Shasta Daisy with green basal leaf growth and spent stem and flower heads.

The month of December can be dark and cold with its reduced light levels and drab, muted colors. Counteract the dreary outlook by getting outside on sunnier days to take stock of the many things still happening out there in the land beyond your backdoor. Some plants are still slightly active, as are a few hardy insects. Cut back brown parts of perennial plants, leaving any green if they are still showing. In the spring, these plants will have a head start on photosynthesizing.

Yellow globe turnip roots still in the ground.
Thanksgiving harvest of yellow globe turnip

My vegetable garden is hanging on with winter hardy kales, yellow globe turnips, and purple carrots. The root crops will store in the ground until needed. We ate turnips for Thanksgiving, and with a hearty layer of straw to be laid over the carrots for insulation, we will be able to harvest for Christmas dinner.

Purple carrots below soil, green tops above.
Kale is hardy enough to grow throughout the with colder weather.

Garlic shoots are a little taller than I’d like for cloves planted mid-October. This is a good sign the roots are taking hold and developing below ground. A thick layer of leaves will provide protection though the winter and weed control come spring.

Garlic shoots.

The empty vegetable beds were sown with a mixed cover crop to enhance the soil microbial life and retain the valuable topsoil. Come spring, the top-growth will be cut back to kill the plants, leaving it in place to act as a mulch. Vegetable plants will be planted right through it, into the soil.

Outside of the garden a pile of tree branches and damaged shrub trimmings are piled in the nearby woods to provide a good spot for wild animal burrows. We have populations of predators including fox and fisher cats that help to keep the rodent population down.

Brush pile provides a home for predators.

Another home is visible on the ground, showing a small night crawler worm hole and pile of excrement, called castings, left right beside the hole. Night crawlers are solitary worms, living alone in a deep tube-like hole in the soil. The worm comes out at night to find food and to mate, then retreats back down the hole with its bits of leaves and organic matter. The stretching actions and squeezing back into the hole causes the worm to leave its poop behind.

Worm hole with pile of castings(excrement) are signs of active life in the soil.

Warmth and sun even in early December will bring out some late insects. I found this lone earwig crawling on the black driveway. Not sure where he was headed, but he paused long enough for me to take its photo.

Earwig on a sunny day in December.

We have had quite a few reports and inquiries about tiny congregating insects outside in mass numbers. The insects are commonly called springtails. They too, are doing some sunbathing, soaking up the warmth, especially after a cold rain. Springtails are in the primitive order of Collembola, naturally living in the soil or high moisture, organically rich areas such as the forest floor or compost piles. They are important decomposers, breaking down organic matter. No need to worry if you find them, just observe in awe of a healthy ecosystem at work.

Globous springtail, photo from NC State University.

This fall was a good year for fungus to send up some funky fruiting structures. Puffballs showed up in an area of our yard where some trees were removed a few years ago. Fungus underground is actively feeding the decomposing roots. When the fungus is ready to reproduce, it sends up a mushroom or structure containing it spores. When ripe, these puffballs will shoot the spores up and out in the winds to hopefully drift to new fertile ground and spread the fungal colony. Sometimes humans, animals and even hard rain will dislodge the puffball enough to release the spores.

Puffballs with release holes to emit the spores.

Searching for signs of active life can be done in any season whether it be animal, vegetable or fungal. Even in colder weather finding signs and activity can be enjoyable and rejuvenating.

by Carol Quish

Lots of squash and pumpkins, P.Cooper photo

Lots of squash and pumpkins, P.Cooper photo

The farm stands and farmer’s markets have been abundantly overflowing with multiple varieties of winter squashes and pumpkins this year. Was it the beautiful and colorful fall that lingered unceasingly this year that made me want to get out and visit many produce places, or was it the autumn recipes and foods which included pumpkin everything that sent me seeking different types? I don’t care, just glad I took some time to ‘go squashing’ with a friend. I like this new verb phrase. We went in search of a cornucopia of different varieties, hoping to find a new favorite and quite possibly a new addition for next year’s vegetable garden.

