, Salem, MA

January 31, 2014

Spring is six weeks away, no matter what

North Shore Gardener
Barbara Barger

---- — Tuesday is Groundhog Day — the day when thousands of people stand out in the cold to watch a rodent come out of his winter burrow and maybe see his shadow. They’re watching for WHAT? A groundhog’s shadow? If he sees his shadow, it is said there will be six more weeks of winter. Actually, there are about six more weeks of winter left on the calendar whether the groundhog sees his shadow or not.

Still skeptical about the validity of groundhogs and Groundhog Day and predictions of spring? In Big Run, Pa., they note the date that frogs first croak. The earlier the frogs are heard croaking, the earlier spring will come.

I personally believe in the animal shedding theory: If my cats shed early, spring will come early — and this year, my cat is shedding like crazy! And my neighbor saw three robins last week at Pickering Wharf. But whether you believe in the groundhog theory, the frog theory, the cat theory, or the robin theory, you can be sure that no matter what happens, winter has about six weeks to go. In about three weeks, the sun will have moved high enough in the sky to provide some serious melting and warmth. And no matter what the groundhog sees, we’re just six weeks until the official first day of spring — March 20. Bring it on!

Q: I always grow narcissus bulbs for right after Christmas. Somehow, by that time, I’m really sick of all the red and green, and I’m ready to see something pale and delicate — more like spring. Besides, I love their smell. I really don’t like growing them in white stones. Any suggestions? I know the white stones are traditional, but the bulbs always fall over.

A: Narcissus bulbs are completely reliable winter/spring flower bulbs to grow on the windowsill now. All that you need is a few narcissus bulbs and a container — you certainly don’t have to grow them in white marble chips. And the container can be anything from a traditional white bowl to a basket lined with plastic or a kitchen bowl. You could even use vases with an inch of water. The stones or gravel are just to hold the bulbs upright. I started using the leftover bag of shredded fir bark a few years ago because I had some bark left from fall mulching and the gravel was frozen hard.

Trust me — mulch is far better than stones.

Plant with the tips of the bulbs exposed about a quarter of the way above the stones or mulch and add about 2 inches of water. They will be blooming in about 14 to 20 days. Start them in a cool, bright place, like an unheated cellar or porch, then bring them inside when the tops are about 4 to 5 inches. They will grow, bloom, smell heavenly — and probably fall over.

Now, finally an experiment from the nice people at the Cornell labs who have the same problems as you — and think they have a cure for it: give them a drink — I mean a real drink! Call it a “happy hour” for narcissus:

After the bulbs reach a height of about 4 inches, carefully drain the water off the bulbs. Replace the water with a 5- to 6-percent solution that’s one part 10 percent alcohol to two parts water (no cheese and crackers necessary). Continue to replace the gin and water for as long as you have the plants.

Cornell warns us not to increase the percentage of alcohol — more is not better!

Q: I got a Chia Pet for Christmas. Have you ever seen one? It looks like a lamb, and it’s supposed to grow green grass for fur. What’s really going to grow on it? Is it safe? What do I do with it? Can it go to the office and survive?

A. Chia Pets! Deja vu all over again! They first appeared in 1977. (I guess that dates me!) The first Chias were simple animal shapes — now you can even get characters from “The Simpsons.”

These clay figures, which do indeed grow tiny plants on their bodies, were popular several decades ago then disappeared. Now they’re back with new shapes.

Each comes with a packet of seeds which, when soaked in water, form a gelatinous seed coating that sticks to the figure. The seeds are smeared onto the clay figure, which has ridges in the unglazed, ceramic body to catch and hold the seeds. Just like a standard clay flower pot, the figure absorbs and holds water. Stand the clay figure in a saucer of water and voila! In a few days, the seeds sprout, and you have the illusion of fur or hair.

In a few weeks, the seeds will stop growing and die — this might happen sooner if you forget to keep it watered. Then, you scrub off the goop and dead plants and the figure can be reseeded.

What’s it growing? The seeds that come with most Chia Pets are a seed of the watercress family, and are said to contain no toxic chemicals. Other seeds will work (buy seeds in the health food store), but not as well. They must be tiny, form a gelatinous coating when soaked, and sprout quickly to survive.

You could try growing it in the office if you have decent lighting and remember to water it. At best, it’s good for a few laughs! They’re also a good choice for a child’s first plant.

Q: I got an orange tree a few years back as gift. The first year I had it, the fruit stayed green all year, so I never knew when to pick it. After that, it did not fruit at all one year. It was moved around from different spots and getting different amounts of sunlight. Now that it’s in one place with good sunlight, it has come back, and the oranges turn orange but only grow to about three-quarters to 1 1/4 inches. When is it time to pick them? And what should the season be for an 18-inch tall indoor tree be? Is there anything I can do to help it grow?

A: I think what you have is a Calamondin orange tree — the fruit never gets any larger than what you describe. They are a wonderful windowsill taste of the tropics.

Grow it in full sun or under artificial light and don’t overwater. Keep it evenly moist. Don’t let it get too near a drafty window in the winter. Consider putting the pot outside for the summer, but don’t forget to water it.

It will bloom and grow fruit almost anytime during the year — the tiny ripe fruit is quite tart and makes a wonderful marmalade. Pick the fruit after it has changed from green to orange, when they’ll be ripe.

I have a very old and very large Calamondin tree that was raised by a neighbor for the past 50 years. To my delight, she gave it to me when she moved. This year, my grandkids and sister picked more than 60 tiny oranges, and she made marmalade for Christmas gifts for special friends. There are still another 60 pieces of fruit on the tree.

Feed it w ith an acid formula plant food according to package directions.

This week’s dirt: Begin ordering seeds now, but beware! Some companies keep track of the super cold, snowy winter we’re having in New England, and they know they can sell you anything that is green at this time of the year.


North Shore Gardener by Barbara Barger of Beverly is a feature of Friday’s Lifestyles section. Reach Barbara by email at or write to her c/o The Salem News, 32 Dunham Road, Beverly, MA 01915. Previous North Shore Gardener columns are at