Maine Home Garden News — January 2024

In This Issue:

January Is the Month to . . .

By Naomi Jacobs, Penobscot County Master Gardener

Throw an indoor garden brunch, tea party, or soiree. Invite garden-loving friends over to swap seeds and ideas, share recommendations for favorite plants and suppliers, and chat about gardening challenges and successes from 2023.

Sit down with a pot of tea, a sweet or savory treat, and a fuzzy blanket to look through your 2023 garden notes and photos.

  • In the vegetable garden, which varieties did best and which were such poor performers that you never got around to harvesting them? Were there any that you sowed too early and needed to replant? Is there a crop that never thrives for you and should be left to the professionals at the farmers’ market? What new pests or diseases appeared?
  • In the ornamental garden, which combinations most delighted you? Which beds could use a shot of contrasting color? What new plants might liven up the slow periods when little was in bloom? Which perennials will need division or should have been cut back in June to prevent sprawl? Were any plants too tall or too short for their location? How about those that you’ve never really loved and ought to just “hoick out” ruthlessly, as Vita Sackville-West advised?

Use these observations to draft your wish list and “to-do” list for the 2024 season.

If you want to hire a landscaper, contact these busy professionals early to be sure they can fit you in.

Ponder the implications of the new USDA map

2023 USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map

According to the new USDA hardiness map, most of Maine has warmed by at least a half zone (e.g. from 4a to 4b) and some by a full zone (e.g. from 4a to 5a) since the last update in 2012.  More than half of the state is now Zone 5 or warmer, and the frost-free season is getting longer, so it could be safe to try some plants that you’ve always admired but didn’t think you could grow. 

Use the search function at your favorite online supplier to learn about trees, shrubs, and perennials that should flourish in your new hardiness zone. Then have fun imagining where they could fit in your garden. 

When shopping in spring, always check the tags before plunking down your hard-earned cash on an alluring plant that will only break your heart the next spring when it doesn’t sprout back.  Never buy an unfamiliar plant without knowing its zone, since even different varieties of the same genus can vary in hardiness by a zone or more. For example, many new Echinacea cultivars, though lovely, are not as hardy as the native parent. Finally, keep in mind that some larger vendors may offer shrubs and perennials that are not reliably hardy in your area. Whenever you can, buy locally-grown plants, which have passed the test of Maine’s weather.

Get ready for seed starting

  • Though January is too early to start seeds, it’s a good time to check your equipment, order supplies, and sanitize growing trays and pots. Retrieve your grow stand from the attic or garage; plug in your lights to be sure they are working.
  • Inventory your collection of seed packets and toss out any that are probably too old to germinate. Some can stay viable as long as five years (or more!) if stored properly, while others decline after only a couple of years.
  • Harvesting, Post-Harvesting Handling & Storage
  • Enjoy exploring new plant varieties in the seed catalogs, but submit your orders this month to be sure of the best selection.

Try winter sowing outdoors

Some plants like annual poppies can be directly sowed in winter, even on top of snow. As the snow melts, the seeds will come in contact with the soil and germinate when they are ready.

Or, consider sowing outdoors in mini-greenhouses made of milk jugs or soda bottles. Many seeds that naturally drop to the ground in fall and germinate in spring can be given an extra boost with this method. Be sure your containers have ample drainage, so the seeds won’t drown or rot. For more information see PennState Extension’s Starting Seeds in Winter.

Keep an eye on indoor plants

  • Check regularly for spider mites, scale, and fungal diseases; isolate any problem plants and discard them if they don’t respond to treatment.
  • Cut back on fertilizing most flowering plants until they show signs of new growth.
  • About once a month, monitor moisture levels on stored bulbs, rhizomes, corms, or tubers such as dahlias and gladiolus.
  • Have a go at microgreens.

Growing Maine Gardeners: How to Grow Microgreens Indoors (YouTube)

Cultivating Community and Connection at Sweethaven Farm in Seal Cove

By Shelby Hartin, Penobscot County Master Gardener Volunteer 

At Sweet Haven Farm in Seal Cove, tea time is special. Lemonade, gingersnaps, and conversation are shared amongst a group of volunteers who gather for camaraderie and the opportunity to give back to their community.

In the last few years, the Sweet Haven Farm Harvest for Hunger project has annually distributed over 2,000 pounds of organically grown produce to those in need. Three low-income housing sites receive the food grown in the farm’s 80 raised beds and four (soon to be five) hoop houses.

