Chips, Not Hay, In This Case

“Make hay while the sun shines.” Good advice, literally in agriculture and figuratively in life. And I’m following it these days, in agriculture. Not making hay of course, because that sunshine is only effective in summer and fall, partnered with heat.

The “hay that I’m making” is actually mulch that I’m spreading. A few weeks ago I put my “WOOD CHIPS WANTED” sign out along the road in front of my house. In a short time, an arborist was kind enough deposit a truckload of chips. Wood chipsI figured I could spread it on the ground beneath some of my trees and shrubs, especially the youngest ones. There, next summer, the mulch would keep weeds at bay, slow evaporation of water from the ground, and feed soil life, in so doing enriching the soil with nutrients and organic matter.

Usually, by this time of year, my piles of wood chips have frozen solid or are white mounds beneath snowy blankets. Not so this year.

So I’ve been loading up garden cart after garden cart with chips to haul over to the garden. (Once the ground disappears beneath a heavy, white layer of snow, moving heavy cartloads becomes nearly impossible.) 

Since the most important trees and shrubs had already been mulched earlier in autumn, I decided it was a good time to add a layer of chips to the paths in the vegetable garden.Mulching chestnut trees Chips there are mostly to suppress weeds which thrived with last season’s unusually abundant rainfall and to soften, by spreading out, the impact of footfall on the paths. I generally “chip the paths” every couple of years at a minimum if for nothing more so that the height of the paths keeps up with the rising height of the vegetable beds which get — and already got, at the end of this season — a one-inch deep blanket of compost annually. (Besides the usual benefits of mulches, the compost provides enough nutrients for the intensively planted vegetables for the whole season. No fertilizer per se is needed.)

After decades of my adding an inch or more of wood chips to the paths and compost to the beds, you might suppose that the whole vegetable garden has risen a few feet above the surrounding area like a giant stage. Nope. The goodness of organic materials, such as the compost and wood chips, comes from soil organisms chewing them up and breaking them down. As decomposition takes place, the bulk of these materials, which are mostly carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen, is released into the air as carbon dioxide and water. The minerals that remain feed the plants.

Pine Berries?

One bed in the vegetable garden is home to strawberries. That bed also needs mulching, for different reasons and with different materials than the other beds, and needs it every year about now.

A strawberry plant is mostly nothing more than a stem, a stem whose distance from leaf to leaf has been telescoped down to create a stubby plant. Drawing of strawberry plantLike the stems of any other plant, a strawberry stem each year grows longer from its tip and also grows side shoots. So a strawberry stem rises ever so slowly higher up out of the soil each year.

Strawberry stems are not super cold-hardy. As a stem slowly rises higher in the ground, it’s exposed to more and more cold, and more apt to dry out.

What’s needed is to protect the stems with an insulating blanket of some loose organic material. Straw is traditional — and one possible root of the name “strawberry” — but good straw reliably free of weed seeds is hard to find. Instead of straw, I often use wood shavings, conveniently available in bagged bales. This year I decided that the giant pine tree here could spare a few pine needles, raked up to share with the strawberries.

The goal of mulching strawberries isn’t to keep cold out, just to moderate the bitterest cold. Strawberry bed mulched with pine needlesMulching too early might cause the stems to rot. I typically wait until the ground has frozen about an inch deep which usually occurs towards the end of December here, and then cover the plants with about an inch depth of wood shavings.

Come spring, the mulch needs to be pulled back before the plants start growing. Tucking the mulch in among the plants provides the usual benefits of mulch, especially important for strawberries because of their shallow roots, and provides a nice, clean bed on which the ripening berries can lie.

(More about growing strawberries can be found in my book GROW FRUIT NATURALLY.)

Hey, Good Looking

I admire the look of my vegetable gardens this time of year. With the chipped paths and compost lathered beds, some also with a tan cover of winter-killed oat plants, they look very tidy and ready to welcome new seeds and transplants in the months ahead. The look doesn’t compare with the lush greenery and colorful fruits of the summer garden, all of which is nothing more than a memory.
View of garden

My Dog and I Have Odd Tastes

In My Opinion . . .

Note: The following editorial comments represent the opinions of the writer and do not necessarily represent the opinions of the publisher.

I don’t understand the current — decades long, now — infatuation with the “stinking rose,” as garlic used to be called. Not to reveal my age, but I don’t remember ever seeing, smelling, or tasting garlic in my youth. Not that I didn’t; I just don’t remember it if I did. At any rate, in my family circle, at least, it would not have generated the undue enthusiasm it does these days. Whole festivals, for instance!

I don’t dislike garlic. Mostly, when I’ve used it, it’s flavor is lost when cooked. Except when roasting turns the texture satiny and the flavor bite-less; then it’s quite delicious spread on bread or baked potato, or mixed with vegetables. Mmmmm.

