Maine Gardener – Press Herald Fri, 24 Nov 2017 18:41:19 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Landscape design can take advantage of existing property features Sun, 19 Nov 2017 09:00:00 +0000 Some of the most striking parts of your garden cost you absolutely nothing.

These assets are what professional landscape designers call the borrowed landscape. Regular gardeners are more likely to call them the view or the existing features of the property.

Several speakers at the Landscape Design School offered by the Garden Club Federation of Maine earlier this month discussed the principle.

“You should think about the borrowed landscape,” David Maynes of Todd Richardson & Associates in Saco told the group. “This is not about adding to the landscape, but is editing.”

This kind of design, in which what is on the neighboring property or already exists on your own property helps you decide how to design your own garden, has a couple of advantages, Maynes said. First, you aren’t spending part of the budget on things you don’t need. Next, you know these borrowed items are durable because they’ve been there forever. He is, of course, referring to those streaks of ledge going through your gardens or the giant oak tree in your neighbor’s backyard.

Lucinda Brockway, owner of the Past Designs landscape design company in Kennebunk, offered a striking, public example of a design that takes advantage of the borrowed landscape: the Camden Amphitheater, one of the few public spaces designed by landscape architect Fletcher Steele, a leader in the mid-20th century modern style of design. The amphitheater makes use of Maine granite and birch trees to take full advantage of the views of Camden Harbor, Brockway said. The simple, bold design is considered one of Steele’s best works.

Andrew Jackson Downing, who practiced landscape architecture from the 1830s until his death in 1852, was an early American proponent of such design. “He thought landscapers should take the best of Mother Nature and enhance it,” Brockway said.

Kent Cooper, a landscape architect with the Maine Department of Transportation, described a number of public projects he has worked on around the state.

“I feel like I am making a picture for an audience,” he said. “It’s a bit like journalism in that it is who, what, where, when and how.”

When the state replaced the Gut Bridge in South Bristol, neighbors were concerned that the replacement fit in. They wanted the building that would house bridge equipment to look like the neighboring houses, and they wanted the generator covered. They did not want pointy bushes.

“We put in some 8- to 10-foot bayberries and lilacs, and it worked,” Cooper said. “The audience wanted that picture” and were pleased when the project was completed, he said.

To illustrate the concept of using what exists in the landscape, Maynes showed photographs of a private wilderness retreat his company designed in Orland. A guest house perched on existing boulders in one area. Large stones that matched the existing stones were brought in to support a different building in another area.

“Along the driveway, a 20-foot erratic was covered in vegetation,” Maynes said, using a geological term for an unusual-for-the-area-stone moved in by a glacier. “All we did was uncover it.”

You may not have boulders to work with on your own property, but you probably do have snow, and Maynes said that snow removal relates to landscape design in a couple of ways.

“You can design a beautiful landscape, but if a snowplow comes in and blows it up every year,” he said, ” it is not successful.” Fortunately, there’s an easy solution: plant herbaceous perennials next to the driveway or parking lot. The perennials, which die back to the ground every winter, won’t be hurt by plows pushing the snow around.

Maynes went beyond that sound, practical advice to suggesting that gardeners consider “how the snowbanks the plow creates integrate with other things to create things that are interesting year-round.”

Reflecting on the borrowed landscapes that these professionals discussed got me thinking about what my wife Nancy and I have “borrowed” over the years to create our small suburban lot. And while we had no instruction in landscape design when we started gardening, we did a pretty good job of taking advantage of the site and the surrounding landscape – I admit it might have been luck rather than innate wisdom.

The best view from our house is toward the west, where we often enjoy stunning sunsets. The ground slopes down on the westerly side of the property, so in winter, once the oaks have dropped their leaves, we can see a hill that is about a mile away. We grow our vegetables on the west side of the house, which means the plants are down low and don’t interfere with the views of the horizon in the summer.

We also have some ledge that shows in the small, wooded section of our property. Although it’s not a dominant feature, we have extended it by adding to the stone walls that existed on our property when we built the house.

We both appreciate our borrowed landscape.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer living and gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at 767-2297 or at:

]]> 0 like stone walls should inform your garden design.Thu, 16 Nov 2017 18:27:44 +0000
Growing a garden that’ll let you play bartender Sun, 12 Nov 2017 09:00:00 +0000 My colleague, Green Plate Special columnist Christine Burns Rudalevige, has written this week about making sugar syrups to use in sodas and cocktails from garden herbs, berries, roots and rhizomes she can find – as much as possible – locally.

She shared her drinks ingredients list with me, and among the items on it, the one struck me immediately was ginger. I had assumed that ginger root, the type sold in stores, couldn’t be grown in Maine, and that the types of ginger my wife and I grow in our garden – European and Canadian ginger – were inedible.

As is often the case, I was wrong on both counts.

Diane Carbone, co-owner with husband Greg of Morning Glory Farm at 591 New Gloucester Road in North Yarmouth, grows baby ginger root to sell at their farm stand; it costs $16 a pound.

Root ginger is a tropical plant. According to the website, it will keep its leaves all year and survive outdoors in Zone 10, while losing its leaves in winter in areas as cool as Zone 7. Either way, such requirements preclude outdoor locations in Maine.

Carbone orders the ginger root she plants from an online source, and was just about to place her order when we talked in early November. She said she won’t start the seedlings until about March, however, and it takes some work.

She breaks up the root into fingers and plants them in flats, which she puts in a bathtub she encloses in plastic and heats so she can keep the temperature close to 80 degrees. The flats must be watered regularly. She transfers the seedlings to a plastic greenhouse when the temperatures begin to get warm in June, and while she raises the sides of the greenhouse when the summer heat kicks in, the ginger remains under cover all year long. It’s harvested in the fall – she was about to harvest the last of her crop when we spoke.

“What we harvest is baby ginger,” Carbone said. “The season is too short to get mature ginger, so there is no brown skin.” (At the grocery store, you’ll almost always find mature ginger root.)

Once it is harvested, slice or grate the ginger to add to your cooking (baby ginger needn’t be peeled), and it stores well in the freezer, too.

The Gardening Knowhow website says you can grow ginger in containers, following the same basic methods that Carbone uses but bringing the containers inside once night-time temperatures drop to 50 degrees.

My wife Nancy and I grow European and Canadian ginger, Asarum europaeum and Canadense – which aren’t even in the same family as root ginger, Zingiber officinale. And while the leaves of both Canadian and European ginger are poisonous if eaten in significant quantities, the roots have been used as a folk medicine. Plants for a Future,, says Canadian ginger roots and flowers can be in place of true ginger; they taste like a mix of ginger and pepper but more aromatic. I don’t think we’ll try it.

The other ingredients my fellow columnist Christine says she uses to flavor sugar syrups are much more common in Maine.

Rosemary is a woody shrub, hardy to Zone 7, which means you will have to bring it inside for winters in Maine. That can be tricky if you don’t have a sunroom or at least a south-facing window. If your plant doesn’t get at least six hours of bright sunshine a day, it will need a fluorescent light to supplement the natural light. Don’t let the soil in the pot dry out completely, but make sure that the top of the pot is completely dry before watering.

Thyme is easier to grow in Maine, as it’s a Zone 5 plant. It works as a ground cover here and is so tough you can walk on it. It works nicely between bricks on a walk or a patio, releasing its wonderful fragrance when you step on it. It likes full sun and well-drained soil, and should be trimmed back in the spring.

• Lemongrass is a tropical, obviously not hardy in Maine, but it can be overwintered by cutting down the stalks and bringing the plant inside. Keep it in a south-facing window and lightly water it over the winter, before replanting it outside again come spring.

Basil is a tender annual, usually grown in the vegetable garden. It can be direct-seeded in Maine in late May, but it will do better if you plant seedlings in early to mid-April and transplant them outdoors when all danger of frost is past.

Nancy and I don’t grow mint, mostly because we don’t like it. Also, it’s aggressive – likely to take over your entire property. If you do plant it, put it in the middle of your vegetable garden and plant other crops around it. That way you will eradicate the mint when planting peas, corn, tomatoes or other good crops.

I still wouldn’t take a chance on it, as it’s difficult to remove. But I suspect avid cooks, like Christine, might think it’s worth the risk.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer living and gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at 767-2297 or at:

]]> 0, ME - SEPTEMBER 10: Ginger root sits in a bowl before Dyanna Lincoln of South Road Farm in Fayette uses it to make spicy cilantro pesto at the Grange Hall in West Farmington Wednesday, September 10, 2014. The duo was making batches to sell at the Fryeburg Fair as part of their growing business of making hand-crafted, small-batch pesto in a variety of flavors. (Photo by Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer)Thu, 16 Nov 2017 16:49:26 +0000
Sowing wild seeds will help ecosystem in your backyard and beyond Sun, 05 Nov 2017 09:00:00 +0000 The world’s population is rising at an exponential rate (7.6 billion and counting), and because all of those people need someplace to live, the amount of wild land is shrinking even as I type this sentence.

That in a nutshell, or seed pod (pun definitely intended), is why gardeners should include more native plants in their domesticated gardens, Heather McCargo of the Portland-based Wild Seed Project said in a recent talk at the Thomas Memorial Library in Cape Elizabeth.

“Plants are the base, the beginning, of the food web,” she said. “When something is removed from nature, the ecosystem changes. Fifty years ago there was twice as much nature as there is now.”

The ecosystem includes birds, animals and insects as well as the plants that evolved along with them. The native wildlife needs the native plants for food and shelter, and the plants need the wildlife for pollination and, in many cases, in order to spread their seeds.

Not just any native plant will do. As an example, McCargo discussed echinacea, or purple coneflower, a prairie native that does well in Maine gardens. Butterflies love it, a fact I can attest to: In our garden, when the coneflowers bloom in mid- to late-summer, they are usually covered with butterflies.

But many of the echinaceas sold in nurseries are hybrids, often with double flowers that, because the stamens are replaced by petals, are sterile and lack the nectar and pollen that feed insects. These plants offer no benefit to wildlife.

New England asters Photo by Lisa Looke/Wild Seed Project

Or consider New England asters, a wonderful, late-blooming plant that is essential to supporting bees and other pollinators at a time of year when few other plants are in bloom. When I was cutting some recently to bring inside, I had to search hard to find stems that weren’t coated with bees.

Asters can grow 5 feet tall, but many people grow shorter hybrids such as “Purple Dome,” which aren’t as helpful for the environment. If you’re a gardener who prefers the shorter asters, McCargo suggested cutting back the wild versions earlier in the season rather than growing the hybrids.

Since the plants people should grow to help the ecosystem are freely available in the wild, you might think that the simplest way to get them would be to go out into the woods or meadows, dig up a few and plop them into your garden. Don’t! McCargo said that just removes healthy plants growing in the wild.

“It’s not really good to transplant them,” she said. “Propagation from seed is the only way to increase the population.”

In addition, growing from seed produces more genetic diversification, which has a couple of advantages. First, it gives you plants with varied looks. More importantly, diversity makes it much more likely that some of the plants will survive tough times, such as droughts, floods and warmer temperatures as a result of climate change.

The most important step to seed collecting and saving is to let the seeds develop completely, McCargo said. Gardeners and state crews mowing on the side of roads often cut the wildflowers down shortly after they blossom, before the seeds have had time to develop. When mowing a meadow or cutting back a garden, do it as late as possible.

Some wildflower seeds can be stored dry; others will not sprout if they dry out. For the ones that must stay moist – including viburnums, native dogwoods and trilliums – she suggests waiting until they get fully ripe, putting them in a plastic bag, squishing them and letting them ferment. Once that process is complete, plant them immediately.

Cardinal flower Photo by Lisa Looke/Wild Seed Project

Seeds that can dry out are more plentiful, including all the milkweeds, cranesbill, blue flag iris, asters, goldenrod, cardinal flower and rudbeckia.

But saving seed is not that important for home gardeners, at least not right away.

“Seed collecting is the second step,” McCargo said. “They should sow the seed first.” She recommends buying seed, sowing it and developing lots of wildflowers. After you have a lot of native wildflowers on your property, then you can get into the more complicated process of collecting seed.

Swamp milkweed attracts butterflies. Photo by Lisa Looke/Wild Seed Project

Most wildflower seeds need a winter of cold weather before they will sprout. Even those that don’t will do better if they have a cold period, McCargo said, so late fall, usually after Thanksgiving, is the ideal time to plant. She often does her planting on New Year’s Day.

And although many people think they can get wildflowers simply by scattering the seed, they’re mistaken. Collecting seed is a lot of work, and scattering them is inefficient and wasteful – planted that way, just a tiny percentage of the precious seeds will ever grow.

While creating a raised nursery bed outside will work to grow the seeds, McCargo prefers a different method. She plants in square 4- to 6-inch pots, which she fills with a good compost-based potting soil that has all the natural organisms that help the plant grow.

She spreads the seeds thickly on top of the soil. (Keep in mind that different species will sprout at different times.) She covers the seeds with sand, which allows enough light through to let the seeds germinate and at the same time prevents weed seeds from sneaking in. The sand should be about the same depth as the seed’s diameter.

She takes the pots to a protected area outdoors, covers them with rabbit wire – a metal mesh with holes a quarter- to a half-inch square – and leaves them until spring.

In spring, you can take a shovel and plant the entire pot in your garden, McCargo said, but you may have better success if you transplant the wildflowers into larger pots, let them continue to grow in the pots over the summer and only in the fall plant them in the garden.

When it all succeeds, your backyard can replace at least a little bit of the wilderness we are so rapidly losing.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at 767-2297 or at:

]]> 0 milkweedThu, 02 Nov 2017 18:14:30 +0000
Another gardening season draws to a close Sun, 29 Oct 2017 08:00:00 +0000 The gardening season this year was neither the best of times nor the worst of times. The only superlative is how long it lasted. As of Oct. 26, we’d still had no frost, nor was any yet in the immediate forecast. (According to U.S. government data, this makes 2017 the second latest frost for Portland – I live in nearby Cape Elizabeth – since 1940; in first place for that record, thus far, is 2014, when the city’s first frost arrived on Nov. 3.) None of our edible crops failed, but none produced so much that we had to prowl the neighborhood giving away zucchini or raspberries. Neither did we have to supplement our crops with purchases from local farmers, except for vegetables like sweet corn that we no longer grow.

The first frost wasn’t the only thing that was late this year. Everything got off to a slow start, with cool, wet weather until early June. Then, when the temperature finally got warm enough to let the plants get established, the rain stopped.

Even though we irrigated regularly, heat-loving plants such as tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and squash never produced much. Although it was dry, it wasn’t especially warm. We didn’t get our first tomatoes until late July. Though we had enough to have some with lunch every day, we never had a bounty. Despite the lack of frost, we’ve had only four red peppers so far this season – we will have a lot of green ones to pick as soon as the forecast predicts frost.

The winter squash did do well, but few were big enough to harvest until October. The production was sort of a surprise, as the first small winter squash didn’t even show up until I was already harvesting the summer squash.

Another surprise was our apple crop – if you can consider two apples a crop. When we had the house built in 1975, we inherited an apple tree with our property. Over the years, it has occasionally produced fruit, but those apples were deformed and wormy. Then, a few years ago, we removed the many invasive plants that surrounded the apple tree, planted a flower and shrub garden in their stead, and left the apple tree for its blossoms. In August we noticed three apples on it; when one of them fell off and got eaten by wildlife, I picked the other two and brought them inside. They were flawless, and my wife Nancy made delicious apple-walnut bars.

The slow start with a good finish wasn’t limited to vegetables. The hydrangeas bloomed so late that Nancy and I worried we’d get no blossoms at all. But late in the season the blossoms finally came, large, lush and vibrantly colored. The perennial hibiscus always blossoms late, but ours waited until October to bloom – in some previous years we’ve already had frost by then.

A lot of spring-blooming plants got confused as the year progressed. State Horticulturist Gary Fish posted on Facebook a picture of a fruit tree showing blossoms in mid-October. After I viewed his post, I saw a lilac and some forsythia with fall blossoms in Cape Elizabeth. These trees and shrubs had gone dormant because of the dry weather. When a little rain fell in October, the plants’ timing mechanisms thought it was spring and sent out a few blossoms.

All of which has me worried about how these plants – now spending their energy on out-of-season flowers while surviving harsh conditions – will fare next year. Trees, shrubs and herbaceous perennials can withstand a year of drought, and last year’s was significantly worse than this year’s, but two consecutive dry years could weaken or kill some plants.

Our newly installed shrubs seem to be doing well. Our witherod viburnums look healthy, and I ate one of the two berries that ripened. They can’t compete with blueberries, but I’m hoping the birds like them in future years, when they’re old enough to produce more. The shrubs we planted this year – bottlebrush buckeye, clethra and “Ken Janek” rhododendron – all look healthy, and the sheep laurel actually grew quite a bit, not something I expect from shrubs in their first year.

When I wrote my midseason garden assessment, I noted I’d so far picked a sum total of three blueberries. I picked more as the season progressed, but we never had more than a quarter cup at a time. Next year, I want enough to have at least one blueberry pie.

The new asparagus bed is now established, and next year I will be able to harvest a lot more from it. I cut a few spears this year when I saw that younger spears were coming, even though you really should wait until the third year.

One other thing I got out of this year’s garden is a lot of steps on the Fitbit. With the weather so dry, I watered all the container plants and new shrubs by hand just about every day.

It kept me in shape and out of trouble.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at 767-2297 or at:

]]> 0, 26 Oct 2017 18:32:42 +0000
Preserve the bounty of your harvest so you can eat from your garden all winter long Sun, 22 Oct 2017 08:00:00 +0000 Our winter squash got off to a slow start this year because of the cool, damp spring, but the warmth of the summer that extended into fall has resulted in our best crop ever. It has made dragging the hose out to irrigate several times worthwhile.

The goal now is to make sure the winter squash stays firm and flavorful well into the period when the name of the vegetable implies that it should be eaten.

The squash bounty got me thinking about how to keep the food from our garden good to eat – maybe even until we get some more crops next year.

My wife Nancy and I don’t do a lot of typical food preservation. We prefer to eat our crops shortly after we harvest them.

It makes little sense to can or freeze vegetables for just the two of us. If we have more than we can eat fresh of strawberries, raspberries and (we someday hope to have this happen again) blueberries, Nancy will make jam or, with raspberries or blueberries, freeze them whole. We do cut up peppers and freeze those, but since we don’t have an extra stand-alone freezer, we don’t have a lot of space for much frozen food.

Fortunately, a lot of what we harvest can be stored without refrigeration.

With winter squash – we have butternut and buttercup, but this is also true for blue hubbard and spaghetti squash – preservation begins with proper harvesting. A light frost with the temperature no colder than about 30 degrees won’t damage the squash. But with the first frost coming so late this year, at least in Cape Elizabeth where we haven’t had one as I write this, I fear that we’ll get a hard freeze along with the first frost.

By now, your squash is as ripe as it is going to get. If the squash sounds hollow when you tap it, the skin is dull and you can’t dent the skin with your fingers, it’s ready to harvest.

Cut the squash from the plant with a sharp knife or scissors, leaving a stem of two inches or more. If stems break off, eat those squash first because they won’t store as well.

After cleaning the fruits (which they are botanically, although they are eaten as vegetables) with a damp cloth, cure them in a warm area with good air circulation for about two weeks. This allows some of the excess water in the fruit to evaporate, toughens the skin so it will store longer and sweetens the flavor. I usually do this on the floor of our garden shed, but a garage floor would work as well.

Don’t refrigerate winter squash. The refrigerator is too moist and too cool, and the squash will rot within a month. Instead find a cool – around 55 degrees – and relatively dry area. A basement area away from the furnace is ideal.

Check the squash weekly and eat any that are showing damage first.

With onions, only the pungent varieties, such as Copra and Redwing, will keep over the winter. Sweet varieties, such as Spanish and Walla Walla, last no more than a month.

As with squash, you have to cure the crop – about two weeks in a warm, dry space. You then put the onions in a breathable container – burlap sacks or the mesh bags they are packed in at grocery stores if you have any of those around – and hang them in the coolest place you can find; 40 degrees is ideal, but few houses have spots that cool. Don’t store onions near potatoes because both will release gases and moisture that make the other one rot faster. But you can put them fairly near your squash if that is your coolest place.

Now we get into root-cellar crops – the ones that want to be close to freezing but without freezing. These include potatoes, carrots, beets, parsnips and turnips. If you had enough refrigerator space, that would be ideal – but you probably don’t.

I created our root cellar in the bulkhead of our basement, and it has worked well for about 10 years. We have had doors separating the bulkhead space from the rest of the basement since the house was built, but later we added Styrofoam insulation to the bulkhead walls and the area above the walls.

Each container for the vegetables should allow some air circulation – bushel baskets would be fine, but I use the plastic pots that plants come in, because we have a lot of them, with a couple of extra holes drilled into them.

Because these root crops like high humidity, I place a five-gallon bucket filled with water in with the crops. This also protects the crops from freezing. Because the water in your crops contains salts, the water in the bucket will freeze first and keep the vegetables from freezing – this has something to do with physics but you’ve got the wrong Atwell for physics information. Over the years I’ve discovered that the bucket begins freezing when the outside temperature hits about 5 degrees, so I crack the interior doors to the bulkhead a bit as a backup to my bucket system – although the top of the pail often freezes.

Nancy and I also store dried black beans. Our method will work for any dried beans: I wait until the pods have dried before harvesting them, separate the beans from the pods and put them in a sealed jar. We eat what we want through the winter, always making sure that we save enough to plant the next year’s crop.

I can’t believe I’m thinking about spring already and we haven’t even had a frost yet.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at 767-2297 or at:

]]> 0, 19 Oct 2017 18:15:46 +0000
Is a tricky shaded, moist spot stumping you? Sun, 15 Oct 2017 08:00:00 +0000 I’ve been writing this column week in and week out for more than 13 years, so I’m always grateful for ideas from readers. When reader Rachel Dyer of Augusta wrote to say her online search for shrubs that can thrive in shade and in seasonally moist conditions had yielded nothing, I knew I had an interesting new topic.

Many gardeners deal with shade. A house itself will shade at least one side of the garden, and while trees add blossoms, shelter for wildlife, beautiful foliage and more, they bring shade, too, of course. But that’s not a bad thing. A shade garden actually replicates the kind of landscapes that we find in nature. Much of Maine is forested, and the native plants that grow on the edge of the forest or in openings in the middle of the woods have to be able to tolerate shade.

Working on this column brought home to me that if your property has a moist, shady spot, it’s still possible to create an attractive garden of shrubs, one that provides blossoms from early spring to fall, and that offers some handsome evergreens as well as unusual-looking foliage. I’ve written up a list of plants I’d suggest. Most are native, the sort that Maine gardeners these days increasingly seek out. Your local nursery will offer plenty of other possibilities to choose among, too, but these are plants with which I have some experience. All are nice to look at and – so far at least – are reasonably pest-free.

“Ruby Spice,” a cultivar of Clethra alnifolia, keeps its blossoms through the fall. Wiert nieuman/

• Clethra alnifolia is a must for native shade gardens. The full-size versions, including the species (meaning the plant as it’s found in nature) and several cultivars will grow 6 feet tall. That group includes Cary Award winner “Ruby Spice” (the award is given to outstanding New England plants). Compact types are as small as 21/2 feet. They bloom in late summer and keep their blossoms throughout the fall. The blossoms are “bottle-brush” shaped, about 6 inches long for most cultivars, and come in shades from pink to white. One of Clethra’s nicest attributes is its sweet, pervasive fragrance.

• Mountain laurel, or Kalmia latifolia, is another must-have shade-tolerant native. The full-sized cultivars grow about 8 feet tall, but dwarf cultivars are as small as 3 feet. Kalmias like moist but well-drained soil. They will survive and blossom in full shade, but they blossom more heavily – usually in May or June – if they get some sun. Mountain laurels are evergreen, with glossy leaves you can enjoy year round.

• Kalmia augusifolia or sheep laurel, is, at 3 feet, a smaller plant. It prefers soggier conditions but still likes shade. My wife Nancy and I planted our first one earlier this year. Kalmia are close relatives of two of the most common – but mostly non-native – shade plants, rhododendron and azalea.

• A native rhododendron, rhodora, has white or rose-purple flowers and its maximum height is about 3 feet; it likes shade and moist conditions.

• Rhododendron maximum or the rosebay rhododendron, is also a native but falls at the other end of the size spectrum. It can grow 12 feet tall.

• Many experts (me among them) consider the bottlebrush buckeye, or Aesculus parviflora, the best midsummer flowering shrubs for shady areas, growing 8 to 12 feet tall with white flowers. The foliage turns a pretty yellow in the fall. In ideal conditions, it produces pear-shaped nuts called buckeyes, but don’t count on any this far north. We planted one from bare-root stock under our neighbor’s Norway maples early this spring, and it has survived thus far.

• We also planted two witherod viburnum, Viburnum cassinoides, this spring. Both have survived, and one even produced a couple of berries, though we’ve only just planted it. If you’re looking for a viburnum that tolerates shade, the witherod viburnum is the most commonly available variety.

• Amelanchier, the shadbush, likes moist conditions but will take only partial shade. It grows about 20 feet tall, has white blossoms in the early spring and berries that birds like to eat. Ours has done well for 10 years getting sun only after about 1 p.m., so I would chance it for a shade garden.

• We planted an Annabelle hydrangea, Hydrangea arborescens, in our backyard shortly after we started landscaping our house in the late 1970s, and it has been one of our most successful plants. It produces huge white flowers in early July, and the flowers stay on all winter. We do have to prune it occasionally to keep it from taking over that side of the yard. In the years since we planted Annabelle, many new arborescens hydrangeas have been introduced with larger flowers, some of which are pink. I think they’d work well in a moist, shady spot.

• As for trees, we’ve never grown Acer pennsylvani-cum, known as the striped or moose maple, ourselves, but it is an attractive plant that I have often noticed growing alongside the streams when I’ve gone fishing in Maine. It gets no higher than 25 feet, has huge leaves and striking green-and-white-striped bark. The new stems are slightly red. If it grows so easily in the wild, I am sure it would thrive in a home garden.

• Hemlocks are also a good option. While hemlocks – botanical name tsuga – grow up to 90 feet tall, some cultivars are much shorter. The white-tipped specimen that we planted in the 1980s is still only about 15 feet tall. It seems to like its shady site. Be aware that the hemlock woolly adelgid, a pest from East Asia that sucks the sap from hemlocks, has been destroying hemlock forests in southern New England and is already present in southern Maine. It has not yet been found in the colder parts of the state.

So as you can see, lack of light – even when coupled with moisture – is not really a problem for gardeners. You just have to know how to deal with it.


]]> 0 laurels are evergreens; full-size cultivars grow about 8 feet tall, with dwarf cultivars as small as 3 feet.Thu, 12 Oct 2017 17:34:41 +0000
Fall may be here, but the gardening season hasn’t ended Sun, 01 Oct 2017 08:00:00 +0000 Fall is my favorite season. Temperatures are cool enough to make working outdoors comfortable (OK, maybe not this past week), the foliage is lovely and our state is a lot less crowded than it is in summer. While there are chores to be completed, the only deadline is the first snowfall that doesn’t melt away. With global warming (yes, I believe it exists) that is usually mid- to late December rather than around Thanksgiving, as I remember the timing when I was growing up.

My advice is to tackle these chores at a leisurely pace. Take time to walk through the woods and enjoy the foliage, go to some rivers with extended fishing and catch landlocked salmon, pick apples and drink cider.

But do complete the chores. It will make your life a lot simpler when you resume gardening in the spring.


Most homeowners have some lawn, even if just a tiny space that is mowed to allow easy walking or a spot for a garden chair. Before winter sets in, the lawn will require some care.

If the grass looks bad – if it didn’t come back after our dry late June and July – it may need core aeration, which is done with a machine you can rent.

It’s already a bit late for planting seed to cover bald spots – late August through September would have been better – but fall is the best time to fertilize. While the lawn should be mowed high most of the year, mow it shorter in the fall. The buzz cut makes raking easier in the fall and will keep the grass healthier when it is buried by snow.

And you have to rake – with a rake. The rake removes thatch, picks up some – but not all – of the acorns you’ve stepped on and driven into the lawn. Raking is good exercise, too, guaranteeing that 10,000-plus steps during a morning’s work. Besides, leaf blowers don’t get as many acorns, are smoky, polluting, really really loud and an affront to the neighborhood.

