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

Cardoon & Fig


Here’s a backward story and a forward story.

About plants, of course. And the plants are linked in that both of them are native to the Mediterranean region. But for centuries, both plants have been grown world-wide wherever winters are mild. And, with some special attention, by enthusiast (such as me), in gardens where winters are frigid.

Perhaps you’ve already guessed the two plants. If not, they are cardoon and fig. Let’s start with the backward story, which is the one about cardoon.

Cardoon & Fig

Cardoon & Fig

A Florific Season in the Offing (I Know It’s not a Word)

The end of the cardoon story begins with my memory of last summer’s very bold plant whose whorl of glaucous, spiny leaves rose three feet or more above ground level. Read more

Coldfames (not mine)


A Fourth Dimension for the Garden

A “coldframe” is one of a few ways to add a new dimension — time — to gardening. Especially, for me, vegetable gardening. It inserts time where time does not exist. Instead of my gardening season screeching to a stop with a hard freeze sometime in late November or early December, a coldframe extends it a few weeks, possibly even more. And it can do the same thing at the beginning of the season, getting plants going and harvested sooner. (Multidimensional vegetable gardening is covered more thoroughly in my book Weedless Gardening.)

At its most primitive, a coldframe is nothing more than a clear plastic or glass topped box set directly on the ground, functioning in the garden as a miniature greenhouse. My simplest coldframe was made from four pieces of scrap pine boards notched together into a three-foot by six-foot rectangle. The covering was quarter-inch plexiglass whose previous incarnation was that of a floor runner beneath office chairs.Primitive coldframe

My most elaborate coldframe was a purchased structure, looking much like a miniature barn with a double-wall, polycarbonate plastic roof that folded open or closed along tracks in the eaves. Read more



Most Important, to Me at Least

Hints of summer already are here, not outside, but in the seed catalogues in my mailbox, on seed racks in stores, and from emails from seed companies. Look how many different varieties of each vegetable are offered! Thumbing through one (paper) catalogue, for example, I see twenty-eight varieties of tomato, seventeen varieties of peas, and eleven varieties of radishes. Anyone who has gardened for at least a few years has their most and least favorite varieties of vegetables. Here’s a sampling of mine.

Right from the start, I admit that most important to me in choosing a vegetable variety is flavor. I’ll grow a low-yielding variety, even one that’s not particularly resistant to insects or diseases, if it is particularly delectable. Within reason, of course.

Let’s start with one of the most widely-grown backyard vegetables, tomatoes.

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Popcorn Traditions

I was surprised at the different colors of my ears this fall — popcorn ears, that is. ‘Pink Pearl’ popcorn lived up to its name, yielding short ears with shiny, pink kernels. Peeling back each dry husk of ‘Pennsylvania Dutch Butter Flavored’ popcorn revealed rows of creamy white kernels. The surprise came from some ears from either bed whose kernels were multi-colored, each in a different way, with some kernels mahogany-red, some pale pink, some dark pink, and some lemon yellow.Popcorn mixes

I plan to bring some of these popped kernels to Thanksgiving dinner, just as Native American chief Massasoit’s brother, Quadequina, brought along a sack of popped popcorn to the first Thanksgiving feast almost four centuries ago.

Popcorn predates that first Thanksgiving in America by thousands of years. Kernels have been found in the remains of Central American settlements of almost 7000 years ago. The Quichas of Peru and the Aztecs of Mexico grew red, yellow, and white popcorns. Even after that first Thanksgiving dinner, popcorn was eaten by settlers in the Northeast as a breakfast staple with milk and maple sugar, or floated on soup (very good!). Beginning in the last century, movie  and television viewing caused a resurgence in popcorn consumption.

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Saying It is Easy; Naming It, Not so Easy

Pinch your nose with your fingers and say “on.” Follow that with a long, drawn out, “d-e-e-e-e-v,” your mouth in a smile to get emphasis on the e’s. Endive. I once considered endive to be lackluster in flavor, so needed to be offset with this highfalutin pronunciation. After many years of growing endive, I’ve come to recognize a more distinct flavor, nutty and just slightly bitter.

