Landscaping/Lawn Care

Summer Projects Worth Doing!

Another Northampton summer is finally upon us. For many people this means, among other things, that new light may be shed upon various projects required to improve your home or property, which weren't apparent during the winter months. 

I love finding encouragement to support a hard won decision. We finally decided to green light our screened in porch construction after two years of hemming and hawing -- and we are super excited that we will have an outdoor space which keeps the bugs out! In addition, look at the words of wisdom I happened upon from the wonderful Apartment Therapy website below - this just happens to suggest that our decision was a good one!

Summer Projects That Will Give You Good Return on Investment

(Image credit: Esteban Cortez)

You don't have to do a total renovation to increase the value of your home. Simple home improvement projects — like landscaping, new doors or shutters, or just a new paint job — can do wonders, majorly transforming the look of your house and bumping up its value.


It's well-agreed that boosting your home's curb appeal will pay off when it's time to sell — though estimates range from 100 to 1,000 percent ROI. Regardless of the exact numbers, it's clear: You'll likely get out more than what you put in. has some ideas, ranging from weeding and maintenance to planting trees (which almost always add value).


A freshly painted home can get you a 5 to 10 percent premium when you go to sell. It's a no-brainer to paint over those rooms that are scuffed or really need it, but if you're looking to sell in the near future, you can also use paint to appeal to buyers and command a higher sale price for your home. For instance, a recent study from Zillow found that blue is a color likely to bump up the selling price of a space.

Decks and Patios

If you were thinking about getting a deck, patio or porch already, good news: It offers a 90.3 percent average return. You also get a good return if you revamp the deck you already have. You want to make sure all the boards, railings and stairs look sharp and are in safe working order. No one wants a deck that looks like a hazard to have their kids around. And adding things like lighting, planters and gates can up the value even more.

New Doors

Both garage door and entry door replacements have a high return on investment, at 80.7 percent and 98 percent, respectively. Spicing these up can increase the curb appeal over traditional, drab doors. It'll give your place something unique that other homes won't have.

by Sarah Landrum

Jun 23, 2017

Don't Cut Back those Spring (Bulb) Flowers!

It's that time of year when the spring bulbs have stopped flowering, and our annuals are coming to life. This week full of rain has gone a long way towards helping our gardens to grow! Mickey Rathbun of the Daily Hampshire Gazette weighs in again, in the following article, about how to care for your spring bulbs to ensure that they continue to bloom. She offers advice about prettying up garden beds where deflowered bulbs are still hanging out, and lets us know about some upcoming gardening and nature events in the Northampton area! The moral of the story is, don't cut those bulb flowers back just yet!


Taking Care of Spring Bulbs


by Mickey Rathbun, Daily Hampshire Gazette

Most spring bulbs have flowered by now and are looking a bit forlorn, surrounded by burgeoning spring perennials that are growing almost visibly by the day. The green stalks and leaves of tulips, narcissus and other bulbs may look idle, but they are working hard to store up energy to produce next spring’s crop of blooms.

To ensure abundant flower production next year, resist the urge to cut back the foliage, even though it’s unsightly. The remaining leaves serve a vital function to the plant by restoring energy to the bulb by producing carbohydrates through photosynthesis. Without this, the bulb will not have the necessary nourishment to produce flowers the following year.

Leave the foliage until it turns yellow and dies back, a process that can take six weeks or longer. If the dying foliage is making an eyesore in a visible part of the garden, you can hide it by strategic planting perennials. I finally figured out that if I plant spring bulbs near the back of the border, they are naturally camouflaged by early blooming perennials such as bleeding hearts and euphorbia. This year, a bumper crop of forget-me-nots came up among my bleeding hearts, creating a lake of pale blue. While not tall enough to mask the scraggly bulb foliage, they distract the eye.

Annuals are another solution. Larkspur and Bells of Ireland have good height to block out the dying foliage. Delphinium (some treat it as an annual; at best, it’s a short-lived perennial) and foxglove (a biennial) can also provide a screen. Bulbs of daffodils, tulips and hyacinths are deep enough below the surface that you can put in annuals without disturbing them


To maximize the bulbs’ ability to send out next year’s blooms, it’s a good idea to snip flowers as soon as they have wilted. This prevents the bulbs from wasting energy on producing seed. Leave as much stalk as possible to promote photosynthesis.

When the foliage is finally caput, cut them close to the ground. Don’t pull them out or you will risk damaging the bulb. After all you’ve done to nurture the bulb, you don’t want that to happen!

Bulbs will multiply underground on their own. After a few years, if you notice they are producing fewer flowers, it’s likely because they’ve become overcrowded. If this happens, you can dig them up and separate them.

The best time to do this is after the foliage has died but before you have removed it. At this point, the bulbs are fully nourished. Dig them up carefully, separate the bulblets and replant them. The largest ones will mature the fastest. If the main bulb is still firm and in good condition, you can replant it. If it’s shriveled or damaged, discard it.

You might want to wait to replant them in the fall. If you go this route, clean off the excess dirt and let the bulbs dry out for a few days. Toss any that are soft or damaged. Store in a cool, dry place packed loosely in dry peat moss.