But still not worth planting. It’s my belief that many gardeners devote all too much space to growing garlic. Is home-grown garlic really that tasty, tastier than what you can pick off a supermarket shelf or from a bin at the farmers’ market?

I’ve seen very small vegetable gardens in which a third of the area was devoted to the stinking rose. For my money, I’d rather be picking fresh lettuce, asparagus, or peas — all of which taste significantly different and better within minutes of harvest than when bought from any market, farm or otherwise. Or peppers, tomatoes, sweet corn, or green beans, because I can choose the best tasting (to me) varieties to plant in my garden.

As you might guess, I don’t grow garlic — not in my vegetable garden, at least. Why devote even a square foot of space in that compost-rich, drip irrigated, sun-drenched ground to  such a thankless vegetable?

I do sometimes grow garlic in various patches of open ground in the large patch of gooseberries, grapes, and a miscellany of other plants behind my garden. The only improvement that soil experiences is annual mulching with autumn leaves, which has enriched the ground below with humus. But no irrigation, which the garlic, planted in early autumn and then harvested the following summer, hardly needs because it can run on rainfall that falls in autumn through spring.

Garlic doesn’t seem to get the hint that I don’t particularly want to grow it. Enough bulbils that form at the tops of scapes touch down each year to make new garlic plants. Most are spindly, giving rise to Lilliputian cloves. Garlic volunteer plantsBut if I want some garlic flavor in spring, I can pull stalks out of the ground, peel off the outer covered of leaf sheath, and chop up the ivory white lower portion for use. Many I just pull out and toss into the compost pile; the garlic is getting weedy.

Okay, you garlic lovers, go ahead and pelt me with tomatoes. But hold the garlic.

Sammy Stalking

My dog Sammy has grown very fond of stalks. Asparagus stalks. Why can’t he channel that stalky affection to the garlic sprouting behind my garden? Perhaps some culinary magic with garlic poured over his dog food and guided walks over to some of the growing clumps could bring him around.

I planted asparagus outside the fenced vegetable garden with the knowledge (ha!) that no furry animals would dine on it. Sammy has plowed his way through or gracefully leapt over the temporary chickenwire enclosure meant to keep him asparagus-free. A recently purchased electric fence should keep him at bay — also from the persimmons, another of his favorites, later in summer. Sammy & electric fence

Of Mulch Importance

On a more serious note, now, with recent rains maintaining good soil moisture, is an ideal time to mulch. Earlier this season, mulch would also have been good, except that it would have delayed soil warming and, hence, seed germination, planting and growth of annual vegetables and flowers.

Mulch spread atop dry soil has to be wetted before letting water percolate down into the ground below. Mulching chestnutsIf spreading mulch is delayed until the soil turns dry, all the more water will be required to give the soil below a good drenching.

A large pile of wood chips sits on the far side of my wood pile, compliments of local arborists. Day by day, I’m spreading it for an attractive, soil enriching, moisture sealing blanket over my soil — even around my volunteer garlic plants.

Fruit in Winter!


Snow Mulching

Only four inches of snow fell a a couple of weeks ago but I decided anyway to go outside and mulch. And shovel snow. And shovel snow and mulch.

What I was trying to do, besides clear snow from the driveway, the paths, and the doorway to the greenhouse, was to create a microclimate. A microclimate is a small area where the climate is slightly different from the general climate.

One group of plants in need of this special treatment are my maypops, Passiflora incarnata. Yes, Passiflora genus is that of passionflower, and maypop is a hardy species of passionflower, native to eastern U.S.. It bears the same breathtaking flowers, whose intricate arrangement of flower parts was used by Christian missionaries to teach native Americans about the “passion” of Christ, as the tropical species. White maypop flowerAnd, like the tropical species, flowers are followed by egg-shaped fruits filled with air and seeds around which clings a delectable gelatinous coating. You know the flavor if you’ve ever tasted Hawaiian punch.

Maypop parts ways with tropical passionflowers, which are woody vines, in being an herbaceous vine. The roots live year ‘round but the above ground portions of the plant die back each winter.

Besides creating a microclimate for the maypops, I also chose to plant them in an existing microclimate to their liking. That is on the south side of my woodshed, where the sun bears down to provide extra warmth in summer. (Another goal was to let the vines each summer cover a trellis that would give the woodshed some shade to prevent the firewood from drying out to much.) These plants of southeastern U.S. like their summers hot.

Soil moderates temperatures so never get as cold in winter as the air — or, in summer, as hot as the air. Five feet down, soils remain at a balmy 50°F year ‘round. Shallower depths are commensurately colder in winter and warmer in summer than deeper down.

Maypop is borderline hardy this far north. Insulating the ground around the plants will keep temperatures around the roots from dropping too low. Hence the snowy mulch.

