VEGETABLE MATTERS

Homebound? Plant Vegetables!

Working from home, I’m used to being homebound. And I like it. Not everyone feels this way, and now COVID-19 has forced this situation on many people.

For anyone who isn’t growing some vegetables, if there ever was a time to start a vegetable garden, it’s now. 

A garden will provide pleasant and interesting diversion, some exercise, a chance to be outdoors, the need for less frequent trips to the market, a good family project/activity, and some savings of food dollars. And the experience of — wonder of wonders — watching seeds sprout and grow into plants.

Growing vegetables is easy. Seeds have been practicing sprouting for millions of years. That’s what they do. Sprout. And plants have been doing likewise. 

Paying attention to some basic plant needs will make your garden even more successful. As far as soil, don’t worry about fertility or acidity for now. The most important consideration is …

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NOW, WITH COVID-19, ANOTHER REASON TO GARDEN

Not Necessarily Anti-Social

I’m feeling very lucky these days, lucky to be happy to stay home. An important way to deal with the current COVID-19 pandemic, both from a personal and a societal standpoint, is not to be out and about.

(If you are infected, you may not show any symptoms for awhile, or symptoms may be very mild. During that time, though, you could infect others. It’s estimated that, at present, every infected person infects 3 others before they get well or die. Those 3 other each infect 3 more, and so on; ten transmissions has almost 60,000 people infected. 

Social distancing brings that number of 3 new infections from each infected person down to a number of cases our health care system would be able to handle. So stay at home, if possible, maintain a six foot distance from other humans, be aware of contaminated objects and surfaces, and wash hands …

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INTO THE WOODS

Forest Garden Skeptic

“Forest gardening” or “agroforestry” has increasing appeal, and I can see why. You have a forest in which you plant a number of fruit and nut trees and bushes, and perennial vegetables, and then, with little further effort, harvest your bounty year after year. No annual raising of vegetable seedlings. Little weeding, No pests. Harmony with nature. (No need for an estate-size forest; Robert Hart, one of the fathers of forest gardening, forest gardened about 0.1 acre or 5000 square feet.)

Is this a forest garden?

Do I sound a bit skeptical? Yes, a bit. Except in tropical climates, forest gardening would provide only a nibble here and there, not a significant contribution to the diet in terms of vitamins and bulk. A major limitation in temperate climates is that most fruit and nut trees require abundant sunlight to remain healthy; the same goes for most vegetables.

The palette …

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ALL ABOUT ONIONS

An Ode

Onions, how do I plant thee? Let me count the ways. I plant thee just once for years of harvests if thou are the perennial potato or Egyptian onion. If thou are the pungent, but long-keeping, American-type onion, I sow thy seeds in the garden in the spring. And if I were to choose like most gardeners, I would plant thee in spring as those small bulbs called onion “sets.” (Apologies to E.B. Browning)

New Old Ways with Onions

Early March brings us to yet another way of growing onions: sowing the seeds indoors in midwinter. This was the “New Onion Culture” of a hundred and fifty years ago, and, according to a writer of the day, “by it the American grower is enabled to produce bulbs in every way the equal of those large sweet onions which are imported from Spain and other foreign countries.” This is the way to …

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Pruning, Flowers

Much of Pruning is About Renewal

Why am I spending so much time pruning these days? To keep plants manageable and healthy, of course. But also so that flowering and fruiting trees, shrubs, and vines keep on flowering and fruiting. “Renewal pruning” is what does this.

Pruning apple spur

As plant stems age, they — like all living things — become decrepit, no longer able to perform well. But any plant’s show or productivity can be kept up if stems that are too old are periodically lopped back, which promotes growth of new, young, fecund stems. That’s all there is to renewal pruning.

Ah, but the devil is in the details. One important detail is how old is “too old.” That depends on the flowering and fruiting habit of the plant.

Near one extreme would be pear trees. Along pear stems grow stubby growths, called “spurs,” which bear the tree’s flowers and fruits.

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AMUSING MUSINGS

(The following is excerpted from The Ever Curious Gardener: Using a Little Natural Science for a Much Better Garden, available here.)

