Not Necessarily Anti-Social

I’m feeling very lucky these days, lucky to be happy to stay home. An important way to deal with the current COVID-19 pandemic, both from a personal and a societal standpoint, is not to be out and about.

(If you are infected, you may not show any symptoms for awhile, or symptoms may be very mild. During that time, though, you could infect others. It’s estimated that, at present, every infected person infects 3 others before they get well or die. Those 3 other each infect 3 more, and so on; ten transmissions has almost 60,000 people infected. 

Social distancing brings that number of 3 new infections from each infected person down to a number of cases our health care system would be able to handle. So stay at home, if possible, maintain a six foot distance from other humans, be aware of contaminated objects and surfaces, and wash hands frequently.)

For all the downsides of the internet, a big plus now is the ability it gives us to interact socially without spreading disease.

Home is Nice, Gardening

What’s so great about staying home? In my case, I have my garden, of course. Spring, as always, is a busy time in the garden.SquillBusy, such as: attending to my compost. The last compost pile of late fall and winter is an accumulation of end-of-season debris from garden cleanup, bedding from the duck house, and kitchen scraps. Not much happens in it with the slow additions and winter cold. I decided to dig into the pile to see how it was doing. Not good!

The innards were smelly and sodden, which could have been avoided if I had regularly thrown some straw, autumn leaves, or any other dry, old plant matter into it periodically. Oh well. 

Given enough time, even that smelly, cold, sodden pile would turn to compost. I prefer to speed things up, getting the pile hot and quickly killing many weed seeds.

Aeration and some dry material could remedy the situation. I left home and got a load of horse manure mixed with dryish sawdust bedding from a nearby stable. (No human contact was needed to get the manure). Then I began turning the pile, layering in the manure and some old hay that I had cut and raked last fall. The way I tell how its doing is by taking its temperature with a long-stemmed compost thermometer. Three days after the turning, the pile is warming, 90° and rising.Compost pile

Seed Starting, When?

Busy, such as: starting seedlings indoors for later planting outdoors. The ideal is to have seedlings the right size when it’s time for that outdoor planting, so they can make a smooth transition from container to ground hardly knowing they’ve been moved. Each vegetable has its own timetable for how fast it grows to transplant size and then when it can be planted outdoors.

For instance, here on the farmden, the historical average date of the last killing frost is May 21st. Cabbage seedlings need about 6 weeks of growth before they’re large enough to transplant. Since they tolerate some cold, they can be planted out here on May 1st. Six weeks before May 1st is March 15th, which is when I sowed those seeds.

Let me also use tomato as an example because that’s one that many gardeners plant too early or too late. Tomato seeds need about 7 weeks of growth before they’re ready to plant out. Freezing temperatures are not good for them, so I plant them out around the end of May. The end of May minus 7 weeks is around April 1st, which is when I’ll be sowing tomato seeds.
Sowing and planting dates are not set in stone. Temperature, potting mix, and container size all influence how fast seedlings grow. And there’s wiggle room because sowing or planting out tomatoes a week earlier or later doesn’t change the date of the first harvest that much because plants grow slowly early in the season. 

One thing to avoid is being pushed around too much by the weather. Don’t let a 3 day warm spell in March convince you to sow tomatoes then, or a 3 day warm spell in early May to plant out tomatoes earlier. In the first case, the plant, being too large at transplant time, will have a harder transition to open ground; you’ll harvest earlier tomatoes, but less over the whole season. In the latter case, a subsequent cold spell might kill the plants (unless you cover them for protection).

I detail out recommended sowing and planting dates for vegetables according to locale in my book Weedless Gardening. At the very least, write down what you do in your garden this year and tweak it closer and closer each season.

Planting, What?

Busy, such as: planting out new trees, shrubs, and vines. After so many years here at the farmden, you’d think that I would have planted every tree, shrub, or vine I could have wanted. Tain’t so.

I’m very specific about what varieties I want to plant so I usually order bare root plants, which are available in greater variety than potted plants. Ideal size for a tree is about 4 feet high because their roots can establish in their new home quickly. Of course, a potted plant, if that variety is available locally, would establish even more quickly.

In the pipeline this year are Egremont Russet and Rubinette apples, Dr. Goode grape, Mohler persimmon, and a number of low bush blueberries and lingonberries.

