North garden



A recent blog post of mine was titled and about some of the reasons it was “My Worst Garden Ever.” From comments and emails, I learned that such was the case generally in this part of the world. That was then.

North gardenRecently, as I opened and walked through the gate into my vegetable garden, I thought, hmmm, things are looking pretty spiffy in the garden. Even a seasoned gardener friend remarked, “There’s so much green!” And that green is not from weeds, but from neat rows of napa cabbages, large heads of lettuce in various shapes and shades of green, and dark green rows of arugula and mustard. Leafy tops of Watermelon radishes (the name from the look of the sliced roots, not any affinity in flavor) and sweet Hakurei turnips perched above swelling roots. Read more


Spring Readiness

  I’m frantically getting ready for spring. A large portion of that readying means making compost. Compost piles assembled now, while temperatures are still relatively warm, have plenty of time to heat up right to their edges, quickly cooking and killing most resident weed seeds, pests, and diseases.
My compost binsI like to think of my compost pile as a pet (really, many pets, the population of which changes over time as the compost ripens) that needs, as do our ducks, dogs and cat, food, water, and air. Today I’ll feeding my pet — my compost pet — corn stalks, lettuce plants that have gone to seed, rotten tomatoes and peppers, and other garden refuse. Plenty of organic materials are available to feed compost piles this time of year.

  In case you’re wondering, no, I’m not taking a close look at each leaf, stalk, and fruit to make sure it’s free of pests before getting tossed on the growing pile, as is suggested by some people. Look closely enough, and you’d find that just about everything would have some hostile organism on it. But given some combination of time and heat, a well-fed compost pile will take care of such potential problems.
Compost, in the makingJoseph Jenkins, in his excellent (and fun-to-read) book, The Humanure Handbook, quotes research showing complete destruction of human pathogens in humanure composts that reach 145°F for one hour, 122°F for one day, or 109° F for one week. The same should be true for plant pathogens and pests. For decades, I’ve tossed everything and anything into my compost piles and never noticed any carry over of pest or disease problems.

  Heat and time also do in weed seeds. Survival depends on the kind of weed: Research shows that a couple of weeks at 114°F kills pigweed seeds, while only about a week at that temperature kills seeds of tomatoes, peppers and their other kin in the nightshade family. Generally temperatures of 131°F for a couple of weeks kills most weed seeds.

  Heat and time aren’t the only threats faced by pathogens, pests, and weed seeds in the innards of my compost piles. In addition to heat, various antagonistic organisms — including friendly (to us) bacteria, fungi, and nematodes — stand ready to inhibit their growth or gobble them up.
Compost thermometerThis time of year, my compost piles dial the heat up to around 140°F, and hold that temperature for a couple of weeks, or more, before slowly cooling down.

Weedy Revenge

  Speaking of weeds, they also make excellent food for my compost pet. What sweet revenge I get tossing mugwort, creeping Charlie, and woodsorrel onto a growing compost pile and then get them back transmuted as dark, rich compost.

  Other organic materials that go into my compost piles are a mix of goldenrod, bee balm, grasses, yarrow, and whatever else is growing in my south field. I cut parts of it with a scythe, let the scythings wilt for a day, then rake and pitchfork them up.
Haystacks and compost pilesAlso on the menu is some horse manure from a nearby stable, which I like mostly for the wood shavings that provide bedding for the horses. The manure itself furnishes nitrogen, which compost pets need for a balanced diet — 20 parts carbon to 1 part nitrogen but no need to be overly exacting because it all balances out in the finished compost. Lacking manure, soybean meal is another nitrogen-rich feed, as are grass clippings and kitchen waste.
Organic materials feed compost pile.Feeding a variety of compost foods provides a smorgasbord of macro- and micronutrients to the composting organisms and, hence, to my plants. Every few inches I also sprinkle on some soil, to help absorb nutrients and odors, and some ground limestone, to lower acidity of our naturally increasingly acidic soils, and to improve the texture of the finished compost.

