Colorful, Sometimes Tasty, Ground

Lurid Ground

Lurid, violet flowers have sprouted in the wood chip mulch beneath my row of dwarf pear trees. The flowers are autumn crocuses, the first part of the two-part flowery show that takes place each autumn in that piece of ground.
The second part of that flowery show, soon to follow, will be autumn crocuses. “But,” you exclaim, “autumn crocuses were the first part of the show!” Let me explain.

This first show is from a flower called autumn crocus but which is botanically a Colchicum species. It’s not really a crocus, not even related. Colchicum flowers resemble true crocus flowers, on steroids. The second show will be from true crocuses (that is, Crocus species) that happen to bloom in autumn. The Crocus autumn crocuses are dainty and in colors like our spring crocuses.

What’s really unique about the colchicum flowers, and what makes them so striking, is that, first, they emerge from the soil this time of year, and second, that they do so without any leaves, making the contrast between the mulched ground and the flowers all the more dramatic. The color itself is dramatic, the row of bold-colored blossoms painting a wide swath along the ground.
Purple autumn crocuses, in a row
Cochicums, like every other plant, need to photosynthesize, and, like every other plant, need leaves to do so. Those leaves, which are wide, long, and fairly large, appear for awhile in spring and look nothing like true crocus leaves. Not only do the plants not need leaves in autumn, they also don’t need soil. Colchicum bulbs will sprout their lurid violet flowers even if just left sitting on a bench or table!

Green Tastes Good

Aside from spots of bright color, the dominant color in my garden is green. That verdure is especially evident in my vegetable garden, now in its autumn glory – lush and green – and becoming more so every day. I’ve been sowing and planting with almost the same fervor as in spring.

Bed of lettuce and chinese cabbage

Bed of lettuce and chinese cabbage

A few weeks ago I made my last planting of outdoor lettuce, using transplants that had been growing in seed flats for about a month. The varying textures and colors of the different varieties make a pretty tapestry on the ground, so pretty that it seems almost a shame to pick any of the tender, tasty heads and ruin the picture. I’m not sure how large they’ll grow before stopped or turned to mush by really cold weather. Protection beneath a tunnel of clear plastic with, later, an additional covering of some spun-bonded row cover material, should keep them and me happy into December.

Other beds display yet more shades of green with varying textures. There’s a bed of kale, which has been pumping out deep green leaves for good eating since spring. Another bed has endive – Broad-Leaved Batavian — planted close enough so neighboring plants push each other’s leaves over the loosely forming heads. Shaded from sunlight, those inner leaves become tender and sweet, livened up with just a hint of bitterness.

Green, Not for Eating

Lushest green of all beds in my garden are those that are sprouting oats. Yes, that’s the same oats that we (and horses) eat, except that I didn’t plant these oats for eating. I plant oats as so-called cover crops, which are plants grown to improve and protect the soil.

I can only eat just so much lettuce, endive, kale, and other greens. If I’ve filled this quota for planting and no longer have further use for every bed this season, I plant it with oats. September 30th is my deadline because after this date — here in the lower Hudson Valley, at least — days are too short and weather becomes too cold to expect much growth.
Oat cover crop
Oats, just one of a number of potential cover crops, thrive in the cool weather of autumn and early winter. Their roots, pushing through the soil, crumble it and latch onto nutrients that might otherwise wash down below the root zone. After the roots die, they enrich the soil with humus and leave behind channels through which air and water can move within the soil. Above ground, the stems and leaves protect the soil surface from being washed around by pounding raindrops.

Most of all, I like the look of that green carpet of grassy oat leaves. Both I and Mother Nature abhor bare ground, which becomes subject to wind and water erosion, and large swings in temperatures through the year.

Shaving and Composting

 . . . But My Garden is in Order

“Some men there are who never shave (if they are so absurd as ever to shave), except when they go abroad, and who do not take care to wear polished boots in the bosoms of their families. I like a man who shaves (next to one who doesn’t shave) to satisfy his own conscience, and not for display, and who dresses as neatly at home as he does anywhere. Such a man will be likely to put his garden in complete order before the snow comes, so that its last days shall not present a scene of melancholy ruin and decay.” So wrote Charles Dudley Warner in his wonderful little book (much more than a gardening book) My Summer in a Garden (1898). I gave up shaving a few months ago, but I am putting my garden in order for autumn.