You may need to wait a year or two for the bulbs to produce flowers. If you don’t want to wait, you can plant the bulblets in a holding area until they are big enough to bloom. This requires twice as much digging and lifting as immediate replanting. Let your back (and knees) be your guide.

Just think of the delight spring bulbs bring us after a long New England winter. Take good care of yours now and you will be richly rewarded.

Paradise City Arts Festival THIS COMING WEEKEND!

Although this wonderful annual festival offers much more than garden adornments, it’s a great place to find that special object that can transform your garden into something unique and personal. 

Unusual birdbaths, planters, outdoor sculpture, furniture and more. The festival takes place at the Three-County Fairgrounds in Northampton, Memorial Day weekend, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday and open until 4 p.m. Monday. Tickets are $14 for adults, $12 for seniors, $8 for students, 12 and under free.

Forest ecology exploration

For nature lovers and hikers wanting to learn more about forest ecology, the Hitchcock Center is hosting an exploration with plant ecologist Glenn Motzkin of a rich, mesic forest — one where the soils are not highly acid, are rich in certain minerals, and where the soil is moist but not wet. The site will have good variety of trees, wildflowers and ferns.

Motzkin will help bring the ecology of this habitat alive for participants and will share recent understandings about the importance of these habitats. The walk will take place June 3, 9 a.m. until noon, at a meeting location to be provided upon registration. Be prepared for insects and perhaps ticks! Cost is $20 for members; $30 for non-members. For more information and to register, go to

Northampton Garden Tour

Come spend a few hours enjoying the six special gardens featured this year in and around Northampton on the 24th Northampton Garden Tour June 10 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., rain or shine.

The self-guided tour raises funds for the Friends of Forbes Library, Inc. to help finance needed programs and materials for the library. It also aims to inspire and educate garden-lovers with visits to a variety of appealing landscape styles and collections of plantings.

This year’s six gardens are located along a scenic 15-mile route, making gardens accessible by car and offering a pleasant bicycle ride with varied terrain.

Driving directions are included with the tickets. At each garden, there are descriptions of the plantings and volunteer garden guides on hand to answer questions. 

Tour tickets are $15 and can be purchased in advance at Forbes Library, Bay State Perennial Farm, Cooper’s Corner, Hadley Garden Center, North Country Landscapes and Garden Center, and State Street Fruit Store. On the day of the tour, tickets are $20 and available only at the library.

There also will be a raffle. of gift baskets on view at Forbes Library through June 8.

For more details visit or call Lyn Heady, 584-7041.

Mickey Rathbun can be reached at


The Goat Girls will Clear Your Yard!

As a frequent visitor to the "Dog Park" here in Northampton (the land which is leased by Smith Voc where many local dog owners currently take their dogs for off leash walks), I was tickled by the presence of The Goat Girls of Amherst, MA at the park, earlier this summer. The goats were contained within a well marked electric fence, and within a short time frame, they had munched away a large area of unwanted shrubs, vines and weeds. It was fun to see the adorable animals on our walks (though I confess, my dog did receive a shock while trying to get a sniff of the industrious animals), and I was amazed to see that they worked so quickly and did such a great job! I was equally tickled to see the following article today in the Daily Hampshire Gazette about the same Goat Girls. Round up not needed! These goats do a great job of clearing yards, leaving behind a great looking finished product! If you have land which needs to be cleared, look them up! 


No thicket too thick: With guts of steel, the Goat Girls of Amherst are here to clear

Joe Wille carries Lily to the trailer to be transported to a landscape job. Gazette Staff/Andrew Whitaker


Autumn the goat is working hard to devour a tangle of weeds that have overgrown on the border of a backyard in Amherst.

Her ears flop back as she munches on some poison ivy, leaves dangling from her mouth. After four days of non-stop nibbling, with the help of five other goats, she is just about done clearing the yard of invasive plants like bittersweet and Virginia creeper.

“The goats are diligent, hardworking —They don’t know that they are working, but they are,” said Peter Vickery, the property owner on Cherry Lane.

After years of wondering what to do about the undergrowth that had overtaken the yard, his wife, Meg Vickery, decided to choose an environmentally friendly alternative to herbicide and a quieter choice than a weed whacker. They hired Goat Girls, a company harnessing the eating power of goats in what is essentially a land-clearing and lawn-mowing service based in Amherst.

For a minimum of $500, the company will deliver a herd of goats to properties in any of several Hampshire and Franklin County towns to devour just about any foliage.

Before the goats are sent out, the land is inspected for plants that might be poisonous to the animals, but for the most part, these creatures have guts made of steel, able to munch through almost anything, said Hope Crolius, owner of the company.

“We say we are just going to let the kids play in the backyard with the poison ivy,” Vickery said.

Getting down to business

Before the goats go to work, Crolius’s one full-time employee, goat herder Joe Wille, sets up a temporary electric fence to keep the goats in and the coyotes and bears out.

Homeowners are asked to check on the goats twice a day to look for signs of illness and make sure the animals look bright, alert and responsive. Sometimes they need fresh water, but the thick weeds provide them with all the food they need.

