Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Good Gifts for Gardeners

What would be a good gift for a gardener at this gift-giving time of year? Every gardener has his or her special inclinations, gardenwise, so each of us warrants a special set of gift possibilities.

Still, certain expendable items are sure to please any and every gardener. Tops on my list would be a big ball of twine. Twine is useful for everything from lashing blue spires of delphinium and floppy tomato vines to stakes to tying pea vines to a trellis or grape vines to support wires. Not just any twine will do; best is twine made of natural fibre, such as hemp or sisal, so that it can be gathered up to be composted along with the plants it supported at season’s end.

Gloves are another expendable item great for gifts. Gloves made from leather and some synthetics last for years. Among my favorite gloves for everything from detail work like transplanting small seedlings to grabbing a pitchfork to pitch manure onto the compost pile are knit gloves with nitrile or latex coated palms and fingers. With rough use, the gloves only last a couple of seasons, if that, but they’re worth it for their grippiness, comfort, and hand protection. I save my leather gloves for colder weather or for rougher work such as pruning thorny rose and gooseberry bushes and grabbing firewood.

Organic gardening (a good idea and the essence of good gardening in general) conjures up its own special gifts. Straw, manure, hay, leaves, wood chips, and other organic (that is, living or once-living) materials are what put the “organic” into organic gardening. A pitchfork is the perfect tool for moving organic materials to the compost pile or on top of the soil. But choosing a pitchfork is not all that straightforward. I am the proud owner and frequent user of 4-, 5-, 6-, and 10-tine pitchforks. Each has its special use but if I were to own just one pitchfork, it would be the  6-tine fork.

If you’re going to use a pitchfork, you’re probably going to need something with which to move around all those bulky organic materials. A garden cart. Stoked full, a sturdy cart with high wooden sides and two large-diameter tires can move over 10 cubic feet or 1/3 cubic yard of material, up to about 400 pounds of weight. Please don’t buy me one; I own three.

A few other essential, welcome tools are a trowel, which any but a beginning gardener is sure to have, and hand pruning shears (my favorite is ARS although Felco and Pica are also very, very good). A rain gauge is also essential to know whether what sounded like an earth-drenching downpour really contributed to the one inch per week needed for best plant growth. Good sources for tools are Gemplers, A. M. Leonard, Charleys Greenhouse, Orchard Equipment Supply Co., and Gardener’s Supply Co.

Beginning gardeners will appreciate packets of basic seeds such as Black Seeded Simpson and Buttercrunch lettuce, Bush Blue Lake and Romano beans, French Breakfast radishes, and Green Arrow peas. More advanced gardeners start their own transplants so might appreciate especially good, but hard to find as transplants, varieties of tomatoes, such as Blue Beech, Belgian Giant, San Marzano, and Black Krim. Johnny’s Selected Seeds, Fedco Seeds, High Mowing, Pinetree Garden Seeds, Tomato Growers Supply Company, and Totally Tomatoes are among my favorite seed companies. For growing transplants, I recommend Gardener’s Supply APS, which waters seedlings automatically and gives each seedling its own home so they hardly realize when they’ve been transplanted. I already own about a dozen of them so don’t buy one for me, thanks. 
How about a gift of some of the above catalogues? How about including some good nursery catalogues also? Some of my favorite nurseries are Hartmann’s, Raintree, One Green World, Cummins, Burnt Ridge, and Nourse. 

The best gift for the beginning gardener or for the seasoned gardener who wants to grow better is, in my opinion, a good book. Among my favorites are any of Elliot Coleman’s books about vegetable gardening, any of Michael Dirr’s books about trees and shrubs, Steven Still’s Manual of Herbaceous Plants, Hartmann & Kester's Plant Propagation: Principles and Practices, my bible on plant propagation, and, for general gardening, Roy Biles’ The Complete Book of Garden Magic and Barbara Damrosch’s The Garden Primer. For entertaining and informative essays, there’s Green Thoughts: A Writer in the Garden by Eleanor Perenyi and The Principles of Gardening: A Guide to the Art, History, Science, and Practice of Gardening by Hugh Johnson.