Honey Nut Butternut Squash, A new find! P.Cooper photo

Honey Nut Butternut Squash, A new find! P.Cooper photo

We did find a new squash we love! Honeynut Butternut, (Cucurbita moschata), is a mini squash,  developed by the Plant Breeding and Genetics department at Cornell University.  Honeynut squash is a combination of butternut and buttercup squash types. It is only about one to one and half pounds, dark tan and adorable. The inside is darker orange than standard butternut and a bit denser and sweeter like a buttercup squash. Being smaller in size, it bakes more quickly than a larger three-pound butternut. It is still a butternut, which the squash vine borer pest avoids, which is good news for me. I will be growing this variety next year. Seed is available through Harris, Rene’s Garden and High Mowing seed catalogs and online. Probably other companies will be selling this wonderful squash also.

Peanut Pumpkin aka Galeux d’Eysines. P.Cooper photo

Peanut Pumpkin aka Galeux d’Eysines. P.Cooper photo

Another unusual find was the Peanut Pumpkin. (Cucurbita maxima “Galeux d’Eysine”).  It was developed in France in the Eysine region during the 19th century. The peanut looking growths on the outside skin are formed from hardened sugars that weep out of the skin. It is very decorative and is very edible with a rich pumpkin flavor. The more warts on the outside, the sweet the flesh will be on the inside.

Blue Hubbard and Waltham Butternut. P.Cooper photo

Blue Hubbard and Waltham Butternut. P.Cooper photo

Blue Hubbard Squash,(C. maxima)  is an odd, large shape and uncharacteristic grey color. They are best baked in the oven, as they tend to be watery when peeled and boiled. They are hard to cut open, even dangerous to attempt. We heard the best way to open them is to drop out of the car onto a driveway and they split right into pieces. The person passing on this tidbit of advice didn’t plan it that way, but it works. Blue Hubbard plants are highly attractive to the pest cucumber beetle. The plants have been used as a perimeter trap crop surrounding the field or cash crop of other species of squash. When the cucumber beetles fly into a field of  squash, they will stop at the blue hubbard first for a glorious feast. The farmer or grower can then spray only the blue hubbard to kill the cucumber beetle since almost all will be feeding there, and keep the other squash inside the perimeter beetle free. The blue hubbard squash was not intended to be harvested, only used as a sacrifice crop. Blue Hubbard plants are fast growing and strong, quickly replacing any leaves damaged by the cucumber beetle’s feeding. I am glad some farmers grow blue hubbard as the intended crop and do harvest their fruits. Perhaps these farmers do not have many cucumber beetles in their fields. Lucky them!

Acorn and Butternut Squash, P.Cooper photo

Acorn and Butternut Squash, P.Cooper photo

Traditional and commonly found Butternut(Cucurbita moschata) and Acorn (Cucurbita pepo var. turbinata), squashes are ripe and plentiful. A great starchy vegetable filled with vitamin A. Acorn squashes are perfect vessels for filling with sausage stuffing or grain mixtures.

Spaghetti and Buttercup Squash. P.Cooper photo

Spaghetti and Buttercup Squash. P.Cooper photo

Spaghetti squash is a thin-skinned winter squash with flesh the pulls apart into strands resembling spaghetti once it is cooked. Microwave or bake, then top with favorite sauce or seasoning. The taste is rather bland, reminiscent of zucchini to me, but a good base to carry other flavors. It is not a great storage squash, but easy to grow.

squash 2014

Baked Winter Squash. Photo P.Cooper

Have a squash tasting party to share your finds and new recipes tried. Perfect way to celebrate the fall.

-Carol Quish





Silene stenophylla, regenerated from a 32,000-year-old seed.
(Photograph: National Academy of Sciences)

The dry little speck that develops into a magnificent plant is one of those miracles that happens so often that it’s easy to take it for granted. But, if we stop and consider the way plants guarantee that a new generation will carry on their genes, we have to marvel at the elegance of nature’s design. Protected by a tough coat, seed can tolerate conditions much harsher than its living parent could ever survive, and it can wait years for the proper conditions to germinate. In the case of Silene stenophylla, proper conditions were scientists removing its seed from a 32,000 year-old squirrel burrow in the Siberian permafrost and growing it. This “delicate” arctic campion grew, bloomed and set seed after millennia of patient dormancy. Other reports of Jerusalem date palm and lotus seed remaining viable for a mere thousand years is testament to the phenomenal adaptation and resilience of plants. (At the other end of the spectrum, some tropical seed remains viable only briefly, and must be sown fresh for good results.)  In order to make management of a crop easier, agricultural seed has been selected to germinate all at the same time, a characteristic that would be disastrous for wild species. Ordinary garden seed, collected the previous year and packed and stored in dry conditions, is a valuable resource for gardeners.