The company’s more than two-dozen goats have exceptionally diverse diets, they specialize in invasive plants, typically munching through more than 25 jobs per year ranging from golf courses to community gardens. This year the goats also devoured more than 250 Christmas trees dropped off by local residents at the Goat Girls headquarters, a rented plot of land at Many Hands Farm on Pelham Road in Amherst, where the goats spend most of their time when they aren’t working.

“They’re economical, they’re earth-friendly, plus they are the neighborhood entertainment,” said another homeowner Sue Ellen Bisgaard. She hired the Goat Girls a few weeks ago to clear the wooded land at her house in Pelham, where about eight goats gnawed through two acres of brush in only two weeks.

Before the goats showed up, the weeds were so overgrown that Bisgaard couldn’t fathom walking through the property. She didn’t know what the plants were, she just knew she wanted them gone. “It really is just fighting the woods from taking over my land — I have eight acres,” she said.

Not only are the goats pleasant company, in this case their services came at a decent price, she said.

Bisgaard’s landscaper gave her a quote of about $1,000 to clear the property, while the goats provided the same service for half the price.

Depending on the size of the job, the number of goats needed varies. Six animals were used to clear the roughly 300 feet of land in the Vickery backyard.

Seven goats can clear a quarter acre in about a week, said Crolius. So far there have been no complaints about the productivity of the animals, she said.

A daydream come to life

Before starting the business in 2011, Crolius had worked in a high-pressure job as a journalist, often fantacizing about being a shepherd in biblical times.

“You’re working with nature to manage land. The goats are part of nature,” said Crolius.

Many of her clients live in neighborhoods that are not zoned for livestock and love having the chance to spend time with the animals, she said.

“We have an ancestral memory of the role of livestock in our everyday lives — these animals are remarkable. I don’t think we have had a client yet who isn’t delighted by the antics of these goats.”

Crolius, who started with three goats, has every kind of goat from Nigerian Dwarfs, a miniature dairy goat with West African ancestry, to Saanens, a Swiss dairy goat. She isn’t selective about breed because all goats tend to eat at the same rate.

Within a few weeks of acquiring her first herd, Crolious said, the phone started ringing with requests for jobs and the company has kept growing since.

“They have been so efficient,” said Meg Vickery. “I often thought that sheep and goats should be doing this work.”

While abroad in England, she said, she started to think about the concept of goat lawn maintenance, where the animals can be seen grazing beside highways.

“I was impressed by the intersection of agriculture and daily life.”

When she returned to the United States she noticed the invasive plants overtaking her yard, did some research and found Goat Girls.

She’s happy not to have to dump weed killer on her property.

“For me, it’s a more gentle way of achieving the same end and it has less environmental impact,” Vickery said. “We avoid, as much as possible, using herbicides.”

A yard emerges

While the Vickerys were worried that the goats would make noise at night, they have barely made a peep. They are mild mannered and they keep to themselves, said Peter Vickery.

Since the goats got to work, the couple rediscovered property lines and found a few soccer balls and an animal skull. A few trees were also saved from strangulation by invasive vines.

They are looking forward to planting flowers on some of the re-claimed land. “I am surprised because it is so much more open. We can see what trees we want to preserve and which mangy ones we want to get rid of,” said Peter Vickery. As he talks, a short distance away the Swiss dairy goat Muffin is sunbathing in the brush, chewing on a few twigs, the remains of the fourth and final day on the job for her and the rest of the crew.

For more information about Goat Girls, visit or call 461-6832.

 Lisa Spear can be reached at


Taking Care of Spring Bulbs

When spring sprung this year, I actually went online to research when and how to prune, fertilize, sod and care for the many plants in our garden. I was encouraged because last year when I followed instructions about how to care for my (dying) rose bush, I was actually able to bring it back from the dead and coax a bunch of flowers from it! This year, my garden has been growing well. Our bulbs seem to have gotten a late start, but they are hanging around for longer than usual. It's exciting to see them come up, and to think about what and where we will add new ones in the fall.

As a fledgling gardener (I can hardly call myself a gardener, to be honest), I was excited to read this piece in today's Daily Hampshire Gazette, about aftercare for spring bulbs. The article concludes with a list of interesting plant-related events happening in the Northampton area this month.

And, speaking of plant-related events in the Pioneer Valley! Don't miss the Asparagus Festival this Saturday, June 4th from 10-6 at the Hadley Town Common!

Here is today's article from the Gazette:

Mickey Rathbun: Aftercare for Spring Bulbs

The lovely season of spring-blooming bulbs has come to a close in my garden, leaving straggling drifts of lanky foliage. It’s easy to forget the weeks of delight the bulbs provided now that they’ve passed.

But resist the urge to cut back the foliage, even though it’s unsightly. The remaining leaves serve a vital function to the plant by restoring energy to the bulb by producing carbohydrates through photosynthesis. Without this, the bulb will not have the necessary nourishment to produce flowers the following year.

Leave the foliage until it turns yellow and dies back, a process that can take six weeks or longer. Some fastidious gardeners try to improve the leaves’ appearance by tying them or braiding them together, but this decreases the leaves’ ability to photosynthesize. So save yourself the bother and leave them alone.

If the dying foliage is making an eyesore in a visible part of the garden, you can hide it by strategic planting of annuals. Bulbs of daffodils, tulips and hyacinths are deep enough below the surface that you can put in annuals without disturbing them.

