Techniques

Re-purpose your Christmas tree

If you decorate with a fresh-cut Christmas tree you also face the annual question of what to do with it after the holiday. Here are some ideas, updated from a January 2011 post, to help you re-purpose your Christmas tree, rather than casting it off as trash.

1. After dragging the tree outside, trim still-green branches off its trunk and use these to mulch dormant perennials. The branches from our tree become winter mulch for spring-blooming bulbs, while any evergreen boughs used in outdoor decorations – such as those in the photo below from 2011- help protect dormant perennials from frost heaving.

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2. Turn your tree into an outdoor shelter for feathered friends.  It’s relatively easy to either lean the tree against a bird feeder pole, an outside deck railing, or some other vertical support near where birds feed during the winter. (If a snow pile is handy you can simply pound the base of the trunk into the pile and pack the snow tightly around the trunk. If it stays cold the tree can stand in this spot for quite a while.) Birds waiting their turn at the feeding station can find refuge in the tree, as can those seeking a roosting place while they ingest seed. To provide even more feeding stations hang stale bread, suet-filled pine cones, or orange or apple slices from the tree.

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3. Use some cut evergreen boughs as the base layer for a new compost pile. The natural form of the branches allow for air circulation at the base of the pile, which encourages the compost process. Cut branches can also be placed atop a full compost bin or pile. They might discourage winter rummaging by local animal residents. In the spring these same branches could become the base of a new compost pile.

4. If you have wooded areas on your property, use your discarded tree as part of a small bird and animal shelter by mounding fallen branches over your no-longer-needed tree.

5. If you cut boughs off the trunk, the trunk can be used as a bird feeder or bird house post, or be cut into smaller sections for use in an outdoor fire pit.

But before turning your tree into a wildlife shelter or mulch mound, consider enlisting some help moving the tree to locations in your yard and gardens that might look better planted with an evergreen or conifer shrub. Granted, you might not want to try this with a large tree, but one that’s about 5 feet tall could act as a nice stand in for any future planting. While your helper holds the tree in place you can view it from different vantage points to get an idea of how a permanently planted tree /shrub will look.

 

Leeks – You Can Grow That!

Being no stranger to growing plants in the Allium family – onions, scallions, garlic, chives, and many ornamentals – leeks had always scared me off. It certainly was not their flavor, which I love. It was the supposed extra care – hilling soil around the growing stalks – that caused me to leave leeks off my garden list of edibles. Boy was I wrong! Leeks are a great You Can Grow That! edible plant.

You Can Grow That! is a monthly blogging meme started by C.L. Fornari – she blogs at Coffee for Roses – to encourage anyone, novice or seasoned gardener, to stick their hands in the soil to grow something. Having grown plants for nearly 40 years, I’m still amazed by the power in each tiny seed.

I start seeds indoors, under lights, every spring. Each year, to expand my knowledge, I try growing at least one new plant or variety. Leeks (Allium ampeloprasum) were my 2014 choice; the King Richard variety offered by Botanical Interests. I started two small flats in early March and grew them under lights until night temperatures in my zone 6 Connecticut garden remained above the hard freeze level. That’s when the leeks went into the mini-greenhouse in a protected, full-sun location. They moved to their summer home, a raised-bed, sometime in late May.

I planted the thin seedlings into a six-inch deep trench dug into the soil of the raised bed, then gently hilled soil up around the small transplants, leaving some of the green ends above soil level. After watching, watering, and waiting, the seedlings had grown enough to hill even more soil around the growing stalks. This is done to obtain the long white-flesh area – the edible part – at the base of each stalk. As the leeks grew, occasionally mounding more soil around each stalk took little time and effort. Once the soil was mounded to a total of 8 to 9 inches (remember, they were planted in 6-inch deep trenches), I added 2 inches of shredded straw to help keep soil moisture even and prevent weed growth.

For the rest of the growing season I pretty much ignored the leeks. By the time I harvested a couple in early autumn, they had grown quite large. Still, I left most in the ground for later harvest.

Leeks, harvested Thanksgiving week in sough-central Connecticut.

Leeks, harvested Thanksgiving week in south-central Connecticut.

Here’s how they looked when harvested right before Thanksgiving. The center leek is actually a bit more mature than recommended. The aim is to harvest before the ends begin to bulb.

There’s about a half-dozen more still in the raised bed, which is now covered as a mini hoop house for extra cold-weather protection. I expect to be harvesting leeks well into the winter.