Compost the leaves you rake. Because we have so many oaks, the leaves of which are slow to decompose, I mow over our leaves with our electric mower. In previous years, I have dumped the shredded leaves directly on the vegetable garden. But the acorn crop was so heavy last fall that my wife Nancy and I got tired of pulling out tiny oak trees while weeding our vegetables. This year we will make a compost bin just for leaves in hopes of reducing the acorn sprouts, and we’ll spread that compost on the garden in the spring. Chopping the leaves first will speed up composting.


If your yard includes a wild section – woods, brambles or meadow – do as little as possible.

About an eighth of our half-acre lot is woods, mostly oaks with some red maples and poplars and one struggling pine. The understory is blackberries and similar plants, and we’ve native spring wildflowers, too.

In that area, we let the leaves and fallen branches rot. This is the way forests grow, with the fallen material providing food and homes for pollinators, animals of all sizes and, eventually, breaking down into compost to provide food for the trees. The rotting limbs and leaves also support native wildlife – birds, small animals and insects. Given how much development pushes into and puts pressure on (or destroys) wild areas, if everybody’s yard had a wild section, that’d mitigate the loss at least a little.

Because Norway maples – which are invasive – lose their leaves last, they are easy to spot once the other trees have defoliated. At that time, I cut all the Norway maple saplings, as well as any other invasive species I find – including bittersweet, barberry and an occasional burning bush.


Experienced gardeners disagree about the best way to treat herbaceous perennials in the fall. My take? It depends. It depends on what the gardener/home owner desires.

Nancy and I leave up anything that will stand up by itself. Our list includes ornamental grasses, tall sedums such as Autumn Joy, hyssop, lavender and similar plants. We like to look at them above the snow and enjoy seeing them waving in the breeze and covered with snow.

Other gardeners think leaving all plants provides homes for voles and mice and seeds for birds. Maybe, but native wildlife serves many purposes in nature (plus it got here first!). If you’re gardening to help wildlife in your area, leave some of your plants. But if you’re gardening for a perfectly manicured garden next spring, cut down just about everything. Wait until after the first frost to clean out these beds. Why? Because some flowers will keep blooming until they are frosted. If you cut plants before a frost, they may re-sprout and continuing growing until the ground freezes. Also, a frost will make some flower leaves limp, a clue to cut them back in the fall.


Some flowering plants – especially hosta, daylilies, rudbeckia and irises, but many others including some shrubs – tend to spread beyond where you want them. When that happens, it’s time to dig and divide them.

If you have bare spaces on your own property or lawn that you want to eliminate, you can move parts of the plants to those areas. Remember to water regularly until the ground freezes. Or you might want to give the plants to friends, and you can – with conditions. Some towns – Cape Elizabeth and Harpswell among them – are infested with winter moth, which spreads mainly by people moving plants. If your town has the pest, do not give plants to people in towns that are free of it.


Fall is the right time to plant crops like garlic – anytime before the ground freezes will work – as well as bulbs such as tulips and daffodils.

Some people advise putting fertilizer in with the bulbs. Not me. When we first planted around our house in the 1970s, we put a handful of bone meal in every hole we dug. It has since been shown that bone meal attracts deer and squirrels, who will happily dine on edible bulbs such as tulips. Most bulbs will get along without any fertilizer at all.

It’s also a good time to buy perennials and shrubs, because you can find plenty of bargains at local nurseries in the fall. Save yourself some money and plant as many as you can before the ground freezes.


There are two kinds of mulch:

The first, usually shredded bark and other waste wood, is spread in ornamental gardens to keep down weeds and retain moisture. It’s usually done in the spring, although you can apply the mulch anytime during the growing season.

Fall mulching is meant to protect plants during the winter. The idea isn’t necessarily to keep the plants warmer, but to protect them from constant cycles of freezing and thawing that occur from December through early April.

Common mulches of this sort include straw, hay, pine needles and ground-up leaves. Come spring, this mulch can be incorporated into the soil. Among the plants that require mulching are strawberries, garlic, grafted roses and herbaceous perennials, especially those that are marginally hardy or that you recently planted.

Wait until the ground has frozen before applying mulch, which will keep the plants dormant and the ground around them frozen until spring.


Go through the garden one last time, pulling weeds. If you skip this task, expect each weed to be larger, ergo harder to remove in the spring. Weeds will continue to grow right up until the ground freezes this fall, and they’ll resume growing as soon as the snow melts in early spring. You won’t be able to attack them then, as it’ll be both too wet and too cold for you to be outside gardening, so do it now.

And since gardeners are usually busier in spring, anything you do in the fall saves you time in the spring.


Many gardeners give their houseplants a summer vacation, moving them outside for fresh air, sunshine and rain during the weeks when there is no danger of frost.

The bad news is that bringing them inside involves more work than putting them out. Clean the pots, which have had soil splashed on them throughout the summer. Then weed your plants. Our grandson made fun of us one year when we had a tiny oak tree growing in the same pot as a bird of paradise that had spent the summer outside. If the plant is pot-bound – the roots are totally filling the pot – this is a good time to move it to a bigger pot with more soil.

It is also time to dig up dahlias and gladioli. This is another job that requires waiting for a hard frost that will kill the foliage and help get the corms ready for winter.

You have to dry the corms long enough so the outside is dry but not so long that the corms begin to shrivel. Like so much in life, it’s a balancing act.

Store them inside where it will be cool but not below freezing. Storing them in peat moss or a similar material helps keep them from drying out over the winter.


Limit fall pruning to getting rid of damaged branches. You can see the damage better once the leaves have dropped, so wait until then to cut them back.

Avoid pruning spring-blooming shrubs because the buds for next year’s flowers have already formed. If you cut them now, you will be eliminating blooms.

For summer- and fall-blooming trees and shrubs, March is the best time to prune, while the plants are dormant but it is warm enough for you to work outside.


The last task is to neaten up. Your rain barrels, hoses, watering cans, wheelbarrows and other equipment should be cleaned and put away.

Get all your tools in one place, where they are accessible, and brush most of the soil off them. A thorough cleaning, sharpening and lubricating can wait until winter, when you can’t go outside to work and have time on your hands.

And then you will be ready to bring the gardens back to life for 2018.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at 767-2297 or at:

]]> 0, 29 Sep 2017 11:36:34 +0000
Help! My bush looks frail! My soil is rocky! My seeds never sprouted! Sun, 24 Sep 2017 08:00:00 +0000 In some ways, new gardeners today are better off than people who started gardening decades ago. New gardeners with a question, or three or five, can find instantaneous answers to just about anything on the internet.

On the other hand, the internet offers more information than anyone could possibly read, and many of the sources – on gardening and otherwise – conflict.

Maybe things were better years ago. If people developed an interest in gardening, they likely had a relative, friend or neighbor they could go to for advice. That person would not be an expert, necessarily, but perhaps just a person who had gardened with some degree of success.

This week, I am going to play that role of reassuring gardening buddy. Everything I say will be my opinion, of course, but based on a fair bit of experience and reading.

The most important thing I can tell you is to experiment and relax. If something fails, and a plant doesn’t do well, at least you’ve learned. You can move it somewhere else or, if it dies, buy another plant. None of this is a life-and-death matter – for humans, anyway.

Next, gardening starts with the soil. Every plant you buy will come with information about the kind of soil that plant prefers. The key word is “prefers,” which is different from “requires.” Most gardeners plant mixed beds with a wide variety of plants, some grown for their pretty flowers, others for their striking foliage, and still others because they produce food. Each plant has slightly different soil preferences, but you’ll find that they mostly grow reasonably well together as long as the soil isn’t too soggy or on either extreme of the pH scale, which measures how acid or basic your soil is.

Most Maine soil is slightly acidic, although you should get a soil test to determine your own soil type. If you are planting something that prefers sweeter (alkaline) soil, add lime when planting. It will help, but the plant will probably survive without it.

You can also add compost and fertilizer, but don’t do it if you are planting in the fall, because they’ll promote tender growth, and such tender growth won’t survive the cold winter ahead. Bear in mind that just as some people can’t handle rich food, native plants may not be able to handle soil that is too rich, too full of organic matter.

Some soil is exceptionally tough to deal with. Your soil may be filled with rocks or roots, as ours is. Frankly, you have to expect that. This is the rockbound state of Maine, after all, and in case you didn’t know, tree roots extend through the soil well beyond the area directly under the tree’s branches.

Rocks are the easiest to deal with, unless it is ledge. Our property had some rock walls when we moved in, and we added to them as we pulled rocks out of our soil. Dig around them and pry them out; a nice crowbar nicely supplements your garden tools for this.

With roots, cut them if you can. I have an old pruning saw that I reserve for roots. If I can’t cut them with a saw, I use an ax. Once you’ve dug a hole deep enough, and planted your new plant, its roots will find their way around any remaining obstacles. At the same time, cutting a few roots from a large tree or bush won’t kill it.

New gardeners often worry that the trees, shrubs and perennials they have just planted aren’t doing well. Newbies say they haven’t been growing, and maybe the leaves are turning a bit yellow. This is normal. The plants you buy at a nursery, if they were grown in a field, have had a lot of their roots cut off before they could be balled and burlapped and shipped to your home. Plants grown in pots have been watered daily, kept in fertile soil and treated with tender affection. Moving to your home is a shock.

Almost all of a plant’s job its first year is to develop a root system. Gardeners have two rhyming triplets that describe a plant’s first three years: “Survive, strive and thrive” or “Keep, creep and leap.”

If the plant lives but doesn’t seem to grow the first year, that is a victory. The roots are growing. The second year it will look a bit better and grow slowly. The third year it will be growing well.

The rhymes don’t address this one, but if gardeners put the plantings too closely together, in year five they are likely to say, “What do I do about this plant? It’s going wild and taking over my whole garden.”

Next question: What do you do with old seed? Generally, if seed is kept in a cool, dry spot, it will be usable for several years. Larger seeds typically last longer than small ones, but I have planted 4-year-old seed successfully. If the seed doesn’t sprout, buy new seed and plant again. You’ll be a week or so behind where you would have been, but that isn’t a big deal. If you do have seeds you didn’t use this year, store them in an airtight container in a cool spot (think cool cellar, not freezing garage). I use several coffee cans with their plastic lids to store seeds.

Now, what do you do with the pots your plants came in? All sorts of things. Some are sturdy, and can be used as ornamental planters on a patio or along the driveway. Some can be used for plants you have dug and divided and plan to give to neighbors. I use them to store potatoes and other vegetables in the root cellar. Many nurseries will take them back and reuse them. Otherwise just put them out with your plastic recycling.

Are you a new gardener? Do you have more questions? Call or email me using the information at the end of this column, and I’ll reprise my gardening buddy role. If I get enough interesting questions, maybe I’ll write another column.

]]> 0 Tobey breaks up a clump of moist dirt while weeding her garden in Freeport last week.Fri, 22 Sep 2017 14:55:21 +0000
Propagating native seeds turns out to be harder than you might think Sun, 17 Sep 2017 08:00:00 +0000 Propagating native plant seeds should be easy. It happens in nature, with no help from humans, so it seems logical that if humans try to help the seeds along, they should be able to produce healthy plants.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way.

“Unlike with vegetable seeds, you can’t just plant them in the spring and have them come up,” said Shawn Jalbert, who propagates native plants at Native Haunts, a nursery he owns in Alfred. He was speaking at a wildflower symposium last month at McLaughlin Garden in South Paris. “With some of these plants, four or five years later they will just be germinating.”

Many seeds have to go through many steps before they produce a plant. Take hobblebush, for example, which goes by the Latin name Viburnum lantanoides and is a common understory shrub in hardwood forests. Before it can produce seedlings, it needs a warm period, followed by a cold period, and then another warm period.

The black tupelo tree, native to southern Maine, produces its seeds inside a fruit, as do many plants. To germinate, the fruit flesh must be removed from the seed. The seed has a tough husk, so it then has to be scarified or scratched, which usually happens when an animal eats it. After that, it still must go through a cold period.

“Mother Nature’s plan is to keep seeds dormant,” Jalbert said, “and it isn’t just to irritate us.”

If seeds lie dormant for several years, they will be ready and waiting if disasters – say fires – eliminate the parent plants. Another advantage of is that the seeds can widely dispersed by animals.

“The fruit is saying, ‘Here’s a food source. Poop me out farther away from the mother plant,’ ” Jalbert explained.

A lot of plants need moist conditions to germinate, Jalbert said, among them mountain laurel, swamp milkweed, pitcher plants and native rhododendrons. The best way to get them to germinate is to put your containers with the seeds in a Ziploc bag.

Barbara Murphy, a former Cooperative Extension educator who taught the Master Gardener program for many years and now with her husband, Michael, is proprietor of the Wake Robin nursery for native plants in Paris, said soil conditions are also important for native plants.

“A plant’s habitat is where you would find that plant in nature,” Murphy explained. “In the garden, you want to recreate that habitat in terms of soil, moisture, light and air.”

Many plants that are native to northern New England still exist here but are rare. Humans aren’t necessarily to blame. It may be that the conditions they need to survive are rare. Take alpine plants, for example, which are popular in rock gardens. In nature, they grow above the tree line in places like Mount Washington. They require very little soil, as they grow in the cracks of rocks. Alpine plants are short to withstand strong winds, and they must tolerate deep snow, too.

Or consider woodland perennials, like red trillium and pink lady slippers, which get sun only early in the season, before the tree leaves come out and block the sun. To get healthy woodland perennials in the nursery, Murphy plants them in sand, packing the plants close together, replicating how they grow in the wild. Neither of these types of plants will thrive in typical garden soil.

“The whole history of adding organic matter to the soil to make our plants thrive is starting to be questioned,” Murphy said. “Ornamental plants are lean plants by nature.”

Red trilliums, she added, will rot if the soil is too rich.

Lois Berg Stack, another retired Extension educator, said choosing natives is not the sole consideration when selecting plants for a garden. You have to choose the right natives, plants that will perform a task.

“If your garden is only beautiful, you are missing half the point,” she said.

Depending on your property, you might want plants that will control erosion, feed wildlife, create wind breaks that will lower your heating costs and, perhaps, out-compete invasive plants, she explained.

To pick well, first determine what conditions you have.

“You have to be brutally honest with yourself on that,” she said, meaning that all the wishing in the world will not make a plant that requires full sun flourish in a very shady yard.

None of this is meant to discourage gardeners from planting native seeds. Far from it. Yes, you will have to do some research if you want to start plants from seed. And even if you start with the plants themselves, you’ll still have to find or create the right habitat.

Since it could take several years of hot, cold and moist spells before your seeds even germinate, get started now: do the research, then collect or buy native seeds that you can propagate in your own garden.

If you pick the right ones, your garden will mimic the natural areas around your region. The plants will feed pollinators and other animals that are native to your area, many of which are threatened by ever more people and ever more development. And that is a garden that as useful in addition to being beautiful.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer living and gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at 767-2297 or at:

]]> 0, 15 Sep 2017 09:26:13 +0000
It may seem counterintuitive, but try planning your garden in the fall Sun, 10 Sep 2017 08:00:00 +0000 Looking out the window at our backyard, I am disappointed. One clump of black-eyed Susan stands out, and I can see a bit of cream-color on some hosta leaves. Otherwise it is all green – different shades of green, yes, but green all the same.

Most gardeners do their garden planning in the spring, but to me it makes more sense to do it in the fall – especially for ornamental gardens that feature shrubs and perennials. (Plan your vegetable garden in late winter when you are going through the seed catalogs, but make notes now on this year’s production.)

In my home, the backyard garden is important. It is what I see from my office desk (also known as our second-floor guest room), what my wife Nancy and I both see from the kitchen sink, and it is where we go when we sit on our patio.

It also is a tough environment for growing pretty plants – mostly shade because of the Norway maples on our neighbor’s property. And the Norway maple roots extend into our perennial border, taking nutrients and making the area tough digging.

Earlier in the season, the garden shines. We have magnolias, azaleas, rhododendrons, daylilies, viburnums, a wonderful woodland peony, narcissus, blood root and white arabis growing along the front edge. But by fall, all these beautiful bloomers have gone by.

Yellow echinacea Skyprayer2005/

We are doing our fall shopping with the goal of providing flowers for late summer and early fall in that section of the garden. We already have purchased some yellow and some white echinaceas, a Limelight hydrangea and a yakushimanum rhododendron (known for the fuzzy underside of its leaves) named “Ken Janek,” although that last is a spring bloomer and probably won’t be planted in the backyard; a spot along the driveway also needs help. I’m looking for clethra that might improve the backyard garden too.

But enough about our garden. Some people think I write about it too much already. This column is about your garden, specifically why you should assess and change it between now and when the ground freezes.

Shopping in the spring, you tend to pick spring bloomers. It’s a natural impulse – they are in bloom then so they look best in the nursery. If you went plant shopping once a month, always buying plants that are in bloom, your garden would probably have color all season long, but I suspect many of you haven’t been back to the nursery since before Memorial Day.

Now that it is September and the temperatures are cooler, take a leisurely walk around your grounds, noting each plant and, if possible, how it did during this growing season. Did it bloom, and if so, when and how profusely? Did the blooms go well with nearby plants? Does the plant look healthy? Were there times when, as in our backyard in the fall, almost nothing is in blossom?

Ideally, you would have made notes as the season progressed, and I know some people who do that. But our summers tend to get busy with company and day trips in addition to picking fruits, vegetables and flowers as well as tending the gardens. We never get around to taking notes.

On the other hand, your memory of the garden now is a lot better than it will be next spring, so figure it out now.

And then shop. Although a lot of the plants at your local nursery will not be in bloom, the tags will tell you when they would bloom and you can match that up with your garden’s blah periods. Also, the staff at locally owned garden centers know their stuff, and in my experience they are always willing to help.

One question I get from new gardeners is whether they can plant perennials, trees and shrubs this late in the season. The answer is yes.

While the air temperatures are cooler, which is more comfortable for both the plants and the gardeners than is the heat of summer, the ground is much warmer than it is in the spring – which promotes root growth.

As always, you have to water the plants profusely when you plant them – filling the hole with water and letting it drain before you put in the plant, and then watering again after the plant goes in. And water every day it doesn’t rain, stopping only when the ground freezes. Don’t fertilize in the fall, because that promotes tender new growth, which can be damaged by winter weather.

The other reason to buy plants in the fall is because that is when the garden centers lower their prices. We needed the Limelight hydrangea for our backyard, but because of a fall sale the second plant, our “Ken Janek” rhododendron, was half price (buy one plant, get the second at half price).

The sales won’t be the same at every nursery, but they all have some kind of sale on now. Special fall plants like chrysanthemums will be full price, but the nursery stock will be bargains. If the plants aren’t sold now, the staff will have to take care of them all winter – and that takes both labor and money – so the nurseries are trying to unload plants. Review your garden, take notes and go shopping. That’s what I’m going to do.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer living and gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at 767-2297 or at:

]]> 0 hydrangeaThu, 07 Sep 2017 18:41:52 +0000
Plants can be natural pesticides Sun, 03 Sep 2017 08:00:00 +0000 Insects are everywhere, with more a million different species on earth. Some are helpful and beautiful, like bees and butterflies. Others cause trouble, like mosquitoes and ticks that suck your blood and spread illnesses. Some leave you alone but eat your fruits and flowers.

When I saw that Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens in Boothbay was offering a member-only tour about plants that repel unwanted insects, I jumped at the chance to join the tour. I was “wait listed” – clearly I’m not the only one who’d like some help warding off garden bugs without resorting to pesticides – but received notice the day before the tour that I could participate.

Jen Dunlap, a staff horticulturist, led about 15 of us through several core gardens (the ones closest to the visitor center), talking about different plants as we saw them, describing what pests they repel and providing hints on how to grow them.

Some of the best insect-repelling plants turn out to be herbs we grow to flavor our food.

“All of the fragrant herbs have volatile oils that are released in cooking,” Dunlap said, “and those same oils are released by the heat of the summer.”

Those herbs – including basil, rosemary, thyme, sage, dill and fennel – repel flies, mosquitoes, moths, earwigs and a host of other insects.

More than half of the 90-minute garden walk was conducted in the Lerner Garden of the Five Senses – covering touch, smell, sound, sight and taste. The garden shows how to mix ornamental plants with herbs and vegetables.

First, most of the herbs and many of the vegetable plants are attractive in their own right. And, since the fragrant herbs repel so many pests, having them in the garden improves food production.

Alliums, the onion family that includes leeks and chives, are grown as both ornamentals and food crops, and all of them repel pests, Dunlap said. So rather than limiting your onions in one area of your vegetable garden, you can intersperse them throughout your gardens, covering a larger area. You might grow them in your flower gardens, as well.

Sometimes plants get rid of pests not by repelling the troublemakers but by attracting insects that kill insects you don’t want. For instance, the herbs dill and fennel, along with the ornamental annuals alyssum and calendula, are hosts to the tachinid fly. I’ve written about the tachinid fly before as the insect whose eggs show up as white spots on the backs of Japanese beetles and eventually kill them. It turns out tachinid flies also kill sawflies, cabbage worms, earwigs, gypsy moths, cutworms, tent caterpillars, squash bugs and others. (Earwigs, incidentally, though they eat plants, among them hollyhocks, zinnias, dahlias and shasta daisies, do have benefits, Dunlap said. They break down soil in compost bins and prey on aphids and flies.)

Calendula, dill and alyssum are annuals, but they self seed, so you probably will have to plant them only once, while fennel is perennial.

Mints repel ticks, Dunlap said, and ticks are responsible for the recent epidemic of Lyme disease. In theory, mint should be planted in everyone’s garden, but mint is a thug, spreading wildly, strangling nearby plants and almost impossible to eradicate. One that is less aggressive, Dunlap said, is hairy mountain mint or Pycnanthemum verticillatum. During the tour, the mint’s dainty white flowers were covered with bees – a bonus.

A shrub that repels ticks is beautyberry, or callicarpa, which has pink flowers in summer and purple berries in the fall. It does have a lot of winter dieback, but usually recovers.

Lavender is one of the best moth and insect repellent going. “That is why people put lavender sachets in drawers of clothing and have used it in laundry,” Dunlap said.

It is a beautiful, fragrant ornamental and easy to grow. Catmint has many of the same qualities, but is not quite as strong-smelling nor as effective. If you have cats, however, they will love it.

In addition to hosting the tachinid fly, calendula repels flies, moths, aphids and mosquitoes, Dunlap said, mostly by aroma. It is an attractive plant with long-lasting, daisy-shaped flowers.

Marigolds are the first plant many gardeners think of as insect-repelling plants, and for good reason. They work well, Dunlap said, especially on caterpillars.

And chrysanthemums, usually planted for their fall display of color, also repel a wide variety of insects. The once-popular organic pesticide pyrethrum is derived from chrysanthemums, specifically pyrethrins, which are the active source of the plant’s insect-repelling power. Pyrethrum is less popular than it once was because it turns out it kills beneficial insects as well as pests.

For most of Maine this next plant won’t help, but for those few who are in Zone 6 – right along the coast from about Owls Head to Bath and in the southern tip of York County – try planting four o’clocks, aka Mirabilis jalapa. The attractive flowers bloom late in the day – when the light begins to decline – and, unusually, several different-colored flowers bloom on the same plant. The botanical garden sits in the heart of Zone 6, and excepting occasional dieback, the four o’clocks survive fairly well there. Why would you want to bother with such a finicky plant? Because it lures Japanese beetles and then poisons them. That is my kind of plant.

Dunlap says in cooler zones you might have a microclimate, such as the western side of the house or where the drier vents, that would enable you to plant four o’clocks. I wonder if I could move the drier vent to the west side of our house.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer living and gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at 767-2297 or at:

]]> 0, 31 Aug 2017 18:51:12 +0000
Edgy sedges offer architectural look, anchor the soil Sun, 27 Aug 2017 08:00:00 +0000 Sedges grow everywhere in Maine – from arid mountaintops to bogs, along the sides of fresh-cut roads through forests and under the canopies of those forests. More than 200 varieties grow in the state. Oddly, though, one place you find very few of them is in the gardens around Mainers’ homes. While some nurseries sell a few varieties, they are not on most people’s gotta-have-it list.

Maybe they should be.

At a talk I attended earlier this summer, Thomas Rainer, co-author of “Planting in a Post-Wild World,” said sedges – along with ferns – are one of the most versatile ground covers for the garden. Other experts sing their praises because they help control erosion and have an attractive architectural look. Sedges range widely in color, from yellow to gold to green, and some have seed heads in interesting and unusual shapes that move attractively in the wind.

Just what is a sedge and how can you tell if the plant you are looking at is one? Sedges are graminoids, as are grasses and rushes. In an interview, Glen Mittelhauser, one of seven co-authors of the 712-page tome “Sedges of Maine: A Field Guide to Cyperaceae” (2013), referred to an old mnemonic rhyme that helps people – horticulturalists, gardeners, students – differentiate the graminoids: “Sedges have edges. Rushes are round. Grasses have joints all the way to the ground.”

Sedges have edges because the leaves are usually triangular, and you can feel the edges on them. Rushes are smooth and solid, as well as round. If you run your fingers along a grass stem you feel nodes, where the grass stem expands along the entire stem.

The largest group of sedges are Carex. All of the sedges I was able to find that are commercially available are in the Carex family.

Mittelhauser says that while some of the sedges do best in shade, others like sun; and while some are drought tolerant, others like wet soil. “There are so many species, and the growing requirements are species specific,” he said.

While sedges do have flowers, they are small and the plants are wind-pollinated, so they don’t do much for pollinators, he said.

“They do have a small nutlet that that could be edible,” he added, “but I don’t know of a lot of wildlife that consumes sedges.” Alison Dibble, another co-author of the sedges field guide, said – at least partly in jest – that “sedges tend to be high in silica content, so they could be useful on a camping trip to scrub out the frying pan.”

What sedges really do best, she added, is prevent soil erosion. They have good roots; in addition, the seeds survive a long time when they’re buried in the mud or soil.

“That is why when roads are built during a lumbering operation, sedges spring up on the side of the road,” Dibble explained. “Those are seeds from a long time ago that were finally exposed” to the sun and the air and are suddenly able to germinate.

Dibble has taken sedges from the wild and put them in her garden, and some have done quite well.

“A lot of them have an architectural look that would appeal to a gardener,” she said.

But she warned that people should be careful about moving sedges because many of the specific species are rare enough to be of concern to conservationists. It’d be fine to move anything that is on your own property, she said, and anything that is growing along the edge of the road would probably be OK, too.

Incidentally, if you are interested in the other graminoids, you’ll have to wait. “A Field Guide to the Grasses and Rushes of Maine” – which Mittelhauser also worked on – is under peer review, and is due out next year.

It is something to put on your gotta-have-it list after you have digested the sedge book.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer living and gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at 767-2297 or at:

]]> 0, 24 Aug 2017 19:14:50 +0000
Here’s what you can do to deal with the drought Sun, 20 Aug 2017 08:00:00 +0000 This summer’s drought – the second straight year coastal Maine has dealt with a shortage of rain – snuck up on us.

We started the year with a plentiful snowpack, rain was above normal in April and May and about normal in June.

“People were complaining about it being too wet to get on the fields to plant crops and cut hay,” said Glen Koehler, a fruit-tree specialist with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension in Orono.

In late June, it stopped raining along the coast – although weather forecasters kept predicting thunder showers. Those showers provided some heavy rain for the inland mountains and foothills but dried up before hitting the coast.

Now some statistics: As of August 15, Portland’s rainfall deficit is approaching 5 inches. It’s just an inch or so over the all-time driest June 1 to August 15 on record, according to meteorologist Dave Epstein. As he wrote recently in the Press Herald, “it’s dry out there.”

There was nothing sneaky at all about the drought of 2016. It started with a meager snowpack and continued with rain much below normal through the growing season until some fall rains provided relief for the aquifers and wells before winter set in. Trees and other plants that couldn’t be irrigated turned brown.

Another factor has tempered the severity of this year’s drought, as Koehler explained. “The temperature this year been a little below average,” he said, “and moisture stress is highly affected by higher temperatures.”

In 2016, temperatures were warmer than average.

Dry leaves on a nannyberry tree in Saco on Tuesday. Staff photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

OK, so we’re not as bad off as last summer, but that’s not to say we’re home free.

“As far as wild plants go,” said Bill Cullina, president and chief executive officer of Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens in Boothbay, “two years of drought is especially hard on trees and creates stress that makes them more vulnerable to disease and cold damage.”

