Tree roots in the Adirondacks, growing over boulder


Something to Do

During a sunny, cold day a few years ago, I was itching for something to do outdoors. I already had piled mulch on top of last year’s mulch beneath the blueberries, the vegetable plot was weed-free, and I usually defer pruning until later in winter. So what was there to do? I decided to clear some “forest.”

Actually, the forest was one mulberry tree, a seedling that had grown up in the wrong place, but which I had neglected for a few years until its trunk had a girth of  eight inches. I had cut back the top the summer previous to at least slow its growth. But it was time to emulate on a small scale one of the tasks of the early settlers here: digging out the stump.

Tree roots ni the Adirondacks, growing over boulder

Tree roots in the Adirondacks

Before I began, I gathered up what I would need for the job: a spade whose blade I sharpened with a file; a pruning saw; a pry bar; and some fill soil. But first let’s backtrack a moment. When I lopped back the tree the previous summer, I had cut off all the branches and left a single trunk about five feet tall. A length of trunk provides a handy lever for working a stump out of the soil. Read more


How Cold? How Humid?

Do you want to send a really good gift to a really good gardener? (Perhaps that gardener is you.) Problem is that most really good gardeners have pretty much everything they need except for expendables like string, seeds, or potting soil (unless they make their own. Don’t despair; I’ve come up with a few items many really good gardeners with (just about) everything they need might find useful.

At the top of my list is a nifty, little device with the odd name of Sensorpush. It’s not much bigger than an inch square pillbox, less than 3/4 inch thick, that you place wherever you want to monitor temperature and humidity — from your smartphone, via bluetooth.

Sensorpush, graph of the week's outdoor conditions

Sensorpush, graph of the week’s outdoor conditions

Sensorpush, screen shot of current readings

Sensorpush, screen shot of current readings

Couple it with the WiFi Gateway and temperature and humidity can be monitored from anywhere on your smartphones. I periodically checked on my greenhouse and the outdoor temperatures here in New York when I was recently thousands of miles away in Israel.

SensorPush in greenhouse

SensorPush in greenhouse

My original use for the Sensorpush was for the greenhouse, to alert me, which it can do, if  temperatures drop to a minimum that I set at 37°F. I now have another, outdoors, which alerted me to the one late frost (28°F) last spring which wiped out the crop on my peach tree. I may also put ones in my freezer and walk-in cooler. 

All past information is available graphically and can be downloaded to a computer.

Water is Important

Much, much more low-tech is my new favorite watering can. It’s not any old blue watering can, it’s the French Blue Watering Can. It has everything I would look for in a watering can: hold lots of water, in this case 3 gallons; good balance when being carried and in use; and water exiting in a stream that’s gentle but not too slow. For optimum balance, get two, one for each arm.
Watering can, French blue
Although the French Blue Watering Can now beats out my previously favorite Haw’s 2 gallon, zinc plated cans, which are, admittedly, more visually elegant, Haw’s is still in the running with their beautiful, copper-enameled, 2 quart watering can that I use mostly indoors. For indoors, it’s a good volume, and the long spout can reach in among plants for more pinpoint watering once its rose is removed.
Watering can, green Haws

Books, of Course

I can’t help but mention books. Those that I mentioned last week were general categories; the really good gardener has, of course, some very specific interests and expertises. And there are books for these (I’ll stay away from my special interests to avoid having to mention, once again, any of the books that I have authored). 

So, for instance, if you’re interest is in unusual vegetables, you could start with A. C. Herklots’ 1972 publication Vegetables of Southeast Asia. The book is especially rich in “greens,” including shepherd’s purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris), garland chrysanthemum (now Glebionis coronaria), and honewort (Cryptotaenia japonica). Also a slew of “Asiatic cabbages.” For something even less contemporary, there have been various printings of The Vegetable Garden by Vilmorin-Andrieux,scion of the famous French seed company. In addition to many common vegetables, of which many interesting varieties are mentioned, ferret around in the book and you’ll also find some unusuals: olluco (Ullucus tuberosus), rampion (Campanula Rapunculus), and seakale (Crambe mariitima).
Books, unusual vegetables
Eric Toensmeier’s Perennial Vegetables offers a much more contemporary take on unusual vegetables. Most of the vegetables mentioned are not really perennial in cold climates but they surely are unusual. The last I heard, very few people were growing nashua (Tropaeolum tuberosum), Chinese artichoke (Stachys offinis), chufa (Cyperus esculentus var. sativa), or winged bean (Psophocarpus tetragonobolus).

Tools and Plants

Finally, I’d like to give a shout out to the five advertisers on my blog posts (to your right). These are not just any old companies that choose to advertise. They represent businesses whose products and, in some cases, owners I know and trust (by experience) to offer the highest quality products.

Let’s start with the two nurseries. Looking for a place to buy high quality plants of pawpaw, persimmon, quince, medlar, or even more common fruits. Raintree Nursery is the one. I’ve even sent them stems from some of my more unique plants to propagate. Cummins Nursery is the go to nursery for a very wide selection of varieties of apple, pear, peach, and other familiar tree fruits on a variety of rootstocks. The rootstock helps determine such tree characters as size, adaptability to various environments as well as how soon and how much fruit you’ll pick.

