Time for Some Garden Boldness

bold-vegetable-garden

 

You’ve probably heard me say (or write) on many occasions that if you’re a first-time gardener, then your beginning efforts should be baby steps. Don’t try to do too much too soon. Keep it small and simple — lettuce and some other greens, a tomato plant or two, or even just a few vegetable plants in containers. When you had success with this small garden, then you can gradually expand in size and scope. And you’ve done all of that! From your humble beginnings, you’ve reaped a bountiful harvest that increases with each year. You’ve gone from being a rank beginner to an experienced gardener and you’ve grown in skill, knowledge, and confidence.

 
And now, you’re ready. Ready to take a giant leap of faith. Ready for new flavors and new additions to your garden that will make it stand out in new ways and provide you with flavors and textures that will surprise and delight you, your family, and your friends. Because now is the time to… drum roll please… plant some new and as of yet untried vegetables and fruits.

 
“Hmmmm, I don’t know,” you say. “I’m doing all right with all the stuff I’ve planted in years past. Maybe I shouldn’t mess with success.” Rubbish, say I! Mess with it, tempt it, torment it, break it! Because that’s the only way you are ever going to grow as a gardener! Timidity and trepidation were fine and even desirable when you were a rank beginner. But you are a rank beginner no longer. You are an experienced gardener with many years of successful harvests to your name. You delight your family and amaze your friends with all of the delicious tomatoes, squash, cucumbers, etc, that you present to them year after year. You are successful and confident in your abilities. You know how to grow — and it shows! You have passed all previous tests and you are ready to take your garden to the next level!

 

Look through your catalogs. Look at all the new offerings, both types and varieties. Isn’t there something new in there that you think would be cool to try to grow? Aren’t there some fruits and vegetables that currently seem to exist only in pathetic (and expensive) specimens at your local grocery store that make you think that you could save money and produce better quality merchandise if you grew it yourself? Well guess what? Yes you can!

 

Ever thought about growing your own wheat that you could harvest, mill into flour, and turn into homemade bread? Ever considered growing corn — not sweet corn — but flint corn that you could grind into cornmeal and convert to corn bread or cornmeal muffins? Or how about growing your own grapes for fresh eating, jelly, or wine? Or how about really going out on a limb and attempting to grow your own cocoa bean tree, harvest and ferment the pods, and produce your own chocolate?
This year, I’m asking you to set a goal to exhibit some garden boldness. Choose one vegetable, fruit, grain, or even fungus (e.g. mushrooms) that you’ve never grown before. Then step out on a limb (pun intended) and grow it. Will you succeed? I can’t guarantee that. Anytime you try something new, you run the risk of failure. But what I can promise is that the very act of trying something new will give you a feeling of boldness, daring, and new perspective you’ll never find by sticking with the same old thing. I’d call that worth the risk.

Fifty (or More!) Shades of Green

Lately, a lot of attention has been given to the color green. Corporations and other entities talk about how environmentally responsible they are by saying that they are green. Environmental groups accuse those same entities of “greenwashing” (e.g. covering up their actual environmental irresponsibility with a thin veneer of environmentally responsible practices. And nutritionists talk about the importance of including a lot of green vegetables in our diet. And that is what I’d like to talk about here. As gardeners we plant many different kinds of green vegetables. We plant lettuce, spinach, broccoli, and a few others, and we feel that we have our green well represented. I’ll get right to the point. You don’t. There is a whole world of green vegetables that you haven’t touched yet. If you’d like to liven up an otherwise staid and boring salad, then why not try some of these?

 

Miner’s Lettuce – For those who live in colder climates, this is the perfect green for you. Miner’s Lettuce is capable of surviving year-round in a cloche, greenhouse, or even unprotected in colder regions such as the maritime Northwest. It’s also “cut and come again” green as it will quickly re-grow after harvesting. The
heart-shaped leaves are an excellent source of Vitamin C.

 

miners-lettuce

Malabar Spinach – Despite its name, this is not a true spinach (Spinacia oleracea). Malabar spinach (Basella alba) is an edible vine that can climb to heights of thirty feet or longer. The semi-succulent, reddish-colored, heart-shaped leaves can be used in salads, sandwiches, stir-fries, and as a thickener in soups. The plant also produces small grape-like fruits which can be used to make a purple dye. Unlike many other greens which tend to wilt in heat, Malabar spinach thrives in summer weather. The leaves are an excellent source of vitamins A and C, iron, calcium, and soluble fiber.

