Homebound? Plant Vegetables!

Working from home, I’m used to being homebound. And I like it. Not everyone feels this way, and now COVID-19 has forced this situation on many people.

For anyone who isn’t growing some vegetables, if there ever was a time to start a vegetable garden, it’s now. 
Vegetable garden
A garden will provide pleasant and interesting diversion, some exercise, a chance to be outdoors, the need for less frequent trips to the market, a good family project/activity, and some savings of food dollars. And the experience of — wonder of wonders — watching seeds sprout and grow into plants.

Growing vegetables is easy. Seeds have been practicing sprouting for millions of years. That’s what they do. Sprout. And plants have been doing likewise. 

Paying attention to some basic plant needs will make your garden even more successful. As far as soil, don’t worry about fertility or acidity for now. The most important consideration is drainage. That is, does water move down through the soil or does it just sit in place for a long, long time.

What’s a “long, long time?” If you really want to know, cut the bottom and top off a coffee or similar can, and set the can into a hole a few inches deep, pushing it into the soil (not if it’s frozen) in the bottom of the hole. Fill the can with water, let it drain, then fill it again. If the water level  drops slower than 1” per hour, drainage is poor. Find another site or make raised beds.
Measuring water drainage
No backyard or front yard in which to grow vegetables? No problem. Grow them in a tub or flowerpot. Pay attention to drainage even if your “garden” is a tub or a large flowerpot. The container must have drainage holes in its bottom to let water drain out. And you’re going to fill that container with “potting soil,” not with dirt from your garden. Water can’t drain well through garden soil in the confines of a container, which is why potting soils have, among their ingredients, perlite, vermiculite, or other mineral aggregate to speed water flow.

Whether in a container or in your front or back yard, vegetables need sun, about 6 hours of direct summer sunshine daily. 

Soil Matters

Next, ready the ground. For most newbies, that means transmuting a patch of lawn to a vegetable garden. There are two options. The first is the traditional one, turning over and mixing up the top few inches of ground to kill existing vegetation and leave a surface in which you can plant seeds. Do that, using a shovel, garden fork, or rototiller as soon as the soil is dry enough to crumble, not wad up, when squeezed gently in your hand.

Me, rototillingWait two weeks for Mother Nature to work her magic decomposing some of that existing vegetation. Or, rather, part of her magic. After two weeks, dig up the ground again, this time adding some compost or fertilizer. You could dispense with the compost or fertilizer this season if whatever was growing there before digging looked vibrant. Better not to go out to a store these days if you don’t have to anyway. Wait another two weeks, and when you’re ready to plant, use a garden rake to tickle the surface of the ground and crumble it.

Digging up the ground may be a nice way to get your blood pumping on a spring day, and may even give you a feeling of righteousness, but there’s a better, quicker, and easier way, to prepare the garden site. There’ll also be less weeds in weeks to come.

For option number two, you will need a supply of compost and either wood chips, straw, sawdust, or wood shavings. This option is easy: just cover the garden area with newspaper, four sheets thickness and overlapping, and then wet the newspaper to keep it from blowing away. Mark out 3 foot wide beds and 18 to 24” wide paths with string, and lay an inch or more of compost in the bed areas, and enough of the wood chips, straw, sawdust, or wood shavings in the paths to cover the paper. You’re all set to plant!
spreading wood chips in path
In most places, but not everywhere, a fence is needed to fend off rabbits. Two-foot high chickenwire (“poultry netting”) will do the trick.

(All this, and more, in my book Weedless Gardening.)

What to Grow

What to grow is a matter of taste. Kale, collards, and Swiss chard offer maximum nutrition and a very long harvest season. For some home-grown calories, potatoes and sweet corn. For rounding things out with great flavor, tomato, eggplant, pepper, cucumbers. Think about what you want to grow, look at seed catalogues, order seeds, and when we next cross paths, I’ll say something about timing.

