Thursday, May 24, 2012


Here I am swimming in seedlings and small, potted plants sitting on shelves or the ground in the greenhouse, on my picnic table, and on the terrace. Each plant is waiting for the right time to be planted outdoors or to be moved to a bigger pot. So why would I add to the crowd by planting something as absurd as rice? Because rice tastes good and might be fun to grow.
Interest in commercial and home rice cultivation has been on the rise here in the northeast, as attested to by last year’s Second Annual Northeast Rice Conference, held in  -- of all places! -- Vermont. No paddies in the works here; I’m parting ways with most of my fellow growers in planning to grow rice under dryland conditions. Growing rice in flooded fields is a useful way to snuff out weeds -- dryland weeds, at least -- and, more importantly, in northern regions, to moderate temperatures. My planting is going to be very small, measured in square feet, so I can weed by hand, and my site is considerably warmer than anywhere in Vermont.
My planting has to be small because I’m starting with very few seeds: the variety Hayayuki, generally recommended for northern conditions and kindly shared with me by Ben Falk ( Ben has grown rice successfully in paddies he constructed at his homestead in central Vermont.
So today I planted seeds in a seedling tray with inch square cells in each of which I planted one or two seeds. If everything goes as planned, I’ll be transplanting in a few weeks (rice does not tolerate any frost, doesn’t even like cold weather). Recommended spacing is 12 x 8” for groups of 2 to 3 plants. My garden soil is very rich so I’ll plant closer than recommended. Harvest, with a grass shear, should come in September, followed by threshing by smacking pillowcase-filled seed heads against the floor. As for dehulling the rice, that is, removing the hard coat around each kernel . . . I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it. Plans for a small-scale dehuller are available at
Moving on to more practical matters: gates. If good fences make good neighbors, good gates make good invitations to pass through fences. The gate to my south vegetable garden is not good. It was when I built it, the sturdy frame of natural locust wood swinging either open or closed with the mere touch of a finger.
But locust wood is heavy, and that weight was the gate’s downfall, literally. For the past few years, the bottom scraped along the ground so that lifting the handle was necessary to open and close it. A five-foot span hinged at one end put too much stress on the wood.
I realized recently that the extra trouble of opening the gate and the possibility of it breaking was was limiting trips into the garden. And there’s little worse for a vegetable garden than a disincentive -- be it distance, too many weeds, or a gate that’s too hard to open -- to enter it.
That full five foot breadth was only necessary to let pass the occasional garden cart full of compost to spread over the beds. So why not, methinks, rebuild the gate with two half gates, one of which would be plenty wide for passing through for the almost daily planting, weeding, and/or harvesting. With less leverage, a half-width gate would experience little stress.
The locust branches of the old gate made it charming but slow to build. I built the new gate -- a temporary one -- out of 2 by 4s. A pintle sticking up into a hole in the bottom and a bolt sliding down through two parallel eye bolts and then into a hole in the top together make a sturdy, effective, and adjustable hinge, so each gate swings easily and, with a spring closure, shuts automatically.
Already, the garden beckons me. Beds have been layered with compost, weeds have been pulled, and today I’ll sow popcorn seeds. The only problem is that “temporary” building projects too often morph into things more permanent. Two compliments on the new gate have already started it down that road. 

Monday, May 21, 2012

Mark your calendar: June 2nd, from 9-11:30 am, my ANNUAL PLANT SALE. Belaruskaja black currants, Nanking cherries, hardy grapes, pomegranates, coneflowers, and more. Event takes place here at my farmden in New Paltz, NY. Contact me if you need more information.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Gardenias, Good books, and Spring Freeze

If I might brag a bit . . . It’s been just over a couple of years that, in the same breath and on these very pages, I bemoaned the loss and decided to again take up the challenge of growing gardenia. I purchased a new one, with which I now claim success. My plant is bushy with lush, glossy green leaves, nine creamy white blossoms are fully open, and buds foreshadowing more are on the way. Fragrance from each blossom is heavenly sweet.