Growing plants from seed allows the gardener a much broader range of plant choices than you’ll find at your local garden centers. With all the offerings online, in seed catalogs or on the racks in the big-box stores, the choices can be overwhelming. When selecting varieties, consider not only appearance, but yield, disease resistance and flavor. Gardeners’ reviews in internet forums can be useful in making a decision.

Tomato seedling 'High Tower' (Photo: Rutgers)

As the time for starting seeds for the vegetable garden approaches, a few pointers may be helpful:

  • Start tomatoes on St. Patrick’s Day, or thereabouts (Eight weeks is standard lead time before planting in the garden, but if mid-May is still too chilly, plants can always be held a couple more weeks.) The majority of garden vegetables can be started from seed at this time. Cabbage can wait a few weeks, and for the vines, (cucumber, melon, squash, etc.) delay indoor planting until the last week of April, because setting out these heat-loving plants too early will only retard their growth.
  • Root crops should be sown directly in the garden.
  • Growing annual and perennial flowers from seed is an economical way to grow large numbers of plants and also to try unusual varieties. Be aware that some perennials require stratification (periods of cold that break dormancy) before they will germinate.
  • Seed saved by friends and neighbors in your area are often a good bet. They’ve been tested by others who have about the same conditions as yours.
  • Start small seeds in flats and larger seeds in cell packs, using commercial potting soil. (The garden books advise sterilizing the cell packs if they’ve been used before, and also using sterilized growing medium; I do neither and have never had a problem.) Garden soil can contain weed seeds and pathogens; potting mix is the safer choice.
  • Don’t trust your memory; identify flats with popsicle sticks labeled with indelible marker.
  • Germinate seeds in a warm room. Bottom heat aids germination; a table over a baseboard or radiator is excellent, as long as it’s not too hot.
  • Cover germinating seeds with a sheet of plastic to retain moisture. (Dry cleaner’s bags work well, held in place with something light – I use chopsticks.) Monitor closely to be sure soil is damp, not wet. Remove plastic as soon as seeds break the surface. Allow one week beyond the germination times stated on the seed packet. If germination is disappointing or absent, resort to Plan B.
  • The humidity that is conducive to seed germination is also the perfect environment for the growth of fungi and bacteria that can attack seeds or seedlings in a condition called damping off. Keep soil moist, but not wet; excessive moisture is the primary culprit of this disease. A small fan running on slow speed (placed well away from the seedlings) or a slightly open window on warm days will help by circulating air and keeping surfaces dry.
  • Move sprouted seeds immediately to the brightest light available. A sunny window is good; or artificial lights (fluorescent or LED) hung on a chain can be positioned a few inches from the growing plants and moved as necessary.
  • After sprouted seeds have their first set of true leaves, they may require thinning. Plants that are too crowded will compete with each other and none will flourish, so don’t skip this step. Cutting off unwanted plants with small scissors is preferable to pulling because it won’t disturb delicate roots.
  • When plants outgrow their cells or small pots, move up to a 2.5-3” pot, using a plant stake or plastic spoon to separate and lift the seedlings. Water thoroughly with a dilute water-soluble fertilizer.
  • Vine crops (cucumbers, melons, squash, etc.) are best started in peat pots because they can be transplanted without disturbing their temperamental roots. Peat pots are mushy when wet, so at planting time, soak them well, tear them gently open and plant directly into the ground. Trim off any pot that will protrude above the soil; this will cause wicking action that can rapidly rob moisture from the plant.
  • Harden off plants before planting out in the garden, gradually exposing plants, over the course of a couple of weeks, to increasing sunlight and cool weather.

For those who haven’t tried it, growing your own plants from seed is a gratifying experience – there’s no better way to tune in to a plant’s requirements and hone your horticultural instincts, and it’s an economical way to try new varieties and keep your garden interesting.

J. McInnis