STIRRING MY BLOOD, CLEARING (PARTS OF) THE MEADOW

Nearing Influence

What struck me most about Scott Nearing was his sturdy appearance, arms hanging loosely from broad shoulders, his near perfect teeth, and the deeply creviced wrinkles of his face. He was 91 years old. Looks aside, his influence on me was deep despite the brevity of my visit.Scott Nearing was a professor of economics, a political activist, a pacifist, a vegetarian and an advocate of simple living. And a gardener. For many of these reasons, he was almost a cult figure back in the 1970s when I, a young man, visited him. He was then known mostly for his book Living the Good Life. I had read the book, and decided to drive 1,000 miles from Madison, Wisconsin to show up on his farm, unannounced, in Harborside, Maine.

I thought of that visit today as I was swinging my scythe. Would I have been out in the field this morning …

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HOT KNOWLEDGE

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

More knowledge makes for a better gardener. That’s what I had in mind with my most recent book, The Ever Curious Gardener, excerpted here:

With hot weather here today, and soon to be a regular occurance, I pity my plants. While I can jump into some cool water, sit in front of a fan, or at least duck into the shade, my plants are tethered in place no matter what the weather. And don’t think that plants enjoy searing sunlight. High temperatures cause plants to dry out and consume stored energy faster than it can be replenished. Stress begins at about 86 degrees Fahrenheit, with leaves beginning to cook at about 20 degrees above that.

One recourse plants have in hot weather is to cool themselves by transpiring water. Transpiration, which is the loss of water from leaves, can cool a plant by about 5 …

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LIBERATED, AT LAST

Exposée

My garden was liberated yesterday, the soil freed at last. That’s when I peeled back and folded up the black tarps that had been covering some of the vegetable beds since early April. My beautiful soil finally popped into view.

Covering the ground was for the garden’s own good. “Tarping,” as this technique is called, gets the growing season off to a weed-less start. The black cover warms the ground to awaken weed seeds. They sprout, then die as they use up their energy reserves which, without light, can’t be replenished and built up. (I first learned of this technique in J. M. Fortier’s book The Market Gardener.)

Tarping is very different from the much more common way of growing plants in holes in black plastic film, even if one purpose of the soil covering, in both cases, is to snuff out weeds. Black plastic film is left in place all season …

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PERENNIAL VEGETABLES

Hablitzia: What a Name!

At last night’s appropriately social distanced “zoom” dinner with my daughter, she commented on how tasty my salad looked. “All home grown,” I replied, and held up to the computer screen a leaf of one of the major contributors to my bowl of greenery, Caucasian mountain spinach (Hablitzia tamnoides). “Looks like some leaf you just plucked off a tree,” says she. Yes, it did, but it was as tasty and as tender as any leaf of regular garden spinach.
 
It’s with good reason that the two “spinaches” are so similar: They’re both in the same family, Amaranthacea, also kin to beets, chard, quinoa, lamb’s quarters, and pigweed.

Caucasian mountain spinach has it over conventional garden spinach in a number of ways, most significantly its being a perennial. I planted it last spring and don’t plan on doing so ever again. Not that making new plants would be difficult. They …

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I MAKE TREES

Here are 3 Easy, Fun Grafts I Made Yesterday

Finally, the weather cooperated and I got around to doing some grafting. I could have done it a couple of weeks ago, as I had planned, but I’m blaming cooler weather for the delay. Not that I couldn’t have done it back then, but things chug along more quickly in warmer weather, so I waited.

Apple tree on very dwarfing rootstock

I’m going to describe 3 easy grafts I did yesterday. Which one I chose to do depended on the size of the rootstock on which I was grafting. The scions, which are the varieties I’m grafting on the rootstocks, are all one-year-old stems 6 to 12 inches long and more or less pencil-thick (remember what pencils are?). They have been stored, wrapped to prevent drying out, in the refrigerator so that they are more asleep than the awakening rootstocks.

The principles that …

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PRUNING FOR BEAUTY, FUN, AND FLAVOR

Yew Love

Mundane as she may be, I love yew (not mispelled, but the common name for Taxus species, incidentally vocalized just like “you”). Hardy, green year ‘round, long-lived, and available in many shapes and sizes, what’s not to love? Perhaps that it’s so commonly planted, pruned in dot-dash designs to grace the foundations in front of so many homes.

Still, I love her. For one thing, Robin Hood’s bow was fashioned from a yew branch (English yew, T. baccata, in this case). Two other species — Pacific yew (T. brevifolia) and Canadian yew (T. canadensis) — are sources of taxol, and anti-cancer drug.

At a very young age, I became intimate with yew bushes surrounding our home’s front stoop, on which my brother and I would often play. Yew’s red berries, with an exposed dark seed in each of their centers, would give the effect of being stared at by so many …

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Spring: A Manic Time in the Garden

The Season’s Ups and Downs

To me, spring can be a manic time of year. On the one hand, no tree is more beautiful or festive than a peach tree loaded with pink blossoms. I’d say almost the same for apples, pears, and plums, their branches laden with clusters of white blossoms.

And it’s such a hopeful season. If all goes well, those blossoms will morph, in coming months, into such delicacies as Hudson’s Golden Gem and Pitmaston Pineapple apples, and Magness, Seckel, and Concorde pears. My peach tree was grown from seed, so has no name. With all this beauty and anticipation, I can periodically forget the pandemic that’s raging beyond my little world here.

But even as my eyes feast on the scene and I forget about the pandemic, I can’t forget about the weather’s ups and downs. Specifically, the temperature: Frosty weather has the potential to turn blossoms to mush …

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I GET MY KICKS

Roots Do It

Some people get their kicks from hang gliding; some from racing cars. Call me mundane, but I get a similar thrill, minus the fear, from seeing cuttings of some new varieties of figs that I am propagating take root. The cool thing about hang gliding, racing cars, and rooting cuttings is also the sense of satisfaction you get from doing it well.

The current batch of cuttings provides special satisfaction because the method I used, gleaned from the web (see, for instance, what turns up with a search for “fig pops”), permit me to check and observe progress frequently. Usually, I stick a cutting into a rooting mix and learn that rooting has taken place by the resistance of the stick to an upward tug or by roots escaping through the drainage hole in the bottom of the pot. With fig pops, I get to see each cuttings wiry, …

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PINING FOR PINES

More Than Just Pignolis and Piñons

Pine trees first appeared on earth 170 million years ago amidst lush, steaming forests of tree ferns and the footprints of dinosaurs. In time, human footsteps replaced those of the dinosaurs. Pines and humans have been intimately associated ever since. The trees have been worshipped; the cones have represented symbols of fertility; the pitch has sealed ship hulls; and the wood has been used for construction and for paper.

Korean pine

Throughout this long association, seeds of certain pines have been part of our diets. The flavorful seeds of native pines have a long history of use as “nutmeat” by the people of Siberia, the Himalayas, southern Europe, and the American Southwest. Look into almost any Italian grocery store in America, and you’ll find tempting cookies studded with pignolis, which are seeds of the Italian Stone pine (Pinus pinea). Pine nuts are the nut for …

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