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Armchair Gardener #4: Michael's Letter

Dear Ketzel,

When I heard your request for stories of cold weather gardening, I knew I had to relate a story that has been emblazoned in my brain for over 40 years.

As a child in the 1950's, I grew up in upstate New York; Poughkeepsie, to be exact. Our next-door neighbor was an Italian immigrant, one of the nicest gentlemen I have had the pleasure to be acquainted with, and an avid gardener. He was the first person I had ever encountered that knew compost. All kitchen waste ended up as the most fertile mulch you have ever seen.

My neighbor's name was Joseph Valastro. Each year he would put out a perfect garden, complete with tomatoes, peppers, sweet basil and all the Italian necessities including grapes in a beautiful arbor. The grape arbor is where he sat and listened to baseball in the heat of the summer on a small, portable "electric" radio. When Joseph immigrated from Italy, he carried with him one of his favorite plants, a fig tree!

Each year as autumn came to upstate New York, Joseph would collect all the maple leaves he could find, dig a hole the width and length of his now pruned fig tree, and line the hole with the leaves. As the season progressed, he carefully and gently pulled the fig tree into the leaf- lined hole, and covered the entire plot both with more leaves and either linoleum or tar paper to insulate and somewhat waterproof his beloved fig tree.

In the spring, Joseph would "resurrect" the fig tree by propping the trunk up in small increments using various lengths of scrap wood. Eventually, the tree would bloom and bear the sweetest perfect fruit one could ask for.

This annual process went on each year for more than the 18 years I lived next to Joseph. One year during the winter, Joseph died. His family -- either in the form of tribute, or for lack of knowledge of the process -- just left the beautiful fig tree under the ground. It seemed to me that it was only fitting that the tree be left to rest much the same as its owner.

Michael Bush
Tempe, AZ.

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More Listener Letters

Dear Ketzel,

As someone who is always pushing the hardiness envelope -- that is to say I live in Zone 7 but try to grow plants that should only be hardy in Zone 8 or 9 -- I am always looking for tips to help my plants make it through the winter.

In order to protect plants through the cold months, I mulch. I mulch with pine straw and pine bark. I mulch with compost and with collected leaves. I mulch with the stems and leaves of perennials and annuals killed by frost. I mulch with the branches of discarded Fraser fir Christmas trees. When we have had extreme dips in temperature, I have taken old quilts and covered agaves and manfredas and a jelly palm to help protect their leaves from freezing winds.

I never encourage growth on marginally hardy plants by giving them fertilizer or extra water in the fall. Fresh, succulent growth is always more sensitive to the cold, and actively growing plants are more likely to be killed outright. This is expecially true for eucalypts, which never go into a true dormancy like other plants I grow, but seem ready to start sprouting new leaves if we have a warm, wet spell in midwinter. Pruning also encourages growth, so I don't do any of that on my marginal plants in late summer or fall. I always let my erythrinas and colquhonia die back naturally and never remove the branches until spring when the plants are ready to sprout again from the roots.

And I have prayed. Or at least I used to, but I have stopped praying for winter protection as a matter of principle. As a garden educator, I need to let people know how a plant is going to perform on its own (and quite frankly, I want to know, too) I am uncomforatble saying that a plant is reliably hardy in Zone 8 and possibly hardy in Zone 7 with prayer.

When a jelly palm I had nursed along for several years died last winter, a friend commented that must really make me sad. It didn't, though. I had done all I thought was reasonable to protect it and keep it healthy, but we had a cold period that was too long with temperatures too low for it to survive. I am resigned to such losses and accept them as learning experiences and as opportunities to try again with possibly hardier strains or with different plants altogether. The accumulating knowledge; the success and failure, these are what I have come to believe make gardening interesting for me. I would probably become bored if everything I planted lived and thrived. And that is why I have stopped asking for divine intervention.

