REGIMENTING TOMATOES

What’s Better: Loosy Goosy or Soldier Straight?

I wonder how much our gardens reflect our personalities? Some gardeners clip their yew bushes “plumb and square;” other gardeners clip or shear away at their plants more haphazardly. Even in the vegetable patch, a temperament may be reflected in the way tomatoes are grown: Do the plants sprawl over the ground with abandon, are they contained within strings woven up and down the row, or are they neatly staked? (Woven tomatoes or those grown in wire cages are more or less sprawling plants, held aloft.)Staked tomatoes

Whatever your temperament, a good case can be made for staking tomatoes. Tomatoes on a staked plant are larger and ripen earlier than those on a sprawling plant. Good air circulation around leaves and fruits of upright plants lessens disease problems. And fruits held high above the ground also are free from dirt and slug bites. You’ll harvest less fruit from each staked plant, but since staking makes best use of the third dimension, up, staked plants can be set as close as eighteen inches apart. So staking gives the best yields per square foot — especially important in small gardens.

Flavor Picks

Tomato varieties suitable for staking are so-called “indeterminate” types, which form fruit clusters at intervals along their ever-elongating stems. “Determinate” varieties, in contrast, bearsfruits at the ends of their branches, so if a plant was pruned for staking would be reduced to a single short stem capped by a single cluster of fruits. Seed catalogues and packets usually indicate which varieties are suitable for staking.Planted tomatoes

Determinate varieties are bushy plants that need little regimenting. They also ripen their fruits within a shorter window of time.

So what’s not to like about determinate varieties? Flavor! With fewer leaves per fruit than indeterminate varieties, flavor suffers. That concentrated ripening period also can stress the plants, making them more prone to disease.

As you might guess, I grow only indeterminate varieties of tomatoes. Flavor is my main criterion in selecting a variety to grow.

Staking

When choosing a suitable stake for staking (indeterminate, of course) tomato plants, don’t be misled by the puniness of tomato transplants. A tomato stake needs to be be six to eight feet long and metal or at least one by two inches thick if made of wood. I use EMT (electrical metallic tubing) conduit, 5/8 inch diameter and 10 feet long, cut down to 7 feet. It’s easy to pound into the ground (okay, I’ll admit that here on the floodplain there are no rocks), easy to remove, and reusable for years and years.

Most books and other sources of information suggest “planting” your stake along with your tomato plant to avoid root damage later on. Not true. My established tomato plants never bat an eyelash (figuratively speaking) as I pound in metal stakes only a couple of inches from their stems. And there’s a good reason to wait until the plants are well-established; by then, chance of cold damage is reliably history. Early planted stakes would interfere with my trying to throw a protective blanket over a row of staked tomatoes should cold threaten.

With the base of a stake set a couple of inches from a plant and a 3 foot length of iron pipe, capped at one end and slid over the conduit’s free end, the stake pounds in easily with repeated lifting and forcefully lowering.Pounding in tomato stake

Indeterminate tomatoes are vines, but not vines that can climb by themselves. So they need to be tied to their stakes. Material for ties should be strong enough to hold the plants the whole season, and bulky enough so as not to cut into plants’ stems. Coarse twine or cotton rags, torn into strips, are good materials. I use sisal binder twine. 

The usual recommendation, when tying, is to first tie a knot around the stake tightly enough to prevent downward slipping, then use the free ends of the rag strip or twine to tie a loose loop around the plant’s stem. False! With every foot or so of growth, I tie a single loop loosely around stem and stake above a node; the string can’t slip down lower than the node.Tomato plant, tied

Pruning

Now for the pruning: Confine each plant to a single stem by removing all suckers, ideally before any are an inch long. A sucker is a shoot that grows from a bud originating at the juncture of a leaf and the main stem.tomato sucker

Go over your plants at least weekly, using your fingers to snap off each side shoot. (Cutting the shoots with a knife or pruning shear may transmit disease between plants as a blade touches cut surfaces.) Occasionally step back and refocus your eyes on the plant as a whole; I find that I sometimes overlook a sucker that has snuck up with two feet of growth I missed as I focussed on still small shoots just appearing from buds.

One final bit of pruning that some gardeners practice is to pinch out the growing tip of the plant when the stem reaches the top of the stake, then continue to remove any new leaves or flowers that form. This is a little chancy, since the effect depends on the maturity of a plant’s leaves and fruits. At worst, you reduce yield to a few clusters of fruit. But at best, your tomatoes are even earlier and larger. It may be worth a try on a couple of plants.

How do your tomatoes grow, up or sprawling. A case can be made for “up.” But you need the right variety, stake, and method of pruning. 

KEEPING THE FAITH

Transplant Shock

A recent telephone call to my sister caught her setting zucchini transplants in her garden. “Transplanting zucchini?” I queried. “Have some faith in nature.” Transplants on sale this time of year too often entice gardeners to set out set them out in the garden rather than drop seeds into furrows.Marigold 6-pack

I pointed out that not every plant likes to be transplanted. Tomato plants yanked out of the soil will resume growth in a few days if their roots are covered with moist dirt. Roots will sprout even if just a stem is in moist soil. But the roots of plants like corn, poppies, melons, cucumbers, and squashes (zucchini included) resent disturbance. Carrots, parsnips, and many other root crops also transplant poorly. Their taproots become the harvested roots. If bent or broken while young, forked, rather than straight, smooth carrots and parsnips result.

This is not to say that it is impossible to successfully transplant squash, poppies, and the like. Any plant can be transplanted if enough care is taken not to damage the roots. A plant doesn’t even know it has been moved when a large enough ball of soil is carried along with the roots. (To paraphrase Archimedes, “Give me a big enough shovel and I can transplant any plant.”) Enormous trees can be, and are, relocated if taken with sufficient roots (and money).