The scene is quite pretty as I look out my upstairs bedroom window upon my garden — my vegetable garden — each morning. Garden view, autumnWeeds have been removed from the paths and the beds, and spent plants have been cleared away. What remains of crops is a bed with some tall stalks of kale that were planted back in spring. Yet another bed is home to various varieties of lettuce interplanted with endive, all of which went in as transplants after an early crop of green beans had been cleared and the bed was weeded, then covered with an inch depth of compost. Also still lush green is a bed previously home to edamame, which was subsequently weeded, composted, and then seeded with turnips and winter radishes back in August.

From my window, the remaining eight beds in the garden present mostly grasses in various states of lushness. The “grass” in this case is oats, sown in any bed no longer needed for vegetables at the end of this season. I had cleared such beds of spent plants and weeds, sprinkled oat seeds (whole “feed oats” from Agway), watered, and then, as with the other beds, covered them with an inch depth of compost. One bed was finished for the season except for six floppy cabbage plants. I staked those plants up tall and out of the way, and then gave the bed the same treatment around the cabbages’ ankles.Cover crop, 3 beds with cabbage

Ready for Spring

That’s it: It all looks fresh, green, and neat — but more than that, what I did is also good for next year’s garden. Cleaning up weeds this year makes for less self-seeding of annual weeds and seeding and establishment of perennial weeds. Cleaning up spent plants takes any pest-ridden plant parts off-site, reducing chances for future pest problems.

Dense growth of oats protects the soil surface from pounding rain so water percolates in rather than skittles off the surface, promoting erosion. Cover crops, 2 bedsBelow ground, oat roots pull up nutrients that rain and snow might otherwise leach away into the groundwater.

And finally, that inch depth of compost that each bed gets helps support the many beneficial fungi, bacteria, actinomycetes, and other soil microorganisms that make up the soil food web. In so doing, it will provide ALL the nutrition my vegetable plants, even intensively planted vegetables, need until this time next year.

Mr. Warner, I think, would approve. Even my non-shaving; I do trim my beard regularly.

Add Water, Conveniently

A lot of compost is needed to cover all those vegetable beds. For all the beds in my two vegetable gardens, as well as those in my greenhouse, I estimate my annual needs at almost 5 cubic yards per year.

My compost is made from hay I scythe from my small field, kitchen scraps, spent vegetable plants and weeds from my garden, some horse manure in wood shavings, and, for fun, old cotton or woolen clothing, and leather gloves and shoes. 

Yes, I’ve read about striking a balance between feedstuffs high in carbon and those high in nitrogen in order to get a compost pile chugging along. As important is good aeration and moisture. Most compost piles that I see suffer from thirst.

A lot of water is required to wet the inner layers of a compost pile, and applying it requires more patience than I have. So I no longer do it manually.

I purchased a small sprinkler which I connected with 1/2” black plastic tubing (the same as I use for drip irrigation mainlines) along with some L connectors to lead the water line from the top center of a pile neatly down to ground level. Water pressure is variable from my well so I also put a pressure reducer, to 15 psi, in the line; a valve needing just one-time adjustment keeps the sprinkler wetting only the top of the pile. A U-shaped metal pin keeps the sprinkler firmly in place in the center of the pile.Compost sprinkler

All that’s needed after adding a batch of material to the pile is to set up the sprinkler, turn on the spigot, and set a timer for about 20 minutes. The droplets cover the pile right to the edges and in a day or two temperatures soar to 140° or more.

Next year at this time, this year’s piles will be ready to do their part in putting my garden neat and in order.

Making My Bed(s); The “Best” Tomato

Buckwheat Beds

About a month ago the greenhouse was looking messy as oxalis, grasses, chickweed, and other weeds were starting to carpet the mostly bare ground.  An unacceptable situation, considering that a month hence — now — I would need the space for planting in preparation for fall and winter.

The first step back in August was, obviously, to clear away the weeds, pulling almost each and every one out, roots and all. As long as weeds aren’t too overgrown or too abundant, the job is pleasantly satisfying. Moist soil also helps.

