Friday, May 30, 2014

To Fertilize or Not To Fertilize, That is the Question

Looking out on my vegetable garden last week, I noticed some yellowing leaves on kale transplants. Perhaps the yellowing leaves were just a legacy from the kale transplants adjustment to their home outdoors. In the greenhouse, lettuce that I planted last month lacked its expected exuberance.  Perhaps slow growth of lettuce was my imagination.

Or perhaps the lettuces and kales needed some fertilizer. Vegetables are generally heavy feeders, and leafy vegetables especially so. My garden doesn’t get fertilizer per se; the plants get all they need from compost. Years ago I calculated that a one inch depth of fully ripened compost could thoroughly satisfy the nutritional needs of vegetable plants -- even intensively planted vegetables -- for a year, and that’s what my plants get. As an added benefit, compost, in contrast to chemical fertilizers and even most organic fertilizers, offers a wide spectrum of nutrients in addition to just the big three: nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium.

Chemical fertilizers are salts (in the broad sense of the word, that is, any ionic compound and not only sodium chloride). Add them to the soil, and they are there for plant use. Not so for compost and most other organic fertilizers. To become food for plants, the latter must first be “mineralized,” that is, converted by soil microorganisms to ions.

Microorganisms grow more and more active with increasing heat and moisture (to a point), so perhaps my plants were hungry because cold or dry soil was keeping microorganisms sluggish. And any available nutrients, whether their provenance is chemical or organic, needs to be dissolved in water before a plant can slurp them up.

“April showers bring May flowers . . . “ blah, blah blah. Not so, at least in my observation the past few years. Aprils have tended to be dry. Dry soil slows plant growth and could be responsible for my kales’ yellow leaves. Mineralization is slowed and even if mineralized, insufficient moisture might be available to put those nutrients in solution.

A problem with slow mineralization could have been resolved by applying compost the previous fall. Lingering warmth in the soil permits some mineralization, and nutrients would be ready and waiting come spring (with a winter’s worth of water putting them in solution). Usually I apply compost in fall but last fall did not get to all the beds.

The problem has been resolved, simply, by watering. As supporting evidence, the drip line in one of the vegetable beds came loose from its source; kale in that bed remained sickly even as the watered beds sprung to life.

For a quicker effect or where compost is not available, a concentrated organic fertilizer, such as soybean meal, might be in order. You might have guessed that soybean meal is high in nitrogen -- 7 percent -- since soybean seeds contain 40 percent protein and proteins are about 16 percent nitrogen.

More recently, I’ve also been using alfalfa meal as a source of concentrated, organic nitrogen for plants or beds that need it. Being a legume, alfalfa is also high in nitrogen, but the meal is made by grinding up leaves and stems rather than seeds, so it is less concentrated in nitrogen (2 percent) than soybean meal. Alfalfa is a deep-rooted perennial whose roots forage far and wide for nutrients to possibly offer a bigger smorgasbord to plants than does soybean meal. Alfalfa meal also contains triacontanol, a natural compound that stimulates plant growth (not that I’m necessarily looking for any artificial stimulation fro my plants, whether from sources natural or otherwise).

Both soybean meal and alfalfa meal are mostly used as animal feeds; as such, they are readily available at feed stores.

Neither soybean meal nor alfalfa meal is the end-all for fertilizing plants. A serious concern with both is that they are mostly grown from GMO seeds. Also, neither provides a sufficiently broad spectrum of nutrients. Soybean meal provides mostly nitrogen and potassium; alfalfa meal mostly nitrogen and phosphorus. And finally, neither provides bulk that comes from carbohydrate compounds. This bulk has far-reaching benefits, fluffing up soils for aerations, sponging up water, feeding beneficial microorganisms, and, in addition to providing nutrients, making nutrients already in the soil more available to plants. Compost, leaves, and straw are among the organic materials that offer bulk.

Why the focus on nitrogen when talking about fertility? Nitrogen is the most evanescent of the big three nutrients, and the one most likely to need annual replenishment. Nitrogen can leave the soil as a gas, can be washed down and out of the soil by rainfall, and can be taken up by plants. A soil regularly “fertilized” with bulky organic materials will have plenty of all necessary nutrients but could be temporarily short of nitrogen. Unless that bulky organic material is fully ripened compost. Yay compost!

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Thursday, May 22, 2014

What's New Farmdenly?