My sister told me that her zucchini plants were growing in plastic cell packs. If the roots were not yet crowding each other against the plastic, and if the plants were gently slid out of their containers, the transplants will survive. I’ve even heard of gardeners even transplanting carrots — very carefully, no doubt.

Is It Worth It?

Six pack of peas

Pea transplants for sale

Many vegetables could be easily transplanted, yet aren’t worth the effort. A friend transplanted peas one year. Granted, his peas were a foot high indoors when mine were just breaking through the ground out in the garden. But how many pea transplants can a gardener care for? I grow about sixty feet of double rows of peas in my garden, from which I expect about twelve pounds of peas. Each pea plant, though, yields only about a quarter of an ounce of peas. Who has enough space and time to sow, water, then transplant even two dozen pea plants for the paltry six ounces of peas those plants would yield?

Generally, plants whose seeds are sown closely spaced in the garden are not worth transplanting. In the flower garden, this would include alyssum, portulaca, and pot marigolds (though I admit to starting a few alyssum plants indoors so they would spread and flower sooner).

In addition to peas, some other vegetables not worth growing as transplants include spinach, mustard, and beans. Black Seeded Simpson and other leaf lettuces (sometimes referred to as “cutting lettuces”) are generally sown directly in the ground. While the plants are still small, I’ll run a knife near ground level every couple of feet or so slicing off their tops. For the next salad, I’ll choose new groups of plants to cut. Within a couple of weeks, plants are again ready for harvest.

Lettuce seedlings

Bibb lettuce transplants

Heading lettuces such as iceberg, bibb, and romaine are worth transplanting because each plant needs space in order to head up well. Alternatively, heading lettuce could be sown directly in the garden, then thinned to the appropriate spacing.

(I list dates for sowing and transplanting various vegetables, according to your region, in my book Weedless Gardening, available from the usual sources or directly from me here.)

Exceptions to Prove the Rule

“Trust nature,” I told my sister. “Sow seeds on the correct planting date in good garden soil, and they’ll germinate. Save transplanting efforts for vegetables like tomatoes and peppers, which need to be started early indoors in order to ripen their fruits in a reasonable amount of time. Or broccoli and cabbage, because individual plants yield a substantial amount to eat. Tomato, broccoli, and cabbage plants don’t object to being transplanted, and not too many transplants are required since they are set a couple of feet or more apart in the garden.”

Seeds which are particularly finicky or valuable (due either to scarcity or cost) also are worth growing initially in pots. Although hardy cyclamens (Cyclamen heredifolium) do self-seed under ideal conditions, I wanted to greatly increase my holdings. Cyclamen flower in a crannied wallThey’re a little finicky to sprout, so I collected seeds from one of my plants and planted them in a seed flat, where I could watch and nurture them individually, then transplant them to individual pots. Here it is, three years later, and later this summer, delicate pink flowers will hover like small butterflies above each of the ten fat tubers.

Sure, it may be worthwhile to start a few corn plants indoors, because fresh sweet corn is one of the ultimate gustatory pleasures of the vegetable garden. But is zucchini that toothsome?

GUT PLANTING

Not My Usual Approach

I couldn’t help myself, so yesterday I broke protocol. After quite a few days of bright sunshine with daytime temperatures in the 70s, even the 80s a couple of days, I went ahead and planted all the tomato and pepper plants that I’ve been nurturing since their birth a few weeks ago — six weeks for the tomatoes, ten weeks for the peppers. Looking ahead, warm sunny days should follow, with night temperatures are predicted to dip down only into the 50s.Tomatoes for planting

My usual protocol has been to plant not with my gut, but with the calendar date. Over the years I’m come up with a detailed chart of when to sow and transplant different kinds of vegetables based on the average dates of the last killing frost. Here, that date is around May 21st. Or, it used to be. (That chart — which I included in my book Weedless Gardening — allows anyone anywhere to determine sowing and planting dates merely by plugging in the average date for the last killing frost for their garden. Last frost dates for specific locations are available online.)

As with other global warming trends, the average date of the last killing frost right here — meaning specifically in my garden, which is in a frost pocket — has been pushed back a week or more. In the past, I would wait until a week, even two weeks, after that last frost date to set tomato and pepper plants in the garden. The average frost date is just an average; that week or two made sure my plants wouldn’t be caught off guard by a clear, cold night that didn’t hew to averages and charts.

When it comes right down to it, early planting is a gamble. The odds were good, so I took the gamble. My actions were also shaded by my not wanting to repot all the seedlings that were soon to outgrow their containers, and my hankering to see my garden with lots of plants in it.Pepper, tomato, lettuce planted

Frost or Freeze

The word “frost” allows for some wiggle room. You’d think it meant any temperature below 32 degrees Fahrenheit. Not so. Temperatures between 29 and 32 degrees could be called a “light freeze.” Peppers and tomatoes sufficiently toughened up (“hardened off”) with some exposure to bright sunlight, cool temperatures, and wind can cruise right through a light freeze unscathed.

Moderate freezes, 25 to 28 degrees F., would cause some damage. A severe freeze, with temperatures below 24 degrees F. spells trouble for any tender vegetables plant. Sufficiently hardened off cool season plants, such as cabbage and its kin, lettuce, and chard, are usually fine even at those temperatures. 

In all this, whether or not damage or death occur must factor in how fast cold descends on the garden, and how long it sits around.

At this point, I’m confident that my plants will be fine. If Ol’ Man Winter decides to peek in again, I can always throw a cover — flower pots, sheets, row cover — over the plants to protect them from cold.

Upright Pepper Plants

Let’s shift gears and take a look at growing peppers, specifically, keeping them upright. My pepper plants, and perhaps yours, become top heavy with their weight of maturing fruit. Mine especially so because I don’t pick any until they have fully matured, turning red or whatever other color they sport at full maturity. Especially prone to toppling is the variety Sweet Italia, which I grow because of its especially luscious fruits which also ripen early.

