Friday, July 30, 2010

It’s getting very hard to work outside in the garden, especially in early evening. No, not because of the heat. Not because of mosquitos either. The difficulty comes from the intoxicating aroma that wafts into the air each evening now from the row of lilies just outside the east side of my vegetable garden.

These lilies are not daylilies, which are mildly and pleasantly fragrant. Wild, orange dayliles are common along roadways and yellow and hybrid daylilies, often yellow, are common in mall parking lots .(That’s not a dis’; the plants tough and beautiful, and I’ve planted them also.) Neither are these lilies tiger lilies, which lack aroma and sport downward turned, dark red speckled orange flowers with recurved petals.

My fragrant lilies are so-called oriental hybrid lilies, which are notable for their large flowers and strong fragrance. The favorite among those I grow is Casa Blanca. The flowers are large and lily white (what’d you expect?) except for the threadlike, pale green stamens emerging from their centers, with dark red anther capping their ends. Casa Blanca would be worth growing just for the look of the flowers; the fragrance, very sweet and very heady make this bulb a must-grow.

Casa Blanca’s stems rise to about five feet tall, their upper portions circled with almost a dozen of those large blossoms in various stages of ripening. In the past, staked, persimmon orange, Sungold tomatoes have grown in that bed, and the tomato and lily plants looked very pretty mingling together. (Tomatoes were, after all, once grown as ornamentals.)

This year I am growing broccoli and lettuce, recently transplanted, in that bed; the lilies look gawky there with their present low growing companions. No matter, though. The fragrance alone makes Casa Blanca worth growing, a fragrance which, by the way, carries over in the cut flowers which, sitting in a vase on the kitchen table, make for a heady atmosphere each evening in the kitchen also.


Turning to another of the senses . . . taste. Blueberries. In spite of drought, the bushes are loaded. Blueberries, like most other fruits, make flower buds the year before the buds open so last summer’s rains could be contributing to this season’s abundance. With the dry weather, though, the berries could be shriveling or dropping. They are not.

Yesterday morning, my wife Deb harvested 6 quarts of plump, juicy, delectable berries from just one

bush, the variety Berkeley. And that was in addition to the few quarts harvested from that bush a couple of days ago. Not to mention the oodles of berries still on the bush.

Not to brag, but the average yield of a blueberry bush is 3 to 5 quarts. My blueberry bible, Blueberry Culture (Eck and Childers, Rutgers University Press, 1966) states that “proper cultural practices can increase the yield to as much as 25 pints per bush.”

My Berkeley bush will easily top that 25 pints, the result of my adding sulfur for acidity and soybean meal for nitrogen each fall, timely watering during the plant’s formative years, a topping up of existing mulch each fall with a 3 inch depth of wood chips, wood shavings, or leaves, and pruning every spring. Also, a net during the summer to fend off birds and careful picking of only dead ripe fruit by Deb.


As I write, rain is falling, much needed rain. Occasional thunderstorms fool many a gardener into thinking that the soil has been thoroughly wetted. But such rains, like today’s, are often only a drop in the bucket.

The only way to know for sure if enough rain has fallen for plants to really slurp up water is to check the soil or measure the actual amount of rainfall. The same goes for watering. My friend Bill tells me he waters his plants every day. Every day! How much? It could be too much or too little, and probably is one or the other. I like to quantitate things so I measure rainfall or watering, as well as soil moisture, in a few different ways.

First, measuring water added to the soil: The ideal is about a 1 inch depth of water per week, which is equivalent to about a half a gallon per square foot of surface area. For hand watering a young tree, with an estimated root spread of only a couple of square feet, I fill the watering can with a gallon of water and sprinkle it on. Rainfall, or the water from a sprinkler, could be measured with a straight-sided container. I use a rain gauge whose tapered body can break down the measurement into tenths of an inch, readable from indoors with binoculars. I also use a digital rain gauge that records rainfall in hundredths of an inch -- not that I or anyone needs that much accuracy -- and transmits to a readout conveniently located on a kitchen cabinet.

