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Boston ferns as outdoor accents. July 11, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, homesteading.
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Silence Dogood here. This year, I’ve noticed a lot of big, beautiful Boston ferns for sale outside local groceries. I’ve been very tempted to buy one, too, but worried about where I’d put it, since to me, Boston ferns are Victorian-era houseplants, and there’s only so much room in the cottage home our friend Ben and I share for houseplants. What a shame to pass such fabulously healthy-looking ferns by!

Then, last weekend, OFB and I went down to Annapolis, MD, where the plantings in general were restrained and gorgeous, but Boston ferns of all things took the spotlight. Outside the Annapolis Visitors’ Center, containers of Boston fern, a purple-leaved coleus, and a red-flowered begonia stole the show. Such a simple grouping, but the impact was perfect. I couldn’t imagine Boston ferns surviving hot, humid summer weather (I could barely survive it myself), but there they were, looking like the top contenders on The World’s Healthiest Plants.

Seeing Boston ferns in such an unlikely setting taught me a few useful lessons: First, never assume a houseplant has to stay inside. Second, less is more when it comes to impact. And third, consider your placement and pots carefully and remember the importance of echoing.

Now I want to rush off to the grocery and make sure I can get some of those Boston ferns before they’re gone.

‘Til next time,


Elizabethan plant protection. May 1, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, pets, Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. Some of you may remember a post I wrote a few weeks ago about how a friend foisted off a plant I classify in the “boring green houseplants” category on me when I last visited her, claiming that “she was sure I could save it.” (Before someone who shall remain nameless comes online to abuse me for this plant classification, let me hasten to say that I have nothing whatever against green houseplants. I love orchids, cacti and succulents, African violets, clivias, amaryllis, and many another green plant. What I don’t love are green plants with boring foliage and no blooms or other features of interest.)

Anyway, the plant in question was healthy—no pests or diseases—and was in a large, handsome terracotta pot. Its only problem appeared to be lack of food and water. And, as it happened, I had a perfect spot for it, where its dark green spear-shaped leaves would rise upward to contrast with and draw the eye to a huge, arching begonia on the left and a cluster of other begonias on the right, both in elevated positions, while the new plant would be less than a foot off the ground on a handmade plant stand I’d bought from a local blacksmith. The plant’s position in this combination would elevate it from its BGH status by making it an integral part of the picture, so I took it with pleasure.

Of course, there was the little problem of reviving it after years of neglect and abuse. But no worries, it was healthy, it just needed a few more leaves. Make that a lot more leaves.

Undaunted, I put it in its new position and was delighted to see that it had the exact effect I’d envisioned: A disparate collection of plants suddenly became a compelling combination. And a liberal amount of water, followed a week later by more water with a good shot of liquid seaweed, SuperTHRIVE, and organic fertilizer, seemed to be doing the trick. Such leaves as there were perked up considerably, and new ones began emerging from the seemingly desiccated base. So far, so good.

Then disaster struck, in the form of our gorgeous but clueless Maine coonlike cat, Linus. I should have remembered that Linus had once displayed an inordinate affection for the leaves of jade plants, but I didn’t, since all jade plants have been residing in the greenhouse for the past several years. And Linus never seemed to take an interest in any of our many other houseplants.

So when I saw the shredded remains of the outer leaves of the Formerly Boring Green Houseplant (henceforth, FBGH), I immediately thought of our rambunctious black German shepherd Shiloh, who has certainly wreaked her share of devastation on pretty much everything on numerous occasions. And I would have probably continued to blame poor Shiloh if I hadn’t caught Linus in flagrante delicto on about five occasions. (I did mention that he was clueless, right?) No amount of screaming, hand-waving, threats, or anything else deterred Linus from what he apparently considered to be the best thing since sliced tuna. But at least he seemed to suffer no ill effects from consuming the FBGH; he didn’t even throw up, much less keel over.

Now, the problem was keeping Linus away from the plant. This wasn’t a problem while I was working in the home office where it was located. Even if Linus managed to sneak in without my realizing it, the telltale chomping noise would bring me rushing to the plant’s defense. However, even we impoverished freelancers don’t work 24/7; we occasionally do have to eat, sleep, read, garden, and even watch DVDs. And while these activities were taking place, Linus managed to consume not one, not two, but pretty much all the outer leaves of the FBGH.

Needless to say, I was not happy about this. The plant was now serving a useful function, and furthermore, it showed every indication of reviving and potentially thriving. Nobody wants their ugly duckling to turn into Duck a l’Orange before it can become a swan. But what to do?! 

At first, I thought I’d figured it out. Linus had by now eaten all the outer leaves, leaving a bunch of upright green stems in his wake. But he couldn’t get to the inner leaves, which were doing well. Lots of small leaves were starting to sprout up in the center of the pot. Surely they were safe, and the plant would ultimately form a handsome specimen, even if the leaves were concentrated far from the pot’s perimeter.

Then, this morning, I saw that the organic fertilizer I’d spread on the surface of the soil around the FBGH had somehow migrated to the floor. And I caught Linus in the vicinity of the plant again. On closer inspection, I saw that the middle of the poor plant was badly mashed down, exactly as if an enormous cat had jumped into the pot and sat on it. Aaarrgghhh!!! Now what?!!

