Dirt is Free, Almost

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

Hay, Time, & a Little Manure

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

The season's last hay gathering

The season’s last hay gathering

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

And Now for the Cart’s Sustainability

Garden cart, all dressed up in aluminum

Garden cart, all dressed up in aluminum

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

Good Gifts for Gardeners

What would be a good gift for a gardener at this gift-giving time of year? Every gardener has his or her special inclinations, gardenwise, so each of us warrants a special set of gift possibilities.
Still, certain expendable items are sure to please any and every gardener. Tops on my list would be a big ball of twine. Twine is useful for everything from lashing blue spires of delphinium and floppy tomato vines to stakes to tying pea vines to a trellis or grape vines to support wires. Not just any twine will do; best is twine made of natural fibre, such as hemp or sisal, so that it can be gathered up to be composted along with the plants it supported at season’s end.
Gloves are another expendable item great for gifts. Gloves made from leather and some synthetics last for years. Among my favorite gloves for everything from detail work like transplanting small seedlings to grabbing a pitchfork to pitch manure onto the compost pile are knit gloves with nitrile or latex coated palms and fingers. With rough use, the gloves only last a couple of seasons, if that, but they’re worth it for their grippiness, comfort, and hand protection. I save my leather gloves for colder weather or for rougher work such as pruning thorny rose and gooseberry bushes and grabbing firewood.
Organic gardening (a good idea and the essence of good gardening in general) conjures up its own special gifts. Straw, manure, hay, leaves, wood chips, and other organic (that is, living or once-living) materials are what put the “organic” into organic gardening. A pitchfork is the perfect tool for moving organic materials to the compost pile or on top of the soil. But choosing a pitchfork is not all that straightforward. I am the proud owner and frequent user of 4-, 5-, 6-, and 10-tine pitchforks. Each has its special use but if I were to own just one pitchfork, it would be the  6-tine fork.
If you’re going to use a pitchfork, you’re probably going to need something with which to move around all those bulky organic materials. A garden cart. Stoked full, a sturdy cart with high wooden sides and two large-diameter tires can move over 10 cubic feet or 1/3 cubic yard of material, up to about 400 pounds of weight. Please don’t buy me one; I own three.
A few other essential, welcome tools are a trowel, which any but a beginning gardener is sure to have, and hand pruning shears (my favorite is ARS although Felco and Pica are also very, very good). A rain gauge is also essential to know whether what sounded like an earth-drenching downpour really contributed to the one inch per week needed for best plant growth. Good sources for tools are Gemplers, A. M. Leonard, Charleys Greenhouse, Orchard Equipment Supply Co., and Gardener’s Supply Co.
Beginning gardeners will appreciate packets of basic seeds such as Black Seeded Simpson and Buttercrunch lettuce, Bush Blue Lake and Romano beans, French Breakfast radishes, and Green Arrow peas. More advanced gardeners start their own transplants so might appreciate especially good, but hard to find as transplants, varieties of tomatoes, such as Blue Beech, Belgian Giant, San Marzano, and Black Krim. Johnny’s Selected Seeds, Fedco Seeds, High Mowing, Pinetree Garden Seeds, Tomato Growers Supply Company, and Totally Tomatoes are among my favorite seed companies. For growing transplants, I recommend Gardener’s Supply APS, which waters seedlings automatically and gives each seedling its own home so they hardly realize when they’ve been transplanted. I already own about a dozen of them so don’t buy one for me, thanks. 
How about a gift of some of the above catalogues? How about including some good nursery catalogues also? Some of my favorite nurseries are Hartmann’s, Raintree, One Green World, Cummins, Burnt Ridge, and Nourse. 
The best gift for the beginning gardener or for the seasoned gardener who wants to grow better is, in my opinion, a good book. Among my favorites are any of Elliot Coleman’s books about vegetable gardening, any of Michael Dirr’s books about trees and shrubs, Steven Still’s Manual of Herbaceous Plants, Hartmann & Kester’s Plant Propagation: Principles and Practices, my bible on plant propagation, and, for general gardening, Roy Biles’ The Complete Book of Garden Magic and Barbara Damrosch’s The Garden Primer. For entertaining and informative essays, there’s Green Thoughts: A Writer in the Garden by Eleanor Perenyi and The Principles of Gardening: A Guide to the Art, History, Science, and Practice of Gardening by Hugh Johnson.
Oh, and did I mention my books?: A Northeast Gardener’s Year (the what, when, and how for a wide range of gardening topics arranged, as appropriate, through the year), Weedless Gardening (especially good for vegetable gardening), Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden, Landscaping with Fruit, and Grow Fruit Naturally.


