Heady Nights

It’s difficult to work outside in the garden these days, especially in early evening. No, not because of the heat. Not because of mosquitos either. The difficulty comes from the intoxicating aroma that wafts into the air each evening from the row of lilies just outside the east side of my vegetable garden.
cat and lilies
These aren’t daylilies, which are mildly and pleasantly fragrant. Wild, orange daylilies are common along roadways and yellow and hybrid daylilies, often yellow, are common in mall parking lots. (That’s not at all a dis’; the plants are tough and beautiful, and I’ve planted them also.) They’re also not tiger lilies, which lack aroma and sport downward turned, dark red speckled orange flowers with recurved petals. 

My fragrant lilies are so-called oriental hybrid lilies, which are notable for their large flowers and strong fragrance. My favorite among those I grow is Casa Blanca. The flowers are large and lily white (what’d you expect?) except for the threadlike, pale green stamens emerging from their centers, with dark red anthers capping their ends.

Casa Blanca would be worth growing just for the look of the flowers; the fragrance, very sweet and very heady make this bulb a must-grow. Not for everyone, though. A few people dislike this fragrance. For some people it’s more than just stinkiness, the aroma causing nausea, dizziness, or congestion.
Casablanca lily in the garden
Casa Blanca’s stems can rise to about four feet tall, their upper portions circled with almost a dozen of those large blossoms in various stages of ripening. Some years, staked, persimmon orange, Sungold tomatoes grow in that bed, and the tomato and lily plants looked very pretty mingling together. (Tomatoes were, after all, once grown as ornamentals.) 

This year I’m growing kale in that bed which, besides good eating, provides a frilly base from which the lily stems rise.

In Good Taste

Turning to another of the senses . . . taste. Blueberries. They are among my most successful fruits and, as usual, the plants’ stems are bowing to the ground under a heavy load of berries this time of year.
Blueberries galore
Not to brag, but the average yield of a blueberry bush is 3 to 5 quarts. My blueberry bible, Blueberry Culture (1966), states that “proper cultural practices can increase the yield to as much as 25 pints per bush.” I average about 18 pints per bush, with some bushes yielding as much as 24 pints. Organically grown, of course.

I credit my good yield to periodic additions of sulfur to maintain acidity of pH 4.0-5.5, timely watering with drip irrigation especially the plants’ first few years, topping up of existing wood chip, wood shavings, or leafy mulch each fall with an additional 3 inch depth of any organic, weed-free mulch, and pruning every spring. 
Bunch of blueberries
In year’s passed, I also added soybean meal for extra nitrogen to fuel stem growth. Blueberry flower buds develop along growing stems, with flowers open along those stems the following spring. More stem growth means more blueberries, to a point. For many years I have foregone soybean meal because the the plants were overly vigorous, creating a dense jungle that makes getting to the berries too difficult.

One other key to success and topnotch flavor is a net during the summer to fend off birds and — for best flavor — careful picking of only dead ripe fruits.

Water, Too Much or Too Little

So far, the growing season here in the Northeast has been one with both dry spells and wet spells, more than usual of each. Some recent thunderstorms fool many a gardener into thinking that the soil has been thoroughly wetted. But such rains are often only a drop in the bucket.

The only way to know for sure if enough rain has fallen for plants to really slurp up water is to check the soil or measure the actual amount of rainfall. A friend tells me he waters his plants every day. Every day! How much? It could be too much or too little, and probably is one or the other. I like to quantitate things so I measure rainfall or watering, as well as soil moisture, in a few different ways.

First, measuring water added to the soil: The ideal is about a 1 inch depth of water per week, which is equivalent to about a half a gallon per square foot of surface area. For hand watering a young tree, with an estimated root spread of only a couple of square feet, I fill the watering can with a gallon of water and sprinkle it on.
Rain gauge
Rainfall, or the water from a sprinkler, could be measured with a straight-sided container. I use a rain gauge whose tapered body can break down the measurement into tenths of an inch, readable from indoors.

Digital moisture probe.

Digital moisture probe.

I usually measure the actual moisture in the soil with a handy little meter attached to a probe that slides a half a foot down into the soil. As expected, the meter told me today that the soil is very wet. Not surprising after 3 inches of rainfall, as measure in the rain gauge, two nights ago. 

(There’s more about blueberries and water in my books Grow Fruit Naturally and The Ever Curious Gardener.)