The project is led by Dorcas Corrow and Eva Eicher. Corrow, a Master Gardener Volunteer with Hancock County Cooperative Extension, studied animal husbandry and was manager of the breeding facility at The Jackson Laboratory. Eicher is a geneticist who identified inherited mouse abnormalities that were models of inherited human abnormalities. Both felt a significant intellectual loss when they retired.

“We both worked at The Jackson Laboratory and happened to retire at about the same time,” Eicher said, recalling the inspiration behind the project’s beginnings. “We were trying to decide what to do with our lives afterward. I was a research scientist, so for me it was a horrendous intellectual loss.

“We were looking at the prices of fresh vegetables and looking at what people had in their grocery carts. They had limited fruits and vegetables. We realized that they couldn’t afford these things.”

Both Corrow and Eicher had gardens of their own and family histories of gardening. Eicher recalled filling pails with weeds for her mother for 5 cents a haul, while Corrow’s father passed down his love of gardening to her. These shared experiences and gardening knowledge inspired the two to begin the project.

Using equipment Corrow’s father had passed down, the two prepared a portion of a plot of land in Seal Cove they had bought together about 30 years ago. They have dedicated their time, space, and attention to the project since 2011.

“We have a really good group of solid volunteers who have been with us for many years,” Corrow said. “The master gardener program feeds the project with new recruits. What it does is it provides community.”

About 20 volunteers gather every Tuesday and Thursday to work the land, growing everything from onions and broccoli to tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and squash.

Steve Keiser, one of the master gardener volunteers at Sweet Haven, has worked at the farm for more than 12 years. Like the project’s founders, Keiser felt a loss when he retired from Hinckley Yachts.

“After I retired I said ‘it’s time to give back’ so I ended up getting involved with the master gardening program,” he said. He has since contributed over 2500 volunteer hours to help those in need, using his carpentry skills to build raised beds and other items for the farm.

“The Sweet Haven project exists to address food insecurity, but it’s also just very rewarding to work there,” Keiser said. “I work on Thursdays. There’s a great camaraderie. Most of the volunteers are people I wouldn’t see otherwise. Working with them and sharing stories – it’s always a great time and it’s kind of special.”

Corrow and Eicher agree.

“We started the project because we wanted to provide fresh vegetables, specifically to older people. Now the volunteers are just like an extended family in many ways. Their relationships to each other and to us are very important,” Corrow said.

“Our roles have somewhat changed,” Eicher said, “in that I use a walker now to get around and my balance is not good, but I can sit and start seedlings. It has allowed me to stay active in the program. At break time I go and sit with the volunteers and have a cup of tea and enjoy the conversation.”

Many locals have taken notice of the work done at Sweet Haven and have contributed their own produce as well.

“This year, a farmer donated 300 pounds of potatoes,” Eicher said. “We delivered them to a soup kitchen and they’ll be used for the people who come weekly. It becomes infectious, this kind of work.”

Initially, the Sweet Haven volunteers came together to feed those in need. An unexpected benefit of their work was friendship.

“They’ve become very special people to me,” Keiser said. “They’re very good friends.”

Invasive Plant Regulations

From the Maine Department of Agriculture Conservation and Forestry’s Horticulture Program 

Don’t Get Caught by Surprise! Expanded Invasive Plant Rule Goes Fully into Effect on January 1, 2024

The invasive plant rule review that was completed in 2022 included a phase-in period and the full rule goes into effect starting January 1, 2024. As the rule goes into effect, what do you need to know?

  • 30 Species Added to the Do Not Sell List
  • Starting January 1, 2024, an additional 30 species join the existing 33 species on the Invasive Plant Do Not Sell List.
  • Any remaining inventory of these plants cannot be offered for sale and must be removed from sales areas. The ban includes all hybrids, cultivars, or varieties of the species on the list as well as all viable parts of the species including rootstocks.

Rosa rugosa Signage or Label Required

The 2022 rule review added Rosa rugosa to a new category of Invasive Species of Special Concern. Species listed in this category may still be sold, but the rule requires they be sold with specific signage or labeling indicating the plant could be invasive under certain conditions.  

The Horticulture Program has assembled invasive plant outreach materials that can help educate nurseries and organizations selling plants in Maine, and plant customers.

