I’ve heard wizened gardeners boast at how many years they’ve been gardening, impressing newbies with their unspoken knowledge. I’ve never been much impressed by anyone’s years gardening as an indicator of horticultural prowess.
I speak from experience: I’ve swung a scythe for many decades, which may lead others to believe me to be a long time expert scyther. Not so. A few years ago, after 25 years of scything, I learned I was using it incorrectly. (Unfortunately, earlier on I had the hubris or ignorance to describe it and its use for a magazine article which included a sepia-toned photograph of me swinging it — wrong, I subsequently learned).
On the other hand, as a newbie gardener I had access to one of the best agricultural libraries in the country (I was in graduate school in agriculture at the time), and voraciously devoured its holdings. After only a couple …
(The following is adapted from my most recent book, The Ever Curious Gardener: Using a Little Natural Science for a Much Better Garden, available from the usual outlets or, signed, from here.)
OBSERVE AND ASK
Charles Darwin did some of his best work lying on his belly in a grassy meadow. Not daydreaming, but closely observing the lives and work of earthworms, eventually leading to the publication of his final book, The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms. He calculated that these (to some humans) lowly creatures brought 18 tons of nutrient-rich castings to the surface per acre per year, in so doing tilling and aerating the soil while rendering the nutrients more accessible for plant use.
We gardeners can also take a more scientific perspective in our gardens without the need for digital readouts, flashing LEDs, spiraling coils of copper tubing, or other bells and whistles of modern …
Now I feel foolish buying olives. I recently returned from visiting Israel where there were olive trees everywhere. Irrigated plots of greenery thrived in the broad expanses of the otherwise grays and browns of the desert. Trees popped up here and there in backyards and front yards of homes in streets lined with apartment buildings as well as along cobblestone streets in rural areas. Trees were even prominent in city parks, either as self-sown wildings in less tended areas or as formal plantings.
And oodles of ripe or ripening olives were clinging to branches or littering the ground. Need some hand lotion? Just pluck a ripe olive, squeeze it gently, and spread out the fresh oil that drips onto your hand.
Want some olives for eating? Not so fast. Fresh-picked ripe or green olives are extremely bitter (due to oleuropein). That bitterness is removed with brine, multiple changes of water or …
I’m stepping outside this sunny afternoon for a walk around the farmden, pad and pen in hand to evaluate some of this season’s goings on to make notes for next season. Not that the season is anywhere near over yet. I expect to be out and about with pitchfork, harvest basket, and garden cart at least into December. But no surprises are expected at this point.
Starting in the north vegetable garden: tomatoes. Over the years I’ve honed the number of varieties here from too many to our half-dozen or so favorites.
The goal is top-notch flavor and reasonable productivity. San Marzano, which is very productive, might taste like cotton fresh but it’s a must for the best-tasting cooked tomatoes. The San Marzanos get their dedicated canning jars, but also good canned is Blue Beech and, great for fresh eating also, are Amish Paste and Anna Russian.
I once grew a rose, Bibi Maizoon, that I considered to be as close to perfection as any rose could be. Its blooms, that is. They were cup-shaped and filled with loosely defined row upon row of pastel pink petals, nothing like the pointed, stiff blossoms of hybrid tea roses. Completing the old-fashioned feel of Bibi Maizoon blossoms is the flowers’ strong, fruity fragrance.
(In case you don’t know who Bibi Maizoon was, she was a member of the royal family of Oman. The Bibi Maizoon rose was bred by British rose breeder David Austin.)
The bush itself was as imperfect as the blossom were perfect. Where to begin? For starters, the thin stems could hardly support the corpulent blossoms. Couldn’t, in fact, so the blossoms usually dangle upside down. Upside down blossoms were not that bad because I considered Bibi best when cut for vases indoors to …
The tumbled over Red Russian kale seedling brought back old memories. It was like seeing the work of an old friend — or, rather, an old enemy. It’s been so long since I’ve seen a cutworm at work in my garden that I couldn’t even get angry at it.
Cutworm and friend’s broccoli
I scratched around at the base of the plant to try and find the bugger. Too late, fortunately for him or her because its fate would then have been a two-finger crush. The cutworm in a friend’s garden I visited last spring was not so lucky.
The bad thing about cutworms are that they chop down young, tender seedlings. At that age, seedlings’ roots lack the energy to grow new leaves; the plants die. (I wonder how the cutworm benefits from lopping back the seedling; the felled plant usually doesn’t get eaten.)
With weeding, harvesting, watering, swimming, kayaking, golf, and biking to do this time of year (not that I do all these), why would anyone spend time making compost? For one or both of two reasons, that’s why.
First, as an environmentally sound way to get rid of so-called “garbage.” Landfilled, the valuable nutrients and organic matter locked up within old broccoli stalks, rotten tomatoes, even old cotton clothes are taken out of our planet’s nutrient cycle almost forever. Landfilling, to me, also disrespects the soil, that thin skin over the Earth that supports much of life here.
Once Levi’s, now almost compost
This leads to the second reason to make compost now. I require plenty of compost for my gardens so need to scrounge every bit of waste organic material as it becomes available. Even go out of my way to haul it in. Or create it.
For many gardeners, spring is the critical gardening season, what with preparing the soil, starting seedlings, setting out transplants, pruning, watching and staying prepared for late frosts and . . . In my view, right now is just as crucial, and for an equal number of reasons.
True, a 90 degree day with high humidity doesn’t exactly pull you out to the garden to putter around in blazing sunlight. But early mornings around here are mostly cool, calm, and beautiful.
Much of what needs to be done is regular maintenance. Pruning tomatoes, for instance. I train my tomato plants to stakes and single stems, which allows me to set plants only 18 inches apart and harvest lots of fruit by utilizing the third dimension: up. At least weekly, I snap (if early morning, when shoots are turgid) or prune (later in the day, when shoots are flaccid) off all suckers and tie …
Over many years of gardening at the same location, I’ve seen pests come and go. And if they didn’t actually leave, they at least didn’t live up to the most feared expectations.A few years ago, for instance, late blight disease ravaged tomato plants up and down the east coast. The disease overwinters in the South and normally hitchhikes up north if temperatures are cool, humidity is high, and winds blow in just the right direction. That year it got a free ride here on plants sold in “big box” stores. I no longer consider late blight any more of a problem than it was before that high alert summer.
A few years ago, I was ready to say goodbye to my lily plants when I first heard of and then saw red lily beetles crawling and eating their way across my lilies’ leaves. They’ve …