Variety Is The Spice Of Your Garden

On many occasions, when people talk to me about their gardens, they will often ask me about why a certain vegetable crop they planted failed to perform as expected. Perhaps their tomato plants produced little or no fruit, or their cucumbers had a white powdery growth, or their beans failed to grow at all. When I’m asked why they didn’t do well or what they did wrong, I’ll often as them what cultivar or variety they planted. And nine times out of ten, the answer I get is some variation of, “Oh I don’t know what variety they were; they were just tomato plants I bought at Wal-Mart.” And therein lies the problem, or at least a good portion of the problem.

Allow me to ask a question. When you need to purchase personal transportation, do you go out and buy “a car?” When you need a reliable communication device, do you purchase “a cell phone?” When you need a machine to automatically clean your dishes, do you buy “a dishwasher?” The answer to all three questions is no. You don’t buy a car; you buy a Ford or a Toyota. You don’t buy a cell phone; you purchase an iPhone or an Android. And you don’t shell out your hard earned money for a dishwasher; you buy a Maytag or a Whirlpool. And furthermore, you carefully research your purchases before you dole out your dollars to make sure you are getting something that has all the features you need with a quality that will last at a price you can afford. And why? So that you can be assured that you can drive safely, communicate effectively, and get your dishes sparkling clean. Now if you’re going to go through all this trouble with machines, wouldn’t you want to put at least this much effort into the food you grow and eat?

Tomatoes, cucumbers, beans and other garden vegetables all have what are known as cultivars. These are different genetic versions of the same plant. These different genetic variations result in different colors, shapes, sizes, hardiness, flavor, and disease resistance within the same type of plant.

For example, a Sweet 100 is a small cherry tomato, while a Big Zac is large, meaty Beefsteak tomato. A Thumbelina is a small, round, yellow carrot, while a Purple Dragon is a large, long, purple carrot. A Thumbelina and a Purple Dragon are both a carrot, yet they’re quite different from one another.

So why does this matter? Because just as you want to choose a brand of car that’s suits your lifestyle and driving habits and preferences, you want to choose cultivars of garden vegetables that will have the color and flavor that best delights your eye and tickles your taste buds, resistance to specific diseases (if you’ve had past problems with those diseases), and overall, the greatest chance of success in your garden.

Have your tomatoes produced poorly due to late blight? Then you’ll want to plant a cultivar such as Defiant, which is specifically bred to resist late blight. Do you want to grow a drought-resistant flour corn? Hopi Blue will meet your needs. Do you have hard blocky soil? Planting a standard carrot will result in forked, misshapen roots. Thumbelina carrots produce small, orange, almost round roots that are perfect for firmer soils.

The point of all of this is that if you want a garden that yields large amounts of tasty, mouth-watering vegetables, you’ll have to do a little more than throw some seeds into the dirt, water them, and hope for the best. You’ve got to put as much thought and care into buying your seeds and plants as you would into buying a car or a dishwasher. You’ve got to decide what vegetables you want to plant and then find the cultivars of those vegetables that have the traits that will best meet your wants and needs. Doing this will most definitely improve your odds of having a successful, high-yielding garden.

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Goals Not Resolutions

2021 has officially passed into history and 2022 now begins. Now is the time we all make bold resolutions about all of the wonderful things we’re going to be, do, and acquire. Then three months later (or sooner) we put them aside to be forgotten. Then, come December 31st, we remember those broken resolutions, hate ourselves for not executing them, and vow to do better next year. Then we make a new set of resolutions — which we once again break like fine china in the hands of a klutz.

Let’s face it. Bold behavior-changing declarations rarely are realized as planned. Human beings simply do not turn on a dime and become new people with all bad habits replaced by good ones. In addition, the mundane aspects of life (e.g. family, career, chores, etc.) all seem to take precedence. In the end our bold resolutions simply crumble to dust.

Rather than setting resolutions, may I suggest that you set goals instead? Statements of what you want to accomplish, when you expect to accomplish it, and a plan for how you’re going to do it are far more effective than brash statements of instant behavior change. And goals can also be somewhat flexible. If you are following your carefully thought-out plan and you still don’t quite accomplish what you set out to do by your deadline, then you are perfectly free to review, re-assess, and decide to either extend the deadline or drop the goal entirely.

Goals can be both short and long term. The beginning of a new year is a perfect time to look over your life, take pride in what you’ve already accomplished, decide what you would like to do in three months, six months, one year, five years, and ten years, and develop sound plans for achieving them. So ditch the resolutions and go for the goals instead. You’ll find that you’ll be making much more progress this way than with a vague declaration.

Have an Herbal Halloween

Here we are in October, the month of Halloween! When we think of Halloween, we think of scary characters like ghosts, witches, and vampires. We think of carving jack o’lanterns and placing them on our front porches. Pumpkin spice is everywhere and in everything. But did you know that there are herbs, many of which you might grow in your garden, that are associated with Halloween? As you know, Halloween evolved from many ancient festivals and rituals, and the herbs, many of which were associated with harvest and magic, were used in these activities.

