Are You Ready For the Great Earth Awakening?

Are you ready?

For the past three or four months now, the earth’s surface has been in a cold, snow-packed hibernation. The color white predominates and there is little, if any, green to be seen. Woodchucks, ground squirrels, frogs, turtles, and bats lie dormant in deep hibernation, while we humans hunker down in our dwellings and turn up the heat in an effort to stay warm.

But soon, winter will loosen its grip, and the earth will once more begin to awaken. Hibernating animals emerge from their long winter sleep, while we humans clean out our homes and begin putting away our winter clothes. And from deep in the soil, roots begin to develop and green shoots begin pushing their way through the surface. No doubt about it. Spring has arrived! Soon it will be time once again for gardeners to take up the spade and the trowel and begin another season of gardening.

Are you ready?

Like most events in our lives, spring has a way of creeping up on us. Before we know it, it’s here. And before we know it, it’s gone, and we are left to lament missed opportunities and unfulfilled plans.

So I ask once more – are you ready? In case you haven’t guessed it by now, my query is directed to you, my fellow gardeners. We all know that there is a certain window of opportunity for certain plants, especially if you want to start them from seed. And we also know that if you don’t act fast, that window will close, and your chance to plant those particular crops will fade away like tulips in June.

I ask yet again – are you ready? Have you ordered all of your seeds and supplies? Have most or all of them arrived? Have you planned out your garden so you know what will go where? Are your tools cleaned, oiled, sharpened, and ready to go? Are your seed starters washed, sterilized, and ready to receive soil and seeds? Are all the lights in your grow light setup all working, with none burned out? If your answer to all of these questions is yes, then three cheers for you! You are poised and ready to do whatever is necessary to assure yourself of a bountiful harvest of sweet, crunchy, flavorful, and nutritious fruits and vegetables. But if your answer to any of these questions is no, then it’s time to step it up and go! Order those seeds and supplies! Sketch out that garden plan! Wash out those seed starters and make sure all the bulbs in your grow lights are shining brightly!

This is not the time to dicker and hesitate! The great earth awakening that I spoke of will be coming soon! But the awakened planet only yields her bounty to those who prepare and act. So your choice is clear. Will you be among the gardeners who come away with armloads and basket loads of fresh, mouth-watering fruits and vegetables? Or will you be channeling George Gershwin and singing “I Got Plenty of Nothing?”

Love and Lust From the Garden

The month of February brings us the holiday of Valentine’s Day, a celebration of all things having to do with love and romance. And love and romance naturally lead to wanting to become intimate with one’s mate. Since time immemorial, men and women have searched for foods, potions, tonics, drugs, etc. that will enhance their ability to perform sexually and increase their enjoyment of it.

Would it surprise you to learn that some of the foods which enhance sexual desire and performance can be found in your very own garden? Here are a few.

Black raspberries – Black raspberries are rich in phytochemicals – biologically active compounds that play a role in a plant’s growth process, as well as defense against competitors, pathogens, or predators. Phytochemicals have also been shown to play a role in enhanced libido and sexual endurance (for the humans who consume them, not the plants themselves).

Pine nuts – Pine nuts are rich in arginine, one of the ten essential amino acids we need to consume so that our bodies can make the proteins it needs to function. Our bodies also convert some of our consumed arginine into nitric oxide, which helps dilate the blood vessels, improving blood flow throughout our bodies. This also includes the sex organs.

Avocados – Avocados contain an abundance of heart-healthy fats, vitamin B6 and folic acid, all of which help fuel the body and increase our energy. Vitamin B6 is an important ingredient for production of male sex hormones, which are important for a strong sex drive.

Watermelon – The citrulline in watermelon is converted into arginine, which is then converted into nitric oxide which stimulates blood vessel dilation – similar to what Viagra does, but for a whole lot less money.

Broccoli – Broccoli contains high levels of Indole-3-carbinol, which helps lower estrogen levels, and may have libido boosting effects in men.

Pumpkin seeds – Pumpkin seeds are a rich source of zinc (which has been shown in men to have a powerful effect on arousal and maintaining an erection) and arginine (which relaxes blood vessels)

Spinach, arugula, beets, cress, lettuce, celery, and radish – all contain nitrates, which like arginine, relax and dilate blood vessels, leading to improved blood flow and enhanced sexual arousal and performance.

We all know that gardening provides us with flavorful, nutritious food, fresh air, and exercise. Well now, I’ve just given you yet another reason to garden. And while you may not be able to grow these fruits and vegetables in time for Valentine’s Day, you now know what to buy at the grocery store or order in a restaurant for a romantic meal that will keep the works “down south” humming along like a well-oiled machine. And come springtime, you will now have a very good idea of what you’ll want to plant!

There’s No Shame In Garden Failures

“It’s a funny profession, ours, you know. It offers unparalleled opportunities for making a chump of yourself.”