FMI: Bureau of AgricultureDivision of Animal and Plant HealthHorticulture ProgramInvasive Plants

— Courtesy posting from the Maine Department of Agriculture Conservation and Forestry (DACF).

Cardoon Beef Tagine Recipe

An adaptation from Bitter: A Taste of the World’s Most Dangerous Flavor, with Recipes by Jennifer McLagan, copyright © 2014.

Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Random House LLC.

By Anne Lichtenwalner, Penobscot County Master Gardener Volunteer

This is a recipe from Bitter, a wonderful cookbook that is well worth the price: very original and well-researched. The recipes span continents, categories, and a wide range of flavors and ingredients. If you are looking for cloyingly sweet recipes, this is NOT the book for you.

Living in a small town in central Maine, I was not familiar with cardoons, a cousin of the artichoke and a member of the daisy family. Like the artichoke, it has a thistle-like flower; unlike the artichoke, the edible portion in the stem.

Where I live, if you want to cook this dish, you need to start by ordering seeds from Johnny’s Seeds (Porto Spineless Cardoon) or talk a local farmer into trying this crop. For instance, in recent summers locally-grown artichokes have become available at our farmers’ market. While small, Maine-grown artichokes are wonderful.  

If you have a good amount of sun, reasonable soil, some patience, and a relatively long growing season, you may be able to harvest armloads of cardoon stalks for cooking and freezing in the fall. They seem to be resistant to snails, flea beetles, and deer, all common pests in my garden. I hope to overwinter some cardoon plants this year, mulching heavily this fall. Cardoons can get tall, have vivid flowers, and can provide a dusty, pale green accent to your flower beds.

Cardoon Beef Tagine

(serves 6-12; freezes well for leftovers)

Time to prepare and cook: Pretty much all-day

Equipment needed: oven, dutch oven or other large casserole with a good lid, parchment paper, colander, good knives for cleaning cardoons and for slicing meat, potato peeler, slotted spoon

  • 2.5-3 pounds stewing beef, or other cut that is slightly tough and has a fair amount of fat.
  • Freshly ground salt and black pepper
  • A few tablespoons of olive oil
  • 2 large yellow onions, cut into chunks
  • 1 tsp each of dry spices: Smoked paprika, ginger, cumin, turmeric
  • 3-5 large garlic cloves, sliced
  • 1 beer or water
  • 2-3 lbs. cardoons
  • 2 lemons
  • 1 c. pitted Kalamata olives
  • 1 cup cilantro leaves
  1. Preheat your oven to 300 F.
  2. Cut your beef into cubes about 1-2” on each side (lots of variation is ok!). Season them with fresh ground pepper and salt.
  3. In a medium-sized Dutch oven or large casserole, heat 1-2 tablespoons of olive oil (depending on the amount of fat in the meat) and brown the beef.  As it browns, remove it to a plate.
  4. After the beef is browned, lower the heat under the pan and add the onion chunks; stir, using the moisture from the onions to loosen up the beef residue (deglaze).  Add another tablespoon of oil, and continue to stir till onions are soft. 
  5. Add the dry spices and about 20 turns of the black pepper grinder. Stir to blend: the mixture will be very aromatic and a little pasty.  Do not burn!
  6. Still, on low heat, add the garlic and stir, then add at least 8 ounces of beer or water to loosen the paste into a liquid.  Bring to a boil.
  7. Add the beef and any juices, stir, and bring to a boil again.
  8. Turn off the heat. Carefully lay a piece of parchment paper atop the beef mixture, put the lid on the pot tightly, and then transfer into the oven (300 F) for 1 ½ hours.
  9. Use this time to prepare the cardoons.  Cut the leaves from the stalks by drawing a small, sharp knife along the edges of the stalk.  If the stalks are mature, remove “strings” (similar to celery stalk fibers) with a potato peeler or knife.  Rinse the stalks, cut them into 2” long pieces, then place them into a bowl of cold water and add the juice of a lemon (also the remains of the squeezed lemon, for added flavor).
  10. Fetch the pot from the oven, open it, and remove the parchment paper.  Use a slotted spoon to transfer the cardoons to the beef mixture.  Add a teaspoon of salt and mix gently.  The cardoons will fill up the pot, but they will release fluid and compress as they cook.  Replace the parchment paper and lid, and return the pot to the oven for 30 minutes.
  11. Remove again from the oven, open and stir, replace the parchment paper and lid, and put the pot back into the oven for an additional 30 minutes. 
  12. If available, cut preserved lemon rind into matchstick-sized pieces.  If not, do the same with fresh lemon rind.  Add this lemon and the Kalamata olives to the beef mixture, stirring well.  Discard the parchment paper and replace the lid.  Put the pot back into the oven for a final 30 minutes; the mixture should have the texture of a slightly dry stew.  You can adjust the moisture by adding more beer if desired.
  13. Remove from the oven, then sprinkle with chopped cilantro.  

