Sunday, June 27, 2010

Two workshops coming up . . .

I’ll be holding a BACKYARD BERRY GROWING WORKSHOP in my garden on July 15th, from 6:30-9 pm. We’ll cover the ins and outs of growing blueberries, raspberries, lingonberries, gooseberries, blackberries, lingonberries, and strawberries -- and, of course, taste whatever’s ripe. Pre-registration is necessary; the cost is $35 until July 10th, $40 thereafter, with checks mailed to me at 387 Springtown Rd., New Paltz, NY 12561. Enrollment is limited. For more information, email or call 255-0417.

This summer, NOFA (Northeast Organic Farming Association) is offering four advanced, accredited workshops in organic land care. I will be offering the workshop, EDIBLE LANDSCAPING WITH FRUIT, on July 21st from 9am-3pm at my garden. This workshop will include everything from site assessment and soil preparation to plant selection and maintenance. For more information, and to register, go to:

Saturday, June 26, 2010

June 17, 2010

a gardener’s notebook

by Lee Reich

A love of roses has crept up on me over the years, due mostly to changes in kinds of roses available. Up until about 20 years ago, hybrid teas were pretty much the only roses on the block. These plants’ gangly stems are each capped by a vividly colored, fairly stiff, formal blossom whose petals wrap together into a pointy peak. You see where I’m going: hybrid teas are ugly, to me at least.

Also available were grandiflora and floribunda roses. Grandifloras are like hybrid teas, except

their stems end with clusters of a few, but smaller, blossoms. Floribunda roses have even larger flower clusters of even smaller flowers. Despite being bushes more full with flowers than hybrid teas, grandiflora and floribunda flowers are still rather prim and proper except for their traffic-stopping colors.

Then so-called species and old-fashioned roses entered the scene, roses that are as nature made them or only slightly hybridized. These roses constitute broad groups, but generally, what they have going for them are more subdued -- think pastel -- colors and more blowsy blossoms on more heavily branching, fuller-bodied, shrubs.

The downside to species and old-fashioned roses, even if you like their blossoms and their growth habits, is that many bloom only in the spring. Hybrid teas pump out blossom after blossom all summer long.

Enter Rose de Rescht, my first old-fashioned rose, given to me by a local, fellow gardener. Ann told me that this rose variety had soft pink flowers and heavenly scent. It’s been in my garden for years but yielded only a few blossoms each spring. Last year I decided to move it to a spot that basks all day long in unobstructed sunlight. Already, this spring, Rose de Rescht has been blossoming more profusely than ever. And Ann was right about the blossoms’ beauty and their scent.


Last summer’s incessant rains and the late blight of tomato that the rains helped spread make this spring’s dry weather especially welcome.

Dry weather does, of course, mean that watering is needed. The vegetables are under the care of battery operated timers and drip irrigation lines. Water drips out the lines for a total of 20 minutes each day, spread over intervals during daylight hours. That might seem like lots of water, but it’s not; at each watering, water drips very slowly, at the rate of 1/2 gallon per hour, from emitters spaced 6” along the line running down each bed. Spreading the watering throughout the day replenishes soil moisture as plants use it up.

Beyond the vegetable garden, plants are on their own for water -- except for newly planted trees, shrubs, and flowers. All these plants get off to a good start with some hand watering which, depending on plant size, may be once after planting or once a week the whole season. Hand watering can become tedious, but the plants love it and it’s crucial to getting them established.


A couple of cloudbursts last week got my gardening friends excited. Not to be a stick in the mud, but the rainfall was actually paltry. Yes, it did feel torrential at times, an effect heightened by the rumbling of thunder and dark skies.

A rain gauge tells all, though. In fact, only about a third of an inch of rain fell (0.39 inch, to be exact, at my house). Through summer, a garden needs, on the average, about an inch of rain per week. An inch of rain wets the soil to the depth of about a foot, which is where most plant roots reside. So that third of an inch of rainfall, following on the heels of weeks of dry weather, didn’t go far.

Then again, it’s still early in the season. New roots haven’t yet filled the soil to suck up all the soil moisture, and young plants and annuals haven’t grown enough new stems and leaves to pump that moisture back into the air. The soil is still a reservoir for last winter’s rain and snow. I planted some new berry plants in my berry patch yesterday and the soil there was still plenty moist. That’s because the ground there lies beneath a permanent blanket of wood chip and/or leafy mulch. Expect the soil to be drier beneath bare ground or lawn.


Rose de Rescht, basking in all that sunlight, is in spot where I haven’t yet mulched the ground. This is one old-fashioned rose that is supposed to blossom all summer long, but the blossoming has tapered. Perhaps Rose de Rescht is just taking a short rest from its burst of spring blooms. Perhaps soil is too dry. I’m going to water it by hand, then mulch. A gallon of water sprinkled slowly around the base of the plant is equivalent to an inch depth of rainfall (over a square foot), enough for another week of dry weather.