Siegfried Farnon to James Herriot – All Creatures Great and Small

In James Herriot’s wonderful book about his life as a veterinarian living in England’s Yorkshire Dales, he relates a story about the near disaster of the first case he handled on his own. His boss, Siegfried Farnon, was explaining to James Herriot that no matter how good you are at the job, you are still going to experience the occasional failure, and at times that failure could be downright humiliating.

The same can be said about gardening. No matter how much skill and experience you have as a gardener, there are going to be times – nay, even whole seasons, where you’re going to fall flat on your face. The new cultivar of tomatoes that’s supposed to be high yielding, produces little or no fruit. Rabbits, raccoons, and squirrels freely help themselves to your harvest, and you suspect that they are secretly laughing at you. Or, you plant something that grows like the dickens, choking out all your other vegetables, and you have to spend the next two years trying to get rid of it.

I, too, have had my share of failures. And yes, they can be frustrating, aggravating, and sometimes, even downright embarrassing. And yes, it’s easy to feel all of these emotions, sometimes to the extent of wanting to chuck everything in the garbage, fill the garden patch with sod, and never garden again.

Well, don’t. Because failure comes with the territory, as surely as do tomatoes and cucumbers. Things occasionally don’t work out as planned. But that’s gardening. And that’s also life.

How many times did you skin your knee when you were learning to ride a bike? Did you give up the first time you tumbled over and scraped some skin? Of course not! You picked yourself up, dusted yourself off, applied some iodine and a bandage to the bleeding cuts, and then you hopped back on and tried again. And again, And again and again until finally one day you were able to successfully pedal and ride without falling over. And suddenly all those falls and scrapes no longer mattered. Because your persistence through the constant tumbles was amply rewarded. You now knew how to ride a bike.

It’s the same in gardening. You will fail from time to time, whether you are a rank beginner or an experienced veteran. So do like you did with the bicycle. Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and apply some psychological iodine and bandages to your skinned pride. Then get back out in the garden and plant again. And again. And again and again until one day you are harvesting bushels upon bushels of fresh, flavorful, and nutritious fruits and vegetables. So keep at it, my friends, and don’t let the occasional failure get you down. Yes, gardening offers unparalleled opportunities for making a chump of yourself, as James Herriot says. But there are also infinite opportunities for sweet success beyond your wildest dreams.

Under the Cover of Green Manure

We’re all familiar with that wonderful brown substance we call manure, or, as I prefer to call it, “fruit of the butt.” Manure is a rich source of nitrogen for our growing plants, and it can also serve as a mulch. Yes, without manure, life would be pretty sh…, well, you get the idea.

Now, I’d like to introduce you to a different kind of manure. This kind does not come from a bovine or equine backside, but it grows right out of the soil. These are various plants known collectively as cover crops or green manure. Green manure plants are grown for the sole purpose of being killed by cold weather, chopped up, and worked into the soil. Like the other kind of manure, it provides nitrogen, but it does a whole lot more. Green manure crops can crowd out weeds, reduce soil erosion, and improve the overall condition of the soil.

Green manure crops are generally planted in late summer or early fall, then chopped up and worked into the soil in the early spring. Alternatively, they can also be planted in spring or summer, and then tilled into the soil before planting a vegetable crop. They can also be planted in place of a vegetable crop and then worked into the soil to condition it for the following year’s crops.

Green manure crops consist of both legume and non-legume plants. Legumes such as field peas or vetch are planted for their nitrogen-fixing ability while non-legumes – grain crops like rye or wheat are planted for their ability to crowd out weeds. A wide variety of plants can be used as green manure crops. The table below lists some common ones.

The University of Wisconsin Horticulture, Division of Extension gives these instructions for planting. To plant a cover crop or green manure, first clear the planting area of any large stones and other debris.  Rake the area smooth and broadcast seed according to the seeding rate given in Table 1 or as recommended by the seed provider.  Rake the area again to incorporate the seeds into the soil, and lightly water the area. To prevent the cover crop from self-seeding in other areas of your garden, and to utilize the cover crop to its fullest potential, cut down plants when, or just before, they start to flower.  You can cut plants by hand, or by using a trimmer, brush cutter, or mower.  Cutting before flowering not only prevents the cover crop from going to seed, but also stops the plant from taking up nutrients from the soil to store in its seed.  Once plants have been cut, incorporate the plants into the soil (using a shovel, pitch fork or rototiller) where they can more readily decompose.  Allow approximately two to three weeks for the cover crop to decompose before planting your vegetables into the soil. (Source: University of Wisconsin Horticulture, Division of Extension)

So if you are looking for a way to improve the condition of your soil, and the brown manure isn’t doing the job, then why not try the green?

A Green Cure for the Winter Blues

Scientists and medical professionals tell us that we are in for a long, cold, COVID-laden winter. In an effort to avoid exposure to this terrible disease, most of us will hunker down in our homes, avoiding contact as much as possible with anyone outside of our household. And since most of the bars, restaurants, stadiums, casinos, etc. will be shut down by state authorities, there will be few places for us to go anyway. So the next three or four months do, indeed, look quite bleak.