The Annual Cycle of Compost Here

  Compost made this time of year typically gets turned next spring, then, later in the growing season, pitchforked into the garden cart for spreading on vegetable beds. 

Turning compost

A one-inch depth of ripened compost supplies all that bed needs to grow intensively planted vegetables there for the whole growing season.Spreading compostIt was too late to plant a late vegetable crop in the bed I just cleared of old corn stalks, so I blanketed that bed an inch deep in compost. The same goes for a bed in which grew an early planting of zucchini.

  Any beds that get cleared before the end of this month will get, before I lay down that blanket of compost, a dense sprinkling of oat seeds. The seeds will germinate and the seedlings will thrive in the cool weather of autumn and early winter.

Cover crop, 3 beds with cabbage

This “cover crop,” as it is called, protects the soil surface from pounding rain and insulates the lower layers. The oat roots latch onto nutrients that might otherwise wash down through the soil. And as the roots grow, they nudge soil particles this way and that, giving the ground a nice, crumbly structure that garden plants like so well.

  Beds cleared after October 1st get only compost, no oats, which is almost as good. In all honesty, I’ve never noted any difference in the soil or in vegetable plant growth from using compost alone as opposed to compost plus a cover crop. That much compost, year after year, probably way overshadows the effect of a cover crop. The green cover does look nice going into winter, though.

(I deal more in-depth with composting, using compost, and cover crops in my book Weedless Gardening.)Oat cover crop


The Season Ends

Asparagus season has ended here now, after more than two months of harvest. From now till they yellow in autumn, the green fronds will gather sunlight which, along with nutrients and water, will pack away energy into the roots, energy that will fuel next year’s harvest.
Weeding asparagus in past years
In addition to dealing with the weather, the plants have to contend with weeds. I have to admit, despite being the author of the book Weedless Gardening, that my asparagus bed each year is overrun with weeds, mostly two species(!) of oxalis, creeping Charlie, and various grasses. Also weeds parading as asparagus, self-sown plants. This, even though I planted all male varieties. Any batch of male plants typically has a certain, low percentage of female plants. (Still, my garden is weed-less even if it’s not weedless.)

I always wondered about the recommendation to plant asparagus crowns in deep trenches that are gradually filled in with soil as the new plants grow. I read that one reason is that crowns deep in the soil results in thicker, albeit fewer and later, spears. But as if to decide for themselves, research also shows that , over time, shallowly planted crowns naturally settle deeper into the ground, and deeply planted crowns inch upwards.
Weedy asparagus bed
Another reason for deep planting is, perhaps, to protect the crown from tiller blades or hoes. I don’t till and, since the plants anyway take the matters in their own hands, I set my asparagus, years ago when I planted them, just deep enough to get the crowns under the ground.

Weed Control(?) for Next Year

But back to the weeds in my asparagus bed . . .  This year I’m determined to get more of the upper hand with weeds. To whit: Yesterday I cut everything — weeds and asparagus — in the bed as low as possible. A bush scythe, which is a scythe with a short, heavy duty blade, does this job easily and quickly; a weed whacker might also work. One year a battery powered hedge trimmer got the job done. For me, the scythe works best.

In years past, I would cut everything to the ground, as I did this year, and then I’d top the bed with a couple of inches of wood chips.

This year, to get better weed-less-ness and to offer the asparagus plants a treat as thanks for the many spears that went into cold soup, hot vegetable dishes, and the freezer, I offered them compost. Although I make lots of compost, that compost is generally reserved for beds within the vegetable garden proper and potting mixes as well as, this year, my newly planted grape vines, and pear and apple trees.
Asparagus bed with compost
Asparagus is worth it, so I dug into my most finished compost bin, filled up two garden carts, and slathered a one-inch layer of compost over the whole bed. That inch of dense, dark compost should go a long way to smothering small weeds, which have little reserve energy. The compost then got topped with a couple of inches  of wood chips. Asparagus bed with compost and chipsThe compost will nourish the asparagus . . . and the weeds, most of which I hope will be sufficiently young or weakened to not push up through the compost and the wood chips to light.