Gardenia is a temperamental plant, ready to be attacked by scale insects, ready to drop its flower buds, and ready to let its leaves yellow and drop. For the scale insects, I sprayed the plants weekly at the end of last summer with a “horticultural oil” spray before cold weather creeping onwards ushered the plant indoors. This benign spray smothers the insects. I kept the plant on a sunny shelf next to my desk where I could keep a close eye out for the insects and when they started to appear in late winter, I sprayed the plant with Safers Soap.

I avoided leaf yellowing by using an acidic potting soil and with regular feeding using a water-soluble fertilizer, again beginning in late winter. Except for a few weeks of yellowing leaves, probably because the leaves were getting old (even evergreen leaves eventually get old, yellow, and drop), the leaves remained healthy and attached. I’ve never experienced drop of flower buds even though gardenias allegedly do so if moved to a different window or given any other slight change in conditions.

I credit most of my gardenial success to keeping the potting mix consistently moist. And, although I checked the soil often, I credit most of that consistent moisture to an automatic watering device I described two years ago. To quote myself, the device is “a porous, hollow spike, the pointed end of which gets pushed into the soil while its opposite, open end fits to a [thin] plastic tube the end of which sits in a jar of water. As the soil dries out, it sucks moisture out of the porous spike which, in turn, draws it in from the reservoir via the plastic tube.” It’s sometimes sold as a “Water Siphon” but also parades under such names as “Blumat,” “Hydrospike,” and “Ceramic Watering Probe.”

Now is the time to get hands dirty in the garden rather than to read about gardening. Nonetheless, 3 gardening books that crossed my desk are so noteworthy that they’re worth a look even now.

Marijuana Pest and Disease Control by Ed Rosenthal might raise a few eyebrows, but if I hadn’t already done my research and had experience with scale insects on my gardenia, Ed’s book would have been most useful. Marijuana is attacked by aphids, mold, fungus gnats -- that is, by many of the same pests and diseases that attack our other plants, making Ed’s book a useful general guide to common pests and diseases. Because you don’t want to be smoking poison, the controls are organic.

Moving on, everyone knows the ecological nightmare that mowing, watering and pest and weed control can make of the average lawn. One attractive way to avoid the nightmare is to make your lawn smaller and let part of it become a meadow. Imagine the crisp edge of an expanse of mown lawn rising up to a sea of wildflowers and taller growing grasses with a mown path beckoning you to come within. Catherine Zimmerman’s Urban & Suburban Meadows is one of the clearest expositions for creating a meadow. With many photos and straightforward text, she leads the reader from ground preparation to planting to maintenance, also including plant lists and sources for supplies, plants, and further information. If I didn’t already have a meadow (entered via a meandering, mown path) and didn’t already have the book, I would buy it.

And finally, for a good read, there’s Margaret Roach’s And I Shall Have Some Peace There: Trading in the Fast Lane for My Own Dirt Road, a very engaging account of how Margaret traded in her job as editorial director for Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia for full-time life in her once-weekend home in rural Columbia County. The book is funny, open, and informative but, best of all, very well written. And Margaret has been a knowledgeable gardener for decades.

Last night’s (April 29th) low of 26°F was, I hope the last freeze of this season. Hardy kiwi fruit vines awoke blackened and forlorn although I’m still not totally discounting the possibility of a crop from buds still to open. Many pear fruitlets are blackened within, dead. Apples look okay and, of course, pawpaws, berries, and persimmons are also okay. 
Vegetables are easy! Any sort of covering thrown over them provides ample protection.

The last spring frost around here is, on average, shooed out the garden gate around the middle of May so I should not be surprised if another frost sneaks back in some night in the next two weeks.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

A Reel Mower, Potting Soils

Coming out of the gate of the warmest and driest winter in decades, weather this spring has been a roller coaster ride. March had a spate of sunny days in the 70s, then temperatures plummeted to the low 20s, then the dry spell was ended with some rain, and recently temperatures have continued on the seasonably cool and cold side. Lawngrass has enjoyed the weather, and during one of the recent calms I finally got the opportunity to roll out the lawnmower.