Pulling out weeds differs from the usual approach of preparing the soil by tilling it to discombobulate and bury weeds. I avoid tillage because it exposes buried weed seeds to light, which is just what new weeds need to germinate and grow. Tillage also burns up valuable humus and discombobulates not only the soil, but also resident fungi, earthworms, and other beneficial organisms.

I wasn’t ready to plant anything in some of those greenhouse beds a month ago, yet I hate to look at bare soil. (Mother Nature is equally repulsed by bare soil; she clothes it with weeds.) So I planted buckwheat, sprinkling the seeds thickly over the beds.Buckwheat sprouting in greenhouse Buckwheat provides a quick and temporary cover of the bare ground. Sprinkling it with water assured its getting off to a quick start.

Finally, I covered the ground with an inch-thick layer of compost. That amount of compost will nourish whatever’s growing in the beds for a whole year. It also provides cover to hold moisture around the buckwheat.

Only a few days later, buckwheat sprouts were already peeking up through the compost blanket. They went on to grow quickly in the heat of the season. Aboveground the dense foliage was, I hoped, doing its job of shading out any new weeds trying sprout, something for which buckwheat is famous. Buckwheat growing in greenhouseBelow ground, the roots were latching onto nutrients that might otherwise leach away, bringing them up into the roots, stems, and leaves.

By the first week in September, buckwheat stems were flopping down onto the ground. Anyway, it was time to remove them to make way for planting the greenhouse. I was anxious to see what kind of new weed growth, if any, presented itself beneath the buckwheat.

The goal was to remove the buckwheat without disrupting the soil. My fingers easily raked off the tops which detached themselves from the roots that were left intact in the soil.

Buckwheat lived up to its reputation: I could hardly find a weed anywhere!

Oat Beds

Outdoor beds in the vegetable garden have been receiving similar treatment, with some wrinkles. Those beds that are finished for the season, not needed for autumn harvest, get cover crops of oats rather than buckwheat. Buckwheat doesn’t like cool weather and is killed by the slightest frost.

The advantage of oats over buckwheat is that oats enjoy cool weather, growing lush and green, and even tolerate quite a bit of cold weather. Oat cover crop sproutingSo any bed no longer needed for autumn vegetables and cleared before about the end of September gets oats (and compost). After the end of September, short days don’t provide enough light for the oats to grow enough to warrant planting.

One benefit of oats, buckwheat, and any other cover crop is that they keep up appearances. Oat cover cropWhile I have great respect for soil, it’s not pretty to look at — and being bared isn’t good for the soil or the plants growing in it. I’d much rather look at a uniform, green carpet than bare, brown soil.

The Best(!!!!) Tomato

No need to rush summer vegetables out the door quite yet. I had the opportunity to try out a new tomato this season, Garden Gem, which has received a lot of fanfare.

Time travel back to 1995, when tomato breeder Harry Klee of the University of Florida, began to suss out what makes a great-tasting tomato using heirloom varieties, gas chromatography, and tasting panels. Then fast-forward to 2011, a field in Florida, where Harry tastes the result of his effort to breed a great-tasting tomato that is disease resistant and productive, and stands shipping. And so was born Garden Gem, the offspring of the luscious heirloom variety Maglia Rosa and the variety Fla. 8059, excellent in all characteristics except flavor.

Garden Gem scored as high as the heirloom parent for flavor.Garden Gem tomatoAs it turns out, even taste is a matter of taste: To me, Garden Gem is not a great-tasting tomato; not even a good-tasting tomato. It lacked any sweetness or richness to smooth out the acidity, which is basically all I tasted.

(The “perfect supermarket tomato,” as it was billed, was also a commercial flop, for now at least. It’s reported that Garden Gem too large for a small tomato and too small for a large tomato and, anyway, that consumers don’t really care about flavor.)

I Clothe The Ground

Sowing My Oats

Whew! Just made it under the wire. Sowing cover crops, that is. (Cover crops are plants grown solely to improve the soil.)

With the vegetable garden still filled to the brim, now overflowing with cabbage, kale, mustard, arugula, lettuce, Chinese cabbages, and radishes, with even corn and peppers still yielding well, where am I going to find room to plant a cover crop? Despite the cornucopia, some plants — the corn, peppers, and other warmth-loving vegetables — are on their way out. As they peter out, it’s too late in the season to sow any more radishes, lettuce, or any of the other cool season crops; there’s not enough time or sunlight for them to mature.