A garden cart improves any garden, and I’m especially enjoying using my cart, now in its third decade of use. This cart has hauled hay, manure, weeds, and old vegetable plants to the compost bins, and finished compost from the bins to vegetable beds and fruit trees. It’s hauled stones for wall building and heavy locust posts that get notched and bolted together to become arbors and trellises.
Look closely: Hardware cloth in bed
A good cart has two heavy duty, bicycle-sized tires sitting just about midway across a sturdy plywood bed surrounded by three sturdy plywood walls. Tossed rocks, the scraping of a shovel, and an occasional jab with the pitchfork have eaten away that plywood over the years. Not anymore, and that’s why I’m especially enjoying using the cart.
A few months ago, I decided to replace the plywood bed, which by then had few plies left. Instead of replaying the scenario from the last replacement, about 15 years ago with exterior grade plywood, I used pressure-treated plywood, which is more rot-resistant. And next, to fend off the constant scraping of shovels, rocks, and other tools and materials, I laid 1/4 inch mesh “hardware cloth” over the plywood base and screwed it down.
Today, shoveling wood chip mulch out of the cart to spread around the base of newly planted mulberry trees, no little voice in the back of my mind was reminding me that each shovelful was also scraping off a bit of plywood. I’m expecting to get good mileage with the new bed. Stay tuned; I’ll report back in 30 years.
Dame’s rocket (Hesperis matronalis), a wildflower often mistakenly thought to be phlox (which has 5 petals instead of the 4 of dame’s rocket, has put on a great show of white, lilac, and pale purple blossoms this year. Now a dark cloud has passed over those cheery flowers.
Dame’s rocket, a European native that used to be cultivated in American gardens, escaped from our gardens many years ago to invade road sides, meadows, and cultivated fields. In some places, this comely flower is billed as “invasive.” “Left unchecked, this beautiful, yet lethal plant will wreak havoc on the natural environment, threatening the survival of native plants and degrading habitat and water quality,” writes restoration ecologist Steve Apfelbaum.
Call me irresponsible, but I still like dame’s rocket. I welcome it into my flower beds and into my meadow. In addition to beauty, the flower perfumes the air with a delicious, sweet aroma.
I have been too blasé about some other invasive plants in the past. I remember praising garlic mustard for its flavor. What was I thinking? The plant is now all over the place and doesn’t even really taste very good. Garlic mustard gets ripped out of the ground wherever I see it, in and around my garden at least. Perhaps I’ll eventually feel the same about autumn olive, which I enjoy for its fragrant blossoms in spring, its silvery leaves in summer, and the oodles of tasty, small red berries it bears in autumn. Thus far, I find Japanese stilt grass, yet another invader, attractive.
Sweet, pretty dame’s rocket is allegedly going to contribute to the alleged $200 billion of damage for which invasive plants are responsible. It’s even suggested that the plant might have some resistance to the herbicide Roundup.
The whole invasive plant threat has, in my opinion, been blown way out of proportion. Our landscapes, wild and cultivated, are not — and should not — be static. Over time, extant species might become more or less prevalent and new species might move in.
And just what does “native” mean? A few hundred feet from the alluvial soil of my garden in the Walkill River valley, the ground slopes up sharply to the craggy, rocky outcroppings of the Shawangunk Ridge. Plants native up there, such as mountain laurel, aren’t native down here. Furthermore, research has shown that non-native species sometimes have a positive environmental impact (see, for example, Mark Davis et al in Nature 474, 153–154, 2011).
Obviously, we need to try and control invasive plants, whether they are native or non-native, when they cause intolerable disruption of the environment or threaten our well-being. But change is inevitable and usually not bad. Quoting Michael Pollan, turning the “ecological clock to 1492 [or any other date] is a fool’s errand, futile and pointless to boot.”
Rose de Rescht
What a great year for roses, even if I’ve always contended that I didn’t like the roses. Actually, I didn’t and don’t like the roses that are most commonly grown, which are hybrid tea roses. The plants are gawky, something you’d plant out of sight just for cut blossoms, and the flowers are stiff, formal, and jarring in color. They’re also very susceptible to all sorts of pests.
William Baffin
I do like the roses I have growing and which are presently drenched with blossoms. The super-hardy William Baffin rose, from Canada is sporting single, large, bright red flowers. Amber Sunblaze is notable for salmon-pink blossoms on a plant whose foliage stays glossy, green, and healthy all summer long. A couple of David Austin rose blossoms look like cupfuls of pastel-colored crêpe paper.
My favorite of all the roses, one given to me as a cutting many years ago by herbalist Ann Solomon, is Rose de Rescht. At least that’s what it’s alleged to be. Rose de Rescht is supposed to have more than one bloom period each season, though, and mine has never rebloomed. Then again, mine never flowered as well as it has this year, a couple of years since I moved it to its new and more congenial surroundings.
Whether or not my Rose de Rescht really is Rose de Rescht, it’s now covered with blowsy, soft pink blossoms that send their fragrance a few feet from the bush. Everyone that smells the blossoms says something to the effect “Now that is a real rose smell.” And the rose blossomed just in time this year to provide abundant flowers for a very special wedding.