In this early part of the growing season, I’m frequently asked, “So what new and exciting plants are you growing in the garden this year?” And just as frequently, I can’t think of anything. Not that gardening isn’t “new and exciting” every year, what with the vagaries of the weather and pests, and their interaction with planting, pruning, and soil care.

Well, this year I can think of at least four new and exciting plants I’m growing.

I actually have grown cardoon before, perhaps 25 years ago. And up until this weekend, I had no desire to ever grow it again. The plant is like a giant celery with spiny stalks that must be tied together so that they get blanched and edible. Or supposedly edible, once you removed the tough strings running down each stalk. Blanching and de-stringing was a lot of trouble, too much trouble for me considering the taste of what of the tough stalk after being cooked.

This weekend, two people at my grafting workshop digressed from grafting to wax enthusiastic over cardoon. Evidently, my problems 25 years ago were growing the wrong variety and cooking it poorly. I’m not sure if any varieties were available back then, but I was convinced to order seed of the suggested variety, Gobbo di Nizza (Hunchback of Nice), and will sow them in pots as soon as they arrive.

Once the weather warms reliably, I’ll plant out two or three small plants, giving them rich soil. Once the plants are three feet high, I’ll mound some soil or wood chips up around their bases and tie the leaves together to blanch them, then a few weeks later, cut down the four-foot-tall monsters for eating. I was told that they taste like artichoke, a close relative.

In warm winter regions, cardoon grows as a perennial. If winter’s were warm here, I’d plant cardoon even if they tasted awful. That’s because in their second year, they send up six-foot-high stalks capped with bottlebrushes of cerulean blue flowers that sit in an artichoke-y base.

I’ve also previously grown -- or tried to grow -- the second of this year’s N&EP (“new and exciting plants”), King Red Russian olive. It’s a variety of Russian olive, native to Afghanistan, that, instead of bearing the usual innocuous silvery green fruits, bears bright red fruits. The fruits contrast nicely with the silvery green leaves -- and taste pretty good.

For some reason, King Red doesn’t like our summer weather, probably the humidity. My plant of yore grew fine until sometime in July, when it collapsed, dead. Others in the humid East have had similar experiences.

Out West, King Red, which was introduced as a conservation plant decades ago by the USDA, grows fine. Too fine, so that it is now listed as an invasive plant out there, along with regular old, green-fruited Russian olive. (Sometimes they are listed so in the East also, although they seem pretty sedate around these parts.)

I’m thinking that somewhere in the genes of King Red, which is a seed propagated variety, not a clone, might lie genes that can tolerate our summer climate. To that end, I got my hands on seeds left from a bag of imported, dried King Red fruits; I’ll sow them all and hope for the best. (I once tasted the dried fruits; they are like sweet talcum powder, enclosed within a brittle “shell.”) The fruits parade under a number of aliases: Trebizond date, lotus tree. Botanically, it’s Elaeagnus angustifolia var. orientalis.

Another fruit, Ficus Afghanistanica, or mountain fig tree, is among my N&EP. With more than a half-dozen fig varieties in my not very fig friendly climate, you’d think I had enough figs. Mountain fig tree is worth a try for its hardiness, by some accounts to well below zero degrees F. Of less importance here in the humid East is its drought tolerance, which may be related and help with its cold hardiness.

Also on the plus side, the plant has decorative leaves, similar to common fig leaves except pointed at their tips.

On the negative, there’s some question as to whether this fig needs pollination, something most fig varieties do not need. If so, a special pollinator variety would be needed as well as some means to get the pollen into the eye of each fruit at the right time. A syringe filled with pollen? Figs that need pollination normally get their pollen with the help of Blastophagus, which are tiny wasps that, laden with pollen, enter the eyes of developing fruits to lay eggs and, in so doing, inadvertently pollinate the flowers within.

The buttery pleasure of eating hickory nuts is offset by the tediousness of cracking and shelling them. That’s shagbark hickories (Carya ovata), which are native throughout eastern U.S.

Shellbark hickories (C. lacinosa) have similar nut flavor and shape, except that they are two or three times larger, so you get more bang for your buck with each nut you crack. Walking just a quarter of a mile in any direction, I’d be likely to find some shagbark hickory nuts on the ground but nary a shellbark hickory. The latter species is found mostly along the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, and bordering regions; nowhere, though, is it common.

So I ordered trees from Nolin River Nut Tree Nursery, and not just any old shellbark trees, but the varieties Simpson and Selbhers. Both are billed as heavy bearing and producing nuts medium to large nuts with excellent cracking qualities. Very “new and exciting;” I hope to enjoy the nuts of my labor in 5 to 10 years.