As maypop grows through the summer, new flowers and then fruits appear. The longer the growing season, the more fruits the plants bear. Although I want to keep the ground from getting too cold in the depths of winter, I’d like it to warm up quickly in spring to get the plants going.

Wood chips, straw, snow, or any other mulch is going to put the brakes on soil warming, so, ideally, the mulch should be removed after the coldest part of winter is past. Except if that mulch is snow, which will melt.

Ugly but Delicious

Wandering through the snow to the other side of the farmden, I come upon another fruit, this one ready to pick and eat right now! Medlar. (Medlar and maypop each warranted a whole chapter in my book Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden.)

Medlar fruits resemble small, russeted apples (a relative), tinged dull yellow or red, with their calyx ends (across from the stems) flared open. Medlar, fruit in basketIt’s peak of popularity was in the Middle Ages. And though popular, it was made fun of for it’s appearance; Chaucer called it the “open-arse” fruit.

That old-fashioned look extends to the tree itself, which even this time of year is attractive with the elbowed contortions of its branches. In spring, the blossoms, which resemble wild roses, are borne singly at the ends of branches and, opening late so that each is cradled in already opened whorl of leaves.

But back to the fruit; its got another quirk, besides its appearance. It’s inedible when first harvested. But after the fruit has sat for a couple of weeks or more indoors, a process called bletting, the once-hard, white flesh turns to brown mush.

Medlar, after bletting

Medlar, after bletting

Yechhhh! The flavor, though, has a refreshing briskness with winy overtones, like old-fashioned applesauce laced with cinnamon.

Fruits left on the tree also blet, and my trees are loaded with fruits.

Uh oh. Although medlar is generally pest-free, I see that many of the fruits have what looks like some sort of pest damage. Instead of the smooth, brown mush, flesh of damaged fruits is drier, almost powdery. What is it?

(Almost?) Hardy Orange

More snow more recently fell, and with it came bitter cold, which made me fear for the survival of my hardy orange, Citrus trifoliata. This orange is allegedly hardy to zone 5, but still . . .

The plant is only about four feet tall and there was plenty of snow so I just started piling snow on top of it. The ends of some branches remained exposed, which is okay because they can tell me whether the plant is really hardy.

Hardy orange bears flowers and fruits very similar to sweet oranges except that hardy orange fruits are bitter and very seedy. They could be used — in moderation — for flavoring, though. Citrus, Flying DragonHardy orange fruitMostly I grow it for the novelty of an outdoor orange tree, for the sweetly fragrant blossoms, and for the decorative, green, swirling, recurved spiny stems.

Come spring, I;’ll know if just how hardy the hardy orange really is. Temperature the night after covering it dropped to minus 18° Fahrenheit.

Leafy Exercises

A New Exercise: Un-Rei-King

A few years ago I wrote that, among the many benefits of gardening is the opportunity it offers for varied, productive exercise. At that time I highlighted rei-king (ray-KING). Now, let’s add un-rei-king to join rei-king, zumba, cardiofunk, and other ways modern humans build and maintain sleek, fit bodies.Leaf bags with pawpaws

In fact, many people, including couch potatoes and nongardeners, practice rei-king this time of year. You can see them practicing this sweeping motion on their lawn amidst gathering piles of leaves.

Un-rei-king is a more rare form of exercise, of which I am a practitioner. Rei-kingers gather those piles of leaves that are a byproduct of their exercise into large bags, then muscle them curbside. I gather said bags, muscle them gardenside, and launch into un-rei-king. That is, I employ a similar motion to rei-king, except more jagged and with a pitchfork, spreading the leaves once I have freed them from their baggy confines.

Feeding the Soil to Feed the Plants

Exercise aside, my goal is to blanket the ground beneath one row of pear trees, a large bed of gooseberry bushes and grapes, and another long row of pawpaw trees and blackcurrant bushes with 6 to 12 inches of autumn leaves. That fluffy blanket will hold autumn’s warmth in the soil long after bare soil has frozen solid to a few inches depth.

I have to practice un-rei-king every year in November because by this time next year, that leafy blanket will have pretty much evanesced into thin air, literally. Leaves are composed mostly of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen which becomes, over the course of the year, carbon dioxide and water vapor.

All this may seem like wasted effort (except for the exercise), but it’s not. The transmutation of leaves to carbon dioxide and water happens as bacteria, fungi, worms, and other soil organisms gobble up the leaves. Mostly, these creatures are beneficial, helping plants to fight off pests.

Leaves are mostly, but not only carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen; also contained therein are a slew of minerals needed by plants. In addition to feeding soil life, as the leaves decompose they’re also fertilizing the ground. More than that, natural, organic compounds are being formed that help make minerals already in the soil more accessible to plants.