 

malabar-spinach

 

Sorrel – This European native, also known as spinach dock and narrow-leaved dock, is a member of the buckwheat family. The medium-thick, large, spinach-like leaves have a delicious lemony taste that goes well in salads, soups, and sauces. Sorrel is rich in vitamin C and also contains vitamin A, vitamin B-6, iron, magnesium, potassium, and calcium. In terms of beneficial organic compounds, sorrel contains polyphenolic acids, flavonoids, and anthocyanins. Just be careful not to eat too much of it at one time, because the leaves also contain oxalic acid which can cause digestive upset if consumed in large quantities.

sorrel

Orach – Another spinach-like green, this plant also goes by the names of mountain spinach, French spinach, and giant lambsquarters. A cool-season crop, it also can be grown in warmer weather, as it is less prone to bolting than traditional spinach. It grows best in well-drained fertile soils, but it can also tolerate droughty, alkaline, or salty soils. Use Orach as you would spinach or chard. Orach contains high amounts of vitamin C, vitamin K, calcium, magnesium, phosphorous, iron, carotenes, protein, anthocyanins, zinc, selenium, tryptophan, and dietary fiber.

 

orach

These are just some of the many types of greens that you can grow in your garden. Planting these different greens will add color to both your garden landscape and your meals and provide a cornucopia of nutrition. So why not change things up in your garden and try planting some this year?

The Garden of You

gaze-in-mirror

A successful garden requires a lot — fertile soil, adequate moisture, protection from pests (animal, insect, and microbial) and proper harvest. I’m sure that none of this is any big surprise to anyone. Furthermore, these aforementioned elements are true no matter whether your garden is large or small, in the backyard or in a container, in Boston or Bangladesh.

 
Yet it is also true that no two gardens are alike. And I’m sure it will also come as no surprise when I tell you that what separates one garden from another is the gardener.
“Duh,” you’re probably saying to yourself. “You need a newsletter story to tell us that? Any more words of wisdom, Mr. Obvious?” And normally, I would agree with you. But in a world where we all want to dress in the latest styles, where we all listen to the same music, and where we all follow the latest trends and fads, we tend to forget this little piece of “obvious” knowledge.

 
“Be yourself,” we’re told repeatedly. Yet we don’t want to be ourselves. We want to be this movie star or that rap singer. We want this woman’s riches and that guy’s looks. We continually compare ourselves to someone else who is richer, smarter, taller, better looking, etc. But “comparison,” to quote motivational speaker Jack Canfield, “is the fast track to misery.” And misery and success are not compatible.

 
So what does this have to do with gardening? Simply this – being yourself is the secret ingredient that means the difference between the successful garden and the unsuccessful garden. Your garden may yield a bumper crop that breaks all records and amazes family, friends, friends of family and family of friends. But if it is not truly your garden – i.e. planted with vegetables you like, arranged the way you want them, and decorated (or not) as you choose, then you won’t truly be happy with it, and it won’t really be a success.

 
Do you like kale? Great! Then plant it. It’s a wonderfully nutritious and tasty vegetable. Do you hate Brussels sprouts? I personally loathe them. You won’t ever find them growing in my garden. And if you dislike them as much as I do, then they shouldn’t be growing in yours – no matter what your mother says, or your spouse says, or your loudmouth brother-in-law says, or even what all of the world’s horticultural experts say.

 
Do you think your garden would look beautiful if you decorated it with glass gazing balls or a trellis? Then install them. And if your snobby next door neighbor says they look tacky, then tell them to take a flying leap! This is your garden on your piece of ground, and you’ll decorate it however you bleeping well please, no matter what they think!

 
Now before you get your knickers in a knot, please understand that I’m not saying to ignore expert advice. By all means, read those gardening books and magazines, watch the gardening shows on HGTV, and listen to presentations by master gardeners. There’s a lot of useful information out there which can be of benefit to all gardeners, novice and expert. But filter it through the lens of you. Adapt it to your style, temperament, and tastes.

 
If you do this, I guarantee that you will have a garden you can be proud of, no matter how many pounds of fruits and vegetables it yields each year, because it is truly your garden. And that, my friends, is real success!

Rotation, Rotation, Rotation

rotation-2
As human beings, we tend to be creatures of habit. We fall into patterns and we have a tendency to stick with what appears to be working and not to change things. After all, if it ain’t broke, why fix it?

 
However, this modus operandi doesn’t always work so well with our gardens when it comes to where we plant our crops. If, for example, we’ve developed the habit of always planting our tomatoes in a row in the rear of our gardens and planting everything else in front, we may soon discover that these crops that have never failed us are starting to look more haggard and produce fewer fruits and vegetables. What’s going on here?