Cullina added that while the early-season rain this year was a benefit overall, it has a downside: The foliage on many plants was lush and soft from the early rain so suffered more damage than it might have otherwise when the rain stopped.

The botanical gardens have an efficient drip-irrigation system for much of the property, but for areas without irrigation they have had to water by hand or let the plants turn brown.

A drought like the one we are having this year harms newly planted specimens more than it does established plants. Allie Pierson of Pierson Nurseries, a wholesale dealer in Biddeford and Dayton, said that the nursery waters all of its plants every day. The staff advises purchasers to continue daily watering at first, and then wean them off the daily watering slowly so the new plants aren’t so water-dependent when they are placed in the landscape.

With the expansion underway at the botanical gardens, many new plants have been installed this year, Cullina said, and they require frequent hand-watering – as the irrigation system is not yet in place – which takes hours every day to accomplish. Both Pierson and the botanical gardens have water on site – aquifers at the gardens and aquifers and retaining ponds at Pierson – so frequent watering doesn’t cost more than the electricity to run the pumps, which Cullina described as insignificant.

OK, so that’s what the professionals are doing about the drought. Now what should you do on your property?

“We tell people they should do what they want, based on their comfort level,” said Kookie McNerney, a home horticulture coordinator at the extension’s Cumberland County office.

Your established lawn, herbaceous perennials, shrubs and trees are not going to die as a result of the so-far-moderate drought that we have had this season. Yes, the lawn will go brown and dormant, but it will green up again if we have fall rains, McNerney said. Perennials may die back earlier than normal, but they will come up again next spring. Trees and shrubs may go brown and drop their leaves early, but will survive.

But if you want to water, go ahead. But do it properly.

Jodi-marie McCarthy of Saco waters her garden plot at the Saco Community Garden. Staff photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

Water at ground level, preferably using drip irrigation. Watering from overhead, as with traditional sprinklers, gets the leaves wet and allows some fungal diseases to form. Water early in the day, and especially avoid watering in the evening so the plants don’t stay wet all night, which also promotes fungal disease. McNerney said she is seeing quite a few rust and fungus diseases this year as a result of improper watering.

On a personal note, I was a bit embarrassed when my column on the mid-season status of my wife and my gardens appeared. In it, I wrote that I had yet to drag out the sprinklers and that our rain barrels had not gone dry. That was all true when I wrote the column on July 20. Although we had gone a couple of weeks without rain at that point, showers were in the forecast, so I wasn’t worried.

But by the time the column appeared in print and online 10 days later, those showers still had not materialized. Nor have they as of my writing this column on Aug. 13. I have since irrigated our entire property, and the rain barrels have gone dry. Also, I have been regularly hand watering all our flower containers, the shrubs we planted this year and the tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and squash. We have now sprinkled our entire property twice, and we will have irrigated a third time by the time this column appears – unless we get significant rain between now and then.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer living and gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at 767-2297 or at:

]]> 0, ME - AUGUST 15: Jodi-marie McCarthy of Saco waters her garden plot at the Saco Community Garden Tuesday, August 15, 2017. Staff photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer)Fri, 18 Aug 2017 10:56:46 +0000
A rose is a rose is a rose – unless it’s an Earth-Kind rose Sun, 13 Aug 2017 08:00:00 +0000 Four years after the city of Portland replaced all of the hybrid tea roses at the Karl Switzer Rose Circle at Deering Oaks with lower-maintenance varieties, the experiment has shown that some roses – often considered a notoriously fussy plant – can thrive on neglect: no fertilizer, no pesticides and no watering.

“These roses survived last year’s drought, and that says something” about how resilient the plants are, Portland City Arborist Jeff Tarling said as he and John Shannon, horticulture supervisor for the city, gave me a tour of the circle earlier this month.

The Rose Circle was designed in 1927 as a bed of mixed flowering plants, but under Switzer, parks superintendent from 1939 to 1972, it morphed into just roses.

For years, the rose circle served as a test bed for the American Rose Society, which selected All-America Rose Selections as the best introductions of the year. But those hybrid tea roses required a lot of care, Tarling said. They had to be fertilized and watered, and often treated with insecticides and fungicides. Then, each year, the roses had to be cut back, mounded with nearly 12 yards of soil to cover each rose’s bud graft (where the flowering part of the plant is connected to the root stock), and then mulched with straw. With only two full-time and two part-time workers tending all of the city’s plantings, including the 52 planters with thousands of tulips downtown each spring and annuals after the tulips go by, the rose circle had become too labor intensive.

After consulting with Peter Kukielski, then curator of the Peggy Rockefeller Rose Garden at the New York Botanical Garden (he now lives in Portland), the city arranged to have the Rose Circle become a test garden for the Earth-Kind Rose program run by Texas A&M University; it’s the only Northeastern test garden, in fact. As the name implies, Earth-Kind roses are intended to be kind to the Earth, conserving water and reducing the use of chemicals. The test runs for four years, so the lab work, so to speak, will be over at the end of this growing season, but the university still must analyze and publish the results.

The city received three specimens each of 21 different rose varieties and was required to follow specific rules for planting. The site for each plant was randomly selected. Watering was allowed the first year (using a sprinkler system donated by the producers of “The Preacher’s Wife” when that move was filmed in Portland), but no watering is allowed after that. Pruning is also off-limits. City gardeners were allowed to add compost to the rose bed before the planting was done, and add mulch after the planting was complete; they can replenish the mulch as needed each spring. Other than that, though, it has been plant ’em and forget ’em.

Some roses have been done better than others, which is what any trial garden is designed to show. Some have died. Others have grown and bloomed profusely.

While peak bloom for the rose garden is late June, several of the bushes still had plenty of blooms when I visited on Aug. 1, and Shannon said another flush of blossoms often comes in late August and early September. Under the rules of the study, the roses in the circle may not be deadheaded. But Mainers growing Earth-Kind roses at home could deadhead, which would encourage blossoms to continue through much of the summer.

“Once the hips form, it tells the plant to shut down,” Shannon said.

Tarling and Shannon say they will contact the Earth-Kind next year officials to see where the test goes from here. They expect the city will be sent roses to replace the ones that have died, but say the changes could be more extensive.

Tarling and Shannon would not say which of the roses are performing best in the study. Just by looking at them, though, Shannon thought one of the Home Run series (the label had gone missing, so we didn’t know its exact name) and Ruby Ice were doing especially well. Two different colors of the popular Knock Out series had some blooms in early August. One called Apricot Drift, which my wife Nancy and I have in our garden and is so low that it acts almost like a ground cover, also had an extended bloom time.

Once the results are analyzed, they’ll be posted to the Earth-Kind website, so Mainers will be able to check which roses can excel in Maine with little care. If you visit the website now, it’ll tell you which varieties already have the Earth-Kind seal of approval.

If I were to add roses to our garden, those would be the ones I’d choose.

TOM ATWELL is a freelance writer living and gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at 767-2297 or at:

]]> 0 Karl Switzer Rose Circle in Deering Oaks Park in July 2015. The garden was named for the man who was superintendent of the park from 1939 to 1972. Four years ago, it became a test garden for roses than require significantly less water, fertilizer and manpower to maintain.Fri, 11 Aug 2017 14:39:59 +0000
All-day symposium offers plenty for the gardener who wants to go native Sun, 06 Aug 2017 08:00:00 +0000 Wildflowers are nothing new – and that is part of their attraction. They are plants that have grown in woods and fields with no help from humans, making the natural outdoors a pleasant (and essential) place for people and other living things to hang out, including insects, birds and mammals.

When wildflowers are placed in a tended garden, they often are called native plants – although some of what people call wildflowers aren’t really native.

Interest in native plants has been growing over the past couple of decades, to the point where, among some of us, anyhow, it almost equals the excitement for new Game of Thrones episodes.

To promote and expand on this blossoming interest in natives, the Garden Club Federation of Maine (GCFM) and McLaughlin Garden in South Paris will hold an all-day wildflower/native plant symposium later this month in South Paris. The event intertwines recent projects of McLaughlin and the garden club.

“The GCFM has a new president and her theme for her two-year term is Plant Maine – Sustainable Home Gardening,” said Harriet Robinson, co-chair of the event.

That new president, Judith Tarbox of Camden, learned that the National Garden Club was offering stipends so state clubs could hold symposia on native plants – so she set the event in motion.

Robinson, who is active in programs at both McLaughlin and the garden club, suggested McLaughlin as a good site, because it has recently received a Project Canopy grant from the state to remove some invasive plants and replace them with natives.

The symposium won’t make anyone an expert in native plants, but it will provide a solid introduction. It will include talks by seven people, tours of two native-plant gardens and a chance to view and learn about an herbarium, an album of pressed flowers that is one way people learned about plants before color photographs were common. Jean Potuchek, a retired sociology professor from East Poland who writes a blog called Jean’s Garden, will discuss the history and uses of an herbarium she has studied that was created by a woman from Oxford in the 1920s.

“One of the things we hope to learn from the herbarium,” Robinson said, “is whether some plants that are now endangered in Maine were once fairly common.”

One of the most important parts of the program, Robinson believes, is a talk on how to propagate native plants, presented by Shawn Jalbert, a native plants consultant based in Alfred.

Robinson said it is difficult to get seed-grown native plants at most garden centers. Jalbert, who is steward of the Harvey Butler Rhododendron Sanctuary in Springvale under sponsorship of the New England Wild Flower Society, will discuss how to grow native plants from seeds.

While some garden centers sell native plants, Robinson said, they often are cultivars rather than seed-grown specimens, and seed-grown specimens offer more diversity in the landscape.

Michael Murphy, a biologist recently retired from the University of Maine Extension who has taught horticulture classes through UMaine and the New England Wild Flower Society, will discuss endangered plants, plants for special habitats and how to identify wildflowers using dichotomous keys. With dichotomous keys, people look at parts of the plant starting with flower color and shape, followed by leaf arrangement and shape, in order to identify the plant.

Lois Berg Stack, also recently retired from the University of Maine where she was an ornamental horticulturist, will speak about designing native plant gardens and fitting native plants into existing landscapes.

Lee Dassler, executive director of the Western Foothills Land Trust in Norway and founding director of McLaughlin Garden, will lecture on the preservation of natural areas and nature trails.

Kristin Perry, McLaughlin Garden horticulturist, will lead a tour of the garden, showing how invasive plants have been replaced with native ones, and explaining how to identify plants.

But because most of the plants at McLaughlin are shady spring bloomers, attendees will have the option of going to Robinson’s garden in Otisfield.

“In late summer, the flowers are mostly in fields and sunlight, and because my property is surrounded by field and has blooms in late summer and early fall, we decided use my own private garden as a second field trip opportunity.”

It sounds like a full day, and I am looking forward to it – and not just because, in full disclosure, my wife, Nancy, is co-chairing the event with Robinson.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth and can be contacted at 767-2297 or at

]]> 0, 03 Aug 2017 19:09:39 +0000
Halfway through the season, our garden columnist gives an update on his own garden Sun, 30 Jul 2017 08:00:00 +0000 Throughout April and May I spent many days forced inside by rain and drizzle coupled with temperatures in the 40s, complaining about the garden chores I was unable to get to.

But then I reminded myself about last year’s drought. The garden – and the gardener – is a lot happier this year. While I have hand-watered the containers and the vegetable transplants, using water that has yet to run out from our three rain barrels, I haven’t dragged the sprinklers out at all, and we have been getting fruit and vegetables since early May. That counts as success.

In my season-opening column about my plans for my own garden, I declared this to be the Year of Fruit, and happily my declaration has come true.

Strawberries had been a major concern. Last year, we ate fresh strawberries for about three weeks, even though the berries were scarcer and smaller than they should have been, and we had none left over to make jam. We weeded, renovated and fertilized the patch, had strawberries for about four weeks this year, including enough to make a double batch of jam. But the berries were still small. We will plant a new row next spring and try to keep the current one going for two more years, until the new row is ready for picking. Eight years from a strawberry bed seems to be the limit.

I vowed to get blueberries from our 13 new high-bush plants this year, and we have succeeded to a limited extent – picking three (count ’em, three) ripe blueberries already with a few more coming. Only five of the 13 bushes produced anything, but I think I held off the winter moth by spraying twice with dormant oil spray early in the spring. As the bushes become established, we will get more fruit.

Raspberries have been outstanding; read last week’s column if you want to know more.

We might get a crop of peaches this year, although the 3-year-old Lars Anderson has only one peach on it right at the moment – which is OK because the tree is still small. The Reliance, which had been old for a while, didn’t make it through the winter, and I cut it down. The Red Haven, however, has a good crop – if I can get to them before the wildlife (birds, squirrels, chipmunks) does.

The two Viburnum cassinoides, also called witherod viburnum or Northern wild raisin, that we planted are healthy. The one that gets more sun had two blossoms and has a bit of fruit, so if the birds don’t eat it first we can find out how they taste. If the birds beat us to the fruit, that’s OK; we’re growing them mostly for their ornamental value, anyway.

The vegetables have been good so far. We have been eating peas since July 4 – when we barely had enough to feed four people along with the traditional salmon. I got them planted about 10 days later than normal because of the rain, and the continuing cold slowed them further. For the last two weeks, though, we have eaten all we wanted.

When I wrote a column last winter about new catalog offerings, Pinetree Garden Seeds had sold out of its purple-podded Sugar Magnolia snap pea. When they got the peas back in stock, I ordered them. They grow well and are gorgeous, especially when the pods are about an inch long, with the dark purple standing out sharply against the green foliage on vines that grow up to 7 feet tall. In the kitchen, though, they are slightly more fibrous and not as sweet as the original Sugar Snaps.

The asparagus produced well, and we had our first meal of them on May 15. In the new bed that I planted last year, 19 of the 25 crowns have some growth this year and about 15 look robust. I don’t know if that is typical, but I am happy, and we should have a pretty decent harvest from the new bed beginning next year. We weeded the old bed extensively early this spring, and that produced well until we stopped cutting in late June.

The Flashy Trout Back lettuce that we ordered from Johnny’s Selected Seeds, with red splotches darkening to maroon on light green leaves, is attractive and tasty but not quite as productive as the Red Salad Bowl we grow for our main crop. But I like thinking about fishing for brook trout while I cut and eat it.

Tomatoes, peppers, squash, cucumbers and beans all look good, but as of July 20 the only actual production has been two Sun Gold tomatoes. They should provide us some great eating from now until the end of the season unless some unexpected disaster hits – always a possibility in gardening.

We’ve got plenty of plants in containers on our patio, and most are doing very well. The coreopsis – in several different varieties – has been especially productive, and Prince Tut – an Egyptian papyrus – is a favorite. Our container plants make the patio such an invitingly beautiful place to sit down and relax. And the daylilies, all of which we purchased and planted at the edge of the patio, are especially gorgeous this year.

Elsewhere, the flowers have been productive except for the hydrangeas, which for some reason have been slow to blossom for many people in the Greater Portland area this year. But the shrubs – lilacs, viburnums and ninebark – have been productive. Black-eyed Susans, poppies and pink baby’s breath started showing up in the vegetable garden in mid-June and continue to do well.

In a section of wooded understory that I recently stopped mowing in an effort to have a more natural, wildlife-friendly landscape, we were pleased to see a large swath of native white campanula. My wife, Nancy, said she had planted some several years ago, and she thought it had disappeared. Perhaps it had just moved and didn’t come into its own until I stopped mowing.

My goal now is to figure out what other things I can improve by doing less work.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth and can be contacted at 767-2297 or at

]]> 0, 27 Jul 2017 18:52:57 +0000
The right way and the wrong way to grow raspberries Sun, 23 Jul 2017 08:00:00 +0000 When it comes to growing raspberries, there is the way you should grow them and the way that I grow them. The two are quite different.

My wife, Nancy, and I planted our current raspberry bed in the early 1980s, well before both the internet and my career as a gardening columnist. For planting instructions, I followed the three sentences of directions that came with the plants. We got fruit fairly quickly and usually a lot of it.

Does this mean that I am smarter than the people from the Cooperative Extension who write pamphlets and do instructional videos? Of course not. Those gardening professionals not only are smarter but have done a lot more research, too. What my success does mean is that plants are resilient and put up with less-than-ideal conditions.

I’ll start with what you should do, using as my source pamphlets and YouTube videos created mostly by David Handley, vegetable and small fruit specialist at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension at Highmoor Farm in Monmouth.

Raspberries prefer to be planted in full sun, with sandy topsoil containing lots of organic matter in the pH range of 5.6 to 6.2, slightly acidic in other words.

Raspberry crowns and canes are planted in late April to mid-May, but you should begin preparing the soil earlier – as much as two years before the actual planting. The Extension suggests using composted manure or garden fertilizer and planting a cover crop such as oats, buckwheat, rye or millet the year before planting and tilling them in. You also could just add compost or composted manure to the area you intend to plant.

Plant the original canes about two feet apart in a single row. If you are planting multiple rows – and home gardeners probably won’t do that – they should be eight feet apart.

Raspberries’ roots and crowns are perennial, lasting year after year. The canes, however, live only two years. On traditional, summer-bearing raspberries, the canes shoot up to their full height the first year, but produce only leaves. The second year they produce lateral, fruiting branches coming off those canes.

So-called ever-bearing raspberries have two crops each year, one in the fall on the tips of first-year stems and the second one the next year lower down on those stems.

Because the spotted-wing drosophila lays eggs in fresh fruit beginning in mid-August or so, I can’t recommend planting ever-bearing varieties. The late crop is likely to be damaged.

The key to good production of raspberries over the long term is pruning. Raspberries will send roots underground over long distances. My first experience with raspberries came when I was about 10 years old, and a cousin and I discovered a patch about 20 feet square that looked like no one had ever tended it. We picked multiple quarts of raspberries for an entire morning.

But the raspberries will be better if kept in check. At ground level, the raspberry row should be kept 12 to 18 inches wide. You build a trellis system so you have a width of about 42 inches wide at a height of about 4 feet.

Then each year, sometime between November and early April, you remove all spent canes – which will be gray and peeling as opposed to the fresh green of new canes. You also cut down all canes outside of the desired width at the bottom. Then you cut out all the weakest first-year canes so that you have about three healthy canes per square foot.

This is also the time to do a thorough weeding, as well as, in my case, get rid of all the accumulated pine needles and oak leaves. Once all that work is done, I fertilize in early spring.

Handley’s video shows how to carefully tie each individual raspberry cane to the string going around the 42-inch wide area at the top of the trellis.

So that is how it should be done. Our raspberries have had a different history.

For starters, I don’t know what kind of raspberries we are growing. I thought we bought Latham, but I know we have at least two different types. Some look like Boyne, small and round and productive. Some are thimble-shaped and huge, and we like those best, but I can’t tell what they are.

About 10 years after we planted them, they had spread widely. We had a 40-foot row, and it had become as much as 15 feet wide in places, and picking the raspberries was a chore.

Our raspberries might have been close to full sun when we planted them, but they are definitely part sun, at best, now. The neighbors’ pine trees have grown a lot taller and broader.

About 10 years ago we got the row in check, making it 2 or 3 feet wide at ground level. We don’t have a trellis. We put in metal stakes and have a recycled plastic clothesline (with wire inside the plastic) all around the row, to keep the canes from flopping. We don’t bother tying the canes to the clothesline.

Ever since I started writing the garden column and learned how things should be done, I have thinned out the raspberry canes much more than I used to. That has worked well. But the biggest boost to the crop has come recently. We had great crops for several years, even sending our then grammar-school-age children to sit on the side of the road and sell some for their college funds. Then the Japanese beetles arrived, and our production decreased.

But for the past three years, the Japanese beetle population has been way down. It might be that the bio-control is kicking in and killing the beetles. It might be that the European chafer – which does no damage to fruit as an adult – is out-competing the Japanese beetle during their grub stage.

Either way, I’m just enjoying it. And I wonder how much better the raspberries would do if I could find a sunny site and start over the right way.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer living and gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at 767-2297 or at:

]]> 0, 21 Jul 2017 09:17:49 +0000
Double your gardening pleasure by learning how to arrange flowers Sun, 16 Jul 2017 08:00:00 +0000 No small part of the pleasure of growing flowers is cutting them so you can enjoy them inside of your home as well as outside in your garden.

A floral arrangement can be as simple as a preschooler breaking off a fistful of dandelion blossoms and putting them in a juice glass or as complex as an intricate display of color-coordinated blossoms, branches and foliage. Both displays will be enjoyed for different reasons.

There are some secrets gardeners use to make their bouquets look better and last longer.

Marilyn Traiser of Yarmouth, chairwoman of the Judges Council of the Garden Club Federation of Maine, says the most important steps involve timing.

“You should cut (flowers) early in the morning, before they have chance to transpire” or give off water vapor, Traiser said. Cutting late in the day will work, but won’t be as good as early morning, she thinks, and avoid cutting them in the middle of the day.

Once you get the flowers inside, re-cut the stems an inch or more from the bottom. And there’s a right way and a wrong way to cut: to begin with, you have to use sharp scissors or a sharp knife, Traiser said. The hand pruners used for yard work are not sharp enough and will crush the stem’s capillaries. The stems – including the flowers you buy at a farm stand or supermarket – should be re-cut at a 45 degree or greater angle, to increase the area of the cut that is in the water.

Right after Traiser cuts the stems, she puts them into a bucket of water that she described as “warmer than warm but not hot.” If it is uncomfortable for your hand, it is too hot. If she has them, she uses conditioning packets that sometimes come with bunches of cut flowers, but that isn’t necessary.

The Ikebana, or Japanese, school of flower arranging has you cut the stems under water, but Traiser does not go that far.

How she arranges the flowers depends on what she has. If she has a multitude of blooms, she will sometimes just mix them together and put them in a vase. If she has just a few, she do an artistic display of the sort she would do if she were entering a flower show.

Traiser always has flowers on her dining-room table, and she likes a small cube or bowl-type container, which sits low so that people on opposite sides of the table can still see each other when they talk. To keep the flowers standing straight, she sometimes will weave birch twigs into a grid on the top of the vase. If she doesn’t have twigs, she creates a grid with floral tape.

She believes foliage adds a lot to flower arrangements. She uses a lot of hosta with different leaf colors, and she likes spirea and ninebark foliage, too, which come in colors – gold, burgundy or chartreuse – other than the traditional green.

If, after the flowers have been inside for a few days they look limp, you sometimes can revive them by re-cutting the stems and changing the water – but that doesn’t always work.

Instead, Traiser has a few tricks to keep flowers fresh. Amazingly, tulips continue growing up to an inch a day even after they are put in a vase. To keep that from happening, you can make a pin prick right at the base of the flower head. Also, she said, a tablespoon of gin in the water makes tulips stand upright (and probably the rest of us, too!).

Other tricks include adding a teaspoon of sugar to the water for asters and removing all of the leaves from chrysanthemum stems before putting them in water.

Traiser has been gardening all of her life. Her mother was an avid gardener, and Traiser joined in from the start.

About 35 years ago, she attended garden club’s flower show school in Massachusetts so she could become a judge; she lived there at the time. The Garden Club Federation of Maine used to hold flower show schools regularly – my wife, Nancy, took the courses and became a judge in the 1980s – but it has not held them in recent years.

Traiser said with only nine accredited flower show judges in Maine, it’s difficult to schedule many courses or flower shows. The club is considering the idea of staging a full flower show in the coming year. Such a show is much different from the Maine Flower Show, put on by the Maine Landscape and Nursery Association. A garden club flower show involves judging of horticulture – flowers, vegetables and branches – and flower designs. It does not have display gardens.

Meanwhile, the council is holding flower-design classes that are simpler than those required to become a judge (see sidebar).

Traiser said the state would love to have more judges, but for now people interested in becoming one will have to take the required courses out of state.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer living and gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at 767-2297 or at:

]]> 0, 14 Jul 2017 08:34:39 +0000
Let it be a wild, wild world Sun, 09 Jul 2017 08:00:00 +0000 Our American ancestors deserve a lot of the blame for the country’s attitude toward landscaping.

Like their cousins across the pond, Americans were influenced by powerful Victorian ideas about gardening. To Victorians – and many gardeners who preceded them, too – the world beyond the property lines was wilderness, landscape architect Thomas Rainer told attendees at the annual meeting of the Garden Club Federation of Maine in June in Freeport.

The garden was designed to be a place of neatness and order, a buffer from the harsh realities of the untamed and wild world, which in the still young American nation could be very harsh indeed. It’s an attitude that no longer suits, though: in modern-day America, most homes are located in suburbs, packed into neat grids of paved streets. Even in rural areas, landscapes beyond the garden are probably cultivated fields of soybeans, corn and such. True wilderness has become rare.

For that reason, Rainer, co-author with Claudia West of “Planting in a Post-Wild World,” believes that today’s gardeners should invite a little wildness into their gardens. Rainer, a principal at Rhodeside & Harwell in Virginia, is one of several prominent garden designers promoting the use of more native plants and more natural designs in American gardens. Others include Doug Tallamy and Larry Weaner, whose book “Garden Revolution: How our landscapes can be a source of environmental change” I wrote about last year.

A first step in adding more wilderness would be cutting down on the mulch. Rainer said European visitors often ask him why American gardeners are so proud of their mulch – making it the most visible part of their garden, with tall perennials, shrubs and trees widely separated.

“Gardeners believe they have to act like a middle-school dance chaperone,” Rainer said. “Once things start rubbing together, they think they have to step in and pull them apart.”

If you don’t put in mulch, he said, ground cover will happen. As proof, he showed garden club members a picture of a semi-neglected section of sidewalk with a “hell strip” between the sidewalk and the road and a fence between the sidewalk and the yard. (Hell strips, which isn’t a Maine term, refers to the strip of land that separates the sidewalk from the road.) After Rainer took the photo, he studied it with the help of a plant-identification book, and was able to name 26 different plant species in just that short section of neglected garden – which, he added, was disorganized but looked OK.

In contrast, Rainer said he knows of rain gardens – designed by engineers (not gardeners ) to control runoff – that require both irrigating and weeding, while the guy with the wild garden on the hell strip has, with almost no work, “created” a luxuriant garden. In recent years many people in Portland, too, have created beautiful gardens in these so-called hell strips, often packed with attractive weeds and wildflowers.

Rainer conceded that if gardeners merely removed mulch, they may wind up with plants they don’t want. So he suggested planting as ground cover ferns, tiarella (foam flower), carex (sedges) and short grasses such as Little Bluestem. These may move around from year to year, he said, but that won’t affect the garden’s overall design.

Keep the structural layer of taller plants fairly sparse, Rainer advised. If a garden has too many taller perennials, such as Joe Pye weed, tall phlox and shrubs, they will interfere with wind circulation. Unlike most other garden designers, Rainer is not a fan of grouping taller plants. He prefers scattering them so they make an engaging pattern when they are in bloom – which, he pointed out, is often how they grow naturally.

If you think that a mass of diverse plantings with no discernible pattern will look disorganized and unattractive, Rainer offers a fix:

“The solution to making a garden look neat is how it is framed,” he said. “Having a random mix of flowers looks disorganized – but if you put a boxwood hedge around it, it looks neat. Clean edges cover a lot of sins.”

The frame needn’t be a boxwood hedge, of course. It could be brick walkways separating the different sections of gardens, small fences or even something as simple as distinctly cut edge between the lawn and the garden.

Rainer, who has designed gardens in Scarborough and Kennebunkport, also had an interesting take on plant selection:”Americans treat plants the way Victorians treated women – they are either virgins or whores.”

What he means is that some plants belong in the wilderness and others belong in the garden, and never the twain shall meet. But that isn’t true in the post-wild world, he said. “Gardens should be a hybrid of cities and rural, natural and man made.”

As an example of the type of design he prefers, Rainer several times mentioned the (spectacular and wildly popular) High Line in New York City, a native garden and walkway created between 2009-2014 on abandoned raised rail bed. While they look wild, the High Line gardens were deliberately planted, and they are very lush.

Rainer doesn’t toe the line when it comes to soil, either. Most gardeners think they should add lots of compost and organic fertilizer to provide nutrients and ideal growing conditions for their plants. But Rainer opposes amending the soil. Instead, he encourages gardeners to get to know the soil they already have and to put in the plants that will naturally thrive in it. “Plants don’t want generic soil,” he said. “They want specific soil. The stresses of the soil determine what will grow there. High-fertility soil actually reduces diversity.”

In practical terms, if you love magnolias, for example, but they keep dying on you, stop trying to grow magnolias! Something else will work better in the long run – and that something will be exactly right for the natural plant community that surrounds your home.