All this living activity also releases into the ground other natural, organic compounds that aggregate soil particles to create pores for good aeration as well as to act spongy to help the ground, at the same time, hold moisture.

All of which is to say that after years of un-rei-king, my soil is soft, fluffy, moist, and very much alive. The pear trees, gooseberry bushes, etc. love it.

Uh-Oh, Mice

Meadow mice also enjoy the fluffy blanket, beneath which they can nest — and feed on plant roots and bark! So as I lay down that blanket, I’m also putting an 18-inch high cylinder of hardware cloth or some commercial wrap around the bottom of the tree trunks to fend off the mice.

I’ll also keep the leaves a few inches back off the trunks to keep mice at bay and avoid rotting of the trunk. Such precautions are unnecessary for shrubs, whose fresh supplies of stems that grow each spring at ground level can replace any chewed ones. (That’s why they are shrubby.)Tree protected with plastic spiral

And Some Leaves — For Next Year

Not yet finished with leaves. Every autumn a local landscaper dumps a truckload of vacuumed-up leaves here. On that pile I grow watermelons all summer long. By now, the leaf pile has about half-decomposed into “leaf mold” which is pretty much the same thing as compost. Except rougher, because it’s not yet in the final stages of decomposition.Leaf pile

Being richer in nutrients than freshly fallen leaves, leaf mold is just the ticket for loading into a cart for mulching some special plants: a young chestnut tree, filbert bushes, and semi-dwarf apple trees. Plus, it brings along all the aforementioned benefits of raw leaf mulch.Mulch, leaf mold on pear
Spreading leaf mold

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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.


Cardoon Gets to Stay

    I haven’t yet given up on cardoon — growing it. But eating it? I just about give up. It’s like eating humongous stalks of stringy celery having just a hint of artichoke flavor.
    As an ornamental is how cardoon has made itself garden-worthy. Like most perennial plants, it grew only leaves this past season, its first season here. But what leaves they were! As I said, like “humongous stalks of celery.” Not much good for eating but nice to look at. The edges of the three-foot-high stalks were winged with undulating, pointed blades (each stalk is a leaf), and the whole plant is a very Mediterranean-looking olive-green.Cardoon in late fall
    If all goes well, next year should provide an even better show, when flowers also appear. Cardoon is in the thistle family. It’s as if you injected our common (Canadian) thistle with steroids. In addition to those giant leaves, the flower stalks rise to 6 feet and are then topped by fat, spiky, cerulean balls, each a couple of inches across.
    Cardoon not only looks Mediterranean; it is Mediterranean. As such, is not cold hardy this far north. Temperatures in the 20s do no harm to the top of the plant, but the top will die back when temperatures turn colder. The crown of the plant and the roots, shielded in the ground, tolerate even lower air temperatures. Eventually, though, our winter cold penetrates the ground to do them in.
    But not if I soften that cold affront. Once temperatures turn colder, and stay reliably so, I’m going to lop back the tops of the plants, then pile on a thick layer of mulch, from a couple of large bags of leaves I stockpiled back in November. The reason to hold off until the soil turns colder is because in still-warm soil, the crown would have pushed out new growth beneath the mulch. That new growth would have died from lack of sun, or rotted.
    Cardoon’s fleshy crown is especially prone to rotting, so I’ll lay a flat piece of plastic over the pile of mulch. That should shed rainwater while allowing some breathing room from the side.
    Perhaps next year I’ll get to enjoy the flowers. Perhaps the stalks will be worth eating.

I Put The “Straw” In (On) Strawberry

    Cardoon isn’t the only herbaceous perennial that needs protection from cold. Another is strawberry.
    The crown of a strawberry plant is, in essence, a stem that has been telescoped down. Instead of a few inches from leaf to leaf along the stem, only a fraction of an inch separates a leaf from its next higher or lower neighbor. So instead of elongating a foot or two every year, like most stems, a strawberry crown elongates only a fraction of an inch each year.
    Still, over time, that crown rises higher and higher up out of the ground, each year becoming more exposed to cold. Mulching prevents cold damage to strawberry in the same way as it does for cardoon. As with cardoon, the time to cover the plants is AFTER cold has penetrated the ground. When the soil has frozen about an inch deep is about the right time.
    Strawberry crowns are not particularly prone to rotting, so there’s no need to lay a water shedding cover over the mulch. Or to cut back the leaves; strawberry leaves aren’t fleshy and don’t rise high above the ground.