I usually measure the actual moisture in the soil with a handy little meter attached to a probe (a Rapidest Soil Moisture Meter) that slides a half a foot down into the soil. I sometimes have doubts about just how accurate this gadget’s accuracy so occasionally check it by digging into the soil to feel for moisture firsthand. Other electronic methods of monitoring soil water, which I’ll be looking into, are gypsum blocks and, not very gardenesque sounding, digitized time domain transmissometry.

I was over at Bill’s house last night with my handy-dandy Rapidest soil probe. The meter’s dial said that his soil was too wet.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Summertime and the livin’ is easy, fish are jumpin’ and the cotton is high . . . I don’t know about the fish in this hot weather, but, yes, the cotton is getting high. High for New York’s Hudson Valley, that is. My cotton is now about 10 inches high.

The yellowing, old pages of my Farmer’s Encyclopedia of Agriculture, published in 1914, states that cotton “is successfully cultivated in the United States as far north as Southern Virginia.” I’m banking on today’s hotter and longer summers for a cotton harvest this far north. Not that I’ve invested much in my crop; only 4 plants, started from seed sown in April and each now in its own 2 gallon pot.

Any cotton would be special grown around here but I’m growing the especially special variety ‘Earlene’s Green Cotton’ (from With a 150 day maturity, the bolls -- naturally olive-green! -- should be ready for picking sometime in September. Neither the boll weevil, made famous in song and sculpture, nor any other major cotton pest should be a problem around here, so count my production in with the more than quarter of a million bales of organic cotton now being grown worldwide.

If yields are sufficient, I’ll perhaps try to process the harvest into a small handkerchief. At the very least, I’ll enjoy the pretty flowers, which look similar to okra and hibiscus, two of its relatives. And I’ll be carrying on an agricultural tradition that stretches back thousand of years with the growing of various species of cotton in Central and South America, Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, and India and Pakistan.


The thermometer reads over a hundred degrees F. The forecast is for days of almost the same. It’s hard to believe the weather will ever cool off. But it will, and I’m planning on it. So much of gardening is not living in the moment!

The peas finally petered out. They’ve been cleared away and their bed sprinkled with soybean meal, mostly for nitrogen, and topped with an inch of fresh compost, for other nutrients and all sorts of other good things. In the relative cool of morning, tomorrow, I’ll plug into the ground broccoli transplants that I started from seed about a month ago. The plants should grow large through summer and then explode into giant, tight buds ready for harvest during cool weather that brings out the best flavor in this vegetable.

Planting also continues in other beds. I pulled up all the turnips, which, for the first time this year, I planted in spring. Turnip is another vegetable that thrives in cool weather but I figured it would be nice to have some in early summer also. We had plenty. They tasted awful. They are in the compost pile. Carrots, from seed, or kale, from transplants, will make better use of that space. I’ll put off planting turnips until the middle of August, which experience tells yield delectable roots in October.

Without any basis at all, I’m banking on warm weather now boding for warm weather into September. One more planting of bush beans, from seed, and cucumbers, from transplants sown early this month, will capitalize on that late summer warmth.


Every garden year has its themes. Last year’s themes were late blight of tomatoes and rain, which -- with cool weather, which we had -- go hand in hand. This year’s themes are shaping up to be heat, drought, and squirrels.

There’s nothing to be done about the heat and drought except garden early morning and late afternoon, and water as needed.

As for the squirrels: Don’t they know they’re supposed to eat acorns and other nuts? They enjoyed many of my peas and almost all my gooseberries and cleared one old apple tree of green apples. Now they are working on the raspberries and eyeing the blueberries. Other gardeners have been similarly lamenting their losses to squirrels. In desperation, I may investigate a remedy that goes beyond the usual and obvious remedies of dogs, cats, traps, artillary, and chickenwire enclosures.

Rats, according to recent news reports, were keeping tourists from exploring the historic sewers of Vienna until someone came up with the idea of having bagpipe players accompany tour groups. The bagpipes, the sound of which keeps away the rats, might do the same for our “tree rats.” I am no fan of bagpipes but, as I said, I’m desperate.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Today, June 30th, I saw my first couple of Japanese beetles of the season. They looked innocent enough, a single one on a grape leaf earlier in the day and then another one on a different grape leaf later in the day.