Oh, and did I mention my books?: A Northeast Gardener’s Year (the what, when, and how for a wide range of gardening topics arranged, as appropriate, through the year), Weedless Gardening (especially good for vegetable gardening), Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden, Landscaping with Fruit, and Grow Fruit Naturally.

Friday, December 21, 2012

A Jump on Spring

I got a jump on spring yesterday and started pruning hardy kiwifruit vines. The fruit is a kissing cousin of fuzzy, market kiwis, except, with smooth skins and small size, they can be popped whole in your mouth like grapes. Hardy kiwis are also cold-hardy, which their cousins are not.

The vines need yearly pruning to let light and air in among the stems for productivity and plant health, to keep fruiting stems within easy reach, and to stimulate new stem growth each year off which grow fruiting shoots the following year.

My plants are trained on 5 wires strung between T-trellises, one wire down the middle of the trellis flanked by 2 wires on either side of that central wire. Each plant’s trunk rises up to the middle wire and then divides into two cordons, or permanent arms, that run in opposite directions along the middle wire. Fruiting arms, which are 1-year-old stems, grow off perpendicularly to the cordon to drape down over the outside wires.

As I approached the vines with shears, lopper, and small saw in hand, the vines looked back at me like an intimidating, tangled mess. Three steps in pruning brought everything in order. I first cut back all fruiting arms to within a foot or so of the outside wire and shortened each cordon back to where it began growth last year. Arms bear fruiting shoots near their bases so don’t need the whole of their lanky stems. As to the cordons, if they were allowed to grow longer and longer, one plant would tangle into the next plant down the row.

Next, the hardest part: I reached into the remaining tangle to cut back fruiting arms that have, over the years, begun to originate further and further off the cordons. These got shortened so that new shoots, for fruit 2 years hence, would originate closer in to the cordons. Left to their own devices, as they are in the wild on the edges of Asian forests, the vines would be climbing 100 ft. high on anything on which they could grab hold.

Finally, I thinned out most of the remaining fruiting arms so that they are about a foot apart. I’ll do a final pruning in spring, thinning more where needed and shortening all fruiting arms to their final length of about 18 inches long.

I’m left now with a pile of prunings. Their intertwining stems make nice decoration. I could also save some for my cat. Kiwi stems have a pleasing effect on the cats, similar to catnip. In Asian zoos, they have been used to calm “large cats.”
What joy a mere sprout can foreshadow! Late last summer a gardening friend gave me some sprouts from her Maid of OrlĂ©ans jasmine (Jasminum sambac). By the end of summer, a few of the cuttings had rooted and even flowered.  The plant or its flower wouldn’t win (or lose) any beauty contests, but is well worth growing for its unabashed fragrance. The aroma is sweet and rich and not at all cloying, even after the flowers fade.

What’s more, this jasmine flowers freely. As a matter of fact, it just finished its second round of flowering. Contrast this behavior with my two plants of common jasmine (Jasminium officinale). These latter plants occasionally cough forth a few flowers in late winter but nothing like the profusion of white blossoms they once did. I’ve tried everything, from starting new plants from cuttings to pinching shoots all summer until August to keeping them cool in until late winter to keeping them dryish until late winter to keeping them cool and dryish until late winter to keeping them in the greenhouse to . . .  you get the picture.

The only dark cloud hovering over my Maid of Orleans was the potting mix. Something seemed not quite right with it, having me worried that the plant might not grow or, worse, expire (as did the plant from the gardening friend from whom I got the cuttings). Not that this is a time of year to expect growth from any plant.

But now, that cloud has moved on. The new sprout looks happy and healthy and foretells of a fragrant future.

I mixed up a new batch of potting soil, which I’ll need anyway in a couple of months for indoor sowing of the first seeds of next season. Into a 5 gallon bucket went finished compost and soil, equal parts, sifted. Into another 5 gallon bucket went peat moss and perlite, equal parts, sifted. I tipped the contents of both buckets together into the garden cart, sprinkled on 1 cup of soybean meal and a handful of kelp, and repeatedly slid a flat-bladed shovel under the pile and turned it over and over. Once everything was thoroughly mixed, I shook and forced it again through the 1/2-inch sieve and packed it away into buckets.