No reason to leave a recently cleared bed of early corn, early beans, or okra bare, so I planted those beds to a cover crop. Problem is that after a certain time of year, there’s not enough time or sunlight for even a cover crop to grow enough to do some good for the soil. My date for that is early October; further south it will be later; further north, earlier.

Right after clearing a bed of spent vegetable plants, I go over it carefully to remove every weed. Then I smooth the ground and give it a thorough watering to give the cover crop plants a quick start. What plants? Oats.Oat cover crop sequence

I grow oats as a cover crop because I never till the soil in my vegetable beds. Oats loves the cool weather of fall and early winter, quickly sprouting into a lush, green carpet. By February, though, that lush carpet turns tawny and flops down on the ground, dead. Come spring, I could plant right through that mulch. Or, it could be rolled up with a grass rake, or just pulled off barehanded; removing it speeds soil warming.

Other good cover crops for no-till gardens are barley and, to also add nitrogen to the soil, peas. Gardeners who till their ground usually plant rye grain as a cover crop. It survives winter, then grows with vengeance in spring; hence the need for tillage.

Back to that watered bed. I sprinkle the bed with oat seeds, then top the bed with an inch of compost. Green sprouts poke through that compost blanket in a couple of days or so.Oats sprouting

Is It Worth It?

Planting a cover crop in a bed that gets an annual dressing of an inch depth of compost may seem like “carrying coals to Newcastle.” After all, one potential benefit of cover crops are that they add organic matter to the soil. That inch of compost is already organic matter, and plenty of it.

In fact, I have never observed any better growth from a bed that has been cover cropped over one that received only the compost blanket. And for some reason, the cover cropped beds always seem to have more weeds in them in spring — surprising, since a cover crop should be shading or pumping out natural chemicals to suppress weeds! Perhaps some weeds insinuate themselves in fall in among the oat plants, where I can’t see them. My plan, this spring, is to cover some of the cover-cropped beds for a week or so with a black blanket (recycled billboard tarp, available online) which will warm the ground up quicker and snuff out potential weeds.

Even cover crops’ potential benefit of enriching the ground with organic matter doesn’t always pan out, and surely not the way I plant them. Organic matter is largely carbon. Young plants are relatively rich in nitrogen and poor in carbon, a ratio that reverses as the plants age. A young cover crop, then, doesn’t add organic matter to the soil; its excess nitrogen could even contribute to the oxidation and loss of organic matter. Oats planted this time of year grow lushly, but never mature enough to tip the scales in that early ratio of nitrogen and carbon.

(I dive into more depth about cover crops in my book Weedless Gardening.)

Cover Crop Brings Many Benefits

Still, I’m planting a cover crop — for some of its other benefits.

Rain and snow in the coming months can wash nutrients down and out of the soil. The oat roots, as long as they are alive, can suck up those errant nutrients and keep them nearer the surface for next season’s vegetable plants. Cover crops also soften the impact of rain pounding on the soil, preventing erosion.

Oats in January

Oats in January

As roots of cover crop plants push through and ramify in the soil, they nudge soil particles around to improve tilth (structure of the soil) making it crumbly, all to the liking of plants. These roots also team up and nourish other organisms, such as fungi, that also improve tilth. Channels of varying size are left in the soil as roots die off and rot away. Such channels provide easy conduits for new roots, as well as for air and water.

And finally, I’m planting cover crops for myself. With green fading from the landscape into reds, yellows and tawny browns, it’s refreshing to look upon the green carpet rather than bare soil in the vegetable garden.Oat cover crop