Nix on that watering; two-thirds an inch of rain fell in the hours since writing above. Let’s hope for sunny weather for a week, then another inch, total, of rainfall.


Any gardening questions? Email them to me at and I'll try answering them directly or in this column. Check out my garden’s blog at

Friday, June 18, 2010

Three people – and one of them a farmer! – mentioned to me last week that their asparagus harvest was over for the season. I figured they were tired of eating asparagus, but no, they asserted that now is when you are “supposed” to stop harvesting asparagus.

Asparagus is burdened with too many myths, and that harvest window is one of them. Asparagus is a perennial vegetable (which is just one reason everyone should grow it) that each summer has to build up energy reserves in its roots to fuel the following spring’s spears. Green leaves and spears are what make that energy so you can’t harvest all summer long and then expect the plant to have enough energy to sprout again in spring.

So yes, you do have to stop harvesting at some time during the growing season in order to let the plant re-fuel. My date for that has always been easy-to-remember July 4th, which allowed for the 6 to 8 weeks of harvest that is spelled out by any authoritative source on vegetable growing. In the past, harvest around here began in early May; harvest these days begins towards the end of April so I’ll have to push the end of the harvest window back to the end of this month. That should still leave plenty of time of unfettered growth for the bed to re-fuel.

Some other reasons to plant asparagus: Neither deer nor rabbits eat it so it doesn’t need to be fenced in; the feathery fronds that grow after harvest ceases are decorative, a perfect backdrop for flowers or frontdrop for shrubs; and fresh-picked asparagus tastes different, and far better, than any asparagus you can buy.

If I do get tired of eating asparagus before the end of this month, I still won’t stop harvesting. Continual harvest of all asparagus greenery early in the season helps starve out the first generation of asparagus beetles. And frozen asparagus is a winter treat.

* * * *

Another asparagus myth is that you get a bed going by digging a deep trench, in the bottom of which you set young plants or roots, then fill in the soil up around the new spears as they grow.

I fortunately read Ruth Stout’s No Work Garden Book (1971) before I ever planted asparagus, so was able to bypass all that digging. She recommended digging out only enough dirt to get the plants into the ground. Years later, I read of some actual research that confirmed Ms. Stout’s iconoclastic bent.

The reason for the traditional trench planting of asparagus was because the beds were tilled with tractors. The blades of the tillage implements cut deeply into the ground and deep planting put the crowns beyond the reach of metal.

The quality of asparagus spears is best when they emerge from cool soil, which could have been another reason for deep planting. I take a top-down approach and instead keep the soil cool with mulch, maintained year ‘round a couple of inches deep. The mulch also helps snuff out weeds, maintains soil moisture, and enriches the ground, as it decomposes, with nutrients and humus. Ms. Stout was famous for mulching.

* * * *

Right now, the north wall of my brick house is dripping with clusters of white blossoms held out against a backdrop of healthy, green leaves. Each cluster of blossoms consists of a rim of white petaled (sepals, really) flowers circling a cluster of small, petal-less, greenish flowers, the whole effect against the wall being like stars twinkling in the night.

The vining plant, climbing hydrangea (Hydrangea anomala spp. petiolaris), adorning the wall is universally acknowledged as one of the prettiest of flowering vines. This plant is generally loved, among those who know it, also for its cinnamon-brown, peeling bark and for its ability to thrive in sun or shade, even climb a tree without doing harm. My plant followed the books and took a couple of years to get going.

This year’s profusion of bloom has highlighted yet another quality of climbing hydrangea, one that’s rarely mentioned. The plant suffuses the north side of my house with a sweet, yet not overpowering, fragrance, conveniently appreciated from the terrace adjacent to that verdant wall.

Friday, June 11, 2010

This year’s berry season officially began, on May 22nd, with the first harvest of strawberries. As with everything else in this year’s garden, the strawberries are early. Looking over my records, I see that in years past, I had to wait until early or even the middle of June to pluck the first glistening, red orbs of the season.

Those first berries are particularly welcome. First of all, they are the first fresh fruit from the garden. (Not that I haven’t been eating berries: We still have plenty of blueberries, still frozen and, when thawed, still delectable, from last summer.)

The first strawberries of the season also are particularly welcome because they are always the biggest. Every strawberry stem ends in a single flower, which is the first one to open. About thirty days after opening, if all goes well, that flower has been transformed into a ripe strawberry.

Every strawberry stem also has two branches and each of these also terminates in a flower. Secondary flowers open after the first flower. Those secondary stems likewise each has two branches terminating by a flower, opening even later. There might even be a fourth set of branches, with flowers, on these last stems.

If you were to dissect strawberry flowers under a microscope, you’d find that that there are most female flower parts, which are what swell to comprise each juicy berry, in that first flower, fewer in the two secondary flowers, and so forth, so the berries generally get smaller as the season progresses.