You can also interplant bulbs with perennials like hosta and epimedium that leaf out as the bulbs are recharging.

To maximize the bulbs’ ability to send out next year’s blooms, it’s a good idea to snip flowers as soon as they have wilted. This prevents the bulbs from wasting energy on producing seed. Leave as much stalk as possible to promote photosynthesis. With spent hyacinths, run your hand along the stalk to remove the dead flowers instead of cutting the whole stalk.

If you want smaller bulbs such as scilla, muscari and galanthus to spread by self-seeding, don’t deadhead them. (Who has the time and patience to deadhead these plants, anyway?)

When you are finally able to get rid of the dreary yellow remains, cut them close to the ground. Don’t pull them out or you will risk damaging the bulb. After all you’ve done to nurture the bulb, you don’t want that to happen!

The bulbs don’t need to be watered unless you have an unusually dry spell. In the fall, apply a slow-release, balanced fertilizer such as 10-10-10 or 10-15-10. Those numbers indicate the levels of nitrogen, phosphate and potassium in the fertilizer.

Do not use a high-nitrogen fertilizer (the first number); nitrogen stimulates vegetative growth, which you don’t want at that time of year. A few inches of compost is also a welcome addition.

Every few years you might want to divide your bulbs if you notice that the flowers are getting smaller and the stalks shorter. Wait till the foliage has died, then carefully dig out the bulbs. You will find that the original bulb has multiplied into many smaller ones. You can replant these right away or you can clean them off and dry them and set them aside in a single layer in a cool, dry, airy space and wait until fall to plant them.

After a long, cold winter, spring bulbs are an invaluable lift to our spirits. It’s worth taking care of them now so they’ll be back the next year, when we’ll be aching again for colorful new life in the garden.

We focus so much attention on the visual appearance of plants. But what about their scents? Join noted plantsman Andy Brand at Berkshire Botanical Garden in Stockbridge on June 4 from 1 to 3 p.m., for an exploration of ornamental woody plants and perennials that offer more than just visual appeal to our gardens.

The plants highlighted in this lecture have exceptional fragrances that warrant a special place in the garden where they can be fully enjoyed — near an entryway, alongside a terrace or deck, or along a woodland path.

Participants will learn how to make their gardens feasts for all of the senses.

For over two decades, Brand has been nursery manager for Broken Arrow Nursery in Hamden, Connecticut, known for its rare and unusual woody plants. He is the former president of the American Rhododendron Society, past president of the Connecticut Butterfly Association, past President of Connecticut Nursery and Landscape Association (CNLA), and received the Young Nursery Professional Award from the New England Nursery Association.

He is an amateur naturalist with a strong interest in native plants and attracting wildlife to yards.

The fee for members is $15; nonmembers, $20

Woodland wildflowers are everywhere, but so often we don’t really see them. Gain a better appreciation of spring wildflowers by taking a guided tour of wildflowers at the base of the Holyoke Range on June 4 from 9 until 11 a.m. The Kestrel Trust has organized the tour, to be led by Karen Searcy, University of Massachusetts professor and botanist. RSVP for meeting location to:

Celebrated garden writer Tovah Martin will give a lecture and workshop on making terrariums at the Brandt House, 29 Highland Ave. in Greenfield on June 5 from 1 to 4 p.m.

The event is sponsored by the Greenfield Garden Club.

If you’d like to participate in the workshop, bring a glass terrarium and adornments. All other materials will be provided.

The lecture and workshop is $50; lecture only: $25.

For information and tickets, contact Jean Wall at 773-9069, or

The Sunderland Congregational Church is having its annual plant and bake sale on June 4, from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.

The sale will include annuals, perennials, and some small trees and bushes. The sale is to benefit the church, located at the corner of Routes 47 and 116. There will be parking at the rear of the church buildings.

Mickey Rathbun can be reached at


Time To Prune!

As my backyard emerges from the mud and muck left over from a mild Northampton MA winter, I am reminded that it is probably time to start pruning some of the plants we planted last year in our small yard.

As both a realtor and wannabe gardener, this tends to be a tricky time of year for me as the spring buying and selling market takes off AND my yard and garden need attention. I have to be strategic about caring for my plants on their timeline, and not putting that project on the back burner. Fruit trees, flowering shrubs, and other perennials have specific needs for when to prune, mulch, fertilze, etc. Thankfully, a quick google search tends to turn up helpful information about the what, when, where and how of plant care. The following article from has a wealth of important information for you fledgling gardeners! Spring has sprung!




(This article is a re-post from, click on the link for the full article).

Most plants benefit from some sort of regular pruning and maintenance. The trick is in know when to prune what. A great many flowering and fruiting plants prefer to be pruned while they are dormant, in late winter through early spring. Some, like spring blooming trees and shrubs, will start setting new buds as soon as the old buds have fallen. These will need to be pruned shortly after flowering, or you risk pruning off the new buds with the old. And still other plants need to be continually pruned and deadheaded, to remain vigorous and in flower.

