Clean It Up

As the end of gardening season approaches, our gardens will, no doubt, be strewn with dead plants, bent or broken supports, and other assorted bric-a-brac. It’s late in the year, and as far as you’re concerned, you are done with gardening for the season. As for the debris? “Ahh, I’ll clean it up in the spring,” you say.

Bad move. Leaving a garden full of junk is a poor practice – one that will hinder your future efforts to have a healthy garden full of high-yielding vegetable plants. Leaving a garden full of weeds, damaged trellises, dead plants, and God knows what else is like sending out an invitation for all the vermin and pests to come spend the winter in your garden – and never leave.

Certain insect pests can survive the winter all cozily nestled up in the debris you refused to clean up. Did you have a problem with cabbageworms? Guess what? They’ll be plaguing your next year’s crop of cabbage thanks to the winter home you provide for them. Did cucumber beetles chew up a good portion of last year’s cucumber crop? Well, don’t expect winter weather to be their last hurrah, not as long as they have some nice dead plants for them to stay warm in. And were you and your tomato plants blessed by some of those fat green tomato hornworms? Don’t shed any tears for them; they’ll spend the winter as pupae all snug and warm in a pile of dead tomato plants. Then come spring, the moth will emerge and lay eggs on your tomato plants. Hello tomato hornworms! Goodbye tomatoes!

But it doesn’t have to be this way as long as you follow this simple three-word instruction – clean it up! Gather up the spent plants and dead weeds, and either toss them out or put them in your compost pile (as long as the plants weren’t infested with disease). Removing this garden junk leaves the pests with nowhere to hide, run, or overwinter. This will help reduce the odds that next year’s vegetable crops will be overrun with plant-devouring larvae or adult insects. Insects can be a severe problem in your garden. Don’t carry the problem into next year by giving these insects shelter over the winter so they can come back next year and render all your hard work in vain. Clean up your garden now, and give those insect pests the boot!

The Changing Moods of Autumn

Those foxes barking at the moon
Tell me easy weather will soon be gone
Frost is in the air
Change is everywhere, darling
This time of year, a change comes over me

-Dillon Bustin

As autumn leaves begin to fall, days change from long to short, and weather changes from warm to cold, many of us, to paraphrase Dillon Bustin, feel a change coming over us. A change of clothing, a change of activities, a change of meals to be sure, but many of also feel a change from happiness and serenity to one of sadness and despair. We lament the disappearance of “easy weather” and dread the long dark nights, chilly temperatures, piles of blowing and drifting snow, and hazardous driving conditions. And this year we also lament all the spring and summer fun and frolic that COVID-19 has stolen from us, and we fear that that winter weather will only exacerbate this terrible pandemic.

But we gardeners know that, in the words of Audrey Hepburn, “to plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow.” Yes, spring and summer do not last forever. But neither do fall and winter. All seasons have their time and when that time is concluded, the next season takes hold. Yes, autumn and winter can often be miserable and depressing. But they will eventually pass, spring and summer will once more take hold, temperatures will change from cold to warm, days will change from short to long, and we can once again be outdoors with our faces to the sunshine and our hands in the soil.

In the meantime, we can soothe out misery with some sadness-busting activities. We can write letters to family and friends – real letters, not e-mails or texts. We can relax and meditate. We can grow herbs, sprouts, and microgreens indoors. We can cook delicious meals with the garden vegetables we’ve preserved. We can eagerly anticipate the new gardening catalogs filling our mailboxes, and then we can look through them to plan out next year’s garden. Doing some or all of these can greatly help to make winter’s misery a lighter shade of blue. So cheer up, my gardening friends. Autumn and winter may bring on some sadness, but only for a short while. Soon, spring and summer will be at your door with a fresh delivery of joy!

The Month Of Unrealized Dreams

The beginning of any new year is always a time of excitement. We gaze out at the days, weeks, and months to come and eagerly make our plans of all the wonderful things we’re going to do. Some of us plan housing renovation projects, others plan dream vacations, while still others eagerly look forward to upcoming weddings, confirmations, bar- or bat-mitzvahs, family reunions, college and high school class reunions, etc. All in all, we look forward to a wonderful year of fun and accomplishment.

