Yearly Archives: 2015

THE CHILL BANK IS FILLED?

But Do I Want Flowers Now?

    The season has been “chill,” literally and figuratively, the former predicted by weather experts based on a this year’s strong El Niño.    Because of El Niño, the West was pounded with rain; here in the Northeast, except for an occasional night, temperatures have been mild over the past few months, much milder than I remember for any other fall. It is those chilly, but not frigid, temperatures — in the range from 30 to 45 degrees Fahrenheit — that signal to plants that winter is over and it’s safe to begin unfolding flower buds or pushing new shoots from dormant buds. A certain number of hours within this temperature range does the trick, typically about a thousand hours, the exact requirements varying from plant to plant. Temperatures below 30 or above 45 degrees don’t contribute to the needed hours, can even set the clock …

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OTHER APPROACHES TO SUSTAINABLE VEGETABLES

“Grass-fed Vegetables”

    With gardening activities grinding almost to a halt, I can take a breath and reflect on the past season — one of the best seasons ever. Of course, I’ll “blame” the bountifulness mostly on the weather. Maybe I’m also becoming a better gardener. (Thomas Jefferson wrote, “Though an old man, I am a young gardener.”)    I wrote a couple of weeks ago about soil management here on the farmden. It’s simple and possibly sustainable. For the vegetable gardens: no digging, permanent beds, and an inch depth of homemade compost annually slathered onto those beds. For trees and shrubs, mulches of compost, wood chips or leaves, supplemented, if necessary, with soybean or alfalfa meal for additional nitrogen.    My September trip to Maine afforded me two other perspectives on soil management. The first came from a presentation by, and conversation with, Jim Kovaleski, who farms in northern Maine. His system …

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FLOWERS ALL WINTER

Mine Aren’t Frilly

    And now, with a bow to my feminine side, a little something about African violets, houseplants that have traditionally been thought of as old lady’s flowers. Still, I’ll admit it, I like African violets. They offer so much for what little effort I make in growing them.    Mainly, what they offer is flowers, and at a time — now and throughout fall and winter — when flowers are at a premium. I have only one variety, but if I was really into African violets, I could be choosing plants with white, pink, blue, or purple flowers, or blue with white picotee, or white blushed pink, or . . . any one of a number of flower colors and color combinations. And then there are varieties with ruffled, scalloped, quilted, or variegated leaves. And plants that range from few-inch wide miniatures to over a foot-wide large.    My African …

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IT’S A GAS!

 Last Tomatoes & Peppers

   Late fall, and my thoughts turn naturally to . . . ethylene! You remember ethylene from high school chemistry. A simple hydrocarbon with 2 carbon atoms double-bonded together with 2 hydrogen atoms attached to each of the carbon’s remaining two free bonds. C2H4. It’s a gas, literally, and an important industrial chemical transmuted into such products as polyethylene trash bags, PVC plumbing pipes, and polystyrene packing “peanuts.”    Oh, I forgot, this is supposed to be about plants. Ethylene is synthesized in plants and is a plant hormone with — as is characteristic of hormones — dramatic effects in small amounts.    I think of ethylene as I sliced the last of the season’s fresh garden tomatoes for a sandwich a couple of weeks ago. Note that I wrote “fresh,” not “fresh-picked.” The tomatoes had been picked almost two months prior from vines I was cutting down and …

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VIRTUAL TRIP TO MEDITERRANEAN

Goodbye to Figs (For Now)

   With yellowing leaves and dropping leaves, my greenhouse figs are looking sickly. But all is well in figdom. A common misconception is that figs are tropical trees. They’re not. They’re subtropical, generally tolerating cold down to near 20°F.. And their leaves are deciduous, naturally yellowing and dropping this time of year, just like maples, ashes, and other deciduous trees.    My greenhouse thermostat kicks on when the temperature inside drops to about 35°F. Daytime temperatures depend on sunlight; they might soar to 80° before awakening the exhaust fan on a sunny day in January, or hover around 35°F. on an overcast day that month. All of which is to say that the weather inside my greenhouse matches pretty well that of Barcelona and Rome, with hot dry summers and cool, moist winters. And figs grow very well in those Mediterranean climates. And go dormant.    I …

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THE UGLY, THE TASTY, & THE BEAUTIFUL

Close Your Eyes, If Necessary

   “A crabby looking, brownish green truncated little spheroid of unsympathetic appearance.” That’s how a British writer of almost 75 years ago described one of my favorite fruits, medlar (Mespilus germanica). True, the fruit is no beauty to some eyes. To me, the fruit has an authentic, old-fashioned, unvarnished look to it, like that of a small, russeted apple whose calyx end (opposite the stem) is flared open.