It's confusing, but rarely fatal. Pruning at the wrong time of year may result in less flowers and fruits, but it usually won't harm the plant in the long run. The exception to this is pruning too late in the season and encouraging a lot of tender, new growth that will be killed back with the onset of winter weather. To help you take the guess work out of pruning, here is a series of articles to help you learn when to prune the plants in your garden.

Pruning Tools

What ever plants you have, the first thing you need to consider is the best tool for the job. Sharp, clean tools not only make the job of pruning plants easier, they are crucial to keeping your plants healthy. The four basic tools required for pruning most plants are: hand pruners, loppers, shearers and saws. Here's a breakdown of which pruning tools are appropriate for your pruning tasks.

Flowering Trees, Shrubs and Vines

Perhaps the most confusing group of plants, when it comes to pruning times, is flowering trees and shrubs. A general rule of thumb is to prune summer and fall flowering trees and shrubs in the dormant season (late winter / early spring) and to prune spring flowering trees and shrubs soon after their flowers fade. The confusion comes with plants like hydrangeas, roses and clematis; some of these flower in spring, some in summer or fall, some flower repeatedly. Here are some guidelines for figuring out when your particular variety is best pruned.
When to Prune Spring Flowering Trees & Shrubs
When to Prune Which Clematis
When to Prune Hydrangeas
How and When to Prune Your Rose Bushes

Fruit Trees and Berry Plants

Most fruiting plants need to be pruned while they are dormant. You usually get one chance to set buds for next season's crop, so particular care is taken with fruit trees and berry plants. Most flowering plants grown for their ornamental value will still give you some sort of show, even if you've been lax about regular pruning. Fruit trees and berries will steadily decline unless they are pruned and tended. There are several reasons for this, including: suckers that direct energy away from fruiting branches, older branches susceptibility to diseases and pests and the habit of many fruiting plants to only produce on branches of a certain age. So if you are growing tree fruits or berries to harvest, pruning them should be given high priority.
Apple and Pear Trees
Raspberries & Blackberries
When Your Home Orchard Stops Bearing Fruit


Gardeners don't often think about pruning evergreen trees, which is probably a good thing. Evergreen trees don't need to be pruned. It is not recommended that you use pruning to keep an evergreen tree's size in check. You will just stress and distort the tree by doing that. Better to choose a smaller, dwarf evergreen than trying to size down a large tree. However, there are times when you want an evergreen in your landscape to be a bit fuller and that can be accomplished with some well timed pruning. Keep in mind, the larger the tree, the more labor intensive this type of pruning will be, so do this while the tree is young.
Pruning Fir Trees in the Landscape

Perennial Bedding Plants

Perhaps the most labor intensive plants to prune are the non-woody perennials. The notion that you can plant perennials once and then have a maintenance-free garden forever is an incorrect notion. Most perennial plants, especially the flowering ones, not only need to be cut back entirely at some point before or after the growing season, they need regular pruning, shearing or deadheading. Which plants to prune when and how much to prune them is something you learn as you acquire experience gardening. It's part of the pleasure of gardening for most gardeners and it's the type of knowledge that varies from region to region. When and how to prune perennial plants probably makes up more garden chat than any other topic. The articles here will hopefully get you talking.
Perennial Plants to Prune in the Spring
Perennial Plants to Prune in the Fall
Pinching, Pruning and Deadheading


Keeping Houseplants in Good Shape During the Winter

We moved to Northampton, MA, from NYC 10 years ago. Our first house was in the Smith College neighborhood, with lovely perennial gardens of which we had no business being the caretakers. Despite our best efforts, the gardens became overgrown and we had to break down and hire a professional landscaper to maintain them. Since that time, we have been trying to improve our green thumbs. Our new house has much simpler landscaping, and I have actually taken the time recently, to research how each plant we own needs to be cared for. Nothing has died yet (knock wood), and I was even able to coax a few roses from our rose bush

While things seem to be going well enough outside - our houseplants did not survive the first year in our new home. I decided it was time to take the same tactic with the few new houseplants we have acquired in that time, and read up about how to care for them! Brilliant you say? Well, we shall see. But I came across this article in the Daily Hampshire Gazette about caring for houseplants in winter and decided that I should share it here.


Get Growing: Houseplants need TLC in Winter

by Mickey Rathbun


Winter is a hard time for house plants. Dry heat robs them of needed humidity, and there’s less natural light. A basic understanding of what plants do in winter makes it easier to keep them healthy throughout the winter months. Think hibernation.

The leading cause of house plant death — especially in winter — is over-watering! As summer wanes, plants receive less sunlight and naturally slow their growth. Plants that are not actively producing new growth need less water. Keep in mind that plants that live outdoors in summer need less water when they come inside because they’re not exposed to wind.

Test your potted plants for dryness by sticking your finger into the soil. They only need water when the soil is dry an inch below the surface. When you water, water well, and then leave them alone till the soil is dry again.

Over-watering creates root rot. If your plant is wilting, but the pot feels heavy, it may be suffering from root rot. Cut back on watering. If the plant doesn’t improve, gently take it out of the pot and check the roots for mushiness or dark patches. Cut these off, let the root ball dry out over night and then repot, making sure you put plenty of small stones or broken pot shards in the bottom to facilitate drainage.