These beauties were so easy to grow, and took up so little raised-bed real estate, that their now on my yearly edible plant list. And … they are delicious, imparting a mild oniony flavor to foods.

Northern gardeners can start leek seeds inside 8 to 10 weeks before the average last frost. After risk of a killing freeze passes, transplant leeks, 4-6 inches apart, into a trench at least 6 inches deep. Water regularly and mound soil up around growing plants as noted above. Gardeners in milder climates can sow leeks outdoors in spring for fall harvest or in late summer for harvesting the following spring.

For more growing suggestions, head to the You Can Grow That! website and read about other great edible and ornamental plants to grow. Then sit back and dream of all you could do in next year’s garden.

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Homegrown, home-processed horseradish

It’s horseradish harvest and process time in joene’s garden. Below is much of an older post on growing and preparing horseradish. The information is as relevant today as it was a year ago.

Horseradish is an easy to grow perennial root crop in my zone 6 gardens of south-central Connecticut – a plant-it-and-forget-it crop until autumn, when horseradish harvest time rolls around.

The key to growing horseradish is dedicating it to a sunny bed where the main roots can extend deeply into the soil and side roots can spread to eventually grow into new plants. I don’t advise planting OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA horseradish in an ornamental bed. Horseradish leaves grow two to three feet tall and are not necessarily showy over the entire growing season. They emerge a lovely green and quickly grow to near mature height. But the leaves are often munched by caterpillars and tend to brown during the heat of summer.

In my region, deer browse the leaves in late summer leaving unsightly bare stalks standing until harvest time. Because of this I advise planting horseradish in an inconspicuous spot. Don’t expect it to be an attractive eye-catcher. In my dedicated-to-edibles gardens, horseradish has it’s own bed. Because horseradish plants have not completely filled the bed, I fill bare spots with onions since these bulb crops don’t compete with deeper horseradish roots and easily survive among horseradish leaves. Also, my horseradish bed is unfenced and available to browsing deer which leave the onions alone and don’t browse horseradish leaves until late summer.

Freshly dug horseradish roots may not look like much, but they become one of our family's most sought after condiment.

Freshly dug horseradish roots may not look like much, but they become one of our family’s most sought after condiment.

But each autumn, even after deer browse the horseradish leaves to stalks, I harvest and process enough horseradish to meet my family’s needs.  Harvest time comes after a couple of good hard frosts, which help sweeten horseradish roots, but before the ground freezes. Harvest using a digging fork that allows deep penetration into the surrounding soil but does not cut the roots. Loosen the soil around the large tap-root, then pull the root out of the ground. The root will likely snap off, but that’s okay. Pieces left in the soil will become future horseradish plants. Once all good size roots are dug, level off the bed and replace any mulch (I use straw or salt hay). Remove any remaining leaves from the dug roots, and as much loose soil as possible, then place roots in a cardboard box, in an area protected from weather, to cure for a few days. Before processing, you want to give the exterior of the roots time to dry, but don’t let them dry out too much so that interior moisture is lost.

Peel horseradish roots into a small sink to prevent the peelings from scattering all over the kitchen.

Peel horseradish roots into a small sink to prevent the peelings from scattering all over the kitchen.

On processing day, brush as much remaining soil off as possible then, while gathering your tools – gloves for your hands, a sturdy vegetable brush, a vegetable peeler, cutting board, knife, and blender or food processor –  soak the roots in water. Gloved hands are a must when processing horseradish. An open window is also helpful since the pungent odor of fresh-cut roots will make your eyes water.

Cut the peeled white roots into 1/4 to 1/2 inch chunks, then place in a food processor bowl – with the cutting blade – with some water and white vinegar. Don’t completely cover the chunks, but give them an inch or so of liquid to sit in. As the chunks sit they gain pungency … you might want to keep the cover on the food processor bowl as much as possible. When all roots are cleaned and chunked, add white vinegar to about half way up the processor bowl and let the pieces sit about 15 minutes. If you have not opened a window yet, now is the time to do so. The pungent odor really gets strong once that food processor begins to work. Process the horseradish, adding white vinegar as needed, until no large chunks remain and the blend has a creamy texture.

Horseradish processed into a creamy texture.

Horseradish processed into a creamy texture.

You’ll shed tears during processing, but these will be well worth it once you taste the sweet, fresh flavor of homegrown and home-processed horseradish.

Warning: you may never settle for store-bought again.

Homegrown and home-processed horseradish is a sought-after condiment for our family holiday dinners. It’s perfect on turkey sandwiches!

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