I’ve tried various methods of keeping Sweet Italia’s fruit laden stems up. In the past, I grew them in those cone shaped, wire cages often sold for tomatoes, for which they are useless. Those cages get tangled together in storage and make weeding very difficult. My bamboo provides an excess of stakes of various thickness; three stakes next to a plant does keep the plant upright, but not its fruit-laden arms.peppers in garden

Twine woven in among the plants and tied to metal stakes set a few feet apart along the row held plants and most arms up, but scrunched everything together too much, cutting down light penetration.

This year my plants are going to stand up with the help of livestock fencing panels, cattle panels with 6×8 inch openings, and goat and sheep panels with 4×4 inch openings. With a bolt cutter I clipped them into one-square-wide strips. Each bed is home to two rows, about 20 inches apart, of peppers, with plants set 16 inches apart in the row. Sixteen inch spacing allows me to set the panel strips centered over the plants. For now the strips are on the ground beneath the plants.Pepper trellis

Once the plants grow large and start extending their arms, I’ll raise the strips with some bricks set every few feet as high as needed to do their job.

I hope this works, and welcome any comments on the prognosis. Do you have a method for successfully keeping your peppers from toppling or resting too many fruits on the ground? Perhaps your peppers grow unaided?

SPRING SEEDING: WHEN?

Truth From a Thermometer

Stop by my vegetable garden this time of year and you might see one or more thermometers poking out of the ground. No, I’m not experimenting with a new way to monitor the soil’s health. Soil temperature can serve as a guide for timely sowing of seeds outdoors. Seed sown in soil that is too cold won’t germinate; just sitting there waiting for warmer weather, ungerminated seeds are liable to rot or be eaten by animals.Temperature in shallow soil

Lettuce, onion, parsnip, and spinach seeds can be planted earliest. They’ll germinate just about as soon as ice in the soil thaws. At the other end of the spectrum are seeds of melons and squash, which won’t germinate until the soil temperature reaches sixty-five degrees. The minimum temperature required for germination of other vegetable seeds is as follows: forty degrees for beets, cabbage and its kin, carrots, peas, chard, parsley, celery, and radishes; fifty degrees for sweet corn and turnips; and sixty degrees for beans, cucumbers, and okra. 

Temperature deeper in the soilThe above listing gives minimum, not optimum, temperatures for germination. Optimum temperatures might be even thirty degrees higher than the minimums, as in the case of celery which germinates quickest at seventy degrees. Waiting for the optimum temperature isn’t advisable, though. To delay sowing until the soil temperature reached the optimum temperature for pea germination (seventy-five degrees) would result in a midsummer harvest, when hot, dry weather turns peas coarse in taste and texture.

But What Temperature is Best?

For indoor seeding in seed flats, I use an electric, thermostatically controlled heating mat, waterproof and made for seed germination. With so many different kinds of seeds to grow, I can’t be twisting the thermostat dial up and down to suit each seed’s optimum. The temperature remains set at about 80 degrees. Which is why lettuce sown a couple of weeks ago still hasn’t sprouted.Heating mat

Each kind of seed also has a maximum temperature at which it will sprout. For lettuce, that’s about 80 degrees. I resowed a few days ago, setting the lettuce flat on the cooler greenhouse bench instead of the mat, and green leaves have already shown their faces. Other vegetable seeds notorious for sulking in the heat are parsnip, celery, and pea. Turnip is interesting for being eager to sprout anywhere in the broad range of 60 to 105 degrees!

For more details on temperatures needed for seed germination, as well as plant growing and charts and tables with lots of other stuff about growing vegetables, I highly recommend Knott’s Handbook for Vegetable Growers, available in hard copy or online.

Tips to Advance the Season

No need to twiddle your thumbs waiting for the soil to warm; the warming process can be speeded up. (I detail a number of ways to do this in my book Weedless Gardening.) A thick, organic mulch, though generally beneficial to the soil, insulates the soil and hence delays warming this time of year. So for early sowings, rake back the mulch to expose the soil to the sun. Once the soil is warm — about mid-June — replace the mulch to recoup its benefits.Raking up mulch

Where soil is not blanketed with mulch, warming can be hastened by forming small ridges oriented east and west. You plant seeds on the south faces of these ridges. With sunlight beaming directly down on these south-facing ridges, the soil there warms a bit faster than the surrounding soil. Soil warmed on ridges(For the same reason, here in the Northern Hemisphere, south-facing slopes are warmer than north-facing slopes. North-facing slopes ideal for planting peaches and apricots to delay their flowers to when there’s less possibility of a later spring frost snuffing them out.)

Another way to warm the ground for early spring planting is to grow plants in raised beds. In raised beds the soil warms early because it’s more exposed to ambient air temperatures. Raised beds are well-drained, so dry more quickly; it takes more heat to warm a wet soil than a dry soil.Raised beds

Changing the color of the soil surface affects its temperature. Black plastic mulch is unsightly, but it does warm the soil. Hide the plastic’s ugliness with a layer of bark chips and the plastic’s warming effect will be lost. In climates such as ours, where the soil is just marginally warm enough for vegetables like peppers, melons, and eggplants even in summer, the plastic mulch improves growth if left in place the whole season.

A top layer of compost on the ground darkens the soil in a more attractive manner than black plastic, though the effect on soil temperature is less dramatic.  Compost does, of course, confer other benefits to the soil, such as improving the soil’s physical structure and providing essential nutrients. These benefits are lacking with black plastic.