  Hot off the press!!! My new book, Grow Fruit Naturally: A Hands-On Guide to Luscious, Homegrown Fruit (The Taunton Press). The book for anyone who wants to pick luscious fruit right from their own sunny balcony, suburban lot, or farmden. Sure, growing your own fruit will save money but — even better — your home-grown apples, blueberries, peaches, or oranges will be the best you’ve ever tasted and won’t be doused with toxic sprays. Available (signed copies) at
Gardening’s newest wunderkind is biochar, touted as being able to preserve soil fertility almost indefinitely while, at the same time, making a dent in carbon dioxide production that leads to global warming. Biochar’s origins go deep into the Amazon, where soils are naturally low in fertility. There, explorers recently discovered regions of dark, fertile soil that were deliberately created through the addition of charred wood. Such soils are also found where vegetation was naturally or deliberately burned over.
Let’s go back to high school chemistry for some understanding of biochar. Biochar is, essentially, charcoal that is made by partial burning of wood, straw, corn stalks, or other organic materials. Charcoal, especially the activated charcoal used in chemistry, is riddled with tiny holes that can adsorb nutrients. (A single gram of activated charcoal has enough internal surface area to cover a tenth of a football field!) In the soil, biochar, similar to activated charcoal, can adsorb nutrients, provide habitat for soil microbes, and increase aeration.
Biochar is very resistant to decomposition, which leads to its other touted benefit, carbon sequestration. It locks up organic carbon, formed when plants take in carbon dioxide for photosynthesis, so that it’s not re-released into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide when dead plants decompose. 
Let’s say you had a pile of wood that you could grind up and make into compost, or that you could burn to make biochar. Which use is better? In soil, both compost and biochar would cling to nutrients. Compost would enrich the soil with nitrogen and, very important, provide food for beneficial soil microbes which would, in turn, feed plants. Microbial byproducts also help give soils that crumbly structure loved by plants and sought after by good gardeners. Many of the benefits of compost accrue as it decomposes, which is why it needs constant replenishment. Biochar has the leg up on longevity, some kinds lasting hundreds of years.
Compost offers little in the way of carbon sequestration, with the bulk of its carbon eventually turning to carbon dioxide that puffs up into the atmosphere. But, to repeat, many benefits of compost accrue precisely because it does decompose and eventually turn to mostly carbon dioxide and water. Decomposition of wood, straw, or any other organic material reflects microbial feeding. (What we eat also eventually turns mostly to carbon dioxide and water.)
So which is the better use of organic wastes? Compost is definitely good for the soil. Ongoing research will tell whether also using a bit of biochar is also worth the trouble. For more about biochar, see
Turning to more immediate concerns . . . My hopes to be eventually and happily drowning in fragrant lilies were dashed by the blue flowers recently brightening the sunny window “greenhouse” in my basement. 
For explanation, let’s backtrack to last autumn. Summer’s lily flowers — intoxicatingly fragrant, large white trumpets of the variety Casablanca — were long gone but the plants’ tawny flower stalks and seed capsules were still evident. Wouldn’t it be awesome, methinks to myself, to make every August a heady month by overrunning part of the garden with Casablanca? 
Digging into the dirt around those tawny, old lily flowerstalks easily turned up a slew of healthy little bulbs, which I potted into cell packs and put near that cool, basement window. Leaves appeared a few weeks ago, foreshadowing oodles of lily flowers a couple of years hence. 
It was not to be: Those small bulbs at the base of the lily stalks were NOT lily bulbs; they were chionodoxa (glory-of-the-snow) bulbs.
Not that chionodoxa isn’t a pleasant little flower, and it appears at a time of year when any flower is most welcome. But it ain’t no lily.
I should also explain about that sunny window “greenhouse” mentioned above. Like many older homes, mine used to have a metal Bilco door that opened into the barely heated basement. Much of the heat in the basement was lost due to the conductivity of and small openings in the Bilco door. Those openings also provided entryway for an occasional snake or other small or thin creature.
Many years ago I decided to make use of the southern exposure of that Bilco door. So I ripped out the door, enlarged the opening with additional concrete blocks and a (semi-)waterproof coating of ThoroSeal. I then built a cedar frame into which I slid two large sheets of Exolite, a double-walled polycarbonate plastic material used for greenhouses.
Voila! I had a place to keep plants cold, but not frigid, and sunny. Temperatures in that old doorway hover near freezing on cold winter days and nights. The location has proved ideal for overwintering geraniums, semi-hardy cyclamens, subtropical pineapple guavas and an olive tree, and various other plants that need light and need or tolerate cool winter temperatures. Chionodoxa also does very well there.