How to be a Good Gardener/Farmer, Simplified

    “The poor farmer grows weeds, the mediorcre farmer grows crops, the good farmer grows soil.” How true, when I think of the good farmers and gardeners I’ve visited over the years. I aspire to be a good farmdener and spend a lot of time trying to grow soil.
    Growing soil isn’t all that complicated. (You do need to start with good drainage of water.)
    First, keep the ground covered. Organic mulches, such as leaves, straw, and wood shavings, keep rain from pounding the surface. The pounding drives small soil particles into pores, sealing the soil surface so water can’t percolate in. Bacteria, fungi, worms, and other soil organisms gobble up organic mulches, releasing nutrients and forming humus, which improves percolation and moisture retention, and makes room also for air in the soil. In my gardens, I never want to see bare ground.Bare, cracked soil
    Live plants likewise protect the ground. The plants might be cabbages, marigolds, carrots, and other garden plants. They might be cover crops, such as rye, oats, peas, or buckwheat, sown specifically to clothe and protect the ground during or at the end of the growing season, and through winter. They might even be weeds — Mother Nature’s way of protecting her soil.
    Second, maintain soil organic matter. Mulches do this, as do growing plants. I go one step further, and import organic matter. Bushel after bushel of leaves that have been raked and bagged by neighbors are collected are unbagged and unraked once they arrive here. Leaves that have been vacuumed into a landscaper’s large truck and then left here in a pile get unpiled here one pitchfork and garden cart at a time.
    I also pitchfork horse manure into the bed of my pickup truck at a local stable. Mostly, that manure is transmuted into compost and then slathered onto beds in the vegetable garden.

Compost, in the making

Compost, in the making

    I also import — really just transfer — some organic material from one part of my property to another. My small hayfield gets mowed once a year by tractor to keep it from becoming forest but parts of it I periodically scythe, these mowings to feed, along with the horse manure (and kitchen waste, old garden plants, etc.), compost piles.
    The third key to growing soil is to maintain fertility. A soil test can confirm what, if anything, is needed. If the first and second points in growing soil are followed, fertility is probably up to snuff.
    And finally, the fourth key to growing soil: Minimize soil disturbance, avoiding tillage or, at least, excessive tillage. Tillage mixes so much oxygen into the ground that soil organisms go into a feeding frenzy, in so doing gobbling up organic matter too fast. Thus, many of the above benefits, physical, biological, and nutritional, waft away, literally, as carbon dioxide.
    Farming and gardening aren’t “natural.” At their best, they are a balancing act that leans towards emulating natural systems. Which is to say, for instance, that tillage, is not all bad; it can be part of good soil growing if not done to excess and points one, two, and three are followed.
    A measure of “organic matter content” (OMC), from a soil test, provides a rough indication of soil growing progress. Less than 3% means more work is needed. Five percent, or more, is very good. (My vegetable beds are at about 15%.)

Blue-Green Algae Redux

    Last week’s notes about the darker side — and the brighter side — of blue-green algae may have left everyone feeling helpless. After all, you can’t change the hot dry weather that is, in part, responsible for the current blooms. But nitrogen, phosphorus, and other minerals washing into waterways to feed the bacteria also play a role, and it’s something over which we have control.
    Improper septic systems are one culprit.
    More topical culprits are mineral nutrients originating in backyards and farm fields. Too many farmers and homeowners subscribe to the philosophy that “if a little is good, more is better,” when it comes to fertilizer. Not so. Too much fertilizer not only is a waste of money; it damages or kills plants and, with rain, leaches through or runs off the soil to eventually find its way into waterways. A soil test will tell what nutrients, if any, are needed.
    Even better, if fertilizer is needed, is to use an organic fertilizer. Most are not water soluble until metabolized by soil organisms, which means they are less likely to wash through the soil.
    Better still would be to use compost to provide fertility. Nutrients in compost are locked up physically and chemically, waiting to be released by soil life in synch with plant uptake and growth.

Terraced field in Viet Nam

Terraced field in Viet Nam

     Phosphorus is a plant nutrient that binds tightly to soil granules, but makes its way downhill when rain washes over bare soil to move it downslope. One way to keep this nutrient out of waterways is to keep the soil covered with mulch or vegetation, especially on sloping land. Another way is to avoid exposing soil by tillage. Another way, if tillage is needed, is to till perpendicularly to the fall line of a slope. And yet another way is to alternate tilled areas with grassy strips to catch and hold soil.

Rye cover crop

Rye cover crop

    Do a lot of these recommendations — mulches, cover crops, composts, no-till — for preventing blue-green algae blooms sound familiar? Good gardening and farming practices are also good for the environment.

Rye cover crop at Chanticleer Garden

Who’s Got a Pretty Garden?