Natural Indicators

All these techniques warm the soil a little faster than it would otherwise. You can measure the effect with a soil thermometer, but a thermometer is not mandatory for determining when to sow seeds. The soil slowly but surely warms up at about the same rate each spring, so you can sow by calendar dates, subtracting a few days if you deliberately hasten soil-warming. Garden bed with compost

Since the soil temperature and spring blossoms are influenced by the same general warming trend, even better is to sow seeds according to what perennial or woody plants are in bloom. For instance, you might plant peas just as the forsythias blossom, and corn according to the traditional indicator — when oak leaves are the size of mouse ears. A soil thermometer should register about forty degrees in the first case, and fifty degrees in the second. 

 

SOMETIMES CALLED SPARROW GRASS, SOMETIMES ASPARAGOS

Many Reasons to Grow Asparagus

In my book Weedless Gardening, I begin the section about asparagus with the statement “Forget about the usual directives to excavate deep trenches when planting one- or two-year-old crowns of asparagus.” More about planting in a bit; let me first lay out my case about why YOU should grow asparagus.

With most vegetables, by the time you taste them fresh-picked somewhere, it’s too late in the season to plant them in your garden. Not so with asparagus. Asparagus spearBorrow a taste from a neighbor’s asparagus bed, or from a wild clump along a fencerow, and you’re likely to want some growing outside your own back door. Minutes-old asparagus has a very different flavor and texture (both much better) than any asparagus that reaches the markets. The time to plant is now.

A big plus for asparagus is that it’s a perennial plant, so once a bed is planted, more time is spent picking than any other activity. An established planting can reward the gardener with tender green spears for a half a century or more. My asparagus bed is thirty-six years old and about twenty-five feet long; on every warm day, the bed offers enough stalks for a meal for two.

Deer and rabbits don’t have a taste for asparagus so no need to plant it within the vegetable garden or any protected area. (My dogs have eclectic palates, and they joined in on the harvest until I made clear that asparagus was not dog food.)Asparagus growing through mulch Planting asparagus beyond the confines of the vegetable garden works out well because the lacy, green foliage stands as a backdrop for perennial flowers. Or, it can soften the line of a wall or fence.Asparagus in August

Traditional Planting Method is Unduly Hard

Now, back to what I wrote about planting asparagus in Weedless Gardening, (available, by the way, at the usual sources as well as, signed, from my website, here).

The traditional method for planting an asparagus bed entails digging a trench a foot or more deep, setting the roots — one-year-old roots establish best — in the bottom with a covering of a shovelful of soil, then filling in the trench gradually as the stalks grew.

Whew! I planted my own asparagus bed just deep enough to cover the upward pointing buds from which the roots radiate, and the plants do just fine.

The main reasons for the traditional deep planting were to protect the crowns from overzealous hoes or other tillage implements, and from knives during harvest. But I don’t till my asparagus bed. I just pile on some mulch every year. And I harvest by snapping the stalks off with my fingers, rather than cutting into the soil with a knife.Asparagus harvest

Gardeners with patience sow seeds, which need a year more in the ground than roots before harvest can begin. Seed sowing is straightforward, except that germination is slow. Soak the seeds in water for a few hours before sowing to shorten germination time.asparagus seedlings

Whether starting with seeds or plants, the bed needs to be planted in full sun, with eighteen inches between plants in the row, and four feet between rows.

Tune into Asparagus’s Life Cycle

Although asparagus roots live on year after year, the feathery tops turn brown and die back to the ground every fall. Asparagus, yellowing foliageThen, when the spring sun warms the soil, energy stored in the roots fuels growth of the spears. As the spears grow higher and higher, feathery green branches unfold. Photosynthesis within these green branches pumps energy to the root system, energy that keeps the roots alive through the winter and fuels early growth of spears the following spring, thus completing the plant’s annual cycle. (The true leaves of asparagus, which are the small scales on the stems, are much reduced in size and function; the green stems take on most of the job of photosynthesis for this plant.) 

Harvesting asparagus steals some of the energy that had been stored in the roots. The plant must build adequate reserves before tender stalks can be spared for our plates, and then each season left enough time to grow freely to replenish its energy reserves.

The first season of planting, no asparagus is harvested; if good growth was made the first season, some can be harvested the second season. The plants are ready for a full harvest by the third season. 

Full harvest means cutting all stalks from the time they first emerge until about the end of June. asparagusRemember, the plants do need some time to nourish their roots in preparation for winter. Following the last harvest, all new green stems are left untouched until their summer job is over, as they turn brown in the fall.

Asparagus grew wild along the shores of the Mediterranean before plants were transplanted to Greek and Roman gardens. The steaming dish of asparagus on my table today is virtually identical to the asparagus enjoyed by the ancients over 2000 years ago. Even our word for the vegetable is nearly identical to, and derived from, the Greek word asparagos. 

Asparagus came to America with the early colonists and has been cultivated extensively here since then. The red berries borne on female plants attract birds that spread the seed, so asparagus now pops up as an “escape” from cultivation along fencerows and roadsides.

 

A HOUSEPLANT, AN “ALMOND,” AND PAPER

Easiest Houseplant of All?!

What with the frigid temperatures and snow-blanketed ground outside, at least here in New York’s mid-Hudson Valley, I turn my attention indoors to a houseplant. To anyone claiming a non-green thumb, this is a houseplant even you can grow. 

Most common problems in growing houseplants (garden plants also) come from improper watering. Too many houseplants suffer short lives, either withering in soil allowed to go bone dry between waterings, or gasping for air in constantly waterlogged soil. Also bad off yet are those plants forced to alternately suffer from both extremes.King Tut cyperus

The plant I have in mind is umbrella plant (Cyperus alternifolius); it requires no skill at all in watering. Because it’s native to shallow waters, you never need to decide whether or not to water. Water is always needed! The way to grow this plant is by standing its pot in a deep saucer which is always kept filled with a couple of inches of water. What could be simpler?

One caution, though. The top edge of the saucer does have to be below the rim of the pot. Umbrella plants like their roots constantly bathed in water, but not their stems.