People have told me stories of how they have built temporary structures, covered them with plastic, and ran electrical cords and incandescent light bulbs out to protect camellia buds that were ready to open when a severe cold snap threatened. Ketzel, I draw the line at doing that. If you are going to go to that much trouble you might as well grow them in a greenhouse. Unless you are a camellia enthusiast at death's door afraid you won't live to see them bloom again next year, I just can't see doing it... especially when it's just the blooms and not the entire plant. Or perhaps if the mercury is threatening to drop below zero and you have a 90-year-old camellia rooted from a cutting from your grandmother's wedding bouquet -- yes, I would take extreme measures to protect it. And despite what I said earlier, I would pray. After all, if God can place an angel with a fiery sword outside Eden, it wouldn't be a stretch to send one to protect another garden treasure.

Sincerely,
Arty

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Dear Ketzel,

Somewhere during the last few days of each December, my husband and I always find ourselves outside in the brutally cold Michigan winter building a tent for our Christmas tree. Fifteen years ago we began purchasing a living tree for each Christmas. We soon discovered that after a tree has spent several days indoors at 72 degrees, it resents being plunged into below-freezing temperatures. Although we now have a miniature forest of evergreen stalwarts, each one needed a lot of coddling to get through its first Michigan winter.

Each year we select a tree in September (A nice big root ball is a must!). Once we know the size of the root ball, we choose a spot in the yard and dig the new arrival’s hole. The dirt from the hole is stored in the garage, where it will keep from freezing. The day after Christmas, the tree gets lugged out of the house and plopped into its new home. We haul the original dirt out of the garage, mix it with slow-release food, and pack it around the tree’s roots. We then apply two or three bags of cypress mulch to the area around the tree. In an attempt to fool the tree into thinking it is still inside, we build a small, four-sided burlap "tent" around the tree. This all sounds like a lot of work, but it is a wonderful experience to stand beside a lovely, 25-foot tall pine tree that once adorned your living room. There is enchantment, to be sure, in the beautiful smell of pine and the soothing sound of breeze moving through boughs, but even better are all the memories associated with each tree.

Susan

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Dear Ketzel,

I was listening to when they asked for stories about how people went to great lengths to save their plants from the ravages of winter.

I grew up in northern New Jersey. My grandfather lived with us from before I was born. Every fall, from my earliest recollection until he passed away when I was a high school senior, he would trim our 10' fig tree, wrap it with many layers of newspaper, then cover it all with burlap and tie it with rope. He did this in order to protect the tree from freezing so that it would survive the winter and bear fruit the next season.

After my grandfather passed away, we abandoned the ritual and wrote the tree off. That winter, as I recall, the fig tree sort of disappeared. But, in the spring, much to our surprise, it sprouted from the ground and grew to nearly its previous height. Adding to our surprise, it bore fruit that year, as it did for many years thereafter.

One of my grade school teachers told me that fig trees didn't grow in New Jersey. I had to bring her a ripe fig to convince her that we really had one. I guess this fig tree had not been told that it couldn't grow in such cold weather!

Regards,
Frank

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Dear Ketzel,

I thought I'd share my dahlia saga with you. I garden in Lexington, Mass. -- about zone six but bordering on five. In order to save my dahlia tubers at the end of the summer (they wouldn't survive here if left in the ground over the winter) this is what I do:

After a few mild frosts, and after I've cut down the blackened foliage, I dig up the tubers with a a pitchfork very carefully so as not to divide any unwittingly. I keep each individual clump associated with its label. I wash as much dirt off as I can with the garden hose (usually a messy and cold affair at that time of year) and then place all the clumps on newspaper in the garage to dry. The next step is to bathe them in an antifungal broth and dry them again. Next, I label individual paper grocery bags for each variety and place some peat moss in each. This year I dusted each clump with medicated foot powder (again to protect against the dreaded fungus spores) prior to placing them in each paper bag (never use plastic or they'll rot). They are then brought down to my cool basement where they'll winter over.

By the time March rolls around and usually during a major snowfall, my defiance at the weather compels me to begin the planting cycle. I then bring up the dahlia tubers, divide them with a growing eye from the old stem and pot them all up, making as many as I can to plant in my garden and to donate to the spring Garden Club sale. The dining room table then becomes the initial staging area for their growth (no dinner parties now!) making sure they are moist but not overwatered (or again they'll rot) and wait a few weeks, checking daily, for signs of growth. When the first leaves appear, I move each pot to a spot under my plant lights (for sturdy growth), give a weak solution of fertilizer to get them going, and pinch out the stems if they get too tall. These stems can then be rooted to increase the supply of plants!