Compost Needed

That was a lot of compost to part with. No problem, because I’ve also been making lots of compost. Plus, a few bins I built last year, each with about one-and-half cubic yards of compost, are ready to use or will be so in the coming weeks.

The bins themselves are made from 1×6 boards of composite wood (a mixture of waste wood, recycled and new plastic, and some type of binding agent), such as used for decking, notched to stack together Lincoln-log style. It keeps moisture and heat in, and scavengers and weeds more or less out, and doesn’t degrade, as did my previous wood bins.

I feed my compost pets — earthworms, fungi, bacteria, and other organisms — hay from my small field, manure from a nearby horse farm, kitchen waste, old garden plants, and anything else biodegradable. The latter category has included old leather shoes and garden gloves, jeans, and, as an experiment, biodegradable(?) plastic spoons.

The compost also gets occasional sprinklings of soil, to add bulk, and ground limestone. Periodic liming is generally needed to counteract the acidity of most soils of northeastern U.S.; my soil gets limed indirectly, via the compost.
Feeding compost
Water is commonly the most limiting ingredient in home composts. Lots of water is necessary to percolate down into a pile. Rather than getting bored with a hose wand, after finishing an extended composting session, I set up a small sprinkler on the pile, whose spread is as wide as the pile, to gently water for about 20 minutes.

Of course, the devil is in the details: how much of each ingredient to add. Not to worry, though. Any pile of organic materials will eventually turn to compost.

For my piles, I check moisture with a REOTEMP long stem moisture meter and monitor progress with a long stem compost thermometer. This time of year temperatures of the piles soar to 150°F within a few days.

My asparagus bed is worth all this.



Myco . . . What?

There’s a fungus among us. Actually, fungi, all over the place. Right now, though, I’m focussed on a special group of fungi, a group that, as I look out the window on my garden, the meadow, and the forest, has infected almost every plant I see. Like so many microorganisms — most, in fact — these fungi are beneficial.

The fungi are called mycorrhizal fungi; they have a symbiotic relationship with plants. (“Mycorrhizae” comes from the Greek “myco,” meaning fungus, and “rhiza,” meaning root.) The plant and the fungus have an agreement: The plant offers the fungus carbohydrates which it makes from sunlight, carbon dioxide, and water; in exchange, the fungus infects plant roots and then spreads the other ends of its thread-like hyphae throughout the soil to act to be virtual extensions of the roots. The plant ends up garnering more mineral nutrients from the soil. The fungus also helps offer protection against pests and drought. It’s an arrangement that has worked for eons.

Except for where soil has been doused with heavy doses of pesticides or discombobulated by land excavation, mycorrhizae are everywhere. Only a few plant families get along without this symbiosis. Some more familiar, nonmycorrhizal plants include cabbage and its kin, carnations, lamb’s-quarters, and sedums. Other plants can grow without mycorrhizae, but then miss out on some of the benefits and don’t make most efficient use of minerals soil has to offer.

Why mention mycorrhiza at this moment of time? Two books on mycorrhiza were published this year; either one, but not both, are worth reading. Both cover the kinds of mycorrhizae, their effects, their nurturing, and probably everything else you might want to know about this symbiosis.

Michael Phillips’ Mycorrhizal Planet will appeal more to the hip gardener, the one who burns wood for biochar for their soil, builds hugelkultur mounds (look it up), and spritzes plants with herbal extracts to boost their immune function. He’s mostly right when writing about mycorrhizae but often enters the land of woo-woo when venturing off-track. For instance, he writes, and then runs with, “many species of insects lack the digestive enzymes needed to break down complete proteins.” Not true.

The other book about mycorrhizae, Jeff Lowenfels’ Teaming with Fungi, presents a similar overview to mycorrhizal fungi, and their application, to that presented in Mycorrhizal Planet, with one notable difference. Teaming with Fungi details straightforward methods how you or I can actually grow our own mycorrhizae with which to inoculate plants to get them off to the best possible start.