Friday, May 16, 2014

The Unknown Known

   To paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, defense secretary under W, there are the known knowns, the known unknowns, and the unknown unknowns. Donald, you forgot about the unknown knowns. Lets talk about gardening, not war, and the knowns that need to be better known.

Visitors to my garden (actually workshop attendees) were oohing and ahing over some 18-inch-high stalks each capped with a crown of leaves beneath which dangled a circle of red blossoms. Aptly named crown imperial, Fritillaria imperialis, deserves to be more widely known. No one seemed put off by the skunky aroma that suffuses the air even feet away from the plant; I like it.

Perhaps crown imperial would be better known if the bulbs didn’t go for more than 10 dollars each. My gardens’ profusion of crown imperial stalks is more an indication of my green thumb than my wealth. They all arose from a single bulb my father gifted me more than 20 years ago. I learned to propagate them by bulb scaling, which involves digging down into the ground to remove scales from the bulb, then mixing the scales with barely moist potting soil. After a couple of months storage at warm temperatures followed by a couple of months storage at cool temperatures, the scales can be potted up to be nursed for a season before planting out.

Every year I make new crown imperial plants. Will I ever have too many?

F. michailovskyi
Crown imperial also has some unknown known kin. You have to see Persian lily, Fritillaria persica, to appreciate it. A written description -- foot-high stalks lined with nodding, small, plum purple to gray green flowers -- doesn’t do justice to the beauty of this bulb. I hope to start multiplying this one also. Another unknown known is Fritillaria michailovskyi, this one with nodding, bell-shaped flowers with yellow-tipped, purple petals.
F. persica

F. meleagris
Among crown imperial’s kin is also a known known: Guinea hen flower, F. meleagris, with large, nodding, checkered flowers. Even White Flower Farm sells these bulbs for less than a dollar each. No wonder they are better known.

Let’s segue over to unknown knowns among fruits. 
Right now, a billowing wave of white blossoms lines my driveway, the blossoms of Nanking cherry (Prunus tomentosum), a shrub that can grow 8 feet high and wide. The show matches that of any other flowering tree or shrub.

What do other flowering trees and shrubs -- forsythia, lilac, flowering cherries, and the like -- offer after their flower shows subsides? Nothing, nada, zip. Nanking cherry, though, goes on to bear oodles of small red cherries with a flavor somewhere between that of sweet and tart cherries.

And what does it take to get a decent crop of sweet or tart cherries? Pruning, perhaps spraying and bird control. What does it take to get a crop of Nanking cherries? Nothing, nada, zip. The plants bear heavily with little or no care, and bear enough to satisfy birds, squirrels, and humans.

Okay, every rose has it’s thorns. Nanking cherries are small, one-half to five-eighths of an inch in diameter. The smallness is more than offset by plant’s beauty, its profusion of fruits, and its low maintenance .

And one more unknown known: gooseberries (both gooseberries and Nanking cherries warrant a whole chapter in my book Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden).

Many people imagine all gooseberries to be small, green, and tart, suitable mostly for cooking. Not so! There are over a hundred varieties of gooseberry in various colors and sizes, and a whole category of them, what the Brits call “dessert varieties,” are for fresh eating. Good flavor is what should warrant gooseberries known known status among fruits.

Most important in growing gooseberries is to choose a good variety, both for taste and for resistance to disease powdery mildew. Don’t plant Pixwell; the berries are small, green, and tart. Do plant varieties such as Poorman, Chief, Hinonmakis Yellow, Red Jacket, Captivator, and Glendale. They’re all tasty and disease resistant.

If you want even better flavor and you’re willing to deal with powdery mildew, plant varieties such as Colossal, Whitesmith, Achilles, and Webster. Dealing with powdery mildew involves spraying, but it could be something relatively benign, such as horticultural oil, sulfur, baking soda, soap, or horticultural oil plus baking soda (1-1∕2 tablespoons baking soda plus 3 tablespoons oil in 1 gallon water).

Right about now, gooseberries can experience one more pest, the imported currantworm, which strips plants of their leaves, beginning at ground level. The leaves will grow back but the plant is left weakened. A spray just as soon as chewing begins will stop this insect in its tracks and, again, benign products such as insecticidal soap or horticultural oil should be effective. I’m training some of my plants as 3-foot-high trees, which might also thwart the worm because there’ll be no leaves near ground level on which the insects can begin their feast.