 
What’s going on is that your plants may have picked up a disease organism. Tomatoes, for example, are subject to blights, which, while they may not outright kill the plants, they will certainly reduce their yield. Brassicas (cabbage, broccoli, kale, etc.), meanwhile, can be susceptible to black rot, which will kill the plant.

black-rot
So how to avoid this? The answer is to rotate your crops. Don’t always plant the same plants in the same place. If your tomatoes have been showing signs of blight, then next spring, plant them in a different part of the garden. If your brassicas died from black rot, then plant something else in their place (preferably something not susceptible to black rot). Be aware that black rot can survive in the soil for seven years, so you may have to plant your brassicas elsewhere for that amount of time or longer.

 
For a disease to gain a foothold and cause trouble, three things must be present. The disease organism, the proper conditions, and a susceptible plant. If you remove the susceptible plant from the spot (e.g. plant beans instead of cabbage in that location), then you remove one of the legs of this three-legged stool, and the disease (in this case, black rot) cannot infect your garden.

 
So, to paraphrase Pete Seeger, in every garden, you must turn, turn, turn!

Those Darn Weeds!

 

creeping-charlie

Weeds. Those evil plants that rudely push their way into your garden, crowd out your vegetable crops, rob them of nutrients, reduce your yields, and generally look plain ugly. And the time and sweat you have to put forth to yank those interlopers out of your garden has you uttering words a lot stronger than golly gosh and gee willikers. So what can you do? How can you slow or stop these green varmints from setting up shop in your garden? Well, there are three ways to deal with them.
Herbicides — I mention it, but I do not recommend it. First, herbicides are non-specific. There is no one herbicide that kills only crabgrass or another that kills only Creeping Charlie. Herbicides generally will kill anything green. So, if you’re not careful with how you use them, you will wind up killing your vegetable crops right along with the weeds. Even worse — if the wind blows the herbicide residue onto your neighbor’s roses, this will definitely win you no friends.

herbicide
Mechanical methods — This includes hoeing, digging, and pulling. When using these techniques, it’s important to handle the weeds the same way they vote in Chicago — early and often. It’s far easier to mechanically remove the weeds while they’re few and small. If you wait too long they will be well-entrenched and more difficult and time-consuming to remove. Furthermore, the mature weeds will shade your vegetable plants and rob them of nutrients.

hoeingdigging-weedspulling-weeds
Mulch — This is by far the best way to deal with weeds. Laying down a layer of mulch — either organic (e.g. corncobs, straw, etc.) or inorganic (e.g. black plastic, paper, etc.) after preparing your soil but before planting your vegetables, then either moving aside the mulch (organic) or cutting holes where you want to plant (inorganic) will essentially place a barrier on your soil that will reduce or completely block the sunlight reaching the weeds, thereby robbing them of an essential factor needed for growth, and essentially preventing the weeds from out competing your garden vegetables. And of course, fewer weeds, means less tedious, back-breaking work for you. But for mulch to work, you have to lay it down before you plant your vegetables. If you’re already plagued with weeds, it’s too late. Also, mulch is effective only on annual weeds. Perennial weeds such as thistle or dandelion will not be stopped by mulch.

straw-mulch
So which method will you use to control weeds? Choose the correct one, and you’ll thank me — very mulch.

A Garden in (Perpetual) Motion

perpetual-motion-machine

The laws of physics will not be violated, no matter how many times you try. Throughout history, many people claim to have superseded physical law and invented a perpetual motion machine — a device that runs continuously, unhindered by friction and dissipation of energy, in defiance of the First and Second Laws of Thermodynamics. Such a device is fantasy and cannot ever be created.

 
However, it is possible to create a near-perpetual garden. By this, I mean a garden that provides you with fresh produce throughout the majority of the year, instead of only in the spring, summer, and early fall. How, you may ask? Simply by working in harmony with nature, planting vegetables that are appropriate for the seasons, and allowing the overwintering of certain root crops.

 
To further illustrate the concept, I will present a rough plan for this near-perpetual garden.

 
Early spring — Order seeds, plants, and supplies. Get the garden ready for planting by adding compost and organic fertilizer and turning over the soil to work it in. Direct-seed cool season crops (brassicas, peas, root crops, lettuce, other greens, etc.). Start seeds of tomato, pepper, eggplant, herbs, etc. indoors in seed starters under grow lights. About a month after the seeds have spouted into seedlings, transplant them outdoors. Protect them from frost and cold temperatures by planting them in season extending devices such as cold frames, cloches, hoops covered with garden fabric, Walls O’Water, etc.