(Incidentally, a nursery tree grown hundreds of miles away can be just as adapted to your site as one grown around the corner. Genetics is important, so an Ashmead’s Kernel apple grown in Washington is genetically identical to one grown in New York, or anywhere else.)

With all those new plants, some tools will be needed to help care for them. For everything from high quality soil sampling tubes to grafting supplies to hoes to tripod ladders (very stable, I own two different sizes), look to Orchard Equipment Supply Company (OESCO).

If you’re looking very specifically for cutting tools — pruning shears, pruning saws, loppers, pole saws, and the like — look no further than ARS. You can’t go wrong purchasing an ARS tool. After writing a book about pruning, I was sent many samples of pruning equipment; among the shears, ARS — specifically the VSX Series Signature Heavy Duty Pruner — is my favorite, with good weight, good steel, replaceable parts, and easy opening with just a firm squeeze of the handles. They slightly edged out my Felco and Pica shears.

Scythe Supply sells just one thing: scythes. But they offer the best of the best, as well as sharpening services and instruction. Don’t expect one of those picturesque, old scythes often turning up at garage sales, more useful for decorating a barn wall than cutting tall grass. Scythe Supply scythes are super light and well balanced with blades hammered razor sharp like those of Samurai swords. One-time Congressional candidate, homesteader, and swinger of a scythe into his nineties, Scott Nearing had this to say about scything: “It is a first-class, fresh-air exercise, that stirs the blood and flexes the muscles, while it clears the meadows.” So true. I use my mowings for compost and mulch.

End of Year Punch List



My carpenter friends, near the end of their projects, have their “punch lists” to serve as reminders what odds and ends still need to be done. I similarly have a punch list for my gardens, a punch list that marks the end of the growing season, a list of what (I hope) will get done before I drop the first seeds in the ground next spring.

(No need for an entry on the punch list to have the ground ready for that seed. Beds have been mulched with compost and are ready for planting.)

Hardy, potted plants, including some roses, pear trees, and Nanking cherries, can’t have their roots exposed to the full brunt of winter cold.plants, almost ready for winter I’ve huddled all these pots together against the north wall of my house but soon have to mound leaves or wood chips up to their rims to provide further cold protection.

I’ll save some leaves to protect strawberry plants. Their insulating blanket won’t go down until weather turns colder, with the soil frozen an inch deep, or else their evergreen leaves will rot beneath the leaves.

I’ll be digging out or cutting down a number of woody plants, some even 10 or 20 years old, in the next few days or weeks to make way for better ones. (Ruthless!) Anna hardy kiwifruit, short for Annanasnaya, grows very well but ripens a bit late and doesn’t have quite as good flavor as my other varieties: Geneva, MSU, and Dumbarton. So out it goes. The same goes for Mars, Concord, and Cayuga White grapes; their flavor isn’t up to snuff. And Halle’s Giant, Lewis, and Clark filberts, except that their shortcoming is their susceptibility to the disease filbert blight.

A 5 gallon bucket filled with equal parts sifted compost and soil will be ingredients for any potting soils I’ll need for seedlings from midwinter on. For the finished potting soil, I’ll mix in another 5 gallon bucket with equal parts peat moss and perlite.

One sunny day soon I’ll lean pitchforks, rakes, and shovels against the garden carts and brush them with linseed oil diluted with equal parts paint thinner. Tool handles, readiedAfter the handles have been wiped down, 10 minutes later, they’ll be in good condition for at least another year.

Pruning hardly needs to be added to my punch list. I’m reminded about this annual job every time I look out the window or walk out the back door.

Deer at Bay

Protecting some of my trees and shrubs from animals doesn’t make it to the punch list either — because it needs to be done by now! Young pears (Concorde, Abbe Fetal, and Lady Petre) and apples (Liberty, Macon, Hudson’s Golden Gem, Ashmeads Kernel, and Pitmaston Pineapple) already have their hardware cloth and/or plastic collars protecting their bottom couple of feet of growth.

What about branches higher up, the ones the deer would find tasty. Thanks to fencing at both the north and south ends of my property, a couple of Deerchaser battery-powered repellants, two outdoor dogs, and vibes from me, deer rarely venture on site. But, as I discovered this past summer, just one deer on just one night can do a lot of damage to a young tree.

So this year I’m putting 5 foot high by 3 foot diameter cages of 2×4 welded wire fencing around my young apple trees. Deer protection, high fenceThe pear trees, close to the house, don’t get bothered. The problem with such cages is that it’s a hassle to weed or prune within the cage — both very important for young trees. Two metal stakes, each a 5 feet length of EMT electrical conduit, woven into part of fencing on opposite sides allows me to slide the fence up and down to get inside a cage to work. These trees, which are replacing my very dwarf apple trees, are semi-dwarfs which can fend for themselves once they get above 5 feet. Then I’ll remove the cages.

