Thursday, July 30, 2009

As of this writing, launch of the space shuttle Endeavour has been again delayed; here in the garden, though, the Rocket has been soaring for days. That’s Ligularia ‘The Rocket,’ a perennial with a whorl of dark green leaves at ground level from which shoot skyward 5-foot-high vertical spikes lined with small, yellow flowers. The flowers open from the base up so each spike is streamlined by being more slender and less colorful as you look up the spike. Sort of like a rocket.

In contrast to the Endeavour, Ligularia ‘The Rocket” doesn’t need bright, sunny days to launch. In fact, leaves typically wilt in full sunlight. Then again, growing in shade, the spikes would curve towards light, ruining their rocket-like appearance. So filtered sunlight is generally recommended for this plant.

My Rockets are in full sunlight, just outside the low fence to the rear of the vegetable garden, where they provide the same sort of backdrop for the garden that a row of flags on poles do for a architecture. Fortunately, the vegetable bed right inside that fence receives daily quenching with drip irrigation, so the Rockets can steal a bit of water from across the fence and thrive.

Today is dry, sunny, and breezy, but the Rockets are soaring high.


Manure or not, it’s compost time. I like to make enough compost through summer so that it can get cooking before autumn’s cold weather sets in. Come spring, I give the pile one turn and by the end of summer the black gold is ready to slather onto vegetable beds or beneath choice trees and shrubs.

I haven’t gotten around to tapping into my sources for manure so I just went ahead this morning and started building a new pile without manure. It’s true: You do not need manure to make compost. Any pile of organic materials will decompose into compost given enough time.

My piles are a little more deliberate than mere heaps of organic materials. For one thing, everything goes into square bins each about 4’ on a side and built up, along with the materials within, Lincoln-log style from notched 1 x 12 hemlock boards.

The main compost ingredient is hay that I scythe from an adjoining field. As this material is layered and watered into the bin it also gets sprinkled regularly with some soil and limestone. Any and all garden and kitchen refuse get tossed in whenever available.

The growing pile also gets regular sprinklings of soybean meal. That soybean meal is the ersatz manure, supplying nitrogen to speed decomposition of everything else just as manure would otherwise do. Nitrogen is one thing that helps get the pile cooking fast, which I’ll know when I slide my long-probed compost thermometer into the piles innards and the dial shoots up to about 150 degrees F. All that heat isn’t absolutely necessary but does kill off most pests quicker than slow cooking compost piles. Plus, it’s fun nurturing my compost pets, the microorganisms that enjoy life within a compost pile .


As of this writing, temperatures have not risen over 80 degrees for weeks and weeks. If only I’d known, I could have again tried growing the elusive Himalayan blue poppy, a flower with the clearest blue color imaginable. Or so I’ve been told.

N. K. described the flower to me over 20 years ago, saying that it was in England that he was bowled over by his first sighting of Himalayan poppies, staring at him in both reflected and actual azure beauty from the far side of a pond. Ever since, I’ve wanted to grow or even just see this flower in person.

Twice I planted this perennial. The dust-like seeds need a period of cool, moist conditions before they can sprout, then need light and consistently moist soil. Damping off disease is a threat. Long story short: Both tries I got plants to grow to a reasonable size, potted them up and then had some nice plants going into summer. But when summer heat and humidity arrived, my plants collapsed, dead.

Himalayan blue poppy need cool, moist growing conditions. It might even become weedy in, say, Alaska or Scotland. But summers here kill it, usually.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Friends have made sightings and I’m braced for an onslaught. I even saw a couple of Japanese beetles myself a few days ago but now they seem to have gone underground. (Figuratively, that is. They won’t be laying eggs in the soil and living underground as grubs for at least a month.) I’m sure I’ll be seeing the metallic green beetles again soon.

I’m at a loss for what to do. Spraying pesticides is out of the question. I have too many plants, too many of which are edible. Poisons on edibles sort of takes the enjoyment out of eating them. I guess if I had one or two prized plants struggling along under attack from Japanese beetles, I might resort to sprays. Then again, I could just wrap them in some fine mesh material such as Remay.

