GREEN THOUGHTS: Chestnuts and a few impostors

ONE BREEZY MORNING, whilst still home in my pajamas, I could tell the Chinese chestnuts down the road were in bloom. Although various books call the smell “noxious,” “unpleasant,” or (most kindly) “heavy,” I rather like getting a whiff of the late June air that signals this annual event. That’s because not every neighborhood has these interesting trees, and they remind me of the muddle of plants we call chestnuts.

So let’s start with the aforementioned stinker, known botanically as Castanea mollisima. It’s a handsome, broadly rounded tree, growing to perhaps 60 feet, with heavily toothed, elongated leaves. The early summer flowers give rise to prickly pods that contain beautiful chestnut-brown chestnuts, an inch or more across, which are edible and prized by those lucky enough to have at them. The tree is hardy in our area, tough and adaptable. Best of all is that Chinese chestnut is resistant to the fatal chestnut blight.

But yo! Whadda ‘bout dem nuts down in New York? Many wintertime tourists in Manhattan seek the wares of street vendors who sell a different nut, Castanea sativa, or the Spanish chestnut. In addition to roasting, chestnuts in general (and this species specifically) has been eaten in breads, cakes and candies for centuries. Unfortunately, Castanea sativa is neither as hardy nor as blight resistant as the Chinese type, so its cultivation in the eastern U.S. is very limited. In other words, forgetaboutit. Read more…

THROUGH THE WOODS: Water is crucial to my life

SOME OF MY FAVORITE DREAMS are spending the night wandering along a stream. It feels like I am searching for something and is so relaxing and enjoyable. I often wandered up and down streams as a child. Sometimes I was trout fishing our meadow creek on the farm, floating small rough made boats, and sometimes I was just looking for adventure. I was never disappointed. Turning over stream rocks produced all kinds of bugs, worms or moisture loving amphibians. Water snakes and garter snakes liked to lie in the sun on the banks. I mostly went barefoot back then and once stepped on one of these snakes. I don’t know which of us was more surprised as we fled in opposite directions.

Our lives are so dependent on water it is probably instinctual that we seek it and enjoy it. Native American centers were often near the Hudson River, near large creeks like Stockport and the Roe Jan, or at lakes like Lake Taghkanic. They were full of fish, ducks and geese, beaver, and animals like deer that would come to drink. And of course there was plenty of water for man to drink, make pottery and wash things. Read more…

GREEN THOUGHTS: How dry I am

I FEEL ABOUT MY GARDEN like I feel about a lot of things these days: cautiously optimistic. After weeks of fine blue skies and dry, hot days, we’ve had 0.8” of rain. I’m grateful, but I’m not hanging up the hose just yet, as its not nearly enough to make up the deficit. Yet rain sometimes begets rain, so I’ll cross my normally green thumbs, (now a bit wilted), and envision that the toasty trend will be reversed.

After the recent sprinkles, I wonder if the plants have a sense of hope, too. The daylily leaves have turned a pallid shade of green, while the hostas are seeing their leaves shrivel, one by one. Kentucky bluegrass lawns are gray-green to brown, while weedy crabgrass remains a vibrant shade of lime. My potted maroon elephant ear sulks when its bottom saucer dries daily. The growth of wood sorrel, chamomile and spurge in the gravel driveway has slowed to a crawl, and few new weeds have germinated. And our big black walnut tree has started dropping yellow leaflets. I’m sure the roots go down to China, so soil moisture must be part of the trade war. Read more…

GREEN THOUGHTS: Dwarf makes big impact

NATURE ENCOURAGES US TO SLOW DOWN: she doesn’t reveal her secrets to the high-speed crowd. This was true even back in 1904, when two men were waiting on a train platform at Lake Laggan, in Banff, Alberta, Canada. The train was late, and with time on their hands, the pair started roaming the surrounding landscape. There is a good chance that what they found then grows in your garden today.

Of course, it didn’t hurt that the gents were from the Arnold Arboretum, the branch of Harvard dedicated to the collection and study of plants. John George Jack’s career started in 1886 as the keeper of plant records, but his knowledge of both the theoretical and practical aspects of horticulture soon had him identifying specimens, caring for the live collections, and teaching students. His walks around the arboretum to examine and discuss notable trees and shrubs became popular with the public. His accomplice, Alfred Rehder, was a horticultural aristocrat, given that his father and grandfathers directed estates for European counts and princes. He started out weeding at the Arnold for a dollar a day, but quickly became a taxonomist who eventually wrote the eminently useful “Manual of Cultivated Trees and Shrubs Hardy in North America,” a book that can still be found on gardener’s bookshelves. Read more…

GREEN THOUGHTS: The many shades of bluegrass

BLUE SKIES AND GREEN LAWNS are part of the joy of June. Unfortunately, the more particular you are about your lawn, the more difficult life becomes. Those who treasure lawn diversity and think violets, plantains, dandelions and ground ivy are all okay have it easy—they just mow and go on to more fun things. At the opposite end of the spectrum, some folks demand grass-only lawns, and it has to be the right kind of grass, since there are some weedy ones. While bluegrass sounds desirable, when you get right down to it, there are actually undesirable bluegrasses, some of which can foil even the most valiant efforts toward lawn perfection.

I attempted to help a local homeowner (let’s call her Fern, just for fun) with such a case last week. In an otherwise extremely well-manicured landscape, her dark green lawn began to have patches of a yellow-green grass. The contrasting colors produced a polka-dotted appearance, far from the even-color desired. Fern asked a man at a garden center about it, and was told it was Annual Bluegrass (Poa annua). While this sounded good, Fern did some more research and was unconvinced. Although Annual Bluegrass (which can be perennial as well as annual, but that is fodder for another turf story) is light green, it should have seedheads this time of year. Fern’s grass had no seedheads, and seemed to be even paler than a picture of Annual Bluegrass. So she contacted Cooperative Extension for another opinion. Read more…