I know they weren’t the same beetle because each one I saw I wrapped in its resident leaf and squeezed hard. Ruthless? Perhaps. But any beetles now could be -- probably will be -- forerunners of hoards to come. What’s more, the more beetles that show up, the more new beetles will be attracted. And last summer’s wet weather provided good conditions for the beetles’ egg-laying in grassy areas, so plenty of young ‘uns might soon be making their way out of the soil. (Then again, last summer’s cool weather might have put a crink in their fecundity.)

In previous summers, I hung beetle traps that drew beetles in by use of a sex attractant. Each day I “harvested” bagfuls of beetles, which my chickens ate. Like most birds, chickens do not relish Japanese beetles. Problem is that traps, even at the far ends of a property, can attract more beetles to an area than they catch, especially if not emptied frequently. And remember, having some beetles around attracts even more beetles.

This summer, the plan is to spray a nontoxic repellant on some of my most susceptible plants: filberts, hardy kiwifruit, and grapes. The material: kaolin clay, sold commercially as ‘Surround.’ Raspberries and roses are also beetle favorites but spraying the latter would ruin the fruits, which are now ripe, and spraying the former would ruin the beauty of the blooms.

Japanese beetles stop feeding to lay new eggs in the ground in August, so the Surround should wash off by late summer and fall, when the filberts, kiwis, and grapes are ready for harvest.


Japanese beetles have cosmopolitan tastes, feasting on more than 300 different kinds of plants; another annual pest, hibiscus sawfly, chews leaves of only one plant, hibiscus. It does sometimes broaden its pallet a bit to nibble on related plants such as rose of sharon, cotton, hollyhock, and okra.

Afflicted hibiscus look ragged but still manage to cough forth a few blooms. You don’t need many blooms to put on a good show because each one is the size of a dinnerplate and, on my plant, at least, fire-engine red. Other varieties come in more subdued pinks and white.

Still, more healthy leaves should make more blooms so I decided to do something about the sawflies this year. As soon as the first holey leaves appeared, I checked for the creepy caterpillars. Handpicking is an option but seemed too tedious so I mixed up a quart of Safer’s Insecticidal Soap, which is nothing more than a specially formulated soap to kill insects. Gardeners of yore used regular old hand soap as a similarly nontoxic insecticide.

One spray, thoroughly applied to the tops and the bottoms of the leaves, thoroughly did in the sawflies. Repeated sprays will be necessary to do in subsequent generations of the insect.


Enough about pests! A flower equally striking as hibiscus yet much smaller is passionflower. I’m not sure what species I have now in bloom because this particular plant was mislabeled when I purchased it (at a supermarket) and there are many species and hybrids of passionflower.

At any rate, the flowers are spectacular. Picture 3 club-like, purple speckled stigmas, backed by 5 yellow anthers, in turn backed by a crown of myriad, thin, deep blue threads, short ones back by long ones, with a white midsection in some of the long ones. Finally set all that intricate beauty against a backdrop of 10 deep purple petals.

All these flower parts are what put the “passion” in passionflowers. Lest any eyebrows go up, the “passion” referred to in the name is the passion of Christ. When Christian missionaries arrived in the Americas, they saw in wild passionflowers the symbolism of the crucifixion -- the 3 nails, the 5 wounds, the crown of thorns, etc. -- and went on to use the plant as a seventeenth-century teaching tool for spreading the gospel.

The passionflower I wanted, and which was spelled out on the plant’s label when bought, was maypop (Passiflora incarnata). This species is native to eastern US and is actually hardy outdoors here. The stems of this species die to the ground each fall, then sprout anew late each spring from overwintered roots. I have one plant and wanted another for needed cross-pollination. Maypop has flowers equally spectacular to the unknown passionflower species. And more: delectable fruits that look and taste just like the tropical passionfruits, the main flavouring in “Hawaiian punch.”

