IT’S BEEN A strangely mild fall so far in the Northeast, where Ken Druse and I both garden. But as some recent overnight freezes served as a reminder: Get the must-do chores done or else, because who knows when the weather will lower the boom for good.
On our lists, still: collecting some seeds of natives to sow later and cleaning and preparing tools for storage; lifting tender bulbs and tubers to stash; where to overwinter the nursery pots of things we bought that never found their permanent home in the ground (oops).
Ken Druse, author of 20 garden books and an old friend, is back today to help with the countdown, and especially to remind himself and me and all of us not to get lulled into procrastination, even if it has been in the 60s some days here the last week. (That’s his spade getting ready for some wire-brushing, steel-woolling and oiling, above.)
Read along as you listen to the November 15, 2021 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on Apple Podcasts (iTunes) or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
cleaning tools, stashing bulbs & more, with ken druse
Ken Druse: Margaret, you’re reading my mind again.
Margaret Roach: Yeah, I know it’s kooky, right [laughter]?
Ken: Maybe you’re reading every gardener’s mind.
Margaret: Yeah. The weather certainly does not give us the usual signals that I used to expect by this far into November, that’s for sure.
Ken: Well, usually by this far into November, we’re freaking out completely cause we haven’t done anything.
Ken: And, we are in Indian summer here because we had killing frost and then we have the warm temperatures above 60.
Margaret: Yeah. I’m going to go up into the meadow, the little meadow above my house today, and collect some more seeds from some of those goldenrods and asters and things that are up there whose seeds haven’t dispersed, but they’re looking good. And maybe I’m a little late, but it’s not too late, and I’ll put them in paper bags and…
Ken: It’s not too late. Right. Well, that’s interesting that you said put them in paper bags, because I was going to say don’t do it in the field, supposedly, because we’re going to have wind.
Ken: I mean, you can cut some little twigs with the flowerheads on them and put them in bags right there, label them. Now, I guess you’re going to have to have separate bags. But when you get home, indoors out of the wind, get some newspaper or some white paper and get the seeds out there. Cause when you do it in the field, Ken…[laughter].
Margaret: Who are you talking to over there?
Ken: Ever try to get the milkweed? [Laughter.] Oh my goodness.
Margaret: Yeah. I usually take either some cups, Tupperware kind of things, whatever. Or I take the paper bags, depending on if stuff is wet and it depends; I like it to be on a dry day if I can. And I have the paper bag that I’ve already written what it is on, and I just kind of cut it and let it fall upside down into the bag.
Ken: Yeah, that’s great.
Margaret: Yeah. O.K.
Ken: There’s a guy in Texas who invented something with a Dustbuster and a tube and stuff. I mean he was collecting a lot of seed from his own prairie, and he’d suck him into the Dustbuster.
Margaret: I don’t think I need any more gadgets. I think I just need to make sure and go and get some, because I want to repeat them in certain spots, some interesting things that have started to sow in and so forth. I want to be a little more deliberate.
Ken: I want to ask you what they are, but can you name one?
Margaret: Well, I have six kinds of goldenrod. Don’t ask me which ones…and I sort of think of them as the early one, the tall one [laughter].
Margaret: I have to always look it up. But yeah, some of the asters that do better in—not in the meadow, but nearby in sort of a shady area, like the big leaf aster and the white wood aster and so forth. And I just want to be, as I said, a little more deliberate, and winter sow them.
And actually I did an interview with Heather McCargo of Wild Seed Project up in Maine maybe a month ago. She shared the how-to steps, how to propagate them. But I want to… I just want to make more of certain things and repeat them, because nature sows where it wants to sow, and I want it in other places. [Illustration of winter-sowing natives, above, from Wild Seed Project, by Jada Fitch.]
Ken: No, you just want more.
Margaret: More, yeah. So you’re doing some of that, too?
Ken: Well, it is funny. Some of the stuff isn’t ripe that I’m looking for. So there, then again, they’re, there again, things are screwy this year.
Margaret: Yeah. What are you on the hunt for?
Ken: Well, I went to Pycnanthemum, because I love Pycnanthemum.
Margaret: And the mountain mint, is that we call them?