Lest you think that umbrella plant sacrifices good looks for ease of care, it doesn’t. Picture a graceful clump of bare, slender stems, each stem capped with a whorl of leaves that radiate out like the ribs of a denuded umbrella.

cyperus plant

The stems are two to four feet tall, each leaf four to eight inches long. A dwarf form of the plant, botanically C. albostriatus, grows only a foot or so high, and has grassy leaves growing in amongst the stems at the base of the plant. There’s also a variegated form of umbrella plant, and a wispy one with especially thin leaves and stems. Cyperus  flowers

Umbrella plants aren’t finicky about care other than watering. They grow best in sunny windows, but get along in any bright room. As far as potting soil, your regular homemade or packaged mix will suffice. Umbrella plants like a near-neutral pH, as do most other houseplants.

Want More?

As the clump of stems ages and expands, they eventually get overcrowded in the pot, calling out to be repotted. You could move it to a yet larger pot, or make new plants by pulling apart, cutting if necessary, the large clumps to make smaller clumps and potting each of them separately. 

One way wild umbrella plants propagate is by taking root where their leaves touch ground when the stems arch over. You can mimic this habit indoors if you want to increase your umbrella plant holdings without dividing the clump. Fold the leaves down around the stem with a rubber band, as if you were closing the umbrella. Cut the stem a few inches below the whorl of leaves and poke the umbrella, leaves pointing upward, into some potting soil — kept constantly moist, of course.

An Almondy Relative

Though you may be unfamiliar with umbrella plant, you probably have come across its near-relatives either in the garden or in literature. One relative is yellow nutsedge (C. esculentum), a plant usually considered a weed and inhabiting wet soils from Maine down to the tropics. 

The edible nutsedge, also C, esculentum, usually called chufa or earth almond, is not invasive, at least in what I’ve read from many sources, and in my experiences growing the plants. It’s a perennial that has been cultivated since prehistoric times and was an important food in ancient Egypt.

But esculentum in the botanical name means “edible,” and refers to the sweet, nut-like tubers the plant produces below ground. I grow this plant, and now consider it quite esculentum, with a taste and texture not unlike fresh coconut. Chufa tubersThe main challenge with this plant is clearing and separating the almond-sized tubers from soil and small stones.

Storage improves their flavor, but they must be dried for storage, at which point they become almost rock hard. Give them an overnight soaking and they’re ready to eat as a snack or incorporate into other edibles or drinkables.

Paper Plant

Umbrella plant’s other famous relative is papyrus (C. papyrus), a plant that once grew wild along the Nile River. In ancient times, papyrus was used not only to make paper, but also to build boats and as food. Papyrus looks much like umbrella plant, and being subtropical, also would make a good houseplant. But with stems that may soar to fifteen feet in height, except for the diminutive variety King Tut, this species is too tall for most living rooms.

The Egyptians never recorded their method for making papyrus into paper but the Romans learned the process from the Egyptians and Pliny the Elder, a Roman, wrote about it in the first century B.C.

Genuine, Egyptian papyrus

Genuine, Egyptian papyrus

Here’s how: You  put on your toga and sandals (the latter also once made from papyrus), and prune down a few umbrella plant stalks. Cut the stalks into strips and, after soaking them in water for a day, lay them side by side in two perpendicular layers. Make a sandwich of the woven mat surrounded on either side by cloth, to absorb moisture, surrounded on either side with pieces of wood, then press.

In Egyptian sunlight, you could figure on the paper being dry and ready for use after about three weeks. Cut it to size to fit your printer.

STUFFED

Breadcrumb Seeds?

Who’s getting stuffed for Thanksgiving this year, you or your turkey, or your tofurkey? A good stuffing (of the real or faux bird) is good enough to eat sans bird. And, for best quality, you can grow it yourself. Not by dropping seeds of a “stuffing plant” in the soil, but by planting all the ingredients you need.

The bread and butter of any stuffing is some starchy food, often bread and butter itself, the bread usually as crumbs. There’s no breadcrumb plant, so forget about growing breadcrumbs. Not that you couldn’t buy some wheat berries, plant them next spring, harvest the grain when the plants dry down, thresh and winnow out the berries, grind them into flour, make the flour into bread, then let the bread go stale and pound it into bread crumbs. Whew! Most of us are not going to do this. 

“The Bread Tree”

As an alternative to bread crumbs, might I suggest chestnuts (Castanea spp.)? Chestnut falling from its burrThey’re often billed as the “bread tree” because in contrast to other nuts, which are high in fats and protein, chestnuts are high in starch. Obviously, you’re not going to be eating home-grown chestnut stuffing this year, or next, or the next; it takes awhile for a chestnut tree to start bearing. Not that long though. I’ve had plants grown from seed begin to bear within six years, and a grafted tree from a nursery should bear even sooner than that.

(Although their nuts look similar, chestnuts should not be confused with horse chestnuts, Hippocastanum spp.. The latter are toxic. Horse chestnuts have compound leaves, very showy flowers, and their nuts are encased in a spiky capsule. Edible chestnuts have simple leaves, nonshowy flowers, and the nuts are encased in a cupule riddled with very sharp spines.)

The North American, native and majestic American chestnut (C. dentata) has been decimated by chestnut blight but there are, fortunately other species that resist the blight. A good choice for nut production would be species or hybrids of Chinese chestnut (C. mollisima). Two different varieties are needed for cross-pollination.Chestnuts in a basket

The only caution in planting chestnut trees is to avoid planting them near where people frequently walk. Each fall the ground beneath the trees is littered with the opened, spiny cupules.
Chestnut tree in summer
Chestnut tree in autumn

More Crumby Alternatives

While you are waiting to harvest chestnuts, make stuffing based on one of the more quickly grown starchy vegetables. Potatoes, for instance. The best potatoes for making stuffing will be those that are dry and mealy, russet varieties such as Goldrush, Burbank, and Idaho. 