If all this seems like too much potential trouble for gooseberries, it’s not. The best dessert varieties have flavors that might be compared to that of grape, plum, or apricot, and have a “cracking” texture, a crisp flesh that explodes with ambrosial juice when you bite into them. A writer of the last century characterized gooseberries as “the fruit par excellence for ambulant consumption.” I agree, and you might also if they become a known known in your garden.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Of Nuts & Mice

  How could I resist? Road crews that had been trimming trees along power lines were finishing up work almost right in front of my house with a whole truckload of wood chips. Spreading chips had not been on my “to do” list; now it was, right after the crew graciously dumped contents of the truck in a space between my chestnut trees.

Chestnuts are trees of the forest. Mine, like many of those deliberately planted, have grass at their feet. The wood chips, I reasoned, would make the ground more home-like for the trees. Forest soils are typically overlaid with a layer of organic (that is, living or once living) materials: fallen leaves, twigs, limbs. These organic materials rot, in the process releasing nutrients as well as putting nutrients already in the soil in forms more readily accessible to plants. The organic feast encourages fungi, bacteria, and other soil life, all of which generally keep insect pests and diseases at bay.

In addition to nutritional and biological goodness, any organic material also brings physical goodness. Rainwater more easily percolates into the ground and, once within, the water is retained by the spongy, decomposed organic matter. At the same time, soil aeration is improved. It’s the best of of both worlds: more moisture plus more air at root level. No wonder I couldn’t resist.

People sometimes ask if I care what kind of chips I am getting. The answer is “no.” People sometimes ask if I’m worried about termites in the chips. Again, “no.” Termites require intact wood for their tunnels. What about “nitrogen tie-up,” which temporarily starves plants for nitrogen when high-carbon materials, such as wood chips, are added to the soil and microorganisms, which are better at garnering soil nitrogen than are plants, go to work. Again, I’m not concerned. Nitrogen tie-up only occurs if chips are mixed INTO the soil, promoting rapid decomposition.

Some people believe in using gourmet chips, also known as ramial chips, which means , according to chip aficionadas, wood chips made from branches no larger than 2-3/4 inches in diameter, and preferably from deciduous trees. So before I had my load of chips dumped I had the road crew climb into their truck to separate out the good from the bad chips -- just kidding! There’s not much, actually nothing at all, to support chip aficionadas’ claims. I’ll take and took any and all chips.

Come autumn, perhaps I’ll round out the soil diet with a load of leaves.

I am a big fan of black walnuts. Last autumn’s harvest has been cracked, shelled and squirreled away to enjoy in the months ahead. The latest buzz on black walnuts, though, is about their sap, which reputedly boils down into a tasty syrup, similar to maple syrup.

Almost all parts of walnut trees contain a compound, juglone, that is toxic or growth-stunting to many types of plants. This makes me wary about ingesting the sap, especially after it has been concentrated into a syrup.

Still, curiosity got the upper hand so I put a tap into a black walnut tree a few weeks ago, gathered sap, and then boiled it down into a syrup of similar consistency to maple syrup.

My report: Very good flavor, slightly different from maple sugar, perhaps with a hint of black walnut flavoring. (The latter could be my imagination.) And I’m still alive.

One of the last legacies of winter are the “bare ankles” at the bases of some trees and shrubs. Bare because they have no bark.

Those bare ankles are the handiwork of mice. Snuggled beneath the snow, warm and safe from aerial predators, mice could munch away to their heart’s content on bark. The problem is that the bark layer is where nutrients and water are conducted up from the roots and down from the leaves.

Stripped stems will likely die, which could mean death for the whole plant if it’s a tree, it’s young, and it was weak. Or if it’s a species that does not sprout readily when cut back. Otherwise, new sprouts will grow from below the stripped region. If the plant is a tree, the most vigorous of the new sprouts can be trained as a new trunk. If the plant is a shrub, new sprouts will fill in.

No need to sit back and bemoan the damage. Bridge grafting, whereby lengths of stem are grafted below and above the stripped area, will repair damage. And a good cat will avert it in the first place.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Books to Forage By, or Not

   I’m more of a cultivated-food type guy than a wild-food type guy. I like to be able to go right out my back door to grab a tomato from a row of tomato plants than have to hike into the woods for a few nibbles of American black currants.