Ken: Mountain mint, right. And this is tenuifolium, not the muticum, which I’ll check that, too. But the tenuifolium, the seedheads are, I mean, I guess there’s seeds in there, but they’re completely soft and pliable and no evidence of being ready, so…
Ken: But they will be, and I’ll check them out.
Margaret: Huh. Interesting. And then as I said, sort of a little bit before, what sometimes happens is they are all almost ripe and then we get a week of rain and then they’re all wet and nasty and…
Ken: Or you blink.
Margaret: Yeah. So I’m looking for that dry day when they’re also ripe. So Pycnanthemum, that’s what you’re on the hunt for, O.K. And what else has going on over there in Ken’s garden?
Ken: Well, I’ve been preparing to move… Well I’m getting ready to move things into the basement area, which is one of the places that I store things. So about, I don’t know, almost three weeks ago, I moved all the Eucomis in their pots, because I store them in their pots, into a spot where rain doesn’t get to them. And I put the pots on their sides, so there was no danger of blowing rain getting into them, because I want that medium to dry out, and I want the Eucomis to go dormant. And if they don’t behave, they’re going to get their fading leaves cut off. But that’s what I do every year with those—they seem to hold their leaves until the last minute.
Margaret: I was just going to say I did the same thing. I carried my pots onto the porch and some of them—I mean the foliage looks like it’s June or July. It’s so gorgeous and thick and green. [Above, Eucomis foliage barely starting to fade, despite it being November, will need to be cut back before storage.]
Margaret: Yeah. Yeah. And these are the pineapple lilies, of which there’s little ones and big ones, all different species and so forth. And so you store them in the pots, in the cell, you let them dry down in a protected spot and then carry them into the cellar when they’re dry?
Ken: Right. The cellar’s probably, I don’t know, 55 to 60, so it’s not that cold.
Ken: But I keep them dry and then I freak out twice a winter and just sprinkle a little water on the top. Really very little.
Margaret: Hmmm. I was going to say I’ve been unpotting them in recent years because it got to be too much carrying so many pots of so many things down these little-bit-scary cellar stairs.
Ken: And every year it’s more.
Margaret: Yeah. Yeah. So I’ve started unpotting.
Ken: My basement is ground level walk-in through the back, though.
Margaret: Oh, O.K. That’s good.
Ken: Yeah, I know.
Margaret: Yeah. So I’ve been unpotting the pineapple lilies, and again with the paper bags or the equivalent, I’ve been labeling which is which, and then putting them in, and then just putting the, emptying the pots out, the potting medium out. So that’s also had a secondary positive effect. Besides not carrying the stuff up and down the stairs, is that I actually repot my Eucomis every year because of that. And they like it, because they get more congested and they bloom better with the repotting.
Ken: I do that. I unpot them. It’s just the fast way to store them for me. I don’t think it’s beneficial necessarily. As you’re saying that I’m wondering about critters in those paper bags, but you haven’t had any trouble?
Margaret: No, I don’t think they’re very tasty, from my experience, because I would definitely have mice and so forth in the cellar from time to time. It’s an old house, but I’ve never had any kind of interest in them.
Ken: Yeah. Well speaking of not tasty.
Ken: There’s some things that go dormant reliably. I mean they’ve been dormant for probably two or three weeks. They just, all of a sudden went [Ken makes a sound], like the Amorphophallus.
Margaret: Voodoo lilies [laughter].
Ken: I don’t know what I would call that.
Margaret: Voodoo lily.
Ken: Dracunculus is the dragon lily. I don’t have that now. I know that you love Sauromatum.
Margaret: Yeah, the Sauromatum. So the Amorphophallus and the Sauromatum, they are voodoo lilies. Years ago, I started kind of collecting them. I got the first ones at Tony Avent at Plant Delights Nursery, and then Broken Arrow Nursery started collecting them. And, so I have all these oddballs, most of whose names I can’t remember.
And I actually just love them for their foliage, although they have—as we’ve talked about before—those crazy stinky flowers and so forth. But I, those, Tony told me years ago, he goes, “Oh, you can just unpot those and store them in your dresser drawer in the winter.” [Laughter.] That’s what he told me. Apparently they’re pretty bulletproof. So no particular special needs with those when they’re dormant. [Above foreground, Sauromatum; left of that, Amorphophallus.]
Yeah, my cannas got frosted off finally.