I like to serve this dish with rice, but couscous is also recommended.  I think mashed potatoes would be a great match, as well. The author suggests substituting celery if you can’t get cardoons, but I think the cardoons are worth the bother. The prepped chunks freeze well if you want to make them ahead.

Backyard Bird – Pine Siskin

By Andy Kapinos, Maine Audubon Field Naturalist

Pine Siskin
Photo Credit: Jeff Schmoyer

The Pine Siskin is a unique finch with a unique name, at least in North America; the name originates from Eurasia where many siskin species are found. Though probably onomatopoeic to some degree (the metallic noises in their chattering songs are close to “sisk”), the name came to English from Slavic languages via German. In general, siskins are highly nomadic and a classic irruptive species that can move great distances in search of abundant winter food. Pine Siskins that were banded have been recovered in completely different parts of North America in consecutive years on the same date, Quebec and California being a notable example. As their common name indicates (like their scientific name, Spinus pinus), Pine Siskins associate with conifers, including pines, in many parts of their life cycle. They can be seen year-round in the North Woods, where they nest in loose colonies in coniferous woods. In the rest of Maine, they are generally only seen from fall to spring, roving in flocks between seed sources. This past fall, they were one of the few irruptive species that arrived in significant numbers in Maine, often taking advantage of huge mast crops of Eastern White Pine seeds. You may find Pine Siskins at your feeders this month since many of the natural seed crops have already been eaten or are covered in snow. Like their cousins the goldfinches, Pine Siskins prefer small seeds from the aster family, especially thistle. Even easier, you can leave goldenrods and asters standing through the winter as natural bird feeders!

For more on the importance of Maine native plants to support birds like the Pine Siskin and other wildlife, visit Maine Audubon’s “Bringing Nature Home” webpage. 

Book Review: The Northeast Native Plant Primer: 235 Plants for an Earth-Friendly Garden

Uli Lorimer. Timber Press, 2022.

Reviewed by Clara Ross, MGV, Penobscot County

The use or presence of native plants in a garden are definitely one of the best practices of the day. In this book, Uli Lorimer provides a reason and purpose for us to use them, as well as a variety of resources for us to utilize.

Lorimer begins by defining what exactly a native plant is. Then, to set the stage he provides an interesting ecological map, including the Northeastern states from Pennsylvania North through Maine, the areas which this book covers. What interested me was finding out that here in Bangor I live and garden in what is referred to as The Acadian Plains and Hills (didn’t know that!). Other parts of Maine include the Northern Highlands and the Northeastern Coastal Plain. These ecoregions are defined by soil, geology, water, landforms, and land use. Consequently, each area tends to favor slightly different flora and fauna.

I was interested in Lorimer’s description of plant succession: in other words, the emergence of pioneer plants after an area has been decimated by fire, glacier, farming practices into rubble. In ages past, native plants quickly filled in, however in rubble areas (new building sites, etc.) today, non-native species often establish themselves first. “No place on Earth is untouched by humans” Lorimer proclaims and so encourages us to use best practices in an effort to offset climate change, pollution, and introduced or non-native species

The author provides us with a synopsis of the interdependence between plants and the animal world. Plants provide food, shelter, and habitat for animal organisms. Non-natives disrupt this equilibrium because they are the wrong kind of food. Interesting ideas: I learned that 96% of songbirds produce chicks that can only eat insects. Surprise…honeybees are European in origin, feed voraciously and can outcompete with native bee species by eating up floral resources…uh oh. Pollinators require a variety of flower shapes from tubular corollas to flat open flowers because some insects have long tongues and others short.

So hopefully now, you may have perhaps decided to begin to make a change. In acquiring natives, Lorimer cautions against some online companies which sell cultivars that are asexually propagated or cloned, in order to increase revenues. These plants have lost their ability to adapt. Other sellers dig up natives from the wild, which is damaging to natural populations and unsustainable. He encourages investigating a site for their practices or especially, to buy from local vendors who are selling true “natives”.