Doin’ Some Dustin’

    In addition to leafy mulches, already spread beneath other trees and shrubs, one other sign of creeping cold is the gray dust that has settled on parts of the meadow, beneath the pear trees, and around the currant bushes. There’s more to come, and it’s not snow. It’s ash, from the wood stove.
    Spreading wood ashWood ash is both a waste product and a resource, depending on how much you have and how much space you have to spread it. As a resource, it’s high in potassium, an essential nutrient for plants, and contains other essential elements. Wood ash decreases the acidity of soils which, around here, mostly increases naturally over time.
    But too much potassium can be a bad thing. As can too little acidity; slightly acid soil is what’s ideal for most plants.
    Since wood ash varies somewhat in its composition, it’s impossible to put a number on how much to spread. No more than 20 pounds per thousand square feet is reasonable, except on alkaline soils (pH greater than 7) or beneath acid-loving plants such as blueberry, azalea, and rhododendron, which should get none. I disperse it over the whole farmden — on the meadow and the lawn, beneath fruit and nut trees and bushes — to avoid concentrating it anywhere. I also save some to spread on icy walks and to sprinkle around plants if slugs become a problem.


 Rose Fan: No, Yes?

   I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I’m not a big fan of roses. But I can’t help myself. The garden is awash in golden yellow, crimson red, soft pink, apricot pink, and plain old pink blossoms. Almost all of this is thanks to David Austin, breeder of roses.
    My father was a big fan of roses, so I was exposed to them at an early age. Pre-dating Mr. Austin’s creations, my father’s roses were the ever popular — except with me — hybrid tea roses which everyone — except me — liked and likes for their pointy, formal blossoms, their bold colors, and their repeat bloom. Nobody mentions their gawky stature, general lack of strong or interesting fragrance, and attraction to pests.

L. D. Braithewaite rose, cold-hardy and just keeps blooming

L. D. Braithewaite rose, cold-hardy and just keeps blooming

    David Austin roses won me over with their softer colors, fuller blossoms borne on more full-bodied bushes, delicious fragrance, disease resistance, and repeat bloom. Not all have all of these qualities, of course.
    L. D. Braithewaite has been the most florific of my David Austin roses, even weathering two very cold winters unscathed. The crimson, red petals made their first appearance a few weeks ago, and are still going strong. They’re not my favorite color, though. Least successful of my roses has been Bibi Mazoon,  which is my favorite of the David Austin roses, in its blossoms, at least. Cup-shaped and apricot pink, the blossoms are admittedly few and far between, and can hardly be held up by the weak stalks. The rich yellow color of Golden Celebration is another of my favorites; this variety blooms fairly well and also pulled through winter unscathed.
    I grow a few pink David Austin roses, including Charlotte, Brother Cadfael, Sharifa Asma, and they’re all looking pretty and growing well.
    Of all the roses I grow, my favorite is . . .  well, I’m not one hundred percent sure of its name. It started life here many years ago as a cutting of Rose de Rescht, given to me by local herbalist Anne Solomon. Except that, reading descriptions of Rose de Rescht, I came to realize that mine wasn’t it. Whatever the name (after all, “a rose is a rose is a rose . . .”), the attractive crumpled, crêpe-paper blossoms fill the air with a delectable, heady fragrance, more than that of any of the roses I grow. The bush, robust, armed with prickles and clothed in leaves having having a bluish cast, has never been fazed by pests or cold.
    With the help of some rosarians (especially those at, Rose de Rescht was assigned its probable proper name: Ispahan. The alluring name, the blossoms, and the toughness of the plant more than offset the plant’s one deficiency, that of blossoming only in spring.

Hoe, Hoe, Hoe, But It’s Not Xmas

    I can’t just stop and smell the roses all day long; there’s work to be done. Time to grab a hoe and hoe, hoe, hoe. How retro, you may think. What with all sorts of mulches and tillers and tilthers available, the hoe is an under appreciated and underused garden tool these days.

My favorite hoes: wire weeder and winged weeder

My favorite hoes: wire weeder and winged weeder

   But a hoe does good work — if you use the right hoe in the right manner. The best hoes, which include the scuffle hoe, the stirrup hoe, and the colinear hoe, have sharp blades that, in use, run parallel to the surface of the ground. Among these types of hoes, my personal preference has always been for the winged weeder, which looks like an airplane wing, sharpened fore and aft, attached at an angle to a long handle.
    I’ve recently taken up with another hoe, the wire weeder (from, whose head is a stiff wire cleverly bent to be easily worked amongst plants. Rotated 90 degrees puts its short edge to work, which is very useful for wending the head in amongst closely spaced plants. The lightweight aluminum handle doesn’t look  traditional but makes the tool very light and spry in use.
    Ideally, I’m out in the garden with my winged weeder or wire hoe on sunny mornings following rains. (I’m not sure which hoe I like better, so I alternate between them.) The goal is to loosen the soil, uprooting weed seedlings before they establish, and leaving a rough surface to welcome in the next bit of rain. The work, if it could be called that, is quick and easy if done before weeds grow large.
    Only when weeds get out of hand is it necessary to get out the tool that most people associate with the word “hoe,” the traditional garden hoe with the large blade at 90 degrees to the handle. This hoe is also the one Charles Dudley Warner was referencing when he stated (My Summer in a Garden, 1870), “what a [gardener] needs is a cast-iron back, with a hinge in it.” I reserve mine for mixing concrete.

