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Merry Christmas from The Mountain Gardener

Whether you celebrate Christmas, Kwanzaa or Hanukkah, this time of year is special to each of us in our own way. We really do greet friends and neighbors with a bigger smile and a warm holiday wish when we see them on the street, at a community event or even in a store. It means a lot to me when a reader says how much they learn from my column. If you've enjoyed even one of them, I'm a success.  Isn't there a saying to the affect that a person is a success if they get up in the morning and do what they want to do? I'm blessed to be able to do just that- give gardening advice with the occasional pearl of wisdom thrown in and create gardens. How fortunate can one get?

I look out my window and see the chickadees working the plants for aphid eggs. I cleared a path of downed branches for the deer twins to pass behind my fence on their regular route. My resident raccoon family are happy finding worms along the driveway. And my cat, Jasmine, has grown a luxuriously thick, black winter coat.

There's not much else I need to do in the garden right now. Roses don't get pruned back until the end of January. Dormant spraying of fruit trees can be done in January and again in February. There'll be lots of time in late winter to prune deciduous trees. So sit back and enjoy the holidays.

While you're out and about you may see a shrub blooming with large flowers in red, pink or white. Chances are it's a camellia sasanqua. This species of camellia is native to the evergreen forests of southern Japan and many of the neighboring islands as far south as Okinawa. Cultivars began appearing in Japan in the late 1600's but it was the Dutch traders who imported some specimens into Europe in 1869. The leaves can be used to make tea and the seeds used to make tea seed oil for lighting, lubrication, cooking and in cosmetics. Tea oil has a higher caloric content than any other edible oil available naturally in Japan according to Wikipedia. All this from an incredibly beautiful shrub for partial shade.

Another plant  that I forget about until it starts blooming about now is the Christmas cactus. Each year I'm amazed at how many blooms I get from these tough, neglected plants. If you have a Christmas cactus that is dropping buds, though, you should look for a few conditions that might be contributing to this problem.   Temperature change is a major factor -moving your plant from a warm location to a cooler one or vice versa.  Ripening fruit nearby will give off ethylene gas and cause the flower buds to drop.  Watering with cold water or a cold draft from the front door might also be the culprit.  Keep plants away from furnace vents and fireplaces, too.  Christmas cactus are easy to grow in bright light and average home temperatures.  I have two that bloom their heads off and I have to confess my care for them is nowhere near what  I advise you to do.  They are forgiving, though, and live for a very long time sometimes being handed down from within families.

Most importantly I want to wish you and yours a wonderful holiday from The Mountain Gardener.

Predicting the weather with The Farmer’s Almanac

The other day I was leafing through the Harris’ Farmer’s Almanac 2011 Gardening Guide looking for gardening tips and checking out the regional weather forecasts for the year. This classic booklet has been published "for use of farmers, planters, mechanics and all families" since 1818 and contains "weather forecasts, planting tables, and a variety of matter useful and entertaining". If you haven’t read one lately, I can tell you it lives up to its promise.  Here is just a sampling.

This Farmer’s Almanac wisely points out that beauty is as important to a gardener as being able to grow a good tomato. In many ways, gardening is painting with plants, trees and flowers. If you don’t have the room or time for a separate vegetable patch, mix edibles in with ornamentals. Add multi-task plants like blueberries, artichokes, sage and lettuces in your mixed perennial beds as they’re easy to grow, delicious and beautiful, too. You’re limited only by imagination.

What about the Almanac’s famous weather forecasts? How accurate have they been so far and what’s in store for next winter? Here’s where it gets interesting. Seems that there’s an ‘Old Farmer’s Almanac’, too, a direct competitor, that’s been published since 1792.  This almanac published a study in their 1999 booklet about the woolly bear caterpillar, the larval form of the Isabella tiger moth, predicting the weather.  Here is the history, fact and lore about this famous caterpillar.

According to legend, the wider the middle brown band of the caterpillar, the milder the coming winter will be. Conversely, a narrow brown band is said to predict a harsh winter. A very large number of caterpillars would have to be examined to prove anything definitively but it’s become an excuse to go out to view fall foliage and have fun. Mike Peters, an entomologist at the University of Massachusetts, says there could, in fact, be a link. "There’s evidence", he says, ‘"that the number of brown hairs has to do with the age of the caterpillar- in other words, how late it got going in the spring. The only thing is…it’s telling you about the previous year." So much for predicting the weather by woolly caterpillars.

Remember that long dry spell we had from mid-January to mid-February? The Almanac predicted "locally heavy rain." This month, it predicts showers on May 6-8, 18-20 and 25-27. We’ll have to see how this month pans out to rate their accuracy. October is predicted to have isolated showers throughout the month, November to have "bands of showers" off an on during the month and December forecasts show "mainly light to moderate rainfall." Personally, I’d look at the satellite map and decide the weather for myself.

So much is packed into this little booklet including a good article about growing the San Marzano sauce tomato. So prized in Italy its place of origin on the banks of the Sarno River- between Naples and Salerno- is protected under international law. They can be grown in sun or light shade with deep but infrequent watering resulting in richly concentrated sugars, just the right thing for sauce or a salad. Tomatoes prefer soil with a pH between 6-7 and combine well with rosemary, thyme, oregano, basil and other aromatic herbs.

So whether you are interested in planting in tune with the moon, canning or freezing your harvest, propagating plants, growing and cooking carrots and chilis, drying flowers or learning what’s new in gardening tools, there’s something for everyone in The Farmer’s Almanac.