TOM ATWELL is a freelance writer living and gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at 767-2297 or at:

]]> 0 mix of wild and cultivated flowers give this garden a kaleidoscope feel.Fri, 07 Jul 2017 11:28:58 +0000
Fort Williams, and just about everywhere else in Maine, struggles with invasive plants Sun, 02 Jul 2017 08:00:00 +0000 When I learned that Kelly Corbin of the Wild Seed Project was leading a walk through part of Fort Williams Park in Cape Elizabeth, I wanted to attend for two reasons.

First, invasive species will remain a major problem at the park and in Maine for the foreseeable future. Second, although I have spent plenty of time at the former military fort in my hometown – it became a park in 1976 – I hoped that Corbin’s talk would give me information to help me be a better member of the Fort Williams board. Barring last-minute changes, I will have joined the board by the time this column reaches print.

Like much of Maine, Fort Williams is unwilling host to many invasive plants. While the Arboretum at Fort Williams has replaced invasives with mostly native ornamental plants in several locations, those cleared areas make up just a small percentage of the park’s 90 acres.

While Fort Williams would have had invasive plants naturally – by their aggressive nature they spread to untended land – it has an extra bounty. Many of the fort’s batteries and bunkers were buried under waste soil from road construction projects throughout southern Maine to keep them from posing hazards, Corbin said. Invasive seeds hitched a ride in that waste soil, and they found a welcome home. As generalists, meaning they don’t need a particular type of soil and will grow almost anywhere, the plants thrived.

Black swallowwort is, in my opinion, the most insidious invasive plant growing along the Maine coast. It is already reappearing in parts of the Fort Williams Arboretum, where it had been cleared before native plants were brought in. Swallowwort seeds resemble those of the native milkweed – they are so similar that monarch butterflies (which are threatened by habitat loss and climate change) can get confused and lay their eggs on swallowwort, but the monarch larvae can’t eat the swallowwort so they starve to death. The seeds blow great distances in the wind, which is how swallowwort spreads so quickly.

In addition, Corbin said, swallowwort is allelopathic, meaning it gives off chemicals that inhibit the growth of nearby plants.

While swallowwort can be pulled out by its roots, it’s a difficult job, Corbin said. Although it is tempting, you should never cut swallowwort, because cutting the plant actually makes it stronger. The most important method of control is to pull the seed pods before they ripen, at least controlling the plant’s spread.

Most other invasive plants can be controlled by frequent cutting, which prevents the leaves from taking energy from the sun to feed the plant.

Bittersweet is difficult but not impossible to remove. It spreads by its prolific seed, and winds its way up nearby plants, including trees, sometimes strangling them. When it’s small, it can be pulled as well as cut.

Multiflora rose behaves much like bittersweet, with the additional hazard of having tough thorns. Barberry has thorns, and is also a tick magnet, Corbin said, so people should make an extra effort to get rid of it. Aegopodium, or bishop’s weed, is a ground cover that is almost impossible to get rid of.

Corbin said the Wild Seed Project is not opposed to the use of herbicides to get rid of invasive plants: carefully targeted, done by a professional, when it is not windy and there is no rain in the forecast.

“It should be used as a scalpel, not a sledge hammer,” she said.

Corbin did say that invasive plants are of some use. Honeysuckle, for example, provides shelter for wildlife. Birds do eat honeysuckle fruit, but it does not contain the amount of fats and proteins that fruits from native plans do.

“It’s better than nothing,” she explained.

After the invasive plants are removed, native plants should be planted immediately to occupy the space so that no unwanted plants can take over the space.

“As (Frederick Law) Olmsted said, ‘Plant thick, thin quick,’ ” Corbin said.

The reason to plant thick is that gardeners usually start with small plants, which only later grow to cover a much larger area. By planting thickly, the small plants will keep out most weeds – (although do pull any that appear). And by thinning plants – pulling out some of the ones you paid for and planted a few years earlier – the remaining plants will be healthier, because they are not competing with their neighbors.

The Wild Seed Project recommends gardeners plant seed-grown plants. Many of the native plants sold at local nurseries are cultivars, sometimes called nativars, which are selected for large or unusual blossoms or distinctive foliage. They are all cloned by tissue culture, thus all have the same plant DNA. With seed-grown plants, each plant is different. If a disease or other problem strikes, some will manage to survive and thrive, and the species as a whole will be strengthened.

Another case of survival of the fittest.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer living and gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at 767-2297 or at:

]]> 0 Corbin stands near honeysuckle at Fort Williams.Thu, 29 Jun 2017 19:00:22 +0000
June blossoms can still bust out all over Sun, 25 Jun 2017 08:00:00 +0000 Vegetables you grow in your garden keep your body healthy, but flowers feed your soul.

By the time you read this column, it’ll be late June. Are you wondering if it’s too late to plant flowers? Then I’ve good news for you: You can still easily add flowers that will provide bright blossoms this summer, and the task is much simpler than starting vegetables at this date (which I wrote about last week).

For starters, you can go to your local garden center and buy healthy plants that already are in bloom with perfect flowers in just about any color you want. If you are into instant gratification – and if we are being perfectly honest here, isn’t everybody? – you can buy a container of mixed flowers and hang it up on your front porch or put it on a patio table. I’m not sure you can call that gardening, but it is plant appreciation.

“Go shopping” hardly makes a column, so let’s instead talk about what seeds you can plant now for blossoms this year. Don’t think you are alone: As I write this, we have in the garage a box with a dozen seed packets that are scheduled to go in a vacant spot in the vegetable garden. These include cosmos, three types of poppies (pepperbox, breadseed and something called Drama Queen), nasturtiums, bachelor’s button, zinnia, dill, a Purple Kisses flowering carrot that I bought from Fedco and, according to the packet, should have been planted in early May, and two packets of mystery seeds with different secret codes that we picked up at this year’s Maine Flower Show.

I really need to finish writing this column so I can get to work in the garden.

Planting the seeds isn’t hard. You have already completed the first step – which is to wait until all danger of frost is past. While in 1816 Maine reportedly had a frost every month of the year, that was the summer after a major volcanic eruption (in faraway Indonesia, but its impact was felt around the world). This year, all danger of frost appears to be past.

Use a spading fork – if you don’t have a spading fork, use a shovel or trowel – and turn over the soil where you will be planting. All of these flowers need full sun, especially since you are planting so late in the season. Break up any soil clumps and get rid of any large rocks. This is Maine, so expect to find rocks when you work your soil.

If you are doing this work in an existing flower garden, take care not to damage any neighboring plants.

Then read the seed packets, which will tell you how deep to plant the seeds and how far apart. Follow those instructions, and then firmly tamp down the soil with your hands. As you go from one packet to another, put labels into the ground – you think you will remember what you’ve planted, but you won’t. I know from experience.

Water the seeds regularly until seedlings emerge. By regularly, I mean every day that it doesn’t rain. Water gently, so you don’t expose the seeds.

Once the seedlings have emerged, thin out the weaker ones so you have the plants as far apart as the seed packets described. This is also when you remove the weeds that have sprouted along with your seedlings.

That is really all you need to know, but here’s a little more about the seeds I plan to plant.

Poppies are a bright, gorgeous flower. They self-seed easily, and our vegetable garden is full of poppies every summer that are descendants of seeds we received from the American Horticultural Society in the 1980s. The three packets of new seeds will just give us more variety.

Zinnias are old-fashioned, easy-to-grow flowers that come in many colors and shapes that range from daisy-like to almost full pompoms like dahlias. Buying a mixture means you don’t have to make a choice.

Nasturtiums come in bush and climbing varieties, and can take a bit of shade but do best in sun. They also prefer poor soil. We grew some last year that were supposed to be vining, but they didn’t grab the trellis like I expected them to. They did look good winding through some nearby coreopsis, however. The leaves and flowers are edible (as long as you do not spray your plants with anything other than water), so they make a good addition to salads and cold soups.

Bachelor’s buttons, also called cornflowers, are among the easiest flowers to grow. They are easy to cut for indoor arrangements, and if you hang them upside down they dry well for use in winter. They come in colors ranging from blue to pale pink and white, and the blooms are about the size of a quarter.

If you’re out buying seeds, you might add a packet of dill and plant that in with your flowers. Dill is a useful, easy to grow plant, very feathery and a self-seeder as well. I found a packet of that in the garage too.

The flowering carrot, I’m going to save until next May. It will give me something to look forward to. But other than the flowering carrot, I’m planting every last flower seed packet I find.

It’s time – past time – to get some color going in our garden.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer living and gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at 767-2297 or at:


]]> 0, 23 Jun 2017 11:02:53 +0000
Don’t fret; it’s not too late to plant your garden Sun, 18 Jun 2017 08:00:00 +0000 Experienced Maine gardeners know that the kickoff is Memorial Day. That’s when all danger of frost is past, so you can plant your warm-weather vegetables without fear.

Well, gardeners, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but you’re late out of the starting gate. Three weeks late, which is an eternity on the short Maine gardening calendar.

Granted, with few exceptions, it has been a cold and rainy spring. Even if you were willing to brave the drizzle and chill, the ground was often too soggy to plant successfully. On the rare sunny days, you may have had other things to do – attending graduations, washing your windows, opening your cottage for the sea- son or watching Rachel Maddow or Sean Hannity on TV, depending on your political persuasion.

Who can blame you if you’re tempted to give up the vegetable garden this year? Isn’t that why they invented farmers markets, so you can enjoy locally grown food without the work and problems of growing your own? Don’t give in to that temptation! Not that I have anything against farmers markets – they’re great places to buy your seedlings. (And given your late start, you’ll be relying on seedlings.)

But nothing compares to vegetables you grow yourself. They taste better (at least I think they do), save you money, provide exercise and give you a taste – pun intended – of gardening success.

Fortunately, you can still plant a variety of vegetables that will produce plentiful, excellent food before the first frost. Yes, many will require a considered approach now – namely, good counting skills, seedlings (it’s too late for seeds) and perhaps a dwarf hoop house – but you can handle that. So Mr. and Mrs. Procrastinator, do not give up hope. With a little care and these tips, expect to pile your plates high with homegrown vegetables later this summer.


All peppers start as green peppers and then turn red, yellow or purple and sweet-tasting. But if you’ve waited this long to plant this year’s crop, you had better make your peace with green as it’s unlikely enough time remains for the peppers to ripen. But that’s OK, the green ones are still tasty (and the Press Herald’s food editor thinks they are unfairly maligned). They are useful for grilling, cutting up for salads and freezing to use in recipes all winter long.

Pepper seedlings should be planted about 18 inches apart in rich, well-drained soil. The plants grow only a foot or two high, but I like to tie them loosely to a stake so that our grandchildren (or me when I am not looking where I’m going) don’t knock them down. Here’s what I suggest:

New Ace, 60 days, an update of the longtime favorite Ace. This pepper has been uniformly successful for my wife and me. It produces big, chunky, thick-walled and flavorful fruits.

Mellow Star, 60 days green, 80 days red. I haven’t grown this Japanese shishito pepper, but Ramona Snell of Snell Family Farm in Buxton raved about it. The Johnny’s catalog describes it as wrinkly and thin walled, mild with no heat when green and sweet when red, especially good in stir fries, tempuras and salads.


I’m bundling these summer-producing cucurbits because they require the same treatment in the garden.

You might get productive plants if you direct-seeded plants now, but given today’s date it would be wiser to buy seedlings – if you can find any. Guess what I’ll be doing as soon as I finish writing this column? Going out to buy squash and cucumber seedlings. I planted ours – from seedlings we started inside – on May 30, but the cold rains of early June did them in.

About those seedlings – and this advice applies to any vegetables – look for small, recently planted ones, Snell suggests. If the seedlings are large and perhaps already have flowers and small fruit, they are old and tired, she said, and won’t perform as well in your garden. The silver lining to your tardiness? Since temperatures finally (I sincerely hope) have warmed up, you won’t have the bother of hardening the seedlings off to help them adjust from the cosseted environment of the greenhouse to the real world.

Back to the cucurbits – keep the plants about four feet apart, using just one seedling per site, and plant them in rich soil amended with compost. Cucumbers come in some exotic varieties, but the common types are rough skinned (or pickling) and smooth skinned.

And while the ultra-productive zucchini is the butt of many jokes, in my experience, a family of two can eat the production of two plants if they pick the squashes small and both grill them and use them raw in salads, as my wife Nancy and I do. Some suggestions:

• National Pickling Cucumber, 52 days, an old standby that can be picked at any size, and used for eating fresh and pickling.

• Muncher, 60 days, a smooth-skinned variety that produces eight-inch fruit, with strong compact vines. It works well in containers and in the garden.

• Slick Pik, 48 days, bred by Brent Loy of the University of New Hampshire, is my choice for yellow squash. It is extra early, flavorful and attractive. What more could you want?

• Black Beauty, 55 days, an heirloom zucchini from the 1920s, is the classic choice and has done best in our garden.

• Avoid Straight Eight. It’s a great favorite with cucumber beetles, who will devour it.


Like peas, beans are planted directly into the ground and come in either bush or pole varieties. Unlike peas they do not like the cool, damp spring weather and they do like the heat of summer. Which means you’re in luck.

Planting late in season, you’ll want bush beans, which produce more quickly than pole beans and ripen at about the same time. Green beans, despite their name, also come in yellow and purple. Beyond those, there are a few dried varieties, in which you discard the pod and eat the seeds, that will also produce before frost hits. Here’s what I suggest:

• Provider, at 50 days, is the earliest green bean. It produces five-inch long green pods.

• Golden wax beans, 50 days, are the most common yellow bean, with a buttery flavor and five-inch long pods.

• Amethyst, 56 days, is described in Johnny’s catalog as the fanciest purple bean, good cooked or raw.

• Early bush Italian bean, 50 days, is the earliest for gardeners who prefer flat pods to round ones. At this date, you may be pushing your luck, but at 80 days when the pods begin to dry, you can use these for dried beans, too.

• Coco Noir bush bean, 75 days, is my own favorite dried bean. Pinetree Garden Seeds in New Gloucester carries them. I’ve been saving this seed for three years, planting them every summer from dried beans I set aside. Although edible as a green bean, the Coco Noir is best for dried black beans. Leave the pods on the plant until the leaves start dropping, and the pods are dry and withered.


The vegetable that does poorest in hot weather is peas, which just happens to be one of my family’s favorites. Generally speaking, if they aren’t harvested by the end of July, the vines and pods dry up and produce a less sweet pea. Happily, the Wando bush variety is an exception to the rule. It can stand up to the heat, so is often planted by gardeners who want a fall pea crop.

I didn’t plant it this year because our pea-crazy Florida visitors are coming over the Fourth of July, but when they schedule their annual visit for August, I always plant Wando. To get a decent crop in Maine, plant these seeds directly in the garden before the end of June; counting today, you’ve got exactly 13 days. Wando produces seven or eight peas in each 3-inch pod, and while it is considered a bush variety (which typically means they do not need support and produce again and again until frost), it still grows 30 inches tall and does better growing on a fence or with other support – more like a pole bean – than it does sprawling along the ground.

While you are too late for the traditional Fourth of July peas, trust me peas taste just as good on Labor Day.


When you plant tomatoes in late spring or early summer, you have to do the math, Snell advises. In fact, you really ought to do the math for every vegetable you plant late. Figure out your average or, if you want to be super-cautious, the earliest frost date for your vegetable garden. The earliest we have ever had a frost at our property in Cape Elizabeth is Sept. 20; the average is Oct. 12, though in recent years – whether you believe climate change is real or not – frost has come around Halloween.

Every tomato seedling you buy will list its days to maturity. In my experience, the number is over-optimistic by a week or two. Then again, we live close to the coast and are plagued by cooling sea breezes and fog. So, pick the frost date you want to use, count back the plant’s days to maturity from that date, add 10 days so you have a margin of error and read the labels to select the tomato that fits your timetable.

This late in the season, your choices at garden centers, farm stands, farm markets and garden centers may be limited. That said, Snell and I recommend these:

• Early Girl, 50 days, six to eight ounces for fruit, the most popular early tomato.

• Stupice, 52 days, 3 to 4 ounces, heirloom variety, great flavor.

• Sun Gold, 55 days, cherry-size golden fruit, the sweetest and most reliable tomato in the Atwell garden.

• Moskvich, 60 days, indeterminate, open-pollinated heirloom, four to six ounces, a Russian variety that performs well as temperatures cool in the fall.


Like tomatoes and peppers, eggplants are in the nightshade family, and they need the same growing conditions – fairly rich, loose soil.

They produce a hardy, dense vegetable, which Nancy and I like grilled with a few herbs.

Eggplants come in many colors, and can be fat or skinny. Since the only way we eat it is grilled, I like the large, black varieties.

• Travata, 70 days, from Johnny’s, is one of the best early varieties. It’s a classic bell shape, 3 inches wide by 5 inches long, and flavorful.

That is 10 days longer than the early peppers need and a full 20 days longer than the earliest tomato, so no guarantees. On the other hand, if you love eggplant, throw caution to the wind. If worse comes to worst, they’d be good candidates for a dwarf hoop house come September.

When the weather grows cooler, you install the hoop house over these or any of your not quite ripe crops. Smart Maine gardeners always keep a pile of old blankets in their garden sheds to use against the threat of frost in September. Frost aside, as the temperature drops, the vegetables will ripen more slowly. The hoop house, or a movable cold frame, shelters the crops and extends the season slightly at the far end, since your garden didn’t have the benefit of a springtime start.


Although catalogs say your cole crops – broccoli, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts – can be planted as early as April, Snell waits until June at her family’s farm in Buxton.

“June is a much better month to plant them in Maine,” she said.

In short, delaying has served you well here as these plants all do better when they ripen in the cool fall than in the hot summer. At the risk of repeating myself, at this time of year, you’re better off planting seedlings. Since cole crops are less popular than tomatoes and peppers, your choices will probably be limited and you’ll have to take what you can get.

Next year, promise yourself to get started early enough to grow your own seedlings, then seek out Diplomat broccoli from Johnny’s, also Diablo Brussels sprouts and Snow Crown cauliflower.


Quick-growing cool-weather crops, including lettuce, chard and other greens, as well as beets and carrots, are no trouble at all. Many Maine gardeners plant these in succession, starting in mid-April for a harvest in June, then subsequent plantings for harvests in August and September. So you’ve missed your June crop this year? No biggie. Just carry on with later plantings and you’ll have plenty to eat.


So that’s what you can still plant this season, and more importantly harvest, although it’s edging toward late June. Here are a few to skip: for these, that ship has sailed.

Winter squash: The earliest winter squash I found in a catalog search is an early butternut, that lists at 85 days to maturity. Regular butternuts, according to the catalogs, ripen in 100 days. The long gestation lets them develop the thick skin they need to be stored through the winter. But at this point, the first frost in most of Maine is probably fewer than 85 days away.

Melons: Watermelon, cantaloupe, honeydews and other melons are really meant for southern climates. True, the University of New Hampshire has developed varieties that technically ripen in 80 days, though they do best with black solar plastic under them. If you ask me, if you are just starting melons now, the chance of failure is too high to make it worth the effort.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer living and gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at 767-2297 or at:

]]> 0, 18 Jun 2017 08:13:47 +0000
Elderberry making its way into the spotlight Sun, 11 Jun 2017 08:00:00 +0000 Our native elderberry can be used as food, medicine and dye – it turns things pretty shades of pink, raspberry and mauve – and the bush itself looks beautiful in the landscape. People have used the shrub – by foraging for the berries or growing the bush – for centuries, but commercial farming is just beginning to take off.

Tori Jackson, a University of Maine Cooperative Extension educator based in Lisbon Falls, said the extension began researching how best to grow elderberries in 2015 after some commercial growers sought assistance. Blueberries, as a traditional Maine crop, have received a lot of attention from the extension, elderberries not so much.

So the extension is testing 12 varieties of elderberry at Highmoor Farm in Monmouth to see which ones do best.

But even before that research is complete, it has shown that the native elderberry, Sambucus canadensis, is a Zone 3 plant – meaning it will grow anywhere in Maine – that likes neutral soil and requires very little maintenance. In the wild, Jackson said, elderberries are most often found at woodland edges and beside lakes and streams, and part of the reason elderberries are being promoted as a commercial crop is that they can stand wet and otherwise marginal land that other crops can’t tolerate.

While the berries don’t taste good raw – flavors are said to range from bland to bitter – they are excellent in jam, pies and other baked goods and can be made into wine, too (remember “Arsenic and Old Lace”? Not that we are advising the addition of arsenic!). Jackson said that elderberry syrup is often used to treat influenza and other ailments, and when you see meat stamped with ink in the butcher shop, that ink is made from elderberries.

If you search online for elderberry, you’ll find a lot more references to Sambucus nigra, or black elderberry, than the native American version, but the European black elderberry does not thrive in the Maine climate. “Nigra is a little more potent for medicinal uses,” Jackson said, “but while we have not done a trial, for most people who tried to grow it, it didn’t last more than a season or two. It just can’t take our winters.”

About a decade ago, an ornamental elderberry called Black Beauty, with lacy purple foliage and pink flowers came, on the market. As often happens, the catalog descriptions of the plant were a lot more attractive than the actual plant – and many of those died off quickly, as well.

Although the native elderberries usually are not considered ornamental, they are quite attractive, growing 5 to 7 feet tall with nice-looking compound leaves. Jackson said some of the native elderberries have white flowers that are as large as basketball, while others are much smaller.

Elderberry plants have shallow roots that spread along the ground – a plant can become as much 12 feet wide over time – but when young, they don’t compete well against weeds.

Although fruit production increases if you plant two varieties, you will still get some fruit even if you have just a single plant, Jackson said. The most common varieties, she said, are Johns, Adams and Yorks.

Elderberries blossom in late June or early July, and the berries ripen – depending on the variety and season – between late August and October. As a native plant, elderberries are popular with wildlife. Pollinators love the flowers and while people aren’t partial to the raw berries, birds adore them. The bushes will produce some fruit in their second year, but won’t start producing heavily until the third or fourth year after you plant them.

They don’t need a lot of care, although pruning out some of the older branches to improve air circulation does benefit them. Good qualities aside, Jackson does foresee one problem: The spotted wing drosophila, a fruit fly that has reached Maine within the past five years. Unlike most other fruit flies, the spotted wing drosophila can lay eggs in – thus damage – fresh, healthy fruit, not just fruit that is beginning to rot.

“Elderberry is a prime target for that pest, which looks for soft fruit but doesn’t get ramped up until September,” Jackson said. “That life cycle coincides pretty well with the elderberry.”

Researchers are looking for ways to control the drosophila, including netting. Chemicals have been ruled out because the berries are an edible product too close to harvest, she said.

But even if the invasive fruit fly gets the fruit before you do, the elderberry has enough attributes, from its beauty to its usefulness for wildlife that you may want to give it a try.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer living and gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at 767-2297 or at:

]]> 0 varieties are being tested to see which might grow best in Maine.Thu, 08 Jun 2017 18:45:47 +0000
Saffron can be grown in Maine, but it can be labor intensive Sun, 04 Jun 2017 08:00:00 +0000 Saffron is one of the most exotic – and expensive – spices in the world. Used in such dishes as Spanish paella and Provencal bouillabaisse, saffron retails for about $5,000 a pound.

Unlike most spices, which come from faraway lands like Indonesia and Sri Lanka, saffron can be grown right here in Maine. The spice is the red filaments, also called stigmas, from the pistils of a fall crocus; its botanical name is Crocus sativus.

“If you can grow spring crocus, you can grow fall crocus,” said Peter Johnson, who has been growing saffron in Patten, located in northern Penobscot County about 15 miles west of Houlton, since 2005.

So, if saffron is expensive and easy to grow, why isn’t everyone growing it and getting rich?

“It really is labor intensive to pick it and to separate the flowers from the pistils,” said Margaret Skinner of the Entomology Lab at the University of Vermont, which in March conducted a workshop seeking to promote saffron-growing in North America and ways to produce the spice more efficiently.

In addition, producing that pound of saffron worth $5,000 would require between 50,000 and 75,000 crocus plants. The best growers get about four pounds of saffron per acre.

Saffron plant corms (corms are similar to bulbs) are planted in August, and those plants will sprout and provide some blossoms that first year in late October. The plants stay green all winter until they go dormant in May or June. The mother corm will die at that point, but it will produce daughters that will produce plants the next year.

“If you plant 1,000 corms one year, the following year they will produce 10,000 corms,” Johnson said. He said he lets that process run for about six years, and then digs up the corms and starts over in a fresh field.

When planting, you put the corms six inches deep and plant about six corms per square foot. The daughter corms grow above the mother corm, so over the years the working corms get closer to the surface. In colder areas, people mulch the saffron crocuses over the winter.

The site should have full sun, especially in fall when the crocus flowers, with well-drained pH neutral soil. Saffron crocus want about an inch of rain a week in the fall, just before and while they are flowering.

Harvesting and processing the saffron flowers is the tricky part. To get the best-quality saffron, harvesting should be done early in the day, before the blossoms fully open, according to a sales pamphlet from Roco Saffron, the Dutch company that Johnson works with. Johnson, however, lets some of the flowers open so bees can feed on them because he produces saffron honey as well as saffron itself.

Technically, you can leave the flower on the plant and gently remove the three red stigma from the pistil.

It is more efficient, however, to cut off the entire blossom and go inside, sit at a table or bench and remove the stigma with tweezers or small scissors. The stigma are then dried for 15 minutes at 110 to 150 degrees Fahrenheit (in a food dryer, oven with the door open or direct sunlight) and then placed in an air-tight container away from direct light for at least a month before consumption.

Johnson counters the common argument that growing saffron is labor-intensive – mostly because the harvest season lasts only three weeks.

Most of the people growing saffron in the United States are Amish or Mennonite, said Johnson, who is Mennonite, “and we tend to have large families, so that helps with labor.”

Skinner compared the labor required to grow saffron to that of growing tomatoes, another high-value, high-effort crop.

One advantage of saffron is that no diseases affect the crop, although wood mice and voles like to eat the corms if they can and rabbits will eat the flowers and foliage. The University of Vermont tested the idea of growing saffron in high tunnels in part to keep the pests away, Skinner said. The Roco pamphlet suggests controlling mice and voles by destroying their tunnels and using traps, and controlling rabbits by fencing.

Roco Saffron sells saffron corms with a minimum order of 1,000 for between 19 and 45 cents a bulb, depending on how many and what size you order, while Fedcoseeds in Clinton offers as few as five bulbs for $3 and as many as 100 bulbs for $38. Ordering at Fedco will resume in mid-June.

Even if you aren’t planning to get rich with your saffron, you can enjoy the flowers and maybe grow enough to flavor your paella. Even in Maine, a state obsessed with local foods, local saffron is a nice surprise.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer living and gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at 767-2297 or at:

]]> 0, 01 Jun 2017 18:37:14 +0000
For blooms throughout the summer, plant annuals Sun, 28 May 2017 08:00:00 +0000 People who love flowers more than they love plants have to plant annuals.

Yes, perennials can live forever and you only need to plant them once, but most are in blossom for only a few weeks a year. Annuals can bloom for several months.

A prime reasons to grow annuals is for cut flowers – although my wife Nancy pointed out when I said I was writing this that perennials also make good cut flowers. While I know some people who prefer to leave their flowers outside, Nancy and I love bringing them inside so we can enjoy their colors while we are dining, chatting, typing or doing such mundane chores as vacuuming. You are working away, see a bouquet and smile, no matter what.

Stock is one of the showiest cut flowers, with full spikes of purple, red, pink, red or white blooms that smell a little like cloves. Because stock likes cooler temperatures, it does particularly well in Maine’s coastal climate.

Zinnia has been a favorite cut flower for generations – and they come in so many configurations that it is tough to believe that they are all the same species. They can be one to eight feet tall; with double or single flowers; and spider, daisy or ball-shaped flowers. But one thing they all have in common is that they can be planted directly into the garden, sprout quickly and produce blossoms within a couple of months. And butterflies love them.

Larkspur has large, spiky blossoms similar to the perennial delphinium, and it comes in an almost true blue, which is a difficult color to find. It, too, can be planted directly in the garden and, if you let some of the plants go to seed, they will seed themselves and, possibly, come back next year.

Nancy and I have an ongoing debate about feverfew. She considers it a wonderful self-seeding annual whose small daisy-shaped flowers serve as great fillers in the flower arrangements she likes to put around the house. I consider it an attractive weed. I like it, but sometimes complain that the space it takes up could better be used for vegetables.

