a lot of extra energy for fuller growth and flowering.
Thursday, May 10, 2007
Wake Up! There’s Been A Slaughter Here.
While gardening, I tend to listen to my iPod. As in my car, most of the time I’m listening to the Grateful Dead. But when I’m slaughtering weeds, especially if with my weedwacker, I listen to The Doors. Today I wacked the Aegopodium, as seen in this photo. Of course, that and the earlier Roundup treatment won’t be sufficient to kill it. But it’s been weakened a bit until I cover it with newspapers and mulch, or a hideous blue tarp.
In other news of plant slaughter, last year I cut down two medium-sized trees in this garden. But I had a third tree, a fairly large Norway maple with about a 20” trunk diameter, which was crowding two other trees, and was awkwardly positioned on a steep slope looming over the street and some lilacs.
So yesterday I had some local arborists over. People I play cards with were agreed that I’d get the best price, at least among businesses with insurance and proper safety equipment, from these guys:
It was pretty impressive how quickly they could climb up, cut down and clean up a hardwood tree.
Of course, there are divots in the lawn where pieces of trunk were dropped from high above – that’s inevitable.
In a fairly normal snafu, the bulk of the tree got a bit out of control on the slope. It was stopped by a heavy rope (and 5 guys), but not until damaging a lilac by bending it to the ground. I lopped off the larger, split trunks of the lilac today, leaving several younger canes; this pruning might have been a good idea anyway.
Here you see the difference between one of their saws and my little (16”) McCulloch, which has almost exactly half the engine displacement.
I can’t imagine using such a large saw while up in a tree. Size apparently isn’t the only difference. As the climbing guy explained to me, professional and home-use saws differ subtly in the construction of their chains, such that an amateur who buys a professional saw is apt to have it bite and kick into them, sometimes with catastrophic injury. I could not fathom exactly what advantage this saw blade of death had for him.
Tuesday, May 08, 2007
Fritillaria Look Upon Menacing Neighbors
My Fritillaria meleagris (snake's head fritillaries) are blooming. Here we see them facing the menace of aggressive neighbors -- not in the 100-year-old house at top, but rather the Lonicera stump behind them, sprouting freely now in its attempt to recreate itself as a 10' x 10' bush, and the Aegopodium podagraria groundcover which has spread around and well beyond them. Both invasives are covered in the previous post.
Monday, May 07, 2007
A Tale Of Two Invasives
By this method it takes a couple decades to achieve anything of true merit. At that point, you are going to have one of those minimalist gardens with a handful of species, including a lot of moss, some rock, and if you’re lucky perhaps one flowering plant providing a week or two of non-green color. These are serene places for tea ceremonies and meditation. But I don’t have that level of maturity or patience, nor do I expect it from my pre-school children. So I am not trying to emulate a “knife-only” garden.
But I am trying to discover what has been growing in my new (to me) garden, and what is coming back from root or seed now that I have removed two fairly large forest trees. And I do aim to give existing plants every chance to prove their merits, to use the knife judiciously.
As the Japanese well know, one of the best plants to keep in place as a groundcover in a shady setting is moss. I “mow” the weeds, or unwanted plants, off of it with a pair of scissors, to give the moss the upper hand. Pulling out the weeds would not work here, as the delicate moss would be ripped up with root-held chunks of soil. Of course, as with grass mowing, I will have to do this more than once, but unlike grass, moss mowing will be needed less frequently as competing plants are killed off with repeated cutting down to the dirt – if I do it frequently enough.
Here you can see the results of an almost-finished first-time cutting, with bare patches evident and some loose detritus remaining. While sitting on my butt doing this I get to pick and choose which of the other plants get to survive unscathed; I have left an unknown succulent (probably a Sedum) at the top of the photo, as well as the Eranthis (blogged on earlier when it was in flower) at right.
Naturally, in a wild place you’re going to see more brambles than Trilliums, and more wildings than choice cultivated plants. In this next photo, you can see two of the “worst” invasives.
The stump is the remains of a large bush I cut down last fall. It is probably a bush honeysuckle, one of several Lonicera species which is taking over our woods. It took a long time for me to tentatively identify these (I have several) because they are “old-fashioned” plants which were sold 100 years ago when my house was built, but are not widely available now. Indeed, it is not PC to plant such a bush, and environmentalists sometimes hold invasives cleanups, where they cut them down in the woods and paint their stumps with Roundup (imagine, environmentalists with Roundup!)
Like most bushes with red berries (e.g. Euonymus alatus, Berberis), Lonicera attracts birds, which eat the berries and then poop out fertile seeds all over the place. These shrubs have taken over many lightly wooded areas, shading out and outcompeting native flora.