If you have plants that came in festive holiday wrappings, make sure the drainage holes at the bottom of the pot aren’t blocked. Poke around with your fingers till you can feel the holes and cut away the wrap with a sharp pair of scissors so the holes can drain. Put the plant on a plastic or other watertight tray to catch drainage.

Fertilizer in winter is another no-no. In fact, fertilizer may harm plants. Unless you’re growing plants under lights to stimulate new growth, hold off on fertilizer until springtime growth begins.

While plants suffer from too much watering in winter, they need ambient humidity for transpiration. Indoor heating systems create parched conditions for plants.

Fortunately, there are several things you can do to create a moister environment. Run a humidifier if you can. This will not only keep your plants happier, it will create a more pleasant atmosphere for people. You can also place your plants on a watertight tray covered with small pebbles and water. Just make sure the water does not touch the pots. Alternatively you can place glasses or small jars filled with water amongst your plants.

Keep in mind that the kitchen and bathroom tend to have the highest humidity in your house, so plants that enjoy high humidity, including tropical plants, should be placed in these areas if possible. Plants generate humidity, so it helps to group those plants together. And keep their foliage away from frosted windows.

Most plants enjoy an occasional misting, but don’t mist plants with hairy leaves like African violets and gloxinias. They take a long time to dry and can develop moisture-related diseases.

Indoor dust creates another hazard for houseplants, blocking light and moisture needed for photosynthesis transpiration. An occasional bath — once a month or so — helps plants thrive in winter. If possible, put plants in a bathtub or shower and use a spray bottle to wet the leaves. A kitchen sink sprayer is an option for smaller plants. The bathroom shower is generally too strong for most plants. You can add a few drops of dish washing liquid to a quart of water if your plants are really grimy. Be sure to rinse thoroughly with lukewarm water.

Plants grow toward light. You may notice your plants getting tipsy. Rotate them once a week or so to keep their growth straight and balanced.

One more thing on the subject of indoor plants: If you have plants in a commercial business space, make sure they look good. I mean, would you buy a used car from someone whose showroom is filled with dying plants? Distressed plants are a serious turn-off to customers and passersby. Get rid of these and replace them with new ones, perhaps ones better suited to their environment.

FARMERS MARKETS: Farmers markets in Amherst and Northampton are wonderful places to savor the season’s pleasures and find some fresh local produce. Maple syrup and candies, apples, baked goods, and jams and jellies add some sweetness to take the chill off. Fresh greens and storage vegetables such as potatoes and squash are available, as well as local meat, fresh fish, eggs and herbal and natural skin care products to salve chapped, dry skin. There are also local artisans and crafts people every week. Amherst also features live music.

The Amherst market is open from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. every Saturday through April 2. (There is no market on Jan. 16 or March 5) at the Amherst Regional Middle School, 170 Chestnut St.

The Northampton market is open from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. every Saturday through April 30 at the Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School, 80 Locust St.

Garden Center Clinics: Hadley Garden Center has been an invaluable resource for Valley gardeners since it opened in 1963. It will be hosting an informative series of winter gardening clinics on Saturdays at 1 p.m. beginning Jan. 16. The first, Great Shrubs for Valley Gardens, promises to be a fun reminder that spring is not so far away. It’s easy to get lost among the hundreds of varieties of shrubs to choose from at local nurseries and garden centers. Tom Clark, curator of the Polly Hill Arboretum on Martha’s Vineyard and a former garden center employee, will make your selection a little easier this season as he discusses the shrubs that grow best in our area.

Hadley Garden Center is located at 285 Russell St. (Route 9) in Hadley. Call 584-1423 for more information.

SEED TALK: It’s not too early to start thinking about seeds for next season’s gardens. On Jan. 16, from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. at the Berkshire Botanical Garden in Stockbridge, Ken Greene, founder of the Hudson Valley Seed Library in Accord, New York, will give a lecture on regionally appropriate vegetable, flower, and herb varieties that have been saved by the library. He’ll also discuss techniques for saving seeds and demonstrate a simple way to test old packages of seeds to see if they’re still viable for planting in the coming year. The fee for members is $10; $15 for nonmembers. For more information, go to:

Mickey Rathbun can be reached at


No Need to Clear the Leaves!

I have to say, when we moved from a 1/2 acre plot of land in downtown Northampton, MA to a 1/4 acre parcel in Florence, MA - I assumed we would have no more fall clean up to speak of. At our last house, we were practically knee deep in pine needles, carpeting the lawn and burrowing in between the shrubs and plant. The energy we expended on raking those needles was endless, and we never were able to get rid of all of them. Now we have fewer pine trees, but plenty of other varieties of deciduous trees which are shedding their beautiful leaves all over our tidy 1/4 acre lot. When I pull into or out of the driveway at the end of the day - I become fatigued just looking at the leaves and thinking about the work we still have yet to do. 

I was thrilled when someone shared the following link with me about a week ago. I had forgotten that leaves can be used to mulch the soil and increase nitrogen levels, making the soil richer. I don't need to be encouraged to "let nature complete its cycle" twice. Count me in for leaving the leaves where they land!