Then, come September, we realize that many of the dreams we’ve dreamed and the plans we’ve made have gone unfulfilled. We’ve allowed day-to-day minutia and/or events and circumstances, anticipated or otherwise, to hinder fulfillment of January’s plans and dreams. And this year, of course, we’ve had an additional wrinkle – a protein-spiked virus called SARS-CoV-2, which has wreaked havoc on so many lives – perhaps even those of friends, loved ones, or even you yourself.

So it’s no wonder that for some of us, when September arrives, we look back at the emerging life and warmth of spring and the long days and easy weather of summer with regret, disappointment, and even sadness. Then we look ahead to the upcoming months of fall and winter with a sense of doom and foreboding and wonder if we will ever fulfill our dreams and achieve our goals.

There’s an old saying that goes, “If you’re happy, don’t worry, you’ll get over it.” Sounds rather depressing at first, but look below the surface. What it means is that nothing lasts forever. Good times, good feelings, and easy-weather seasons don’t remain forever. Sooner or later, they end, and less than perfect feelings, situations, and seasons arise. But the flip side is also true. Bad times, bad feelings, and bad seasons don’t last forever either. They, too, have their conclusion. It may be hard to believe when you’re right in the thick of winter snow and freezing temperatures, job loss, the fallout from the actions of a wayward child, or the devastation of a pandemic. But in the words of an old gospel tune, “clouds and storm will in time pass away; the sun again will shine bright and clear.” All of the garbage that’s happening right now – whether it be the world’s garbage or your own personal trash, will eventually come to an end. The storms will pass and we will see sunshine again. And when we do, we will dream new dreams, and rise up again with new determination to fulfill them. And then, when another September rolls around, we’ll look back with joy and happiness and say, “What do you know? I did everything that I so carefully planned out at the year’s beginning.”

We who grow gardens know this very well. Every spring, we eagerly plan out what we want to grow and how we’re going to arrange it. We prepare our soil and put our seeds and plants in the ground. We water them, feed them, and weed them. And then, in September, we look at the results. Does everything always go according to plan? No, it does not. Sometimes, weather conditions are not always favorable to our efforts. Sometimes, we try some new plants or new varieties of familiar plants, and the results fail to live up to our expectations. Sometimes insects and animals tear through our garden like a cannonball through toilet paper and leave us with nothing but dead or dying plants. And yes, we gardeners are subject to the same kind of disappointment and regret that anyone else who didn’t take that vacation or never started that home repair project might feel. But we gardeners also have a never-say-die attitude. We mourn the unfulfilled results of our labors, but then we pick ourselves up and we say, “Next year will be better.” And then when the next year rolls around, we plan, prepare, plant, and cultivate anew. And then come September, we say, “What do you know? I got a bountiful harvest this year.

So don’t let the regret of what you didn’t accomplish this year get you down. There will always be new opportunities for new plans and new successes. Keep dreaming about and planning out those goals, projects, vacations, and, of course, gardens. And then you’ll wake up one September morning and realize that you are living in a month of fulfilled goals and realized dreams.

Brown Gold for Your Garden

The leaves of brown came tumbling down
Remember
That September
In the rain

-Harry Warren and Al Dubin

The shortening days of autumn signal the leaves on the trees to stop producing chlorophyll. This, in turn, causes the green to slowly fade revealing the remaining colorful pigments. Soon, even those begin to fade away, and the leaves soon fall to the ground and start to decompose.

Most homeowners will merely rake the leaves into piles, toss the piles in bags, and bring those bags to the curb for the recyclers or garbage men to take away. But we gardeners know better than to do that. Instead of letting those leaves take up space in a landfill where they are no good to anyone, we use these leaves to enrich our garden soil and restore the nutrients that our garden vegetable crops have taken away. And unlike real gold, this brown gold costs nothing to “mine and refine.”

So how do we make the best use of this brown gold?