Endive, frisee & escarole

Endive, frisee & escarole

(This is the first time I’ve used “nutty” to describe a flavor, having recently figured out what it means. Nut-like. Duh. Hints of nuttiness are found in the flavors of many foods, including seeds, wines, beans oils, cheeses, fish, and, of course, almonds, hazelnuts, and other actual nuts. Since writing the above description of endive flavor, I learned that others have also described its flavor as nutty. QED)

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Ode to Sungold

As the curtain closes on the summer garden and the autumn garden edges towards its glory, I’d like to offer thanks. No, not a religious thanks for a summer of tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, okra, and other warm weather vegetables. But thanks to a person, the person who bred Sungold cherry tomato.Sungold near season's end

Anyone not familiar with Sungold tomato should be. It’s sweet and tangy, not at all cloying, enveloped in persimmon-orange skin. I once grew over 20 varieties of cherry tomatoes (Solanum lycopersicum var. cerasiforme), including Sungold, for a magazine article. As a friend walked down the row, sampling fruit from each plant, she proclaimed, “That’s one row of lousy tomatoes.”

Agreed, excepting a few varieties, one of which was, of course, Sungold. The other exceptions were Gardener’s Delight, Sweet Million, and Suncherry, all three of which are rarely seen these days, probably because Sungold eclipsed the others with its distinctive appearance and, I think, even better flavor.

(My cherry tomato row didn’t include marble-size, so-called currant tomatoes, botanically, S. pimpinellifolium. They are very sweet, very small, and very tasty. I don’t grow them anymore because, for me, they’re too messy, dropping fruits all over the place. The following year, seedlings can grow to become a tomato jungle.)

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Not a Research Station, but I do Test

It seems that every couple of years or so, some kind gardener offers me seeds, plants, or just a recommendation for the best-tasting, earliest ripening, or longest keeping tomato. I’m appreciative, but these days usually refuse the offer or ignore the recommendation.

True, In addition to providing a year ’round supply of fruits and vegetables, my farmden provides a testing ground for innovative techniques in growing fruits and vegetables, and provides a site for workshops and training. All this would surely include trying out new kinds and varieties of fruits and vegetables.

But I want to avoid having my plantings become like those described by Charles Dudley Warner in his 1887 classic My Summer in the Garden: “I have seen gardens which were all experiment, given over to every new thing, and which produced little or nothing to the owners, except the pleasure of expectation.”

Still, I have studied plants and soils in both academic settings and in my own “back forty” (actually, my own back 2 and 3/4). I’m in New York’s Hudson Valley, Hardiness Zone 5, more specifically the Wallkill River Valley. This low spot is notable for good soil and bad air. The soil is fertile, perfectly drained, and pretty much free of any rocks or stones. But cold, damp air, being heavier than warm air, pours down hillsides into this valley. It suits disease-causing fungi and bacteria of plants just fine.Aerial view of farmden

The above paragraph is a preamble to my offering a few recommendations on species and varieties worth growing in similar settings, but also, in many cases, where conditions don’t match those here on the farmden. I’ve also gardened in the Upper Midwest and in the South, and I think these recommendations would be well received over a large swath of our country. Some may be worth a spin in your own “back forty.”

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Go Drip!

This summer has been one of the hottest and driest ever — and it’s been one of the best ever in the vegetable garden. Baskets of red, ripe tomatoes and peppers sit on the kitchen floor awaiting metamorphosis into sauces and salsas, dehydration, or just plain being eaten.Dog Sammy and garden beds

What about water? My garden plants are plump with water thanks to drip irrigation. In addition to benefits to the plant, drip is also good for the environment, typically using only about 40 percent of the amount of water used by sprinkling. That’s because the more pinpointed water avoids wasting water in paths and other places it’s not needed. Also because little water is lost to evaporation.Dripline with beans

The “drip” in drip irrigation tells you that water is applied at a very slow rate, which is especially appealing to those of us whose water comes from a well. With drip, the well has plenty of time to recharge between waterings.

Drip is also better for plants. Leaves stay dry, lessening the chance for disease. And rather than flooding the ground, which a sprinkler does at each watering, drip keep soil moisture within that happy window when larger pores remain filled with air, and water is held within smaller pores so that roots can both breathe and draw in water. (This is one reason for the more efficient water use of drip irrigation.)

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A lot about this year’s vegetable garden warrants my patting myself on my back; other things warrant a nuggy (virtually impossible unless I was double-jointed). Let’s start with the pat-worthy stuff. Perhaps you’ll find some of it useful in your vegetable garden. Perhaps you’ll want to comment on it.