Write the Name Right!

With little pressing, gardenwise, this time of year, why not muse about plant names — their common names and their sometimes intimidating-looking botanical names? Take the tree commonly named dawn redwood for example. ”Dawn redwood” admittedly reads more easily than this tree’s botanical name, Metasequoia glyptostroboides.

Wait! don’t stop reading! Instead, speak the Latin name aloud slowly: me-ta-see-KYOY-a GLYP-to-stro-boy-dees. It’s delightful, tonal poetry vocalized by a smooth dance of the lips, the tongue, and the upper pallete. 

Sensual pleasure aside, botanical names have a practical side. That woolly-leaved plant that sends up a candelabra of creamy yellow flowers each summer has a hundred or so common names. I call it mullein but other names include Aaron’s rod, Adam’s flannel, bullock’s lungwort, and velvet plant. This plant has only one botanical name, …

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Keep on Composting

One Problem in Cold Weather

I don’t let cold weather put the brakes on my composting, at least my role in it. For the bacteria, fungi, and other workers in my compost pile, it’s another story. Come cold temperatures, and their work come screeching to a halt or near halt (which depends on the degree of cold, the size of the pile, the mix of ingredients, and moisture).

But that’s no reason for me to abandon composting.

The main problem, as I see it, with composting in winter is not the workers not working. Pile up food scraps another organic materials winter, and composting will re-convene when warm weather arrives again in spring. The problem is that those food scraps offer a smorgasbord of tasty, easy calories for rodents. Which is not good.

(Lest you’re feeling fuzzy and warm to these furry creatures, a short list of what they could bring along to you …

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To Shred or Not To Shred, That is the Question

Organic Matters

My friend Margaret Roach (https://awaytogarden.com) is a top-notch gardener but not much of a tool maven. She recently said she considers me, and I quote, “the master of all tools and the king of compost” when she asked for my thoughts on compost shredders. (I blushed, but perhaps she was just softening me up for questioning. In fact, her tractor is better than mine.)

Of course I have thoughts about compost shredders.

Climb with me into my time machine and let’s travel back to the early 1970s, to Madison, Wisconsin, where you’ll find me working in my first garden. Like any good organic gardener, early on I appreciated the many benefits of organic materials in the garden, an appreciation bolstered by my having recently began my studies as a graduate student in soil science.

I was hauling all the organic materials I could lay hands on into my 700 square foot …

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Rosemary Tips

Secrets to Survival

I’ve killed plenty of rosemary plants over the years, typically in late winter. At least that’s when I’d discover that they were dead. Casually brushing against the plant would bring dried leaves raining to the floor.

Problem is that rosemary has naturally stiff leaves. They don’t wilt to broadcast that the plant is thirsty. And then it’s too late; the plant tells you it’s dead as it’s leaves flicker down.

Perhaps like you, I knew that rosemary is native to the Mediterranean region. The picture in my mind is of the plants thriving on a sun-drenched, dry, rocky hillside in poor soil. True enough, except below ground the roots are reaching deep or wide for water. Which my potted plants can’t do.

Following this latter realization — duh! — I haven’t lost a rosemary plant in years. The secret to keeping a potted rosemary plant happy is to keep it well …

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I Think My Vegetables are Nutritious

Nutrient Declines in Fruits and Vegetables

Growing vegetables is really quite simple. You put the seeds or transplants into sunny ground, you water and weed, and then you harvest your bounty. For that small effort, you can put on your plate food that is organically, sustainably, and (very) locally grown. Perhaps even richer in nutrients than food you can buy.

Studies over the past 15 or so years have documented a general decline in nutrients in our fruits and vegetables. Some people contend that our soils have been mined for their nutrients, worn out from poor farming, and therefore no longer able to provide us with nutritious food. The cure, according to these “experts,” is to sprinkle mineral-rich rock powders on the soil to replenish and rebalance that which has been lost. It all sounds very logical.

You might have sensed a big “but” looming. Here it is: But . . . further …

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