osage oranges; plant overwintering & food preservation; upside-down pots on stakes: q&a with ken druse
THE MAD STASH is on, time to put up the last homegrown foods and prepare to overwinter tender plants. And this month, Ken Druse and I are answering your Urgent Garden Questions about those and other topics, including osage oranges and more.
We even had a question about something you may have seen and wondered about, as one reader did: photos (perhaps from English garden books or magazines) of terra cotta pots placed upside-down on the tops of garden stakes. But why? (Our listeners helped answer his one.)
Ken, whose 20th book called “The Scentual Garden” is due out October 15th, 2019, is a longtime garden writer and photographer and friend. That’s Ken’s photo of osage orange fruit, above.
Read along as you listen to the September 30, 2019 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
early autumn q&a with ken druse
Margaret Roach: It’s fall, Ken, it’s fall.
Ken Druse: It’s just what I was thinking.
Margaret: I know, and we should tell people we’ve seen each other recently in this sort of September, late September period. We’ve gotten to actually see each other in person that we even did Urgent Garden Questions, a capella, out loud, a lot, alive.
Ken: Yes, twice in one week.
Margaret: Yes. In front of an audience. [Laughter.] So that was fun at State University of New York at Albany, at the New York State Writer’s Institute Book Festival. And yes, that was fun.
Ken: And you looked marvelous.
Margaret: Oh, marvelous. I was marvelous. I don’t even remember what anyone asked us. You know what I mean? It goes in one ear and out the other, I guess because I was nervous.
Ken: People asked us stuff?
Margaret: Yes, remember?
Ken: No. [Laughter.]
Margaret: Yes, they did.
upside-down pots on garden stakes
Margaret: So speaking of questions, before we sort of talk about what I promised in the introduction, about sort of putting up things and what we’re doing in our gardens and so forth, there was a fun question that I didn’t know the answer to, but I could visualize what the person, Leslie, who wrote to me from I believe upstate New York said:
“I tried Googling this question but I couldn’t find an answer. So I thought you or Ken might know. What’s the purpose of the upside-down pots”—like terracotta flower pots—”on tops of stakes in the garden?” Leslie wants to know.
Ken: In Great Britain, I guess.
Margaret: Yes. I wrote back to Leslie, I said, “Show me a picture of what you mean.” Because I thought I could visualize it also, and I thought, “I’ve seen that. Now, what was that?” [Laughter.] So what do you think?
Ken: I think it’s so you don’t poke your eye out.
Margaret: Yes, yes. Because it is when you lean over, you have these damn stakes all over the place in the garden and it is a little precarious.
Ken: You don’t look at them, you don’t see them?
Ken: I can’t believe I’ve never had that happen, actually.
Margaret: No, I know. I know.
Ken: And my stakes are too tall.
Margaret: Yes. So people may have seen this and it is, it’s also sort of fun, almost ornamental-looking. And it made me, when at first she said, it, I thought of your old friend Marcia Donahue and her garden in … is that Berkeley?—Berkeley, California, where she has all kinds of like she has a bottle tree, or she did many years ago when you took me there, have a bottle of tree, I think. She has different things hanging in woody plants. An artist’s garden, with whimsical things. But it’s not that, I don’t think, is it?
Ken: No. And many years ago when I had a greenhouse on the roof in Soho in New York City, I would put wine corks, poke them on the top of stakes or make a little hole in them. So if that happened, then you’d only bruise your eye. [Laughter.]
Margaret: Right. You’d run into a bigger thing, and you also might see it a little bit more or something.
Ken: I saw once somebody had ping pong balls that they spray-painted with fluorescent paint.
Margaret: Oh, that’s a good idea.
Ken: Yes. It wasn’t pretty, but yes. You can get those styrofoam balls at the craft store. There’s a whole another hole in the market, Margaret.
Margaret: Right. Another big business model that we should explore or we can make-
Ken: A get-rich-slow scheme.
Margaret: Get rich slow, yes. Another one of Ken’s. So Leslie, we think it’s for safety. It’s also kind of whimsical and quirky and fun. But we think it’s for safety. That’s what we think.
[Updates from our very smart listeners/readers: A commenter below also knew of this variation, to help hold bird netting in place, as another use for the pots atop stakes. Another reader, citing the RHS website, explains that, “the upturned terra-cotta pots on stakes are earwig traps & have a bit of straw inside. The earwig climbs up to hide in daylight, you then take the pot and dispose of the earwigs.”]
