Monthly Archives: February 2010

Microclimates…or Garden Hotspots

Here's somebody who LOVES snow...especially rolling in it!

Here’s somebody who LOVES snow…especially rolling in it!

Despite a few days above freezing this week, most of our central MA farm is still under a thick blanket of snow. As I look out my front window, I can see the farm across the valley from us, completely free of snow. Why is that? It’s all about topography and the angle of the sun as it moves across the sky. Our farm is perched low on the north-facing slope of a river valley. The low angle of the winter sun passing across the southern sky means that this time of year, many areas are in the shade for most of the day. Cooler air also settles at the bottom of the valley, keeping temperatures a few degrees lower than the rest of town. The farm across the valley is on a south-facing slope, and their fields are perfectly positioned to capture the sun’s heat all day, melting their snow more quickly. It’s no surprise that apples were once grown on that side of the valley, but not on this side. It’s too cold!

Melting snow can tell us a lot about our garden conditions. Watch where the snow melts first in your yard in the spring, and you’ll learn where the warmer microclimates are. Use them  to your advantage to grow heat and sun-loving plants such as tomatoes and flowering plants that will sulk in a colder spot.

The back wall of our garage faces south, trapping the sun’s heat on sunny days and releasing it slowly overnight. The wall also protects plants from cold north winds, keeping the area quite warm and sheltered. This is the only area of my garden where I can grow Mediterranean herbs that need hot, blazing sun to thrive. A mulch of pea-stone gravel also absorbs the heat, warming the ground faster in spring and helping the crowns of plants from rotting in my high-moisture soil.

So watch the snow as it melts in your gardens, and figure out your garden hot spots!

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Goat’s Beard (Aruncus dioicus)

If you’re a New England gardener looking for a large-impact shade perennial that blooms in early summer, you can’t go wrong with Goat’s Beard (Aruncus dioicus). Perfect for a partly-shaded woodland edge, its creamy white flowers are especially striking contrasted with a darker background:

DCF 1.0

Native to the rich woods of Pennsylvania southward, Goat’s Beard grows quickly in spring from a woody crown, with flowering stems that can reach 6′ in moist soil. Flowering in late June in my zone 5b central Massachusetts garden, Goat’s Beard seems to do best with about half a day of morning sunshine. It usually takes a few years to get established, but once mature, it fills a good size area, so give it plenty of room.

Don’t confuse the native Goat’s Beard to the commonly planted Astilbe, which is also sometimes called Goatsbeard. Astilbe is much shorter than the native Aruncus, growing only about 2′.

aruncus-seeds-feb-2010Goat’s Beard is a good plant for New England habitat gardens…its flowers attract hordes of beneficial pollinating insects, and its long seed tassels persist well into winter. Don’t these winter seed stems look like a nice meal for birds?

Aruncus dioicus is dioecious, which means that there are male and female plants.  Only the female plants produce the seed heads, and their flowers are slightly showier than the males, so plant several Goat’s Beard at a time to ensure that you have at least one female plant. Even if you are lucky enough to find this plant for sale in a nursery, you’ll probably get some blank stares if you ask what sex they are! In central MA, this plant is sometimes available at Bigelow Nurseries in Northborough as well as Garden in the Woods in Framingham. I also have them for sale during the season at Turkey Hill Brook Farm (Spencer, MA).

Great Backyard Bird Count

BGGCWhat are you doing this weekend? Can you spare a few minutes of bird watching to help scientists understand our wild birds better? Be a citizen scientist and contribute data about the winter bird populations in your region of the United States. Scientists use the information to learn how birds are adapting to environmental changes, and to answer puzzling questions about why bird populations fluctuate in areas from year to year.

Here’s all you need to do. Simply make a note (and number) of the birds you see this weekend between February 12th and 15th. Enter your results online on the form at the Great Backyard Bird Count  website. You have until March 1st to enter your results.

For a list of birds you are most likely to see in your region, click here for a checklist. If you need help identifying the birds you see in your yard, use visit the Online Bird Guide.

Here’s a shot of one of our winter bird gardens from last January. Look carefully and you can spot at least 3 birds in this photo:

cardinal-chickadeeSo, look out your windows this weekend at the trees, and write down which birds you see. Even better, take a hike in the woods with a digital camera and a field guide to birds. Log your tallies online, and submit your best photos to the Photo Gallery. And, don’t forget to check the GBBC results page later to see which birds your neighbors also saw!

Seed catalog time

It’s February! With apologies to Andy Williams, I have to say that February starts the Most Wonderful Time of the Year for New England gardeners… we are but a hop, skip and a jump from spring now, and within the next month or two, it’ll be time to set up the cold frame and sow cold-season seeds outside, as well a start a few flats of flowering annuals indoors. I like to plant hundreds of annuals each year in various areas of my garden, and the only way I can afford such indulgence is to grow them myself from seed.

But first, I need to decide what I’m growing this year. That’s the fun part! Our coffee tables are strewn with thick magazine-style seed catalogs which have been arriving fast and furious in the past few weeks….nothing is better than sitting in front of a roaring fire on a cold February day, leafing through beautifully illustrated catalogs, planning our 2010 vegetable and flower gardens and putting together the annual seed order!

The Renee’s Garden catalog is particularly scrumptious this year, with wonderful photos and some great specialty seed collections designed for new gardeners, including “A Hummingbird Garden“, “Seeds for a Butterfly Garden“, and “A Native American Three Sisters Garden” to introduce you to the age-old concept of working with nature to grow healthy plants and crops.

I am definitely going to try growing the newly available yellow Zinnia Profusion‘ (shown above on the cover of Park’s Seed catalog). You cannot beat Profusion as a short (12″) zinnia that blooms its head off all summer for so little effort. I’ve used it in containers to bring butterflies up close to our patio, and it’s also excellent in garden beds to fill bare spots with pizzazz.  Pictured below is Zinnia ‘Profusion’ Apricot:

This year, I’ve decided to extend my “locavorous” shopping strategy and buy all my seeds from New England-based seed suppliers. As a locavore, I try to buy as much of our food from local farmers in order to support New England’s agricultural industries as well as help protect our region’s remaining open spaces for local, sustainable food production and habitat for declining wildlife species. Buying from suppliers who grow their plants in the tough climate of New England also means that their seeds should do well in my cold central Massachusetts valley garden.

So…..Turkey Hill Brook Farm’s 2010 seed orders will go to……(drum roll please)

Johnny’s Selected Seeds, which is an employee-owned company based in Maine, offering good quality vegetable, cover crop, herb, and flower seeds. They are a member of the Safe Seed Initiative, meaning that they do not buy or sell genetically engineered or modified seeds or plants.

Select Seeds in Union, CT, specializing in old-fashioned fragrant flowers, flowering vines, and hard-to-find heirloom annuals and perennials. Their seed collections include butterfly habitat gardens, hummingbird gardens and an old-fashioned fragrance garden that looks and sounds very enticing!

John Scheepers in Bantam, CT – nicely illustrated catalog for home vegetable gardeners, containing recipes, lots of interesting and useful garden tips, plus seeds for fragrant flowers and collections for habitat flower gardens.

So let the 2010 Garden Season begin! If you’re looking for me this weekend, I’ll be on the couch with a couple of sleeping dogs and a glass of wine, flipping through catalogs, making my list and checking it twice!  I’ll blog later on about what seeds I ordered and why.

Special Note: I have no business relationship with any of these companies other than as a happy customer. If you know of any other New England-based seed companies that you think belong on my supplier list, let me know!