Prior to planting these good sized plants outdoors in mid-May, I move them outdoors for about 2 weeks (and if there's a hint of frost, they are moved into the garage during the evening). They are then planted out in the garden. As Tevya said, "If that's not love, what is?"

All my best to you,
Eileen

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Dear Ketzel,

Quite some time ago, my grandmother Pearl (who we called Nanny) told me story about a Magnolia Tree she had planted years earlier in what had become my parents' home. That tree was significantly hers, she took great care in gathering weeds and what-not around its base. I remember my Nanny being close to the earth. Somehow, she claimed her Magnolia tree as her own, her child in a way.

She was a careful, quiet woman whose opinions were hardly noticed. But that tree was hers and she spoke of it almost as a character who'd helped shape her new married life and her house, in which I lived after she was too sick to walk the steps. It sat gracefully to the left of the house, boasting the gentle pink blossoms of the spring, and its malignant starkness that she so closely watched in the winter. During its first few years, she said she would drape the base of the tree in a quilt, as if she were tucking it in for a good nights' sleep. She would even say that she'd watch her tree from the window, almost creating an image where she would spiritually wrap her motherhood over that tree to be sure that the wind or snow hadn't destroyed it. She would tell me that she would go out in to the snow and carefully clear off the branches. How lovely was her devotion to her tree, a quiet relationship that was only hers and only hers to know completely.

Years later, after she had died, the tree finally died. Perhaps the tree waited for her, I thought. It was as if a piece of her had died over again, when the blooming stopped and the branches were somehow atrophied. Thank you for the cathartic experience. Its a beautiful and melancholy memory.

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Dear Ketzel,

I am a vegetable horticulturist with the University of Georgia. I don't work with flowers or ornamentals. However, I have a poinsettia outside my house that has been there ever since I moved in. I live in Tifton, Georgia which is about 175 miles south of Atlanta.

Well, this poinsettia is just outside the window of the second bathroom in my house. It gets killed every year and comes back from the ground. I prune it a little to make it branch. We usually have some frost before Christmas, but only a few days. The poinsettia is often just beginning to bloom when the weather turns cold. I try to nurse it through the holidays at least, although I know it will get killed later in the winter.

During a couple of cold Decembers I have successfully saved the plant from frost until after the holidays. I take a piece of thin plastic and use binder clips to clamp it to the window on each side and wrap it around the poinsettia. This poinsettia is usually about six to eight feet tall at this point. I drape the plastic over the poinsettia and clamp it together at the top. Then I open the bathroom window to allow the heat from my house out into the plastic canopy to protect the plant from the freezing temperatures. My friends and neighbors think this is quite an effort to save a plant from the elements. However, after watching it grow all summer I don't want to let it get killed before I have a chance to enjoy the blooms.

William

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Dear Ketzel,

I live in Eastern Montana. This is not the Montana made famous in movies or by the artwork of C.M. Russell. We have no real mountains, streams run a silty brown (not icy, cool and clear), there are few trees beyond the riverbeds. If we get 12 inches of precipitation in a year, it's a good year; officially this is a high desert. High temperatures in late summer often exceed 100 degrees. Winter lows frequently reach below zero -- last night we hit 26 below zero. I have experienced 100 degree temperature swings within a 24 hour period. Soils here tend to be heavy clays with high alkalinity; the water is usually alkaline as well. Winds are strong and often gusty. It is a harsh and unforgiving environment, suited only for short grasses, yucca and sagebrush.

Three years ago I was given a real challenge. My Dad sent me a shoot and some chunks of root from a banana palm and said, "Make it grow so your girls will know where a banana comes from." I think he had just heard or watched a news report about how detached urban residents are from the source of their food. My kids, age eight and five, were well aware that milk comes from a cow, the cows eats grass; bread comes from grain, perhaps grown by her uncles North of us in Circle, Montana; strawberries (their favorite) come from the Salinas valley in California near Grandma LaDonne's house; and lastly, Big Macs and Chicken Nuggets come from cows and chickens. Some years I go hunting and bring home wild game; the kids have known about the food chain for some time. But Dad insisted I grow a banana for them.

