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January 31st, 2012

When Bulbs Wake Up Too Early

We’re barely halfway through winter and already I see the tips of daffodils and hyacinths poking through the mulch. This weekend I even saw some crocuses in bloom. Do I need to do anything?

blog-dougDon’t underestimate the fortitude of bulbs that bloom in early spring. They’re used to nasty winter weather. As long as the flower buds stay safely belowground, the worst that can happen is the leaf tips will be singed. Daffodils with brown leaf tips may not be what you were hoping to see in spring, but the damage is superficial and won’t prevent the bulbs from flowering.

It’s not unusual for these tentative sprouts to appear long before the bulbs bloom. So long as the weather stays cold, the leaves grow no further. If you wish, you can add a layer of loose mulch to insulate the exposed shoots and protect them from winter burn.

But when warmer weather causes the flower buds to emerge—and especially once the buds show color or open—the potential for damage increases. Bulb flowers are more fragile than the leaves, more likely to be harmed by snow, wind, or just plain cold. Enjoy those crocuses while they last!  —Doug Hall

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January 24th, 2012

Apples for Cider

I read the article “A Taste of History” about hard cider in your magazine. Now I’m interested in learning what varieties of apples are used in making cider.

blog-dougAs reported in our article, traditional alcoholic cider is making a comeback, led by a group of American “micro-cideries” that ferment apples in small batches. Hard cider is a crisp, clear beverage, not to be confused with the sweet, cloudy, nonalcoholic juice that is sold in fall as apple cider.

Just as each variety of grape produces a wine of distinct flavor and character, the many types of apples give rise to a wide selection of hard ciders. Cider makers blend apples, including those with bitter and tannic flavors, to create the right balance of sweetness and acidity. Cider apples are grouped into four classes based on their flavor characteristics: sweet, sharp, bittersweet, and bittersharp.

Cider makers often look to the past for their inspiration, selecting heirloom apple varieties. But many are also experimenting with newer cultivars, such as ‘Jonagold’, ‘Lady’, and ‘Golden Delicious’. The websites of two of the regional makers mentioned in the article list the apple varieties that go into their ciders. They are Farnum Hill Ciders of New Hampshire and Tieton Cider Works (associated with Harmony Orchards) in Washington.  —Doug Hall

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January 10th, 2012

Look for the OMRI Label

What is the significance of the “OMRI Listed” label I see on some gardening products?

blog-dougThink of the OMRI logo as an organic seal of approval. The initials stand for Organic Materials Review Institute, a nonprofit group set up to evaluate products based on the standards of the USDA’s National Organic Program. OMRI reviews materials that are used in the growing and processing of food crops (as well as fiber crops). Those that are added to the OMRI list can be used when growing foods that will be sold as organic.

Earning the right to display the OMRI logo isn’t easy. OMRI inspectors review product formulas and even visit manufacturing plants to assess compliance with National Organic Program standards. The USDA officially recognizes OMRI decisions.

OMRI’s list of approved materials (presented in a searchable database at omri.org) includes brand-name products as well as generic materials, such as sphagnum moss, Epsom salts, and alfalfa meal. Some products are approved for certain uses but not others. Organic growers must follow the OMRI guidelines meticulously if they are to maintain their organic certification.

Home gardeners are well advised to look for the OMRI logo, too, when they’re shopping for fertilizers or other gardening products. Unlike some other marketing buzzwords that appear on labels, like “natural” or “sustainable,” the OMRI listing carries weight.  —Doug Hall

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January 6th, 2012

Nature’s Antifreeze

How is it that some plants survive temperatures below zero, when my tomatoes turn to mush at the first hint of frost?

blog-dougPlants that live in cold climates have developed the ability to withstand below-freezing temperatures without damage. When you consider that each living cell is filled mostly with water, this is an amazing feat.

Plants such as your tomatoes—as well as other tender annuals and tropical plants—can’t survive freezing. When the water in their cells turns to ice crystals, cell walls rupture and the tissues die.

Hardy evergreens, on the other hand, fortify their cells with sugars and other dissolved substances as winter approaches, turning water into an “antifreeze” of sorts. The foliage of both broadleaf and needle evergreens usually has a waxy layer that offers extra protection. Hardy deciduous trees and shrubs can also freeze-proof the sap in their woody tissues.

You’ve probably noticed an interesting side effect of the autumn buildup of sugars in plant cells. After the first light frosts of fall, cool-weather vegetables like broccoli, kale, and Brussels sprouts begin to taste sweeter—evidence that the plants are bracing for cold.

But even antifreeze has its limits, and that’s where the USDA Plant Hardiness Zones come in. These hardiness ratings give gardeners a good idea of just how much winter cold each species can tolerate.  —Doug Hall

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