Memorables, for Vegetables

And now, some notes for next season’s vegetable garden . . .

Reduce the number of pepper varieties to those that perform and taste best here: Sweet Italia,

Italian Sweet peppers

Italian Sweet peppers

Carmen, and Escamillo. And stake them right from the get go.

Plant a greater proportion of tight-necked onions, such as Patterson, New York Early, and Copra, to avoid bacterial diseases.

Plant less bok choy; no need to be inundated by them just because the space is available.

Keep an eye out for whiteflies and caterpillars on cabbage family plants; act sooner rather than later to keep them in check.

Plant more Shirofumi edemame; 30 feet of bed should be about right, they need a long, hot season.

Try King of the Garden Limas again, but plant even earlier indoors. 

Get Out!

Okay, time to get outside to work on my punch list before any snowfall limits the possibilities.



Myco . . . What?

There’s a fungus among us. Actually, fungi, all over the place. Right now, though, I’m focussed on a special group of fungi, a group that, as I look out the window on my garden, the meadow, and the forest, has infected almost every plant I see. Like so many microorganisms — most, in fact — these fungi are beneficial.

The fungi are called mycorrhizal fungi; they have a symbiotic relationship with plants. (“Mycorrhizae” comes from the Greek “myco,” meaning fungus, and “rhiza,” meaning root.) The plant and the fungus have an agreement: The plant offers the fungus carbohydrates which it makes from sunlight, carbon dioxide, and water; in exchange, the fungus infects plant roots and then spreads the other ends of its thread-like hyphae throughout the soil to act to be virtual extensions of the roots. The plant ends up garnering more mineral nutrients from the soil. The fungus also helps offer protection against pests and drought. It’s an arrangement that has worked for eons.

Except for where soil has been doused with heavy doses of pesticides or discombobulated by land excavation, mycorrhizae are everywhere. Only a few plant families get along without this symbiosis. Some more familiar, nonmycorrhizal plants include cabbage and its kin, carnations, lamb’s-quarters, and sedums. Other plants can grow without mycorrhizae, but then miss out on some of the benefits and don’t make most efficient use of minerals soil has to offer.

Why mention mycorrhiza at this moment of time? Two books on mycorrhiza were published this year; either one, but not both, are worth reading. Both cover the kinds of mycorrhizae, their effects, their nurturing, and probably everything else you might want to know about this symbiosis.

Michael Phillips’ Mycorrhizal Planet will appeal more to the hip gardener, the one who burns wood for biochar for their soil, builds hugelkultur mounds (look it up), and spritzes plants with herbal extracts to boost their immune function. He’s mostly right when writing about mycorrhizae but often enters the land of woo-woo when venturing off-track. For instance, he writes, and then runs with, “many species of insects lack the digestive enzymes needed to break down complete proteins.” Not true.

The other book about mycorrhizae, Jeff Lowenfels’ Teaming with Fungi, presents a similar overview to mycorrhizal fungi, and their application, to that presented in Mycorrhizal Planet, with one notable difference. Teaming with Fungi details straightforward methods how you or I can actually grow our own mycorrhizae with which to inoculate plants to get them off to the best possible start.

The two books differ dramatically in their writing style. I eventually tired of Phillips’ overly flowery style and anthropomorphizing. “The synergy that unfolds as a result of outrageous diversity in the orchard delights me to no end . . . .The root systems of fast-growing tree with relatively pliable wood make barter possible between AM [arbuscular mycorrhize] and EM [ectomycorrhizae] fungi.” Lowenfels’ Teaming with Fungi is more firmly grounded in real science and application than Mycorrhizal Planet. I found Lowenfels’ writing more straightforward and engaging: “Some trees form AM, but others have evolved over time and are hosts to EM. Some trees are hosts to both forms of mycorrhizae, though usually at different periods in their lives.” (Different strokes for different folks.)

The mycorrhizal symbiosis was first studied and described in the latter half of the 19th century. Less long ago, but still long ago, I studied them as part of my doctoral work, specifically the ericoid mycorrhizae that are specific to blueberry plants and their kin. With the increased appreciation of the diversity, extent, and effect of the living world within the soil in recent years, mycorrhizae have moved into the spotlight. Read about them, nurture them, and make use of them.

And Weeds Among Us

Rising now to see what’s going on aboveground, I see that the garden has moved mostly into its maintenance phase for the season. That entails mowing, scything, making compost, keeping an eye out for pests and taking action, if necessary. 

And, of course, weeding. My weeding weapons of choice are my hands, for larger interlopers, and either the winged weeder hoe or wire hoe for small ones. Called into action weekly, either of the two hoes easily slice through the top quarter inch of soil surface to do in small weeds that haven’t even yet poked their heads above ground. Wire weeder, winged weederAll the better to forestall the appearance of large weeds, which are much harder to kill and also threaten to spread seeds or grow strong roots. Regular hoeing also keeps the soil surface loose to better absorb rainfall.