Personally, I think a vigorous bush with nice-smelling (albeit not very showy) flowers, nectar for pollinators and berries for birds, has pulled its weight in the grand scheme of things. And so I am going to let some of my Lonicera live, at least for a while. Some I have pruned modestly. Some I have killed. Others, like this one which was pushing up against a handsome native dogwood (Cornus alternifolia), I cut to the ground last fall, expecting it to come back. Here we see that it is already re-sprouting strongly. I will probably use selective pruning each year to keep it within bounds.
Around the bush is a groundcover of the same color. This is the infamous Aegopodium podagraria. A lot of people have planted this in its variegated form, and lived to regret it. It spreads by rhizomes and seeds. This nonvariegated form is even more invasive. It will either be stopped forcibly, or it will take over every inch of garden earth.
Getting it all will likely take two growing seasons, even if I remain super-diligent.
But for this year at least, I have made my peace with the Lonicera. I am open to the suggestion that it is wrong for me to allow a red-berried foreign invasive such as bush honeysuckle to remain in my garden. But if we are obligated to remove plants for this reason, I don’t see how I can destroy the Lonicera without also taking action against the giant Norway Maple which shades almost my entire house, but which has left perhaps 10,000 seedlings in my yard this year.
Friday, May 04, 2007
Should You Buy Shrubs At The Supermarket?
First, most of the plants are in the Ericaceae, the heather family, and will only be healthy in acid soil. These include several Rhododendrons and azaleas, and a couple cultivars of Pieris (as seen in this picture), also known as Andromeda. However, most everyone’s soil around here rests on limestone bedrock, and is mixed with limestone pebbles. As such, it is almost certain to be alkaline, not acid, except in raised beds built up with peat moss, in places with deep humus-rich forest soil, or where people have used acidifying chemicals, such as sulfur or Holly-tone fertilizer.
This is not a mere hypothetical problem. Compared to those in the suburbs of Boston, Rhododendrons and their acid-loving cousins almost always look sickly in this region, and even some that are apparently healthy often have the subtle distress signs of chlorosis, such as leaves yellowing, with green veins (second picture, taken in North Adams).
Another plant with a large display at the Big Y (Hydrangea ‘Endless Summer’) is shown on its label with bright blue flowers, but it will probably be pink (and perhaps chlorotic) in most people’s gardens, again because the soil is not acid. The fine print on the Hydrangea label does state this color effect, but for the rest of the acid-loving plants, only some of the labels inform us that the plant needs acid soil, and some don’t.
Besides, the Big Y is not a specialty plant nursery. It is an impulse purchase point for people who are generally not very garden-knowledgeable. It is not reasonable to expect this broader public to know whether their soil has a high (alkaline) pH. Even if everyone did know this, it still makes no sense to offer a limited display of plants, the majority of which are unsuitable for the local conditions.
The other big problem is some of the plants are of questionable hardiness for our Zone 5 climate. To go back to ‘Endless Summer’ – this is a Hydrangea macrophylla cultivar. Most H. macrophyllas are rated hardy only to Zone 6. While there is some controversy on the matter, this cultivar is probably bud hardy in protected (nonwindy) areas in warmer parts of zone 5. But there aren’t a lot of places around here which don’t get much wind. (The cold wind is the other reason Rhododendron and Pieris often suffer hereabouts.)
The plant will survive our winters, but it will likely have significant die-back – including most of its overwintering flower buds – in many if not most winters. Yet this shrub’s label simply says that it’s hardy in Zone 4. It also claims that the plant will bloom throughout the summer, first on its old wood (i.e., on overwintered flower buds), and then on new wood. This reblooming feature means it should in fact bloom here in late summer on its new wood, but again, the earlier blooming on old wood is highly questionable in a zone 5 garden. (Because of dieback, it also probably won’t attain its expected size of 4 to 6 feet.)
Finally, one of the plants was a cute “Alberta Spruce.” Generally this variety of the white spruce species (Picea glauca var. albertiana) is sold in its ‘dwarf’ form. People are often surprised that these dwarves eventually grow to 15 feet tall. But in this case, the plant isn’t a dwarf at all. It is expected to grow up to 60 feet tall and 20 feet wide. Fortunately, this fact is on the plant’s label, but I question whether it makes sense to include such a tree, because most people are not out making impulse purchases of 60-foot forest trees, and at least some people who buy this plant probably aren’t going to notice that that’s what they’ve got, especially given its name and similar appearance to the popular dwarf spruces. Of course, it is a lot quicker and cheaper to grow a non-dwarf spruce to the 2-gallon size than it would be to use a real dwarf cultivar.
