HAVE SOME SYMPATHY

Soil That is Too Good?

 I don’t expect to elicit much sympathy from moaning about the problem with my soil here on the farmden; the problem is that it’s too good. Wait! Don’t roll your eyes or, worse, stop reading. Allow me to present my case.

The setting: A valley cut through with a small river (the Wallkill River) in New York’s Hudson Valley. River bottom soil, specifically young alluvial soil, rich in nutrients, a silty clay loam with perfect drainage. Also naturally rich in nutrients. No rocks.

So what’s the problem? One problem is too much growth from plants that I’m not cultivating — weeds, everything from stilt grass and garlic mustard to wild blackberries and poison ivy to ash and cherry trees. Every minute of every day they are making the most of this rich ground and trying to insinuate themselves into my plantings. They creep into the edges of the …

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COMPOST, LOOKING AHEAD, LOOKING BACK

Spring Readiness

  I’m frantically getting ready for spring. A large portion of that readying means making compost. Compost piles assembled now, while temperatures are still relatively warm, have plenty of time to heat up right to their edges, quickly cooking and killing most resident weed seeds, pests, and diseases.
I like to think of my compost pile as a pet (really, many pets, the population of which changes over time as the compost ripens) that needs, as do our ducks, dogs and cat, food, water, and air. Today I’ll feeding my pet — my compost pet — corn stalks, lettuce plants that have gone to seed, rotten tomatoes and peppers, and other garden refuse. Plenty of organic materials are available to feed compost piles this time of year.

  In case you’re wondering, no, I’m not taking a close look at each leaf, stalk, and fruit to make sure it’s free of …

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AN ANCIENT FRUIT, STILL POPULAR

You’ve caught me at a good time. I’m just now dipping my toes into figdom, and in the next few days expect to be swimming in a sea of fresh, ripe figs.

You’ve never tasted a fresh, ripe fig? Don’t judge them by what you might buy in the market. Ripe figs are very perishable so for commercial purposes must be harvested slightly underripe. But figs don’t ripen at all after harvest, which is why market figs are but a shadow of the real thing.

Fresh, ripe figs are ubiquitous in California, Florida, and other mild winter regions, so perhaps are ho-hum to those living in those parts. Not here in New York’s Hudson Valley though, where winter temperatures dipping to minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit are no surprise!

Five Ways with Figs

I — and you —can grow figs in cold climates by one of five techniques I describe in my new book, hot …

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SWEET CORN OP-ED

Ah, the Good Ole’ Days

The good ol’ days seemed to have had snowier winters, greener grass, and more toothsome apples. Perhaps it was so. One thing those good ol’ days definitely did not have was sweeter sweet corn. Only in the past few decades have plant breeders found new genes that shoot the sugar content of sweet corn sky-high.

Papoon corn, the first recorded variety of sweet corn, probably originated as a chance mutation of a single gene of field corn. That gene, the so-called sugary gene (abbreviated su), brought the sugar level in corn from four percent up to ten percent.

We gardeners have tried to make the most of that ten percent ever since the time when 18th century Plymouth, Massachusetts gardeners first grew Papoon corn. We pick an ear just when each kernel is creamy and as sweet as can be. Since sugars in corn start changing to starch …

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BEAUTIFUL DESIGN AND UGLY BLIGHT

Who Made This Garden?

I visited a most beautiful garden this week, one in which all the elements of garden design were deftly combined. At ground level groundcovers presented pleasing and harmonious shades of green and varying leaf textures. Leafy plants, lichens, and mosses all contributed to the symphony, the whole scene knit together by large slabs of underlying rock.

In places, low-growing junipers and deciduous shrubs and trees brought the garden up from ground level. Particularly striking was a very large boulder atop of which grew some trees whose exposed roots embraced the boulder before reaching to the ground for water and nourishment. Green moss growing on the boulder erased any starkness from this vignette.

Shakkei, or “borrowed scenery,” an important element in Japanese garden design, played an important role. Distant mountain peaks created a dramatic backdrop in some views.

This garden also utilized what I like to call “luscious landscaping,” that is, …

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MORE THAN JUST PEACHES AND PLUMS HERE

Preiselbeere, Kokemomo, Puolukka, Partridgeberry, Cowberry, Rock cranberry — or Lingonberry, They’re All the Same Fruit.

  Besides enjoying the season’s plums and peaches, I’m also enjoying a few uncommon fruits. Uncommon now. These fruits have been enjoyed by humans somewhere at sometime, just not extensively now. 

The most familiar of these to most would be lingonberries (Vaccinium vitis-ideae). As jam, in jars, that is, unless you’re Scandinavian, where this fruit is very popular harvested from the wild and then used in drinks, sauces, and pancakes.

Lingonberry, which is native throughout colder regions of the northern hemisphere, is often compared with our native cranberry. I think that does lingonberry an injustice. Both are diminutive plants, spreading as their stems root where they touch the ground, so could be edible groundcovers. Both are evergreen, but while lingonberry’s dainty leaves have the same green gloss as those of holly, and retain it all winter, cranberry leaves …

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COVER CROP CONFUSION

How Much Soil Organic Matter?

In last week’s blog I kept jumping the fence about cover crops. First I extolled their benefits. Then I wrote that they’re probably unnecessary in my heavily composted ground and possibly to blame for poor growth of some corn and tomatoes. Finally, I wound up stating that I do grow some cover crops anyway. No wonder I caused some confusion.
All this prompted one reader, Peter, to comment with some specific questions that might also be of interest to some of you. I will now try to answer them.

His first question was: “How is percentage of organic matter in the soil determined.” “Organic matter” is carbon compounds; as such they can be oxidized, and when this happens they are lost from the soil as carbon dioxide and water. Microorganisms do this naturally in any soil as they feed on organic matter, in so doing releasing minerals associated …

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CLOTHE THE GROUND

Something Good for the Soil

Soil has been called “the skin of the earth.” That “skin” nourishes much of life here, so let’s take care of it. Which is one reason for cover crops, that is, plants grown not directly for us, but specifically to maintain or improve soil health. Typical cover crops include rye, oats, buckwheat, clovers, and other mostly grains or legumes.
The most obvious benefit of a cover crop is the protection it affords the soil from wind and rain, either of which can carry away the most fertile surface layer. Also protection from temperature extremes. Another benefit is that cover crops can suppress weeds. Less obvious is cover crop plants’ ability to grab onto and bring back up to the surface layers nutrients that rain might otherwise wash beyond roots into the groundwater.

Buckwheat cover crop at Chanticleer

Some effects are even more subtle. Substances oozing from plant …

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SENSUAL THINGS, AND WATER

Heady Nights

It’s difficult to work outside in the garden these days, especially in early evening. No, not because of the heat. Not because of mosquitos either. The difficulty comes from the intoxicating aroma that wafts into the air each evening from the row of lilies just outside the east side of my vegetable garden.

These aren’t daylilies, which are mildly and pleasantly fragrant. Wild, orange daylilies are common along roadways and yellow and hybrid daylilies, often yellow, are common in mall parking lots. (That’s not at all a dis’; the plants are tough and beautiful, and I’ve planted them also.) They’re also not tiger lilies, which lack aroma and sport downward turned, dark red speckled orange flowers with recurved petals. 

My fragrant lilies are so-called oriental hybrid lilies, which are notable for their large flowers and strong fragrance. My favorite among those I grow is Casa Blanca. The flowers are large and …

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