Artemisia (Mugwort) – used to protect against evil spirits. This herb was also said to play a role in dreaming and divination. If you wanted to cast demons out of a possessed person, then you definitely wanted to wear a sachet of mugwort to protect yourself. And come Halloween, it might even keep the little miscreants from egging your house.

Chamomile – To repel magic or psychic attacks, sprinkle or plant chamomile around your house. Still single and not having much luck attracting the right partner? Make yourself a garland of chamomile; it will attract suitors. It also attracts good luck, so maybe the suitor will be rich.

Rosemary – want to keep that spouse or significant other from straying? Then rosemary is what you want. This herb was used to cast spells to ensure fidelity. Also, a rosemary bundle was supposed to keep negative energy and evil people from entering your house. So if you want to avoid family conflict on Thanksgiving, hang some rosemary over your door. Then those troublesome relatives will disinvite themselves, and peace will reign over the dinner table!

Sage – People talk about receiving sage advice, and why not? Sage is associated with wisdom, protection, purification, and immortality. An old legend states that carrying around a sage leaf will attract money – which you can then use to purchase more seeds, plants, and gardening supplies!

St. John’s Wort – an herb with strong medicinal value, it also plays a role in repelling bad luck and evil spirits, and, in combination with other powerful herbs, it was packed in amulets and talismans for protection. And, to prevent fevers and promote good luck, wear a sprig of St. John’s Wort around your neck.

So if this celebration of scary creatures is leaving you feeling a little creeped out, then a few of these powerful herbs hung around your door, scattered around your yard, or worn on your person should put your mind at ease that these evil creatures won’t be able to get anywhere near you. And while you’re at it, remember to hang a garlic braid on your front door. Garlic keeps the vampires away. Heck, garlic keeps everybody away!

A Tall Glass of Garden Harvest

Every year, when late summer is at its peak, and autumn begins to peer around the corner, we are faced with an important question – what am I going to do with all of my excess garden harvest? And usually we answer that question by sharing with our families, friends, and neighbors, donating to a food bank, and making all sorts of culinary delights. However, what do we do when family, friends, and neighbors start barring the door when they see us coming with more zucchini, when the food banks are unable to take any more, and when we’ve had our fill of salads and zucchini bread? Well, I’d like to suggest another option of which you may not thought. How about creating beverages out of your garden harvest. What kinds of beverages? Allow me to elaborate.

Juices and non-alcoholic ciders– this is somewhat obvious, but also fairly easy to create. Juices can be extracted from your garden vegetables either by cooking the juices in filtered water, then straining out the fibrous plant material (juices), or by cold-pressing the vegetables in a screw-driven press (cider). Your juices and ciders will taste fresh, and best of all, you can serve them to your family with confidence, knowing that there are no potentially harmful preservatives.

Alcoholic ciders – this involves taking the juice you’ve extracted from your garden fruits and vegetables and putting it through a fermentation process. It requires an initial expense of equipment and ingredients, but it can be done, and it doesn’t require years of experience. You can purchase cider-making kits online that not only have all the equipment and ingredients in one package, but also come with detailed instructions.

Wine – what, you say? Wine? But isn’t wine made from grapes? Well yes, but not exclusively so. In ancient times, growing grapes was considered a luxury. But that didn’t stop those of lesser means from making wine. They simply made it from whatever they were growing in their gardens – herbs, garden fruits and vegetables, potatoes, berries, etc. How about a tomato wine? Or a crabapple wine? Or a mint wine? Don’t knock it ‘til you try it!

Syrup – can be made in small quantities, can be made easily and quickly. They don’t require processing in a water bath or pressure canner, and have a fairly long shelf life.

Tea – why shell out big bucks for exotic teas made from foreign herbs and flowers when you can make your own tea from your own garden harvest for pennies? Take the money that you would normally spend on that exotic oolong tea and instead invest it in fertilizer, soil, and seeds, and grow your own bee balm, chamomile, red clover, mint, lemon balm, and many other plants, and create your own brand of tea. No muss, no fuss, great taste, potential health benefits, no unpronounceable additives, more money left over in your pocket – what’s not to love?

Making your own refreshing beverages from your garden fruits and vegetables adds many more options for how to use up that excess harvest. So give it a try!

Believing in a Brighter Future

To plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow – Audrey Hepburn

One could be forgiven if they were to feel as though our world today is drenched in a coating of sheer madness — an insanity that coats our planet like caramel on an apple. Conflicts ranging from minor skirmishes to outright wars across the globe. Deep divisions, both political and philosophical within our own nation. Wildfires, mudslides, hurricanes, and other severe weather events destroying property and lives. And of course, let’s not forget a newly resurgent COVID-19 pandemic creating mass sickness and death among the human population. I’m sure there are days when many of us feel like crawling under our beds and not wanting to come out. So how does one live a good life in a world drenched in insanity?

First of all, a little perspective. To some degree or another, our world has always been drenched in insanity, because human beings are an insane people. We hate someone because their skin is a different color than ours, or the deity that they pray to is different than ours. A group of people will terrorize and make war on another group of people for some of those same aforementioned reasons. We want more things than anyone else, so we lie, cheat, steal, and murder to accomplish this. And worst of all, we’ve decided that we human beings are more important than any other living creatures, so we cruelly exploit this planet’s resources for our own gain and to the detriment of all other life. This is the way of humans, and this has been the way of humans since time immemorial.