 
Mid-spring — Transplant any remaining seedlings into the garden. Direct-seed corn, beans, squash, and other warm season crops.

 
Summer — Harvest any remaining cool season crops before the summer heat causes them to bolt (produce a flower). Fill the spaces with additional warm season crops.

 
Late summer — Begin harvesting tomatoes, cucumbers and other warm season crops. Keep the garden well-fed and watered and check for signs of insect infestation and disease. Begin planting another round of cool season crops for a fall harvest (either started indoors or direct seeded in the garden).

 
Autumn — Harvest remaining warm season crops. Fill the now available space with cool season crops, either transplanted from what you’ve grown indoors or direct seeded. Plant garlic, onion, and horseradish. Can, dry, freeze, or cold store whatever harvested produce you cannot eat fresh or give away.

 
Mid to late autumn — Harvest cool season crops, clean up spent plants and either chop them up and add to your compost pile or throw them away. Add compost and organic fertilizer and turn over the soil. This will effectively “put the garden to bed” and set it up to be friable and fertile for next spring. If you choose to leave root crops in the soil to overwinter, cover them with a thick layer of mulch.

 
Winter — Enjoy the fruits of your labor. And if you need fresh carrots, turnip, rutabaga, etc., go out to the garden, pull back the mulch, and dig them up. Begin planning next year’s garden.

 
And there you have it. If you plan and execute wisely, you can enjoy fresh fruits and vegetables practically all year long. No it’s not perpetual motion. But it just might be perpetual happiness.

All Hail the Mighty Pumpkin!

pumpkin

 

If there is any one fruit that signifies the month of October it’s the delicious, round, and ribbed squash variant known as the pumpkin. And what better time then the month of October to consider just how versatile this amazing fruit is!

 
Pumpkins are native to North America. The traditional pumpkin (Cucurbita pepo) is traditionally planted in the spring, cultivated in the summer and harvested in mid to late fall when the outer skin is a firm bright orange. The flesh of the pumpkin can be boiled, baked, steamed, or roasted to make soup, pies, purees, dessert bars, and hundreds of other recipes. The seeds can be roasted for a delicious and healthful snack. And, of course, the fruit can be hollowed out and then faces can be carved into the shell to create the traditional jack o’lantern that is a big part of Halloween.

jack-o-lantern
Pumpkins also have a wide variety of other uses. Here are a few.

 

  1. Pumpkins can be fed to dogs and cats as a supplement for managing constipation, diarrhea, or hairballs. The fiber provides the bulk matter that aids in proper digestion.
  2. Raw pumpkin can be fed to laying hens to increase egg production in the colder months
  3. Pumpkin phytochemicals and nutrients may have positive biological effects.

 

There are also pumpkin chunking contests where teams build mechanical devices such as catapults and cannons to hurl a pumpkin as far as possible.

pumpkin-launch
So this month, while you’re eating your pumpkin pie, carving a jack o’lantern, or enjoying your pumpkin spice latte, stop for a moment and consider this amazing fruit that can be used in so many ways.

The Pervasive Power of Poop

Poop, by the strictest definition, is the waste product left over from the digestion of a food source. Call it what you will — scat, number 2, muck, feces, manure, etc. Sure, it can be gross and disgusting, especially when it’s fresh. But our lives would be so much poorer without it, although for some people, their lives are poorer with it, in which case, may I suggest a laxative? But I digress.

 
As gardeners, we all know how important manure is as a relatively inexpensive source of nitrogen, a critical nutrient, for our garden vegetables. For many of us, if it wasn’t for this “fruit of the cow’s butt” (or horse’s butt or bat’s butt), the fruit of our gardens would be considerably reduced. Ever heard of castings? Castings are another excellent source of critical garden nutrients. They’re also a fancy name for worm poop.

earthworm-castings
When we make cheese, we add a starter culture to our milk. The bacteria in this starter culture will chew up the sugar (lactose) in the milk and convert it to lactic acid. This lowers the pH of the milk and prepares it for coagulation. So you can think of this lactic acid as bacterial poop.