Feverfew is actually an herb that has been used for generations to treat headaches, arthritis and, as its name implies, fever. It is easy to grow in full sun, and if you plant it once you will never have to plant it again.

Snapdragons are actually a Zone 8 perennial, but they are treated like annuals in Maine. They grow 12 to 18 inches tall, although you can find shorter dwarf varieties, come in the rainbow of colors and have spiky blossoms that bloom from the bottom of the stalk up.

Bachelor buttons are a shorter flower that comes in white, pink and burgundy – but the most striking color is a cornflower blue. The small flowers are the perfect size to put in buttonhole, which is probably how the plant got its name.

The annuals I’ve just mentioned are good both for flower bouquets and in the garden. The plants I’m about to name are used mostly for their outside display.

Impatiens is a classic annual that provides bright colors including white, pink, red, purple, yellow and orange in dense shade. A few years ago a disease called impatiens downy mildew was predicted to wipe out this cottage-garden favorite for a growing season. Fortunately, downy mildew doesn’t seem to be a continuing problem for impatiens so, if you want a ground-level burst of color in a shady location, plant impatiens. If you have a slightly sunnier location and want a larger flower, go with New Guinea impatiens or SunPatiens, which is a cross between regular impatiens and New Guinea impatiens. The blooms are larger, as are the plants themselves.

My favorite ground-level annual, though, is the begonia – especially the Non-Stop series of tuberous begonias. They come in red, white, pink, orange and yellow and bloom non-stop from June until the first frost. They will grow in shade and almost full sun, and also do well in pots. And while they aren’t truly flower for cutting, their huge blooms, usually three inches across, can be floated in a shallow bowl of water.

We can always use a bit more beauty in our lives and in our houses.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer living and gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at 767-2297 or at:

]]> 0 and impatiens pretty up a planter, and will keep blooming after perennials have called it quits for the season.Thu, 25 May 2017 18:50:13 +0000
Choose a good-looking climbing plant that’s not too aggressive Sun, 21 May 2017 08:00:00 +0000 Climbing and vining plants add a vertical shape to gardens, providing foliage and sometimes flowers that begin at ground level and end at either the vine’s ultimate height or where your support system ends.

My wife Nancy’s favorite climber is the morning glory, or Ipomoea, which produces lots of trumpet-shaped blossoms in many colors – including a true blue – from the middle of summer until the frost hits. As the name implies, the flowers look best at dawn and lose their luster as the day goes on.

Morning glory is an annual, and some online instructions advise planting the seeds directly outside. In Maine, with our short growing season, it is better to start seedlings inside and move them outside after Memorial Day. You will get blossoms more quickly, and if you ask me, that is what gardening is all about.

My own favorite climber is the golden hop vine, Humulus lupulus “Aureus,” and not just because I used to write a beer column. Unlike commercial hop vines that grow as tall as 60 feet tall, the golden hop grows only 9 to 15 feet. But the golden leaves turn a brilliant lime green in fall, when it also produces small but fragrant cone-shaped flowers. (I’m not sure if these hop flowers would be good in beer.) We do grow some Cascade hops that look good running along a fence, but they are ordinary green and less striking.

The hop plant likes full sun, but can stand some shade, and would grow well in all but the most northern parts of Maine. Nancy is thinking of adding a blue clematis to the same trellis as our golden hop because the blue and gold would go well together. I think it would be stunning.

Clematis is one of the most beautiful vines, with big flowers on vining plants that can climb 10 feet high or more. Clematises are tricky to grow because they have to be pruned, and there are three different types of clematis with three different sets of pruning rules. Simplified, if you prune a clematis early in the season, do it right after it blooms – although if you forget, winter storms will do much of the work for you. If it blooms from June to October, prune it in March. The blooms can be white, blue-violet, burgundy and shades of red.

Cindy Tibbetts of Hummingbird Farm in Turner advised me a few years ago that the key is to pick a location with at least four hours of sun a day, dig a bushel-sized hole when planting, mix 10 pounds of compost and some flower fertilizer with the soil you took out of the hole, put the mixture back in the hole, fill with water, plant the clematis in the soupy mud in the hole an inch or two deeper than it was in the pot, and water again. That clematis should last for generations.

We also grow Dutchman’s pipe, aristolochia, with its large heart-shaped leaves, largely because it has been around for generations and requires no care except for whacking it back every five years or so. The flowers are small and hidden, so it is just a background green. We have it because Nancy’s grandmother had one growing on the side of her screened porch.

Wisteria is the classic flowering vine, growing as tall as you have support. We planted some a decade ago because we knew someone who couldn’t get her wisteria to blossom and we like a good challenge, plus it seemed like a good idea to have a wisteria growing on what we call our garden gateway – basically two trellises that are connected at the top with an arch.

Our wisteria has blossomed and done quite well, but it does want to take over the entire garden. We cut it back ruthlessly after it blooms, which seems to bring additional blooms the next spring.

Climbing hydrangea will grow up to 40 feet tall – if you give it a tree, side of a house or something else to support it. This is slower to develop than many of the other climbers, but once it is established, it grows quickly and produces prolific flat white flower clusters in midsummer that persist for a couple of months.

I can’t recommend hardy kiwis, although they are popular with permaculturists, and they do produce edible fruits. The Massachusetts Audubon Society has asked people not to plant them, saying the kiwis are invasive. The hardy kiwi is not, however, on Maine’s list of invasive plants. It takes at least two, different-sex plants to get fruits. The vine isn’t exciting, and I’m not sure what you’d do with bushels of kiwi fruit. Maybe give them away with your zucchinis.

Similarly, Boston and English ivies are highly aggressive and can be hard to control once they get established. My advice? Don’t ever plant them. Never. But if you’ve got to, go ahead – just be prepared for a grasping vine that will even strangle ordinary lilacs.


Now that you know your choices for climbing vines, the next question is what to grow them on. The answer to that is … almost anything.

The simplest, least expensive plan is to use chicken wire. Our Dutchman’s pipe climbs chicken wire that we attached to our garden shed. About every five years we cut the plant to the ground, and rather than remove the vines from the old chicken wire we put up new. That saves a lot of time. Yes, I put it all in our compost bins. The wire rusts away eventually.

Our golden hop grows on a 5-foot tall triangular structure that I built with leftover copper tubing after we had our bathroom redone. Copper is expensive, though, so if starting fresh you could build supports with inexpensive metal conduit pipe – the same product I used to support our sugar snap peas.

A couple of weeks ago I saw some red cedar trellises with the Maine Made tags at Allen, Sterling & Lothrop as well as O’Donal’s, and they were attractive and sturdy. Jim England of the Woodshaper Shop of Maine in Dedham, whom I found through the Maine Made website, also offers custom-built trellises and arbors, including bent twig creations.

We have tried plastic trellises in the past, but the sunlight makes them brittle, and after a few years they fall apart.

If you buy a solid wood trellis and paint, stain or seal it, I would expect it’d stay in good shape for 20 years, though it may need maintenance.

If you buy a heavy vinyl trellis, there will be no maintenance but, well, it’s plastic. You can do better than that.

Mostly, I recommend you use your imagination and make a support yourself. It would be an excellent winter-time project for when you can’t spend time in the garden.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer living and gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at 767-2297 or at:

]]> 0, 18 May 2017 18:42:41 +0000
Sustainable beauties live long and need little to prosper Sun, 14 May 2017 08:00:00 +0000 Some gardeners enjoy spending serious time with their plants, whether ornamentals or vegetables. They like pruning and primping them, getting them to be perfect. My wife, Nancy, and I fall into this group.

But others prefer plants they can put in the ground once and then count on to blossom reliably each year, often for many years. These sorts of plants can stand some care if the homeowners suddenly find themselves feeling ambitious, but mostly they can be ignored. You could call this second group of plants a gardener’s version of sustainable beauty.

None of the plants I name in this column is native to Maine and only two – echinacea and rudbeckia – are even U.S. natives. But all are both beautiful and well-mannered, meaning they won’t aggressively invade and take over native habitats in Maine.

Let’s start with bulbs, which create the earliest blossoms in most gardens, with daffodils living longest and providing the most variety. While yellow is the most common color, daffodils also come in white, orange and multiple-colored blossoms including pink, rose and orange.

Daffodils can last for generations because all its parts are poisonous, which means that deer, raccoons and squirrels won’t eat them. After daffodils bloom, you have to leave the foliage in place until it turns brown, which will feed the bulbs and help the daffodils thrive for years. It’s not the prettiest sight, but the spent leaves can be easily camouflaged by other plants.

A smaller companion plant for daffodils is muscari, also called grape hyacinth, although it isn’t a hyacinth and isn’t related to grapes either. It gets its name because the little blossoms look like clusters of grapes. These are mostly blue, just a few inches tall and grow just about anywhere – under big trees, in flower beds and in lawns. Some gardeners complain they spread too much, but I think those gardeners are control freaks. If you really like the muscari, they also come in pink, white, yellow and a blue and white bicolor.

Peonies produce flowers that are large, lush and come in a virtual rainbow of colors. They prefer full sun, but can stand up to half a day of shade, and well-drained soil with lots of organic matter. It helps to add a little compost when planting.

You can plant peonies as tubers in the fall or as seedlings in the spring, but fall planting usually works better. While they can be transplanted, it takes a while for them to recover and bloom again, so be sure you like the place you put them the first time. They can thrive for a century or more. We’re talking more than 100 years. Plant the eyes on the tuber just below the surface of the soil. Then sit back and enjoy them for the rest of your life.

Peonies come in two types: perennial peonies and tree peonies. You can tell the difference in nurseries just from the price tags – tree peonies usually cost in the three figures while a decent-sized perennial peony big enough to bloom soon ranges from $30 to $50, depending on size and variety.

Siberian irises bloom about the same time as peonies and look a lot like Asian paintings of Japanese irises but are easier to grow. They come mostly in shades of purple, but also can be white or blue and white bicolors. Plant the rhizomes about an inch below the soil level, and after a few years you will have clumps that are large enough to divide, put in other sections of your garden or give to your neighbors.

White Siberian irises are much slower to develop clumps, but the blue shades develop blooms and clumps readily.

Daylily, or hemerocallis, is another workhorse plant, especially if you plant the standard-size varieties descended from the orange variety often called the tiger lily (also called ditch lilies because they are frequently seen on roadsides in August in Maine). That is the daylily everybody’s grandmother grew – letting them naturalize to become almost a ground cover.

These plants are not true lilies, and get their name because each blossom lasts for one day. Daylilies will continue producing those blossoms for several weeks, and hybridizers are extending the bloom time of some varieties to 60 days or more, in addition to creating larger and more prolific blossoms. They come in almost any color in the red, orange, yellow, green and white range.

Echinacea is beginning to lose its reputation as a long-lived plant. Blame that on the hybridizers. The common name for echinacea is purple coneflower, but hybridizers started producing them in white, red, orange, pink, yellow, green and combinations of those colors. If you stick with the original purple echinacea, it will naturalize well in the garden, live forever and require little care. They are also called coneflower, because after the petals fall in autumn, you are left with a cone on the stem, which feeds the birds.

Rudbeckia, like echinacea, is sometimes called coneflower, but is also called black-eyed Susan. They have yellow to gold petals, dark cones in the center, spread a little in the garden and bloom for a long time in mid- to late-summer.

I’m including chrysanthemum on this sustainable beauty list even though most people plant chrysanthemums in the fall and they die over the winter. If you buy the right chrysanthemums, plant them in the spring and ensure they have good drainage and plenty of sun, they will live forever.

Nancy’s mother was not much of a gardener, but she had a “Clara Curtis” chrysanthemum – with bright pink daisy-like flowers – in her south-facing garden for 50 years. The pink daisy mums bloomed prolifically and they spread a bit each year, though sometimes the center of the clump would die. It was an easy fix to dig a hole in the center of the clump and transplant some of the edge plants to fill it.

That’s the kind of easy-to-maintain plant that gardeners love.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer living and gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at 767-2297 or at:

]]> 0, 12 May 2017 09:08:41 +0000
Maine gardener: Plant a colorful mix for oasis made in the shade Sun, 07 May 2017 08:00:00 +0000 A shade garden is the most natural kind of planting for Maine. We are a forested state, and forest trees are the largest part of shade gardens.

While most plants prefer full sun, and gardeners with full sun have a wider selection, there are still plenty of beautiful plants that do well in shade.

Let’s start with some definitions: A full-sun garden gets at least six hours of sun in the middle part of the day, from about 9:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. That is when the sun is strongest. Light shade is four hours a day, and can be dappled sun. Partial shade is a glade in a forest, with a bit of sun and reflected light. Full shade is under a thick canopy of trees or on the north side of a building.

If you’re starting with a new property and want a shade garden, add native deciduous trees, such as oaks, poplars, birches, red or sugar maples and willows, to create the shade you want. They will provide food for the native insects, birds and animals that are part of the Maine ecosystem.

Most people interested in creating a shade garden already have those trees and looking to deal with the shade they create.

The soil under these canopy trees is usually acidic, with plenty of organic material from leaves that have fallen to the ground and composted. Most shade plants thrive in those conditions.

Plants that do well in shade deal with the lack of sunlight in different ways.

The first flowers you see in a shade garden are the spring ephemerals, which often bloom before the leaves come out on the canopy trees.

Bloodroots are among the earliest flowers in our garden. They take full shade and can stand dry conditions. We have some with double flowers, which are showier, and some with single flowers. When the flower is in bloom, its leaves are wrapped around the stem. Once the bloom is past, the leaf comes out and then goes dormant in mid-summer.

Other native ephemerals include trout lily, Canadian mayflower and trillium. Of the three, the trillium – which can be maroon or white – has the showiest flower. While we have some in our garden, I see them most often when at my favorite fishing spots near Bethel. The ephemerals can be difficult to grow from seed, so it is best to buy seedlings from a local nursery.

Understory trees and shrubs are the showiest part of a shade garden.

Viburnums are some of the best, producing white flowers (some of them fragrant), with many also producing berries that last throughout the winter. All of them take partial shade, but the witherod viburnum (also called wild raisin) that I wrote about two weeks ago takes the most shade.

Hemlocks are an outstanding evergreen for shady conditions, and while the species hemlock grows 70 feet tall, there are dwarfs that range from 5 to 25 feet tall. We have one that does very well under our neighbor’s Norway maples, a tree that is on the state’s banned invasive-plant list and that provides the densest shade. With shorter varieties of hemlock, you can spray against the woolly adelgid, which has hit some areas of southern Maine.

Hollies thrive in the shade, both the native winterberry and the more common types used for Christmas decorations. We prune ours every December to bring inside for decorations.

The shrubs people think of first for shady conditions are rhododendrons and azaleas. Most are not native, but they have large, bright blossoms and require little care. They have an extended bloom time, from May until July, depending on the variety. They do very well in acid soil, and the rhododendrons and many azaleas keep their leaves all year long.

Pieris, or andromeda, is not native but it is beautiful and the variety Brouwer’s Beauty is especially striking.

Once the spring ephemerals have gone by, you need a group of other perennials growing close to the ground.

One of the best natives is lobelia, or cardinal flower. It is a native and one of the first plants to establish in a forest disturbed by fire or blow-downs. It grows about 3 feet tall with bright blossoms, and it likes wet conditions.

Aruncus, or goatsbeard, is a native with large white blossoms that likes moist soil. It blooms in midsummer and looks a bit like an oversized astilbe.

Nancy and I have Solomon’s seal in several areas of our garden. It is a low-maintenance native – some people complain that it’s a bit too aggressive – that grows 4 feet tall and has creamy bell-shaped flowers hanging from its arched stems. There is also a variegated version that grows 2 feet tall. Both take full shade.

Cimicifuga, or black snakeroot, is another tall native that makes a statement in the garden. Some of them grow up to 8 feet tall with bottle brush-shaped flowers.

And we haven’t even gotten to hostas yet. They aren’t native, but these are the plants most people think of for shady areas, grown mostly for their foliage even though they have blossoms in late summer. The leaves can be blue, green or variegated with yellow or white in many different patterns. They are a favorite food for deer, however. If you have problems with deer, plant blue hostas. The color is caused by a waxy substance, which deer don’t like.

You also will want some grasses. One of our favorites is Hakone grass, which has mounds of arching green and gold leaves that move in the wind. Its texture provides a good contrast when mixed in with hostas and astilbes.

Shade gardens are a peaceful place, especially during the hot days of summer. Enjoy yours during the months ahead.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer living and gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at 767-2297 or at:

]]> 0 and azaleas – OK for shady conditions and acid soil – burst with colorful, showy blooms.Sat, 06 May 2017 22:23:37 +0000
Plant these 12 shrubs, and you’ll have blooms from the start to end of the gardening season Sun, 30 Apr 2017 08:00:00 +0000 Flowers are the fun part of the garden, giving color, fragrance and help to bees and other wildlife. The most striking flowers come on small trees and shrubs, because they are at human eye level and cover a mass of space on a single plant.

Plant these dozen shrubs, and you can have color in your garden for nine months or longer, from March through October. They aren’t the only flowering woody plants you may want, but they will give you a good start toward a showy perennial border.

The most surprising, and earliest, is witch hazel, which blooms either very early or very late in the season. Hamamelis intermedia, a Japanese species, blooms in March in Southern Maine most years. Portland’s Post Office Park is home to a highly visible example. Cultivars (or named varieties) include “Arnold’s Promise” and “Pallida.” One native witch hazel, Hamamelis virginiana, blooms in November or December, but the blooms are insignificant; another native, Hamamelis vernalis, also blooms in late winter.

Magnolia soulangeana, the saucer magnolia, is the next shrub in the progression. Yes, a shrub garden may have a flowerless period between the witch hazel and the magnolia, but console yourself with early bulbs, such as crocus, during that period. If you want to extend the magnolia season, plant stellata magnolias, which are white, and the yellow-flowering acuminata hybrids; “Elizabeth” is my favorite.

The editor who in 2004 first asked me to write a garden column always pestered me to write about forsythia. I resisted because most years in Maine the branches of the forsythia that weren’t covered with snow failed to bloom, so the shrubs had blossoms about two or three feet above the ground and no blossoms above that. Well, winters have been getting warmer, and if you plant “New Hampshire Gold,” developed in our neighboring state, or “Northern Gold,” a Canadian cultivar, you should be OK.

Lilacs aren’t native, but are lovely and well-behaved. Common lilacs, Syringa vulgaris, come in purple and white, and hybrids can be pink or almost red. My wife and I love to bring blossoms inside because of their lovely sweet aroma. They always make me think of Whitman’s elegy to President Lincoln – the kind of leader we could use now. To extend the lilac season, plant Syringa josiflexa varieties “James MacFarlane” or “Agnes Smith.”

Ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius) is a native Maine shrub – I often see the species in the woods when I’m fishing. But it didn’t become a popular garden plant until cultivars such as “Diabolo” and “Summer Wine,” with purple to red or golden foliage, came on the market. Cultivars range from 8 feet tall for “Diabolo,” my personal favorite, to 3 feet for “Tiny Wine.” Blossoms start out white in late May or early June and darken over the summer. The exfoliating bark provides winter interest.

Rhododendrons are divided into small-leaved and large-leaved varieties. The small-leaved varieties include the PJM rhododendron with bright lavender flowers named for Peter J. Mezitt, who developed it in Weston, Massachusetts. When it blooms in May, it is visible on every suburban street. It’s a hit partly because it’s one of the few rhododendrons that will stand full sun. Large-leaved rhododendrons bloom later, grow taller and are overall a better plant for shade. The Rosebay variety can grow 12 feet tall, and Independence blooms near the Fourth of July.

Viburnum is a wide-ranging family of plants. Many are native to Maine, but there are also attractive varieties that come from Europe and Asia. The flowers are usually white and come in late spring or early summer; the foliage often turns a brilliant red in the fall; and the berries can be red, blue or black and last all winter.

Our garden has a snowball viburnum we planted in 1976, which died back to its roots when the viburnum leaf beetle first hit, resprouted from its roots and is now doing well. My favorite is the native “Mohican” for its blossoms, long-lasting fruit and fuzzy buds that last through the winter.

Weigela is another well-behaved non-native. It comes from East Asia and has dense, pink flowers and colorful fall foliage. The plants range from 12 inches tall for the fairly new “My Monet” to 5 feet for “Wine and Roses.”

Spirea took off as an indispensable garden plant with the introduction of “Anthony Waterer,” a tough, reliably blooming 3-foot-tall plant with rose red blossoms that begin in late June or early July and will continue through late September if you prune off the spent blossoms. My favorite is “Magic Carpet,” with pink flowers and foliage that starts red and turns to gold.

Hydrangeas became the rage about 20 years ago – although they have been in gardens for generations. Maine gardeners have had some trouble getting the “Endless Summer” series to bloom reliably, although they are highly popular. My favorites are the old-fashioned, full-size hydrangea paniculata “Tardiva,” which blooms a little later than others, and hydrangea arborescens “Annabelle,” which has bloomed profusely in a shady part of our garden for more than 40 years. The blossoms remain through the winter in sort of a cream/tan color.

The rose of sharon, a hibiscus shrub, grows up to 12 feet tall, can stand quite a bit of shade but loves full sun, and produces large, showy flowers in late summer. Blossoms can be white, pink, red, lavender or a mix. It is a Zone 5 plant, so won’t survive except along the coast of Maine. Yes, the blooms look like the tropical hibiscus blooms in more sedate colors. And yes, there is a perennial, herbaceous version of hibiscus as well, just to add to the confusion.

Clethra is a native shade-loving plant that produces graceful, arching and highly fragrant flower panicles. The blossoms can be various shades of pink or white. The shrubs prefer moist soil but can stand dryness. Clethra also has good fall foliage, sort of golden yellow to orange.

If you care enough about gardening to be reading this column, you probably have at least half of these plants in your yard already. I’m just tempting you to add more of them.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer living and gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at 767-2297 or at:

]]> 0 have been popular garden plants for generations.Thu, 27 Apr 2017 19:23:04 +0000
Groundwork laid for a fruitful year Sun, 23 Apr 2017 08:00:00 +0000 I am trying to make this the Year of Fruit in our gardens. Blueberries continue to be a trial, but come hell or high water, I intend to have some to at least eat, if not freeze, this year. If the strawberries don’t produce well, we will have to start a new row of plants next summer. And our new peach tree is now old enough to produce fruit, fingers crossed.

I’ve outlined my goals for the upcoming season here – and offered you a few practical tips for growing berries and fruit trees yourself, should you be hoping for your own Year of Fruit.


It won’t be just the familiar strawberries and peaches in our garden. This year, we’re going to grow what Fedco, the Clinton-based seed cooperative, calls a northern wild raisin. First, some nomenclature: When I have written about this plant before as an alternative to the invasive burning bush, I have called it witherod viburnum; its botanical name is Viburnum cassinoides. And although the virburnum is commonly called a northern wild raisin, it is not related to grapes.

The wild raisin grows about six feet tall, has creamy white blossoms in spring to early summer and produces edible fruit that turns from green to red to purple to, finally, black in September, when it is said to be tastiest. If you get to eat any of the berries, that is. Usually, the birds get them first. My wife Nancy and I plan to taste them, just to see, but to leave most for the birds.

This plant is an experiment for us. While it is described as an understory plant, and we will be planting it in an area that includes oaks, a red maple and a struggling pine, some catalogs say it likes full sun to part shade. The location we’ve chosen may be too shady. On the other hand, the wild raisin is described as a tough, resilient native, so we hope it thrives.

We bought two bare-root plants from Fedco – buying bare-root plants is the least expensive way to get trees and shrubs from a mail-order nursery, as shipping is done by weight, and soil and pots weigh a lot. But Fedco’s ordering deadline has passed so if this plant interests you, you’ll need to go to your local nursery.


Bare-root trees and shrubs should be planted within 48 hours of receiving them. Fedco advises planting them even if the ground is soggy, partly frozen and/or covered by snow. When the plants arrive, their roots are covered with damp, shredded newsprint; do not let the roots dry out before planting. Don’t soak them either, though.

Dig a hole about three times as wide and just a bit deeper than the spread-out roots. Mix compost and, if you want, a mycorrhizal fungi soil additive. Stir the two together in a wheelbarrow. Place the plant in the hole and then pack the mixture from the wheelbarrow around it. Water the tree or shrub to settle the soil and be sure to leave a “saucer” around the plant. If you are planting in your lawn, use your shovel to cut out an even saucer and keep the sod away from your new tree or shrub. Newly planted shrubs will require almost daily watering throughout their first growing season. You can mulch the circle with aged bark mulch or leave bare soil – just keep the lawn mower or grass trimmer away from your new plant.


The 10 one-year-old blueberry bushes I planted last year looked healthy when I sprayed them with horticultural (also called dormant) oil a few weeks ago.

The bushes produced no berries last year because I carefully removed the blossoms; I was ensuring that the bushes’ energy went into the roots their first season, not fruit formation. Unfortunately, six older blueberry bushes on our property also failed to produce. I must have missed the winter-moth caterpillars last spring when I sprayed the oil, and the pest – now reported in Cape Elizabeth, South Portland, Scarborough, Harpswell, York, Peaks Island and Vinalhaven and spreading – took advantage of my lapse and ate all the flowers and early foliage.

Undaunted, we have ordered three more blueberry bushes to fill in gaps among the 10 planted last year, and we will be more vigilant this year.


It is too late now to spray hardwoods – especially oaks and blueberries – with horticultural oil, which works by smothering insect eggs. That task should have been done in March, on a day when temperatures were above freezing.

Instead, this spring as soon as leaves come out on hardwoods you want to protect, especially blueberries and oaks, take your gardening loupe (a special magnifying glass that costs about $15, and you should have one) and inspect the trees for small, green caterpillars. If you find them, spray the infected plants with Bacillus thuringiensis, commonly called Bt, a product approved for use in organic gardens to kill caterpillars. Check for the caterpillars at least every other day because breezes can carry them to your blueberries from nearby oaks and other tall trees.

Next fall, putting sticky bands on hardwoods will reduce – but not eliminate – winter moths by preventing the flightless females from climbing trees.


Our ‘Lars Anderson’ peach tree – purchased from Fedco three years ago – should be old enough to produce fruit this year. That can’t come soon enough for us, as our crop – I use the term loosely – from our ‘Red Haven’ and ‘Reliance’ trees has not exceed three peaches a year for several years now.

The older trees are reaching the end of their useful lives. Also, we planted them too far from the house, which means the squirrels and chipmunks find the dropped ripe peaches before we do. ‘Lars Anderson’ is reported to be more prolific than both ‘Reliance’ and ‘Red Haven,’ and it is much more visible from the house. So when we see the fruit drop from the Lars Anderson, with luck we’ll be able to retrieve it ahead of the hungry rodents.


If you’re thinking of planting a peach tree, know they need well-drained, neutral to slightly acidic soil, and they require full sun with good ventilation. Frigid cold weather over the winter – temperatures of 15 degrees below zero or colder – will damage the next spring’s blossoms. Once the tree starts producing, you’ll need to prune the older branches.


Our strawberries did not produce well last year – and I hope it was because of the drought.

Strawberry beds usually reach peak production the third year after planting. You don’t pick any the first year (let the energy go to the roots), get a small crop the second year, hit the sweet spot at year three, and then try to maintain the bed for many years after that. But production does start to decrease. Our bed was on its fifth season last year, and it should not have dropped off as quickly as it did.

To try to remedy matters, last fall Nancy and I carefully weeded the bed – it is amazing how violets camouflage themselves in strawberry leaves. This spring, I removed the mulch on the strawberries early and fertilized.


After the bed is done producing, put your lawn mower on its highest setting and mow through the bed. Then till the edges of the bed – I use our broadfork – to keep it about 30 inches wide. Weed, then fertilize.


No major advice here. Our raspberry production has been up for the past two years because the Japanese beetle population has been down. I don’t know why, but I just hope it continues.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer living and gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at 767-2297 or at:

]]> 0, 21 Apr 2017 08:44:11 +0000
Native plants may be in short supply in your garden Sun, 16 Apr 2017 08:00:00 +0000 When producers of a product can’t keep up with demand, it’s a sign that the product is popular. When that product happens to grow in the wild locally, the scarcity is shocking.

