The Ancient Gardener's Instructor: Dispatches from Wesley Greene
March 5, 2014
The Cornelian Cherry (Cornus, mas) has come to bloom in the last week which is extraordinarily late, for its normal bloom time commences in late January. It is an English cousin to the American Dogwood (Cornus florida) and it is from this plant that our native dogwood gets its name. The common name of dogwood does not seem to refer to the canine at all but is more likely rooted in the Celtic word dag or dagge which became dagger in common usage. It alludes to the very hard, fine grained wood that was used for fashioning stakes used by the butcher for hanging meat. William Turner first uses the term dog in reference to this tree in The Name of Herbs (1548): “the butchers make prickles of it, some cal it Gadrise or dog tree.”
It is likely that the dog in dogwood is simply a corruption of dag. The first English explorers recognized the American plant as a close cousin to the Cornelian Cherry and simply borrowed the name. Our dogwood, like its European counterpart, has a very hard, close grained wood that has been long employed in many types of tools and measuring devices.
The Green Hellebore (Helleborus viridis) has produced another assemblage of flowers after the first was blasted by the unusual cold. This European native of cool shady places has long been used as a medicinal plant for both humans and livestock. Its ancient name was “Setterwort” for its use with cattle as a general preventative. A piece of the root was placed in an incision made in the dew-lap, or loose skin at the cattle’s throat. It would act, according to John Gerard in 1597, to “draweth unto it all the venomous matter, and voided it forth at the wound.” For human ailments one must be cautious as it is a strongly poisonous plant.
The Laurustinus (Viburnum tinus) blooms were also blasted by the extraordinary cold but they have all turned brown and withered so that it appears we will see no bloom on them this year.
The cabbages and cauliflower seedlings in the hotbed have all been lifted and reset at four inches everyway so that they might grow on until transplanted to the garden in early April. The manure is now being brought in to start the second hotbed for the warm season crops such as pepper, tomato, sweet potato, melon and cucumber. The snow again yesterday will hopefully bring up the peas once it melts.
February 26, 2014
On Thursday last the ground was finally dry enough to rake out the rows and plant the peas. This excellent esculent is judged by many to be the greatest luxury of the spring garden but they must be planted early so that they grow and ripen in a cool season. Peas which are sown too late mature in the heat of early summer which renders them tough and bitter.
The pea was one of the first crops domesticated by mankind but the primeval specimen was a very different legume than the one so universally admired today. The ancient pea was a hard, brown kernel, fit for grinding into flour or for feeding livestock but seldom used as a fresh shelling or sweet pea.
The sweet pea appeared in the 16th century under the name of the Hastings pea and reached its height of perfection and gluttony at the French court of Louis XIV in the form of the petit pois. Mademoiselle De Maintenoy while at court in Versailles observed, “The subject of peas is being treated at length: impatience to eat them, the pleasure of having eaten them, and the longing to eat them again are the three points about which our princes have been talking for four days. There are some ladies who, after having supped with the King, and well supped too, help themselves to peas at home before going to bed at the risk of indigestion. It is both a fashion and a madness.”
The ancient, or field pea, carries multicolored flowers of rose and violet while the modern sweet pea carries only white flowers.
This week the first crocus bloomed and the February Gold daffodils opened their yellow trumpets. A curious gardener who lives not far from here has kept a record of the first appearance of February Gold for more than 20 years and this is the latest date for which he has records. As a comparison, last year he recorded the first bloom on January 28 while this year the first bloom appeared on February 22, near a month later.
February 19, 2014
The hotbed has proved a disappointment, generating but a paltry heat but even with this inconvenience all of the lettuce seedlings have sprouted as well as several varieties of cabbages and the cauliflower so it seems the spring crop has yet persevered. In the cold frame we have begun to tie the last of the Cos lettuce for blanching as it is the most suitable of all lettuce varieties for producing what the shoppers call “Hearts of Romaine.”
Rosemary has been utterly destroyed throughout the town which is a singular occurrence as it has been several decades since we have seen such devastation to this normally reliable herb. What is even more remarkable in my garden is that the Bay Laurel, which stands not six feet from the Rosemary, has escaped the cold unharmed while in past years we have seen the Bay tree frozen to the ground while the Rosemary remained perfectly sound and healthy. Such is the mystery of nature.
On Monday I uncovered the broad beans, or what the Italians call fava beans, and discovered them largely unharmed by the freezing weather. With the proper precautions this is certainly one of the hardiest legumes known to man.
The ground has remained sodden from the frequent rain and snow showers which has given us the opportunity to mend the bed edgings with the locust poles we had previously stripped for this purpose. They make a very fine show with the shells replenished and raked in the walks. We completed half the garden this year and will repair the other half next year.
As we bid farewell to Don McKelvey we welcome Jennifer Mrva as our new garden apprentice. Jennifer has traveled here from the colony of New York in order to practice her trade in a more congenial climate.