Ken: You remember when we used to be able to get thumb pots? Do you remember a little thumb pots?
Margaret: Yes, they were so cute.
Ken: So cute.
Margaret: Yes, yes.
Ken: I can’t remember the last time I saw them.
Margaret: So little miniature terracotta pots, like the size for your doll. Right?
Ken: Right. Depending on the doll. [Laughter.]
Margaret: Yes. But you know what I mean.
Ken: Like they’re a little smaller than shot glasses, I guess.
Margaret: Yes. Totally cute.
Ken: About that size.
Margaret: Yes. Totally cute.
putting up the harvest recap
Margaret: So back to the main subject, lots of questions coming in about the mad stash, as I said in the introduction. So both the food mad stash, and… I don’t know, have you been doing any sort of putting up? You don’t grow a lot of edibles, I don’t think. But you do have herbs?
Ken: I don’t grow a lot of edibles. I do have some herbs and I occasionally dry some herbs. Does that count?
Margaret: Yes, absolutely. And I was going to say that. That’s one of the things is why spend $3 a bunch for herbs in the market in the winter when you can have some of yours homegrown, either as you say dried…do you do those in the oven or just out on the counter or what do you do, on racks?
Ken: I hang them in where the coats are supposed to be. And sometimes I’ll take metal coat hangers and tie them on to metal coat hangers and then hang those on another hanger or something. Whatever I can, rosemary, things like right.
Margaret: Right. And I freeze a lot of things. I take the parsley leaflets, I spin them in the salad dryer—the whole sprig of parsley, the stems, the stalks with multiple leaflets on them. Spin them to wash them in a salad dryer and dry them off. Take off the leaflets, stuff them into the bottoms of quart freezer bags and roll that up real tight. When it’s about the diameter of between a quarter and a half a dollar—so like a roll, a log in the bottom—roll it up and put rubber bands, seal the bag and put rubber bands around it.
And then anytime I want some parsley, I cut off like a medallion, a coin off the end of it, so to speak, and put it back in the bag. I freeze chopped chives in little jars, little half pint Ball jars in the freezer, you know? So I’ll have chopped chives if I just want that for a garnish on something.
I make a lot of pesto cubes of virtually any herb you can make into that, right? Even if you don’t have perfect herb, you can make it into a pesto cube. But do label them people because all those green ice cubes look the same.
- Growing parsley and making parsley logs to freeze.
- Pesto, other frozen herb cubes, and more herb-freezing tips.
Ken: [Laughter.] Oh, I can’t believe you said that. Do you have a dehydrator?
Margaret: I do. And I’ve never used it.
Ken: Incredible, I know, it’s like pet rocks.
Margaret: No, I got all jazzed up. I wanted to make dried apple slices. In my older age, I’ve gotten into dried fruit somewhat, and dried fruit is very expensive. And I thought, “Oh, I’ll be so smart. I’ll start making it,” because I have apples and I thought: “I’ll make it.” And so I got the thing. And guess what? Another get-rich-slow scheme, or save-money-slow scheme, is that if you buy the dehydrator and don’t use it, that’s not a money-saving device. [Laughter.]
Ken: Sounds like a garage sale in in your future.
Margaret: But at any rate, so I do a lot of freezing of herbs, both, some of them with a little water, just to make like a paste and freeze it as cubes and knock them out into bags. Or with oil, or you can make the full-on pesto, the traditional pesto with all the ingredients and freeze that too. But you know, I do love that.
And I just did a trays of roast tomatoes, cut-up hunks of tomatoes with like onion and garlic and a little olive oil, and roast that until it’s kind of caramelized a little bit. And put those in a either freezer bags or containers. And you can use that for making a super sauce later. And then of course I made my tomato sauce for the freezer; I’ve got a whole bunch of that put away.
And whole tomatoes I freeze, and tomato soup I made. Have you ever made tomato soup? I’m looking for the perfect recipe. I don’t know if I have it yet, but I did the one with the bread in it [called Pappa al Pomodoro; photo above from Alexandra’s Kitchen (get the recipe)].
Margaret: You roast the tomatoes again with like garlic, onion, and it’s kind of thick and yummy. You then, toward the end as you blend it up with an immersion blender, you put in the bread. And it seems good, but there’s something missing. And what I think is that most-
Margaret: I think that’s one thing. And I think the other thing is I really think a lot of tomato soups that we are used to tasting have a lot more salt and also have some sugar in them.