In a talk about native plants at the Maine Flower Show in late March, Dale Pierson, co-founder of the wholesale nursery in Biddeford and Dayton that bears his name, mentioned two native plants common in Maine wild landscapes that are so popular for landscaping projects they are in short supply commercially.

“If you’d told me when I started out (in 1973) that we’d sell a thousand sweetfern in a year, I wouldn’t have believed it,” Pierson said. But demand has been higher than supply for years because of the shrub’s versatility.

Despite its name, sweetfern (botanical name Comptonia peregrina) is not a fern. It is a tough, woody plant that grows about four feet tall, has feathery leaves that do look a bit like some ferns and thrives in dry, sandy soil.

To demonstrate the plant’s hardiness, Pierson related an anecdote about a project in which sweetferns were planted along with baptisia and Anthony Waterer spirea in the islands of a parking lot. All winter long, plow operators dumped snow on the plants, breaking many branches and stems, but the plants not only survived, they even looked pretty good come spring. Sweetfern can take the abuse because it spreads through suckering roots, re-sprouts if the plant is broken off at ground level and fixes nitrogen in the soil.

Sweetfern also does a good job controlling erosion on dry hillsides. Homeowners will find it useful next to roads and drives and on dry slopes. It is a no-maintenance native, although Pierson said that while the foliage is somewhat sparse, it can be made denser with pruning. I happen to like it the way it looks when you grow it with no care. It has a nice, spicy fragrance when you touch the leaves, too.

The other native in shorter supply than Pierson can ever before remember is the red maple, Acer rubrum. Although the red maple is sometimes called swamp maple, it does not require soggy soil to thrive.

Pierson said that people often get confused when they look at a red maple in the summer because its leaves are green. In autumn, though, the leaves turn fiery red and the blossoms in spring also are red, which is where it gets its name. Once, early in Pierson’s career, a client asked for red maples to line a long drive. Pierson lined up Acer rubrum. But as the project started, the client mentioned that he was excited to see the red leaves all year long.

“What he really wanted was ‘Crimson King,’ ” said Pierson, who made a quick substitution of Acer platanoides, “Crimson King,” which was commonly sold then but is now among the plants in Maine banned as invasive. Such experiences underscore the need for using the Latin botanical name of plants, he said.

In a tangent, Pierson used Acer rubrum as a way to discuss the ambiguous definition of the term “native plants.” Some people use it to mean native to a specific community. Others expand it to encompass a state, a region like New England or even an entire country. For his talk, Pierson defined native as native to New England, but he admitted he could make a good argument for any of these definitions.

But, he asked, is “Red Sunset,” which is a cultivar of Acer rubrum that is a brighter, more reliably red in the fall and holds its leaves longer, also native? From Pierson’s point of view, yes, because it was a variant that occurred naturally and has been propagated widely because of its desirable characteristics.

Pierson also reminded gardeners that just because something is native to their area doesn’t automatically mean it will thrive in their yards. Birches, for example, are a native tree that many Maine homeowners want, but many choose the wrong one. The beloved white birch, also called the paper birch, is Betula papyrifera. Yes, it’s native, but it fares poorly in Southern Maine because of the bronze birch borer, which – true to its name – bores into the bark and eventually kills the tree. While the paper birch does well in colder parts of the state, gardeners in the Greater Portland area should plant something else.

Highbush blueberry for sunny spots. Patjo/

The two best replacements, Pierson said, are the yellow birch, Betula alleghaniensis, and the river birch, Betula nigra, both of which are resistant to the leaf borer and other diseases. Their bark is cream or bronze-colored, not the pure white of the paper birch, but they are the smarter choice over time.

Pierson said that with the increasing popularity of natives, propagators are trying to create showier cultivars – sometimes called nativars – for home gardens. Inevitably, some will argue that those cultivars are not actually native, he said. But if you ask me, that doesn’t matter. If they look good, if you like them and if they don’t spread enough to bother your neighbors, go ahead and plant them in your garden.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer living and gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at 767-2297 or at:

]]> 0, for seasonally flooded landscapes.Fri, 14 Apr 2017 09:04:31 +0000
Growing fruits and vegetables becoming popular Sun, 02 Apr 2017 08:00:00 +0000 Everywhere I look this spring seed companies are promoting fruits and vegetables for growing in containers. Container growing is not new, but emails and online advertisements for new compact varieties arrive almost daily this year. I’m not sure why.

A few food-producing containers are not going to provide self-sufficiency the way a full vegetable garden can, so this promotional flood isn’t a response to world tensions. Maybe these small planting projects just provide some enjoyable diversion from daily events. When you pick tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, strawberries, lettuce or chard from a pot you planted earlier in the spring, that is real news and real success that nobody can dispute.

Typically, apartment and condominium dwellers are the people most drawn to growing vegetables in containers, because they have no yard for a traditional garden. Still, many people with plenty of open ground like containers as well. Some want just a few plants, and the containers are easier than a full garden. Others like the look of vegetables growing on their porch, patio or deck, so these vegetables and fruits are ornamental as much as anything else.

The containers for container-grown food have to be fairly large. The smallest possible for most plants is about 12 inches, but 18 to 24 inches works better. Larger pots provide more room for the roots to grow and won’t dry out as quickly, meaning less frequent watering. I use the term “containers” because you may want to plant something other than a typical plant pot. At nursery centers, you can find the ubiquitous half barrels and patio-planting bags. The bags are made from tarp-like fabric, and I know from personal experience they can withstand at least three seasons of growing. As with any vegetable garden, plant what you will actually want to eat.

The many promotions I’ve been getting this spring are offering some interesting specialty plants, so let me tell you about a few here.

The Patio Baby eggplant in the Johnny’s Selected Seeds catalog, for example. It’s a perfect container plant because it produces tasty food and is gorgeous while doing so. Picture bright purple flowers as well as shiny two- to three-inch purple fruits throughout the season.

Tomatoes are the vegetable people most love to pick from the garden. Pinetree Garden Seeds in New Gloucester is offering two different shape options. One stands up, and the other tumbles down.

The Tumbling Tom yellow tomato would work in a tall regular pot, sure, but the catalog photographs of the vigorous 2-foot vines spilling from a hanging pot are gorgeous so that’s the route you may want to try. The plant yields cherry-sized fruits that start early and will go throughout the season if you keep them picked.

Pinetree describes the Totem Tomato as a bonsai tomato tree, growing from 18 to 36 inches tall, depending on the size of the pot. The fruit is bright red, and while not huge, at 2 inches is larger than many other tomatoes.

Burpee, a giant seed company, has a helpful five-minute website video that describes how to plant tomatoes, peppers and eggplants in containers, stressing the use of bagged planting mix and regular fertilization. It suggests using dwarf plants, and putting one tomato in each pot but two peppers or eggplants per pot.

White Flower Farm, a high-end catalog based in Connecticut, suggests growing fruit on your patio and has a trademarked Bushel and Berry series of plants that fit the bill. The Perpetua blueberry is self-pollinating but will produce better with a second blueberry variety nearby. It ships in a one-gallon pot, so eventually you will have to move it to a bigger container. The Bushel and Berry Peach Sorbet is a blueberry bush (yes, that peach in the name is confusing) that can help with pollination. Growing instructions warn that you won’t have much production for the first two years.

White Flower Farm also sells Bushel and Berry raspberries, which grow about 3 feet high.

People have been growing strawberries in containers for years. While garden centers sell hanging pots with multiple holes for individual berry plants, a regular pot will also work fine. I suggest a day-neutral strawberry because they produce fruit throughout the growing season. Johnny’s recommends the variety Elan especially for growing in pots. It sells Elan only as seeds, not bare-root plants, aka seedlings, but is marketing it to professional farmers, so you might see seedlings at a local farmers market. Another day-neutral variety, Seascape, is available from Johnny’s as bare-root plants.

Squash is a plant you might not think about growing in pots because it likes to ramble. But Pinetree’s catalog sells a bush delicata squash called Pepo that it says will produce a lot of fruit in a container – with some hanging over the sides. Delicata, although classified as a winter squash, is not a great keeper so you’ll want to eat it throughout the season, not store it.

One of our favorite vegetables to grow in pots is Bright Lights Swiss chard. It comes with purple, red, pink, yellow and orange stems, and you can mix it in with other ornamentals or vegetables to provide an eye-catching spot of color.

I have written about growing potatoes in bags in the past. Yes, it works, but you’ll get fewer potatoes than you would in the garden. Since my bags are ripping out after about five years, I may give them up this year. But if you grow no other potatoes, try the bags.

Now for one last vegetable to grow in a pot if you are totally lazy and don’t want to fool around with large pots: Arugula. Johnny’s sells 4-inch disks containing about 45 arugula seeds. You fill a six-inch pot with growing mix, place one of the disks on top, cover with a bit of soil or vermiculite, water and put in a warm, sunny place. The arugula will grow three to 10 inches tall, You can eat the leaves as well as the yellow flowers, which provide color as well as flavor to garden salads and stir fries.

Nothing could be easier than that.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at 767-2297 or at:

]]> 0, 30 Mar 2017 19:07:24 +0000
New book by Maine author instructs gardeners on how to grow produce inside hoophouses and greenhouses Sun, 26 Mar 2017 08:00:00 +0000 The future of commercial farming, especially in Maine, is in protected agriculture, meaning crops grown in greenhouses and hoophouses. This is according to Cornville farmer and greenhouse farming expert Andrew Mefford, whose new book deals with the subject.

“The Greenhouse and Hoophouse Grower’s Handbook: Organic Vegetable Production Using Protected Culture” provides enough detailed information for a commercial farmer who wants to begin protected farming in a big way. It also offers solutions simple enough for a dedicated home gardener who seeks more production and self-sufficiency.

“There is so much pressure here because we have such a short garden season that it really helps to be able to spread it out,” Mefford said in a telephone interview earlier this month, not long after his book was published. Greenhouses and hoophouses allow gardeners to plant earlier in the spring and harvest later in the fall.

Beyond that, growing in greenhouses is more environmentally friendly than field growing, he added, even if the greenhouses are not certified organic. Pesticide use has become rarer in greenhouses and hoophouses because its use is counterproductive, Mefferd said. To begin with, after using the chemicals, a period ensues when people can’t enter the greenhouse and plants can’t be harvested. Next, while the pesticides kill the harmful insects, they also kill the beneficial insects that most greenhouse growers rely on.

“The Greenhouse and Hoophouse Grower’s Handbook” provides information to help people grow crops successfully in a simple, 100-square-foot hoophouse or in a heated, automatically ventilated greenhouse that covers an entire acre.

“The book is sort of an a la carte offering where people and pick and choose what works for them,” Mefferd said. “The book, I think, would help people especially who have a part-time job growing for a farm market who are thinking of making the leap to becoming a small to medium-size commercial grower.”

He includes techniques used by some of the largest and most successful commercial protected horticulture growers, and he shows how those techniques can be done on a smaller scale.

Mefferd draws directly on his personal experience. He explains that after two years attempting to grow tomatoes at the farm he and his wife run in Cornville, he concluded that to grow tomatoes successfully in central and northern Maine, it must be done under cover. Greenhouses and hoophouse not only provide more heat, they also provide protection from some diseases.

The book also benefits from the seven years Mefferd spent working in the trial gardens of Johnny’s Selected Seeds in Winslow – work that included conducting trials on which plants work best when grown under cover and how greenhouses increased production of various crops.

The book has chapters on the best methods for growing specific crops in greenhouses. Tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and eggplants each get a separate chapter, while a chapter on greens encompasses lettuces, other greens, microgreens and herbs. Mefferd, a self-described “tomato-head,” devotes most time and space to tomatoes, which he says are the most profitable crop to grow.

The book’s advice isn’t limited to growing in greenhouses. And some of it is simple: Growers should remind shoppers never to store tomatoes in the refrigerator, which will ruin their flavor. That type of customer service is one way that local growers can make sure their produce is not treated like a commodity, Mefferd writes. Other ways to decommodify produce are to stress to customers that the food is local, organic and tastier and that the grower has different varieties of crops than are typically available elsewhere.

One of the longest chapters in the book centers on grafting vegetable plants, especially tomatoes. Mefferd said many of the questions he was asked while working at Johnny’s involved grafting tomatoes, so he decided grafting deserved a chapter. Grafting, more common with fruit trees, is when a one species of a plant is joined to a different species. Usually, the root stock offers higher disease protection, while the above-ground part is chosen for its production and/or flavor. Mefferd says using grafted tomatoes improves disease-resistance, production and flavor – both inside and outside the greenhouse.

Mefferd spent most of 2015 writing the handbook because he knew he would soon be starting work as editor and publisher of “Growing for Market” magazine, as well as operating his own farm. He left Johnny’s in November 2015.

What he did not realize was that the editors at Chelsea Green would ask for a major rewrite.

“It is a much better book after the editors had me reorganize the book and get rid of some of its weaknesses,” Mefferd said, “but 2016 was just crazy busy.”

With the book now out, he has only two jobs: co-owner of an organic farm and editor and publisher of a monthly magazine. That seems like enough to keep him busy.


]]> 0, 24 Mar 2017 12:32:38 +0000
The later date of this year’s Maine Flower Show means more and different flowers on display Sun, 19 Mar 2017 08:00:00 +0000 This year’s Maine Flower Show, set to open at the end of March, is being held two weeks later than its predecessor, which means attendees will get to see more and different flowers than they have in past years.

“We have two more weeks of hot weather and bright sun in the greenhouse,” said Jeff Marstaller, co-owner of Cozy Acres, which is one of three Maine companies growing plants for the show. The others are Estabrook’s and Pierson Nurseries. (As these words are being edited, though, with a Nor’easter blowing hard, it is anything but hot and bright out.)

“I toured Jeff’s and Tom’s greenhouses last week, looking at plant material, and I was blown away by the variety and amount of what they are growing,” said Maine Landscape & Nursery Association (MELNA) President Jake Pierson, referring to Marstaller and Tom Estabrook. The association is the new sponsor of the flower show, which was operated until 2013 by Portland Yacht Services.

“This show is not going to be sparse on plants,” Pierson continued, addressing complaints that display gardens in previous shows emphasized hardscaping – stonework, benches, garden houses, water features, walks and patios – more than plants.

The flowers and plants that will be the objects of envy and appreciation at the show have been growing for weeks.

A woman snaps a photo of a display at the 2015 Portland Flower Show. This year’s show is set for March 29-April 2 at Thompson’s Point. Staff photo by Gregory Rec

“We have two full greenhouses,” Marstaller said, both in North Yarmouth. “Our zero-emissions greenhouse is chock-a-block full” of plants being kept at cool temperatures. The traditional greenhouse is kept warmer and is almost as full. The cooler greenhouse slows plant development while the warmer one speeds it up. In concert, they’ll ensure that all of the flowers will be at their peak for the show.

At Estabrook’s, with locations in Yarmouth and Kennebunk, Tom Estabrook said his company is growing thousands of plants for the show, both for its own displays and those of other landscapers and nurseries. While Marstaller is focused on annuals, vegetables and herbs, Estabrook’s is growing the whole gamut.

The later date of the flower show also answers another complaint that show-goers have had in past years: the lack of plants for sale. This year, attendees will be able to buy plants.

“You could plant some of them outside in the first week of April,” Pierson said, referring to perennials, as well as to the 300 trees and shrubs now growing in his own wholesale company greenhouses for the show. Barring a late-season snowstorm or cold snap, the ground in southern Maine, at least, is often workable and temperatures warm enough then for planting.

Pierson’s own booth will be selling a line of small native plants that are ready to go in the ground. Estabrook’s booth, too, will offer a variety of ready-to-plant items, include pansies, ranunculus, hellebores and small shrubs such as magnolias.

Both Marstaller and Pierson will have display gardens at the show, among the 16 display gardens in total. Pierson said his company is creating a display garden for the first time since it closed its landscape-design division more than 20 years ago. As MELNA president, he wants to support the show. But there’s another reason, too.

“I’m trying to help the home owner understand they can buy plants that are locally grown, that are tested by local growers in this climate, and those growers are employing their neighbors,” Pierson said.

He said that Maine’s nursery industry has not done a good job of communicating to the public that the buy-local movement consumers have embraced for fruits and vegetables also applies to ornamental plants.

The theme of this year’s flower show is “Plant Something,” in coordination with the association’s marketing campaign, itself part of a national campaign that encourages people to garden and promotes “the environmental, financial and health benefits of trees and plants.”

What happens to the display plants once the five-day show ends? The perennials, trees and shrubs whose growth is being sped up in greenhouses will live after the show – although some will need as much as a year to recover from the stress. Most of the annuals, however, will not be saved.

And while three local nurseries are producing most of the plants before the show, Estabrook hopes attendees will take up the task after. To increase the odds of that, they can take home free seeds for pollinator-friendly varieties. Information on how to grow the seeds will be posted to the flower show website.

Later this summer, whenever they see butterflies and bees hovering around the plants those seedlings produce in their own gardens, flower show attendees can remember the flower show. It will provide some pleasure in the moment as well as advertising for next year’s show.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at 767-2297 or at:

]]> 0, 17 Mar 2017 14:10:04 +0000
You know spring has nearly sprung when it’s time to prune trees and shrubs Sun, 12 Mar 2017 09:00:00 +0000 Our warming temperatures are a tease. (And they are warming, despite last weekend’s chill.) The ground is not ready to be worked because it is snow-covered, frozen or soggy – depending on the weather that day or your location in Maine. But it is warm enough to do some outdoor chores comfortably.

That means it is time to prune.

Late winter – remember that spring does not start officially until March 20 – is the recommended time for pruning many trees and shrubs.

Pruning now has several advantages. First, with the leaves off the trees the branching is more visible on deciduous trees so you can more easily see what needs to be removed. Second, winter pruning stimulates growth, so the plants will get a good start once the warm weather arrives.

Some trees and shrubs should not be pruned in spring. I’ll start with those in case you are so eager to prune that you head outside before finishing this column: Avoid pruning trees and shrubs that flower early in the spring, such as forsythia, lilacs, azaleas, rhododendrons, quince, mountain laurel and ornamental fruit trees. These early bloomers produce their flower buds late the previous season, so if you prune now you will be cutting out future flowers. If you don’t mind losing your blooms this spring, go ahead and prune them. Otherwise, wait until right after their blossoms go by.

Second, avoid pruning trees in which sap flows heavily in the spring, including maples, birches and walnuts. While pruning now won’t hurt the tree much, it does get messy as the sap runs from the cuts.

With hydrangeas, when to prune depends on the type you have. Paniculata, oak-leaf and arborescens hydrangeas bloom on new wood, so they can be pruned now. Macrophylla or big-leaf hydrangeas bloom on old wood, so they should be pruned after they bloom. The Endless Summer hydrangea series blooms on old and new wood, and are best pruned after they bloom.

But after you exclude spring bloomers and sap runners, there are still a lot plants that can be pruned, including dogwoods, clethra, rose of sharon, butterfly bush, spirea, oaks, euonymus and most needled evergreens.

You prune for several reasons. When you face each bush or tree, your first step is to remove dead and diseased branches. You can tell dead branches in winter because the bark is worn off or they are broken or unhealthy looking. With viburnums, check the tips of twigs for eggs of the viburnum leaf beetle and trim those twigs out with your hand pruners.

The next step is to remove branches that are rubbing against each other or crossing, any branches that are touching the ground or are weak or spindly.

Once all of that is done, your job may be done, too. Or you may want to start controlling the size and shape of the plant. Remove branches growing where you don’t want them: in a walkway, blocking a window, in the way of mowing or near power lines.

This is a judgment call, but you should remove branches growing in the wrong direction. Anything going straight up to the sky or sticking out beyond the center mass of the plant usually should go. Also, if one branch sticks out farther than all the others, cut that one back with your hand pruners. This is sort of like getting your hair trimmed: when you’re done, all the hairs aren’t the same length but together they make an attractive unit.

Pruning has some simple rules. First, don’t just cut the top off trees, an approach called tree topping. Cass Turnbull, whom I have written about several times and who unfortunately died in January at the age of 65, led a campaign against topping, correctly pointing out that it creates ugly, unhealthy trees and shrubs.

Unless you are dealing with a boxwood or similar plant you should not use hedge trimmers to shear a plant. And, for goodness sake, don’t use your gas-powered lawn trimmer, which I have seen people do. That is just nasty. And messy. Anyway, any kind of shearing creates an unnatural look and an unhealthy, twiggy growth at the tips of branches.

With fruit trees, you want to open up the middle of the tree so that sun reaches all of the branches. You should cut branches as close to the bottom of the tree as practical. For some shrubs, that means cutting the largest branches right at ground level. To figure out where to make the cut, always go back to another branch.

With evergreens, reach into the center of the plant so that any cuts you make are invisible. But other than removing damaged branches or pruning to keep the patient from getting too big for its spot, evergreens require little maintenance pruning.

Pruning is as much art as science. Cartoons often show artists standing back, holding up their thumbs to get the perspective of their paintings. Stand back, look at the plant from different directions and remove anything that seems out of place. When you’re done pruning and have a pie of branches and twigs, if you have space, leave the pile in the woods on your land so they will provide shelter for wildlife and eventually decompose.

In pruning, trust your instincts. You are not merely a gardener. You are an artist whose medium is plants. Don’t worry – it is difficult to prune a tree or a shrub to death.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at 767-2297 or at:

]]> 0, ME - MAY 26: Jan Bickel trims and prunes lilac bushes on a hot Tuesday afternoon at her home in Kittery. Jan, who is a relatively new home owner on Hadley Road, says she plans to plant a row of lilac bushes in addition to her current ones, and is also planting raspberry bushes. (Photo by Jill Brady/Staff Photographer)Fri, 10 Mar 2017 09:05:27 +0000
You may think the drought is so last summer, but the effects linger for your garden Sun, 05 Mar 2017 09:00:00 +0000 I got sick of hearing about the drought last summer. Yes, it was bad, but talking about it didn’t help. We just had to water when we could. Unfortunately for me, the conversation isn’t over.

Even if we have an ideally wet spring – and there’s no guarantee of that – its effects will still be evident in your garden this summer, and gardeners who hope to plant new trees and shrubs could feel its impact far longer.

The snow covering Maine’s fields and forests a few weeks ago melted before the ground thawed, meaning it couldn’t soak into the ground. If we don’t get more snow before spring, the relief from the drought will be minimal.

Cathryn Kloetzli of UMaine Extension in South Paris co-wrote a bulletin last month to help farmers and gardeners deal with the drought. While it focuses on farming – topics like crop insurance – it has information that will be useful to recreational gardeners, too. The good news? She thinks most garden plants will come back to life healthy when spring arrives.

The drought “is likely to have some effect on the canopy layer of plants, but it is likely to be very individualistic from plant to plant,” Kloetzli said.

For trees and shrubs, though, lack of water meant they couldn’t store as much energy as usual during last year’s growing season, so they will get off to a slow start, according to Jeff O’Donal of O’Donal’s Nursery in Gorham. “The first flush of foliage will be smaller than normal, like maybe half as much,” he said.

After that first round of foliage does its job, with photosynthesis feeding the tree, a second round of larger foliage should sprout and continue to add nutrients.

Last year’s drought will also aggravate a pre-existing shortage of larger trees and shrubs available for sale, O’Donal predicted. During the 2008 recession, many of the trees and shrubs that nurseries were growing failed to sell. They eventually grew too large to sell and had to be destroyed. The poor sales led many nurseries to grow fewer woody plants.

But a couple of years ago, when the horticultural economy started to improve, the nurseries increased their plantings. The catch? It takes several years to grow a tree to salable size. With last year’s drought, the growth of those seedlings slowed.

“What we had in production that would usually be a 2-inch (caliper or diameter) tree is now only an inch and a half,” O’Donal said.

Nurseries will need to either hold on to the smaller trees until they grow larger or sell them for less money than they’d hoped.

Home gardeners can do a few things to help their plants get off to a good start once the ground thaws.

“Building soil health and protecting the water supply in the soil is one of the fundamental things people should do,” Kloetzli said. That includes having organic matter in the soil to hold the water and adding mulch to keep moisture from evaporating.

Here’s something home gardeners should not do: Add a fast-acting fertilizer such as Miracle Gro in the spring. That would be counterproductive because the plants won’t have enough foliage to take advantage of it, O’Donal said. Instead, he advises gardeners either to delay fertilizing until the plants have the second growth of foliage or to use a slow-release organic fertilizer so that food will be available to the plants later in the season when they need it.

O’Donal also suggests gardeners add a liquid solution of mycorrhizal fungi to plants. The mycorrhizae exist naturally in the soil, but the drought may have killed some of them. Mycorrhizae are important because they “extend the roots so (the roots) can pick up three times as much food and moisture,” O’Donal said.

But for all the harm it did, last year’s rain shortfall will likely have one benefit this summer: More flowers.

That’s because when plants are damaged – whether a snowplow hits them, their branches break or they don’t get enough water – their internal controls think they’re going to die, O’Donal said. They react by frantically reproducing to ensure the species survives, ergo more flowers and seeds.

“In species like crab apples and tree lilacs that normally bloom every other year, you are going to have flowers this year whether they bloomed last year or not,” O’Donal said.

So stock up on slow-release fertilizer, mulch and fungi.

And although mud season is usually my least favorite time of year, I am hoping for an extra long one this year so the melting snow pack sinks into the ground, where it can do some good, instead of running off into the ocean.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer living and gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at 767-2297 or at:

]]> 0, ME - MAY 25: Crabapple blossoms during a visit to Appledore Island where famous American impressionist Childe Hassam painted over the course of 30 years. (Photo by Jill Brady/Staff Photographer)Wed, 08 Mar 2017 17:33:06 +0000
The McLaughlin Garden in South Paris is growing Sun, 26 Feb 2017 09:00:00 +0000 The McLaughlin Garden in South Paris is, to make a feeble pun, growing. The existing garden will expand into the adjacent Curtis property, which nearly doubles its size. There’s precedent: More than 100 years ago, the two properties were one.

The nonprofit McLaughlin Foundation, which runs the garden, bought the next-door property in 2013. It plans to make the expanded garden look more like it did when Bernard McLaughlin lived there, “preserving and enhancing Bernard’s garden,” as Donna Anderson, executive director of the garden phrased it.

It will do so in part by incorporating some of his garden methods in both the original 4.5-acre garden and on the new 3.5-acre plot. McLaughlin bought the original property in 1936, establishing and tending a garden there for almost 60 years. He died in 1995 at age 98. (He left a son, who took some of the plants to his own property.)

The garden surrounds McLaughlin’s former home and connected barn, the earliest parts of which date back to 1840. A few years after McLaughlin died, the nonprofit was formed to protect the property from development, including a bid from Shaw’s. It maintains the garden and keeps it open to the public – McLaughlin used to allow visitors to walk through at any time.

“We want to look at Bernard’s practice of practical experimentation and celebrate that in the landscape,” Anderson said. “He was an amateur gardener, not a landscape architect, but had ideas about how he wanted people to experience the landscape.”

McLaughlin’s love of color, scent and texture were expressed in his garden in different ways in different seasons, she explained.

In the 20 years since the foundation took over, the garden has changed a lot. Plants have been added and the trees have grown, making the garden shadier.

The redesign is expected to take 15 years, including raising the money to pay for it, Anderson said. The nonprofit has already taken the first step – hiring the Saco-based landscape design firm Richardson & Associates to design the expansion. Final plans aren’t expected until later this spring. Meanwhile, I spoke with Anderson about some of the ideas under consideration.

One thing is certain: the house on the Chase property will be torn down. When that home was expanded in the 1950s, some support beams were cut. “To call it sub-par structurally is being kind,” Anderson said.

Beyond that, the foundation is leaning toward using the part of the Curtis property closest to Route 26, which is South Paris’s Main Street, for parking, a visitor center, a cafe and perhaps a greenhouse. The rest of the property – much of which is steeply sloped and wooded – would be devoted to plants and other aspects of gardening.

The natural springs in the garden may be deployed to create water features, such as ponds or waterfalls. Small (or pocket) gardens and gazebos may be added at the back to provide views and allow observation of birds and other wildlife. A children’s garden, perhaps with a fort or fairy houses, may be incorporated. And an area will be earmarked for Kristin Perry, the longtime horticulturist at the garden, giving her space to experiment with plants and do other work.

McLaughlin was an iris collector and a member of the Maine Iris Society, so an iris garden is also on the table, Perry said, as well as a place to display historic plants that McLaughlin collected, including daylilies and hosta.