I’m not planning to put out the beetle traps I positioned around my yard for the past few years. Up until a few years ago, beetles were never a problem and when they became just a little problem, the traps captured what few beetles ventured here. But last year, the traps’ bags were bulging with masses of fidgeting beetles every day during beetle season. The traps probably attracted more beetles than would have made their way here in the absence of the alluring scent of the traps.

I am taking some action on some of the beetle’s favorite plants: grapes, hardy kiwifruit, and filberts. That action is a spray of kaolin clay, sold as the commercial insect repellent called Surround. Research suggests some effectiveness, hopefully enough for me to make it to the end of beetle season without doing anything else except tolerating some lacy leaves.


Each year’s garden has its themes, and this year – I hate to admit it – the theme is weeds. (I hate to admit it because I wrote a book entitled Weedless Gardening.)

Rain is the reason for all this weed growth. It’s like a rain forest here. Turn your back on the garden for a few minutes, or stand in place for a while, and the garden or you get are likely to be swallowed in vegetation.

In seasons past, especially dry seasons, drip irrigation would pinpoint water to quench the thirst of all my vegetable without coaxing weed growth where vegetables were not, such as paths. Mulch would seal moisture into the ground for my other plants, which I would coddle with supplemental water only their first season.

I’m not complaining, though, because all my vegetables and flowers and shrubs are also growing well. I finally have returned me garden to sufficient weedlessness. It just took more weeding and mulching to get it to that stage.


One savior in this war with weeds has been a building product variously known as red rosin paper or standard dry sheathing, perhaps other names also. It’s a thick, absorbent paper that comes in long rolls and is often used as underlayment for floors.

Not here, though. I’m using the paper as an underlayment for mulch. I’ve used newspaper the same way except this year I had 30 foot long paths to cover. Those paths have had year after year of wood chip mulch but the covering was getting thin and, with all the rain, too many weeds were beginning to appear.

So all I did was roll out the paper, then top it with just enough wood chips to hide the paper. Water can get through the chips and the paper but the combination smothers weeds for lack of light. Paper is an organic material so will eventually decompose. As long as the soil is not disturbed, which awakens seeds buried within, few weeds should appear especially as I replenish the chips every year or two. And if things get bad again, I’ll just re-paper the paths.

Friday, July 17, 2009

For me, berries are the essence of summer. So summer has officially begun: Just before the end of June I began eating blueberries and blackcurrants, and now there are plenty.

Blueberries are familiar, blackcurrants are not, but deserve to be better known. With a strong, distinctive flavor and not a whole lot of sweetness, blackcurrants are a fruit that only some of us enjoy fresh. Apply a little heat and some sweetener, perhaps a pastry shell (or not), or just squeeze the berries to make juice, sweetened or mixed with other juices, and you have a fruit that just about everyone enjoys. I’m much more adept at growing fruits than cooking fruits, but I’ll bet blackcurrants would be heavenly paired in various ways with dark chocolate.

Blackcurrants are very easy to grow. They fruit well even in shade and pretty much the only care they need is relatively straightforward annual pruning. Deer are not particularly fond of the bushes and birds are not fond of the fruits.

Lest anyone thinks I’m talking about those dried fruits sold as “dried currants,” those are totally different creatures. They are dried “Black Corinthe” grapes whose name has been bastardized to “black currant.”

Ever since I started growing berries, blackcurrants have been among my favorites. These berries are generally unknown in this country because they can host a disease of white pines, a valuable timber crop, so were banned until recently, when disease-resistant varieties where developed. Consort is one such variety, which I liked fine, but a few years ago I got my hands on some Russian varieties, which are disease resistant and have much finer flavor. Eating fruits of the varieties Kirovchanka, Belaruskaja, and Minaj Shmyrev moved blackcurrant up the scale to my favorite fruits, along with blueberries.


“What about strawberries?” you might ask. They’ve been ripe for weeks now. They’re berries also.

