This far north, there’s only a little to do garden-wise this time of year, so let’s sit back and ponder the wonders of plant life. Mycorrhiza, to be specific. Wait! Don’t stop reading! Sure, the word “mycorrhiza” appears intimidating. But mycorrhiza are important in your garden, in the forest, to your trees and shrubs, maybe even to your houseplants.
First, the pronunciation. Say: my-ko-RY-za. It sounds nicer than it looks.
Now let’s take the word apart to see what it means. “Myco” comes from the Greek word meaning “fungus” and “rhiza” from the word meaning “root.” Mycorrhiza, then, is a “fungus-root,” an association between a plant root and a fungus so intimate that the pair has been given a name as if it was a single organism.
Mycorrhizal blueberry root
The association is symbiotic, beneficial to both parties. One end of the fungus infects a plant root, …
Beautiful. Floating down from the sky. A white blanket of “poor man’s manure.” That’s what gardeners and farmers have called snow.
In fact, snow does take some nitrogen from the air and bring it down to ground level for plant use in spring. Not that much, though. Just a few shovelfuls of real manure could supply the same amount of nitrogen as a blanket of snow.
Mostly, what I like about the 15 inch deep fluffy whiteness now on the ground is the way it insulates what’s beneath it. Fluctuating winter temperatures wreak havoc on plants, coaxing them awake and asleep and awake and asleep as air temperatures go up and down and up and down. Each time plants are awakened, they become more susceptible to subsequent cold, the whole problem exacerbated with borderline hardy plants.
Anticipating cold weather and snow, last fall I cut back a cardoon …
A bit of chemistry might be good for your compost. Just a bit. Actually, we mostly need to deal with only two familiar elements of the 100 plus known ones. These two elements are carbon and nitrogen, and they are the ones for which the “bugs” that do the work of making compost are most hungry.
“Work” is too strong a word, though, because these composting bugs do nothing more than eat. Nonetheless, a balanced diet — one balanced mostly with respect to carbon and nitrogen — does these bugs, the composting microorganisms, good.
This time of year, the microorganisms’ smorgasbord is set with an especially wide array and abundance of carbon-rich foods. You can identify these foods because they are old plants or plant parts. As such, they are mostly brown and mostly dry. Autumn leaves, for example. Other carbon-rich foods include wood chips, straw, sawdust, hay, and …
For the past week or so I’ve been getting parts of the garden ready for next year. Too soon, you say? No, says I.
A bed of corn and a bed of bush beans are finished for the season. Not that that’s the end of either vegetable. I planted four beds of corn, each two weeks after the previous, and the two remaining beds will be providing ears of fresh Golden Bantam — a hundred year old variety with rich, corny flavor — well into September.
The bed of bush beans will be superseded by a bed of pole beans, planted at the same time. Bush beans start bearing early but peter out after a couple of harvests. Pole beans are slower to get going, but once they do, they keep up a quickening pace until slowed, then stopped, by cold weather.
Manure or not, it’s compost time. I like to make enough compost through summer so that it can get cooking before autumn’s cold weather sets in. Come spring, I give the pile one turn and by the midsummer the black gold is ready to slather onto vegetable beds or beneath choice trees and shrubs.
I haven’t gotten around to getting some manure for awhile so I just went ahead this morning and started building a new pile without manure. It’s true: You do not need manure to make compost. Any pile of organic materials will decompose into compost given enough time.
My piles are a little more deliberate than mere heaps of organic materials. For one thing, everything goes into square bins each about 4′ on a side and built up, along with the materials within, Lincoln-log style from notched 1 x 6 manufactured wood decking. Another nice feature of this …
I’m a big fan of drip irrigation, an irrigation system by which water is frequently, but slowly, applied to the soil. It’s better for plants because soil moisture is replenished closer to the rate at which they drink it up. With a sprinkler, soil moisture levels vacillate between feast and famine.
Because of the efficient use of water, drip is also better for the environment, typically using 60 percent less water than sprinkling.
And drip is better for me — and you, if your garden or farmden is dripped. By pinpointing water to garden plants, large spaces between plants stay dry so there’s less weeds for us to pull. And best of all, with an inexpensive timer at the hose spigot, I turn on the system in April and then pretty much forget about watering until the end of the growing season.
Asparagus season has ended here now, after more than two months of harvest. From now till they yellow in autumn, the green fronds will gather sunlight which, along with nutrients and water, will pack away energy into the roots, energy that will fuel next year’s harvest.
In addition to dealing with the weather, the plants have to contend with weeds. I have to admit, despite being the author of the book Weedless Gardening, that my asparagus bed each year is overrun with weeds, mostly two species(!) of oxalis, creeping Charlie, and various grasses. Also weeds parading as asparagus, self-sown plants. This, even though I planted all male varieties. Any batch of male plants typically has a certain, low percentage of female plants. (Still, my garden is weed-less even if it’s not weedless.)
I always wondered about the recommendation to plant asparagus crowns in deep trenches that are gradually filled …
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 …
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 …
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 …