Early July seems to be when true gardeners part ways with other gardeners. Regular weeding  and other garden maintenance keeps the garden in good shape for the fall garden which, with good maintenance and planning, is like having a whole other garden, providing vegetables and flowers well into fall.


The Turn Of  The Year

Sure there’s seed-sowing, weeding, and pruning to do, but I’ve also been spending a good amount of time communing with my pitchfork. Turning compost.

Some people are put off by the thought of having to turn compost. Don’t be. Compost does not have to be turned. Any pile of organic materials will eventually become compost.

Still, I like to turn my composts. I typically build new piles (a lot of them!!) through summer into fall, turn them the following spring, and then spread the finished compost that fall or the following spring. As I fork the ingredients from the old pile into the adjacent bin, I break up any clumps with the pitchfork and fluff up any parts that seem sodden and gasping for air. A nearby hose makes it convenient to spray any dry areas.Compost bins

Everything organic (was once or is living) — hay, weeds, old plants, some horse manure, old cotton clothes, vegetable trimmings — goes into my compost, and that includes, unavoidably, weed seeds. Turning my compost pile exposes weed seeds buried within the pile to light, which prompts them to germinate — only to be snuffed out as they are again buried in the turned pile.

I take note of the progress of the decomposition, generally tossing any less decomposed pitchforkfuls towards the more active center of the turned pile. I also “take note” very literally, writing down a rough estimate of how far along the compost has progressed. If it’s, say, 80% finished, it should be ready for use, if needed, within a month or so. If 60% finished, it’ll have to keep cooking until fall.

I like to watch the results of the bacteria, fungi, and other compost pets nurtured within the piles. And turning them is good exercise.

Design Ultimatum

Over the years, my compost bins have gone through many incarnations as I, each time, came up with what I thought was the ultimate design for the bin itself. The present design has retained that status for a number of years now.

The present bin is made of notched boards, 24 per pile, each about 1” thick by 6” wide by 4 feet long. The boards stack up to make a cube Lincoln-log style. For a thorough enclosure, two boards ripped to half their width make up two sides of the bottom of the  bin. The advantage of the notched boards is that all four sides are enclosed and the compost bin can be built higher and higher, as needed, as material is added. And lowered, in steps, as finished compost is being removed for spreading, or half-finished compost is being removed for turning into a expanding, adjacent bin.Compost bin board

My original “ultimate design” bins were made from wood, which needed replacement every 8 to 10 years. Present bins are made from artificial wood decking, which should hold up forever.

While not a necessity for making compost, a bin does keep everything neat and tidy, keeps scavenging animals and wind-blown weed seeds at bay, and retains heat and moisture for quicker and more thorough composting. As I wrote a few paragraphs earlier, “Any pile of organic materials will eventually become compost.”

Transplant Design

Speaking about good design . . . With so many transplants to water, any method of automatic watering is a godsend. Right now, a couple of hundred of my seedlings are growing in individual, plastic cells sitting on capillary mats. As soil dries out in the cells, it sucks up water from the capillary mat which, in turn, draws water from the reservoir below it. This, the APS system, works very well.

And now an even better design has come down the pike, one made out of terra cotta that, unless dropped, is sure to outlast plastic systems. Cells for a tray of Orta Seed Pots are all housed together in an attached reservoir. One advantage of this design is that cells absorb water throughout their terra cotta walls. Another advantage is that each cell has a drainage hole, so periodic top watering can leach out excess minerals that can build up in pots watered from below.Orta pot

The only downside to Orta Seed Pots is that they are expensive. Then again, they can potentially last forever, and they grow very good plants. The design is so elegant and effective (as borne out by some seedlings that I raised in Orta’s) that I’m going to shamelessly help in their promotion with a link,  (,to discounted factory seconds, which work perfectly but have cosmetic flaws, or, till the end of May, discounted firsts (, with discount code ORTAMAY).


Flower, You Hoya

I probably shouldn’t admit this, but some plants suffer much neglect in my hands. My aloe, for example, has occasionally gone a whole year without a drop of water.

Hoya, also known as wax plant or Hindu rope plant, is another of my neglected plants. This plant is about 25 years old and has sat in the same pot in the same location for the past 15 years. The pot is only 3 inches square, dwarfed by the 3-foot-long “Hindu rope,” a single stem along which grow thick, green, involuted leaves. The hoya sits on a west-facing windowsill of a tower window in my house, and the lanky stem can drip down another 2 to 3 feet before it’s got to be shortened to keep from being bumped by anybody beneath it. One reason the plant gets watered so infrequently is because watering involves pulling out and climbing a ladder stairway to get to and gingerly water the relatively small pot.Hoya stems

Another reason for the neglect is because hoya is a succulent whose thick fleshy leaves store water. The plant is more likely to die from too much water than too little.

Although I occasionally glance admiringly at the stem tracing down the wall, there are time periods when hoya grabs my attention. That’s when it flowers. The flowers arise in sprays of about a dozen, pinkish, tubular blossoms, each looking as if has been sculpted from wax. Not only are these flowers pretty, but they also emit the most delicious aroma of chocolate.