But there are things we can do to mitigate some of the boredom and loneliness, and one of the best is to grow and cultivate some greenery. A few well-placed houseplants can provide some color to brighten up an otherwise dull indoors and improve the blah feelings brought on by a bleak winter landscape. You can even grow some edibles – sprouts, microgreens, herbs, lettuce to provide you with some fresh and nutritious food to offset boring stews and pot roasts.

And then, when you’ve finished all of that, start thumbing through the gardening catalogs that will soon be hitting your mailbox or peruse their websites and see all the new varieties of fruits, vegetables, and flowers that you can plant in 2021. Then get out a sketch pad and/or some graph paper and start planning out that beautiful productive garden. It may not change the winter landscape outside your window, but in your heart, snow will melt, skies will clear, and for a few minutes at least, you’ll find yourself feeling a whole lot less miserable. Yes, indeed, nothing chases away a blue mood and lightens the blackness in one’s heart like a bracing dose of green!

The Overarching Importance of Water

Water. We all need it. Plants, insects, animals, humans – without water, we would perish very quickly. But have you ever stopped to think about how exactly water plays its part in the growth of green plants?

Water dissolves plant nutrients in the soil. Nearly all of the nutrients necessary for plants to survive and thrive are in a solid form unable to be absorbed by a plant’s roots. When these nutrients become immersed in water, the water molecules surround the nutrient molecules (i.e. dissolution) rendering them more readily able to pass into plant roots to then be transported to every living cell that makes up that plant’s structure

Water plays an important role in plant biological activities. We all know that photosynthesis occurs when light strikes the chloroplasts in plant cells, but water is also necessary for this important chemical process to occur, as shown in the chemical equation below.

6CO2 +6H2O → C6H12O6 + 6O2

Water is also necessary for building and breaking down DNA and various plant proteins.

Water is important as a source of hydrogen. Plants cannot absorb hydrogen from the atmosphere. They can only get the hydrogen they need through the water in the soil.

Water is needed to keep plants cool. Without water, a hot dunny summer day would be the finish of most, if not all plant life on this planet.

In nature, plants get the water they need from rain, snow, surface drainage water, and underground water. In our gardens, we need to supply the majority of the water that plants need, as rain, underground water, and surface drainage water on their own can’t supply enough to meet the plants’ needs. And garden plants don’t grow in snow. So remember this the next time you pour water out of a can or turn the hose on your garden plants. You’re not just giving the plants a drink. You are sustaining the biochemistry that is the very foundation of plant life.

Never Be Ashamed of Your Gardening Mistakes

“You must never feel badly about making mistakes,” explained Reason quietly, “as long as you take the trouble to learn from them. For you often learn more by being wrong for the right reasons than you do by being right for the wrong reasons.”

-from The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster

Mistakes. We all make them. All of us. Every one of us has done something we later wish we hadn’t; not done something we later wish we had; or executed an action that seemed to be right at the time, but later proved to be wrong. And so on and so on. And few places are as wrought with the consequences of wrong action as in our very own gardens.

How do we make mistakes in the garden? Let me count the ways.

  1. We get overly ambitious and try to plant beyond our degree of experience, and wind up overwhelmed
  2. We plant something without researching it first, only to find that it fails to grow or grows so well that it crowds out the rest of your vegetables
  3. We don’t properly prepare our soil before planting
  4. We fail to protect our crops from marauding critters that eat everything down to the roots
  5. We plant our garden where there is not enough sunlight
  6. We plant our crops too close together, which causes mold and fungus to attack our plants and either kill them outright or severely reduce the yield we get from them

I’m sure we’re all familiar with these, and I’m sure some of you are familiar with more of these than you care to admit. Some of us, especially the beginners, are apt to feel disappointed, dejected, or even outright humiliated when our hard work comes to naught. Some of us might feel so awful that we’re ready to throw in the trowel and never garden again. Well, don’t. One mistake, one failure, does not define you as a black-thumb gardener.

A very wise man once said to me, “If you’ve never been fired, it means that you never try anything new.” In a similar vein, if you never fail at anything, it means that you never attempt anything new – never try to stretch beyond your comfort zone. And this also holds true in gardening. If you’ve never had a gardening failure, it means that you never attempt anything innovative in your gardening efforts. So don’t waste time lamenting your so-called failure. Take some time to curl up and lick your wounds, if you must. Then give yourself a hearty pat on the back for attempting something new – whether that’s a brand new garden or a brand new plant in an existing garden. Then, and this is the important part, try to figure out where things went off the rails. There is a solution to every gardening problem, and with enough investigation and soul-searching, you’ll find it. Yes, you made a mistake or two, but you made it for all the right reasons. And you’ll be far more knowledgeable and savvy than the timid one who never fails but never grows beyond the confining dimensions of his or her comfort zone.

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.