Fortunately, Shiloh came to the rescue. We still had a large “Elizabethan collar” (aka plastic cone collar, named for the massive, head-dwarfing lace ruffs worn by the nobility in the Elizabethan era) that poor Shiloh had been forced to wear after an injury at playschool caused her to develop a hotspot. The collar fit around her head and kept her from biting or scratching the hotspot, allowing it to heal. It worked, too, so we kept it in case of future need.

Staring at the Elizabethan collar, it occurred to me that it was, at the wide end, just about exactly the size of the FBGH’s pot. And its height would almost cover the beleaguered plant. So I grabbed the collar, hauled it into the home office, and slammed it over the unfortunate FBGH. Sure enough, it was a good fit. The poor FBGH now resembled a tipsy partygoer who’d stuck a large plastic lampshade over his head.

My plan is to leave the collar on when I’m not in the room and take it off when I’m in there. My hope is that the collar will keep Linus off long enough for the plant to put on some growth. Maybe by then I’ll have thought of a better plan.

           ‘Til next time,


Would you take this plant? April 11, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. If everybody knows you love houseplants, people tend to give you houseplants. Specifically, they tend to give you their houseplants. Their houseplants that happen not to be doing so well anymore.

This has happened to me twice in the past week. “I wonder if you would like this plant.” “This plant doesn’t look so good, but I thought maybe you could bring it back to life.” “I’ve never been any good with plants.” “I forgot to water this and it died, but I think it’s really still alive.” And so the litany goes on and on.

In fact, I do love houseplants. Hawk’s Haven, the cottage home our friend Ben and I share in the precise middle of nowhere, Pennsylvania, boasts a large collection of begonias, Christmas cacti, and African violets. But, as a fellow plant enthusiast would observe, those are the only kinds of houseplants we keep inside. Now, in our greenhouse, and on the deck during the season, we have a widely varied assortment of cacti and succulents, orchids, amaryllis, cannas, ferns, herbs, pelargoniums, coleus, tropical and frost-tender fruits, a terrarium, plectranthi and tender salvias, and etc.etc. And yes, we are thrilled to receive interesting plants and try them out in both locations, or in whichever one is most appropriate for their culture.

But herein lies our problem. Many houseplants are either not interesting, or too interesting. They’re boring green foliage plants without a single feature of interest, making us wonder why on earth anyone ever decided to bring them indoors to begin with, or they’re wildly, insanely, garishly patterned and colored tropical foliage plants that look like they’ve (barely) survived the paintball wars. And naturally, it’s exactly these plants that people are always offering us.

Last week, I was hit with two large plants of the “boring dark green foliage unrelieved by a single feature of interest” category. I’m really good about speaking up if I inspect a plant like this and see the least sign of disease or pest infestation: “I’m sorry, this plant has —-. You’d better throw it out.” But these plants were perfectly healthy. Neglected, yes, but holding on just fine even so. They fell in the “I don’t want this anymore” category. There they sat, each in the balance of its owner’s lack of interest, poised between me and the trash.

So, okay, I caved. I actually had the perfect place for one of them—a marvelous big, low black iron plant stand I’d had a blacksmith make me years ago. This stand had stood empty since the cats destroyed our Norfolk Island pine—an extremely large, healthy, attractive one, sob—and ever since, I’d been hoping to find another that could take its place. But I’ve never found another one in all this time that wasn’t pest-ridden (scale, mealybugs, gack), and so the stand sat empty. Boring green plant #1 is now occupying that stand beneath a taller stand with a magnificent begonia in our home office. I’m hoping the foliage contrast will at least provide some interest, and as I told OFB, “Hey, at least it will add more oxygen to the room.” But I’m still looking for the perfect, pest-free Norfolk Island pine.

What of boring green plant #2? It’s resting comfortably in the greenhouse. I’m hoping that its large, glossy green foliage might somehow be worked into a grouping of pots on the deck, perhaps with a chartreuse coleus and a red-striped canna. That’s what I tell myself, anyway, and what I tell OFB when he glares at me for taking up precious greenhouse space with such an undistinguished specimen.

Meanwhile, I wish that just once, somebody would offer us, say, a pot of jewel orchids or phalaenopsis or white-flowered rhipsalidopsis or a cinnamon tree or vanilla orchid or maybe a yellow-flowered clivia. “Gee, I’m so bored with this, I can’t imagine why I bought it. Wouldn’t you like it?” Yes, oh yes we would. We really, really would.

So, fellow gardeners, fellow houseplant fanatics, what would you have done in my place? Please vote for options a through f:

a) Tell them to take their ugly plant and stick it where the sun don’t shine.

b) Tell them you’ll take their abused plant if they’ll take your circa-1980 microwave that still even works. Sometimes.

c) Tell them you’ll be happy to take their plant. Your compost bin could use more roughage, and besides, that big terracotta pot must be worth at least $25.

d) Tell them you’ll take their plant, nurse it back to health, and find it a good home.

e) Thank them for their generosity and tell them that you’d love to take the plant, but you can see it has a serious case of chloroplasmosis and you recently read that it could be transferred to humans. Then ask them if they’ve been feeling well lately and announce that an emergency has come up and you really must leave immediately.

f) Thank them and take the plant.