The opportunity!? Mowing the lawn isn’t usually one of my favorite pastimes but this spring I was anxious to try out my new lawnmower. No need to clean and tighten the sparkplug, check the gas and oil, and pray for  the roar of exploding gasoline (within the engine) with this new mower. It’s a push mower, “push” as in your pushing gets it moving and turns the front reel that lops grass cleanly as the sharp blades rotate pass the fixed bar.

Push mowers have come a long way since those heavy, iron monsters of yore and my new Fiskars Reel Mower was a joy to use. So much s that I was able to do a “Tom Sawyer” on my visiting brother and his two daughters, letting them vie to see who gets to create that musical whirring of the gears accompanied by a broad fountain of grass blades flying up and out in front of the traveling mower. (He ordered one for himself when he got home.)

Using a push mower is more than just fun, of course. It’s good for the environment. A gasoline powered lawnmower pollutes as much in an hour as a car driving 250 miles; pollution from electric corded or battery powered mowers depends on how the electricity is generated. A push mower offers the opportunity for productive exercise. And reel mowers make cleaner cuts than rotary mowers so result in a healthier lawn. I highly recommend Fiskars Reel Mower.
A few weeks ago I fingered possible blame for poor seed germination and poor seedling growth on my having substituted peat moss for coir in my potting mix. Coir is a sustainable byproduct of coconut processing; peat moss takes eons to form so is not sustainable.

I’m happy to report that I was wrong. My seeding failures, it turns out, were due to the heating pad that is meant to provide gentle bottom heat for seed germination in my cool temperature greenhouse. Instead of the desired 75°F., the thermostat for that heating pad had been inadvertently turned up to 100°F (probably by me)!

Gardening brings into play the interaction of all sorts of physical, chemical, and biological system; the interactions are complex and this complexity makes it hard to ascribe cause and effect. But gardeners too often do this, just as I did (with reservations) relating coir in my potting mix to poor seed germination and seedling growth. 

To really find out if “A” causes “B,” (for instance, that coir is bad for seed germination) you have to control as many variables as possible (same seeds, same light, same watering, etc.) and then apply “A” to only half of your plants. It’s often not all that easy to control other variables. And anyway, if you start out believing that something -- compost tea, for example -- is going to make your plants grow better, you’ll be wont to not use it on all your plants. And then, if the summer happens to be sunny and warm with timely rains, you still might be inclined to tout that something -- the compost tea, in this example -- for good growth.

My coir blunder did have the benefit of making me more objective about what makes a good potting soil. Many years ago, after much research, I came up with my own not-secret potting soil recipe of equal parts compost, garden soil, peat, and perlite with some soybean meal and kelp thrown in for extra nitrogen and micronutrients. Coir, in my last mix, substituted for all the peat.

After thinking that coir ruined my mix, I made up a batch of potting soil using 3 parts leaf mold (thoroughly rotted leaves) with one part perlite, again with some soybean meal and kelp. And then I actually did an experiment, planting half my lettuce seedlings in the leaf mold mix and the other half in the coir mix. Once removed from the overheated heating pad, seedlings grew equally well in either potting mix.

Which is to say, with reference to religions or potting soils: Many roads lead to the mountaintop. A good potting mix needs to drain well, hold moisture, provide nutrients, and provide a biologically friendly environment for roots. Perlite, sand or vermiculite can provide good drainage. Compost, peat, coir, or leaf mold help hold moisture and provide a biologically friendly root environment. Soil, compost, leaf mold, soybean meal, and kelp can provide nutrients. Various combinations of these ingredients make equally good potting mixes.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Ramps, Colonial Williamsburg

A friend of a friend who was helping me turn compost stopped by the farmden and presented me with a fistful of greenery. Ramps. Although I’ve known of ramps and ramp festivals  for years, the plant never appealed to me. I foolishly figured it was one of those edibles whose main appeal was their wildness rather than their flavor.