I like strawberries but they are not among my favorite fruits. I don’t like crawling on the ground to harvest fruits, and, although strawberries are technically perennial plants, a bed starts to decline after 5 years or so due to encroachment of weeds and diseases. Even before that 5-year mark, a bed needs annual renovation if it’s going to remain healthy and productive.

Take a look at my strawberry bed today and you’d think that I didn’t like the fruits at all. I renovated the bed, something that looks brutal and is needed every year soon after the harvest is over. Step one is to go through the bed and thin out the plants so that each has almost a square foot of space all to itself, with preference given to younger plants. Two rows of plants run the length of each 3-foot-wide bed. While thinning plants is also an opportune time for thorough weeding and pulling off runners.

Next, I used grass shears to shear all leaves from all the plants, then gathered up all the cut leaves to cart off to the compost pile. This step lessens disease buildup.

And finally, the bed got blanketed with an inch-thick icing of compost or, alternatively, some organic mulch such as straw, pine needles, or wood shavings along with a bit of fertilizer. This mulch feeds the soil, enriches it with humus, conserves soil moisture (not needed this year! – yet), and keeps roots cool.

There are other ways to manage a strawberry bed but the system described, called the “hill system,” works well in intensive, closely managed gardens. No matter what growing system is used, though, any strawberry bed needs weeding, thinning, periodic rejuvenation, and eventual replanting.


We can’t forget about vegetables in our (very) local harvest backyard harvesting. Looking ahead to autumn, I sowed seeds of endive and radicchio along with more broccoli and cabbage, recently sown seedlings of which got flattened during a recent deluge. I also sowed my biweekly pinch of lettuce seeds to keep us in big salads right through summer.

Once up, all these seedlings can grow in self-watering APS seed flats (from Gardener’s Supply Company) for about a month before being planted out in the garden. Then there will be space available from which peas and early beans and corn have been harvested and cleared away. Later, harvested onions will free up more space.

Looking ahead to two springs hence, small spears are now appearing in the flat in which I sowed asparagus seed a couple of weeks ago. They’re so cute; they look like miniature asparagii.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Dark Lady is in all her glory this year. In past years she grew weakly, mostly because she had to spend the first part of each season recovering from winter damage and the second part trying to build up steam.

A couple of years ago I took cuttings from my weak plant. The new plants, rather than being grafted, as was the original, would be growing on their own roots. Any new sprouts on my new plants would always be Dark Lady, never rootstock sprouts, which are worthless for flowers and occasionally grow and sap energy from the rest of the bush.

I planted my new Dark Lady’s in a bed on the south side of my house. There, with the brick wall of the house adding a few extra degrees of warmth in winter and spring, Dark Lady might better survive winters coldest nights and get a jump on spring. What’s more, the roots had ample soil to explore rather than being restricted within the narrow, dry bed along my terrace where the mother plant had grown.

The three Dark Lady’s in their new bed have grown up, and today their stems bow low with weight of corpulent, dark red blossoms. Although a relatively newcomer among roses, coming from the skilled breeding hand of David Austin (, Dark Lady has the blowsy look and fragrance of old-fashioned roses coupled with disease resistance and repeat blooming of contemporary roses. Good work David!


Pity the poor birds. All my fat, juicy blueberries are starting to ripen and now there’s a net between them and them.

Putting up the net always brings words of fruit breeder Dr. Elwyn Meader to mind. When I visited him 25 years ago, the old New Englander, still active in his retirement and growing about an acre of blueberries, among other crops, recounted in his slow, New Hampshire accent, “It takes a patient man to net an acre of blueberries.” Covering my two plantings encompassing a total of about a thousand square feet always creates a little tension.

I now feel like a captain setting sail on an old sailing vessel, with all the sails trim and masts set. Except rather than sails and masts, it’s a blueberry net that’s spread tightly over the permanent, 7-foot-high perimeter of locust posts and side walls of anti-bird, plastic mesh. That covers 16 bushes within a 25 foot by 25 foot area. Rebar through holes near the tops of the locust posts keeps that side wall mesh taught and 18” high chicken wire along the bottom keeps rabbits, which love to teethe on that plastic mesh, from doing so.