Yet it is still possible to find gold even within a world of dirt. While it is true that the mass population of human beings are insane, it is also true that there are those individuals who manage to live in a world coated in madness who manage to resist getting that coating on themselves. Many of them are enshrined in the pages of history, but there are many more whom the world at large does not know about. These are people who manage to carve out their own life of peace and happiness among the craziness. They create organizations and foundations dedicated to the betterment of others. They actively work to slow or stop the exploitation of our planet’s resources and reverse some of the damage that has been done. They put effort into reducing the hatred between people and creating peace where there was once war. You can also find them in their own nations, cities, towns, and neighborhoods doing simple things like taking an elderly neighbor shopping, volunteering in their children’s schools, picking up litter, etc. – the list goes on and on.

And they plant gardens (you knew that was coming, right?). When you’re a gardener, madness is not part of your world. You don’t have time for such luxuries. As a gardener you are constantly creating new life. You know that the seeds you plant today will sprout into beautiful plants tomorrow. Plants that provide color to delight the senses. Plants that provide nutritious food to feed you, your family, your neighbors, and your friends. Plants that provide fiber for making cloth that can be turned into wearable garments. Plants that provide nourishment and shelter for the other inhabitants of planet Earth. As a gardener, you carve out a little piece of joy and happiness where there was once only sadness and despair. And when you share your garden bounty with others, or help those others plant their own gardens, you increase the size of that piece of joy and happiness, and you further reduce the sadness and despair. No, gardening will not solve all the world’s problems. The world will continue to be coated in madness until we humans find better ways to live that don’t hurt other humans or the planet on which we depend upon for survival. But for you, the individual that wants to find some light among this darkness, planting a garden will go a long way towards keeping the sticky tar of madness from sticking to you.

A Gardener’s Work Is Never Done

I forget all about the sweatin’ and diggin’
Every time I go out and pick me a biggun

Guy Clark – Home Grown Tomatoes

Another season of planting has now faded into history. The soil has been dug up, amended, and fertilized; seeds, bulbs, roots, etc. have long been planted; and are now (we hope) actively growing and producing strong and healthy plants that are beginning to flower and may even be producing fruit. Now you can breathe a sigh of relief that your hard labor is beginning to pay off.

But wait! Your work is not yet done! Far from it! Your garden’s labor requirements may have eased, but they are by no means non-existent. Now is the time to begin the work of maintaining that garden that you worked so hard to plant. Now is not the time to rest on your laurels. For without proper care those laurels – as well as those tomatoes, cucumbers, beans, corn, etc. – will wither away and die.

So what efforts are required of you now?

First of all, there is the critical task of watering. Mother Nature may have been generous with rain in April, May, and possibly in June. But come July, she starts becoming rather stingy with her water supply. So you must become Aquarius and start bearing water to your garden. If you applied mulch to your garden in the spring, you can reduce your watering chores somewhat. You can further reduce your watering labors by installing an irrigation system and hooking it up to a water timer that will turn the irrigation system on and off for you. But you still have to check to make sure that your plants are getting sufficient water. No irrigation system or water timer is going to do that for you. You still have to get your hands dirty. Because if you fail here, you will have nothing to show for all your spring labors but dead plants. No fresh tomatoes in your future!

And speaking of getting your hands dirty, the next critical task is weeding. Yes, I know you don’t want to hear it. It’s not a task that makes people want to jump with joy. It’s hard, dirty, laborious work that causes you to sweat more moisture than Niagara Falls, and, if you fail to apply the proper protection, fries your skin redder than a stoplight. But it must be done. If you applied mulch in the springtime, your weeding chores will be reduced considerably. But mulch is not a cure-all. Some weeds here and there are bound to get through, and you will still have to pull them or hoe them.

Failure to weed will make your garden look unsightly, spread insects and disease to your garden vegetable plants, and in general, rob your garden vegetable plants of nutrients, water and light. It may not kill your garden outright, but it will considerably reduce the yield you would have otherwise gotten if you had put in the effort to remove those unsightly weeds.

Other necessary tasks include, but are not limited to checking the leaves of your plants (both top and bottom) for insect damage, applying supplemental fertilizer to give your plants a nutrient boost to help them through the long hot summer days, and protecting your plants from pests of the Insecta, Lagomorpha, and Mammalia variety.

And as much as we all look forward to harvesting, even that requires some muscular exertion on our part. Tomatoes do not leap off the vine and jump onto your plate by themselves (if they do, may I humbly suggest that you cut back on your consumption of alcohol, cannabis, and other mind-altering chemicals?). Harvesting also requires judgement and timing. We have to know when to pick those fruits and vegetables and when to leave them on the vine or in the ground a little longer.

And I won’t even get into the garden work that needs to be done in the fall, and the planning for next year’s garden that takes place in the winter. In short, the work of the gardener is never done. But it is work that, if done well, yields a wonderful reward of sweet, crunchy, nutritious, fruits and vegetables. And that makes it all worthwhile!

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?