The two books differ dramatically in their writing style. I eventually tired of Phillips’ overly flowery style and anthropomorphizing. “The synergy that unfolds as a result of outrageous diversity in the orchard delights me to no end . . . .The root systems of fast-growing tree with relatively pliable wood make barter possible between AM [arbuscular mycorrhize] and EM [ectomycorrhizae] fungi.” Lowenfels’ Teaming with Fungi is more firmly grounded in real science and application than Mycorrhizal Planet. I found Lowenfels’ writing more straightforward and engaging: “Some trees form AM, but others have evolved over time and are hosts to EM. Some trees are hosts to both forms of mycorrhizae, though usually at different periods in their lives.” (Different strokes for different folks.)

The mycorrhizal symbiosis was first studied and described in the latter half of the 19th century. Less long ago, but still long ago, I studied them as part of my doctoral work, specifically the ericoid mycorrhizae that are specific to blueberry plants and their kin. With the increased appreciation of the diversity, extent, and effect of the living world within the soil in recent years, mycorrhizae have moved into the spotlight. Read about them, nurture them, and make use of them.

And Weeds Among Us

Rising now to see what’s going on aboveground, I see that the garden has moved mostly into its maintenance phase for the season. That entails mowing, scything, making compost, keeping an eye out for pests and taking action, if necessary. 

And, of course, weeding. My weeding weapons of choice are my hands, for larger interlopers, and either the winged weeder hoe or wire hoe for small ones. Called into action weekly, either of the two hoes easily slice through the top quarter inch of soil surface to do in small weeds that haven’t even yet poked their heads above ground. Wire weeder, winged weederAll the better to forestall the appearance of large weeds, which are much harder to kill and also threaten to spread seeds or grow strong roots. Regular hoeing also keeps the soil surface loose to better absorb rainfall.

Early July seems to be when true gardeners part ways with other gardeners. Regular weeding  and other garden maintenance keeps the garden in good shape for the fall garden which, with good maintenance and planning, is like having a whole other garden, providing vegetables and flowers well into fall.



Greenery, For Humans And Ducks

Spring has come early, as usual, in my greenhouse. Growth is shifting into high gear as brighter sunlight fuels more photosynthesis and warms the greenhouse more and for a longer time each day. Giant mustard plants, which provided greens all winter, are no longer tasty now that they have shifted their energy to stalks topped with yellow flowers. No matter. I’m digging the plants out and sowing lettuce seeds.

Paths in the greenhouse are carpeted in green — mostly from weeds, mostly chickweed, which is also soaking up the sun’s goodness. No matter. I’m also digging these plants out before they go to seed and threaten takeover of the greenhouse.Greenhouse weeds & claytonia

To take over the greenhouse, the chickweed would have to do battle with claytonia, which already has self-sown to  bogart much of the greenhouse floor. Fortunately, the claytonia is good fresh in salads.

Chickweed is also good — to some people — for eating. But not for me. My ducks, however, love the stuff. So it’s a win-win situation. I weed the greenhouse paths, gather together a pile of chickweed, then throw it to the ducks as I walk past them on my way back to the house. They rush over to reach it soon after it hits the ground, gobbling it up at a frantic (for a human) pace. Good thing they don’t have to chew.Ducks eating weeds

The ducks also enjoy the flowering mustard plants which, along with the chickweed, transmute into delicious duck eggs.

Bottled Summer Goodness

A couple of weeks ago I finished off the last of the elderberry fruit syrup I made this past fall. No fruit could be easier to grow than elderberry. In just a couple of years, the bushes have grown to enormous size, their clusters of creamy white flowers bowing to the ground at the ends of stems late each spring. Later in summer, those flower clusters morph into blue-black fruits, which, admittedly, aren’t very flavorful plain (and shouldn’t be eaten raw).Elderberry blossoms

The only care I’m planning for my plants is to prune them every year or so. Pruning will entail cutting some of the older stems to the ground to make way for younger, more fruitful stems, as well as shortening any branches that arch down so much that their fruit would rest on the ground.