But ramps right in your face demand attention, so I cooked and ate them that evening. The flavor was delicious, yes, onion-y but not with an overpowering aroma that’s often advertised as oozing from the bodies of attendees at ramps festivals; and they were sweet. As I have done with many other wild edibles -- blueberries, pawpaws, and persimmons, to name a few -- I right away wanted to cultivate ramps, both for the challenge and to have them available close at hand. The friend of the friend said she would bring me some rooted plants in a couple of days, which she kindly did.

The starting point in cultivating any wild plant is, of course, to look to its natural habitat. Ramps grow in moist, humus-y soil in the dappled shade of deciduous forests. To get my ramps off to a good start, I decided to grow them for a season in pots. There, soil, moisture, and light could be adjusted as needed. The potting mix was leaf mold (just like the forest floor) with some perlite for drainage (a necessity for roots in the confines of a pot). I set the pots on a capillary mat which, with one end dangling in a reservoir of water, would keep the potting mix consistently moist. For the couple of weeks that the roots are exploring new soil, moisture loss through the leaves will be minimized by keeping the plants in deep shade. After a couple of weeks, the plants should be ready for dappled sunlight.

Ramps have a short season. The green leaves emerge in spring, then die back as days grow longer and temperatures rise in June. After the leaves die back, seedstalks emerge.

Many wild plants that naturally grow in shade actually grow even better in full sun -- as long as their roots have adequate moisture. This is true for pawpaw and blueberry, and perhaps is also the case with ramps. I have enough plants to, next year, try different exposures and see which gives best results.

The goal is to eventually plant out the ramps so they can multiply as the bulbs divide to form clumps and as the plants self-seed. The shaded, wet soil beneath my persimmon trees is one place I have in mind that might provide just right conditions for “ramp-ant” growth.
Dateline Colonial Williamsburg: A magical place I first visited over 50 years ago, and here I am today for a lecture at their 66th Garden Symposium. (No lecture was involved at my first visit; I hadn’t even been talking for that long!) Strolling in and out of the many gardens -- from the functional “four-square” kitchen garden behind Shield’s Tavern to the maze and clipped evergreens of the Governor’s Palace -- Colonial Williamsburg is a reminder of America’s gardening heritage. 

What goes around comes around. Colonists, even those with small, village plots of land, grew at least some of their own vegetables and fruits. They had to. Today, even with the  panoply of fresh produce that lines our market shelves, more and more of us are planting at least some fruits and vegetables that we can reach for right outside our back doors. Now we’re doing it to avoid commercial food products too often tainted with pathogens or pesticides, to avoid the environment toll of a tomato or a head of lettuce shipped hundreds of miles, and because we want to eat fruits and vegetables with real flavor.
We’re now even using some gardening techniques of those colonial gardeners. Tunnels of wire draped with clear plastic have replaced wooden hoops of yore covered with oiled paper held in place with horsehide glue. Colonial gardeners covered other hoops with cheesecloth to screen out insects; I do likewise, using spun-bonded polyester, a more modern mesh material, to keep flea beetles off eggplants. Raising beds for better drainage and early soil warming were popular then and now.

The formality of Williamsburg’s symmetrical ornamental plantings have their place now also. Especially if today we keep those formal planting to a size that can be maintained with the same meticulousness as modern Williamsburg’s skilled gardeners. My only objection to all that symmetry and evergreens is that, along with the brick buildings, the formal plantings take on a certain sameness; it looks pretty but makes it easy to lose your way.

Okay, I’ll admit it; Williamsburg did make me jealous. Of their towering southern magnolia trees with large, leathery, glossy leaves. Such trees either don’t thrive or don’t survive this far north. (The cold limit for hardier varieties, such as Bracken's Brown Beauty, is 5-10° F.) I also was envious of the many fig trees and pomegranate bushes growing freely outdoors in ornamental and vegetable gardens. I also grow these plants, but in the greenhouse or large pots.

Colonial Williamsburg is an enchanting place. The gardens. The quiet of car-less streets. The subdued light at night. The chirping birds on spring mornings, a prominent memory from my first visit and each visit since. With Spring’s early arrival throughout the East, an added plus was the heavy blooms of black locust trees that suffused the air with their intoxicatingly sweet fragrance. I should experience that pleasure again, back home at the farmden, within a couple of weeks.