I’m not sure when or why my hoya flowers. Failure to bloom can be attributed to, according to reliable sources, “over-watering, over fertilization, insufficient sunlight, or plant immaturity. “ Ha! My guess is that a period of consistent, but not excessive, watering following the dry spells would coax the plant to flower. Now might be the time to start watering because, perhaps in celebration of lengthening days, the plant has, after all these years, sprouted a new shoot.

I’ll go and water the hoya right this minute.

And The Temperature Is . . . ?

“You never miss the water till the well runs dry,” goes the line from the old blues tune. In the same vein, you — or I, at least — never miss the thermometer till it breaks. I never realized how tied I was to the temperature until the number boxes on my digital thermometer started reading “- – – – -.”Digital thermometer, malfunctioning

Thermometers have come a long way since the liquid-in-glass ones that served so well for so many years mounted outside so many kitchen windows or on porch posts. You had to get close to read them, and they picked up some heat from proximity to the house.

After that came indoor-outdoor ones, using the same principal but with two glass columns. The “outdoor” column is fed by a thin tube threaded through a small hole in a window frame and ending with a sensing bulb. These thermometers let you essentially get your eyes further from the sensing portion.

Then came digital versions of both types of liquid-in-glass thermometers. Digital thermometers are just the ticket for those of us who like to know if the temperature is 31.4° F. or 32.2° F. Not that the sensors of these thermometers were necessarily accurate to 0.1° F (as stated, sometimes, in the fine print), but they did give a feeling of exactitude.

Still, all these thermometers measure temperatures in or near the house, unless you mounted one on a post out in the garden and kept running out to check the temperature. Or, you had a liquid-in-glass thermometer that registered the minimum and maximum temperatures since the last reading. As you might guess, I have one, have had it for over 30 years, in fact. Two sliding, iron indicators are pushed by the expanding fluid, with one indicator staying where it is pushed to its high point, the other to its low point. High and low temperatures are indicated for the period since the sliders were last reset by being slid back with a magnet against the fluid. Very elegant and very accurate, but you still have to run out to the garden to read the present temperature.Minimum-maximum thermometer

Enter wireless, digital, minimum-maximum thermometers, the ultimate in temperature readiness. With this thermometer (which, as you might have again guessed, I own), I can read present and extreme temperatures from the warmth of my bedroom. Except when they stop working. Then you really miss knowing the temperature to within a tenth of a degree.


Epilogue: Yes, I checked and changed the batteries. Customer support, last time I got through to them, tells me I have to use fresh batteries, not the rechargeable ones. And I have to take all the batteries out for 15 minutes. Then, while the outdoor and indoor sensors are 3 to 5 ft. apart, I have to first put in the outdoor sensor’s batteries, followed by the indoor sensor’s batteries, and let the sensors “communicate” for 20 minutes. Etc., etc. The thermometer still doesn’t work. Perhaps I should click my heals together three times. I bought a new, and, I hope, better one.


Easy Access Water

I am reminded today of the importance — in a home garden — of proximity. Proximity of the garden to a door or, even better, a kitchen door. Proximity of the compost pile to a door, to the garden, and, if bulky materials such as manure or wood chips are hauled in, to a driveway. And, the spur for today’s rambling, proximity of the garden to water spigots.Trench for water hydrant
    The saying that “April showers bring May flowers” notwithstanding, supplemental water is usually critical in my garden in April. Just a few days of sunny, balmy weather is enough to dry out the surface of the ground, just beneath which lie in waiting, for moisture, my newly sown seeds. Or recent transplants, whose roots have yet to venture out and down into the ground.
    Once roots from sprouting seeds and transplants start growing in earnest, they’ll encounter plenty of residual moisture still sitting in the soil from winter’s rain and snow. Until then, I either have to carry watering cans (two cans at two gallons each) back and forth from the frost-free spigot against my house to the garden, or haul around hoses. The cans are top of the line Haw’s galvanized with good balance; even so, hauling water can get tedious, and the tendency to skimp a little on watering is unavoidable.
    Fifteen years ago I installed a frost-free outdoor hydrant near my secondary vegetable garden. What a luxury! Problem is that to get water to the main vegetable garden I have to unwind a hose and thread it through the garden gate. And then, if temperatures drop below freezing at night, common in April, nothing can be done till ice in the hose has defrosted. Again, watering is too often inadequate because I’m avoiding all this hassle.
    (Hot temperatures, dry weather, and plants feverishly sucking moisture out of the soil present no problem during most of the growing season — now, for instance. A few times each day, an inexpensive timer automatically opens a valve to let water flow through tubes to each vegetable bed and then out specially designed emitters to drip water into the ground at about the rate at which plants are drinking it up. But this automated, drip irrigation system can be damaged if put into service when temperatures drop below freezing.)My new hydrant
    So today I’m digging tenches and holes for two new, frost-free hydrants to bring the source of water right next to the main vegetable garden and to my compost bins. In the future, I’ll have no excuse to skimp on watering.