In summer, I stripped the ripe fruits from their clusters into a half-bushel basket, and, postponing what to do with them, froze them. Come fall, I cooked them in a little water, added some maple syrup, crushed them with a potato masher, and then jarred them up.Elderberry harvest

Why all this trouble for a fruit that’s not very flavorful? Because the berries are so healthful! Studies have shown them, or their extracts, to be “supportive agents against the common cold and influenza.” Other benefits have also been ascribed to use of elderberry, but common cold and influenza are enough for me.

Now that I’m out of elderberry syrup, I already feel a slight cold coming on.

Timing Is Important

Back to the greenhouse . . .  and sowing seeds of the cabbage family (Brassicaceae), also called crucifers. Which gets me thinking back to last fall when a friend was bemoaning the lack of fat sprouts and the puny growth of his brussels sprouts plants. I asked when he sowed the seeds. “Back in early August,” I think he said. At any rate, back in summer.

It’s no wonder he wasn’t going to be harvesting brussels sprouts. The plants need a long season to mature, from 90 to 120 days, depending on the variety. For best yields, this means sowing seeds now, growing them as transplants for about 6 weeks, and then planting them out for harvest that will begin in late summer. At the very least, the seeds could be planted directly in the ground in a few weeks.Crucifer seedlings

I’m sowing other crucifers now, not because they need such an inordinately long growing season, but so that they can be harvested in late spring and early summer. First harvests will be of miniature bok choys, and then cabbages and, if I grew them (I don’t), broccoli and cauliflower. Kale is the most versatile member of the family — and the one I grow in greatest quantity — amenable to sowing anytime from now until later in summer for harvest in late spring, through summer, and on into fall and winter.

Mustard, turnips, and arugula are also crucifers, the whole family most easily identified by their four-petaled blossoms in the shape of a cross, the root of the word crucifer.


Anti-Weed Tools

    Recently sown vegetable seeds that have sprouted are growing slowly; weeds and lawn are growing fast. Give weeds an inch, and they’ll take a mile. Ignore growing lawngrass, and soon you’ll need a tractor or a scythe to cut it down to size.Wire weeder and winged weeder
    But few people ignore their lawns. Dealing with the growing grass is straightforward: You get out the lawnmower and go back and forth or round and round until every grass blade has been sheared.
    Weeding demands more thought, technique, and intimacy with vegetation. Different weeds and different settings call for different approaches. In a vegetable garden, a hoe might be the tool of choice. My choices for hoes are the winged weeder, with a sharp blade that runs parallel to the ground surface and just slightly below ground in use, and the wire weeder, whose wire performs similarly.
    Mostly, though, I don’t need or use a hoe in my “weedless” (actually, “weed-less”) vegetable garden. Weeds are few enough and the soil is soft enough so that all that’s necessary is to bend over and pull out a weed, tops and all. Tap-rooted weeds, such as dandelion, need coaxing out with the aid of a trowel or hori-hori knife. That coaxing also helps lift a quackgrass plant gently enough to allow following its subterranean runner as far as possible until it breaks.Quackgrass with runner
    Along garden edges, my half-moon edger is very good at scouring out a dry moat that stops weed. Problem is that my garden has a lot of edges. And furthering the problem, any edges neglected for more than a couple of weeks during a spell of good growing conditions puts that edge back to square one.