The Liberty Bell was not the goal of my recent visit to Philadelphia. Instead, I made a bee-line for Chanticleer (, a public garden in Wayne, just outside Philly. It’s one of America’s great (as in fabulous, exceptional, matchless) gardens. Like other great gardens — the ones that I consider great, at least — flowers are not the main attraction at Chanticleer.
The beauty of Chanticleer rests, in large part, in its “structure.” That is, the enduring qualities of the views, the shape of the land, the large trees, the paving that leads your eyes and your feet, and the walls.
One special structural feature of Chanticleer is its ruins. Yes, ruins! Not actual ruins, but a stone mansion, roofless and apparently falling apart — all built to look that way. Why? Because ruins add a romantic air to a garden. Dilapidation. Plants re-enveloping the decrepitude, much like the lush trees ready to gobble up oblivious humans frolicking in Fragonard’s Roccoco landscapes. A return to the primitive, to Eden, Nature regaining the upper hand.
Chanticleer’s ruins may look like Nature is gaining control but it’s not so. After all, this ruin was built. The plants, likewise, are planted. So dripping out from crannies among the rocks are chains of succulent plants. Water gathers in nooks (constructed, of course) in which grow water plants. In one “room” that could have been a main hall in this ruined mansion, if it had ever began life as a non-ruined mansion, is a large, stone table with a mirrored surface. The edges of the table actually form a lip which hold the pool of water that makes the table’s mirrored tabletop.
Chanticleer is not all ruin, just one little section. Another distinctive feature of the garden is its sweeps

of grasses. Lawn sculpture, of lawn. So there is mown lawn within which are splayed large sections of tufted, tawny, clumping grasses (fescues, I believe). Cover crops, which are used on farms for soil improvement, are used decoratively at Chanticleer, perhaps also for soil improvement. One 70-foot-long by 15-foot-wide, leaf-shaped bed had been tilled and was sprouting “veins” of rye(?) plants along its length.

Chanticleer sports many annual or cold tender plants distinctive for the size, color, or shapes of their

leaves. Some grow in pots, attractive and distinctive in their own right. In response to my query about how they store all those tender plants in winter, I was told that most were discarded. Chanticleer closes for the season November 3rd.

Oh, and they do have pretty flowers also at Chanticleer.
Returning to my own garden, has Chanticleer now provided inspiration for here? No. My garden is a very different kind of garden from Chanticleer. Chanticleer provides a thoroughly enjoyable feast for the eyes, but not something I need to take home.
The main emphasis here on the farmden (see, it’s not even a garden any more) is edibles, albeit used more or less decoratively, depending on where you look. A feast mostly for the mouth, somewhat for the eyes.
The goal is to produce an abundance of flavorful, nutritious foods pretty much the year ‘round. Year ‘round food is made possible in this climate — here at the farmden, at least — with freezing (many vegetables), common storage (e.g. cabbage, apple, pear, onion, squash), fermentation (cabbage, radishes), drying (tomatoes), one 5’ by 5’ coldframe (lettuce and other salad greens), and a 400 square foot, minimally heated greenhouse (lettuce and other salad greens, kale, chard).
But wait, now that I look around, things look pretty good around here also. Right now, golden Chojuro

and Seuri-Li Asian pears hang from the branches of espaliered trees sitting atop a stone retaining wall. Atop another retaining wall along the east and north side of the house is a lush, green groundcover of lowbush blueberries, soon to turn a fiery crimson color. Mingling with those blueberries are low-growing lingonberries, whose red fruits are highlighted by the backdrop of the plants’ glossy, evergreen leaves.

(My book, Landscaping with Fruit, details ways to make a fruitful landscape that looks nice and tastes good.)

Way in back, running down the field is a row of pawpaw trees, their large, lush tropical-looking leaves hiding the mango sized fruits now ripening. The creamy white fruits have taste and texture along the lines of vanilla custard or crème brulée. Some of the leaves have begun to shed their tropical look as they turn a clear yellow.
My persimmon trees aren’t hiding their fruits. Those fruits, which give their name to the color persimmon orange color, liven up the trees, and will persist — decoratively, like Christmas ornaments — and

remain edible even after the leaves drop. The fruits, the varieties Mohler, Dooley, and Yates, are delicious, akin to dried apricots that have been plumped up with water, dipped in honey, then given a dash of spice.

And on and on. Very tasty. And nice to look at. But Chanticleer is admittedly nicer to look at.