Inspiration and Humor for the Pandemic

In these times of pandemic, the insouciance of animals and the humor they offer (and washing hands, social distancing, and covering up coughs and sneezes) is welcome. Here is a short video clip of my ducks:
Duck video


Arnold, You’re Too Big

Witchhazel, a few weeks ago

Witchhazel, a few weeks ago

Over the years, my Arnold’s Promise variety of witchhazel has earned its keep with branches showered in fragrant, golden flowers late each winter. Some years, like last year, part of the bush would blossom in autumn, then put on a repeat performance in late winter. (Branches that blossom in autumn don’t blossom again in later winter, but other branches, which hold off in autumn, do.)

I should have read the fine print more carefully before I selected this variety of witchhazel. My plan was for the plant to visually smooth the transition from the corner of the house to an upright stewartia tree to a moderate-sized shrub (Arnold’s Promise) to some subshrubs (lowbush blueberry) to ground level. Except that Arnold’s Promise has grown to 15 feet high. Which it’s supposed to do, according to the fine print. Which I didn’t read.

My job, now, is to bring the shrub to more comely proportions for the site, by pruning. Like other shrubs, witchhazels can be pruned by a renewal method, cutting to the ground the oldest stems and thinning out the number of youngest stems. The pruned plant, then, always has a spectrum of various aged stems, none of them too old or too overcrowded.

What makes an “old” stem for a shrub depends on its growth habit. For raspberries, two year old stems are “old,” so old that they die. And they make lots of young stems that need ruthless thinning out.

Witchhazels are at the other extreme. Very old stems keep sporting flowers, and the shrubs typically send up very few young stems. So witchhazels need very little pruning.

Witchhazel, partially pruned

Witchhazel, partially pruned

At first, I was going to renew Arnold’s Promise over the course of a few years, removing some of the oldest stems each year and hoping for younger replacements. That would let the shrub put on a nice show each year.

But once I get started pruning, restraint is difficult. I was tempted to  cut every stem, young and old, to the ground, then decide, as growth began, which young stems to save to build up the shrub again. I mostly did that, but saved a couple of small stems for a few blossoms this autumn or late next winter.

Especially this time of year, no matter what you do, you’re unlikely to kill a shrub by pruning. And, since they’re always growing new stems from ground level, even mistakes can be eventually corrected. (More about all this in my book, The Pruning Book).

A Reprieve For Arnold

Of course, I could kill Arnold’s Promise and plant a smaller variety of witchhazel, such as Little Suzie or Pallida. The latter’s flowers are reputedly especially fragrant. Then again, it reputedly grows 10 feet high — not that much smaller than Arnold’s Promise. Little Suzie, though, is billed at reaching only 5 or 6 feet tall.

For now, I’ll try pruning to cut Arnold’s Promise down to size.

Breba Figs are Swell(ing)

I can’t leave pruning yet. Figs. These plants have a most interesting and unique flowering and fruiting habit. Some varieties bear on one-year-old stems; some on new stems; and some on both.

I was pleasantly reminded of all this as I stepped into the greenhouse and looked up at the couple of full-length stems I had left after last autumn’s pruning of San Piero fig. San Piero is one of those varieties that bears on both one-year-old and new stems. New figs, the size of a quarter were already getting plump way up at at the tippy top of the full-length stems. If all goes well, these figs — called the breba crop — will ripen in midsummer.San Piero breba figs forming

To reap that breba crop, one-year-old stems must survive winter weather. Which they do in my cool-temperature greenhouse, as well as where winter temperatures hardly dip below freezing. Where winters are cold, breba figs can be harvested from plants grown in pots and moved to a cool, but not frigid, location for winter, such as a barely heated garage or a mudroom (no light necessary). Or, in late autumn, stems can be bent to the ground and covered with plastic, to shed excess moisture, and then leaves, straw, or some other insulating material. Or, in even colder climates, bent down into a covered trench. (Fig trees are very flexible, literally and figuratively.) 

My non-breba-forming figs and all except those few long stems I left on San Piero get drastic pruning. Everything, except for those one-year-old stems to save, gets pruned down to about 3 feet high. This pruning stimulates lots of new, vigorous shoots which bear the “main” crop, in late summer and on into autumn. Unlike apples, peaches, and other familiar fruits, main crop figs keep ripening over a long period, as long as the new shoots have enough light and warmth to keep growing.