The expanded McLaughlin Garden isn’t intended to compete with the larger and more heavily visited Coastal Maine Botanical Garden in Boothbay, Anderson said. “We see ourselves as a complement to them. Everything that happens here you could do at home. We are more intimate and home-related.”

The McLaughlin garden and mine have a lot in common – although the house there is older and the property larger. But we both have intensely planted areas and some areas left to woods. I’ll be stopping a few times a year to see how the renovation progresses. And I intend to steal some of their ideas – especially since Anderson said that’s part of the garden’s purpose.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer living and gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at 767-2297 or at:

]]> 0, 24 Feb 2017 08:53:00 +0000
It may be legal to grow marijuana in Maine, but it’s not easy to get gardening advice Sun, 19 Feb 2017 09:00:00 +0000 “So he grows a little garden in the backyard by the fence / He’s consuming what he’s growing nowadays in self-defense / He gets out there in the twilight zone / Sometimes when it just don’t make no sense.”

The Old Hippie from the 1985 Bellamy Brothers song will have an easier time tending his backyard marijuana now that it is legal in Maine. Legal to light up, that is. It’s not yet legal to buy it.

Growing advice is likely to be scarce, however.

The local sources most Mainers go to for gardening help will not assist with growing marijuana. John Rebar of the University of Maine Cooperative Extension said that because the extension receives money from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, funding would be threatened if it did any work on cannabis.

While the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA) is conducting trials for a program to see if medical marijuana meets standards similar to organic, director Ted Quaday said MOFGA has “no plans to develop a program around marijuana propagation for home gardeners.” He did say organic methods would serve home marijuana growers well.

So although I have never grown marijuana myself, I’ve done some research and compiled some tips.

Getting seeds or cuttings to start your cannabis is going to be the first tricky part.

The best solution is to befriend someone who has a prescription for medical marijuana, said Josh Quint, who works for the Canuvo medical cannabis dispensary in Biddeford. Since 2011, patients with prescriptions have been allowed to grow marijuana at home, under the direction of a dispensary.

While it is illegal to sell any parts of marijuana plants, it is legal to give them away. (I think a return gift of flowers or vegetables from your garden would be permitted.) Quint suggests you clone plants by taking cuttings, because there will be less genetic variation than if you start from seeds.

Start by cutting healthy side shoots 2 to 4 inches long from a healthy, preferably non-flowering, marijuana plant. Take more than you need because you’ll want to pick the best-looking plants to continue growing and some will fail. Cut off the bottom two leaves and re-cut the stem just below where you removed the leaves. Put the cuttings immediately into lukewarm water. Then treat the stem with a rooting hormone, such as Rootone, and place it into a previously moistened seed-starting pot filled with rock wool or other seed-starting mix. I suggest the Sprout Island Organic Seeds Starter from Coast of Maine’s Organic Products, because the 20-year-old company has its headquarters in Portland and its production facility in East Machias. Buy local!

Keep the plants covered with a moisture dome (a clear plastic top) and lighted with growing lights for 18 hours a day until they have shown growth.

Once you have the small seedlings, you can grow cannabis indoors or outdoors. Indoors will provide more consistent growing conditions and probably a better product – but expect to spend more for equipment and electricity.

Erick Garcia, store manager of GrowLife in Portland, said the store supplies materials for indoor growers of everything from microgreens for winter salads to cannabis. He said people often choose hydroponic systems, in which plants are grown on water solutions that provide nutrients without soil. A basic home hydroponic system costs about $500, Garcia said. (I’ll save hydroponics growing for another day.)

Growing indoors takes a lot of room and a lot of light. Marijuana plants can grow up to 6 feet tall, and the new state law permits you to grow six flowering and 12 (immature) non-flowering plants (see sidebar), in addition to seedlings that can reach two feet tall.

Growing in a south-facing window will not work – you will need artificial light. Seedlings and immature plants require light 18 hours a day, with complete darkness the remaining six. To induce blossom once the plants are large enough – it is the blossom or buds that are dried and then smoked or added to food – you reduce the light to 12 hours a day, imitating the approach of winter.

Grow the large plants in large buckets or pots with drainage holes, filled with fertile soil mixture as their growing medium. Cameron Bonsey of Coast of Maine said the company’s Stonington Blend Grower’s Mix is the top choice for marijuana growers. Keep the soil moist but not wet and, if the plants don’t do well, fertilize with fish emulsion or other liquid fertilizers.

Growing outdoors requires full sun – technically at least six hours – and it must be on your own property or a friend’s, with written permission. You will want to amend the soil with compost and other organic fertilizers, and don’t let the soil dry out. Because of Maine’s short growing season, start the seedlings indoors and plant them outside after the last frost. You could give them a boost by using a cold frame or other covering at the start.

Some websites suggest pruning the marijuana plants to keep them a bit smaller than the 6 feet they can grow. But prune them before you reduce or, if the plants are outside, before the days begin to shorten significantly.

Whatever your method, your production of usable marijuana from six plants will be ounces, not pounds.

After all this effort, you’ll have a good base to decide whether you prefer to buy it or grow your own. Once buying becomes legal, that is.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at 767-2297 or at:

]]> 0 Press File Photo/Seth Perlman Marijuana grows at a medical marijuana cultivation center in Albion, Ill. In a report released Wednesday by the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, the federal advisory panel took a comprehensive look at what's known about the benefits and harms of marijuana and is calling for a national effort to learn more about the drug.Wed, 13 Sep 2017 15:58:02 +0000
What do most gardeners want? Low-fuss and sustainable gardens Sun, 12 Feb 2017 09:00:00 +0000 Homeowners usually want gardens that are low maintenance and sustainable. The two attributes are not synonyms, but if your garden has one of them, it probably has the other, too.

Kerry Ann Mendez, a garden writer and professional gardener who moved to Kennebunk three years ago after a career in upstate New York, spoke to the Maine Landscape and Nursery Association in January about “plants that save time, manpower and money.”

Because she was talking to a group of landscape professionals, Mendez was describing what their potential customers wanted – which turns out to be what just about every gardener wants.

“The people we are seeing today do not want high-fuss gardens,” Mendez said. “They have to be almost turnkey,” meaning that the professional completes it and the homeowner just sits back and enjoys it.

If you are planting or converting your own garden, you should aim for the same result – it’s just that you have some intensive work before you get to sit down and enjoy it.

The plants Mendez designated as landscape-worthy – and the talk contained almost 100 of them – had to meet at least one of two criteria, and most met both.

First, they had to be tough, meaning that they had to survive without regular watering and be able to resist pests – diseases, insects, deer and others – without requiring chemical treatments. Here in Maine we rarely have to worry about water (with the exception of last summer), but it is a precious resource, and people should try to limit its use in their gardens. Chemical treatment of plants, even if the chemicals meet the standards of organic growing, require spending time and money, both of which are often in short supply. Also, they’re potentially harmful to the environment.

Second, landscape-worthy plants have to serve many purposes. If you give garden space to a plant, it should be attractive for a long time, with a long bloom time or attractive foliage, fruits or seeds. In addition, the plants should benefit pollinators and other wildlife.

Now, I’m not going to list all of the plants Mendez mentioned. It would bore you to tears, take too much space, and you wouldn’t remember them all. So I’ll just mention a few things that hit home with me.

Hostas are a garden mainstay. They do well in shade, which is why my wife, Nancy, and I have about 100 of them spread all around our gardens. They are generally low-maintenance, and they come in a variety of colors.

Don’t pick a hosta solely for its foliage, the attribute many gardeners consider first. Hostas also have blossoms that are attractive and often fragrant, so you can grow them near home entrances and on patios and decks where people sit outside.

Two varieties Mendez likes for that purpose are “Stained Glass” and “Guacamole.” Both have large, bright, textured and multicolored leaves that can withstand more sun than many other hostas.

Where they really shine, however, is that they produce highly fragrant lavender flowers, 30 inches tall for “Stained Glass” and 3 feet tall for “Guacamole.”

One drawback to hostas is that deer, slugs and snails love to eat them. Deer will take hostas right to the ground, while chomping slugs will make the leaves look like Swiss cheese. Mendez said that choosing hostas with highly quilted or puckered leaves or with blue foliage will keep the damage to a minimum. The pests don’t like the feel of the textured leaves, and the blue color is caused by a waxy coating that the pests don’t like either. Two varieties she recommended are “Abiqua Drinking Gourd” and “Frances Williams.”

Peonies are a favorite old-time flower with large, bright flowers. But they present problems. Herbaceous peonies sometimes require hoops to keep them upright, while tree peonies have brittle stems that stay up all winter and can easily break.

Mendez recommends intersectional peonies, also called Itoh peonies, a cross between the two.

“They die back to the ground in the fall, but they have stiff stems, so they don’t require staking, which is a lot less work,” Mendez said. She recommended especially “Bartzella,” with fragrant yellow blooms that can be as large as 8 inches across.

Just one more recommendation: On Jan. 8 I wrote a column on Asclepias tuberosa, the butterfly weed, being the Perennial Plant Association’s plant of the year, partly for its assistance to monarch butterflies and other pollinators. Mendez said that gardeners who have an aversion to orange – while I don’t understand it, there are a lot of them – can try a cultivar called “Hello Yellow” with, unsurprisingly, yellow flowers.

I’ll save the argument about whether cultivars of native plants are actually natives for another day.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at 767-2297 or at:

]]> 0, 10 Feb 2017 11:32:11 +0000
DNA analysis will force us to call plants by other names Sun, 05 Feb 2017 09:00:00 +0000 “A rose is a rose is a rose,” according to Gertrude Stein. “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” Shakespeare wrote a few centuries earlier.

Neither writer was really talking about the flower. Still, botanically speaking, those statements remain true because rose is a common name, developed by people in conversation rather than by the botanists who meet every six years for the International Botanical Congress to determine the proper scientific names for plants, using Latin as its language.

While common names work for most gardeners, common names often mean different things in different parts of the world. A dogwood in China is not the same thing as a dogwood in Maine.

Researchers, however, need to know they are talking about the same plant, so a precise system of names is required.

Although naming systems existed earlier, the current system of taxonomy, or the naming of plants, dates back to Carl Linnaeus, who lived from 1707 to 1778.

“He grouped them as people brought plants to him, mostly according to their reproductive structure,” Lois Berg Stack said in January before she retired a long career as an ornamental horticulture specialist with the University of Maine Extension. “Take a rose and an apple and a geum and a pear. You might not think when you look at them that they are much alike. But if you look at the flower and fruit, you can notice that they are pretty closely related.”

A geum, by the way, is a herbaceous perennial that resembles a buttercup with ruffles.

There were bound to be mistakes. Linnaeus did not travel around the world in order to classify plants, rather he looked at the plants he encountered himself in Europe or those he was shown. Also, microscopes improved over time, so once botanists could see those plants better, the botanical names of some plants reflected new knowledge.

And then came DNA analysis. We read about it most often when it involves people – whether for finding criminals or determining ancestry. But the same science applies to plants.

“Every once in a while there comes an enormous breakthrough that breaks the system and causes people to rethink things, and that is what is happening now with DNA analysis,” Stack said.

Once scientists have looked at plant DNA, they can determine without any doubt how plants are related to each other, and which plants preceded others in lineage. Since there are thousands of plants, it will take time and money to do DNA research on all of them, Stack said.

People often get upset about plant name changes. It reminds me of what happened when Pluto was removed from the list of planets in our solar system. Pluto still exists, just like it always did. The scientists did not kill Pluto. They just changed what they called it – today it’s classified as a dwarf planet.

Stack said that whenever she was teaching a class and mentioned that a plant’s botanical name had changed, her students would roll their eyes – frustrated that they would have to remember new names.

But in at least one case, the nonscientists stopped a name change.

Bryan Peterson, an assistant professor of environmental horticulture at the University of Maine, said the International Botanical Congress – which will meet later this year in China – restored the name “chrysanthemum” to the popular mum, loved for its blossoms in fall.

The name chrysanthemum was first given to a wildflower in Europe, and Linnaeus added garden mums to its group.

“In the 1960s, a botanist realized that garden mums were not that closely related to (the original wildflower) chrysanthemum, and garden mums were changed to a new genus, Dendranthema,” Peterson said.

Every nation except The Netherlands (where Linnaeus, who was Swedish, did much of his work) rejected the change. Eventually, the Botanical Congress made an exception to its rule and gave the European wildflower the name Glebionis coronaria, and mums were again chrysanthemums.

Peterson noted that the Botanical Congress divided dogwoods, Cornus, into four groups when it last met in Australia in 2011. Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens in Boothbay was quick to adopt the new names on its garden labels, even though the change has met with some resistance. The garden made its choice after consulting Arthur Haines, a Mainer and expert in taxonomy who wrote “Flora Novae Angliae,” the scientific manual for identifying plants in New England.

Although I find the name-changing practice interesting, it won’t affect home gardeners. If you want a red-twig dogwood to provide some winter interest, you will be able to plant it no matter what you call it – its common name, its original Latin name Cornus sericea or its more recent Latin name Swida sericea. Catalogs will have the common name, often followed by one or both of the Latin names.

I talked with Peterson at the Maine Landscape and Nursery Association meeting in January, and he made one comment – in jest – that I think we all believe in our hearts.

“The right names are the ones from when I first started learning botany,” he said. “I just have to get used to the others.”

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at 767-2297 or at:

]]> 0, 03 Feb 2017 12:25:03 +0000
Looking for a new gardening thrill? Try growing grains at home. Sun, 29 Jan 2017 09:00:00 +0000 Bread is the staff of life. While the most avid gardeners grow all their own vegetables, few harvest even a minimal amount of grain to make bread.

That may be because many people think they’d need huge fields of “amber waves of grain” (cue “America the Beautiful”) to make growing wheat, oats, rye or barley worthwhile. Not so.

“A Maine gardener could grow all the wheat they need for the family on a plot the size of a two- or three-car garage, about 30-by-30 feet,” Richard Roberts, a grain grower from Solon and a member of Maine Grain Alliance, said in a telephone interview. That would be about 60 pounds of grain, enough to fill two 5-gallon pails.

Wheat requires full sun, but it will grow in most soils as long as the ground is not too wet, Roberts said. The soil may need a dose of wood ashes and some added nitrogen.

Since wheat is a grass, before I talked to Roberts, I had thought that you might plant it with a spreader like you’d use to seed a lawn. I was way off the mark.

The secret, Roberts said, is to give each plant a lot of room, planting the seeds in rows that are 6 inches apart with 6 to 8 inches between seeds in each row. With plenty of room, each seed will produce six to 12 shoots.

To start growing wheat this year, you need a spring wheat. Johnny’s Selected Seeds in Winslow offers Glenn, a hard red wheat. Hard Red Fife, developed in Ontario in the 1840s, is available from Fedco, a seed cooperative based in Winslow.

Spring wheat should be planted as soon as the soil can be worked, usually in late April, Roberts said, or earlier in southern Maine.

“I always do it during April school vacation because the kids are around to pick up the rocks,” Roberts said.

Weeds put a lot of pressure on spring wheat, so Roberts suggests an underplanting of white clover, which keeps down weeds and adds nitrogen to the soil.

The advantage to winter wheat, which you plant around the first frost, is that it gets a head start on the weeds. It grows a few inches in the fall, goes dormant in winter, resumes growth in the spring and usually has a higher yield.

Roberts is excited about a heritage winter wheat from Estonia called Sirvinta. The Maine Grain Alliance got some Sirvinta wheat from Will Bonsall, a seed-saving guru in Industry. Test growers, including Roberts, planted 14 pounds of it on 11 acres in the fall of 2015 and harvested 1,500 pounds of it last season. If the growers harvest enough this coming summer to cover potential orders, Fedco could begin offering it for sale this coming fall.

Wheat fields require crop rotation if you garden organically. When you aren’t growing wheat, crops like peas or beans add nitrogen to the soil, and after they are harvested, they can be tilled into the soil to add organic matter.

Harvesting and processing wheat from a home plot isn’t difficult, Roberts said, though it does require a number of steps. It can be cut with a hand sickle, after which the stalks are tied together and left to dry under cover for a couple of weeks. The grain is ready for threshing when if you bite down on them, the individuals grains are about as hard as nuts.

Small threshers are available for home use, but you also can thresh by hand by cutting the grain heads, putting them in a large paper bag and shaking or pounding it. Another method is to put the stalks on a tarp and beat them with a dowel.

Next comes winnowing. The simplest method is to set up a fan and drop the threshed wheat in front of the breeze into a bowl. The light chaff will blow away. Store the grain until you want flour, grinding only what you need for the recipe you’re cooking.

Roberts was quick to remind people that the straw left over from this process also has value. It sells for $10 a bale, or you can use it to mulch garlic or other crops.

Maine gardeners can grow grains other than wheat, including rice, oats and heritage predecessors of wheat. If you opt to grow oats, be sure to get a variety without hulls.

Rice can be grown in Maine, and it doesn’t need to grow in water either, Roberts said, as flooding the field is really just a way of controlling weeds. While Fedco has introduced Akamuro rice, which the catalog calls ideal for Maine, he knows Maine residents who have successfully grown eight to 10 varieties of rice.

For people who are intolerant of gluten, Roberts recommends emmer and einkorn, two ancient grains that are wheat predecessors. While people with celiac disease can’t eat them, people with lesser stages of gluten intolerance often can.

So if you have a little extra land for gardening and want to become more independent from Big Agriculture, take a shot at growing some grains at home.

Tom Atwell can be contacted at 767-2297 or at:


CORRECTION: This story was updated at 6:45 p.m. on Feb. 1, 2017, to correct the phone number of Kerry Ratigan.

]]> 0, 01 Feb 2017 18:48:12 +0000
When it comes to trees and shrubs, go native Sun, 22 Jan 2017 09:00:00 +0000 Lois Berg Stack, who worked for 30 years as an ornamental horticulture specialist, retired from the University of Maine Cooperative Extension in January.

I haven’t counted, but I think she is the source I have used most often since I began writing the Maine Gardener column in March 2004, whether I was attending lectures she gave around New England or calling her up to pick her brain. I had heard about her long before I started the column because my wife, Nancy, has been an active member of the Garden Club Federation of Maine for all of the 30 years Stack was with the Extension and always raved about Stack’s lectures.

I’ve held onto the notes from a 15-minute talk on New England’s indigenous fruiting trees and shrubs that Stack gave in February 2015 at New England Grows in Boston, thinking that if I ever had a week in which I couldn’t think of a column idea or if one requiring interviews fell through, I would use the notes for a back-up column.

The back story of the lecture is that New England Grows is a huge, usually three-day event for landscapers, nursery professionals, lawn guys, suppliers of granite, suppliers of anything to do with gardening and so on. That morning someone else was supposed to give this talk – I can’t remember who. But that was the winter Boston and New England Grows both got slammed with record-setting snow during the event. Stack filled in, smoothly and knowledgeably, as always.

After her talk, I asked how long she had to prepare. She said she organized the talk while walking the 100 yards from the New England Extension’s booth to the lecture hall lectern, which, she said, explained why the plants were arranged in roughly alphabetical order. She just pulled them out of the plant catalog that exists in her head – which would be a nice thing to have.

Now is a good time to make use of these notes, both because she is retiring and because I want to keep emphasizing how important native plants are to supporting native wildlife, which evolved along with these plants. All these indigenous fruiting trees and shrubs are hardy in all of Maine, Zones 3 to 6, with some even okay in Zone 2, which is a couple hundred miles north of Maine’s northern border. (For other Stack fans, I interviewed her just before she retired for a future column on plant names. Coming to you soon in this space.) Stack praised two native aronias, but favors Aronia melanocarpa, or black chokeberry, and hoped more people would begin growing it commercially.

“Black chokeberry has more antioxidants than any other fruit I can think of,” she said. The problem is that the berries do not taste good if eaten raw, so they have to be made into juices or jams to be edible.

Both the black chokeberry and red chokeberry, Aronia arbutifolia, have attractive white flowers in the spring in addition to their berries; the black berries are larger and hold on longer in winter.

The plants are adaptable to many different soil types. They grow 8 to 10 feet tall and 6 feet wide.

Amelanchier, or serviceberry, is an excellent substitute for the non-native crabapples, Stack said.

“It gives us the same thing the crabapple does: flowers, fruit, fall color and architectural branches in winter,” she said.

The white flowers bloom in early spring, and the berries ripen in June and are tasty if you can get to them before the birds do. Amelanchier does well in wetlands but also grows in drier soil.

American hornbeam is not usually included as a fruiting tree, but technically speaking it is, and Stack said she included it in her talk for its ornamental values. It grows about 22 feet tall, is multi-stemmed but classified as a tree, and tolerates a wide variety of soils.

The fruit arrives in late summer as what she described as “curiously bracted fruitlets,” with a leafy bract hanging over the tiny fruits, which are inedible except by birds. The bracts stay on the tree, and change from light green to yellow, while the leaves turn a reddish purple – providing an array of colors on one tree.

The Cockspur hawthorn, Crataegus crusgalli, is a thornless version of a native hawthorn, so this is the one you want if children are going to be playing nearby. Hawthorn thorns, which can be attractive in winter and protect the fruit, can grow as much as 4 inches long. It is a small tree, reaching about 25 feet tall, with spreading branches making it about 30 feet wide. It flowers profusely in May or June and produces small fruit that is edible but mealy. The fruit persists during winter and is a great forage plant.

The beach plum and sand cherry, Prunus maritima and Prunus pumila, are two related plants that offer terrific flowers that pollinators love.

“When they are in bloom it looks like the plant is moving because there will be thousands of pollinators on a single plant,” Stack said.

If you want fruit in addition to the blossoms, you will need more than one prunus plant that bloom at the same time, so they can cross-pollinate. In addition, all of the native plum family get a black knot fungus, but she said you can prune it out without much trouble.

Vacciniums, which include high-bush and low-bush blueberries as well as cranberries, have white blossoms in the spring and delicious fruit in August. Everybody should grow several in their yards both for the delicious fruit and for the spring blooms and brilliant fall foliage.

New England Grows has changed its meeting dates to the beginning of December. I doubt that the date change is due to the blizzards in Boston in March in recent years. Heaven knows who will be staffing the New England booth instead of Lois. She will be missed.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at 767-2297 or at:

]]> 0 Berg Stack, who retired recently from the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, has been a fixture on the garden lecture circuit.Thu, 19 Jan 2017 18:21:02 +0000
In January, a gardener’s thoughts turn to seed catalogs Sun, 15 Jan 2017 09:00:00 +0000 Reading catalogs in January is a perfect pastime. It lets you calm down after the rush of the holidays and think of warm hours in the garden while you are actually trapped inside or limited to winter sports. It also lures you into trying new things. With unlimited time on your hands, your imagination soars as you read catalog copy about heritage tomatoes and new varieties of sugar snap peas.

This year, I am limiting myself to Maine catalogs. For the next few years, I want to ignore the world at large and follow Garrison Keillor’s suggestion to tend the garden and drink craft beer. Buying from Maine companies will boost the state and help me tune out the rest of the world.

Pinetree Garden Seeds in New Gloucester is off to a good start in 2017. Thomas Christopher lives in Connecticut and is co-author with Larry Weaner of “Garden Revolution: How our Landscapes can be a source of environmental change,” which I wrote about last year. He had high praise for Pinetree in his post on Garden Rant, my favorite gardening blog.

“I’m going to cap the cost of my seed expenditures by indulging my impulse purchases at Pinetree Garden Seeds,” Christopher wrote, praising the quality of the seeds and Pinetree’s low prices.

Business was good even before Christopher made that post Jan. 4. When I submitted our order on Jan. 2 – to take advantage of free shipping – the purple-podded Sugar Magnolia snap pea, a new offering, was already sold out. My rule of not looking at catalogs until after the holidays cost my wife and me this time.

Some new Pinetree offerings were still available. The Early Giant Leek can be grown from seed instead of with live plants, as I have done in the past. This will be a good experiment and less expensive – if it works.

I am also going to try the Wonderful Pineberry, which isn’t listed as new, but I didn’t notice it earlier. According to the catalog, it is a hybrid of strawberries, but white with tiny red seeds and tastes a bit like pineapple. It is ever-bearing, so should produce from late spring until first frost, and self-pollinating – but does better if you have regular strawberries nearby.

Pinetree is also selling ramp seedlings for the first time, priced at $9.50 for 10 plants. A few years ago, I planted some of these wild leeks, which I purchased from an out-of-state company. They haven’t done well, but I think the location was wrong. Our ramps haven’t died, but they aren’t happy with their position in life.

Fedco, the cooperative based in Clinton, has ramp seeds, which it says could produce seedlings in either the first or second year. That would be an alternative way to experiment with ramps, and at $3.50 for a packet, a good return on a small investment.

Fedco is fun for its political activism, as well as its good seeds and well-written catalog. This year, it is promoting the Open Source Seed Initiative (OSSI), in which buyers and sellers promise not to restrict seed-saving, reselling, creating crosses or other activities in perpetuity. It is selling what it calls the Freed Seed Collection, which includes several OSSI-pledged varieties including lettuces, greens, calendula, leeks or onions and more.

Screen Shot 2017-01-13 at 10.30.25 AMI didn’t think you could grow rice in Maine, but Fedco is offering Akamuro rice, which the catalog says will grow in Maine – Zone 4B and warmer as transplants, and 5A and warmer from seed. The hulls are burnt orange when mature, so it is an ornamental as well as a food plant.

We will try the Little Dipper butternut squash, a new Fedco offering, which is resistant to powdery mildew. The catalog says it got 22 fruits of 2 to 3 pounds each from three plants when all of the other plants in the trial succumbed to mildew.

The catalog for Johnny’s Selected Seeds in Winslow is a joy to look at, with excellent photographs and design on glossy pages. I can spend a day leafing through the pages and dreaming about not only the plants but what I could do with the well-built tools and other equipment the company designs and sells.

A plant that grabbed my attention is Patio Baby, apparently the perfect eggplant for growing in pots. The bright purple flowers serve as an ornamental, and later you pick the dark purple fruits – which will produce throughout the season – when they are 2 to 3 inches long.

A tool that will tempt some home gardeners is the Wheel Weeder, which is human-powered and pushed at “fast walking pace.” It targets both small and established weeds with the motion of a stirrup hoe and comes in three models, 5, 7 and 11 inches wide, costing $269 to $299.

Wood Prairie Farm is a company that sells organic seed, with a specialty in organic potatoes, all produced on the family-owned farm in Aroostook County. The prices are higher than in some other catalogs, but the quality is excellent. Red Cloud is a new offering. It’s crimson, uncommonly dry, delicious baked or boiled, and a good keeper, the catalog says.

The company also offers a potato experimenter’s special: four varieties with a total of 12 tubers for $19.95.

These are just a few things that jumped out at me while I was going through the catalogs. I will be ordering a lot more from all of the Maine catalogs than the small number of plants I’ve mentioned here. If you don’t get the catalogs from these Maine companies in the mail, you can always check their websites.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at 767-2297 or at:

]]> 0 Garden seed catalogueFri, 13 Jan 2017 10:37:55 +0000
Butterfly weed takes top honors in the plant world Sun, 08 Jan 2017 09:00:00 +0000 A perfect plant does not exist, but Asclepias tuberosa, commonly called the butterfly weed, comes close. If the native of the eastern United States tolerated shade – which it doesn’t – it would be perfect.

Still the long-lived herbaceous perennial comes close enough to perfect that the Perennial Plant Association named the butterfly weed its Plant of the Year for 2017.

All members of the Asclepias family support bees, hummingbirds and butterflies – and are essential for the survival of the monarch butterfly. Asclepias tuberosa is the best behaved in polite company.

“Butterfly weeds is a perfect selection for full-sun meadow or prairie gardens, as well as formal to semi-formal urban gardens,” the association said in naming the winner.

My regular readers know this, but I’m including it for those who were drawn in to this column by the pretty picture and catchy headline. Pollinators – a group that includes bees, butterflies, moths and hummingbirds – are in trouble. The population of monarch butterflies – which require Asclepias plants for food and laying eggs – is way down. Honeybee colonies are collapsing. Native bees – of which there are more than 270 species in Maine – are also struggling. Part of what home gardeners have to do to help pollinators – without which we cannot produce most fruits and vegetables – is to plant more native, pollinator-friendly plants.

The butterfly weed fits the bill perfectly.

“The butterfly weed is native, attractive, very tolerant of poor soils and pretty undemanding to grow,” said Mary Mixer, a plant grower at Skillins Greenhouse in Falmouth.