With that said, plenty of overlooked foods -- wild plants -- grow right at our feet. Plenty of chickweed makes its way in among my early spring lettuces, and more purslane than I could possibly eat insinuates itself at the feet of my corn plants. Black raspberries grow in a semi-cultivated state along the edge of woods here. And when I do head for a walk in field or forest, how nice to come upon wineberries and other refreshing, wild treats. And not everyone has a garden (shudder the thought!).

If, for one reason or another, you’re hankering for some wildness on your plate and you’re at a loss of what purslane, chickweed, or wineberry is, or what to do with them, help is on the way in the form of two books: Foraging & Feasting, by local herbalist Dina Falconi, and Foraged Flavor, by wild-food-to-NYC-restaurants-purveyor Tama Matsuoka Wong. The best thing about both these books is that they really use foraged food as . . .  well, food. Not a nibble here, a nibble there. Dina’s “Creamed Wild Greens” packs in 1/2 pound of chopped greens such as nettle, amaranth, and lamb’s quarter. Toma’s “Chilled Mango Soup with Sweet Spruce Tips” is flavored with 1/4 cup of spruce tips. Both books are a great leap forward from the Euell Gibbon’s 1970s classic Stalking the Wild Asparagus, in which it seemed that every wild plant was made palatable with a large dollop of bacon fat. (Then again, Toma’s soup is sweetened with 1/4 cup of sugar and Dina’s wild greens with 1/4 cup of your choice of butter, lard, chicken fat, olive oil, coconut oil, or tallow.)

Both books start out introducing the plants. Toma does it with a clear photograph of each. Dina’s does it with the beautiful, botanical colored-pencil drawings of Wendy Hollender, each page with details and notes on particular features of a plant as well as something about their habitat, life cycle, means of reproduction, size, and various culinary uses. Also, any cautionary notes, such as the note that comfrey can cause liver damage or cancer. (Dina, on the basis of comfrey’s long use and her moderate consumption of it, pooh-poohs the danger, although I personally would not take anecdotal evidence as my guide.) Getting into the recipes, Toma’s book is arranged seasonally, Dina’s according to use, such as soup, condiment, dessert, etc.

So which is the book to buy for a good book about foraging? Both! The recipes are quite different. The approaches are quite different. Even the wild plants are somewhat different. Toma makes no mention of American black currant; Dina makes no mention of wineberry. But then, wild fruits are my favorite wild edibles, once I venture beyond my garden gates.

Let’s flip the coin and rather than going mostly afield, bring some wildness into the garden. Into Michael Judd’s garden, in Frederick, MD, as described in his book Edible Landscaping with a Permaculture Twist. This is a fun book, in its writing, in its photographs (one case in point is the cover photo of a berry-smeared, happy little boy holding a bowlful of berries), and in its illustrations. It’s also got good, solid information. My only beef with this book is the lack of an index.

I find many permaculture books ponderous. Not Michael’s, as evidenced by the “twist” in the title. I have been accused of practicing permaculture but contend that my farmden is, at best, permaculturesque. (For more on my permaculture perspective, see Edible Landscaping with a Permaculture Twist is a good introduction to a lot of arenas: rainwater harvesting, gardening, building an earthen oven, growing mushrooms, making wine. In the permaculture tradition of integrating various components of a homestead, here’s part of Michael’s instructions for building an earth oven: “ . . . buy a case of really good microbrew in bottles and empty them, preferably down your gullet. These empty bottles are going to be part of your base-floor insulation.” He goes on, “I’ve found Flying Dog varieties to work really well,” hoping, he states, for “some sponsorship.”
Not all plants in the field, forest, farm, farmden, or garden are friendly. Enter Poisonous and Psychoactive Plants, a short, illustrated guide by Jim Meuninck.

Plants can’t always be neatly placed in either the edible, the poisonous, or the psychoactive box. Pokeweed, for example, is listed in the “Poisonous Wild Plants” chapter but, as the author points out, it is edible if picked at the right time and prepared properly. (Neither Dina nor Toma include pokeweed in their books.) Interestingly, Aloe vera, used for so many skin ailments, is said to cause contact dermatitus in sensitive people. Similarly, some people are allergic to hops. Jimson weed is listed as both a poisonous plant and as a (dangerous) psychoactive plant. The book, with telling photos for all of the plants, is, of course, replete with the usual suspects: poison hemlock, foxglove, angel’s trumpet, oleander, and others.

First aid is listed for all plants in the book, although part of that listed for marijuana is suspect: “Physical and emotional support will carry the day. Keep in mind that the individual may not be able to rise for a restroom excursion.”
All four books can carry you further afield to expand your palette, and keep you from going too far afield.