Ken: Sugar, of course.
Margaret: Do you know what I mean? And I haven’t done that, so I-
Ken: It doesn’t take a lot of sugar. It just takes the acid-
Margaret: Acidic, yup.
Ken: Just changes the acid to brightness.
Margaret: Yes. It’s interesting. So it was an afterthought and I thought, “You know what, Margaret, don’t guess. You can do that. You can adjust when you unfreeze it to make…”
Ken: That’s true.
Margaret: Right? You know what I mean? So I just thought, “Let me think about it.” And use a little bit of it and then adjust.
Ken: Well our dear friend Louis Bauer, grew all the vegetables for his family in Pennsylvania, for the family of 14. And they had a pantry in their basement filled with jars, as you can imagine, giant gallon jars of everything you can imagine. Pickles and tomatoes, talk about sugar. His mother put so much sugar in the tomato juice.
Ken: But they had dandelion wine, but corn went in the freezer.
Margaret: Oh yes. That makes sense. It would be better in the freezer then pickled.
Ken Oh yes, really. Well, pickled maybe. But just cooked corn, I don’t know.
Margaret: Yes, nasty.
Ken: Canned corn. We used to have that.
recap of overwintering tender plants
Margaret: So what about putting up the garden, so to speak? I mean, we’re in the North both of us. And in a lot of the country it’s still quite hot and no urgency at all. But I looked on the long-range forecast and I saw that in the first week of October, in my area, we’re expected to have temperatures in the 30s. Not necessarily a frost or a freeze, but temperatures in the 30s. So have you sort of felt the trigger at all and started putting anything away?
Ken: I can’t believe we’re talking about this again. Every year I promise myself: September 15th, everything will be inside.
Margaret: Yes, give or take.
Ken: September 15th came, September 15th went. Not everything is in yet. I brought in the begonias. We’ve gone to, I know you’ve gotten colder, but we went down to 41 and then it was 87.
Ken: So is not really here, well, it is maybe now. But it wasn’t there yet.
Margaret: Yes, yes. That’s what I, again, looking at like the 10- day forecast and so forth for the overnights, I covered them on that night when it was going go to into the low 40s. I made, with tarps and props and stuff, I made like tents. And where I have the two groupings of houseplants [like the begonias in the photo above], it’s right adjacent to the house in a very sheltered spot, under an overhanging roof and so forth. So you know, it’s kind of a microclimate anyway. But this coming in a matter of days, they’re coming in for good. So yes.
Ken: And I have a flight of stairs, too, so that doesn’t help one bit.
- Ken’s and my previous conversation on overwintering everything from cannas and figs to succulents and more.
overwintering potted woody plants
Margaret: So we had a question from Mike, who had read something that I’d written years ago about—I guess he’d found it through Google search or whatever on the blog—about having trees and shrubs, especially Japanese maples in pots that I overwinter in my garage. And he wanted to know, he had some young ones, small ones in small pots and he wanted to know-
Ken: Been there, done that.
Margaret: Yes. What do you do about that? Because things in small pots, like 6-inch pots, that that kind of a pot size, it doesn’t have that insulation value of a giant pot around like a whiskey barrel-size pot around the roots, right?
Ken: I always say that the cold, it doesn’t freeze just down from the top. It freezes up from the bottom, in from the sides, down from the top.
Margaret: Yes. So I mean, keeping something like that over the winter, potted things that technically are hardy in your zone, but they’re not hardy above-ground in a tiny little volume of soil.
Ken: Right. So I’ve done a lot of different things. I’ve buried pots in the ground, not covering them, just right to the rim. And that kind of works, I would do it as soon as you possibly can. I have, in my life, put stuff in leaves. Or you could do it in straw, or not straw, hay. You know, just mound them up with mulch.
And that may work. It’s best if you have the perfect … talk about root cellar. If you have a place that goes down to about 40 or 30, but not below 20, I do that with Japanese maples. I have a few that, you know, I meant to get in the ground, but they’re not in the ground yet. And they’ll just go to this space that I have, that the coldest it’s ever gotten was 20. But usually, it’s around 30 or so.
And I don’t even have lights on, they drop their leaves. And as long as I get them out in March, before they … and sometimes they get leaves and oh my goodness, and then you pull them out and the leaves all fall off. Then it has to make a new set of leaves. But ideally, take them out in March.
Margaret: Before they wake.
