Possible Sources of Anxiety

Especially in years past, I would get a little tense this time of year, because sometime soon I would have to sit down and map out the year’s vegetable garden. As usual, ideas have been bouncing around inside my head for the past few weeks, but the day must come — before April 1st, my date for planting peas — when procrastination must bow to action.Vegetable garden with trellis

When that time comes, I gather together on the kitchen table printouts of the empty beds in my two vegetable gardens, a sharpened pencil, and notes and plans of gardens past. After taking a deep breath, my first order of business, planning for crop rotation, begins. The theory: Plant no vegetable in the same spot sooner than every third year. The rationale: A garden pest might survive the winter to bother the same plant the following year . . . unless the plant happens to be growing elsewhere, in which case the pest starves and dies.

Pests usually are equally fond of all plants in a plant family, so I won’t grow tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, or potatoes (nightshade family) at the same location without waiting three years. Read more

Standard bay, rosemary, kumquat


Good Only in Theory?

The idea has merit: flowerpots of flavorful herbs decorating windowsills and providing savory additions to meals through the winter. A good part of last season’s garden is packed in the freezer and glistening jars of canned tomatoes line shelves in the basement. The greenhouse is offering a steady supply of lettuce, arugula, and other salad greens.Rosemary against a snowy backdrop

Still, I’m beginning to miss garden-fresh vegetables. Sprinkling some fresh chives on a pan of roasted potatoes might infuse the whole dish with freshness.

The problem is that chives doesn’t thrive on a windowsill, unless the windowsill is very, very sunny. Chives will grow well through the winter with artificial light, but that means a bank of lights permanently poised a few inches above the leaves — so much for the rustic charm of indoor potted herbs. And maybe my taste buds are dulled, but when I snip chives to add to a dish, I take a handful. The plant would need at least a few weeks to recover sufficiently to withstand another harvest.

The same could be said for growing parsley indoors; after each picking, you have to wait too long for another.

I haven’t thrown up my hands at the possibility of growing culinary herbs indoors through the winter. I just have to be very selective in what I grow. Any such herb must pack a lot of flavor into each leaf, survive well indoors, and look pretty. I offer at least two candidates: rosemary and bay laurel. Read more

Weeping fig bonsai


No Drama

A seminal moment in the gardening year turned out to be thankfully anticlimactic. That moment was the arrival, on the morning of November 2nd, of the first fall frost. It turned out to be more than just a frost; it was a freeze, with temperature plummeting to a very chilly 22.7°F at 7:33 that morning. (I didn’t have to keep running outdoors to check my thermometer, but am able to monitor past temperatures recorded on my iPhone throughout days and nights with my handy Sensorpush.)Frosty morning

The cold weather had taken its time in arriving. Weather stations around the country have compiled the “average date for the first killing frost” for sites throughout the country. (Also the “average date for the last killing frost” for spring.) Where I farmden, that first frost date is October 22. That is an average; the chance of frost arriving sometime before early November is 80%, and the chance of that frost arriving by mid-October is 20%. Last week’s freeze was late.

Years ago, as a novice gardener, I planned my gardening around these published dates. I considered these averages fixed in stone. With global warming, those dates were officially amended. Messed me up for awhile until I realized that the complexity of the natural world makes it appear capricious. Read more

North garden



A recent blog post of mine was titled and about some of the reasons it was “My Worst Garden Ever.” From comments and emails, I learned that such was the case generally in this part of the world. That was then.

North gardenRecently, as I opened and walked through the gate into my vegetable garden, I thought, hmmm, things are looking pretty spiffy in the garden. Even a seasoned gardener friend remarked, “There’s so much green!” And that green is not from weeds, but from neat rows of napa cabbages, large heads of lettuce in various shapes and shades of green, and dark green rows of arugula and mustard. Leafy tops of Watermelon radishes (the name from the look of the sliced roots, not any affinity in flavor) and sweet Hakurei turnips perched above swelling roots. Read more

Eliot and me


A Real Olde Tyme Country Fair

Eighteenth century essayist and poet Charles Lamb wrote, “Nothing puzzles me more than time and space; and yet nothing troubles me less.” I agree and disagree. You can always revisit a space, but time, it keeps moving; there’s no grasping on to it.

I was reminded of Lamb’s musing on a recent visit to Maine. There were two reasons for the visit, the first being to attend and give a couple of presentations at the Common Ground Fair, organized and on the grounds of the Maine Organic Farming and Gardening Association ( I highly recommend a trip to the Fair, which is always held around the third week in September.Mofga demo garden

This is not your usual country fair. For one thing, you won’t find bright lights and noisy rides there;  the Fair closes down at the end of each day. What you will find at the Fair is a wide array of Maine grown and Maine produced food, wool and woolen goods, wooden bowls and spoons, and numerous other items. Also many workshops and demonstrations of scything, spinning wool, blacksmithing, and other rural skills, and live music and plenty of livestock.