In natural ecosystems, there is little waste. Nutrients taken up by plants are returned to the soil when plants die and decompose. Food eaten by animals is excreted; at the end of their lives, animals are also returned to the soil. Ecologists call this nutrient loop a biogeochemical cycle.

In suburban and urban neighborhoods, this cycle is broken. Yard waste, such as grass clippings and fallen leaves, are largely removed in bags or sucked up into giant vacuum cleaners from roadside piles. Water that once percolated through soils, carrying nutrients to plant roots, is routed to drainage ditches and nearby streams and rivers. Meanwhile, residents fertilize lawns and gardens due to nitrogen deficiencies.

Researchers at Boston University found that yard waste removal in the City of Boston eliminated 1/3 of the nitrogen needed by urban trees. Retaining yard waste could potentially reduce fertilizer demand in Boston suburbs by one-half. Overall, the city collected 8,000 tons of yard waste, carrying 64 tons of nitrogen offsite.

Soon, neighborhoods across the Northeastern states will roar with the sound of leaf-blowers. Here is a different suggestion: keep fallen leaves in your yard. They can be raked under shrubs to provide a layer of mulch. Rotary mowers grind fallen leaves, returning their nutrients to nourish your lawn in spring. We need to think of leaves as a resource, not a waste product.

While it’s true that some municipalities collect leaves for compost, rather than landfill burial – think of the energy and tax dollars that could be saved by not picking up yard waste at all. If possible, let nature complete its cycle.


–This segment was adapted from an essay by Dr. William H. Schlesinger. You can read the original piece on his blog Citizen Scientist.


Spring Clean Up!

The snow has finally melted in our yard!  I am amazed that the piles of leaves which I didn't manage to clear out in the fall have been perfectly preserved underneath the snow.  In my fantasies, they had broken down and disappered during the long, cold winter.  Alas, I still have some spring (formerly fall) clean up to accomplish.  I thought I had left behind the motto of my 20's - "why do today what you can put off until tomorrow".  but apparently, old habits die hard.  

Every year, as spring unfolds, I have big ideas about all the yard work and landscaping I want to accomplish.  I recently came across this wonderful landscaping/gardening blog away to garden.  This particular piece gives great advice about tackling spring clean up, and prepping your yard for the spring planting season.  There are a step-by-step instructions about which tasks to tackle first, so as not to get overwhelmed.  Living in the Northampton area, we have a lot of spring and fall clean up to attend do, due to the many varieties of deciduous trees specific to the area.  So unless you plan to hire one of the many landscaping outfits in the Pioneer Valley to do your clean up and landscaping/gardening for you - check out this helpful blog post.


photo credit:

Good Bugs for Green Thumbs

Driving to and from Ashfield these past weeks to attend showings and inspections at our listing at 74 Ranney Corner Road, I have continually been blown away by the immense beauty of the Pioneer Valley witnessed on that drive.  So many native plants are in bloom, it seems almost every color of the rainbow is represented.  I have not yet been successful in developing a green thumb myself, but I know many people who take pride in growing the wide array flowers and vegetables that our local soil enables us to grow.  To that end, I was struck by this piece in the Daily Hampshire Gazette this week, discussing beneficial insects (with a bonus list of plant sales and garden tours at the end).  I felt compelled to share it here.

Get Growing: Beneficial insects

Even the youngest gardener knows that lady bugs are good guys, otherwise known as beneficial insects. And most gardeners of any age are becoming more aware of the crucial role bees play as pollinators. But there are other beneficial bugs with which you may not be familiar: parasitic wasps, hover flies, lacewings and tachinid flies.

In the past week I've gotten information from two different sources on attracting beneficial insects to your garden. First the National Garden Bureau sent an email to garden writers across the country. Then Renee's Seeds sent a similar notice. In both cases the writers emphasized plants you can grow to attract these helpful insects to your garden.

Of course, there is no point in trying to lure beneficial insects to your garden if you insist on using pesticides. Chemicals kill good guys as well as bad guys.

Ladybugs, or more accurately ladybird beetles, devour aphids which sap the juices from the tender buds of all kinds of plants. They are actually the hardest to attract to your garden because once the aphids have been destroyed, the beetles move on to another banquet. Be sure to find a picture of a ladybird beetle larva so you don't eliminate them by mistake. They aren't pretty like their parents.

Lacewings, primarily the larval stage, are also hungry eaters of aphids. In fact, one of their nicknames is "aphid lion." They also devour insect eggs, thrips, mites, mealybugs, whiteflies and small caterpillars. Their parents can be attracted to your garden by planting sunflowers and members of the carrot family. Among the parasitic wasps, the most well-known is one that lays the eggs in that dread tomato hornworm. They are distinctive oval white eggs laid down the back of the caterpillar. If you see a tomato hornworm with the unusual egg decoration, don't kill it. Let the wasp larvae kill it instead. There are dozens of other parasitic wasps that can lured to your garden if you plant members of the sunflower or daisy family. Try planting dill, cilantro, parsley, asters, goldenrods and sunflowers. Yes, these can be planted right among your vegetables as long as you space the plants well.

Tachinid flies have similar tastes to the wasps: members of the carrot, sunflower and mint families. You might need to sacrifice a few dill or parsley plants but the flies will repay you by eating many types of caterpillars, squash bugs, Japanese beetles and sawfly larvae.