This potting mix will be home to the roots of seedlings and houseplants, as well as large, potted fig trees, roses, and pomegranates. Also, to Maid of Orleans, as soon as she outgrows her present quarters.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Simplify, Simplify

People are funny. Take, for instance, a fellow gardener who, a couple of months ago, shared with me her excitement about a biochar workshop she had attended. “I can’t wait to get back into my garden and start making and using biochar,” she said. Biochar, one of gardening’s new wunderkind, is what remains after you burn wood with insufficient air -- charcoal, that is. Stirred into the soil, its myriad nooks and crannies provide an expansive adsorptive surface for microbes and chemicals, natural and otherwise. Biochar, being black, darkens the soil, and dark soil is generally associated with fertility, although that’s not always the case. Because biochar is mostly elementary carbon, it resists microbial decomposition, so it’s carbon is less apt to end up in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide.

But raw wood, as opposed to biochar, added to soil feeds microbes and then plants as it decomposes, eventually turning to organic matter, or humus, which is a witch’s brew of compounds with positive effect on soil’s nutritional, biological, and physical properties. So is cooking up a batch of biochar and digging it into your soil really worth the effort? The same might be asked of aerated compost tea, another “rare and wondrous” product touted for everything from preventing plant diseases to breaking up impermeable soil layers. Or “nutrient dense farming,” which, with its questionable assessments of plants’ nutrient status and even more questionable soil additives, aims to reverse the drop in mineral concentrations noted in our vegetables over the past few decades. (Even though the drop has been shown to be simply a dilution effect from increased yields due to breeding, fertilizers, and water.)

Thoreau wrote, “Simplify, simplify.” But people are funny; they want to complicate, complicate. Something about using some apparatus, whether it’s a biochar burner or a compost tea aerator, or a measuring device, such as the refractometers used by nutrient dense farmers, that draws people in. People are wowed by numbers, dials, and other bells and whistles of science.

Bells and whistles do not science make. Or good gardening. Some of the most elegant experiments in the science of gardening involved not much more than a human mind and some pea seeds: the 19th century discoveries of heritable traits by Gregor Mendel, which became the foundation of modern genetics, and the elucidation of why plants bend towards light by Charles Darwin, as examples.

Ninety percent of good gardening could be summed up in two words: organic matter. Enrich your soil with plenty of compost, the Cadillac of organic matter, and/or other organic materials, such as leaves, straw, and wood chips, and you’re well on the way to plants that are healthy, healthful, and productive. I wish I could offer some gimmick or catch-phrase. No need.

I finally cut enough hay to snuggle down along my row of dwarf apple trees. Right now, it looks like a billowing, beige blanket. By spring, snow and rain will have compressed it to ground level. By this time next year, it will be mostly gone. That’s okay.

During it’s tenure, the mulch will smother weeds and insulate the soil against winter cold and summer heat. Bacteria, fungi, and other soil organisms are what will make it vanish, but in so doing nutrients within those stems and leaves will move into the soil for plant use and what’ll be left behind is humus, which makes the soil dark and, in this case, is an indicator of good soil.

Some garden faddists would fault me for using hay beneath my apple trees, alleging that the trees would prefer a mulch of wood chips. And not just any old wood chips, but those from branches less than two and a half inches across (“ramial” wood chips). Devotees cite Laval University Publication N 83, “Regenerating Soils with Ramial Wood Chips” as providing evidence for the benefits of ramial wood chips but this publication is actually very weak on evidence and very strong on boosterism. Perhaps they are correct, although there’s no evidence for benefits one way or another. Depending on availability, I’ll sometimes use wood chips, any kind. Simplify, simplify.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Rice, Corn, & Barley Harvest

Something new (new for me, at least)! You can subscribe to my posts and get notified each time there's a new one. See "SUBSCRIBE BY EMAIL," to the right.


