Yes, I do know that it is the middle of winter, and that we are about five months from being able to cut flowers in the garden. How I look forward to that! Yes, I do have flowers every day. But I do not have freshly cut zinnias in their bold and striking colors. I do not have big bright yellow sunflowers. I am missing my brown-eyed Susans and gladioli, and especially the tall, stately delphinium. Of course, on most days there are always a few, past-their-prime flowers at the shop. There are always flowers that are past the point when I will sell them, but will last a few days or a week if I take care of them. It is amazing to see how many people come in during the week to pick up a few stems for the house.
This brings back some memories about my mom. It is a memory that has been brought back over the past few months. When I was young and thinking about what I wanted to do with my life, I asked how we survived during the Great Depression, selling flowers. Her answer was that when times are very tough — very, very tough — a person with only a dollar might well spend 20 or 25 cents on flowers to take home. That has proven to be true these past six months. Although today, you do not get many flowers for 25 cents.
Yes, until the late 1940s and 1950s, October, November and December were chrysanthemum time. That was when the flower bloomed naturally. You see, in order to flower, the chrysanthemum needs to have several weeks of at least nine hours of uninterrupted darkness to set bud. With more light than that, the plant keeps growing and growing and never budding.
Then, in the late 1940s, professor Ken Post at Cornell (he was my advisor during my Cornell years) and professors at other major colleges of agriculture began experimenting with lights and shade cloths to see if they could set buds on chrysanthemums in order to get them to flower when they wanted them to. The system looked at many plants and they charted the daylength needs of certain plants. They were successful, and so today, this beautiful flower is available nearly every day of the year. Yes, it was a bit more complicated than that.
So now you have brought in all those plants that you brought out of doors for the summer, or at least I hope you have. And along with them, you have brought in any number of slugs, insects and insect eggs. Right now is a very important time of year in your plants’ lives. What you do in the next week or two will determine whether you will have an easy time caring for those plants that give you so much enjoyment throughout the coming wintery months.
Before doing anything, you need to clean up the foliage and get rid of any excess fertilizer in the pots that might have accumulated over the summer. Small plants are generally not a problem. Just take them to the sink. Wash both sides of each leaf with a washcloth or sponge and warm water. Now, that is a bit difficult if you are going to take care of a fern or similar plant. I think that, unless it is gigantic, you can just hold the soil in place with one hand and run a lot of water across all the undersides and then the tops of the leaves.
Now we want to bring the soil back to the proper amount of fertilizer, so we run warm water through the pot for a few minutes. That will get rid of any buildup since the last time you stabilized the soil.
I’ve had a very interesting weekend with culinary ginger, the type you bake with. But before going there, I need to talk about flowering ginger. These are very exotic-looking flowers that you find, from time to time, in flower shops. They are natives of the islands and lands around the South Pacific, with most that we see in our shops originating in Hawaii, though there is more and more production in Southern California. We see some, too, from huge farms in Jamaica and the Dominican Republic. The advantage of getting them from these Caribbean nations is, of course, the savings in transportation. Though you sometimes see them in groceries and mass markets, they generally do not meet the needs of their buyers, who are looking for a nice, big bunch of flowers for $10 or $15, not two or three stems of ginger, anthurium or birds of paradise.
In the typical flower shop they are usually used as accent pieces, among other flowers in bouquets. They are striking, bold in color and quite long-lasting. Some of the varieties are use to create very exotic bridal party bouquets.
I know that the houseplant gardeners reading this column will wonder if you can grow these plants indoors in our area. In a word, absolutely. Looking for sources, my first search led me to Amazon. I could not believe the number of varieties offered there. Searching further, I found a lot of nurseries in Texas and Sothern California offering dormant roots. A single root will cost you about $10. In another column, I will go over the needs of this plant to thrive in your home.
Let me begin with a couple of short background comments. Nearly all of my early life was filled with living plants, flowers and vegetables. It was not until my second year at Cornell, when I came home one early fall weekend, that the shop was filled with something new: paper flowers, covered with wax, mostly shaped like dahlias. The colors were hideous, but my Mom had made some homestyle arrangements. A new fad began, a fad that would last about 10 years. That fall, florists began making cemetery wreaths out of the fake waxed flowers. And they were beautiful throughout the winter and into early summer. But, you guessed it, the wax melted off during the June and July heat. Enough wax persisted to make them halfway presentable until a new wreath could be purchased in September or October.
Over the next 20 or so years, these artificial (though they could only be called fake) flowers went through phases. They arrived, made of a heavy colored paper, and stiffened with some kind of new plastic spray, then it was cotton, and finally the polyester we see today. It is wise to remember that there are different grades of these flowers today. A 79-cent rose or a $2 lily bought at a discount store will not resemble — nor will it look as beautiful or wear as well as — one purchased in a flower store or decorator studio at 10 or 15 times the cost.