  1. Pile whole leaves on top of the soil as a mulch to protect bulbs such as garlic, onions, or even flower bulbs such as tulip, snowdrop, and crocus.
  2. Chop them up finely, add them to a compost pile, and let them decompose along with the rest of the material in there. Chopping is necessary, as it creates more surface area and allows the bacteria to decompose the leaves in less time. If your own trees aren’t producing enough leaves to give you sufficient compost, offer to take some from your friends and neighbors. I’m sure they’ll be happy to oblige, unless of course they want them for their own compost pile.
  3. Chop them up finely and work them directly into your garden soil. During the following three or four months of winter, the soil bacteria will break down the chopped leaves and release the nutrient material in those leaves into the soil. When spring arrives, you’ll have looser, lighter, more nutrient-rich soil all ready for spring planting.

So don’t waste this precious nutrient-laden material that Mother Nature gives us for free every autumn. Let’s recycle this precious organic material back into our gardens. It’s going to decompose and release nutrients no matter what we do or don’t do. So let’s work with Mother Nature. I promise you that if we do, then Mother Nature will work with us.

Those Finicky Mushrooms

Growing mushrooms can be a rewarding activity. Next to seeing the fruits (and vegetables) of your garden labors, it is also a delightful treat to see beautiful shiitake, portabella, or king stropharia mushrooms sprouting from the depths of the mushroom bed we’ve created. Like all organisms, mushrooms require a food source. Yet mushrooms will not eat just any food source. Unlike with a vegetable garden, where you can throw food scraps into a compost pile, let them decompose, then mix them into the soil for your fruit and vegetable crops, mushrooms requirements are a bit more specific. Some mushroom species can grow on a wide variety of carbon sources – wood chips, sawdust, coffee grounds, agricultural waste, etc. Others will only grow on a specific substrate, such as wood chips, and some will only grow on a specific species of wood.

So what do the various mushroom species like to eat?

Enokitake – prefers to grow on wood and plant debris. In the wild, they grow on stumps of the Chinese hackberry tree (or enoke in Japanese), but they can also grow on mulberry and persimmon trees.

King Stropharia – grows best on wood chips, but will also grow on soils that have been supplemented with chopped straw.

Lion’s Mane – In the wild, Lion’s Mane is usually found on dead and decaying hardwood logs, most often in the fall throughout North America. For home growth, it thrives best in hardwood sawdust supplemented with wheat bran at 10-20%. It will also grow when spawned in rye grain, however, it has a tendency to fruit well before the fungus has fully colonized the grain. When using rye grain spawn, it is necessary to shake it often to make sure that the fungus completely colonizes the grain.

Maitake – Also known as hen-of-the-woods, ram’s head and sheep’s head, maitake will grow only on oak trees or in a bed made of oak wood chips.

Oyster – Oyster mushrooms are probably the least finicky of cultivated edible mushroom species. Straw is the most common medium used for growing oyster mushrooms, however, the fungus also grows successfully on sawdust, cardboard, coffee grounds and other byproducts of agriculture such as sugarcane bagasse and cotton waste.

Portabella – Commercial portabella mushroom growing kits usually use horse manure as the growth medium. Home growers, however, can put together a mixture of about 10 pounds of finely ground corncobs with 10 pounds of straw. This mixture is then allowed to stand for a few days. Gypsum can then be added, and the entire mixture can then be allowed to decompose. After this, add 2 pounds of leaf mold, 2 pounds of peat moss, and either 2 pounds of granite dust or greensand. You can also add some previously made compost to improve the composting process. Lastly, add 3 pounds of sand. This mixture is then allowed to decompose and cool off before inoculating it with portabella spawn.

Reishi – grows best on rye and other grains.

Shiitake – grows best on hardwoods – either in hardwood logs or blocks of hardwood sawdust.