Fire and Acid

    Just outside the glass sliding doors of my living room is a brick terrace that makes a nice take-off point to a short expanse of lawn and then, through an arbor, into the main vegetable garden. Or, turning, south, towards the greenhouse and meadow. You’d think that the brick surface of the terrace would be maintenance- and weed-free. Not so.
 Flame weeding   It’s a tribute to the tenacity of weeds how they manage to take root or sprout, and then thrive, in the small openings between adjacent bricks. Even in the small cracks between the bricks and the masonry wall of the house. Some of those “weeds” are actually welcome there — such as the wild columbines that send up thin stalks at the ends of which hover orange and yellow blossoms whose rear-pointing spurs gives the flowers the appearance of flaming rockets.
    Still, most of those weeds have to go. Pulling them out individually would be too tedious, and takes with them what little dirt or rock dust lies between the bricks. So I torch them, instead. A small, hand-held torch would be effective, but slow. I use the appropriately named Dragon Weeder, whose 3-inch diameter nozzle attaches, via a 10-foot long hose, to a 20 gallon propane tank. Fire roars out of this dragon’s mouth like a jet engine, and all that’s needed is a quick pass. No need to set plants on fire; just heat them enough to burst their cells. And this wet day is ideal to reduce the risk of fire spreading.
    Equally effective for an expanse like my terrace is to burn foliage with vinegar. Household vinegar, straight up (5 or 6% acetic acid), does the trick as long as the temperatures are above 70°F. Effectiveness is increased if 2 tablespoons per gallon of canola oil and 1 tablespoon per gallon of liquid soap is added to the vinegar, and if vegetation is not so large as to cause “shadows” where lower vegetation gets bypassed.
    Either fire or vinegar kills only the tops of plants. Roots might have sufficient stored energy to send up new sprouts, so treatments must be repeated until roots have used up all their energy.

Weed Food

    Corn salad is considered a weed in Europe. It’s borderline weedy in my garden, with its tufts of greenery clustering near the foot of some of my vegetable beds and occasionally elsewhere.
    No need to hoe it, hori-hori it, torch it, or vinegar corn salad. I let it be, even coax it along, in some areas, and weed it out in others. Corn salad and I can maintain this congenial relationship because I like to eat it.
    The same can be said for Good King Henry, another European import that could take over my garden if given free rein. It’s a relatively unknown relative of more familiar edibles like lamb’s-quarters (Cheno­pod­­­ium album), epazote (C. ambrosioides), and quinoa (C. quinoa), and, to me, the best-tasting of the lot. Even if you didn’t like the flavor of Good King Henry, you couldn’t help loving its botanical name, C. bonus-henricus. Eat it and weed.


Ignoring My Gut

Like other parents, I don’t hold back preparing for fall just because of hot, sun-drenched sunny days. But my preparations don’t entail trips to the store for notebooks, pencils, rulers, and other school gear. My daughter is old enough to gear up for herself. Instead, I’m preparing for a garden that becomes lush with ”cool weather” vegetables just as tomatoes, peppers, okra, and other warm weather vegetables are fading OUT.
    Much of gardening entails NOT going with your gut. If I went with my gut, I’d be planting more tomatoes and sweet corn and, perhaps, if I was really going with my gut, even banana trees on today’s ninety plus degree, bright, sunny, humid day.

Sprouting seedlings, planting seeds, and transplants

Sprouting seedlings, planting seeds, and transplants

    Although tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers presently have more appeal, fall vegetables will have their day. I have to remind myself how a lowering sun and cooler weather make more appealing the lush green leaves of cabbages, brussels sprouts, endive, lettuce, kale, celery, and, below ground, radishes, turnips, carrots, and celeriac. And anyway, I’ll have no choice because summer vegetables will have waned by then.
    That lush fall garden, almost like a whole new garden, comes about only if I do something about it now!

To Every Thing There is a Season, a Time to Plant, A Time to…

    Timing is (almost) everything for a productive fall garden. Planted too early, some leafy fall vegetables bolt — send up tough seed stalks — because of heat and long days. Right now, I’m sowing turnips and winter radishes, the especially tasty varieties Hakurei and Watermelon respectively. Among leafy, salad vegetables, lettuce, mustard (the variety Mizuna), and endive, with repeated sowing of lettuce every weeks until early September.
    It’s still a too early for spinach, arugula, mâche, short season Chinese cabbages, and spring radishes. Some time later this month would be about right for these vegetables. My book, Weedless Gardening, gives a detailed schedule for when to plant what vegetables for specific regions.
    For a truly bountiful fall garden, more advance planning was needed. For instance, I won’t be harvesting brussels sprouts until October, but for sprouts lining stalks three to four foot tall, I sowed those seeds indoors in March. Celery and celeriac seed got sprinkled in mini-furrows in seed flats way back in early February.