 
When fungi colonize a growing medium, they secrete enzymes to break down the food source. They then absorb the nutrients through their cell walls and excrete waste products. They literally swim through their own fungal poop. Then, when the temperature, humidity, and light are just right, the fungi will produce their fruiting bodies, a.k.a. mushrooms. Then we eat the mushrooms — that came from the fungi that was swimming in its own poop. And speaking of mushrooms and poop, do you like portabella mushrooms? You do? Excellent, because they are grown in a pasteurized substrate which often contains horse manure as one of the ingredients.

 
And last, but not least, how in the world would political campaigns ever even get off the ground without manure to propel them forward?

 
So remember folks, love may make the world go ’round, but poop is the grease that keeps all the gears moving!

It’s Cleanup Time!

Congratulations to you and your garden! Your springtime preparation and planting and summertime cultivation and watering have paid off handsomely. Your refrigerators are filled with fresh produce, jellies, jams, and preserves; your cupboards and pantries are filled with canned vegetables and fruits, and your basements are brimming with fruits and vegetables that have been stored away for the coming long, cold, and snowy winter. (Note to Mother Nature: go easy on us this winter. Please?) Perhaps you even have a fall crop of greens to which you’ve been routinely consuming. Now’s the time to kick back, relax, and enjoy the fruits (and vegetables) of your labors.

Uhh, not quite so fast. There is one task remaining for you — one that should not be ignored if you want to improve your odds of having a successful harvest in next year’s garden. That task is to remove the cages, stakes, and other supports, clean up the spent plants, and perhaps even apply some compost and turn over the soil.

“Oh, there’s no need to do all that now,” you say. “I’ll do it in the spring.”

No. There’s every need for that. Cages and stakes left to the mercy of the winter can rot and/or rust. Spent plants and other garden debris left in the garden can become breeding grounds for insect pests and diseases that will plague your garden from the get-go next season and leave you with a severely reduced or non-existent harvest. Cabbage worms and tomato hornworms, for example, can overwinter in the pupal stage in dead or decayed leaves and plant parts. If you get rid of the plant debris, you’ll leave theses pests with no place to hide and survive, thereby lessening the odds that they’ll chomp on your plants next summer.

cabbage-wormTomato Hornworm

Turning over the soil in the fall also has many benefits. For starters, any overwintering insect pest pupae will be buried in the soil. The moth will then be unable to emerge (and lay eggs on your vegetable plants) next spring. Any grubs that would normally overwinter below the soil surface will be brought above ground where they can be seen — and eaten by birds and other grub-eating predators. And if you work in some compost, then all throughout the three months (or more) of winter, soil bacteria will break it down. Come springtime, you’ll be off to a good start with healthy and nutrient-rich soil.

So clean up that debris and turn over that soil! You’ll find that a clean garden is a happy garden — and a productive one too!

A Fall Garden? Why Bother?

Fall Vegetable Garden

 

When we think of gardening, most of the time we associate it as a spring and summer activity. We start our seeds and/or plant our seedlings in the spring, cultivate the garden in the summer, and harvest the fruits and vegetables of our labor in the fall. However, fall is also an excellent time to start a garden. But why? We’ve already put in enough grunt work for the garden we have now, and we’re getting a fine harvest from it. Why should we go through all that again twice in the same year?

 

Well, I’ll tell you why. There are many reasons for, and advantages to planting a fall garden.

 

  • Fall vegetable gardens require no special care, because autumn conditions can be more favorable than summer conditions to certain vegetable crops.
  • Fall-grown vegetable crops are usually more productive and of higher canning and freezing quality than those which mature in midsummer’s hot dry period.
  • There are fewer destructive insect pests to infest your garden and destroy your plants.
  • In the fall, there are fewer weeds infesting the garden and competing with your garden plants for water, nutrients, and light. This makes weeding less time-consuming and less laborious.
  • There is usually more rainfall in autumn then there is in summer, so the time and effort spent watering your garden is reduced.
  • If a light frost should occur, it probably will not harm your crops. In fact, frost actually improves the flavor of certain vegetables – kale, turnips, parsnips, collards, salsify, and Chinese cabbage.
  • Fall-grown vegetables such as leeks, salsify, and parsnips can be mulched, left in the ground, and harvested during winter and early spring, ensuring a steady supply of fresh vegetables when nothing else is growing.
  • Onion top sets from winter onions can be planted for fall use. If you choose not to use them, you can leave them in the garden over the winder. In the spring, they will sprout and they can then be used as green onions. Be warned, however that these overwintered onions can sometimes be quite pungent.

 

So as you can see, active gardening does not have to end in the fall. In fact, if you plan your plantings correctly, you can have garden vegetables of one kind or another available to you all year long. That’s certainly one way to take the edge off of winter.