Margaret: Cause they’re 10 feet tall and they got frosted off and…
Ken: Oh, and your dahlias, too?
Margaret: Well, I don’t have any dahlias; I’m not a dahlia person—too pretty, you know me, I like the leaves [laughter].
Margaret: I like cannas more, but yeah, they finally got frosted off. I was able to get a helper to come, because it’s quite a job to dig them all and get them down into the cellar in big plastic laundry baskets. So they’re down there.
But ideally you want to wait till this stuff, dahlias and cannas, get frosted off, give it that signal to go to sleep kind of. Right. And then…
Ken: And I, we should say, I guess Ken should say, someone should say, if you live in Zone 8 and even Zone 7, I’ve seen cannas in Zone 7. And I say, “Dig,” and people say, “Dig?”
Margaret: Why would you do that? Right.
Ken: Right. Maybe they plant them deeper, too. I don’t know.
Margaret: Yeah. I find that they do a little better not at 60 degrees—but 40 to 50 degrees, would be better. Like under 50. Obviously nowhere near freezing, but a little bit cooler. It’s better.
Ken: If you divide them, you’d wait till spring to divide them?
Margaret: Yeah. Some of them come out of the ground kind of wonky. And so they… I kind of look for any broken parts or damaged parts and cut those off. But generally speaking, I try to lift them intact if I can. But yeah, I’ve got all different sizes, some are small pieces and some are giant.
But around 40 to 50 degrees and just dormant; I mean, they’re just asleep. And like I said, I bought a bunch of plastic laundry baskets a few years ago to make it easier to carry them, bunches of them up and down. Cheap, at the big box store or whatever. And that works fine. So whereas the dahlias, don’t you have to store those more in a medium of some kind?
Ken: Oh yeah, definitely make a distinction [laughter].
Margaret: Yeah. Because the canna is like: You could throw it in the cellar and it’s fine, but the dahlia, it can shrink, shrivel and/or rot.
Ken: That’s really interesting because the cannas are rhizomes and the dahlia are tubers. And the dahlias have thin skin, and they can shrivel and dry out, and the cannas are almost waxy.
Ken: So they keep their moisture, so it must not be confused.
Margaret: What do you use, sawdust, wood shavings?
Ken: Well some years I’ve used oak leaves in a plastic bag.
Ken: I use whatever. I don’t use peat moss anymore. I used to use peat moss. I can’t get wood shavings; I don’t know. I can maybe find sawdust, but then that, I think that would get kind of gloppy. So what did I do last time? I can’t remember. I do something different every year, but the idea that it’s something that will retain a bit of moisture that won’t get slimy and packed down like shredded newspaper; you wouldn’t want to use that. I think I used oak leaves last year.
Margaret: O.K. So I will confess that when I was doing some cleanup work yesterday in the 60-something-degree temperatures, I kept walking by, averting my gaze from the number of nursery pots that are in the top of the driveway that never got planted. Oops! [Laughter.] Do you have anything still needing a home?
Ken: Well, if you’re talking about maybe plunging pots or sinking pots in the ground, I do that every single year, but not just because I’ve forgotten—oh, I will then, too [laughter]. Plastic pots, not clay pots.
Margaret: That’s what I was thinking about. Yes. I have a few things that I just… I didn’t get to it. I didn’t finish a particular planting I was doing.
Ken: Well, I’ve got some trees that are very precious and about 6 inches tall and I just don’t want to… Well, first of all, I don’t know where I’m going to put them yet, but also I don’t want to risk putting them outside where they might get damaged. So I have a little area that I plunge them kind of together. I don’t mean touching. I mean, I have a little plunge nursery [laughter]. [At Ken’s above, preparing a hole to plunge a potted plant in.]
Margaret: And so by plunging, what we mean is we dig a hole. We don’t take the plant out of the pot. We “plant it,” pot and all. And we put it in deep enough so that it doesn’t heave out as well, yes?
Ken: I plant it to the rim of the pot.
Margaret: Yes, exactly.
Ken: So the medium inside the pot might be lower than the surface of the soil. But close to that. And I let the rain and the snow… But it acts just like everything around it and it’ll get… It’ll freeze down from the top and maybe in from the sides and maybe up from the bottom, like the soil around it. But if I left that pot out of the ground, it would definitely freeze more.
Margaret: Right, right. Because there is that thermal insulation provided by even being dug in that deep.