On my other planting of a row of 6 bushes, the net drapes over flexible fiberglass poles that arch over the plants. Giant metal “staples” pin the net down at ground level to thwart my chickens and other birds that want to get at the berries.

Don’t worry, the birds will get their fill of berries elsewhere. I don’t net my lowbush blueberries, nor my lingonberries, mulberries, and gumis.


The birds also have free access to a blueberry look-alike, juneberries, the plants of which are sometimes called serviceberry, shadbush, and, in the case of one species, saskatoon. The bushes are common in the wild and, because of their pretty flowers, fall color, and neat form, also planted in landscapes.

Juneberries are related to apples and pears, not blueberries, and share some of their kin’s pest problems. Especially in my garden. They’re one fruit that doesn’t usually grow well for me although this year is a pretty good year for them so that I and the birds can have a few berries.

Juneberries are small, blue, and dead-ringers for blueberries but have a taste all their own: Sweet with the richness of sweet cherries, along with a hint of almond. The birds seem to enjoy them as much as they do blueberries.


Saturday, July 4, 2009

A reader wrote asking if I had any suggestions for thwarting Mexican bean beetle, a voracious pest of beans that resembles a ladybug except for being larger and yellow, rather than red, with black spots? The reader “tried ignoring them” (doesn’t work well) and then resorted to a spray made from pipe tobacco “tea” with a few drops of dish detergent added. She wrote that it “may have helped a little, but the bean plants eventually succumbed. It did smell good though.”

First off, nix on tobacco tea sprays. Tobacco tea sprays, like their commercially available pesticide counterpart, sold under the name Black Leaf 40, are highly toxic.

I deal with bean beetles by growing successive crops of bush beans. The beetles don't cause much damage until after a couple of weeks of harvesting beans, at which point I just move on to harvesting from another bed that I had planted a few weeks after the first bed. I usually do three plantings a season, each sown as far from each other as possible and about a month apart. I thoroughly clean up infested beds once I start harvesting from a younger bed, packing the old plants into the compost pile and then piling on a layer of some other material, such as straw or manure, to get the bean leaves, stems, and old pods composting as fast as possible.

Because of the beetles, I no longer grow pole beans, which would stay in place to bear -- and feed bean beetles -- all season long. I don’t grow the usual pole beans, that is. I grow Scarlet Runner beans, which are a different species that is unappealing to the little buggers, and which bear beautiful, scarlet blossoms. The edible pods are fat, hairy, and ugly -- but delicious.


I’m now in a flurry of seed planting. And no, it’s not because I forgot to plant everything beginning about two months ago.

Some of the seeds I’m now planting are for the fall vegetable garden. That would be Scotch kale, Fiesta broccoli, early Jersey Wakefield cabbage, beets, and Swiss chard. Other fall vegetables also need to be sown, but not yet.

I’m also sowing asparagus seeds for asparagus harvest the year after next and then for decades to come. Most people plant asparagus roots but the plants are very easy from seed, requiring mostly patience for the seed to sprout and then for first harvest. Growing from seed rather than from purchased roots adds a year until first harvest. If you decide this time of year to plant more asparagus, you anyway have to wait until next spring to get roots for planting, then another year until the first harvest, so it all comes out the same.

Last night’s soaking of asparagus seed in a small cup of water will speed their germination and today I’ll sow the seeds in a flat of potting soil, where the seedlings will grow through summer. Next spring, it’s out into the garden with them.

Some of the seeds I’m sowing this week are for perennial flowers for next year and beyond. Sown now, perennial flowers probably won’t flower this year but they’ll be poised and ready to flower beginning next year. Perennials are available in much greater variety in seed than plants, especially if the seed search includes mail order companies. And for the mere cost of the packet of seeds, I can grow more plants of any perennial than I could possibly find a place to plant.

I already count 56 seedlings, sprouting and ready to “prick out” into individual cells, in the flat of butterfly weed seeds I planted on June 1st.