Free “Fertilizer”

    Too may gardeners shove their gardens in a far corner of their property, as if the garden was an eyesore. (Which it often is.) I suggest locating the garden as close to the house as possible, given constraints of sunlight; six or more hours of summer sun, daily, is ideal. And make it ornamental, with fencing, a nice gate, and shrubs and flowers around and in it. Keeping it weeded also helps, as far as appearance and productivity.
    There’s an old saying that “The best fertilizer is the gardener’s shadow.” Make it so that shadow conveniently falls on not only the plants but also spigots and compost piles.

Celeriac, What’s Up?

    Insufficient water in April could not be blamed for the poor showing of my celeriac plants. They weren’t even in the ground until early May, after the drip irrigation was up and running.
    Celeriac is a nice addition to the variety of root crops that can be left in the garden until late into fall and then stored for the winter under cool, moist conditions. The flavor, which comes from the swollen root (actually a hypocotyl, which is the portion of the plant above the roots and below the stem), is akin to celery, but smoother. It’s a botanical variety of celery.

Celeriac in old home

Celeriac in old home

    Last year, the first time in years that I grew celeriac, plants were stunted with nothing to harvest. Last year, I set the plants in a narrow bed on the west edge of the garden next to a full bed of tall corn. I blamed my failure on shade.
    This year celeriac got a sunnier spot. Still, the plants are puny. Some of the plants share the bed with kale which has spread its large leaves to create more shade than expected. Celeriac, according to reputable sources, allegedly tolerates a bit of shade.

Celeriac in new home

Celeriac in new home

    My plan is to slide a trowel into the ground beneath some of the puniest plants, lift the plants out of the soil, and plop them into more spacious, sunny environs.
    Next year I’ll pay even closer attention to celeriac and expect a better harvest. (Then again, this season’s plants may be gathering energy, readying themselves to swell their hypocotyls as autumn draws near.) All part of next year’s even better vegetable garden, to which my new frost-free hydrant will be a serious contributor.


Anti-Weed Tools

    Recently sown vegetable seeds that have sprouted are growing slowly; weeds and lawn are growing fast. Give weeds an inch, and they’ll take a mile. Ignore growing lawngrass, and soon you’ll need a tractor or a scythe to cut it down to size.Wire weeder and winged weeder
    But few people ignore their lawns. Dealing with the growing grass is straightforward: You get out the lawnmower and go back and forth or round and round until every grass blade has been sheared.
    Weeding demands more thought, technique, and intimacy with vegetation. Different weeds and different settings call for different approaches. In a vegetable garden, a hoe might be the tool of choice. My choices for hoes are the winged weeder, with a sharp blade that runs parallel to the ground surface and just slightly below ground in use, and the wire weeder, whose wire performs similarly.
    Mostly, though, I don’t need or use a hoe in my “weedless” (actually, “weed-less”) vegetable garden. Weeds are few enough and the soil is soft enough so that all that’s necessary is to bend over and pull out a weed, tops and all. Tap-rooted weeds, such as dandelion, need coaxing out with the aid of a trowel or hori-hori knife. That coaxing also helps lift a quackgrass plant gently enough to allow following its subterranean runner as far as possible until it breaks.Quackgrass with runner
    Along garden edges, my half-moon edger is very good at scouring out a dry moat that stops weed. Problem is that my garden has a lot of edges. And furthering the problem, any edges neglected for more than a couple of weeks during a spell of good growing conditions puts that edge back to square one.

Fire and Acid

    Just outside the glass sliding doors of my living room is a brick terrace that makes a nice take-off point to a short expanse of lawn and then, through an arbor, into the main vegetable garden. Or, turning, south, towards the greenhouse and meadow. You’d think that the brick surface of the terrace would be maintenance- and weed-free. Not so.
 Flame weeding   It’s a tribute to the tenacity of weeds how they manage to take root or sprout, and then thrive, in the small openings between adjacent bricks. Even in the small cracks between the bricks and the masonry wall of the house. Some of those “weeds” are actually welcome there — such as the wild columbines that send up thin stalks at the ends of which hover orange and yellow blossoms whose rear-pointing spurs gives the flowers the appearance of flaming rockets.
    Still, most of those weeds have to go. Pulling them out individually would be too tedious, and takes with them what little dirt or rock dust lies between the bricks. So I torch them, instead. A small, hand-held torch would be effective, but slow. I use the appropriately named Dragon Weeder, whose 3-inch diameter nozzle attaches, via a 10-foot long hose, to a 20 gallon propane tank. Fire roars out of this dragon’s mouth like a jet engine, and all that’s needed is a quick pass. No need to set plants on fire; just heat them enough to burst their cells. And this wet day is ideal to reduce the risk of fire spreading.
    Equally effective for an expanse like my terrace is to burn foliage with vinegar. Household vinegar, straight up (5 or 6% acetic acid), does the trick as long as the temperatures are above 70°F. Effectiveness is increased if 2 tablespoons per gallon of canola oil and 1 tablespoon per gallon of liquid soap is added to the vinegar, and if vegetation is not so large as to cause “shadows” where lower vegetation gets bypassed.
    Either fire or vinegar kills only the tops of plants. Roots might have sufficient stored energy to send up new sprouts, so treatments must be repeated until roots have used up all their energy.

