The Fleeting Joys of Spring


So now I have sung you a little short song
I can no longer stay
God bless you all both great and small
And I wish you a happy May

― May Day Carol

The month of May is a prime time for experiencing all of the beauty and joy of spring. Spring flowers are at their peak, the weather is beautiful (not too hot or too cold), and every morning the air is filled with the melodic chirps of all manner of songbirds. And, of course, soil and air temperatures are just right to begin planting your garden — that is, if you haven’t started already with cool season crops in March and April.

There’s so much to enjoy and experience in the month of May. Go for a walk in the woods and see all of the emerging wildflowers. Migratory birds are passing through; you might see an Eastern bluebird or a hermit thrush. Listen carefully and you’ll hear the warble of the red-winged blackbird. At dusk, you can watch the elusive woodcock as the male does his mating dance. Butterflies and hummingbirds are emerging, and if you plant a garden of native plants, you’ll be seeing a lot of them, as they’ll be hanging around your yard.

But if you’re not careful, the month of May can slip through your fingers, leaving only regret at the hikes not taken and the sights unseen. So don’t let May’s joyful parade pass you by without experiencing the offerings of as many floats as possible.


How Sweet Is My Corn

Sweet Corn


Sweet corn. It just wouldn’t be summer without that roasted or boiled buttery sweet summer staple of a thousand picnics and family gatherings. But have you ever wondered what it is that makes sweet corn sweet, and how it differs from other kinds of corn?

Sweet corn is corn that is bred for sugary sweetness and harvested when the kernels are immature. As a result the interior of the kernel contains sugar instead of starch, giving the product a sweet taste. Hence, the name. But did you know, that even among sweet corn, there are different genotypes? Allow me to elaborate.

su or Sugary — This is the classic sweet corn. The kernels contain modest amounts of sugar in them which gives them a combination flavor of sugar and corn. When harvested, the sugar in su corn rapidly converts to starch, which decreases the sweetness. That’s why many sweet corn aficionados claim that the best way to cook sweet corn is to boil the water, run out into the garden, pick and shuck the corn, run back into the house, and toss it into the boiling water. This, they claim, gives the maximum amount of sweetness. Golden Bantam is an example of an su sweet corn.

se or Sugar Enhanced — se corn has higher levels of sugar in the kernel than su corn. su corn still rapidly converts to starch upon harvest, but it will stay sweet longer that se corn because of the elevated level of sugar. The kernel walls of se corn also are more tender than those of su corn, which further improves the eating quality. se varieties are also hybrids, so you cannot save the seeds for next year’s planting. Examples of se cultivars include Kandy Corn, Bodacious, and Silver Queen.

sh2, shrunken 2, or Supersweet — The amount of sugar in the endosperm of sh2 corn is even higher than that of su or se corn. The higher levels of sugar and lack of starch gives the seeds a wrinkled or shrunken appearance, hence the name. Conversion of sugar to starch is even slower than in su and se corn, so there’s a longer window between harvest and preparation. sh2 corn germinates poorly or not at all in cold wet soil. sh2 varieties must also be isolated from su and se corn; cross pollination with sh2 can ruin their flavor and quality. And like se corn, they are hybrids, so the seed cannot be saved for the following year’s planting. Examples of sh2 cultivars include Early Xtra-Sweet, Northern Xtra Sweet, and Illini Xtra Sweet.

So which variety of sweet corn is right for you? Once again, this goes back to the planning we discussed in my last blog post. Do you harvest your corn and cook it later? If so, then I recommend one of the se or sh2 varieties. If you believe in roasting or boiling your corn seconds after harvest, then try one of the su varieties.

Congratulations! You’ve just received several kernels of knowledge. I just hope I haven’t caused any corn-fusion.

On Your Mark; Get Set; Garden!

Oh my friends it’s springtime again
Buds are swelling on every limb
The peepers do call, small birds do sing
And my thoughts return to gardening

― Dillon Bustin, Almanac

Prime gardening season has officially begun! The time is now for starting potato tubers, sweet potato slips, asparagus crowns, and many other vegetables. And there is still time to direct seed lettuce, spinach, kale, mustard, kohlrabi, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and cabbage. But you must act fast! The season of spring is a fleeting one, and the window of opportunity to plant these vegetables is closing fast!