Ken: It’s almost, really it’s like heeling in; they used to call it where they still do.
Margaret: Yes. Yes.
Ken: It’s planting it right in the ground and then digging it up. But rather than having to deal with that, especially when you’ve only got a day to do it or something. Plunging the pots, I do that every year.
Margaret: Yeah. And I just do it with the things that I shamefully didn’t plant at the moment, but yeah. And sometimes I just do it in the vegetable garden because it’s so easy to turn that soil, raised beds—it’s empty, the tomatoes aren’t there, whatever.
Ken: That’s a great idea.
Margaret: Boom, vegetable garden: Use it for the temporary nursery kind of thing. And so this then brings up all the things we just talked about because… By the way I had this year, somebody gave me a couple of types of cannas. Usually I only have the one, the really, really tall Canna ‘Musaefolia,’ the banana canna. And somebody gave me a couple of other ones to use in pots. And so now I have these canna tubers that I can kind of tell apart, but you could mistake one for the other in some cases. And guess what I need to be doing with that, and if I’m plunging things?
Ken: Oh my gosh. Who steals the labels? I can’t believe it.
Margaret: I don’t know. It’s gremlins, it’s bad. It’s really bad.
Ken: But really: Label everything. I’ll pot up something up, or I’ll plant a seed, or I’ll do something, and I think every single time I will remember what that is. And a week later, I can’t remember what it, what that one on the left is, what the one on the right is, and I’m trying to get better and better. I’ve got labels. But then even when I label stuff, the labels get stolen by somebody.
Margaret: Yeah. Yeah.
Ken: By heaving in floods probably. But really: label, label, label. You won’t ever be sorry if you label something.
Margaret: Are you a pencil person? Did you label in pencil?
Ken: Definitely pencil because marker fades, even though it’s permanent. I don’t use a Sharpie. And I got a strange soft garden-label pencil, which is very black—and I was going to say lead, but you know what I mean.
Ken: Well, I don’t even know if it’s graphite.
Margaret: Who knows what it is.
Ken: Some waxy thing.
Ken: But it really lasts and it’s very black and it’s for this, and I don’t know where I got it. I think I got it with labels. But anyway, I’m labeling—and not wood labels and I, once I got those fabulous, I don’t know if there’s zinc. They’re some kind of metal.
Margaret: Oh, yeah.
Ken: Labels. They were so beautiful. I never seen them again.
Ken: And they were expensive. I got them in California.
Margaret: Yeah. The labeling thing, I mean, I just… it’s ridiculous. A friend of ours is kind of doing a labeling project. He’s been doing it the last two seasons on his garden. And deliberately like, bed by bed, going through and figuring out if he knows what everything is and where it’s growing and stuff like that. But that’s a hard way to go about it.
Ken: Send him here.
Margaret: Retrofit. Yeah. Yeah. I know we could use the help, right?
Oh. And I still have the water gardens ahead of me, before… Because I always say to myself, why don’t you shut them down before the water is 39 degrees and you have to stick your hands in it to get the plumbing undone and so forth [laughter]. But do I ever? I mean, there I am always out there when it’s as cold as can be. So do you have… You have the river at your place?
Ken: I also have a canal garden, but I, you just reminded me, and I did this: I turned off all the hose bibs.
Margaret: Oh yeah. I haven’t done that yet. Because I have a little bit of washing up of a few things to do. Some of the pots. Yeah.
Ken: [Laughter.] Yeah. That’s important.
Margaret: No, I know.
Ken: So you’re going to put a heater in all the ponds and everything.
Margaret: Yeah. And I like to say “deicer” [above]. I have two inground water gardens. And I like to say deicer instead of heater. It is—it’s like a cattle-tank heater or whatever, a floating “pond heater.” But it’s not to heat the water, it’s to keep a hole in the ice so that the gas buildup doesn’t happen under a complete layer of ice, which would kill everyone overwintering in there. Right. It would suffocate everybody.
So, because I have a number of species of frogs and salamanders, and everybody’s in there and you don’t want to do that. So it’s not to heat it; it’s not really warming the water or anything. And the other thing I have to do is I have to take… There’s little kind of waterfall trickly things. And obviously those, that tubing for those, would freeze when it gets consistently cold. So I have to detach those and pull the filters and things like that, so they don’t freeze.