I’ll be eager to hear what you’d do under similar circumstances. Meanwhile, anybody need a couple of boring green houseplants?

             ‘Til next time,


Jade plant in bloom! November 13, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben was excited—and that’s an understatement—when I went out to water the greenhouse yesterday morning and saw that one of our jade plants was covered with clusters of white buds. A blooming jade plant?! Well, of course I knew that they had to bloom, but I’d never seen one bloom or imagined them blooming unless they were tree-size in the ground in their native South Africa. I hurried to my good friend Google to find out what was going on.

If, like our friend Ben, you search for “jade plant in bloom,” you’ll be directed to the website of the UBC Botanical Garden and Centre for Plant Research (http://www.ubcbotanicalgarden.org/) and several of its plant forums. Two threads that I found hugely informative are “Jade plant to bloom?” and “Flowering jade.” The first thread has lots of great information on how to grow jade plants (Crassula ovata, formerly C. argentea) and try to persuade them to bloom; the second has better photos of blooming jades.

The general consensus is that a sharp change in temperature from day to night and uninterrupted darkness at night, not to mention lack of water, are what bring jades into bloom, typically in late fall or early winter. This (unfortunately, as you’ll see) makes a great deal of sense to our friend Ben. Since we have to haul water clear to the back of our property, two milk jugs at a time, to water the greenhouse (the only part of the yard that gets full sun is the very back), our friend Ben is not an enthusiastic waterer to say the least. The more delicate plants get watered most often, and the poor cacti and succulents are typically left to tough it out.

As for the dramatic change in temperature, ahem. Someone who shall remain nameless, but who was neither Silence Dogood nor our puppy Shiloh, was frantically hauling the plants that had summered on our deck into the greenhouse a couple of weekends ago before a hard freeze hit. It was getting dark, so our friend Ben—I mean, the unnamed perpetrator—grabbed the pull cord on the nearest fluorescent light and yanked. There was a blinding flash, followed by… nothing. As an outraged and increasingly hysterical Silence pointed out, now not only did none of the lights work, but neither did the heater. After frantically throwing the switches in the breaker box in the greenhouse, in the breaker box in our toolshed that connects to the one in the greenhouse, and in the breaker box in our mudroom that connects to the one in the toolshed that connects to… nothing.

To say the least, it did indeed get cold in the greenhouse for the rest of the week (and to this day) when the sun went down, but was nice and hot during the day. (And yes, our friend Ben really is going to call an electrician soon. Really. Unless one of you non-Luddites can tell me what the hell happened and what to do about it.) Maybe that little spell of cold nights was all it took to induce bud formation.

So, what do jade blooms look like? The forums show jades with blooms ranging from pink to pink-tinged to pure white. They bloom in clusters and look like stars. They’re just beautiful. Some of the comments said the blooms were fragrant, some said theirs had no fragrance. I guess we’ll have to wait and see which camp ours fall in when the buds open, but of course, we’re hoping for fragrance. Apparently it takes quite a while for the buds to open, but once they do, the blooms also last a good while. We’re happy to wait for the show to unfold.

Our friend Ben learned two other fun things from reading these threads. One comment noted that in Spain, jade plants were supposed to bring prosperity, and many people buried a coin in the soil of each jade pot. Our friend Ben will try this next time I pot one up. Can’t hurt, might help. And the other thing was this great quote, supposedly a Chinese proverb, in any case all too painfully true: “All gardeners know better than other gardeners.”

If only this particular gardener knew how to get the electricity to come back on in the greenhouse.

Isn’t it just the light? May 14, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in chickens, gardening, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. My gardening friend Leslie was bragging last week about her beautiful African violets. Now, I’ll admit to a weakness for these humble houseplants, with their velvet-green rosettes of leaves and shiny satin blooms. I confessed that mine looked healthy as all get-out but hadn’t bloomed in ages, even though they were under the kitchen skylight. “Oh, just give them African violet food and they’ll bloom in no time,” Leslie said.

Hell no. It’s not that I’m against giving my poor plants any food, but we’re organic gardeners here. I’ll add liquid seaweed and SUPERthrive to their water, and maybe even water them with old aquarium water if I remember to, but chemicals are definitely out.

Then, this week, something interesting happened. Maybe they were so terrorized by all the talk about chemicals that they decided they’d better start earning their keep, but sure enough, I noticed buds peeping out from the foliage of two of my African violets.

Secretly, though, I’m convinced that it’s all about the light. Our orchids are furiously sending up bloom spikes in the greenhouse. The amaryllis are all producing their fat bud stalks on the deck. (Yes, they revert to a normal bloom season for us, since we don’t force them in fall by inducing dormancy.) Nothing has really changed except the seasonal progression and the ever-strengthening light.