Hoe or Mulch

    Not that mulching doesn’t also have its place in the battle with weeds`. Mostly, though, you have to do one or the other — mulching or hoeing — thoroughly. It’s impossible to hoe even thinly mulched ground.

Vegetable garden, kept "weed-free" and fed by compost mulch

Vegetable garden, kept “weed-free” and fed by compost mulch

    Unless, that is, the mulch is compost. Given that mulch is anything that covers the ground, compost qualifies as mulch, except that you can plant right in, or hoe, a compost mulch just as if it was soil.
    Weeds occasionally poke up through or sprout within the inch of compost with which I blanket my vegetable garden beds each year. I pull large weeds individually. Periodically, or where small weeds are starting to show, I’m out in the garden, sliding the business end of either my winged weeder or wire hoe back and forth, or just pulling it along, just beneath the surface of the ground.

Who’s the Best Gardener/Farmdener?

Fresh Watermelon, and More, with Help from Ethylene

Could I possibly be the best gardener west of the Hudson River? Perhaps. As evidence: On November 1st, here in Zone 5 of New York’s Hudson River Valley, where temperatures already have plummeted more than once to 25°F, I was able to harvest a fresh, dead-ripe watermelon. Not from a greenhouse, not from a hoop house, not even from a plastic covered tunnel. Watermelon, a crop sensitive to frost and thriving best in summer’s sun and searing heat.

Okay, perhaps I can’t assume all that much responsibility for the melon. Let me explain . . . 

Every fall, I have a landscaper dump a whole truckload of leaves vacuumed up from various properties at my holding area for such things. Rain and snow drench the pile in the coming months, starting it on the road to decomposition. When sufficiently warm weather has decided to stay in spring, I scoop out a few holes in the pile, fill them with compost, then tuck in watermelon transplants.

Last fall’s pile yielded well from summer until early fall this year, at which time I gathered up remaining melons for eating or, if unripe, for composting along with the vines. The tractor, with its bucket, was able to move and compact the now dense pile to make way for this  year’s crop of leaves.


Ben & Jeremy show off the November watermelon.

Ben & Jeremy show off the November watermelon.

Now we’re up to November 1st, time to spread the leaf mold before it freezes — a big job that necessitated enlisting the help of my neighbors Jeremy and Ben. We were loading and hauling and loading and hauling, forking deeper and deeper into the bowels of the pile, when Jeremy yelled that he’d just speared a watermelon I had overlooked when cleaning up. I cleaned it off and sliced it open. It proved to be a ripe watermelon. The taste? “Awesome,” to quote Jeremy.

The Watermelon Mystery

Okay, I admit to not being able to claim too much credit for the ripe watermelon. How did it get there? Was it ripe and overlooked, then buried and preserved in the warm bowels of the leaf mold pile? Was it unripe when buried, then subsequently ripened? Probably not. No leaves were poking out of the pile, capturing the sun’s albeit weak rays for photosynthesis to make the sugars needed for ripening. A couple of nights of 25°F would have done in the leaves anyway.

Some fruits can actually ripen after harvest. These include apples, pears, bananas, avocados, and other so-called climacteric fruits. Just before ripening, respiration of climacteric fruits dramatically increases along with a burst in production of the plant hormone ethylene. Through a feedback mechanism, ethylene stimulates more respiration which in turn stimulates even more ethylene production and even quicker ripening. Hence, enclosing bananas in a bag stimulates ripening, and why one rotten apple — injury, whether mechanical or from pests, also elicits an ethylene response — can indeed “spoil the barrel.”

This burst in ethylene production occurs even after climacteric fruits have been harvested, as long as they were sufficiently mature at the time. You can’t pick a golfball-sized green apple and expect it to ripen off the plant.

Non-climacteric fruits lack that pre-ripening spike in respiration and ethylene production, and do not ripen after harvest. Or so the thinking, based on early experiments, went. According to more recent research, fruits show various degrees of ethylene production. Watermelon is not a climacteric fruit, but at a certain point the white flesh within does release a burst of ethylene some time after which it morphs from bland and unripe to sweet, red, and ripe. But that won’t happen off the vine.

(“Ripe” is open to some debate. Peach, for instance, is a climacteric fruit that, if picked sufficiently mature but underripe, will soften and become more edible. But it won’t develop the aromatics of a tree-ripened fruit or, until rotting changes starches to sugars, become at all sweeter after picking. I don’t call that “ripe.”)

