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.

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