Some Surprises Remain


By Andrew MessingerIt’s hard for me to be thrilled by anything in the garden at this time of the year and yet I was ecstatic by what I saw in Southampton a couple of weeks ago. The rugosa rose hips were swollen and red, but I don’t quite find that inspirational. The Montauk daisies were blooming, but while a nice late bloomer, they barely leave me with excitement. I visited a local garden center that had a gloriously colorful selection of gourds, some amazing flowering cabbage and kale, but those only foretell the weeks ahead when they’ll be covered with snow and ice.But down by the beach I pulled into one driveway where a large buddleia still had a number of bottlebrush flowers in bloom, and lo and behold the plant was absolutely covered with monarch butterflies. Yes, yes I know you’re getting tired of my nearly monthly reports about these amazing insects, but amid all the clamor about their demise it was just amazing to see nearly two dozen of them fluttering right in front of me in a year when we doubted we’d see one or two. That was a treat that lightened up a season destined toward greenhouse-forced mums, azaleas and hydrangeas.

And then this evening I was making dinner and lamenting my garden upstate, where we’ve already had a snowfall and where my garden is nearly dormant and whispering in my ear that it’s close to being ready for a winter mulch. But not quite yet. That truly is the last chore of the gardening season and one that can wait until December and in some years early January out here on the East End.

But I digress … while dinner was cooking I walked in front of the window of my dining room, which in some years can have an eclectic collection of 50 or more plants. I’ve been a bad plant daddy, though, and this year there’s only a spindly, tricolor dracaena, two forlorn asparagus ferns, an orchid that my son gave my wife for her birthday and a Christmas cactus. All are suffering from certain stages of neglect and all are showing it, but not the cactus. No matter what I throw at it, as long as I give it a drink every now and then, it thrives and thrives.

This Schlumbergera has a long and traveled history. It’s been in the same plastic 6-inch pot for more than 25 years. Now, to be honest, that plastic pot has been in a larger terra-cotta pot for 15 years. The plant grew up in Great Neck at my parents’ home, then it moved with them to an apartment, then to Southampton, briefly to Virginia and then back up here. The only thing that’s been consistent in its tortured life is its orientation … it’s always had a southern exposure. It begins to “bud up” in early November and by Thanksgiving it begins to bloom. The blooming continues until early January, then it begins to fade back to green.

Last year, though, in the middle of blooming season, it was discovered by the puppy known as Esmeralda. Esme is a very cute rescue from the Turks and Caicos Islands, but she’s always had a pretty serious oral fixation. And some time just before Christmas last year, the cacti and Esme had an interaction. Well, it was more like a pruning. She pulled off every single bud and trimmed back just about every branch.

Well, Esme taught me a really neat trick, as it seems that a Christmas cactus pruned in December, in mid-bloom, will re-bloom about two months later. See, even a young dog can teach an old horticulturist new tricks. The larger lesson—the 25-year lesson—is that these plants are nearly indestructible if you only give them the right light and an occasional drink.

Now, back to your garden and plants. This is really your last chance to clean up and inspect your houseplants. We’ll still get a warm day or two, and most plants will love being taken outdoors for a little dusting, cleaning and primping. Don’t take the plants out and stick them in bright sunlight all day, but take the ones that can easily be moved outdoors and check for insects, do some primping, then get them back indoors. If you can, give them a gentle spray-down with room-temperature water to wash off dust and even spider mites if they’re present. Don’t feed them and don’t repot them … at this time of the year their tropical genetics may be saying “grow,” but the short days and cooler temperatures are telling them “no.”

And if you’re looking for a good deed to do outdoors, how about checking your garden and lawn for its pH? If your soil’s pH is out of whack, in our case too acidic, a number of things can go wrong. You can pour tons of fertilizer on your lawn and garden and it can all be wasted. Improper pH can also inhibit soil microorganisms that we now know are critical to healthy plants and a balance between beneficial and detrimental microbes in the soil. If you use chemical fertilizers that can be acid-based, your soil pH can be affected. Some plant communities can acidify your soil, and some plants actually prefer a slightly acid soil, but for the most part our soils should be in the neutral area around 7 on the scale that goes from 1 to 14. Use this link to learn a little more If you find your soil is too acid this is a great time to adjust it, and you can do this inexpensively with a spreader, a good back and some lime. Granulated dolomitic lime may be your lime of choice, as it’s easy to apply as long as you can lift the 50-pound bags to your spreader.

Some thoughts about firewood. Please, please, please don’t bring firewood from off Long Island for you wood stove or fireplace. One of the ways that the emerald ash beetle and the Asian longhorn beetle have been moved around and spread is in cut wood. In New York State it’s illegal to move firewood more than 50 miles from its place of origin unless it’s been treated (usually kiln-dried) or certified.

A study published in 2012 found that 47 percent of the bundled firewood sold in grocery stores, gas stations and big box stores in four states contained insects. Now that’s a pretty broad brush, and none of those states were anywhere near New York, but with the Asian longhorn beetle being present on Long Island and the emerald ash beetle being present not far upstate, it’s important for you to do your part. We already know that at least one of these invasive insects arrived in this country in a piece of packing wood, and an upstate firewood dealer was recently found to be selling firewood with the presence of emerald ash beetle.

Is it too late to put down grass seed? An excellent question. I always see it done this late but usually by building contractors who hope to get a little green established at a project or for soil stabilization. But considering that it takes a good grass seed blend three weeks to fully germinate and up to two months to get well established, then yes, it is too late.

So what happens if you do put seed down now? Well, in theory the seed will stay dormant until next spring, when it will germinate. And also in theory, the freezing and thawing during the winter will work the seed into the soil, giving it a good chance to nestle in and sit there until April. In theory.

How much of that seed will actually remain viable and germinate is a whole other question. Keep growing.

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