“Dry and mealy” is also the mantra to use when choosing a winter squash variety to grow as a base for stuffing. The phrase “squash stuffing” has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it? My recommendation for a dry, mealy squash is a buttercup type called Chestnut or Sweet Mama. 

If you really want a truly authentic starchy base for stuffing, the plant to grow is nu nu, a golfball-sized, starchy tuber also called makoosit or groundnut (Apios americana). Groundnut tubersNative Americans harvested and ate nu nu, and this was one of the foods crucial in helping the Pilgrims survive their first winters in Massachusetts.

Be careful planting nu nu because it can spread like a weed to give you more stuff for stuffing than you would ever need. I planted it in a perennial flower bed decades ago. That was the wrong place for it, and I’ve spent decades trying to weed it out, unsuccessfully.

On the plus side, the plants do sport decorative and sweetly fragrant, lilac colored flowers, so it is worth growing where it can be regimented. Nu nu tubers grow attached a few inches apart along underground stems.Groundnut flowers

Seasonal Seasonings

Stuffing isn’t only about the bread-y ingredient. It also needs some seasoning. Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme, summer savory, sweet marjoram — they’re all very easy to grow. Sage and thyme are perennials, each also available in designer flavors. Pineapple sage, caraway thyme, and lemon thyme, for instance.

Potted rosemary tree in winter

Rosemary is also a perennial, cold hardy to zone 7, possibly even zone 6. It’s is not hardy here but I grow it as a “standard” (trained as a small tree) in a pot that summers outdoors and lives indoors at a sunny kitchen window in winter to provide pretty greenery, piney fragrance, and savory snippings.

Some vegetables from the garden round out and make more interesting a stuffing. Onion, celery, and carrots are mainstays, but vegetables such as parsnips and garlic can make special — and powerful — flavor contributions. 

Have a happy and healthy Thanksgiving!

WHAT I LEARNED ABOUT BRUSSELS SPROUTS

Sprout Success

Years ago, a friend referred to Brussels sprouts as “little green balls of death;” that never exactly increased the gustatory appeal of this vegetable for me. The same could be said for “a little boiled to death,” a too common way of preparing the vegetable, and perhaps that’s what the friend had actually said.

Still, I’m always up for a horticultural challenge, even if I had never had success with Brussels sprouts. What does “lack of success” mean with Brussels sprouts? Dime-size sprouts.

Sit tight. This season my Brussels sprouts are a roaring success, and I’m going to impart to you what I learned about growing this sometimes maligned vegetable. Or, at least, what I did differently this year, which was a few things, so I’m not sure whether one or more of them was responsible for my achievement. It could even have been the weather, which I had no hand in.Brussels sprouts on plant

Brussels sprouts is a very long season vegetable, so seeds need to be sown in spring for a fall harvest. Check. I planted mine back indoors in March for transplanting in May. They could have been sown a little later, at some sacrifice of yield.

A big difference in what I did this year was that the seeds that I sowed were those of a new variety, Catskill. Although a new variety for me, Catskill is actually an old variety, first introduced in 1941 by Arthur White, of Arkport, New York. It’s billed as yielding especially large sprouts (yes) on compact stalks (nope). In previous years I grew Gustus, Hestia, and Prince Marvel, and all were duds for me.

The Catskill mountains are only an hour’s drive away from my farmden, which perhaps explains my success with the same-named variety. But, as they often say (quietly) in advertising, “your results may differ.” My suggestion is to try a few varieties until you find one that does well wherever you garden or farmden.

Brussels sprouts requires a rich, near neutral soil high in organic matter. Check. My Brussels sprouts beds have always received, as do my other vegetable beds, an annual dressing of a one-inch depth of compost. Decomposition of compost enriches the soil with a variety of nutrients, including nitrogen.

Still, another big difference in what I did this year was to give my plants an extra oomph with, in addition to the compost, a sprinkling (1 pound per 100 square feet) of soybean meal, an organic source of nitrogen.

In anticipation or hope of large plants, each Brussels sprouts plant was afforded plenty of elbow room this year, with plants two-and-a-half feet apart down the middle of the three-foot-wide bed. They were flanked on each side by a single row of early carrots which, I figured, would be harvested and out of the way by the time the Brussels sprouts plants were spreading their wings (leaves).View of bed of Brussels sprouts

My previous efforts with Brussels sprouts always resulted in three-foot-high plants that, early in their youth, flopped to the ground. Only after a plant’s supine stem had created a firm base would the end of its growing stem curve more or less upward, according to original plan. That youthful waywardness wasted and muddied lowermost sprouts, with the sprawling plant demanding even more space, which was a problem in my intensively-planted garden.

This year each plant had the companionship of a sturdy metal pole right from the get-go. Loops of string around the stalks and the stakes kept up with the plants’ upward mobility.

Pest Alert

Finally, and very important, is pest control, specifically of any one of the few leaf-eating caterpillars, colloquially called cabbage worms, which are the offspring of of those cheery, white moths that flutter among the plants on sunny days. The caterpillars also attack broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflower, all relatives in the cabbage family (Brassicaceae).Cabbageworms

A very effective and nontoxic to most creatures (including to you and to me) control is spraying with Bacillus thuringienses, a naturally-occurring bacterium extracted from the soil. This material is more easily remembered under the name Bt, packaged up under such commercial names as Thuricide, Dipel, and Monterey B.t.

I checked the plants frequently through the growing season, at first just crushing any caterpillars I found and, only when the damage was getting severe, resorting to the spray. Cabbageworms, like any pest, can develop resistance to most pesticides, more likely the more that is used. 