A Mere Half Century

I haven’t forgotten about Charles Lamb. His musings speak into the second part of my visit, which was to Four Season Farm, home, along with his wife Barbara Damrosch, of farmer, author, and a leading proponent of organic farming, Eliot Coleman. Read more

Okra, fruits displayed


A Good Site

Okra, like artichokes and dark beer, evokes from people either praise or disgust, rarely something in between. A pot of stewed okra, tomatoes, and onions sends me into creole heaven, yet makes my brother gag. I say the mucilaginous quality of okra adds “body” to a dish; he says okra is “slimy.”

This season I’m reveling in a bumper crop of okra. Such a crop would hardly be worth noting if I gardened south of the Mason-Dixon line, where okra plants grow to be the size of small trees! Growing okra up here in the Hudson Valley is somewhat of a challenge because the plants begin to shiver when temperatures drop into the 50s — not uncommon even for a midsummer night in my garden.Okra, fruits displayed

In spite of a good bit of hot weather this summer (1.3°F above the 127 year average), I like to think I had a hand in this season’s success with okra. And the first okra-righteous thing I did was to choose for my planting a good site: the hottest and sunniest spot in my garden.

Lack of sunlight used to be a problem when my garden beds ran east and west; tall plants, such as popcorn, on ann adjacent bed to the south of the okra bed would shade the okra. Read more

Lake, mountains, and sky


What’s Not to Like About Gardening

If there’s one thing that irks me about gardening, it’s the necessity for too often having to think to the future. Always living in the moment just doesn’t cut it if you want to garden well.

Yesterday, as I was swimming in a local lake enjoying, each time I turned my head for a breath of air, the sun beaming down on me and the view of cottony cumulus clouds hovering above green, forested mountains, my thoughts turned to autumn. I was reminding myself that now, in the summery middle of August, it was time to sow certain vegetable seeds.Lake, mountains, and sky

Soon after getting back to the farmden, I filled a couple of small flats with potting soil. In the first, I made four mini-furrows, and sprinkled in seeds of Little Jade, Purple Express, and Blues napa cabbage, and Shuko Pac Choi cabbage, one variety per mini-furrow. Into the other flat went a mini-furrow each of Cos, Buttercrunch, Pirat, and Outredgeous lettuce seed.

Except for the lettuce, none of those Chinese cabbages appeals to me right now. But much of gardening entails not going with your gut (literally and figuratively in this case). Read more

Me with bad carrots


Lack of Green Thumb, Or Something Else?

I just sunk my teeth into a carrot pulled mere minutes ago from the garden; the taste was not good! I’m not surprised, because that’s often the case with my carrots. For the reason why, I might turn to a book, one of my books, The Ever Curious Gardener, the last chapter where I talk about the senses, including flavor.Me with bad carrots

In that chapter I delve into various influences on flavor, things such as soil, light, moisture, day length, and temperature. They’ve all been studied, but mostly each by itself. Quoting myself, 

With light, moisture, temperature, day length — so many variables — making their mark on flavor, a more additive approach to growing flavorful crops might be more useful rather than trying to parse out individual, interacting, influences. 

This kind of attention has been lavished on studies with carrots by raising them in phytotrons, where light duration and intensity, day and night temperatures, and humidity can be manipulated, in pots of various types of soil. Testing soils and growing conditions mimicking those of Wisconsin, California, Florida, and Texas, the best flavored carrots…drum roll…were those grown in mineral, especially loam, soils as compared with muck soils (drained swamplands rich in organic matter) under mild winter conditions (such as in California). I’m not ready to relocate to be able to grow the most perfect carrot, and no need. Variety choice was still the most important determinant of flavor. 
Read more

The garden in fall


Pricking Out and Growing On. Whaa?

Make believe it’s spring. That’s what I’m doing this time of year as I drop seeds into minifurrows of potting soil in seedling trays. It’s as if I’m getting ready to plant a garden — and, in fact, I am. The fall garden.

Having a fall garden is like having a whole other garden with no additional space needed. That’s why I’m sowing in seedling trays rather than elbowing my way into the present garden’s valuable real estate.The garden in fall

Today I sowed lettuce, endive, cabbage, kale, and cauliflower seeds. After a week or two of growth in a seedling tray, those seeds should have sprouted and seedlings will be large enough to “prick out” and carefully lift for “growing on” in individual. small pots or cells of multicelled flats of potting soil. Read more

Golden Bantam corn


Rumors Against Sweet Corn

My fourth and last planting of sweet corn went in a few days ago. I grow sweet corn despite reading years of advice that backyard gardens are too small to make sweet corn worth planting. In the last few decades, that advice has been reinforced by the fact that supersweet corn — which can be more than four times sweeter than heirloom (traditional) sweet corn, and holds that sweetness much longer after harvest — is so readily available at farmstands and markets. I strongly disagree on both counts!

Golden Bantam corn

Golden Bantam corn

Backyard gardens are too small? My vegetable beds are three feet wide and about 20 feet long. I plant corn in “hills,” which actually are not at all hilly. In gardening, a “hill” is a station, a location where you grow a clump of plants. Read more