So my watermelon must have been overlooked and ripe and evidently kept perfectly well in the moist warmth of the leaf pile.

Deb & Ethylene Take Credit for the Peppers

Ethylene, and not me, is going to take credit for the fresh, sweet red peppers in today’s salad. Peppers are a climacteric fruit. Green peppers are unripe peppers, but if the fruits have just a hint of red on them, they can ripen even after harvest to full red (or yellow, orange, or purple, depending on the variety of pepper) color and, at least to my taste buds, flavor.

Still eating fresh, red, ripe sweet, juicy, delicious peppers.

Still eating fresh, red, ripe sweet, juicy, delicious peppers.

Skill is needed to ripen peppers off the plant. Cool, but not too cool, temperatures hold the fruits for storage and warmer temperatures then speed ripening. Just the right amount of humidity is also needed to, on the one hand, avoid drying, or, on the other hand, rotting. My wife, Deb, rather than I, plies these skills, so should probably get credit for the ripe, red peppers.

This season has been the best pepper season ever, both in quantity and in quality. King of the North peppers, large and blocky, with thick, juicy walls, now ripening in a basket taste as bland now as they did all summer. I won’t grow them again. In contrast, Carmen, Sweet Italia, and (slightly hot) Pepperocini peppers, also ripening in that basket, taste as good now as their siblings did snapped from plants basking in summer heat and sun a few months ago.

Farmden Health Club & Basil

Rei-King, an Ancient Exercise?

Among the many benefits of gardening is the opportunity it offers for enjoyable, productive exercise in the great outdoors. And now we can add an exercise called rei-king to boot camp, pilates, zumba, kick boxing, cardiofunk, and other ways modern humans build and maintain sleek, fit bodies. Or so I told my wife, Deb.

Deb rakes mown hay.

Rei-King by Deborah as Sammy looks on.

As with some of those other exercise routines, equipment is needed, simple equipment in the case of rei-king. Basically, the equipment is a pole, perpendicular to and at the end of which is a length of wood or metal, attached in its middle to the pole. From the lower side of the length of wood or metal are teeth, each a couple of inches apart and a couple of inches long.

Now for the exercise. You lift the pole just enough to bring the head off the ground, reach forward, and pull it towards you. For balanced exercise, it’s advised to occasionally switch which arm is most forward.

Resistance is the way to build up muscle and endurance. That resistance comes in the form of friction from material lying on the ground. This time of year, that material might conveniently be mown long grass or hay.

And Sie-Thing

I sometimes practice rei-king; more often I choose another exercise that complements Deb’s rei-king. I practice sie-thing (pronounced “sigh-thing”).

Like rei-king, sie-thing entails using one piece of equipment, a sie. The sie also has a single pole, in this case with two handles attached, one at the upper end and one about halfway down. A metal weight is attached at the bottom of the sie. The metal is a couple of feet long, curved, and sharpened on its inside edge. Muscle tone and strength is created by putting the left hand on the upper handle, the right hand on the lower handle, flexing the spine to the right and then unwinding it to the left while trailing the metal weight just above ground level.

Scything the meadow.

Here I practice the ancient art of Sie-Thing.

Again, sei-thing can be made more rigorous, in this case by passing the sharp metal through tall grass or meadow plants. The taller the plants, the denser the plants, and the older plants, the more the resistance.

A side benefit of all this sie-thing is that grass or meadow plants get mown during the exercise. The fallen material drops right in place, providing an opportunity — for me or, more usually, Deb — to then practice rei-king.

By the way, either exercise is most enjoyable early in the morning. At that time, plants are turgid so the sharpened metal of the sie pops plant cells as it is drawn along. And the fallen plants, best for rei-king after lying on the ground a day or two to wilt, cling together nicely when  heavy with dew. The cool morning air is also conducive to exercise.

Basil for Winter?

Many years ago I grew the few varieties of basil that were available and then wrote about them. My conclusion, at the time, was that taste differences between the varieties were minor, so the choice of what to grow should perhaps be on the fun of saying their names, which put Genova Profumatissima, Syracusa, and Fino Verde Compatto at the top of the list. What fun to wave my arms and speak their names!

Or, a variety could be chosen for the size or color of its leaf, whether for decoration or culinary use. “Spicy Globe basil, planted close together, makes soft, green mounds resembling a miniature boxwood hedge,” I wrote. Now we have yet another decorative form: Bonsai Basil.Bonsai basil plants in pots.

To create a bonsai basil, a variety such as Spicy Globe — perfect, with its diminutive, closely spaced leaves — is grafted onto a special rootstock. That rootstock is another variety of basil, one chosen, in perfect world, to impart to the grafted plant vigor, disease resistance, and hardiness. Periodically shearing such a plant keeps up appearances even as it provides basil for flavoring. Over time, the trunk even turn woody.