Perhaps strong light in the dark months would keep them in bloom all year. Or maybe that steroid-kick of chemicals would jolt them back into bloom when they’d otherwise be resting up and gathering strength for another round. But surely there’s a price to be paid in the health and longevity of the plants themselves. As with our chickens, I want my houseplants for the long haul. I’m not prepared to shorten their lives by insisting on egg or bloom production when they want to recoup between seasons. I think it’s worth the wait!

             ‘Til next time,


Ott’s Exotic Plants April 26, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, wit and wisdom.
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One of our friend Ben and Silence Dogood’s favorite spring activities is taking the beautiful river road, aka Route 29, to Ott’s Exotic Plants in Schwenksville, PA. (For more on Ott’s, see my earlier posts “Ott’s: An obscure plant paradise” and “Heading to houseplant heaven.”) Saturday was the big day, and after doing our chores, we hopped in the little red car and headed into the beautiful countryside.

After stopping in Green Lane (yes, this really is the name of a town, along with other scenic townlets along the route, including Chapel, Palm, and Red Hill) for our traditional lunch at Rockwell’s—oh, wait. Our friend Ben should confess to terminal stupidity here. Silence and I have eaten at Rockwell’s a number of times over the years, while heading to Ott’s or after attending the annual Scottish and Irish Festival at Green Lane Reservoir or going to the annual Goschenhoppen Historians’ Christmas show and sale. Not being a Norman Rockwell fan, our friend Ben had always ignored the numerous Rockwell prints on the walls. But this time, I was delighted to see that the restaurant was displaying a selection of beautiful watercolors of local scenes and scenery—including Ott’s!—by one of their servers. Silence and I took a little gallery tour while waiting for our food and did a bit of oohing and aahing. But ugh, there were still plenty of Rockwells up there clashing with the lovely watercolors. Why hadn’t they taken those tired prints down to make room for actual original art?! Suddenly, our friend Ben had what a friend’s mother immortally referred to as a rush of brains to the head. Rockwells… Rockwell’s! Duuuuuuhhhhh. It only took me, what, ten years to figure this out? How humiliating.

Getting back to Ott’s, we wound along the Perkiomen River until suddenly the most unlikely of sights appeared before our eyes: A true Victorian glasshouse with an enormous “mountain” rising behind it covered with pansies of every conceivable color. The elegance of the glasshouse combined with the tackiness of the multicolored mountain (it’s coated with chrysanthemums in fall) would make a visit to Ott’s a unique experience even if you didn’t go inside.

Trying to shield our eyes from the blinding spectacle of the “mountain,” Silence and our friend Ben rushed inside and proceeded to systematically go through every room to see what was new and exciting and to try to find the plants on our lists. Yes, this year we were trying to be budget-minded and had actually made lists of the plants we wanted to buy. As a result, our friend Ben very sadly passed up the jewel orchids, which I love but have managed to kill more times than I can count. (If anybody has culture tips to share on these, I am all ears. Help me, please!!!) Silence resisted the lure of new African violets, since hers are the healthiest plants on the planet but apparently don’t get enough light to bloom here. 

What was on our lists? We’re so glad you asked. Our friend Ben’s list began with terrarium plants. Our friend Ben kept American chameleons (now called anoles) as a child. I fondly remember the Borgias, Cesare and Rodrigo. I have wanted for years now to get some for the greenhouse to assist with natural pest control, but have resisted in a rare burst of common sense because I figured the greenhouse wasn’t really tight enough to contain them, so they’d manage to find their way to the great outdoors, enjoy a blissful summer bug-hunting, then freeze to death in our snowy Pennsylvania winters.

However. Let me just say that this is all Mr. Subjunctive’s fault. If you head over to his blog, Plants Are the Strangest People (http://plantsarethestrangestpeople.blogspot.com/), you can read the saga of how he discovered an anole in a shipment of plants at the greenhouse where he works and ultimately adopted her. The story of Nina pushed our friend Ben over the edge, coupled with seeing a brand-new aquarium at a yard sale when last en route to the nearby town of Kutztown. Have terrarium, need plants, right? Mr. Subjunctive somewhat made amends for luring OFB down the road to ruin by featuring an entire week of posts on houseplant toxicity this past week, including notes on toxicity to reptiles. So our friend Ben consulted these lists religiously before deciding on some terrarium plants for the future anoles’ home.

Our friend Ben was also looking for some pothos (Epipremnum aureum) to hang in the greenhouse and keep it from looking too lonely while most of its winter residents spend the warmer months out on our deck or hanging from trees in the backyard. I found two cultivars, ‘Golden’ (with lovely yellow foliage) and ‘Marble Queen’ (green and white variegated), and they went into the flat I was (by now) staggering around with. Unlike the usual practice of Ott’s to specialize in selling endless genera, species, and varieties of Plantus unknownus, at most including tags with labels like “African Violet” or “Rex Begonia,” glory hallelujah, the pothos were actually labeled with the cultivar names! (Our friend Ben watched in horror as the checkout clerk thoughtfully removed said labels while ringing the plants up.)