I don’t expect the Big Y to have dedicated shrub buyers, but you’d think they could find somebody in the headquarters who has done some gardening and has given some thought to what grows in the area. It’s not like they’re down in
Wednesday, April 25, 2007
Cornus mas (Cornelian Cherry)
1) Cornus is usually at least a couple weeks earlier to bloom, when the landscape is still in winter bleakness. This year, however, our one-week transition from snow on the ground to 85 degree sun meant Cornus mas was only a few days earlier than Forsythia, which is just starting to bloom in significant measure as of today (4/25/07, likely peaking within the week).
2) It has a mounding or tree-like form, whereas the Forsythia grows with numerous separate canes. While aesthetic opinions of form will vary, I find the more tree-like form more noble in appearance, and its form is part of the reason that the Cornus needs much less pruning than the Forsythia. Forsythias can be “gracefully arching,” but are large and can also get rather sloppy, tempting owners to top or shear them. (Better for the Forsythia’s health and floriferousness to cut out older canes to the ground each spring.) Cornus mas is a bit bigger than Forsythia, at the largest attaining about 20’x15’, while Forsythias attain about 10’x10’.
3) It is as least as hardy as the Forsythias, many cultivars of which, while being “hardy” in zone 5, will lose flower buds unless they were covered with snow during the winter’s coldest snaps.
4) Cornus mas has “cherry” fruits (½”-long plum-shaped, red). These are not showy as they are hidden among midsummer foliage, but are reportedly very tasty for jelly, or they can be left to feed the birds.
5) Both plants are very flexible as to soil type, and grow well in full sun or light shade. But either will have fewer flowers in shade. (Note that there is another Cornus mas across the street from the library, in a shaded area in the rotary oval, which has about half as many flowers.)
6) Both plants bloom before any significant leaf production. But the Cornus has an airier, more see-through appearance, and would benefit more from a dark background, such as a forest or evergreens, perhaps most ideally a yew hedge. Forsythias also so benefit, but with their generally bolder colors and denser canes, probably need it less.
I have both Cornus mas and Forsythia (cultivar undecided) on my list of plants to obtain for my slowly growing shrubbery. Can anyone in the Berkshires, or in the broader inland Northeast, report on successes or failures, or notable specimens of Cornus mas?
Monday, April 23, 2007
Eranthis hyemalis (Winter Aconite)
So why plant Eranthis instead of a yellow Crocus? Primarily because it is ideal for shadier (deciduous shade), more woodsy locations, with humusy soil that is moist in winter and early spring; while Crocus prefer sunnier, better-drained positions, such as in my sun-baked front lawn slope.
Of course, either bulb will tend to make a minor impact, unless it is present by the hundred. Eranthis, like some but not all Crocus varieties, is known for multiplying if it likes its location. My small planting is an experiment to discover if it likes mine. I may add to it this fall, but I am always prepared to wait for results that may be obtained cheaply (5 bulbs for $2).
I bought the bulbs at Ward’s Nursery down in Great Barrington, which is pretty far away, but had a far better selection of bulbs than any other place I visited last fall. (As far as I know, you can’t find Eranthis in the Northern Berkshires.) If you have a lightly wooded area, or a shrubbery, I recommend you give them a try. (They won’t do well under evergreens.) While Eranthis’ greenery disappears by midsummer, when shade and dryness makes their position inhospitable to most plants lower than their overtopping shrubs or trees, their presence in the spring is reputed to stifle most weeds.
I have never noticed these bulbs other than in a botanical or open-to-the-public garden. I suspect there is a “chicken and egg” problem here, given that they've never heard of them even in most places selling bulbs. Do you have experience with them, or questions?
Wednesday, April 18, 2007
What Would You Do With This Shrub?
Shrub treatment, like most of horticulture, is an evolving science, an art, or even a matter of some controversy, rather than a science of certainties. What do you think? How has the shrub’s owner treated its soil, its woody structure? Which treatment appears to be better than average, which appears to be a mistake, and what changes would you recommend?
On Wednesday June 6, I will be teaching a two-hour course (6:30-8:30 pm) in MCLA’s Continuing Education program: “Garden Design: Making the Most of Your Shrubs.” The class aims first to help homeowners make the most of their landscape’s existing shrubs, on the grounds that, compared to ripping things out and starting over, rejuvenating what you’ve got is free or cheap, more environmentally sound, and quicker than growing or buying new plants. We will look especially at analyzing some locally common shrubs for problems and potential, and the purposes and methods of pruning, especially of woody plants which have never seen the knife. We will also consider choosing shrubs for a given site, or finding the best site for a given shrub that’s not so happy where it is.
Tuesday, April 10, 2007
Friday, April 06, 2007
Garden Event Tuesday
I see that the North Adams Public Library is hosting a free talk with garden editor and author Elizabeth Stell, on Tuesday evening (April 10, at 6:30).
