Vermont Garden Journal

Even though winter solstice is drawing near, the usually cold nights, snow flurries and wind chills are absent. November was one of the warmest on record in Vermont and so far that streak is expected to continue through December.

Our warm weather is a product of a particularly strong El Nino year, and colder weather is not expected till later in the season. 

For gardeners, the warm weather is a blessing and a curse.

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Colorful plants and seasonal greens are a staple in many homes during the holiday season, but it’s important to makes sure you protect your children and pets from toxic varieties. Exposure to such plans can cause a range or reactions: from a mild skin irritation, to stomach upset, to a serious issues needing medical attention.

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For a gardener, you can always give gift certificates for bags of compost or potting soil, but let's go out on a limb to find a few gifts more creative gifts for the gardeners on your shopping list.

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Holly shrubs used to be placed around houses to ward off evil spirits, bad luck, animals and even fairies. The leaves and berries were used medicinally and in Celtic folklore the Holly King ruled the land during the winter.

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A tenacious vine, the Virginia creeper is best known as the plant gracing the walls of Ivy League Schools. It has five leaflet leaves and small tendrils that adhere to just about any surface that allow it to climb to great heights without falling over.

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Kale continues to amaze me, especially this time of year. Not only does it survive cold temperatures, it shines. The flavor gets sweeter and the texture more tender with the shorter, cooler days. It's a vegetable that's hard not to love.

Kale is actually a primitive cabbage, related to the rutabaga. Kale will last into winter, and even into the spring if protected in the garden with a winter row cover.

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American Chestnut trees used to fill forests on the East coast from Georgia to Maine, providing food and rot-resistance lumber. Unfortunately, an Asian blight in the early 1900's killed most American Chestnut.

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Edible mushrooms are available in more places than just your local grocery store's produce section. Mushrooms can be locally found by foraging in your area or cultivated in your garden. 

An easy mushroom to cultivate is the native wine cap or Stropharia mushroom. They have a mild flavor, are easy to recognize and hard to confuse with harmful species. Stropharia are visually similar to Portabello mushrooms and the caps can grow to be rather large.

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The larch, also known as the tamarack, is a large deciduous tree native to Europe and North America.

The rot-resistance wood of the larch was used to built most of Venice, Italy. It is also used to make bonsai trees and is one of the last trees to change color in the fall. 

Radoslaw Ziomber / Wikimedia Commons

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I always feel a bit sad this time of year for my annual flowers. Some have just come into their own, only to be nipped by frost. While it’s easy to buy new plants in spring, some varieties just beg to be overwintered. But before you go digging up your prized flowers to bring indoors there are a few tips to keep in mind.

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This common flower symbolizes fall as much as pumpkins and corn stalks. It’s been grown for thousands of years in China and Japan not only for its beauty, but for medicinal and culinary uses. A Chinese proverb says, “If you want to be happy for a lifetime, grow chrysanthemums."

Amanda Shepard / VPR

Like many gardeners, for years I would diligently clean up the veggie and annual flower gardens this time of year, pulling out dead plants and adding them to my compost pile. But in the last few years I’ve decided to compost in place. Instead of feeding the compost pile, I feed the garden soil in the beds directly.

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With the exploding production of hard ciders, there has been a renewed interest in antique or heirloom apple varieties. Apples were originally grown in our country not for fresh eating, but to drink. And hard cider was especially prized. You can see why everyone was so excited with Johnny Apple Seed running around the countryside sowing apples. Back a hundred years ago, there were many more varieties of apples than grown today. Specific varietal blends were used to make tasty ciders.

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These flowers were gathered in the wilds of Turkey by Ottoman sultans and were depicted on paintings, wall covering and in decorative arts throughout the 1500s. Later on hybrid versions of these blooms spurred a whole flower industry in Europe, including a market crash. But the species versions have gathered less attention.

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When is a tomato, not a tomato? When it’s a cherry? If that doesn’t make much sense, you’ll understand the confusion over ground cherries. These tomato family fruits grow close to the ground. The “cherry” refers to the yellow fruit inside the papery husk. The fruits have a sweet flavor with just a hint of tomato.

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These fruits have been grown for more than 3000 years in Japan and China. Although they share a name with a similar European fruit, they present themselves totally differently. They are round, crisp textured, and juicy. We call them Asian pears.

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I’m moving on in the hydrangea world. When the first ‘Endless Summer’ blue hydrangeas hit the market I thought it was the holy grail of hydrangeas for our climate. But unfortunately, many times ‘Endless Summer’ has turned into Endless Bummer for lack flower production.

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Late summer can be a frustrating time in the perennial flower garden. The rudbeckias and coneflowers are fading, but the asters and sedums haven’t come into their glory yet. There is often a color gap in the garden. The answer could be Japanese anemones.

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When I first saw monkshood, it was in September in coastal Maine and the garden was ablaze in purple color. This, I said to myself, is a plant I need for my fall garden.