Since I bought the unknown plant I’ve gotten some other maypop plants, so plan on enjoying the fruits of my labor in a few weeks.

Friday, July 9, 2010

My daughter Genevieve does not like to garden but does like good-tasting vegetables, especially tomatoes. So when she recently moved to the third floor of a rented house with access to some backyard space, I, of course, offered her some special tomato plants and help in planting them. No, this wasn’t necessarily going to be a garden, but 9 tomato plants bearing fruits of minimal labor.

The plants -- the varieties Anna Russian, Amish Paste, Sungold, Carmello, and Valencia -- went into the ground at the end of May. I brought along, besides the 9 plants, some building paper (“rosin paper”), bamboo stakes, a small sledge hammer, compost, and soybean meal (for nitrogen fertilizer).

To plant, we first knocked down some of the existing weeds sprouting along the south border of the narrow, thankfully sunny, city yard. A sprinkling of soybean meal at each planting site was topped with an 18 inch by 18 inch square of the paper slit to its center, into which we cut a planting hole just big enough to accommodate a plant’s root ball. Each plant went into a root-ball-sized hole poked into the ground beneath the opening in the paper. We covered each paper square with an inch or so of compost, hammered a bamboo stake into the ground next to each plant, and the tomato planting was complete.

Genevieve’s job was to water the plants for a few days to get them established, to keep the plants to a single stem by pruning off suckers, and to tie the plants to the stakes, as needed.

I’ve started whole gardens with a more refined version of this paper/compost method, so this week’s visit to the “garden,” possibly Philadelphia’s most low-maintenance “garden,” brought no surprises. The plants were growing and tomatoes were on their way. I couldn’t restrain myself from whacking back weeds that had grown up beyond the paper barriers to shade some of the plants. I stopped my whacking every few minutes to move the end of a hose from one plant to the next to thoroughly soak the ground beneath each plant.

Great-tasting tomatoes are scheduled to begin about the third week in July.


Tomato plants in my own garden also require little care from me now, basically nothing more than periodic tying to their stakes and occasional weeding.

In contrast to last year’s summer of late blight, plants this year look lusty and fruitful. Late blight has already been reported this year in isolated pockets in in Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and Michigan, and on Long Island. My plant’s healthy look comes from a thorough cleanup and composting of diseased residues last year, moving this year’s tomatoes to a new location in the garden, and starting my own planting from seed. All these measures also go a long way to thwarting the other leaf spot diseases (septoria leaf spot and early blight) that more commonly attack tomatoes around here.

The hot, sunny weather also helps a lot, ultraviolet rays and heat stopping late blight dead in its tracks.


Back in March I wrote of my pea problems. In brief, every year for the past few years, my peas have begun bearing pods and then too soon afterwards have begun to yellow and die. I thought I narrowed down the cause to one or two root diseases of peas, fusarium and aphanomyces, both of which live for a long, long time in the soil, making crop rotation of limited utility in their control.

To keep these diseases in check, I planted the fusarium resistant variety Little Marvel and, because aphanomyces likes wet soil, kept the pea beds on the dry side. I also made one planting in an area that’s never been home to peas.

The only peas still thriving are the ones planted in a previously pea-less home. Pulling up yellowing vines from the other beds did not, unfortunately, yield tell tale symptoms of few branch roots (aphanomyces) or reddish roots (fusarium), so I’m still in a quandary.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Has your garden had its tea this morning? In case you haven’t heard, tea is all the rage for plants and soils these days. Compost tea. And not just any old compost tea, but tea you steep in water that’s aerated just like an aquarium.

Compost tea steeped the old way, by hanging a burlap sack of compost in a bucket of water for a few days, was one way to provide a liquid feed to plants. The liquid feed wasn’t particularly rich but did provide a wide range of nutrients and was convenient for feeding potted plants.

The new, aerated compost teas are billed as an efficient way to transfer beneficial microorganisms from compost into the soil or onto plant leaves. After all, spraying a little tea is less work that pitchforking tons of compost. In the soil, the little guys can spread their goodness, fighting off plant diseases and generally making plants healthier. Or so goes the logic and the promotional material.