How did your garden grow last year? If your yield of fruits and vegetables was below your expectations, then now would be a good time to test your soil to see if it’s deficient in nutrients or too high or too low in pH. Depending on the results, you may want to work in some compost and organic fertilizer to replace the nutrients that were depleted by last year’s crop. Remember — feed the soil and the soil will feed your plants.

Now would also be a good time to lay down some mulch. Mulch will warm up your soil sooner, conserve moisture during those hot dry summer days, and reduce the number of weeds growing in your garden. Then you can spend less time weeding and watering, and more time enjoying the fruits of your labor.

For those of you who, like me, started your tomato seeds late last month or at the beginning of this month, by now, your seedlings are growing strong and healthy. If you are bound and determined to get tomatoes before your neighbors do, you can begin transplanting them into your garden, but you must protect them with a season extending device such as a bell cloche, cold frame, or Wall O’ Water. Tomatoes do not handle cold very well, and without protection, a surprise cold snap could kill your tomatoes or seriously impair their yield later in the season.

So carpe hortus (seize the garden), before this prime planting time slips through your fingers!

Plan It, Don’t Slam It

Jean and Dan's Garden 2015


Several years ago, when I was a lad in my teens, I read a publication from the Scott’s Lawn Care Company. Among the many articles was one entitled, “The Impulse Versus the Plan.” In the article, they discussed the benefits of planning out your lawn chores in advance, rather than just letting the impulse of spring weather propel you into random action.


The same can also be said of your vegetable garden. Many gardeners, especially those who have never gardened before, are content to be carried away by the moment. They eagerly rush out into the sunshine, drive over to their nearest big box store, purchase whatever strikes their fancy at the moment, then rush home to plant their treasures in the ground with dreams of juicy tomatoes and buttery sweet corn dancing in their heads. And then, come autumn, when they’ve reaped a harvest of little or nothing, they are left scratching their heads wondering where they went wrong. Well, one could probably find a number of mistakes that were made, but I will contend that their number one mistake was that, metaphorically speaking, they slammed it all together, rather than taking the time to carefully plan things.


Short and to the point, a plan works. A well thought out plan, properly executed, will give you a harvest of plenty instead of a cornucopia of nothing.


So how do you develop this plan for your garden?


Start by reviewing what you did last year. What worked and what didn’t? Which vegetables yielded a bountiful harvest, and which were miserable failures? Did you have problems with insect pests? Diseases? Animals? How did you handle them? Were your efforts successful or did the rabbits have a royal feast at your expense?


Next think about the garden site itself. If this will be a brand new garden, think about where you want to situate it — preferably on the south side of your house where you’ll get the most amount of sun. You’ll want to measure out the site, mark it off with stakes and string, then dig up the grass and amend the soil. If this is an existing garden, you may want to test your soil, then depending on the results, mix in some organic matter to recharge it.


Now, think about the vegetable plants themselves. What varieties of vegetables did you grow last year, or in years past? Did you like them? Do you want to plant those varieties again or would you like to try something different? Perhaps you had problems with disease or insect infestations. You may want to think about rotating those vegetables to a different part of the garden, choosing a disease-resistant cultivar, or avoiding that vegetable entirely.


Once you’ve armed yourself with definite decisions on how you want to proceed with your garden, you can shop with confidence. You’ll know what you want, and what questions to ask to find it. You’ll have carefully researched all of the choices available and made the ones that are right for your garden.


“Gee, Mark, you’re sure a wet blanket,” you may be saying to yourself. “I go to my garden to relax and enjoy myself. Research and planning is what I do all day at school or at work. Now you’re telling me I have to do this for my garden too? Where’s the fun and relaxation in that?”


Okay, let me ask you a question. Where’s the fun in seeing the results of your hard work in planting and watering come up short year after year? How relaxing is it to see all your wonderful vegetables destroyed by the same disease or insect pest again and again, and not knowing why or what to do about it? Wouldn’t you much rather have a bumper crop? I agree that gardening is supposed to be fun but it also requires effort. Isn’t it more fun to see your effort actually rewarded?


It has been said that in life, if you don’t have a plan, you’ll end up working for someone who does. May I offer a similar statement for gardening? In gardening, if you don’t have a plan, you’ll be envying the harvest of someone who does.

Time for Some Garden Boldness



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.



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.




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.


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.



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


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

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.

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!



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.

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.

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.

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


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.