I remember a sunny day years ago, right after hurricane Irene. The back part of my property, where my vegetable gardens are, was high and dry, a glorious early fall day. But turning 180 degrees, looking to the front, the Wallkill River and associated flood debris was flowing past my doorstep. These days, my thoughts are often on COVID-19. Again, the garden — or a hike in the woods and other home enjoyments — provide needed respite from a bad situation.
Crocus flowers

Winter aconite flowers


Timing Gone Awry But Composting On Schedule

Time Change

Much of gardening is about timing — getting tomato plants in the ground early enough for a timely harvest, but not so early that transplants are killed by a late frost; checking that there’s enough time following harvest of early corn for a late planting of turnips, etc. So, when I began gardening, I read a lot and took lots of notes on what worked here in Zone 5, and eventually compiled everything into a neat table of when to do what.

I figured, with that table, that I was all set and would no longer have to respond to a gut impulse to plant peas during a freak warm spell in late February. Or to keep reading seed packets and counting back days to maturity to compute if there was still time, or it was too early, to plant a late season crop of endive.

Not so! In the few years I have gardened, which, though decades, is infinitesimal in geologic time, the climate has changed enough for me to have to shift those dates I so carefully figured out. No longer must I wait until the end of May to sow okra, squash, and other vegetables; the ground warms sufficiently to induce them to sprout a couple of weeks earlier now. No longer does a hard freeze strike tomato vines dead by the end of September. As I write, it’s the end of October and last night the first frost — a light frost — crept into the garden; later today, though, I’ll be picking ripe Sungold tomatoes.

Some perennial plants that, in the past, usually died back to the ground each winter, then resprouted in spring, no longer die back. Yellow groove bamboo, for instance. Nowadays their leaves stay green through most winters, which translates to taller and thicker canes. Crocosmia corms would hardly flower in years past; nowadays I don’t bother to dig up the corms, which flower and spread prolifically.

Taking Care of My Little Pets

Some things, gardenwise, are timeless or, at least, not time sensitive. The changing daylength throughout the year, for instance. And composting.Compost bins

Although I feed my compost “pets,” that is, all the micro- and macroorganisms living and working the compost pile, all season long, this time of years those pets have a veritable banquet. In addition to the usual trimmings and scraps from the kitchen, beds are being cleared of corn, beans, okra, cucumbers, and all those other summer vegetables that are petering out.

I’m also having a lot of fun weeding. Yes, fun. Yes, weeding. (You might wonder why the author of the book Weedless Gardening has weeds. I grow a lot of fruit trees, shrubs, and vines, and some flowers, in addition to vegetables. I have too much garden. I can’t help myself. But everything is Weed-less.)

The ground has enough moisture in it so weeds are easily pulled. On my knees, I pull at a clump of Creeping Charlie, and creeping vines extending for 2 feet in all directions move up and out of the ground. I grab a clump of quackgrass and, if I lift carefully, a couple of feet of its creeping rhizome that attempts to extend its reach releases from the ground.

Quackgrass with runner

All this goes into the compost pile along with some horse manure and bedding, some hay I scythe from my field, and occasional sprinklings of soil and dolomitic limestone. As I layer these materials, I pay attention to their ratios of carbon and nitrogen, the two main feedstuffs of my compost pets. Old plants are relatively richer in carbon, young ones in nitrogen. Manure is rich in nitrogen, the bedding (wood shavings, which is old plants) in carbon. Too much carbon, and decomposition is sluggish. Too much nitrogen, and the pile gets smelly.

I also consider how fast ingredients might decompose. Wood shavings, for instance, are high in lignin, which slows decomposition no matter what their ratio of carbon to nitrogen.

The Little Guys Are (Usually) Thirsty

Two things that often slow composting are heat loss and insufficient moisture. Small compost piles lose too much heat; the critical mass for good heat retention is about a cubic yard. The bins into which I pile ingredients insulate the edges to further retain heat.

A lot of water is needed to seep way down into a pile. Rather than keep trying my patience holding a hose wand, a couple of years ago I purchased a small sprinkler and attached it to some plastic pipe so it fit neatly on top of my compost pile. A pressure regulator (usually used for drip irrigation systems) keeps incoming pressure constant so I could adjust an inline valve to make the spray consistently reach just to the edge of the pile. Twenty to thirty minutes gives my compost pets a good drink.Compost sprinkler

A long-stemmed compost thermometer is my final check that all is well. The piles typically reach 150°F. Compost piles don’t need to get that hot; more time composting also does the trick. Any pile of organic materials eventually becomes compost..