Even better, carry on the fun and the flavor through winter. Basil is perennial in the tropics but generally does not fare well in the cool, dry air, and relatively dark conditions of a northern home in winter. All of which calls out for a vigorous, disease-resistant, hardy plant. A grafted basil. Grafted basil, even more than grafted tomatoes, are very much the new kid on the (grafted) block.

A few weeks ago I was given a couple of grafted bonsai basil plants and I’m planning to grow them as perennials. It turns out that my plants are on a rootstock called Nufar which is resistant to fusarium disease. My soil doesn’t harbor basil fusarium disease, so that rootstock is of no benefit in that department. Perhaps it will help get the plant through the long, dark winter indoors anyway.

New rootstocks that could impart vigor and hardiness to help get a bonsai basil through winter — indoors, of course, around here — are on the horizon.


Ah, fusarium. Reminds me of last week’s patting myself on my back about my conquest of pea fusarium, which has plagued me for years. Well, between last week and this week, fusarium has again reared its ugly head and the vines have yellowed. I did get a decent crop, however. Looks like management rather than conquest will be the key to annual harvests of peas.

Of Nuts & Mice

  How could I resist? Road crews that had been trimming trees along power lines were finishing up work almost right in front of my house with a whole truckload of wood chips. Spreading chips had not been on my “to do” list; now it was, right after the crew graciously dumped contents of the truck in a space between my chestnut trees.
Chestnuts are trees of the forest. Mine, like many of those deliberately planted, have grass at their feet. The wood chips, I reasoned, would make the ground more home-like for the trees. Forest soils are typically overlaid with a layer of organic (that is, living or once living) materials: fallen leaves, twigs, limbs. These organic materials rot, in the process releasing nutrients as well as putting nutrients already in the soil in forms more readily accessible to plants. The organic feast encourages fungi, bacteria, and other soil life, all of which generally keep insect pests and diseases at bay.
In addition to nutritional and biological goodness, any organic material also brings physical goodness. Rainwater more easily percolates into the ground and, once within, the water is retained by the spongy, decomposed organic matter. At the same time, soil aeration is improved. It’s the best of of both worlds: more moisture plus more air at root level. No wonder I couldn’t resist.
People sometimes ask if I care what kind of chips I am getting. The answer is “no.” People sometimes ask if I’m worried about termites in the chips. Again, “no.” Termites require intact wood for their tunnels. What about “nitrogen tie-up,” which temporarily starves plants for nitrogen when high-carbon materials, such as wood chips, are added to the soil and microorganisms, which are better at garnering soil nitrogen than are plants, go to work. Again, I’m not concerned. Nitrogen tie-up only occurs if chips are mixed INTO the soil, promoting rapid decomposition.
Some people believe in using gourmet chips, also known as ramial chips, which means , according to chip aficionadas, wood chips made from branches no larger than 2-3/4 inches in diameter, and preferably from deciduous trees. So before I had my load of chips dumped I had the road crew climb into their truck to separate out the good from the bad chips — just kidding! There’s not much, actually nothing at all, to support chip aficionadas’ claims. I’ll take and took any and all chips.
Come autumn, perhaps I’ll round out the soil diet with a load of leaves.
I am a big fan of black walnuts. Last autumn’s harvest has been cracked, shelled and squirreled away to enjoy in the months ahead. The latest buzz on black walnuts, though, is about their sap, which reputedly boils down into a tasty syrup, similar to maple syrup.
Almost all parts of walnut trees contain a compound, juglone, that is toxic or growth-stunting to many types of plants. This makes me wary about ingesting the sap, especially after it has been concentrated into a syrup.
Still, curiosity got the upper hand so I put a tap into a black walnut tree a few weeks ago, gathered sap, and then boiled it down into a syrup of similar consistency to maple syrup.
My report: Very good flavor, slightly different from maple sugar, perhaps with a hint of black walnut flavoring. (The latter could be my imagination.) And I’m still alive.
One of the last legacies of winter are the “bare ankles” at the bases of some trees and shrubs. Bare because they have no bark.
Those bare ankles are the handiwork of mice. Snuggled beneath the snow, warm and safe from aerial predators, mice could munch away to their heart’s content on bark. The problem is that the bark layer is where nutrients and water are conducted up from the roots and down from the leaves.
Stripped stems will likely die, which could mean death for the whole plant if it’s a tree, it’s young, and it was weak. Or if it’s a species that does not sprout readily when cut back. Otherwise, new sprouts will grow from below the stripped region. If the plant is a tree, the most vigorous of the new sprouts can be trained as a new trunk. If the plant is a shrub, new sprouts will fill in.
No need to sit back and bemoan the damage. Bridge grafting, whereby lengths of stem are grafted below and above the stripped area, will repair damage. And a good cat will avert it in the first place.