In town, I bought a few bags of potting soil and a big pot. My wife and I planted the shoot, carefully placing the roots and gently tamping the soil around them. Dad assured us the shoot would grow. We threw the smaller root chunks in for good measure, thinking it might help with soil conditioning. Well, the shoot died and we gave up on watering. We were very surprised a few weeks later to see a small plant emerging from one of the chunks of root. That was the Spring of 1999. By mid-summer, living in the shelter of a spacious, well-lit living room window the tree had reached six feet in height. Summer drew to close and fall and winter took there toll on the banana. Lacking light and humidity the tree dropped some leaves and lost some of its size.

The following spring brought new growth and vibrancy to the stunted palm. It grew to reach eight feet and was pushing higher and wanting more space and light. Our big pot no longer satisfied the root system. It was time to move it outdoors. We dragged the pot and the tree through the door and off the porch to a sunny spot in front of the living room window. We placed the tree just under the eave of the house so it would get a little extra water if it were to rain. The location also offered some shelter from the prevailing northwest wind. The tree went through a bit of shock, but soon began to produce a couple of new leaves. The grasshopper outbreak was not too bad last year; I was able to maintain a perimeter around the banana with ample application of various pesticides and selective hand removal. The banana was showing some growth -- until the hail storm hit. The hail last year was not the worst we've seen, it only reached the size of a racquetball. Nearby, Broadus, Mont. was hit with softball-sized hail for nearly 20 minutes. Our hail was enough to tear holes through several leaves and badly bruise the main trunk or stalk.

The banana had to come back in. It was beat up. It did not like the native soil. It did not fare well against the climate, the bugs, the wind or the direct, harsh sun. We bought a bigger pot -- this time it was three feet round and nearly as deep. I made a dolly to move the thing in the house when it was time to sweep or clean. The banana is now making a comeback. My wife, Dee, replenished the potting soil with a dose of fertilizer. The roots are nearly standing in water all the time. It seems to be working. There is once again new growth, even though we are into winter and the days are short. I anticipate that this year the leaves will hit our ten foot ceiling. We have a four foot crawl space under the floor and another ten inches of floor thickness.

I've laid out the spot where we plan to cut a hole through the floor to give the palm room to grow. The plan is to dig a hole under the house, line it with plastic and fill it with new potting soil. We'll then transplant the root ball to "the pit"! This will allow for over fourteen feet of growth to the ceiling. My Dad claims his banana palm began to fruit at about that size, but he didn't have room to bring his indoors last winter -- it froze in a back yard in Silver Spring, Md. He too, was pursuing the growth of tropical fruit in a non-tropical environment.

Perhaps, my family and I are fighting an uphill battle, but we've never been accused of turning down a challenge or letting common sense dictate our decisions. We will keep watering, fertilizing, transplanting and transforming our home until we get a banana. I hope to tell my Dad one day, as we sit in our house looking out on the snow, that my daughters are dressed in long johns, wearing wool socks, are cuddled up by the fireplace, and are enjoying the best, freshest banana they've ever had from the banana palm growing up through our floor!

Chad

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more Return to Armchair Gardener #4

Armchair Gardener Series:

Armchair Gardener 1#1: Let Them Read Books!
Morning Edition, January 4, 2002 The first part of a series for gardeners trying to weather the winter months without access to their favorite pastime. Ketzel stops by a Portland, Oregon, bookstore that's packed with gardening books... and brings several plant-lovers along.

Armchair Gardener 2Armchair Gardener #2: Charles Dudley Warner
Morning Edition, February 8, 2002
The series continues as Ketzel talks with writers Michael Pollan and Allan Gurganus about a little-known 19th century author who reinvented American garden writing.

Listen to Armchair Gardener #3Armchair Gardener #3: A Walk Through a Tasmanian Garden
Morning Edition, February 15, 2002
Ketzel takes us on a tour of a three-acre garden on the Australian island state of Tasmania. The catch is, she never leaves home.


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