I was also keeping an eye out for pots of ‘Tete-a-Tete’, the little sunny yellow daffodils, since I knew Ott’s grew them better than anyone. Our friend Ben loves daffodils, tulips, and crocuses, but hates having to plant them in fall, when their in-garden relations have died back so you don’t have a clue where they are. I have had great success planting out these pots of ‘Tete-a-Tete’ after we’ve enjoyed their blooms indoors and having them brighten the yard every spring. And since I can still see where the other bulbs are while I’m planting them, I can actually plant them strategically for best effect. Our friend Ben was thrilled to find them looking as healthy as ever and on sale for half price. A big, glorious live bouquet that will turn into a garden accent for $3 isn’t too bad!

Our friend Ben was also on the lookout for a gold-variegated ivy to match the one that we had successfully overwintered in the greenhouse; its twin had died sometime during the winter. We set out these ivies in clay pots suspended from the shepherd’s crooks on either side of our front door to welcome friends and visitors during the warm months, and obviously, a single ivy wouldn’t do. Fortunately, I found a mate for it among the many kinds of ivy Ott’s grows.

Silence’s agenda was a little different. Her list included more edibles for the greenhouse. She was looking for the ever-elusive olive tree, but we didn’t see any. She did, however, come home with lime and coffee trees, which we quickly potted up, as well as tender perennial herbs like lemon verbena and the beautiful tricolored ‘Well-Sweep Wedgwood’ Cuban oregano (plectranthus). With her usual presence of mind, she also seized an opportunity when she saw it and snagged a couple of pots of golden moneywort (Lysimachia nummularia ‘Aurea’), which is perennial with us and brightens the shade as a groundcover in the beds under our many trees.

Ott’s also has a huge and beautifully grown selection of ferns, and after considerable agonizing, Silence succumbed to a gorgeous button fern. The black-green of the button fern foliage looked so good with the yellow of the ‘Golden’ pothos and lysimachia that we were both sorry we couldn’t figure out a way to make some kind of combination. Not with these plants! But there must be something…

And yes, Silence did drag our friend Ben kicking and screaming away from all of Ott’s gorgeous begonias. As she pointed out, we have begonias. We have quite a few really nice begonias. We have enough begonias already. (Our friend Ben remains unconvinced, but with what had now become a huge box of plants already selected, I allowed myself to be dissuaded. For now.)

Our friend Ben would be remiss not to note the bazillion other container plants Ott’s has for sale—these don’t even touch the massive selection of cacti and succulents, herbs, hanging baskets, veggie transplants, and every sort of foliage and flowering plant imaginable—much less the expansive outdoor nursery and bedding plant area. (Remember all those pansies?!) Not to mention a vast selection of pots and their own custom mix of potting soil, seed packets, bulbs, and etc.etc.etc.

And though I talk about it every time, I have to say a good word about the Victorian conservatory in the center of the greenhouses with the classic old tableau of huge tropicals and a waterfall and pond with equally enormous goldfish. Nothing here is for sale, but there is a path up the slope through the tropicals so you can view the waterfall from above as well as at ground level. Our friend Ben would hate to have to maintain this, but I love seeing this reminder of a different age and time-travelling to a past when all tropical plants were exciting and new and people created these glass conservatories to show them off in what they felt was a natural setting. Thank you, Ott’s, for keeping this glasshouse up and running!

As always, Silence and I had a great time. Our friend Ben recommends Ott’s to anyone within driving distance.

Do you use SUPERthrive? March 28, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. I was just watering our houseplants (our friend Ben will have more to say about them in a minute). We’re organic gardeners, so we don’t use the typical houseplant fertilizers. Instead, we add composted manure pellets (Energy Buttons, from Gardener’s Supply Company, www.gardeners.com) to our potting soil when we pot up plants. Then, when I water them, I add liquid seaweed and SUPERthrive to the water.

SUPERthrive is one of those eccentric products that always reminds me of Dr. Bronner’s soap—the bottle label is simply covered with claims, pronouncements, and general verbiage. I defy you to sit down and read every word. The gist is that SUPERthrive is an ultraconcentrated solution of vitamins and hormones that boosts plant growth, health, and vigor. The manufacturers claim that a single drop per gallon can effect a miraculous transformation in your plants. Which is a good thing, since the damned stuff costs the earth. 

SUPERthrive sounds like a fringe product. But perfectly normal, respectable gardeners swear by it. My local garden center in nearby Emmaus, PA—not what you’d call the heart of the counterculture—sells SUPERthrive. The growers of the most luxuriant, healthy orchids I know, Parkside Orchid Nursery in Ottsville, PA (www.parksideorchids.com), sells SUPERthrive. The person who grows the most fabulous houseplants and orchids I’ve seen in a home setting, my friend Delilah, uses SUPERthrive. We’ve used it for years, and our houseplants look great.

But I remain a sceptic. Is it really the SUPERthrive? The label says repeatedly that SUPERthrive is not a fertilizer and is meant to be used in conjunction with fertilizers. This, of course, reminds me of all the latest-craze weight loss supplements that promise instant, permanent weight loss if you simply take their magic pills (fine print: in conjunction with a low-cal diet and exercise regimen). Try to find one that says it works without the diet and exercise! But guess what: The diet and exercise would work without it.