Zero Tolerance for Weeds, Almost

    Almost as important as timing for my fall garden is weeding. The enthusiasm of many gardeners peaks in spring and then slowly wanes as summer heats up. Not mine.
    Every time I see a lambsquarters weed, the thought of the eventual 100,000 seeds it might sow prompts be to bend down and yank it out. Same goes for purslane plants, whose seeds remain viable in the soil for decades. And spotted spurge; each plant not only spreads thousands of seeds, but those seeds sprout quickly to mature new plants that make even more baby, then adult, spotted spurges. How could I bring myself not to pull these weeds. (Yes, I know, lambsquarters and purslane are edible — if you like their flavor.)
    With weeds kept in check through June, much less effort has been needed to maintain the status quo. Mostly, this is because drier weather has limited weed growth and seed germination, and because any watering in my garden is with drip irrigation. Rather than coaxing weed growth in pathways (and also wasting water), as do sprinklers, drip irrigation pinpoints water to garden plants.

Fresh Figs Bring Me back to Summer

    Back to enjoying summer . . . we’ve been enjoying the first crop, known as the breba crop, of figs from the ‘Rabbi Samuel’ fig tree espaliered in the greenhouse.

Rabbi Samuel fig, espaliered in greenhouse

Rabbi Samuel fig, espaliered in greenhouse

   Most fruit plants bear fruits on one-year-old, or older, stems. Figs, depending on the variety, can bear on one-year-old stems, on new, growing shoots, or on both one-year-old stems and on new, growing shoots. ‘Rabbi Samuel’, I have found, bears on both.
    The tree is trained to a T, with two horizontal arms growing in either direction from atop an 18” high trunk. New shoots spring up vertically at about 6 inch spacing along the arms. Late each fall, I cut all those shoots almost back to the arms to make room for and coax new fruiting shoots for the following year.

Early, breba fig crop not ripening on old stub

Early, breba fig crop not ripening on old stub

       The stubs left after cutting back the season’s shoots are one year old, and that’s where brebas have been borne. This fall, I’ll leave some a few inches long, for a larger breba crop next July; the next year I’ll shorten them more drastically and leave others a few inches long; and so on, year after year.
    The main crop, on new, growing shoots, should begin ripening not to long after the  last of the brebas have been harvested. With sufficient sunlight and a bit of supplemental heat in the greenhouse, harvest of the main crop will continue until November’s days grow too short, soothing the transition from the summer to the fall garden.


Compost and/or Living or Dead Organic Material = Sustainable Fertility

Maple leaves already dapple the ground in red and yellow (early this year), one morning showed off what was to come with frost on the windshield, and each day the sun each hangs lower in the sky, yet I’m getting ready for spring planting. Really! Yes, I’d rather do it now than in spring.

Beds of spent vegetables have been cleared. Okra plants, in this cool weather, just sat in place, hardly producing any new pods. So out went the plants. I severed the main roots with my hori-hori knife ( and yanked out each stem. When corn is finished, it’s finished. Beds of early corn got replanted with endive, lettuce, and other late vegetables, but the latest beds of corn were harvested too late for replanting. Clearing away old vegetable plants not only clears the deck for next spring but also takes offsite some pests and diseases that might otherwise lurk around next year to do their evil work.

Clearing bed of all weeds and plants in preparation for its layer of compost.

Clearing bed of all weeds and plants in preparation for its layer of compost.

With spent vegetable plants cleared away — tomatoes and peppers are still yielding fruits, so they remain for now — I remove weeds. Ideally, all of them. Left in place, annual weeds spread seeds and roots of perennial weeds grab more tenaciously and deeper into the soil. A single pigweed plant, for instance, can drop 120,000 seeds, poised and ready to invade next year’s garden. That, and the 36,000 seeds on every plantain plant, the 39,000 seeds of each lamb’s-quarter plant, and the 8,000 seeds clustered in a crabgrass seedhead prompts me to pull these weeds now, before more seeds mature.