Ken: And that works. But you could also put the pot in a bigger pot, a much bigger pot and schlepped that in. Which is similar to putting it in the ground.
Margaret: Well, so what you’re kind of talking about is like plunging it, so to speak, or heeling it in somewhere. And if the pot’s a breakable terracotta pot, you can’t do that in an outdoor environment. But if it’s not, if it’s just a nursery pot, you could do that—you could, if you have an empty vegetable garden, for goodness sake, you could plunge the thing.
And like last year I—oops, never happened to me before again, because you know I’m so perfect—but oops, I saw that I had a couple of perennials and even as shrub, actually a tree peony also, that someone had gifted me late in the season. And I realized they were still sitting in the driveway in their nursery pots.
Margaret: Duh. And you know what, I had a delivery of mulch, of really nice mulch. And it wasn’t frozen yet. And what I did is I kind of dug them into there so that they were buried to their necks. I mean, you know, to the top of the pot so that they were … and they didn’t miss a beat. They were perfectly fine. I use the empty vegetable garden beds sometimes and do that, heel things in. Yes. Yes.
Ken: Well, we completely agree.
Margaret: Oh my goodness, then one of us must be wrong. [Laughter.] Oh, wait, that doesn’t make any sense.
Margaret: I’m sorry, I’m having a nervous breakdown.
Ken: Did you read that in a fortune cookie?
Margaret: I did. So one of the things about this time of year, you know, besides like where are we going to stash things. And we’ve had this conversation as you pointed out; like every fall we do on the show and we have a list of like how to store dahlias, how to store cannas, how to store dot, dot, dot, all this stuff. Prescriptive stuff for certain special needs plants and tender things and so forth.
Margaret: One of the things that I think everyone forgets to talk about is weeding. And you were just telling me about this the other day: You’re on a weeding campaign. I think this is the most important weeding time of the year, right? You know, the cleanup before cleanup.
Ken: Yes. But weeding is like nine months of the year. [Laughter.] It doesn’t have to not stop because what you’re saying … well we don’t want things to go to seed, which they’re doing right now. And then dropped the seeds in the garden, especially the dreaded stiltgrass. [Ken’s photo, above, of stiltgrass; our previous chat about how he tackles it.]
Margaret: And even something as familiar and less benign, like crabgrass. I mean, that’s what you want to prevent, is not to have as many crabgrass seeds around to sprout next year in bare areas. I mean, even that, let alone stiltgrass, which is your nemesis, I think.
Ken: Well, this year though, I’ve talked to a lot of people and it seems like this is the crabgrass year for people all over. I was in Minnesota, crabgrass; Massachusetts, crabgrass. Seems like… How about you? Crabgrass?
Margaret: Yes, yes.
Ken: Unbelievable. I don’t really have a lawn, exactly, but usually it’s a mix of interesting things. This year it’s almost all crabgrass and what do you call that ground ivy? Do you call it creeping Jenny or ground … I guess creeping Jenny is different.
Margaret: Glechoma hederacea.
Margaret: Yes, yes, yes. It’s a terrible thing. And it loves to creep to the edges of beds and into the bad. so it’s just really-
Ken: Because we had rain in the spring and the leaves are-
Margaret: That’s what I think, yes.
Ken: They’re like wild ginger, they’re so big.
Margaret: Yes, yes.
Ken: Two years ago, I hand-dug, with a weeding knife, the crabgrass out of the so-called alleged lawn. This year, no way I could do that. It’s mostly crabgrass, the whole thing.
Margaret: And the thing about crabgrass is that, again, since it’s something that sows, it’s like annual; it sows and sprouts. So if you just dig it out and leave the bare soil, then next year, the cycle will repeat itself. Because there’s bare soil, and especially if you let it go to seed, and there bare patches, thin patches in your lawn, it has a field day, it loves it.
So really, it’s one thing to take it out or behead it or whatever. But leaving those thin patches where it can sprout again, because the conditions are right and light gets to the seed—not a good thing. So we’ve got to prevent it by doing that by overseeding with desired grasses. And in our area, in the North, you want to do that from like mid-August to mid-September or something. Multiple overseedings or even just putting mulch on the damn area. Something that prevents it from that light hitting the area and it sprouting again, until you get the lawn repaired. Because bare spots are where crabgrass loves to inhabit. And for me, it mostly gets the edges. Again, just like that Glechoma, the ground ivy.