Medlars, ready for harvest

    Medlar is truly an old-fashioned fruit, whose popularity peaked in the Middle Ages. Chaucer mentioned it, indecorously referring to it as “open arse.” Even Shakespeare got his digs in, more discretely call it “open et cetera.”    This past season was a good season for fruits, including medlar. Yesterday, I harvested the crop from the leafless tree. But no, I couldn’t yet sink my teeth into one. Besides its odd appearance, medlar has one …

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SUSTAINABLE DIRT

 Dirt is Free, Almost

   Sustainability is such a buzzword these days. Okay, I’ll join the crowd and say, “I’m growing fruits and vegetables sustainably.” But is this true. Can they really be grown sustainably, that is, in such a way to be able to continue forever?    As any plant grows, it sucks nutrients from the soil. Harvest the plant and you take those nutrients off-site. Eventually, those nutrients need replenishment. That’s what fertilizer does, but spreading fertilizer — whether organic or chemical — is hardly sustainable. Organic fertilizers, such as soybean meal, need to be grown, harvested (taking nutrients off site), processed, bagged, and transported. Chemical fertilizers need to be mined and processed, or manufactured, and then also bagged and transported.    About half the volume of most soils is mineral, the rest being air, water, and organic matter. The mineral portion derives from rocks that, with time, temperature changes, and …

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SWEET ANNIE AND SWEET GRAPES

Annie Helps the World

    Sweet Annie (Artemisia annua): such an unassuming name. Likewise for the plant itself, with its ferny, but not distinctive, foliage, and flowers not worth a second look. You’d hardly peg this plant as a player in global health and global warming.    But look within the leaves and you find artemisin, a biologically active compound that has contributed to Sweet Annie’s figuring into Chinese herbal medicine for the past 2,000 years. Artemisin was isolated from the plant in the 1970s by Chinese scientist Tu Youyou, for which she  shared a Nobel Prize. Sweet Annie’s uses in Chinese medicine — qinghao in Chinese — run from treating asthma to skin diseases to stomach pain to rheumatism to  . . . but not all such claims have been experimentally verified (and Sweet Annie could have bad side effects).    The most widespread and thoroughly documented use of Sweet Annie …

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NUTS OVER CHESTNUTS

American Chestnuts, Gone but not Dead

The chestnuts are big and fat and tasty — obviously not American chestnuts. I harvest so many chestnuts, also big and fat, each year from my Colossal variety trees that I never bothered to look beneath my Marigoule trees. Marigoule is planted further from my house than Colossal.

Marigoule chestnuts

    American chestnuts, Castanea dentata, are small but very tasty, or so I have read and heard. I’ve never tasted one. The trees were devastated by a blight throughout the early 20th century. Previous to blight, the trees were so numerous in our eastern forests that it was said that a squirrel leaping from one chestnut branch to another could travel from Maine to Georgia without touching the ground.    Something like 40 billion trees died to the ground. But roots survive, sprouting new shoots each year to provide a host to keep the blight fungus …

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CLEAN UP, THEN SHAVE

 Out with the Old (Plants)

   Ostensibly, I’m clearing away old plant debris from the vegetable and flower gardens to spare next year’s garden a full onslaught of overwintering disease and insect pests, and so that, come spring, the soil is ready and waiting for seeds and transplants. I’ll admit it, though: I like the garden looking neat going into late autumn. As Charles Dudley Warner wrote in his book My Summer in the Garden (1889), “the closing scenes need not be funereal.”    As of this writing, frost has not yet struck; as of your reading, it probably will have. Following that event, I will remove all dead plants. I’ll grasp the tops of smaller plants, such as marigolds and basil, give them a twist to sever the smaller roots, then lift and toss the plant into a waiting garden cart. If I tried to do that with old pepper, tomato, …

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