GMO. No

As an aside, that potential resistance of a pest to Bt is a problem with crops developed as genetically modified organisms wit Bt toxins. Almost all commercial corn and cotton have been genetically engineered in this way; the genetic material has also been incorporated into cotton, potato, rice, eggplant, canola, tomato, broccoli, collards, chickpea, spinach, soybean, tobacco, and cauliflower.

The problem arises because a field of plants expressing the Bt toxins is akin to that whole field being sprayed with Bt all season long. There is evidence of the development of resistance to Bt by insect pests of the genetically modified crop plants.

SWEET CORN OP-ED

Ah, the Good Ole’ Days

The good ol’ days seemed to have had snowier winters, greener grass, and more toothsome apples. Perhaps it was so. One thing those good ol’ days definitely did not have was sweeter sweet corn. Only in the past few decades have plant breeders found new genes that shoot the sugar content of sweet corn sky-high.
corn on stalk
Papoon corn, the first recorded variety of sweet corn, probably originated as a chance mutation of a single gene of field corn. That gene, the so-called sugary gene (abbreviated su), brought the sugar level in corn from four percent up to ten percent.

We gardeners have tried to make the most of that ten percent ever since the time when 18th century Plymouth, Massachusetts gardeners first grew Papoon corn. We pick an ear just when each kernel is creamy and as sweet as can be. Since sugars in corn start changing to starch as soon as the ear is picked, we eat the corn right out in the garden or else rush it to the kitchen to a pot of already boiling water. In only one day, half that sugar will turn to starch.

Quantum Corn

Sweetness in sweet corn took a quantum leap around the middle of the last century as a result of two genes. The first gene, called the shrunken-2 gene (abbreviated sh2) because of the way the dried kernels shrivel up, pushes the sugar level in corn up to a whopping thirty-seven percent. Not only that, but even two days after picking, that corn still has twenty-nine percent sugar.

The variety Illini Xtra Sweet was the first of the appropriately-named “supersweet” sweet corns. Other varieties with this gene are Early Xtra Sweet, American Dream, and SignatureXR. Kernels of these varieties have thick skins and lack a creamy texture.

The second gene responsible for sweeter sweet corn is the “sugar enhanced gene” (abbreviated se). The se gene is effective only in combination with the su gene of regular sweet corn, and the combination of the two genes results in varying degrees of sweetness, typically about twice as sweet as traditional sweet corn, and tender kernels. 

Still no need to scurry to the kitchen with se varieties, because they also retain their sweetness for a long time, but only because they start out sweeter. Kandy Korn EH, Sugar Buns EH, Silverado, and Snow Queen EH are varieties with the se gene. Many of these varieties have “EH,” which stands for “everlasting heritage,” in their names.

Juggling genes around to get the best of all worlds resulted in two more hybrid types of corn. “Synergistic” (syn) varieties have some su kernels from traditional sweet corn added to each ear of supersweet (shr) corn, typically about 25%, in an effort to balance sweetness, creaminess of texture, and tenderness. “Augmented sh2” varieties have some se and su genes added to an sh2 parent, basically combining all of the above genes, resulting in more sweetness and less toughness.

In case you’re wondering, none of these varieties are necessarily genetically modified (GM). All can be produced with traditional corn breeding techniques.

What’s Not to Love

Why doesn’t every gardener plant these new sweet corns? (Because of their sweetness and their ability to hang on to it longer after harvest, pretty much every farmer does limit their planting to these newfangled corns these days.) One reason not to plant these varieties is because these varieties need special care. Their seeds are finicky, and will rot just as soon as grow if planted in soils that are too cool, too dry, or too wet. Soil microorganisms also like that extra sweetness. Even after the seeds have been coaxed to germinate, the resulting seedlings often lack vigor. 

The sweeter sweet corns can lose almost all their sweetness if the wrong pollen blows onto their silks. Basically, all of the above varieties need to be isolated from all of the other above varieties except for the combination of traditional (su) varieties and sugar enhanced (se) varieties, although cross-pollination between the latter two will dilute full expression of each variety’s characteristics. The only way to minimize contamination between varieties is to separate them by at least 250 feet, or else plant varieties whose maturities differ by more than two weeks.

And what about flavor: Is sweetness all we want from sweet corn? The sweeter sweet corn varieties tend to taste watery and lack a “corny” flavor. If breeders could develop a sweet corn with ninety-five percent sugar, would that be even better? 

Corn with thirty-seven percent sugar tastes too sweet to many gardeners. I remember years ago stopping at the farmstand of one of the large local growers and asking them if they had any Golden Bantam, an old fashioned variety of sweet — not supersweet — corn for sale. The farmer’s wife grinned sheepishly and said they grow that variety for themselves. 

Golden Bantam sweet corn, non-hybrid

Golden Bantam m-m-m-m

A milk chocolate bar, with about fifty percent sugar, isn’t all that much sweeter than a supersweet variety of corn, some of which can have as much as 44% sugar.

For some of us, traditional sweet corn varieties — such as, in addition to Golden Bantam, once-popular varieties as Seneca Chief, Stowell’s Evergreen, Country Gentleman, and Silver Queen — are as delicious as corn needs to be if they are picked at just the right stage, then eaten within minutes. Ten percent sugar, especially when coupled with with a rich, corny flavor, and some degree of chewiness, is enough for me.

In the past, I’ve heaped praise on Golden Bantam corn, which was the standard for excellence in sweet corn a hundred or so years ago. I grow only this variety, more specifically “8-row Golden Bantam,” which distinguishes it from many Golden Bantam sired hybrids, such as Golden Cross Bantam and Top Cross Bantam.

Golden Cross Bantam corn

Golden Cross Bantam (not bantam)

Last year I feared I hit a bump in the road with Golden Bantam, as one-quarter of my planting yielded nothing worth harvesting due to what may have been northern corn leaf blight. I went ahead and planted 8-row Golden Bantam again this spring and am happy to say that the corn looks fine.