Weed Food

    Corn salad is considered a weed in Europe. It’s borderline weedy in my garden, with its tufts of greenery clustering near the foot of some of my vegetable beds and occasionally elsewhere.
    No need to hoe it, hori-hori it, torch it, or vinegar corn salad. I let it be, even coax it along, in some areas, and weed it out in others. Corn salad and I can maintain this congenial relationship because I like to eat it.
    The same can be said for Good King Henry, another European import that could take over my garden if given free rein. It’s a relatively unknown relative of more familiar edibles like lamb’s-quarters (Cheno­pod­­­ium album), epazote (C. ambrosioides), and quinoa (C. quinoa), and, to me, the best-tasting of the lot. Even if you didn’t like the flavor of Good King Henry, you couldn’t help loving its botanical name, C. bonus-henricus. Eat it and weed.


It Mite be a Pest

    Mites! Eek! A new pest in town (for me). Actually, the mites, which showed up on some newly rooted Meyer lemon cuttings, don’t really scare me, nothing like the scale insects that regularly turn up on some of my citrus. Chigger mites, scabies mites, dust mites, itch mites — they’re not pests of plants, and they WOULD scare me.
    The cuttings were well rooted and just sitting still, basking in a south-facing window, waiting for longer days and warmer temperatures before they can come alive. (They pick up an attenuated version of seasonal temperature changes at that window.) A few weeks ago I noticed a yellow stippling developing on the green leaves.Mite damage symptoms
    No panic; the plan was to wait a few weeks and see if the stippling disappears or if new growth, unstippled, develops. Citrus sometimes develop iron deficiency, which also yellows leaves, in cold soils, not because the soil lacks sufficient iron but because the roots aren’t at the top of their game in cold soil.
    A closer look a few days ago revealed, to the naked eye, very small black specks on the leaves. An even closer look, with a hand-held lens, revealed tiny mites crawling around on the leaves.
    Mites are mostly problems in dry, dusty conditions, not atypical for a house heated in winter and the usual for summer in Mediterranean climates such as California. One simple cure is to make conditions less dry and dusty. Climate change within the whole house would be impractical. Instead, I started giving the plants a daily spritzing with water.

Mites, photo with iPhone + hand lens!

Mites, photo with iPhone + hand lens!

   More potent sprays may be needed; fortunately they need not be toxic to humans. “Horticultural oil” sprays are effective as are sprays of insecticidal soap. Problem is that these sprays are inconvenient to use indoors, where excess spray would end up on windows, furniture, and floors. Sprays need to be repeated weekly to kill mites that hatched from eggs (which are spray resistant) since the last spray.
    Because the Meyer lemon cuttings are still small with very few leaves, I chose to go at them mano a mano, merely rubbing my fingers across each leaf to crush the buggers (technically arachnoids, like spiders, not bugs). As with the oil or soap sprays, mano a mano combat must be repeated to crush newly hatched mites. But it’s quick and satisfying.
    Mites do have many natural predators, among them other kinds of mites. Just like Jonathon Swift’s flea that “Hath smaller fleas that on him prey; And these have smaller still to bite ‘em; And so proceed ad infinitum.”

Low-Tech Auto Water

    Every couple of days I have to think of all the plants in the house (they’re not all “houseplants”) that need water, including the mite-infested Meyer lemon cuttings. Two devices or setups keep me sane and my plants healthy in the face of all this watering.



    Larger, potted plants — those in pots over about 4 inches in diameter — are serviced by “water siphons” (aka “hydrospikes”, “self-watering probes”). A porous ceramic probe, previously soaked in water, filled with water, then capped, is pushed into the potting soil. The far end of the long, thin, flexible tube that comes out of the cap is plunked into a reservoir of water. I use mason jars as reservoirs and pre-fill the tube with water so that the water column is continuous from the ceramic probe to the reservoir.
    Voila! As the potting soil dries out, it sucks water from the ceramic probe which sucks water along the tube from the reservoir. Larger pots need more than one ceramic probe.
   Capillary mat For smaller pots, I use capillary mats, which are nothing more than water-absorbing mats (available from on which sit the pots. The mat is laid on a stand that sits above a similarly shaped, one-inch-deep tray, with one end of the mat dipping down into the tray. The mat absorbs water from the reservoir and the potting soil in the pots, as they dry, absorb water from the mat.
    It’s important to maintain good capillary contact between the potting soil and the mat. This means no coarse drainage material in the bottom of the pots (a silly, counterproductive idea anyway), and no “feet” elevating the bottom of the pot.
    Not having to frequently water makes it all too easy to forget about watering. I already lost one old rosemary plant this winter. Hydrospikes and capillary mats don’t work — duh! — unless their reservoirs have water in them.