Aerated compost tea is big business these days, with people selling compost tea, compost tea brewers, and services for testing compost teas. Compost tea is more than big business; it’s bordering on religion (as anyone who criticizes compost tea soon finds out).

In fact, aerated compost tea is not the panacea it’s trumped up to be. Many independent studies have found the tea to be of no benefit, or even detrimental. Occasionally, human pathogens have been found lurking in compost tea.


I have a friend who believes in compost tea, so in the interest of science I agreed, on his urging, to try it out. To make sure any lack of efficacy could not be blamed on the tea itself, he sent me some compost, a brewer, and instructions for brewing and application. Interestingly, he told me not to try it out in my vegetable garden, because my garden was “too organic”(!)

Long story short: I applied tea to my lawn and to some vegetables in a relatively poor soil at a local farm, and the result was . . . (drum roll) . . . nothing, nada, rien, zip.


All the buzz about compost tea bypasses the fundamental question of why compost tea would limit plant disease when sprayed on plant leaves? The theory goes that the good microorganisms colonize leaves to displace and/or fight off the bad guys.

Compost tea contains some of the microorganisms from the compost that made the tea. These microorganisms are normally found in soils and, of course, composts. But why, evolutionarily speaking, would these microorganisms provide any benefit on plant leaves, for disease control or any other purpose? Furthermore, lacking the nutrients and environment in which they thrive (i.e. composts and soils), these organisms will not thrive, or even survive very long, on plant leaves. The same goes for soils: If the soil has the right environment for a particular set of microorganisms, they generally are there; apply microorganisms to a soil lacking the needed environment and those microorganisms cannot survive.

Still, occasional research papers report on positive effects of compost tea applications with respect to plant diseases. In answer, I contend that if you spray just about anything on a plant leaf and measure closely enough, you’ll turn up some measurable response to the spray. That response might be very transitory and very small, but, with the right equipment or instrumentation, you’ll measure some effect. Whether that effect is of biological or practical significance is another story.

With that, I suggest someone begin a series of experiments to see the effect on plant diseases of spraying -- say -- milk solutions on plant leaves. Wait! A google search just told me that milk sprays have been tested and are, in fact, effective in controlling plant viruses, powdery mildew, and other diseases. In contrast to compost tea, which provides microorganisms but little of the food they need to survive, milk provides a smorgasboard of nutrients to whatever microorganisms tag along for the ride.

On the basis of the evidence, I’d go with milk rather than tea for my plants. And I’ll take my milk without tea.


Moving on to something noncontroversial, my first black currants of the season ripened early this year, on June 15th. Come to think of it, black currants may not be noncontroversial. Black currants have a strong, very distinctive flavor, loved by some people, abhorred by others. The flavor starts out refreshingly tart as your teeth break the skin and then becomes sweeter and cooling, with a rich, resiny flavor, as you continue.

I count myself among the lovers of black currants, right up their with blueberries in my book. I’m so fond of this fruit that black currants earned a whole chapter in my book, Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden.

Let’s be clear about the fruit in question. Black currants are not the same fruit as “dried currants.” These currants are a kind of raisin made from dried grapes of the variety Black Corinthe, which sounds like and came to be called, when dried, “black currant.”

Black currants are a gooseberry relative born on medium-sized bushes whose leaves, when brushed against, emit a strong, also resiny aroma. The leaves are sometimes brewed into tea (for humans, not plants); some of those leaves are currently flavoring a batch of beer brewing right now in my kitchen. Black currants easy to grow, being resistant to cold, birds, diseases, insects, and deer.

Although humans are divided on whether or not they enjoy fresh black currants, pretty much everyone loves the fruit concocted into jams and baked goods. Black currants are a perfect complement to dark chocolate. They could be cooked together; I just take a little of each and put them together in my mouth. And did I mention? Black currants are extremely high in vitamin C (about 4 times that of oranges) and antioxidants.