Opening first, the biggest flower is also most susceptible to late frost injury. Fortunately, I remembered to throw a blanket over the strawberry bed to protect the flowers during the two frosty nights earlier in May.

Now it’s time to throw a net over the bed to fend off birds. Those metal hoops that covered some vegetable beds to support clear plastic for cold protection also work well as supports for netting. That first harvest of the 22nd was only two strawberries. Just a few days later, we were, and are, picking bowlfuls of berries, which the birds won’t want to share.

* * * *

I’ve previously praised backyard chickens for their eggs, for their patrolling of the grounds to keep insect pests in check, and for their decorative effect on the landscape. Benefits aside, I do spend some effort corralling them into or keeping them out of parts of the yard.

Chickens scratch for food, in so doing generally messing up planted ground, even damaging some plants as they keep scratching soil away from their bases. Hence, chickens are never allowed in my vegetable gardens, something they seem to appreciate even though they could easily fly over the 3-foot-high fence around one of the gardens. The chicken’s scratchings are also limited by their being “bantam chickens,” never taller than a foot or so and thus limited in their scratchabilities.

All unfenced ground beyond the vegetable gardens – it’s chicken’s delight. Flower beds, berry beds, mixed beds with herbs, berries, and flowers. The chickens enjoy scratching around in the loose soil and mulch of those beds. In their scratching, they even toss some of the soil and mulch outside beds, so I have to every once in a while rake soil and mulch back into the beds. “Ah, fresh, loose soil and mulch,” no doubt think the chickens, who go back right into the beds to scratch around again, and again toss out some soil and mulch.

Just a little fencing dissuades chickens – my chickens, at least – from entering an area. Bamboo stakes (another use for my bamboo) three inches apart and sticking a foot-and-a-half out of the ground decoratively and effectively have kept the birds out of one portion of the garden for years. This fencing only lasts a couple of years and becomes tedious to replace over a large area, though.

I’ve upgrading chicken fencing now to “welded wire” fencing with 2 by 4 inch openings. I cut a 36 inch wide roll in half for 18 inch high fencing, which I support with a bamboo stake every few feet. So far, after a few weeks, the chickens have only gazed longingly within but never hopped over it. Over the past couple of weeks, 7 baby chicks have hatched. The chicks have no trouble strolling right through the openings of this new fencing. Their scratchings are inconsequential.

Friday, June 4, 2010

A telephone pole is just a telephone pole – unless you jazz it up and make it look prettier. And that’s what I’ve done to a couple of those unobtrusive at best, ugly at worst, brown columns of wood that support the electric and telephone wires that run along the street in front of my house.

Telephone poles can be even worse than just big, dead pieces of wood stuck in the ground. Those poles sometimes need guy wires for lateral support. To keep anyone from tripping over such wires, their lower 10 foot sections are usually girdled in bright yellow, hard plastic sheaths. Very functional and very ugly.

One day a few years ago I looked upon telephone poles and their guy wires in a new light: trellises! I’m frequently building arbors and trellises to support various vining plants, and here was a ready-made trellis just waiting to be clothed.

So I went to work planting. On one guyed pole, I removed the yellow plastic sheath and planted trumpet honeysuckle where the guy wire entered the ground. On an unguyed pole I loosely stapled a girdle of chicken wire, then planted the base of this pole with another trumpet honeysuckle.

The poles and wires look beautiful now, both dripping with the scarlet blossoms which are now at their peak color that will continue, with lesser force, all summer long. Clematis would be another vine suitable for dressing up a telephone pole or its guy wire, as would hardy kiwifruit, trumpet vine, and silver fleece vine.

Note: Don’t try this at home. I was recently informed that, as owner of the telephone poles and guy wires, the electric company decrees that nothing should be trained on them. (How about just planting at the base of a pole or wire and letting Mother Nature take her course?)

* * * *

I know that I’m allowed to plant anything – well, almost anything – in my vegetable garden. How about the lowly cabbage?

If you read the instructions on a packet of cabbage seeds, you’ll be directed to eventually space plants 2 feet apart in rows 3 feet apart. That’s a lot of space for one plant, so I’m breaking that “rule.”

My vegetable garden has beds, each 3 feet wide, rather than rows. Eighteen-inch-wide paths flank each bed. A bed of recently planted tomatoes has two rows of tomato transplants about 2 feet apart, with each transplant is spaced about 18 inches apart in the row. (That’s a close spacing but the tomatoes are each going to be growing up their own stake and pruned to only a single stem, which gives less tomatoes per plant but more tomatoes per garden area than tomatoes allowed to sprawl.)

Those tomato transplants are still small and I hate to see such an expanse of bare real estate in the middle of the bed. So that’s where I plunked down cabbage transplants, 18 inches apart. I figure that the staked tomatoes will be growing up while the cabbages are growing wide. By the time tomatoes begin to shade the whole bed and everything gets crowded, the cabbages will have made it into salads, slaw, and sauerkraut.