Margaret: Yes, edges, edges. Yes, yes. Super-important right now, I think, to keep after it. And even if you can’t dig out some alien thistles or whatever, if they’re going to seed, cut the heads off into a paper bag or into a garbage bag, and put those in the trash. Get rid of them, like don’t let 1,000 seeds spread all over the place, if that makes any sense. Even if you can’t take the whole thing.
Ken: Oh sure. The garlic mustard is long past, but I dig that out in the spring, pull it out in the spring. And then when it gets late and it starts to flower, I just walk around with scissors and a paper bag and just cut their heads off.
Margaret: So at least you’re reducing its self-seeding ability for that year’s crop. Right, right.
growing osage oranges
Margaret: So we have a another question. Now where’s the question? I have it written down here somewhere. Oh, Susan, it was Susan. She says, “Have we ever come across osage orange trees? Sometimes farmers used to use them as hedge row fences in their fields because they have thorns,” she says. She loves them, they have the fruits, kind of bright green-ish, chartreuse with a wart-like surface. She loves them in a bowl and also as they dry. And they’re fragrant, the fruits. And she wants to know, do we have any information on them or is anyone selling them?
I was able to find them in the Forest Farm catalog, it’s one of the only places I could find them available.Probably a young seedling or sapling, mail-order. But have you grown them? Have you grown osage orange [Maclura pomifera]? It’s a native plant to some of the southern United States. [Update: Monticello also offers bare-root 1-year seedlings at the appropriate time of year.]
Ken: Not [native] here. There used to be a remnant of the hedge near here. And I would go every … well, I still do because there’s one plant left, one tree left. A female tree, I guess. And I would go and collect them and enjoy them on the table for about a month. And then return them to where they came from, hoping that some would sprout.
Margaret: Right, right. I remember picking one up on the side of the road by the New York Botanical Garden, along the parkway there, there was one. [Laughter.] Of all the crazy things, yes.
Ken: I love …. they smell kind of like ginger with grapefruit. It’s a pungent smell but it’s a really nice smell. This last winter, one fruit got away. And it was out over the winter and it got disgusting, which I’m sure happens in nature, too. And the seed sprouted in the fruit.
Margaret: Oh, weird.
Ken: And I thought, “Oh, I’ve got trees.” And so I potted them up, and they looked really good but we had too much rain. And the seed leaves came up but then the true leaves kind of rotted. So I didn’t get a tree. But I don’t know—where would I put it? And in my lifetime… anyway.
Margaret: Exactly. But you mentioned something interesting. You said “female tree.” And this is a species that some plants have male flowers and some have female flowers. So they’re separate sexes, so not all the different individual trees can get fruit, anyway. So some are going to be nonfruiting, be pollinators or whatever.
And I mentioned before, it’s a native American plant in the sense of parts of Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas, I think. And now, it’s become naturalized because of being used years ago as a hedge row to keep things out, in agricultural settings, because of it’s nice thorniness and so forth. It’s become naturalized in some areas where that was the case. And in some places, maybe when I say naturalized, it may be a little too ambitious as well.
Ken: Well in the old days, they would cut it.
Ken: And so it wouldn’t flower and fruit. They’d make it just 4 feet higher or something to keep the cows in.
Margaret: Right. But once that hedge was no longer maintained, it got out of control and there were too many of them in certain places.
Ken: And now in this area right here, I know where there’s one female, and there must be a male somewhere. But only one tree left. They’ve just developed everything around it.
Margaret: Well, in the last minute or so, I want to just tell everybody, I mentioned at the top of the program that you have your 20th book, “The Scentual Garden,” coming out in mid October this year. And so you’re going to come back in a couple of weeks and we’re going to talk fragrance, a subject that I knew nothing about until I read this book. No, I mean seriously, I really didn’t. So we are going to have a whole program about fragrance. Yes, yes? You’re going to come back?
Ken: Yes, yes. Sounds good.
Margaret: You just have to answer all my questions about fragrance. [Laughter.]
Margaret: Any other last minute chores you want to tell us about besides the weeding and the stiltgrass annihilation that you’re up to over there?
Ken: Well, if you find an osage orange tree, don’t park under it, that’s a big mistake—you’ll get dents in your car. Do gather the fruits for a little while and then put them back, like I should do.
Margaret: O.K., O.K. All right, use them as like air freshener, what do you call it, incense in the house temporarily.
Ken: Better than Glade. I hate to mention products. [Laughter.]
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MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its 10th year in March 2019. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the September 30, 2019 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).