Of course, some weeds escape my notice, so the final step in preparation for spring is to suffocate these: I slather each planting bed with a one inch depth of mostly weed-free compost. A temporary 2X4 at each edge of the bed keeps the compost neatly in place until patted down firmly.

The compost does more than snuff out overlooked weeds. Its biotic life helps protect plants against pests and diseases. It helps soils hold water and air. And it feeds plants a smorgasbord of nutrients.

On a Garden, Farmden, or Small Farm, Fertility Simplified

Did I mention spreading fertilizer, “organic” or otherwise, in getting the soil ready for spring planting? No. A one-inch depth of compost supplies all the nutrients needed to grow vegetables, even in beds with closely spaced plants. Paraphrasing the Beatles lyrics, “All you need is . . .compost, da, da, da-da da.”

Bed in middle has been lathered with an inch depth of compost, left on surface.

Bed in middle has been lathered with an inch depth of compost, left on surface.

A garden is not Mother Nature left to her own devices; nonetheless, I try to emulate her as much as is practical. She does not spread fertilizer. Plants are naturally nourished as organic materials, such as leaves, stems, wood, roots, and dead animals, decompose to release whatever nutrients gave them life. I enjoy making compost and make enough to spread that required one-inch depth over all the beds. 

Next best would be to spread some concentrated source of the most needed nutrients, that is, “fertilizer,” on the ground and supplement it with a mulch such as wood chips, straw, hay, or other organic material. Here, an organic fertilizer, such as soybean or alfalfa meal, has the advantage over a chemical fertilizer in that nutrients become available over a long time and are made so in response to temperature and moisture, in synch with plants’ needs.N veg. garden, beds Oct '14

Two advantages of maintaining fertility with compost rather than mulch plus fertilizer are that seeds are more easily planted directly in the compost and compost, if made from a variety of feedstuffs, provides a wider spectrum of nutrient for the plants.

Cover Crops, Used Correctly, for Even Large Farms

A wheat farmer in Montana is not going to be spreading an inch of compost on his 1,000 acres, or even soybean meal and a mulch of straw. Agriculture is a balancing act, again, not Mother Nature but not disrespecting her either. In the case of a wheat farmer, or any large scale farm, cover crops are a practical route to healthy soil.

Cover crops are plants grown specifically to maintain or improve a soil. Cover crops may occupy the ground for part or for the whole season. As they grow, their roots push through the soil to break it up and, upon their death, leave channels for air and water. Roots exude natural compounds that stimulate a a wide population of beneficial microbes and release nutrients from the soil’s rocky matrix. Leguminous cover crops garner nitrogen from the air into a form that plants can gobble up. And once dead, deliberately or with age, cover crops can maintain or increase all important soil organic matter.

Oat cover crop in one of my beds.

Oat cover crop in one of my beds.

The devil is in the details. Killed too young, while still lush and green, a cover crop adds nothing in the way of soil organic matter (but does protect the soil surface from erosion). Tilling a cover crop into the soil, a common practice, might burn up more organic matter, by giving the ground a big burst of oxygen, than is added by the cover crop, whether the cover crop is young or old. And then there is the choice of cover crop itself for regional adaptability, for shading out weeds, or for beefing up a poor soil.

How about this? Set aside a separate area for cover cropping each year. Or set aside a separate area for cover cropping, but mow the plants one or more times through the growing season to provide mulch or feedstuff for compost. With enough land and suitable mix of cover crops, including legumes for nitrogen. 


“Sustainability” is a buzzword these days. Nourishing the ground with nothing more than annual sprinklings of chemical fertilizer not sustainable in terms of long-term soil health and because synthetic fertilizers require fossil fuels in their making. At he other end of the scale, primitive slash and burn agriculture, where land is cleared and burned, crops planted for a few years, then the site abandoned for a new site, is sustainable. But you need enough land to be able to leave time for the soil to naturally regenerate before another slashing and burning. In our “advanced” culture, recycling organic materials back to the land is also sustainable. It’s just a matter of getting the materials back into the soil, as compost or more directly, but not to a landfill or an ethanol (gasahol) factory.