Try recipes with lettuce, cabbage and cauliflower:
February 12, 2014
We have sown the seeds in the hotbed for the spring transplants composed of six varieties of cabbage, cauliflower, turnip cabbage (called kohlrabi by the Germans), five kinds of lettuce, leek and artichoke. All will be transplanted to the garden in early April. We have also sown a row of peas against the back wall of the frame which will remain for an early harvest.
As a precaution to the unusual cold we have been covering both the hotbed and the lettuce frame at night with straw and a canvas thrown over all.
It is now time to plant peas in the open ground for the main crop and in anticipation we have thrown the earth up onto rough ridges so that it may dry between showers and encourage the natural courses of sun and snow to condition the dung that was laid on in the fall. This is a regular task in the garden that the gardener must be ever diligent of.
As Mr. Abercrombie admonishes in The Universal gardener’s calendar (1789): “DIG AND TRENCH at all opportunities of open weather, all vacant spaces of ground, to forward the business at this season as much as possible, and if the ground is dunged, let the dung be digged in regularly, one spade deep, and generally dig or trench the ground up in rough ridges in order that it may mellow and improve more effectually, by the weather, till wanted for sowing or planting, then level it down.”
This week we say farewell to Don McKelvey, my associate and friend who has been a gardener and arborist at Colonial Williamsburg for 25 years. His wry good humor and in depth knowledge of the practical art of botany will be sorely missed. We wish him a mild season and a bountiful harvest as he applies his considerable skills to his own plantation.
February 5, 2014
We are somewhat behind our time, this winter being so extremely cold and snowy, but we have at last loaded the hotbed for the production of vegetable transplants.
As we have already discussed, manure and straw were thrown into a great pile to heat. It was turned once to thoroughly mix and when the surface temperature reached 120 degrees on Mr. Fahrenheit’s scale it was loaded into the hotbed pit. The heat of the dung proved to be somewhat less than is normal this year but should suffice.
Our hotbeds are fashioned according to the instructions found in the “Scots Gard’ner” composed by Mr. Reid in the year 1683: “As for making the hotbed for raising early and tender plants, dig a pit (2 foot deep, and of length and breadth, as you have occasion) in a convenient and warme place, lying well to the Sun and sheltered from the winds…this pit will be so much more excellent, if lyn’d round at the sides with brick.”
It is important that the dung be leveled well and tamped down firmly as the bed is filled for if loaded too loosely it will cause the dung to heat too violently and, as a result, be too soon spent. A thorough tamping with the head of a rake as the dung is added will result in a lower, longer-lasting temperature in the bed.
After the hotbed pit is loaded, the sashes are put on the frame to allow the dung to regain its temperature which will occur in two or three days’ time. It is then capped with approximately four inches of fully composted dung from last year’s bed.
This extremely light and friable soil allows the bed to breath, which helps to maintain its heat, and gardeners have long observed that most kinds of seed germinate more readily in an organic soil than in a mineral soil. Once the soil temperature settles at about 80 degrees it will be time to sow our seeds for the spring crop. We will make observations concerning these particulars in our next conversation.
January 30, 2014
We are now in the second week of extraordinarily cold weather and if it were not for the snow I fear the consequences in the garden would be much more severe.
Snow is a superb insulator and keeps the frost from striking so far into the earth. It is also remarkable how well the earth itself retains its heat and makes it available to plants stored within it. As an example, we are keeping our potted ornamentals within one of the hotbed pits. This is a trench, two feet deep and lined with brick, over which is placed a frame and sashes. This has preserved the Pot Marigolds, Snapdragons, China Pinks, Dwarf Myrtle and Pomegranate entirely unharmed through the benefit of simply being stored within the bosom of the Earth.
We have turned the manure and straw for the first hotbed and it should be ready for loading by the middle of the week. The quality of the dung meant for the hotbed is of the utmost importance both for its temperature and longevity. The ideal dung comes from stables as explained by Mr. Abercrombie:
“What we mean by horse-dung for the purpose of forcing, is the dung and wet litter together of the stables: the dungings or droppings of these animals would answer no purpose without the litter of the stalls mixed therewith.”
By litter he intends urine-soaked straw from where horses have stood but unfortunately nearly all horses today, including those at Williamsburg, are bedded in sawdust which will not answer to the purpose. Instead we mix the straw from the sheep pen with pure horse dung from the pasture and this makes a passable material for heating the hotbed. We will speak further on this subject in our next conversation.
I took a walk the other day to examine the gardens at the Governor’s Palace (being intimate with the head gardener I have the benefit of admission) and noticed the Hazelnut trees all adorned in their yellow catkins portending the autumn harvest of these earthy delicacies. The Corylus genus is indigenous to all known regions of the Northern Hemisphere but the Common Hazelnut (Corylus avellana) known throughout the European continent is the superior variety. While North America has its own native species (C. Americana) the nut is so tiny it is scarce worth the trouble it takes to shell.