So to be successful in growing mushrooms, you have to feed them what they like, not what you like

Your Garden’s Second Act

This time of year is when many vegetable gardens peak, and then begin to wane. The cucumbers have produced their little plant hearts out, and now the plants are beginning to die off. Lettuce is beginning to bolt in hot weather. For most people, this is a sign that harvest time is beginning and soon, it will be time to start cleaning up the dead plant debris and putting the garden to bed for the winter. But not so fast! There are still at least three months of garden-tolerable weather ahead of us, so don’t quit on your garden now. It’s time for your garden’s second act, a.k.a. the fall vegetable garden.

Now is the time to plant a second crop of lettuce. Root crops such as carrots, turnips, and rutabaga, can also be planted at this time – and these can be left in the ground over the winter to harvest for a delicious hot stew. There’s even time to plant a crop of wax beans. And as late as October, you can plant storage onion bulbs and cloves of garlic for verdant crops of both next spring and a bountiful harvest in the summer. So don’t throw in the trowel just yet. There’s still time to grow more crops beyond what you originally planted in the spring.

Victory Gardens 2020

During World War II, the US government had to make sure that our fighting men had enough food to sustain them. In order to achieve this, many food items such as sugar, butter, milk, cheese, eggs, coffee, meat and canned goods. In addition, the war effort left the country with a shortage of labor needed to transport fruits and vegetables to market. So the US government encouraged people to plant gardens to meet their demands for fresh produce. Because these gardens were meant to help the war effort, both at home and abroad, they became known as Victory Gardens.

According to the website for Wessels Living History Farm, nearly 20 million Americans jumped on the Victory Garden bandwagon. They planted gardens in backyards, empty lots and even city rooftops. Neighbors pooled their resources, planted different kinds of foods and formed cooperatives, all in the name of patriotism. Thanks to the efforts of these victory gardeners, people had enough fresh produce to meet their needs.

Now we are engaged in a different kind of war. The enemy does not carry guns, drive tanks, fly warplanes, or sail battleships. In fact, this enemy isn’t even human and is well-nigh invisible except under the viewing power of an electron microscope. Yet this enemy is just as deadly, if not more so, than a thousand invading armies. Just as in World War II, this enemy destroys lives and disrupts our economy. Many items such as meat are in short supply. And once again, the supply chain that brings our food to market is threatened. Now, more than ever, we Americans need to take certain aspects of this war effort into our own hands.

Just as not all Americans were able to be on the front lines of battle during World War II, here in this war, not all Americans can be doctors and nurses treating patients or scientific researchers trying to develop a vaccine. But just as our grandparents grew their own produce during that 1940s world conflict, we can do likewise during this one. So once again, it’s time to revive the Victory Garden for 2020!

Now, more than ever, growing your own produce is the thing to do. With our supply chain disrupted yet again, the time is now for all Americans to do their part to help us achieve victory over this terrible pandemic. And once more, your contribution can be as simple as planting a few seeds and raising enough fruits and vegetables to meet your family’s needs. Better still, join with other families in your immediate vicinity, and plant a large garden that will feed all the families in your neighborhood. You can designate a third for fresh eating, can another third for winter, and donate the rest to a food bank to feed the needy.

With enough of these 2020 Victory Gardens, we can make sure that all of us are eating fresh, wholesome, and nutrition-packed food to keep our bodies healthy. And healthy bodies have a much better chance of surviving a disease infestation than nutrient-deprived bodies. And healthy bodies fed by the nutritious produce produced in 2020 Victory Gardens can be a small but important contribution to winning the fight against COVID-19.

To paraphrase a line from a 1940’s Captain America comic, you’re in this war even though you don’t operate a ventilator, drive an ambulance, or work up an assay. And victory gardens are a mighty weapon in this war. So get together with your family and plant a 2020 Victory Garden today!

Serious Success with Succession

 

Human beings by their very nature are a curious race of people. We are all striving to learn new things, to expand our skill, knowledge, and the reach of our minds. Yet all too often, when it comes to certain topics, we become mired in limited thinking. When it comes to gardening, for example, many of us still think of gardening as a spring, summer, and early fall activity. We plant our seeds and seedlings in the spring, cultivate them in the summer, harvest them in the fall, and spend the winter dreaming about when we can be outside in our gardens once again.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Through the technique of succession planting, we can garden nearly all year long. How, you ask? Well, I’ll show you with a rough plan. Feel free to take what I’ve given you and modify it for your own allotment (to use the British term).