I’m not trying to knock SUPERthrive here. As I say, we’ve used it for years and our houseplants are doing fine in spite of us and our general policy of benign neglect. We force ourselves to cough up the big bucks every time our bottle runs dry. We figure we might as well do something for our poor plants! I’d just love to hear from other gardeners who’ve tried SUPERthrive and find out what you think of it. So if you’re out there, please let me hear from you!

          ‘Til next time,


The frost is on the pumpkin… October 19, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, homesteading, recipes.
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And our friend Ben and Silence Dogood are on our usual “OMG, we have to get all the plants into the greenhouse and plant the bulbs and harvest the potatoes and hot peppers and” marathon, somewhat hampered by the fact that Silence returned from our West Virginia idyll as a snivelling wretch, having picked up a cold of truly epic proportions somewhere in the course of our travels. Nonetheless, despite keeping our friend Ben awake night after night with long stretches of lung-wrenching coughing, sneezing, and snivelling, Silence has bravely soldiered on in our desperate attempts to get everything battened down before the growing season crashes to its end. (And yes, she has tried to keep away from other people, even passing up a long-looked-for treat, this weekend’s Berks County Quilt Show.)

To think, non-gardeners consider the prospect of frost on the pumpkins as a peaceful time. Light a fire, heat some fresh-pressed apple cider and spike it with dark rum (Gosling is our hands-down favorite), and kick back with a good book, your knitting, or a favorite (or new) movie. For our friend Ben and Silence, the first heavy frost warning is more like the siren has gone off signalling a national disaster.

We knew the jig was up when our good friend Delilah sent a warning e-mail that hard frost was expected here this weekend. We checked weather.com and verified that temps in the 20s were predicted, beginning tonight and continuing through the week. No more procrastination: Silence popped a couple of decongestant pills, we metaphorically girded our loins, and leapt into the lengthy ordeal of battening our hatches.

Heading first for our CSA, we smiled politely as our friend Heidi enthusiastically described how she had carefully sprayed all her plants with insecticidal soap and water the week before, so she could bring them inside without any greeblies coming along for the ride. This is in fact exactly what you’re supposed to do. Maybe some year we’ll even do it. Typically, however, we have the mad last-minute scramble to load up all the plants that have spent a peaceful summer (assuming our wicked little kitten, Marley, hasn’t decided to nest in them) on our deck or front stoop, haul them to the greenhouse, and get them safely stashed inside before subfreezing temps turn them to instant compost.

Fortunately, we’ve never had a problem bringing pests and diseases in from outside, quite the reverse: Whiteflies, aphids, and scale (the Big Three of greenhouse gardening) tend to take up residence on our greenhouse tomatoes, sweet peppers, basil, water plants, and/or orchids during the summer, and must be evicted (along, sadly, with said tomato, pepper, and basil plants, orchid spikes, and affected leaves) several weeks before welcoming the outdoor plants to their winter home. Thanks to Silence’s foresight, the in-ground greenhouse bed was cleared (except for our huge lemon grass plant, our ‘Violetta’ artichokes, and our Aloe vera/barbadensis colony, which are permanent residents) and ready for its seasonal guests.

So here was yesterday: Silence makes her famous Ginger Snap Soup for lunch in the hope that its warming spices will clear her air passages enough to promote life for another day. (And yes, it is yummy; search our site for it in the search box at upper right and give it a try when it gets good and cold where you live.) Then she insists that we head out to James Weaver’s Meadow View Farm, “where they have the best pumpkins in the whole area,” according to Silence, so we can complete our Harvest Home display. You all may recall Jim Weaver from my earlier posts about the Bowers Chile Pepper Festival and about going out to Meadow View to get heirloom tomato and hot pepper transplants this past spring. He’s the regional expert on all things heirloom and, especially, hot pepper, and is responsible for introducing the legendary ‘Bhut Jalokia’ hot pepper (the world’s hottest) to the area. Needless to say, Mr. Weaver is one of our heat-loving friend and fellow blog contributor Richard Saunders’s heroes.

Mind you, we harvested quite a collection of hot peppers from our CSA’s U-Pick garden the day before, since (forewarned by Delilah) we figured the plants weren’t long for this world. And we were, after all, heading out to Meadow View to pick pumpkins, not peppers. So imagine my surprise when Silence first grabbed boxes of red and green jalapenos (“Richard and Bridget are coming for supper, so we need to make jalapeno poppers!”), then a bouquet of stems festooned with beautiful orange chile peppers (“Think how gorgeous they’ll look when they dry”), and finally jars of Alma Weaver’s incredible blackberry/’Black Czech’ and apricot/’Lemon Drop’ jams (“We’ve run out, and you know nothing’s better for brunch”), as well as a jar of pickled hot yellow wax beans and, since she was obviously on a roll, another of pickled green beans (“They are so good!”).