The plant produces bright blossoms – usually orange, although they can be red or yellow – on 3-foot stems, and spreads about 2 feet wide. Each flower has five petals that hang down and five upright petals called hoods, the Perennial Plant Association said in its announcement. I never looked that closely, but I intend to when ours bloom next spring.

Butterfly weeds bloom from early spring to mid-July and produce a small fruit, also called a follicle. In a formal setting, gardeners are advised to cut off the spent blossoms to promote a second bloom later in the year and prevent reseeding, but if you are going for a natural-meadow look, let it seed. In either case, it is best to leave the plant standing through the winter and cut it down in the spring.

Young plants produce a single stem, but as the plants age they send up side shoots.

Asclepias tuberosa is hardy to Zone 4, which includes all of Maine except north of Houlton in Aroostook County.

Unlike other Asclepias varieties, tuberosa makes an excellent cut flower – in part because it lacks the free-flowing sap that the other kinds have. You should cut the flower when more than half the flowers are open, because they won’t continue to open once you put it in a vase.

You can plant the butterfly weed either as a plant grown in a nursery or with seeds, but Mixer recommends buying plants. Online instructions for planting seeds say you have to cold-condition the seeds and then start them inside to get flowers next summer. You can plant seeds next spring, but the seedlings look inconspicuous and can be damaged, and you won’t get flowers the first summer.

Because mature plants have a deep taproot, they don’t transplant well – so choose the location carefully.

A spicebush swallowtail butterfly feeds on Asclepias tuberosa, a favorite of bees and hummingbirds too..

A spicebush swallowtail butterfly feeds on Asclepias tuberosa, a favorite of bees and hummingbirds too.. Heflin

The plant has few disease or pest problems; monarch butterflies will chew on the leaves but usually not strip them, as they do with other asclepias. Deer usually leave asclepias alone.

If you want to go all out in helping monarch butterflies, also plant the two other asclepias varieties native to Maine. Common milkweed, or Asclepias syriaca, grows 5 to 8 feet tall, depending on location, in ditches and fields, has large pods of seeds with silky attachments that blow them from place to place. They were everywhere on untended properties when I grew up in Farmington, but I don’t see them as often now – which might be one of the reasons that monarch butterflies are suffering. If you do get monarchs, the leaves will be stripped. It might not be attractive, but it means the plant served its purpose, and it will come back the following year.

If you have a shadier site with moist soil, try Asclepias incarnata or swamp milkweed. It has pink blossoms from June to October and grows up to 5 feet tall.

The butterflies will thank you and butterflies are, as I have read, the flowers of the air.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at 767-2297 or at:

]]> 0 weed, or Asclepias tuberosa, is the Perennial Plant Association's Plant of the Year for 2017.Thu, 05 Jan 2017 19:17:50 +0000
Out with the old, in with the new: Gardens can (and should) change Sun, 01 Jan 2017 09:00:00 +0000 People resist change, gardeners as much as anyone. Most of us were initiated into the joy of growing plants at a fairly young age, taught by relatives or neighbors in a tradition that goes back generations. And many gardeners still want to do things the way they were taught.

Some people have planted the same annuals in the same location on their property for years. The red impatiens stand out brightly against the gray of the house, they say, or the snapdragons look so bright lining the walkway.

On this day we both celebrate times long past, as in “Auld Lang Syne,” and make resolutions to improve ourselves for the future. I don’t want you to forget the past, but I do want you to be open to more change in the future.

Take something like crop rotation. Some gardeners in small plots plant the same vegetables in the same place every year. They have heard of crop rotation, but think it refers only to commercial farmers with many different fields. But crop rotation can work even in gardens as small as 4-by-8-foot raised beds.

If you planted beans or peas, which improve soil by fixing nitrogen, plant a heavy feeder, perhaps something in the squash or cabbage family, in that spot the following year.

Tomatoes, potatoes, peppers and eggplant all are in the nightshade family and susceptible to the same diseases. If you plant nightshades in the same spot in back-to-back years, you are more likely to have diseases such as blight.

And try new plants. Yes, I will plant Sun Gold and Celebrity tomatoes every year, because I have had success with them and like their flavor. But I also will plant some new (to me) tomatoes that sound good in a catalog just to see how they are.

Many gardeners hesitate to give up plants that research has shown are bad for the environment.

After my column two weeks ago on potential state regulations to ban the sale of invasive plants, I received calls and emails defending several plants on the list: multiflora roses, because the birds feed on them and the rose’s thorns protect birds from predators; bittersweet, because the berries are so attractive; burning bush because of childhood memories; red pygmy barberry because it isn’t really as bad as the full-sized one.

But I have suffered painful scratches removing multiflora roses that were strangling native pine trees, have painfully walked past barberry where it was a dominant understory plant in a Cape Elizabeth neighborhood near Fort Williams, have seen bittersweet climbing utility poles all over Maine and burning bush taking over some public parks.

Native plants can serve many of the same purposes as these invasives, if gardeners would be willing to accept them. Red physocarpus, or ninebark, is attractive over a longer period than burning bush because it has flowers as well as red foliage. Native serviceberry, chokeberry and viburnum have beautiful berries and can replace bittersweet.

As the climate changes – and the record-setting average high temperatures over the past decade prove it is changing, although naysayers still debate whether man is causing it – it may be possible to grow different plants locally. Maybe you can push the zones and grow southern magnolias and dogwoods in at least the coastal sections of Maine.

In recent years, more people are replacing at least part of their lawns with flowers or vegetables. I enjoy seeing people growing peppers, tomatoes, “Bright Lights” chard and other vegetables on the front lawn of a home, especially if the vegetable beds are well tended and mostly weed free. They are certainly more attractive than a Levittown house with a tiny, cookie-cutter lawn. Just because you’ve always grown grass in your front yard doesn’t mean you have to continue doing so.

Speaking of weeds, if you are open to change you can cut down the time you spend weeding. Larry Weaner, in the “Garden Revolution” book he wrote with Thomas Christopher, said you shouldn’t dig out weeds. When you do, you bring more weed seeds to the surface, where they will sprout. The end result? You have to weed again soon.

Instead, put the plants you want close together, snip the weeds at ground level, and let the good plants smother the bad ones.

Less weeding is a change I will embrace.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at 767-2297 or at:

]]> 0 rotation can be applied in raised beds as small as 4-by-8 feet in size. Here, Anne Manganello of Portland works on one of her raised beds at the North Street Community Garden in May 2014. In the foreground, chives are flowering.Tue, 03 Jan 2017 09:18:29 +0000
Just because your garden sleeps in winter doesn’t mean you should Sun, 25 Dec 2016 09:00:00 +0000 Winter is a gardener’s down time. All the gardens – at least in Maine – are asleep. And you could be, too.

But isn’t it better to get out and meet people and learn new things about gardens, gardening and nature in general?

It’s easy to do so. Nonprofit groups around the state, not to mention garden centers, offer gardening talks of all sorts throughout the winter. They’re worth attending and will keep you from just vegetating during the dark and snowy season. Three in particular piqued my interest, so I called to get a little more information.

 On April 10, Mark Brandhorst of Pond Hill Gardens in South Paris will be discussing perennial succulents at St. Mary’s Garden Club in Falmouth. The public is welcome.

Succulents – both those grown as houseplants and those left outdoors – are especially popular right now, and Brandhorst is capitalizing on that. He started growing them about 10 years ago and has been selling them for five or six years.

“I’d been putting them in my stone work,” he said. “I love seeing them spread and how many varieties there are and all the colors they come in.”

He estimates he has 180 varieties of sempervivum, or hens and chicks, on his own property, 80 sedums and 50 jovibarba varieties.

Many of the plants grow in almost no soil, Brandhorst said. They separate from the mother plant, end up in a crack in some ledge with a little bit of soil and you have another plant. Many can grow on vertical surfaces without a problem.

He said that while succulents do well in rock gardens, they will grow without the rocks. They do like a well-drained, fairly dry soil and won’t thrive in clay.

 On March 21, Lee Graham will be speaking to the Belfast Garden Club about growing asparagus. I called her to get some professional tips – the fact she was a high school classmate of mine is mostly coincidental.

About 15 years ago, when she was looking ahead to retiring from a career in education and seeking a project that would give her some retirement income, she put in 500 asparagus plants at the 72-acre organic farm she and her husband own in Woodstock.

“We didn’t want to be tied to anything all summer,” Graham said. Because traditionally in Maine, you should stop picking asparagus on the Fourth of July, the hard work would end then, giving her the rest of the summer free.

As a perennial vegetable, asparagus does not require a lot of work every year, and the demand for it is high.

Graham said that she fertilizes asparagus throughout the season, but every third year she puts on a heavy dose of composted manure, which has the unwanted side effect of producing a lot of weeds. She keeps the garden weeds in check by mulching with lawn clippings – which isn’t all grass because they don’t try to control lawn weeds either. They never till the clippings in, letting them get up to 8 inches high.

Sometime after July 4, Graham leaves the farm for a week as a way to force herself to stop picking. She finds the tender stalks too tempting. But after the spears have leafed out and formed frothy bushes of asparagus foliage, if she sees any spears later in the season, she will pick enough for dinner. They still taste good, and the late-season harvesting doesn’t hurt the plants.

 On March 22, Jean Potuchek, a retired sociology professor, will give a talk on garden record-keeping at McLaughlin Garden in South Paris.

“I keep all of my records online in the form of a spreadsheet,” she said, “and whenever I am planting something new, I do a computer graphic plan of what goes where. I guess I am one of those super-compulsive types.”

But her talk will be about more than what she does. She is seeking responses from other gardeners – she has about 50 so far – on how they keep records of their own gardens, both what information they keep and how it helps them. So if you attend her talk, you not will not only get ideas about keeping your own records or a garden journal, but you might also get insights into what makes other gardeners tick – and that might be illuminating.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at 767-2297 or at:

]]> 0 succulents are able to grow in very little soil. They do like well-drained, fairly dry soil and won't do well in clay.Sun, 25 Dec 2016 18:58:45 +0000
Getting the law on the side of fighting invasives Sun, 18 Dec 2016 09:00:00 +0000 Invasive plants became invasive because people – homeowners or government workers – believed they served a useful purpose, and they deliberately planted them. The plants may have been selected for their looks or their ability to control erosion or grow fast and thus provide screening.

At the time, no one realized these plants lacked natural controls in their new regions, so would spread unmitigated. Now, decades later, the state government is stepping in to ban the propagation, sale, purchase, import or export of any plant deemed invasive, “likely invasive” or “potentially invasive” in Maine.

When the invasive-plant ban is approved – and it is expected to be, perhaps as early as the end of January – it will be long overdue. Maine is now the only New England state without some controls on terrestrial (growing in the ground) invasive plants.

At a recent Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry public hearing in Augusta on the proposed regulations, the half-dozen people who testified – mostly landscapers and environmentalists – all supported the general idea, but they questioned some of the specifics.

Two things surprised me about the proposed regulations and the hearing itself: the number of plants on the list, which ran to 33 species (and with cultivars, varieties and hybrids is even longer) and the potential for the list to grow; with warming temperatures, more plants will have to be added.

Banning the sale of invasive plants is a good step, but to be effective it must be coupled with efforts to remove the invasive plants that are already taking over Maine’s forests and fields. Eradication, if it is even possible, will take a lot of time and money.

“What happened with invasive plants is that people were looking for simple solutions to complex problems,” Bob Bittenbender said at the hearing. Though his business card identifies him as a “curmudgeon environmentalist,” he has worked as groundskeeper for Maine Audubon Society’s Gilsland Farm in Falmouth, and he volunteers to document invasive plants in public spaces in Portland.

Often the people looking for those simple solutions were government employees, Bittenbender added, which prompted State Horticulturist Gary Fish, who chaired the hearing, to display posters the government printed decades ago that urge the use of the very plants now considered invasive.

Several people in the audience admitted that they had planted or sold invasive plants, acts they now regret.

Gardeners liked these plants because they grow easily, require little maintenance and are difficult to kill – all the reasons they now out-compete native plants. Wildlife, however, feels otherwise; Maine’s wildlife co-evolved with Maine’s native plants, which provide the food and shelter that make them healthiest. In addition, when a region loses its native ecosystems it loses its identity, the things that make its forests and fields look different from other places around the world.

Laura Zitske of Maine Audubon said invasive plant prohibitions are overdue and needed to prevent expense and work for foresters and farmers. The berries from such plants, she said, provide less nutrition for birds and other animals than native berries and are often diuretics, which don’t do the animals any good, either. The proposed rules might also “save stubborn people such as myself from blood, sweat and tears as they work to remove such species as Asiatic bittersweet from their own property.”

Some people worried that certain plants were left off the state’s prohibition list, while other plants didn’t belong there.

Swallow-wort, for one, is not on the list, though it is widely considered an invasive plant. But swallow-wort was introduced to Maine accidentally and has never been propagated or sold, so banning its sale or propagation is unnecessary.

Bittenbender cited several other plants he sees taking over public lands in Portland that are absent from the list. Littleleaf linden was planted along Baxter Boulevard, and he says it is spreading around Back Cove. Privet is rampant in the Riverside trolley park area. The callery pear is taking over a slope by East End School. Japanese tree lilacs are spreading. European mountain ash grows on its own in a lot of city parks, and while it might not be invasive now, when the climate gets warmer it could be.

Rugosa rose, the beach rose so common along the Maine coast, elicited some back and forth. Bittenbender argued for its inclusion on the banned list, saying it is in many state parks and spreads much faster than other roses. But Jeff O’Donal, of O’Donal’s Nursery in Gorham, countered that the rugosa is a good colonizing plant, which means that while it will spread in an area, it won’t jump great distances. Also, it requires sandy soil and full sun to grow. For those reasons, he does not consider it invasive.

He also requested an exception to the ban on all Euonymus alatus cultivars because, he said, several scientific studies offer sound evidence that ‘Rudy Haag,’ a cultivar that O’Donal propagates and sells, does not produce viable seeds.

Norway maple

Norway maple Photo by Kukuruxa/Shutterstock

Mark Faunce, a past president of the Maine Landscape and Nursery Association and an employee at a wholesale plant company, testified that he would like the regulations rewritten to reflect regional differences. He argued that plants that are invasive in the growing zone around Kittery would not be invasive, and could even be a staple, of the industry in Fort Kent.

Loosestrife  David Leaming/Morning Sentinel

David Leaming/Morning Sentinel

As written, the proposed regulations give nurseries one year after they take effect to continue to sell any plants on the list. O’Donal and Faunce called for that transition time to be extended to three years, as has been done in other states adopting invasive-plant lists, because plants propagated now will not be ready for sale within a year – and the nurseries stand to lose a lot of money.

After the hearing, Fish said the Invasive Terrestrial Plants Committee that developed the regulations will review the testimony and consider possible changes.

If it makes no changes, it could vote immediately and the regulations would take effect 30 days later. Changes, of course, would delay the timetable.

I have followed the debate on invasive plants for 20 years, and I am glad that Maine is joining the responsible horticultural world and adopting a list. I’ve never heard of some of the plants on the list. Others, like multiflora rose, bittersweet and bishop’s weed (which a friend calls “the pernicious weed”), I battle regularly.

TOM ATWELL is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at 767-2297 or at:

]]> 0 bittersweet poses a serious threat to other species and to whole habitats because it twines around and grows over other vegetation.Sat, 17 Dec 2016 18:49:57 +0000
No need to dig deep for useful and appreciated gifts Sun, 11 Dec 2016 09:00:00 +0000 Gardeners are givers. They give away excess vegetables, bouquets and a lot of advice. They also tend to be self-sufficient, so if they need something for gardening they probably already bought it for themselves.

That can make it difficult to find a gift for them. To help out, here are some holiday gift ideas your recipients may not have thought of on their own.

If you are buying gifts for people who are fairly serious vegetable gardeners, get them a cold frame if they don’t already have one. The cold frame I purchased early last fall has both improved production in our vegetable garden and made gardening more fun.

Because of the cold frame, we have been eating lettuce since March and have had the best crop of carrots ever. A neighbor was eating summer squash in June with his. It depends on how you want to use it and what you want to eat.

Now, some skilled gardener/builders might say you can build your own cold frame. I tried, but it didn’t work out well. Maybe the problem was that I did not know about “Building and Using Cold Frames,” a useful 32-page pamphlet by Charles Siegchrist available for $3.95 from Johnny’s Selected Seeds. It’d make a nice stocking stuffer for your handy gardening friends.

The cold frame my wife and I bought, made by the German company Juwel, has stiff, lightweight, honeycombed plastic walls and top. It costs about $160 through Gardeners Edge (; I haven’t seen cold frames in the local garden centers or Maine gardening catalogs. Putting it together was tough, because the instructions were in German, and the drawings were not totally clear. But I got it done eventually, and it has worked well.

The Juwel model that now pops up online most often costs $270, but Amazon has other stiff-sided, year-round, fairly well-rated cold frames for about $70.

I’ve also seen cloche-style soft-sided cold frames online for under $40, including one from Pinetree Garden Seeds in New Gloucester, but they are designed for giving your transplants a head start in the spring. They couldn’t stay out through the winter.

About a dozen times a year I write something like “you really should get a soil test,” and describe how to send soil samples to the University of Maine Soil Testing Service.

Mostly gardeners don’t do it because they have to get the proper boxes and go through the hassle of mailing the soil.

The Rapitest electronic soil tester, available for $21.95 from Pinetree, won’t give you the details on micronutrients that the state test would, but it will give you the pH and the amount of nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium in your soil – the basic information you need – in about a minute. That information is better than no soil test at all.

You also could put together a gift package of the electronic soil tester and the state’s soil testing boxes and give them to the gardener in your life, who then can dig soil for testing early in spring.

A gardener needs gloves. Aside from keeping your hands clean, they prevent cuts from thorns and branches, and give you a better grip. For 15 years I have used Atlas Fit gloves, a cotton knit glove with latex on the palm and fingers. My wife, Nancy, uses Atlas Nitrile, a breathable nylon with nitrile on the palms and fingers. Both are good, inexpensive, machine washable and often sold by the dozen.

Fedco, a cooperative seed company based in Winslow, has $7 gloves that might lure me away. Another knit glove, it has a pebbly latex that goes farther up the fingers than the Atlas, and is ideal for working in muddy soil. I’m going to try some on wet days – and they could become my everyday gloves, as well.

You need to know whether or not the intended recipient will actually wear gloves. Some gardeners do not. Then you need to know what size and style. It’s a lot of information, so you may want to consider a glove gift certificate.

Another inexpensive gift is ideal for anyone who has walks or patios made with pavers or bricks. No matter how closely you put the bricks together, you are going to get weeds. To get them out, you need a crack-weeding tool. Some can be used standing up, but the least expensive require that the gardener kneel. The ones we have cost less than $5 at Lee Valley Tools, but a search on Amazon showed some for even less, just $1.10, as well as some that cost $40 or more. The inexpensive ones work, but the Lee Valley crack tool holds up really well (all of their tools do).

Nancy and I are mostly organic gardeners, using only Omri-approved (Organic Materials Review Institute) pesticides on our property. But we are scared to death of Lyme disease, which I’m sure you know is spread by ticks. When I wrote a column on tick control last winter we got so many comments that I had to write a second column in response.

We spray Permethrin, manufactured by Sawyer Products, on our socks and pants legs to keep ticks away from us. Anyone – hiker, fisherman or gardener – who spends a lot of time in the woods should take preventative action. Permethrin doesn’t smell, should not go directly on your skin and was developed by the U.S. military to protect tents and troops in the field.

Outdoorsy friends and family members are likely to appreciate a spray bottle of Permethrin, which can be found by googling it. Keep looking for pump spray bottles if all you find at first is aerosol cans. In the past, we’ve purchased this at Cabela’s and Amazon.

You also can give a gardener plants. Nancy has said she would love to get a plant-of-the-month gift some year, but the local nurseries don’t do that. And I hate to see people overpaying for things from out-of-state companies for something we can buy locally.

Figure out what it would cost at the garden center closest to the gardener in your life to buy 12 plants, and give a gift certificate in that amount, possibly with a list of suggested purchases through the year. One last option – and it costs nothing – is time. If gardeners in your lives have reached an age that makes it harder to work in the garden, write a gift certificate promising your time once or twice a month. They’ll love you for it.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at 767-2297 or at:

]]> 0 to get the gardener in your life this holiday? One idea is plants – but there are others.Sun, 11 Dec 2016 15:27:21 +0000
In landscape design, consider function as well as beauty Sun, 04 Dec 2016 09:00:00 +0000 When choosing plants for your home garden, pick ones that do some work along with being good-looking. Not form over function, in other words, but form and function.

That was my major takeaway from a two-day session I attended as part of landscape design school last month. Regular readers of this column may recall that last year I began a landscape-design program sponsored by the Garden Club Federation of Maine; in order to graduate, I’ll attend two days of classes a year for four consecutive years.

“A landscape can be beautiful as well as highly functional,” said Lois Berg Stack, an ornamental horticulture specialist with the University of Maine Extension in Orono.

As an example, she described a line of red pines along one edge of her home that is attractive and serves to define the border.

Beyond its ornamental attributes, “Those pines provide wind protection on our property over an area that is eight times their height,” she said.

They make her home warmer in winter, in turn allowing her to grow plants that otherwise might not be able to survive Maine’s cold climate, and they offer warmth and shelter to animals, amphibians for one.

Another place plants have important functions beyond their good looks? On riverbanks. The biggest threat to rivers in Maine is not chemicals, Stack said, but silt, which gets washed into rivers from places where plants have been removed. Plants protect rivers from silt in several ways, she said: Leaves from trees and shrubs slow the falling rain so it splashes up less soil when it hits the ground. Natural grasses, perennials and groundcovers further protect the soil. And roots from all these plants bind the soil together, so that flowing river water won’t erode the riverbanks.

Don Leighton, a Falmouth native now working as a landscape architect in Rhode Island, talked to the class about how he uses plants to protect his own garden. It’s set on the Narrows River in Narragansett and is threatened by tides that are rising because of global warming.

When he bought the property seven years ago, the riverfront ground was entirely phragmites, he said, an invasive reed that can be seen along Interstate 95 in many marshy areas. Leighton developed a plan to eliminate the phragmites and to encourage the native marsh grasses to return.

It involved first, installing coconut- fiber coir logs to prevent erosion and next, mowing the phragmites; the idea is to keep them from getting enough green to feed the roots. (When I wrote a column earlier this year on alternatives to the herbicide glysophate, Eric Sideman of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association touted regular mowing as the best chemical-free way to get rid of invasives.) Leighton has had some success: so far, native marsh grasses have replaced the phragmites closest to the water.

My landscape design classmates and I also heard from Todd Richardson, of Richardson and Associates Landscape Architects in Saco. He began by talking to us about how plants create space in a garden. Since they also occupy space, this concept was difficult to grasp at first.

“We move in the space that plants create,” Richardson explained, “in between the plants.”

Think of it this way: whether you create a garden “room” or a path lined by trees or a gap in a hedge that serves as a gate to a neighboring garden, you are creating distinct spaces. The placement of your plants, in other words, creates gardening negative space.

Richardson also discussed how plants can play dual roles when it comes to shade, offering it both to the gardener – who appreciates shade when she sits outside on hot summer afternoons – and to shade-loving plants like rhododendrons and hosta. Tall deciduous trees such as native oaks, maples, hickories and ashes are good for creating shade, he said.

How a piece of property relates to distant and adjacent landscapes is another aspect plants control, Richardson said. Say you have a view worth emphasizing? Frame it with tall plants on each side of it. Conversely, if you want to block a view – or the sound coming from the street – a screen of plants can help do both.

Work with the natural landscapes that surround your home, Richardson and Stack suggested, citing the example of homeowners with hay fields or meadows. By mowing a path through such fields rather than mowing the fields in their entirety, the garden works for both people and animals. People can walk through the mown areas without picking up ticks. Pollinators and other wildlife have a good food source in the wildflowers that grow among the unmown grasses.

Where does this leave you? Over the winter, spend some time thinking about the space around your house. Come spring, see if any of the ideas I’ve outlined are useful for making your landscape work better for you.

TOM ATWELL is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at 767-2297 or at:

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For Christmas, give these books to the gardener/reader in your life Sun, 27 Nov 2016 09:00:00 +0000 With the arrival of winter in Maine, gardening moves inside and into the realm of the imagination. Gardeners exchange rakes and hoes for books, and turn from cultivating gardens to cultivating their (horticultural) minds. It’s merely a coincidence that many of us enjoy receiving books as gifts.

Here are some of the gardening books I’ve read this year and can recommend.

 “The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate – Discoveries from a Secret World.” By Peter Wohlleben. Greystone Books, 272 pages. $24.99.

1114315_781041 trees.jpgTrees are a social species. They intertwine their roots, sharing nutrients so that healthy trees can assist those that are ailing. Huge stumps of old trees may be fed by smaller, healthy nearby trees (the stump’s children, perhaps?), getting a bit of chlorophyl, which prevents them from rotting long after they really should have.

Trees warn their neighbors of trouble. When the leaves of an acacia are eaten by a giraffe in Africa, for example, that tree gives off a scent warning nearby trees it is in danger. The neighboring trees then send poisons to their leaves so the giraffe will leave them alone.

“The Hidden Life of Trees,” which contains these nuggets of information, is the most fascinating plant-related book I have read this year. In addition to describing trees’ social network, the book explains why old-growth, wild forests are healthier than planted forests, and it predicts how forests will react to climate change.

Author Peter Wohlleben is a forester in Germany, so the book concentrates on the beech forests where he works. But the principles are easily transferred to the oak-maple-pine-fir forests of Maine.

 “Heirloom Plants: A Complete Compendium of Heritage Vegetables, Fruits, Herbs & Flowers.” By Thomas Etty and Lorraine Harrison. Ball Publishing, 224 pages. $29.99.

“Heirloom Plants” is filled with drawings; it’s designed like an old-fashioned garden catalog. It is the kind of book that’s perfect to dip into when you want to look something up or spend a few minutes learning something new.

The book opens by defining what heritage plants are and presenting arguments for growing, saving and swapping the seeds of open-pollinated plants. Among the reasons you should, it says: by saving the seeds of plants you grow, you can create what are known as landrace seeds, which are precisely adapted to your specific garden.

 “All the Presidents’ Gardens.” By Marta McDowell. Timber Press, 236 pages. $29.95.

1114315_781041 presidents.jpgBecause the geography of America is so diverse, it would be impossible to write a history of gardening in the United States – a work like that would run to many volumes. Instead, Marta McDowell writes a history of the gardens of American presidents. She uses presidential gardens as a lens through which to examine gardening trends over the centuries and to give insights into the personalities of the presidents themselves.

Up to James Monroe (1817-1825), all of the presidents were serious farmers, and in the early years of our nation, the White House gardens provided food for the president and his family. Later on, flowers superseded vegetables in importance (although with First Lady Michelle Obama’s White House Kitchen Garden, the pendulum may have swung back), and a greenhouse was built on the grounds.

Over the decades, the head gardeners at the White House have changed less frequently than the First Families, and occasional conflicts have arisen between the gardeners and the families. Whether you approach “All the Presidents’ Gardens” from the perspective of gardening or history, you’ll find the book informative and entertaining.

• “Shakespeare’s Gardens.” By Jackie Bennett with photographs by Andrew Lawson. Frances Lincoln Press, 192 pages. $40.

1114315_781041 shakespeare.jpgBeyond some bare facts and the plays and sonnets themselves, scholars know surprisingly little about William Shakespeare’s life. But now writer Jackie Bennett has pulled together plenty of facts about the gardens he knew, lived in or created – many of which can still be visited in England today.

Naturally, those gardens have changed in the 400 years since the playwright’s death, changes that Bennett outlines in her totally entertaining book.

“Shakespeare’s Gardens” also addresses how Shakespeare described plants in his works – which he did often – and it explains the symbolism of those plants.

• “The Homebrewer’s Garden: How to Easily Grow, Prepare and Use Your Own Hops, Malts and Brewing Herbs.” By Joe Fisher and Dennis Fisher. Storey Publishing, 224 pages. $16.95.

This is the second edition update of a 1998 book by two brothers who are organic farmers in Winterport. The book is in four parts: The first part details growing hops, from how to get started to dealing with hops pests, including the Japanese beetle. Next comes sections on herbs you can add to beer, malts you can grow and finally recipes. With the boom in Maine brewing, there could well be a home brewer in your life – this book would make a handy gift.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at 767-2297 or at:

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