There is a thorough section on planting natives, advising that many natives do not require rich soil. He suggests soil tests to determine ph values and further recommends using those natives that prefer the soil type you already have…brilliant! I liked Lorimer’s words: “…Mother nature always seeks a balance”…so…”a garden of diverse plantings, composed of many different species and kinds of plants, will attract beneficial organisms”  and I think that is an important goal for me as a gardener. How ‘bout you?

The main part of the book includes descriptions of 235 plants for an Earth friendly garden. These entries include trees, shrubs, vines, wildflowers, ferns, grasses, and annuals. The downside is that the entries are alphabetized by the scientific names, but, lucky you, the common names are provided. The best part of this section is that each entry has icons that identify which groups of wildlife benefit from the plant. There are a variety of other resources.

This book may be found at your local library, online for $15.00 and up, and Google e-book for $12.00

Maine Weather and Climate Overview (January 2024)

By Dr. Sean Birkel, Assistant Extension Professor, Maine State Climatologist, Climate Change Institute, Cooperative Extension University of Maine.  For questions about climate and weather, please contact the Maine Climate Office.

On December 18th, a powerful storm impacted Maine with strong wind and heavy rain that led to significant flooding and infrastructure damage, including over 400,000 power outages.  Wind gusts along parts of the coast and inland to around Bangor reached into the 60s and even over 70 mph; northern areas generally saw gusts in the 40s and 50s mph.  Rainfall totals varied widely across the state but with parts of western Maine being hardest hit with over 5 inches.  According to an event rainfall report by the Gray office of the National Weather Service, a trained spotter recorded 7.6 inches in Newry.  The Kennebec and Androscoggin rivers saw major flooding and high flow rates not observed since at least the 1980s.  The storm developed against the backdrop of a strong El Niño in the Pacific and record warm ocean surface temperatures across the North Atlantic.  Likewise, temperatures reached into the 50s °F statewide in association with unusually moist air for December.  Overall, Maine has seen a very warm, wet year – the last twelve months rank 3rd warmest and 4th wettest December–November period for records beginning 1895.  A significant cold wave early in the month will keep the December 2023 mean temperature in the range of normal to above normal, but in terms of precipitation, the month is on track to rank above normal.

Looking forward, the NOAA Climate Prediction Center 6–10 day outlook probability maps for January 1–5 (issued December 26) show leaning above normal temperature and below normal precipitation for Maine.  The 8–14 day and 3–4 week outlook products also suggest above normal temperature, but less certainty on precipitation.  In a recent update, the CPC assessed that conditions across the Pacific are now characteristic of a strong El Niño and that there is a 54% chance the event could become “historically strong” this season.  In Maine, El Niño tends to bring warmer-than-normal temperatures, particularly for moderate to strong events such as during the winters of 1997/98, 2009/10, and 2015/16.  Maine also saw above-normal precipitation associated with those three events (see for example these El Niño precipitation maps).  NOAA climate outlook maps are available on the Maine Climate Office website.  And be sure to check for the latest weather forecasts in your area. For detailed winter weather updates, check out the National Weather Service Gray and Caribou forecast office webpages.

Jan_2024 6-10 Day Temp and Precip Outlook

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University of Maine Cooperative Extension’s Maine Home Garden News is designed to equip home gardeners with practical, timely information.

For more information or questions, contact Kate Garland at or 1.800.287.1485 (in Maine).

Visit our Archives to see past issues.

Maine Home Garden News was created in response to a continued increase in requests for information on gardening and includes timely and seasonal tips, as well as research-based articles on all aspects of gardening. Articles are written by UMaine Extension specialists, educators, and horticulture professionals, as well as Master Gardener Volunteers from around Maine. The following staff and volunteer team take great care editing content, designing the web and email platforms, maintaining email lists, and getting hard copies mailed to those who don’t have access to the internet: Abby Zelz*, Annika Schmidt*, Barbara Harrity*, Kate Garland, Mary Michaud, Michelle Snowden, Naomi Jacobs*, Phoebe Call*, and Wendy Robertson.

*Master Gardener Volunteers

Information in this publication is provided purely for educational purposes. No responsibility is assumed for any problems associated with the use of products or services mentioned. No endorsement of products or companies is intended, nor is criticism of unnamed products or companies implied.

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