Hover flies looks like skinny honey bees with stripes. Of all things they love sweet alyssum best. So go ahead and plant that edging of white or purple sweet alyssum in your vegetable garden as well as your ornamental garden. The hover flies will thank you by taking care of scales, thrips, mites and those pesky aphids. They also like buckwheat flowers (buckwheat is a great cover crop with lovely white flowers), catmint, yarrow and cilantro flowers. Hover flies are also called syrphid flies or sweat bees.

You won't mistake a hover fly for a bumblebee, but many of us forget that these bumbling tanks of the bee family are wonderful pollinatorsm who, unlike the fussier honeybees, aren't deterred by cold, cloudy or even rainy conditions, so they keep on working in orchards and gardens while the honeybees remain in their hives. Bumblebees love lots of flowers especially clover, mint, coneflowers, asters and sunflowers. They also love the nectar of tomatoes for which they are particularly effective pollinators. The National Garden Bureau, Renee's Seeds and this garden writer all acknowledge the information provided by the Home Garden Seed Association of Maxwell, California. (

PLANT SALES: The majority of the local nonprofit plant sales were held earlier this month, but there are still opportunities to buy local plants while supporting nonprofit groups. Here is the final list:

? May 24: Amherst: 4-H plant sale, 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., Amherst Farmers Supply, 320 S. Pleasant St. Hanging plants, patio pots, vegetable plants, flowering plants, herbs and perennials. Leverett: Leverett Historical Society's Plant and Garden Book Sale, 9 a.m. to noon, Leverett Town Hall. To donate plants or books or to help contact Dawn Marvin Ward at 367-9562 or Julie at 367-2656. South Hadley: Mount Holyoke College Talbott Arboretum, 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Benefits purchases for the greenhouse and campus grounds.

? May 31: Amherst: Grace Episcopal Church on the Town Common, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Plants, including house plants, garden tools, decorative pots and books. Proceeds finance landscaping at the church. To donate plants call the church office at 256-6754.

? June 7: Leverett: Leverett Elementary School, time to be announced. Nasturtium hanging baskets, decorated flower pots, marigold seeds and garden ornaments. All grown or produced by the school's children in the greenhouse program.

GARDEN TOURS: The first garden tour of the 2014 season is the 21st anniversary tour sponsored by the Friends of Forbes Library in Northampton. The date is June 14, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tickets are $15, in advance; $20, day of tour, available at Forbes Library, Cooper's Corner, State Street Fruit Store, Bay State Perennial Farm and Hadley Garden Center. The only other tour about which I have been notified is the Amherst Historical Society on June 28. More details to come on that tour in June. If any other group is sponsoring a tour, please email me at


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    Fall Clean Up - a worthwhile investment?

    It is amazing how quickly the leaves in our beautiful Pioneer Valley turn color this time of year.  The change in the air is palpable come late August, and within a couple of weeks we see an amazing array of hues peppering our many trees.  As the leaves start to fall, many of us begin the arduous process of raking, bagging and hauling them away (if we can get them bagged before the kids turn them into forts and/or playgrounds).  Some of us just fight with our partners about who is going to do it and within what sort of time frame.  Perhaps with the threat of hiring someone to do it for them if they don't have or can't find the time.  It seems reasonable to me (being in the latter category) to hire someone.  And since we wound up doing the backbreaking and unenjoyable work (IMHO) of doing our own spring clean up this year - I decided it was worth the effort to look into whether or not fall clean up is actually important for lawn health - or whether it is just an aesthetic choice.

    For one thing, lawns actually need to breathe.  A thick layer of unshredded leaves left on top of a lawn (and under cover of snow) can cause snow mold, and is generally not great for your lawn.  Another thing to keep in mind is that most lawns in the Northeast are made up of a number of grasses that are more active during the cooler months of the year, know as "cool season" grasses.  These grasses can thrive in cool weather (such as the fall) if given enough sunlight and water.  With layers of leaves lying atop the grasses, they will not be given the chance to grow and strengthen their root systems.  One quick solution, and alternative to a full on fall cleanup, is mow and shred the leaves -- allowing sunlight and air to reach the grasses below.  The other is to rake and bag them yourselves.  Lastly, you could always hire one of the many local outfits who are happy to help with fall clean up for a fee.

    This past summer - my husband finally admitted that cutting our half acre lawn with a push mower was a akin to trimming it with a pair of nail scissors - and he suggested to we buy a battery powered mower.  After I recovered from the shock of his statement (he is, as you may remember, the environmental fascist in our household) - I raced across the river to to Home Depot and Lowe's - only to find that their were none left in stock! Happily, my Amazon Prime account came in handy once again, and within a couple of days we were the proud owners of a Greenworks Cordless Lawn Mower with a 40 Volt, 4 AMP Hour lithium ion battery.  This thing purrs, it is so quiet!  It mulches the grass, or you can attach the bag to catch the grass and leaves, if you prefer.  The battery is rechargeable, and the mower is powerful enough to cut 1/2 acre lawn with in one mowing.  If you opt to shred vs. remove the leaves from your yard, a battery powered mower is a good way to go about it!