I couldn’t exactly complain, though, since Silence’s strategy of stretching out our harvest decorating this year to prolong the pleasure had an unexpected benefit: All of Meadow View’s pumpkins, gourds, and winter squash were on sale for half price. We reluctantly passed up the most incredible green/black pumpkin we’ve ever seen (too big for our space), but managed to acquire a bright red, a classic orange, and a glowing creamy yellow pumpkin, a gorgeous ribbed white ‘Acorn’-like winter squash and similarly sized round orange-and-green squash, two flattened orange mini-pumpkins to replace the ivies in our shepherd’s crooks at the front door (the ivies go to the greenhouse), and two simply amazing mitre-like gourds with varying patterns of orange, dark green, yellow, and white.

On the way back, Silence insisted that we stop at Weaver’s Hardware (Weaver is a common Amish and Mennonite name locally), where she wanted to buy a wrought-iron hook to replace the one that disappeared during the vandals’ assault on our bird feeder (see the post “Newsflash: Vandals strike, off hook for now” for a humorous take on that incident) and some suet blocks to set in our suet cage feeder now that it’s finally cold. Inspired by Frances of Faire Garden (http://fairegarden.wordpress.com/), who had some very useful suggestions after reading our post “Be prepared, part two,” Silence also bought a washboard, wooden clothespins, and a clothespin bag.

Then, of course, she just had to look at the bags of fall bulbs. “You know, Ben, I’d love to have some more crocuses,” she said, ominously eyeing a bag of 50 mixed corms. “They’re so cheerful. You know how much we love the ones we already have, and we’re going to have to plant the tulip and daffodil bulbs, anyway.” (This was undeniable.) “Might as well put in more crocuses while we’re at it, don’t you think?” Uh, right. What’s 50 more bulbs between friends?! Our friend Ben has learned when a battle’s not worth fighting, however, through long and painful experience. At least she passed up the bags of daffodils (“Look! Isn’t that gorgeous! Oh—‘Mount Hood’!”).

Now we were racing against time, for several reasons. Richard Saunders, a Penn State football fanatic, and his girlfriend, Bridget, were coming over to listen to the game and then have supper. Silence was planning to make her delicious Red, White and Gold Pasta Sauce, broccoli from the CSA, and a salad featuring the CSA’s late-season bounty in the form of arugula, mixed greens, salad turnips, and bell peppers, enlivened by green onions (scallions), fresh watercress from the farmers’ market, cilantro just-picked from the CSA, and our very own hard-boiled chicken eggs, along with some sunflower seeds, shredded Parmesan, and Silence’s signature vinaigrette. (Search “Red, White and Gold Pasta Sauce” on the site; I know Silence has posted this rich, easy recipe.)

And we still had all the plants to haul into the greenhouse, not to mention a few more winterizing details to deal with (like putting the outdoor cover on our lone air conditioner and weatherstripping one of the lower greenhouse windows, which has become a bit cranky about completely closing over the years, as well as taking the great pole and closing all the upper windows, a hazardous procedure to say the least). Amazingly, Silence took our new bounty and, using our previous weeks’ stockpile as a base, transformed the front stoop and the shepherd’s hooks that frame it into a perfect pumpkin tableau in the blink of an eye. (Now, if the cats can just refrain from bowling everything over.)

Meanwhile, I brought out our beloved and battered but unbowed Rubber Maid garden cart and began the arduous process of loading and hauling the deck plants back to the greenhouse. Once she’d finished her Harvest Home tableau, Silence headed for the greenhouse, where she quickly placed the plants on the in-ground bed, in hanging baskets, and on the raised bench between the many plants that spend the entire year indoors.

Silence is nothing if not decisive. Before I could say “Jack Frost,” she’d finished hauling in the plants and was headed back to the kitchen to make jalapeno poppers. (See her earlier post “Homemade jalapeno poppers,” and you may soon be making your own.) By the time Richard and Bridget arrived, we had a fire roaring in the firepit, the pepper lights on the deck provided a joyful sparkle, and there were platters of jalapeno poppers hot from the oven, with our choice of Manhattans, bourbon and Coke, or chilled wine to keep us cozy on the deck while we listened to the game (Penn State annihilated its old nemesis, the University of Michigan, 46-17) and Silence cranked up the music in the kitchen and made one of her legendary dinners. Needless to say, a good time was had by all.

Now, however, a new day has dawned, with the prospect of a 29-degree low tonight. It’s time to get all those bulbs (including the @#!%&$*!!! 50 new crocus bulbs) in the ground, dig up the potatoes, harvest the hot peppers from plants we’re prepared to sacrifice to our compost pile and attempt to transition the ones we’re not pepared to relinquish to pots in the greenhouse, transfer our outdoor goldfish and prized papyrus and other water plants to greenhouse accomodations, and water the bazillion plants in the greenhouse and indoors, one miserable milk jug at a time. Thank God for the faithful Rubber Maid garden cart, waiting ever so patiently to transfer the filled jugs to the greenhouse, the empty jugs back to the kitchen sink, and the refilled jugs back again.