It’s been awhile since the grains have been harvested so it’s time to prepare them for consumption. Longest in preparation will be barley.
The barley is from last year’s harvest, and the grain-laden stalks have been bundled together and hanging from a kitchen rafter since then. I’ve procrastinated processing because of last year’s frustrations in trying to thresh wheat, also grown last year; the grains clung tenaciously to their stalks and no amount of battering would thoroughly separate them. I’ve also procrastinated because the bundle of barley’s tawny brown stems, with long, delicate, spiky awns emerging from the heads, look so decorative dangling upside down near the kitchen ceiling.

A bare spot now remains where the barley once hung. Earlier today, after being stuffed into a pillowcase and batted against a brick wall, the stalks easily released their plump grains. I separated the grain rom the chaff by pouring the grains back and forth between two buckets in a slight breeze, and soon had the whole crop cleaned.

As you’ve probably guessed by now, my barley crop wasn’t measured in tons or even bushels. I had planted a 3 foot by 3 foot area and reaped a quarter of a pound. Consulting my 1914 “Farmer’s Cyclopedia of Agriculture,” an acre of barley (back then and in Iowa) averaged 45 bushels of barley, or 1,800 pounds, which would translate to a bit over one-third of a pound for my 9 square foot plot. Respectable for my first try.

The end-product for my crop will be beer. More specifically, the goal was to find out how much barley to grow to make a 6-pack. My next step, then, is to malt the barley. More on that at a later date . . .

I “hauled in” the rice harvest back in early October, all 40 grams of it. That 40 grams was not a bad yield considering that I got the seedlings started late; that I only planted a 2 foot by 3 foot bed of it; that it was growing under dryland conditions, which yields less than wetland rice; and the variety I planted, Hayayuki, is a wetland variety. Still, it was fun.

The aforementioned limitations are nothing compared to the limitation in preparing the rice for consumption. Like most other grains, rice has a hull that needs to be removed before the grain can be eaten. (The hull is no impediment with barley for malting because what’s used for beer is maltose-laden water that is leached through the sprouted, cracked grain.) Hullers are available for small-scale grain processing, but are neither economical nor capable of handling nano-yields such as my 40 grams.

A conversation with Ben Falk (, who had given me the seeds and has harvested over 100 pounds of rice in Vermont, did not leave me optimistic about getting off those hulls. (He has a small huller.) No need for me to try cracking them off with a rolling pin, boiling them and hoping they would float up to be skimmed off, or toasting -- he’d already tried all that.

Years ago, I got a Solis coffee grinder that does an adjustable grind. How about setting the Solis to barely grind the rice, just enough to crack off the hulls? The problem is that the largest setting was a bit too small for the rice grains. Still, no other options presented themselves. What I now have is cracked rice. I cooked some; the flavor was very bland, even for rice.

It isn’t only a lot more growing experience that is responsible for my much more successful crop of a third grain: corn. Corn is easier to grow, to harvest, and to process than other grains on a home garden scale. I grow popcorn and polenta corn in addition to, of course, sweet corn, the latter considered a vegetable because it’s eaten “green,” that is, before full maturity.

It’s with good reason that corn has been such a success for so long here in the Americas. The grains are large, they come packed together in a single ear, and that ear is covered by one easily shucked husk. Corn is such a successful cultivated grain that it can’t even survive in the wild. An ear dropped to the ground would sprout too many seedlings so close together that they would be stunted fighting each other for water, light, and nutrients.

Processing popcorn and polenta corn entails nothing more than picking it, pulling back the husk, and hanging it from kitchen rafters until ready for use. Giving a ear an “indian burn” snaps off kernels for popping or grinding.

One more home-grown grain rounds out my larder. Chestnuts. They’re not actually a grain but are a uniquely starchy nut so fulfill much the same purpose as any grain in the diet. Chestnuts have the advantages of being perennial, borne on an attractive tree, and, because they bloom late and have few pests, bearing reliably.

Chestnut preparation is easy: One cut crosswise about half way through each nut, then roasting in a hot oven for about 30 minutes. Delicious.