I decided to take a bit of time off on Monday and went out for an aimless drive. As I drove past it, I realized that the Owen Orchards was a story to be told so I turned, parked and went in. I had not been here in a long time. It was welcoming. I was greeted by a clerk and I asked if I could see Gordon. She said he had just left to deliver to Dundee, but his son David was around, and she left me to look for him. Dave is the great-grandson of the orchard’s founder.
He was on a forklift out in the orchard. She said I could come back, or I might wait anywhere from 15 to 20 minutes, or a bit longer. I decided to wait. Glancing around it was an interesting place to pass a few minutes. There were apples everywhere, at least a dozen and a half of varieties, all nicely displayed and labeled by name. A shelf on the west side of the building had a whole lot of jams and jellies, with fascinating names. One had a name that stood out, so I bought it: F.R.O.G. When I got home and put my glasses on, I found that it stood for figs, raspberry, oranges and ginger. It should be quite interesting on my toast tomorrow morning. There were also preserved fruits and vegetables. They must move a whole lot of cider because there was a very large wall of gallons, half gallons and quarts.
They’re the backbone of any soup or stew or casserole. They add a lot of flavor to any salad. They make you cry, but you cannot cook a pot roast without onions that will make you happy. Onions are probably the vegetable that we take for granted. It is always there at the supermarket. Price doesn’t vary a whole lot from month to month unless you are looking for special varieties, like Vidalia, Walla Walla or Bermuda onions. And yes, onions are more than just onions. It was interesting to learn that the U.S. is actually fourth in the world for onion production. We produce about 3 million tons. China tips the scales at 20 million tons a year.
The Vidalia and Walla Walla onions, the same variety but one is grown in Washington state and the other in Georgia, are large and sweet. As a matter of fact, they are delicious raw. Just bite into them. Alas, Bermuda onions are no more. Early in the last century they grew so many of them there that people called Bermuda “the onion patch.” But with a small building lot going for a quarter of a million dollars, I guess there is no profit in onions.
Have you had enough zucchini lately? I think, by the number that I have had on my back porch in the past couple of months, this must be the best year ever for it. And although I enjoy zucchini bread, zucchini fritters, stuffed zucchini blossoms and stuffed zucchini, please do not drop off any more. All kidding aside, zucchini is a very healthful food.
Originally from Central America, this fruit — yes, it is a fruit, not a vegetable — is quite easy to grow in our area. All it needs is a good supply of water and a lot of sunshine. Well, we have had plenty of sunshine this year, and there was almost enough water, so gardeners did not have to pull the hose very often.
The zucchini fruit can easily reach 3 feet in length and 6 inches in diameter. When they are that size, they are just not as flavorful as they are at 8 or 10 inches, the preferred size. No, I will not share some of my zucchini recipes today. I am sure that you have more than enough of your own. Although, as I researched, what I found most interesting were comments on how they were cooked around the world.
In Egypt they may be cooked with tomato sauce, garlic and fried onions. (I wonder if my Mom ever went to Egypt, because that was one of her favorite ways to cook them.)
Have you ever wondered, as you wander through the aisles in the produce section at your supermarket, where all those exotic fruits and vegetables come from? Of course, the usual answers will be Mexico or Chile, even Australia. Those are good answers, but I want to go a step further. Lets go back about 125 years, or more, ago.
Many plants, important plants, were native here. We know that corn, pinto beans and potatoes grew everywhere. Concord grapes, cranberries and blueberries were common, as were plums, cherries, peanuts and black walnuts.
The same goes for flowers, too. Most of those we have now immigrated from faraway places hundreds of years ago. Looking back 150 or more years ago, tulips and hyacinths were still in Turkey and Holland. Americans living then had not, for the most part, even heard about birds of paradise, anthurium or those orchids from South America, India and China. By then, I do believe that someone had brought over camellias and bamboo from China.
Here is a quote from those long ago days: “Until the plant explorers, such as Fairchild arrived on the scene, Americans ate to survive and to sustain. Then they ate to enjoy.”
I ended last week explaining the soaking of water-holding foam, Oasis. I neglected to mention that the water you are soaking it in should have flower food in it, whether it be the packet that came with the flowers or my combination of 7UP and water. The dry foam does not contain any nutrients, acidifiers or germicides.
Secondly, I mentioned cutting flowers on Thursday evening. I want to explain that a bit. Commercial flower farms always cut their flowers in the morning because it fits their shipping schedules, and that is when labor is available for the task. There is actually a problem with this, though. The flower has gone through 10 or 12 hours of night, where it has used up many of the nutrients that it developed during the beautiful previous day.
I always say that the home gardener should cut their flowers in the last couple of hours of sunlight, the evening before being used, after the sun, water and nutrients have filled the stems and leaves with nutrients. With few exceptions, they will last longer, and having them in water during the night in the warmth of your home will fill those stems and leaves with water containing those life-giving nutrients.
In your mind, take a moment to visualize the arrangement you want to make. It will most probably be an all-around centerpiece, but you could also make a beautiful one-sided, tall and narrow or low, long table piece. It is important to know because you will need some greens to lay out the form, as well as to fill in.