Late winter/early spring – In late February/early March, purchase seeds of cool season crops – lettuce, arugula, gourmet greens — brassicas (broccoli, cauliflower, kohlrabi, kale, mustard, etc.), peas, and others. Start these indoors under grow lights. You can also get an early start on your tomatoes by starting them indoors under your grow lights. I usually start mine around the first week of spring. Meanwhile, when the first decent weather day comes along, prepare the soil in your garden by working in some compost, earthworm castings, organic fertilizer, and any other soil amendments that you feel is needed. If you did all that the previous fall, then you should already have loose, rich, fertile and friable soil all ready to go. Lay down mulch now to reduce or eliminate your weeding chores later. When the seedlings that you’ve started indoors are big enough, transplant them into your garden. You can protect them from extreme temperatures by surrounding them with a season extending device – bell cloches, Walls O’Water, cold frames, etc. If a frost should occur, your plants should be safe. Besides, a little frost actually improves the flavor of kale.

You can also prepare your garden for an early start for tomatoes and any other crops by digging the holes where you want to plant them and surrounding them with a season-extending device. This will warm up the soil and get it ready to receive those tomato seedlings.

Mid-spring – Keep the spring crops well-watered and well-fed. If you are using a cold frame, make sure that you vent it on warm days, otherwise the heat trapped inside might burn up your plants. Get an early start on your summer crops (corn, cucumber, eggplant, squash, sorghum, muskmelon, watermelon, etc.) by starting these indoors under your grow lights. The tomato seedlings you started should be mature enough to plant in the holes that you’ve surrounded with season extenders.

Late spring/early summer – By now the weather is beginning to get quite warm. Harvest all the lettuce before it bolts (produces a flower), mustard before it becomes pungent, and all of the remaining spring crops before it gets too hot. Memorial Day weekend will be a good time to transplant the summer crops that you started indoors in mid-spring.

Mid-summer – Keep all vegetable plants well-watered and well-fed. Start planning for fall by starting fall crops indoors. Many of the same vegetables you planted in the spring also work well as fall crops. In addition, this is also a good time to start root vegetables (turnip, rutabaga, parsnip, leek, carrot, etc.).

Late summer/early fall – Begin pulling up the remaining summer vegetables and clear space for fall crops. Transplant the fall vegetables from your seed starters indoors to your garden.

Mid fall – Pull up the remaining summer vegetables and start cleaning up the spent plants and other garden debris. Be careful not to damage your fall crops. This is also a great time to plant garlic and onions for next summer’s harvest. Be sure to clean and store all tools, hoses, etc.

Late fall/early winter – Clean up any remaining summer garden debris and begin harvesting your fall vegetables. If you wish, leave a few root crops in the ground for winter usage.

Mid-winter – Do you have a hankering for parsnip-leek soup? Clever you – you left a few parsnips and leeks to overwinter in your garden, and now you don’t have to waste gas, time, and wear and tear on your car to get them. Just put on a coat, walk a few steps into your backyard, and harvest what you need. (Note: if you live with others, please be mindful of your choice of words. Say, “I’m going out in the garden to dig up a few root vegetables.” Don’t say, “I’m going out in the garden to take a leek.”)

Remember also that you can preserve some of your harvest through canning, freezing, drying and cold storage, giving you additional supplies of the good stuff that you can enjoy all year round.

And there you have it. A simple succession planting plan. Done correctly, it will give you wholesome, nutritious, home-grown garden vegetables practically all year round.

The Serene Peace of the Garden

DSCN2986

Louis Pasteur once spoke of “living in the serene peace of libraries and laboratories.” Author Dale Carnegie, in his book How to Stop Worrying and Start Living, elaborated on this. “Why is peace found there,” he asks. “Because the men in libraries and laboratories are usually too absorbed in their tasks to worry about themselves. Research men rarely have nervous breakdowns. They haven’t time for such luxuries.”