 Dirt is Free, Almost

   Sustainability is such a buzzword these days. Okay, I’ll join the crowd and say, “I’m growing fruits and vegetables sustainably.” But is this true. Can they really be grown sustainably, that is, in such a way to be able to continue forever?
    As any plant grows, it sucks nutrients from the soil. Harvest the plant and you take those nutrients off-site. Eventually, those nutrients need replenishment. That’s what fertilizer does, but spreading fertilizer — whether organic or chemical — is hardly sustainable. Organic fertilizers, such as soybean meal, need to be grown, harvested (taking nutrients off site), processed, bagged, and transported. Chemical fertilizers need to be mined and processed, or manufactured, and then also bagged and transported.
    About half the volume of most soils is mineral, the rest being air, water, and organic matter. The mineral portion derives from rocks that, with time, temperature changes, and the jostling and chemical action of plant roots, fungi, earthworms, and other soil microorganisms, are ground finer and finer. Plant nutrients once locked up in those rocks become soluble and available to plants. Over time, a soil naturally offers a pretty much unlimited supply of plant nutrients. That sounds sustainable . . .  but wait; three important caveats.
    First, it takes time to release those nutrients. Remove too much too fast and it’s like taking money out of the bank faster than you put it in.
    Second, one very important nutrient, nitrogen, does not come from rocks. It comes from the air, “fixed” by soil microorganisms, then incorporated into plants. As plants die, the nitrogen is incorporated into the organic fraction of the soil, from which it is slowly released into the ground for other plants to use — unless it washes away or becomes a gas again. Nitrogen is the most evanescent of plant nutrients.
    And third, a soil could be naturally lacking in one or more essential plant nutrients. If so, the deficiency needs to be corrected by bringing in and spreading what’s needed.

Hay, Time, & a Little Manure

    Okay, here’s my stab at sustainability: My vegetables get “fed” only compost, a one-inch depth laid on top of each bed each year. This much compost releases enough nitrogen, as well as other nutrients, to keep plants happy and healthy for a year.

The season's last hay gathering

The season’s last hay gathering

    But the sustainability meter must examine what goes into the compost. The bulk of my compost is made from hay harvested from my one acre hayfield. Here’s the rub: If I harvest the hay too frequently, I’m mining the soil, pulling out nutrients faster than they are naturally replenished. So I focus on different parts of the field in different years, giving previously harvested portions time to rejuvenate.
    Early morning forays into the field with my scythe provide enough hay for compost making during the growing season. Last week, I did what I do each fall, attaching the brush hog to my tractor and mowing the whole field. (Mostly, this prevents the field from morphing over time, first to a field of brambles, multiflora roses, and autumn olives, and then on to forest.) After brush hogging, I rake up a few clumps of hay here and there for the final “feeding” of the season’s compost piles.
    This end-of-season stuff is not very nutrient-rich, so what little I harvest takes little from the field in terms of nutrients. This cutting mostly supplies carbon compounds, which it got from via photosynthesis from carbon dioxide, to feed the compost microorganisms.
    Keeping an eye on the character of the hayfield should give me some idea of how it’s doing nutritionally. More grasses, more nutrients. Areas of goldenrod, yarrow, and other forbs get mowed, but not raked.
    My compost pile also gets fed horse manure that I haul in from a local stable. My use of manure is sustainable only in the sense that it’s someone else’s waste product. Other additions to my compost pile are kitchen scraps and spent garden plants (which recycles rather than adds nutrients), and old blue jeans and other biodegradable clothing. Using humanure (see The Humanure Handbook by Joseph Jenkins), if I had a composting toilet, would further close the nutrient cycle.
    Two final additions, sustainable except that they need to be transported here, are ground limestone and kelp. The limestone holds soil acidity near neutral, which, among other benefits, puts  nutrients in forms most accessible to plants. The kelp, replete with a spectrum of micronutrients, is for insurance, just in case my soil naturally lacks any essential plant (or human) nutrient.

And Now for the Cart’s Sustainability

Garden cart, all dressed up in aluminum

Garden cart, all dressed up in aluminum

    Hay is bulky stuff; same goes for manure. I move all that bulky stuff to my compost piles, then move the finished compost away from the piles. All this moving is done with the help of my “Vermont garden cart,” which has two heavy duty, bicycle-sized tires sitting just about midway across a sturdy plywood bed surrounded by three sturdy plywood walls. Although the cart can haul up to 400 pounds, shoveling out manure or compost scrapes away at the plywood base. That, along with jabs from the pitchfork as I pile in hay severely compromised the wood . . .  until this summer.
    A sheet of aluminum, a friend’s brake for making sharp bends in the sheet, and some screws, and I had the bottom of the cart, and a few inches up each side, protected from my shovel, pitchfork, and moisture. These carts should be sold already aluminized.
    The only problem is that aluminum is very unsustainable. Although abundant, enormous amounts of electricity are required to free it from the raw material, bauxite. On the plus side, aluminum is very long-lasting; I’ll never have to replace it in my carts.