Then there are a few other tasks awaiting us: Covering the Pullet Palace with a tarp to keep rain and snow off our chickens, since the bizarre spring hailstorm shattered the translucent plastic roof that had given them cover and light these many years. Getting more straw bales to keep the chickens warm and cozy. Hauling our lawn art, urns, gazing balls and the like under cover in the garden shed. Not to mention making sure we appreciate the glorious end-of-fall spectacles, such as the bold and beautiful bluejays, cardinals, and woodpeckers, and our redbud’s incredible clear yellow leaves blazing over our little backyard stream, Hawk Run, or our incredible ‘Aconitifolia’ Japanese maple in the front yard, with its unsurpassed display of red-orange-purple fall foliage. Thank goodness we got back from West Virginia in time to see them!

GAAAHHHH!!! Bug up skirt!!!! June 10, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, gardening, pets, wit and wisdom.
Tags: , , ,

Silence Dogood here. Well, sort of here. As faithful readers know, I like wearing skirts. Preferably long, loose, comfortable skirts. I wear them to garden. I wear them to hike. I wear them on the beach. I find skirts comfortable, unconfining, modest, and flattering. Keep your damned blue jeans, say I, and give me a rough-and-tumble denim skirt or a swirly broomstick skirt or an elegant, silky black evening skirt any day (or night).

So yes, I love skirts. But I hate bugs. (See my earlier post on stink bugs for more on this.) Mind you, I have absolutely nothing against bugs that live peacefully outside and leave me alone. But bugs in the house, bugs that dive-bomb me, and, worse still, bugs that get on me are another matter.

We’re organic gardeners here at Hawk’s Haven. We not only don’t spray chemicals, we don’t spray, period. We’re lucky enough to have plenty of beneficial insects, birds, bats, toads, and other bug-eaters on-premises to help us keep pest populations under control without any assistance from us. We do get ladybugs and lacewings for the greenhouse every once in awhile, but that’s about as far as it goes. You’d think the wretched bugs would be grateful. But ooohhh, nooooo!

I was just sitting in our home office seconds ago, reading gardening blogs and fantasizing about adding a few plants to our deck garden, when I rested my hand on my thigh. And felt an odd bump under the fabric of my skirt. Hmmmm, my thighs might not qualify me for the Miss America swimsuit competition, but still, I wouldn’t have said they were bumpy….

GAHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!! The reality belatedly dawns. Screaming and shrieking, I leap up from the computer chair, enthusiastically hauling my skirt up to my chin, much to the astonishment and amusement of our friend Ben.

Sure enough, there is a bug on my leg. Mercifully, it is not that most-feared bug—a tick—but instead is a harmless and in fact beneficial hover fly, one of those little flies that disguises itself as a bee and actually goes after bad bugs in the garden. With a huge sigh of relief, I attempt to capture the little guy so I can release him outside when CRASH!!! FLUMP!!! SMASH!!! Suddenly, my beautiful office houseplants begin falling to the floor in a wave of water (I’d of course just watered them all an hour ago), wet soil, broken leaves, and snapped-off stems.


Sure enough, my screams and flailing on discovering the bug have terrified my huge and beautiful but not-too-bright Maine coon-like cat, Linus, who has leapt up from the sunny windowsill where he was dozing and made a beeline for the door, leaving a path of destruction in his wake. Now the carpet is covered with mud, water, and assorted plant parts. The tops of the filing cabinets are awash. Linus is in seclusion (just as well). The poor hoverfly has departed for parts unknown. Our friend Ben is risking imminent death while trying not to fall on the floor laughing. And my last nerve has just been utterly shredded.

Bugs! Cats! GAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!   


Stupid cardinals. May 21, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, pets.
Tags: , ,

Silence Dogood here. Don’t get me wrong, here at Hawk’s Haven, we love cardinals. Our friend Ben, who loves red more than most things, is especially fond of the brilliantly colored birds. And we have quite a collection of them on our rural Pennsylvania property. Maybe that’s the problem, or maybe it’s a spring courtship hormone surge. But drat those dumb male cardinals. Geez!

Here’s how it goes: I’m here at the computer, frantically working (sometimes I wonder if there’s any other way to work). BOOM!!! As I jump out of my skin, I realize that yet another male cardinal has charged one of the office windows after seeing his reflection in the glass. God forbid that that disturbingly familiar-looking male in the window should feel that he can get away with invading the idiot’s territory. So… BOOM! BOOM!!!

But that’s just the beginning. Electrified by the booming, our cat, Layla, throws herself against the glass from the inside, trying to capture the bird who’s stupidly flying, or so she thinks, right into her waiting paws. CRASH!!!


By now, I’m about at my last nerve. But the full horror of the situation is still to come. You see, our office windows are absolutely full of plants—beautiful foliage begonias, Easter and Christmas cacti, African violets. So with each lunge, Layla has the potential to bring plants crashing down, or at least rip leaves and stems. Worse yet, her dim but adorable and enormous brother, Linus, eventually decides that she’s having far too much fun and he wants to join in, so he hauls himself up onto the desk—the earth shakes—and tries to hurl himself against the window, too. (By this time, the cardinal is long gone, but I figure Linus never knew what the point was to begin with, so he doesn’t care.)


Grrrrrrrrrr. Stupid cardinals!

                ‘Til next time,