I would like to add to the words of Louis Pasteur and Dale Carnegie by saying that serene peace can also be found in the garden. In the garden, we gardeners are also absorbed in our tasks – the tasks of turning the soil, laying mulch, planting, cultivating, watering, weeding, harvesting, and cleaning and preparing for next year. Plus we have the added benefit of sunshine, exercise, and fresh air, three things that libraries and laboratories do not have.

There are always things all around us to cause to fret and worry, and that is never more true than today. We worry about the pandemic, and whether or not we and/or our families and friends will catch it. We fret over the economy and wonder if we will be able to keep our jobs or, if we’re out of work, if we’ll ever find another one. We worry about our government leaders, and whether they are harming or helping our nation. We fear for our nation as a whole, wondering if we will ever again be united as one people. We feel a profound sense of unease about the damage we are causing to our planet, and wonder if the day will ever come when our wanton wastefulness and careless disposal of harmful substances will someday turn our planet into a barren lifeless wasteland. The load of all of this carried on our shoulders is enough to cause the physical and mental dissolution of even the strongest man, woman, or child.

But there in our gardens we can shut the doors on the world for a while. We can turn our focus to the tasks at hand and find joy in the golden squash, red tomatoes, violet eggplant, and beautiful flowers of various shapes, sizes, and colors that result from our diligent labor. And suddenly, one day, we look up and realize that for those few minutes or even hours, the burdens of our world have been lifted off of our shoulders, and we feel that sense of serene peace of which Louis Pasteur and Dale Carnegie spoke.

So if the world and its troubles have you in a vice-grip that threatens to break you, may I humbly suggest that you become absorbed in the tasks of gardening? Because just like researchers, we gardeners rarely have nervous breakdowns. We, too, have no time for such luxuries.

Birds Do It – Bees Do It – And Fruits, Vegetables, And Trees Do It

Yes, birds, bees, humans, and other higher forms of life, all do it – sexual intercourse, that is. But guess what? Plants are also doing it! Yes, you read that right. The beautiful flowers that delight our eyes and noses, the fruits and vegetables that delight out palates and sustain our bodies, and the majestic trees that provide us with shade and oxygen are all having sex!

Now I’ll leave it to the scientific researchers and philosophers to determine whether or not plants are capable of enjoying the act. But the mechanics of the act are well understood. The diagram below shows the plumbing in all its glory.

Flower Diagram

(source: Fruit & Nut Research & Information Center — http://fruitandnuteducation.ucdavis.edu/generaltopics/AnatomyPollination/Flower_Anatomy/)

The anther (the parts that hold the pollen grains) and the stamens (the long stem-like structures that support the anthers) are the flowers’ male parts. The stigma, style, ovary, and ovules are the female parts. In order for the plant to reproduce, the pollen must come in contact with the stigma. Thanks to the stickiness of the stigma, the pollen is able to stick to the stigma. Once attached to the stigma, the pollen grows a tube down through the style, into the ovary, and then unites with the ovules. This causes one half of the chromosomal makeup of the species to unite with the other half, and a seed, bearing the plants full set of chromosomes is created. In some plants, the ovary will swell after fertilization, turning into the fruits and vegetables that humans and higher animals consume for food.

How does the pollen come in contact with the stigma? In some plants this is caused by the action of the wind (e.g. corn). For others, this pollination occurs before the plant comes into full flower (e.g. beans). But the vast majority of plants are pollinated through the action of insects, birds, or bats visiting the flowers to sip the sweet nectar they produce. This is critical for two reasons – 1) some plants have male and female structures that are on separate plants. If these plants were never visited by pollinators, then these plants would never be pollinated and the species would fail to reproduce and eventually die out. 2) Approximately 80-95% of the plant species found in natural habitats require biotic agent-mediated (bees, butterflies, moths, etc.) pollination. This includes many of the fruits and vegetable plants that produce the foods critical to human health. No pollinators = no plant sex = starving humans.

So if we want to keep the human species alive, healthy, and growing, we need to protect the biotic species that help plants to “get it on.”