Ken: So you have a pump down in the water?
Margaret: I do have pumps in the water, two pumps in one and one pump in the other. One runs a filter, one runs a little spout of water. And then in the smaller pond, it’s a filter that also has the little trickle of water kind of waterfall thing.
Ken: Are they deep enough that they can stay in the pond?
Margaret: The big filter in the big pool… The big pool is pretty big and very deep, and it has an exterior filter; it’s not sunken in the pond. So that looks like a trash can with a lid and so forth.
Margaret: And it has to be lifted. Yeah. Those are really great, rather than the kind of filter that goes in the water.
Ken: Cause if something happened there’s oil in there and that would be terrible.
Margaret: Yeah. No. So this is exterior. So I have that task ahead of me.
So before we run out of time, I want to just ask about the last chore of the year. That of course it’s very easy to forget to make time for, and that’s the tools, caring for our tools. Right?
Ken: Well, it isn’t the end of the world, if you… I mean, you should—we’re supposed to empty the gas out of the mower.
Ken: And I do clean all the grass stuck inside the mower. I clean that off. There’s a whole debate about sharpening blades because you can sharpen a blade and it’s so much work, or buy a blade for $10.
Margaret: For shears you mean?
Ken: No, I meant for the mower, actually.
Margaret: Oh for the mower. I’m sorry. I’m sorry; I was thinking of hand shears.
Ken: For the mower, the regular stuff. Yeah. But there’s soil stuck to the spade, and stuck to the shovel, and I want to get that off because I store my tools under cover, but they’re in a humid area outside.
So I brush them off with the stainless steel brush, so the brush doesn’t rust. And then I oil them, the metal parts, and I use stainless steel with a little bit of motor oil. I mean, you don’t need much at all. And I just coat the whole thing and that’s how I keep them fresh as a daisy for the spring.
And I think if I had to store them in a more exposed place, I might use grease. Sometimes you need grease for other machines. It comes in a tube or in a little tub, and it’s like a lifetime’s worth of grease.
Margaret: Well, years ago, Blake Schreck of Garden Tool Company said to me, “Use linseed oil, Margaret.” Because it’s not motor oil. It’s a more natural product.
Ken: Yeah. Great.
Margaret: Yeah. So he really recommends linseed oil. And the other great thing about that is that it’s good for the wooden handles as well—a light wipe with linseed oil is good for those.
And the other thing that he reminded me—and I am very, very guilty of this, even though I have a concrete floor in my garage: Don’t lean your tools. Don’t stand them on the floor and lean them against the wall. Rather get them off the ground because of what you just said—the humidity, the conducting of moisture is going to really be happening. Even from a concrete floor of a garage or whatever, it’s conducive to that.
So if we can, the racks and hooks and pegs and all that kind of good stuff, they don’t just serve the purpose of decluttering the lower layer. They’re also good for getting the tool lifted off the ground, so it’s not in contact with the moisture. So I thought those were two really good tips.
Ken: Didn’t the magazine you once worked for have a thing about a bucket of sand?
Margaret: So you could, in a place where you’re going to put your tools, have a bucket of sand. And you put linseed oil in the sand—not a ton, but a little bit. So that every time you come in and out, I mean obviously you scrape the dirt off first, but you kind of plunge the tool in and plunge it out a few times. Because the sand is abrasive and the linseed oil is lubricating and anti-moisture. So it’s sort of a great way for your trowel or your spade or whatever, your fork, to just kind of… [Laughter.] Well, just like what I just said. So yeah. I mean that’s another way to do it, is to have that sort of cleaning station, so to speak: a bucket of sand with linseed oil. So now of course we’ve…
Ken: We’ve talked about so many things and I just want to remind people: One at a time, just pick one.
Ken: You’re going to say, “Oh my God, there’s so much to do. I’m overwhelmed. I can’t do anything. I’m going to sit on the floor.” Just one thing at a time.
Margaret: Yeah. Yeah.
Ken: And then it won’t seem like so much.
Margaret: How 12-Step of you.
Ken: [Laughter.] Step One.
Ken: Clean spade.
Margaret: Yeah. All right. So I’ll talk to you soon again. Thanks a lot.
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MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its 11th year in March 2020. 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 November 15, 2021 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).