The lecture is titled “Gardening Made Easy(ier)” – which as described sounds like it’s intended for garden burnouts (“Has your love of gardening fizzled out? Do you put off weeding because there’s just too much? … Come learn some garden tricks and time-savers. Liz Stell will help you create a strategy for how to get more fun and more flowers out of your yards and gardens.”) But we can all use easier ways to achieve our gardening goals, and such a topic can be used to cover just about anything in the garden. I’m always interested in books written with the input of local gardeners, and I think I’ll attend.
Ms. Stell is the author of Secrets to Great Soil (with our local Storey Publishing, 1998) and coauthor of Landscaping with Perennials (from the famously organic Rodale Press, 1995). She’s an organic gardener of food and flowers at her home in Lanesborough, has taught at
While doing the Amazon “Search Inside” on Secrets to Great Soil I found a neat experiment, which I think I can properly summarize as a fair use: Take a tablespoon of thoroughly dried soil. Add several drops of vinegar. If the soil fizzes, then pH is above 7.5 (alkaline). Take another tablespoon of dried soil and add water until it’s very moist. Add a pinch of baking soda. If the soil fizzes, then pH is below 5 (acid). (She does point out that you should get a more thorough test before working on your soil’s chemistry.)
Wednesday, April 04, 2007
Spring Comes and Goes
With today's hail, sleet and slush I am reminded of Henry Mitchell's "On the Defiance of Gardeners." It is, of course, absurd to complain of ice storms in early April, in Massachusetts, unless it is actually a complaint about the decision to live here. And I like living here. Anyway, I don't feel particularly defiant, because I've got it easy. But these guys, these guys are defiant today, looking just as in this photo (from yesterday, 4/3/2007) except for the inch of frozen slush at their feet.
Wednesday, March 28, 2007
Fatherless Dropouts – How Big a Problem?
Del Gallo claimed “As dramatic as these [race- and class-based] numbers may be, they pale by orders of multiples compared to the graduation rates of children from households with and without fathers. While whites are 1.76 times as likely to graduate than Hispanics from Pittsfield's schools, according to numbers from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, National Center for Educational Statistics, children from homes with fathers are nine times more likely to graduate.”
After spending hours hunting down these and similar statistics, I concluded that while the stat was created using such official data, the math underlying it was also based on some false assumptions. Unfortunately I didn’t think a full disproof would fit the Eagle’s size limitations or their audience. But I did write a short rebuttal letter to the Eagle, which they also published (always a thrill!):
Wednesday, March 28
To the Editor of THE EAGLE:
I do not want to belittle the difficulties faced by fatherless children, but I am writing to correct a statistic which grossly overstates the problem.
Fathers' rights attorney Rinaldo Del Gallo, III, in his letter of March 24, claimed that "children from homes with fathers are nine times more likely to graduate" from high school. This statistic is extremely implausible on its face, since the claim could only be accurate if children in homes without fathers have an 11 percent or lower graduation rate (i.e., only as high as 11 percent if children with fathers have a 100 percent graduation rate, and commensurately lower if they do not).
Del Gallo's Web site claims the statistic is from the U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Educational Statistics, NCES 98-117 (June 1998). This document contains nothing resembling such a claim, but rather finds that some negative outcomes (not dropouts) are up to twice as common where a nonresident father has no involvement with a student's schooling.
I should also note that this claimed statistic is far more commonly seen as "children from homes without fathers are nine times more likely to drop out of high school," which is equally implausible for the same basic mathematical reason.
The claimed statistic has been sourced to a wide variety of more or less definitive-sounding sources, including the Census Bureau, Centers for Disease Control, Department of Justice, the National Principals Association, and some PTA groups. However, all of those claimed sources are either dead ends, or are themselves secondary sources.
The actual sources for the "nine times" statistic are all associated with "Fathers' Rights" groups, not with government statisticians or academics in pertinent fields.
The next day Del Gallo climbed down a bit. After making some new calculations he now believes that children in homes without fathers are about seven times more likely to drop out from high school than are those living with their fathers.
However, while he begins from reasonably-sourced data, he makes some logical errors with it, his most significant being the assumption that if 26% of children age 0-17 are in fatherless homes, then we would, in the absence of an effect, expect 26% of dropouts to be in fatherless homes. This assumption is unwarranted because fatherless rates start at a low level for infants and go up as a child ages, as divorces occur throughout the course of a marriage, and fatherlessness is closer to 50% as children approach the more likely dropout ages of 16-17. (According to divorcemag.com, the percentage of marriages reaching their 5th, 10th, and 15th anniversaries is 82%, 65%, and 52% respectively.) That and sociocultural effects will explain most, and perhaps all, of the effect of fatherlessness on dropout rates.