Four 20 by 3 foot beds, with double rows of “hills” 2 feet apart in each row and 3 plants per hill, provides all our household needs for fresh steamed or roasted ears and frozen kernels for winter.

Bed of sweet corn

Bed of sweet corn

BEAUTIFUL DESIGN AND UGLY BLIGHT

Who Made This Garden?

I visited a most beautiful garden this week, one in which all the elements of garden design were deftly combined. At ground level groundcovers presented pleasing and harmonious shades of green and varying leaf textures. Leafy plants, lichens, and mosses all contributed to the symphony, the whole scene knit together by large slabs of underlying rock.

In places, low-growing junipers and deciduous shrubs and trees brought the garden up from ground level. Particularly striking was a very large boulder atop of which grew some trees whose exposed roots embraced the boulder before reaching to the ground for water and nourishment. Green moss growing on the boulder erased any starkness from this vignette.
Tree on Adirondack rock
Shakkei, or “borrowed scenery,” an important element in Japanese garden design, played an important role. Distant mountain peaks created a dramatic backdrop in some views.

This garden also utilized what I like to call “luscious landscaping,” that is, the incorporation of dual purpose plants -– for beauty and for eating -– into the landscape. Lowbush blueberry, a plant whose dainty flowers hang like white bells in spring, whose healthy, green foliage ignites in crimson come fall, and whose stems glow red in winter, formed the bulk of the groundcover species. A few lingonberry plants interspersed here and there promised red berries in autumn and evergreen leaves as a foil for those red blueberry stems in winter.

And just where was this wonderful garden? Or gardens, I should say. They were in the high peaks of New York’s Adirondack mountains. The garden designer? God or one described by Darwin, take your pick. Beautiful, at any rate. 

Blight Here in the Valley

Back down here on the flatlands, the word “blight” is often bantered around in connection with tomatoes this time of year – your tomatoes, my tomatoes, basically, everybody’s tomatoes! A few years ago, it was late blight (Phytophthera infestans) that was the blight that was of special interest. Attacking both tomatoes and potatoes, this is the same disease that caused the potato famine in Ireland in the 19th century.

Late blight was a problem in the northeast that year due to a particular confluence of events: infected tomato plants offered at “big box” stores gave the blight its start and rainy, humid conditions kept it going.

Diseased tomato plants

A few years ago; not this year.

The disease does not overwinter here in the north, except on infected potato tubers stored or left in the ground through winter. The way late blight arrives in the north is either on infected transplants or by hitchhiking up from southern fields, where it does overwinter, when weather conditions are just right. The spores can travel about 15 miles at a shot with the right winds coupled with cool, moist weather.

My tomato plants had their usual midsummer splotches and yellowing that year. I usually find pest problems more interesting than scary, I got a little worried about late blight. I tested for it by pulling a splotchy leaf off a plant, sliding it into a plastic bag, and waiting a day. White, fuzzy growth on the leaf would mean late blight. Testing was negative, although blight did eventually show up.

Only under the most severe conditions will I take special measures to control late blight. That year presented those conditions. I decided to spray my tomato plants, a measure to which I’d never before resorted. And it’s not because I grow mostly heirloom tomatoes; pretty much any and every tomato variety is susceptible to late blight. I used one of many copper sprays that are organically approved, still taking care not to dowse nearby other plants and to thoroughly protect myself while spraying.

Blight. What’s That?

That’s not to say all my tomato plants are the pictures of health this year, or any year. They do get some leaf yellowing and loss due to disease. Three diseases, in fact. One is the already mentioned late blight. The other two, which do rear their ugly heads reliably every year, are early blight and septoria leaf spot.

If you look closely at the leaf damage, you can tell which one(s) your tomatoes are hosting. Early blight (Alternaria solani), the most common of the three, marks leaves with dark-brown, round spots a half-inch in diameter, each surrounded by concentric rings.

Early blight

Early blight

Septoria leaf spot (Septoria lycopsersici) causes spots that are small, round and gray, each surrounded by a single, dark margin.

Septoria leaf spot

Septoria leaf spot

And late blight causes greenish-black splotches.

Late blight

Late blight

The names of any one of the leaf spot diseases is enough to conjure up fear of plague, but fortunately, all three can be lumped together when it comes to control. The first line of defense against any of the leaf-spot diseases is to keep disease spores away from tomato plants. Spores spend the winter in old plant debris, then are awakened and splashed onto new tomato leaves by rain during the growing season. Early blight and septoria spend the winter in old tomato refuse on the ground. Potato tubers can overwinter this far north on stored potato tubers that are planted out for the next season.

All of which makes a good case for a thorough garden cleanup each fall. At the end of the season I load up my garden cart and haul over to the compost pile old tomato and potato stems, leaves, and fruits. 

During the growing season, any mulch — my choice is compost — keeps raindrops from splashing spores up onto plant leaves. Removing infected leaves during the growing season may also help control disease spread. I leave leaves intact, figuring more photosynthesis makes for stronger plants (except, of course, for any leaves too far gone to make a significant contribution to the plant).

Crop rotation each year moves tomato plants away from any spores left from the previous season’s crop. Plant tomatoes in a new location in the garden each year, never returning them to the same spot until four years have elapsed — admittedly a tall order in a small garden.

Another line of defense against leaf spot diseases, many diseases for that matter, is to create an environment inhospitable to them. Fungi thrive in dark, moist, humid places. Let plants bask in full sun without obstructions such as weeds, fences, or other garden plants that would slow air circulation. 
Staked tomatoes
I train each tomato plant to a single stem, which is staked, putting distance between the leaves and any spores on the soil, and exposing the plant to better air circulation. Spaced 18 inches apart, the plants yield less per plant than tomato plants allowed to run wild, but because they utilize a third dimension — up — more tomatoes per land area. Also earlier and with bigger fruits.

Staked tomatoes