Good Moves

Sweet corn is one of my favorite vegetables, both fresh in summer, and frozen in winter. Evidently, chipmunks are also fans. I plant sweet corn — the old variety Golden Bantam — in hills (clumps) of three stalks per hill, the hills eighteen inches apart in the row, with two rows running the length of each three-foot-wide bed. I spread out the harvest with four plantings, the first on about the average date of the last frost, mid-May, and the last planting the end of June.

With a variation on traditional corn planting — “one for the rook, one for the crow, one to rot, and one to grow” goes the old saw — I drop five rather than four seeds per hole. Corn sprouting among lettucesSeed is cheap. Unfortunately, those extra seeds merely gave chipmunks more to eat in that first planting. So . . .

For subsequent plantings I sprinkled a mixture of cayenne pepper and cinnamon over the seeds in each planting hole. Although birds can eat hot pepper, furry animals generally, my dog Daisy excepted, cannot. I figured the chipmunks wouldn’t like the taste of cinnamon and/or it would mask any aroma from the corn seeds. The result: success.

Pests threatening my onions and leeks arrived here on the farmden just a few years ago. Leek moth is one of them and thrips possibly another. Leek moth flies to lay its eggs in early spring, and thrips overwinter in debris. Another pest severely stunted last year’s onions, but neither I nor a university vegetable specialist could find anything odd about the roots, tiny bulbs, or leaves on which to lay blame.

Thoroughly cleaning up debris, which I do for all beds anyway, and covering the bed with fine mesh should keep leek moth, thrips, and possibly other pests at bay. A wire frame to support a large piece of organza fabric, with the organza clothespinned tightly near ground level did the trick. The leeks and onions look healthy and vigorous.Onion and leek, netted

A Successful Makeover

The need for a bold makeover of my south vegetable garden is embarrassing, but I’ll come clean. For some reason I oriented beds in that garden, created in 1997, east and west. I should have know better. It was a more favorable location for the two gates, but that’s not a good excuse. Tall plants in east-west beds shade shorter plants in those and nearby beds throughout the day. So whenever possible, north-south, or nearly north-south, beds are best.

Last fall, with some help from friends, I raked soil in the beds and wood chipped paths as level as possible. (My beds aren’t raised beds, but they do slowly rise after decades of annual slatherings of an inch or more of compost.) South garden makeover1We rolled out gray resin paper to suppress weeds sure to sprout in the newly disturbed soil, then topped the paper with compost in the beds and wood chips in the paths.South garden makeover2

It’s a young garden again! Sort of. When planting, I can feel the difference in the ground from where a bed crosses regions that were once paths versus those that were beds. But the soil will get better every year, and the beds now run the better direction. Only one garden gate now, though.

Everything Not Always Rosy

Not all is always rosy down here on the farmden. Flea beetles, as expected, attacked my eggplants. I could have netted the eggplants also, but I was foolishly banking on hope.Fleabeetles on eggplant I’ll admit to spraying the organic pesticide Pyganic while waiting for the eggplants to outgrow the damage.

The other pest here is a weed, creeping woodsorrel (Oxalis corniculata). The straight species grows tall and is very easy to weed out. No problem.
The problem child is the purple-leaved variety (Oxalis corniculata var. atropurpurea) which blends in with the soil and hugs the ground in spreading mats. Oxalis weedIt responds favorably (for me, not it) to sprays of household strength vinegar or any of the other organic herbicides whose active ingredient is ammonium nonanoate, such as Ortho® GroundClear® Weed & Grass Killer or the more benign sounding BioSafe Weed & Grass Killer.

And finally, we come to drip irrigation, a watering technique on which I’ve heaped tons of praise for saving water, for limiting weeds, for healthier plants, and for being easily automated. This last quality can cause a problem. A few years ago I thought a spring had sprung it my field; it was an old main line that was still in line and spewing out water below ground. Another year plants in a couple of beds seemed to languish as drier weather moved in; the underground connection of some drip lines had disconnect from the main line. Yet another time, water was pouring out of an unplugged end of a drip line. Or, last year the battery died on one of the timers; most affected were two small rosemary plants, trained as small trees, many of whose leaves and stems dried up, dead.

This spring, it was, first, the main water source, which is from a shallow well, clogging the filter. And then, a piece of hose running from the well pump to the main line developing a kink.

All these irrigation glitches were easily fixed once I noticed them. And there’s the key. My very smart phone now reminds me to spend the few minutes required to check the drip irrigation system every Monday.