Friday, October 26, 2012


Cooler weather and moister conditions are keeping the lawn happily lush, and still growing. I figure we’ll need to do one or two more mowings before the season ends. That is, unless you count yourself a member of the anti-lawn movement.

The vendetta against lawns is two-fold. First, those lawn areas could be used for growing food. “Food not lawns” is the calling cry (and the website, for those who have repurposed their front and/or back yards for food production. And second, lawns often are ecological disasters, especially those maintained lush and weed-free no matter what the summer weather. But even a lackadaisical lawn needs regular mowing, or it becomes something other than lawn. One hour of mowing with a gasoline-powered mower spews as much fumes into the air as does driving a couple of hundred miles.

I choose a middle ground, and enjoy the appearance, the convenience, and feel of some well-placed turf. Many years ago I gave over some of that lawn to growing all our vegetables and much of our fruits.

My original property of 3/4 of an acre has grown to almost 2 and a half acres, much of it was once regularly mowed (by previous owners). I originally maintained it with a scythe but have since acquired a tractor for giving most of the fields once-a-year haircut, with more frequent cutting around orchard and vegetable gardens.

But just suppose I had a smaller property, a much smaller property, say 1/8 of an acre with a smooth lawn. An environmentally-friendly and pleasant option for this lawn would be a push mower. Newer materials and newer engineering bumped weighty, clunker push mowers of yore into modern sleek, lightweight grass eaters.

An excellent choice among the many push mowers offered today is one of Fiskars Reel Mowers. They’re relatively easy to push and sing a pleasant tappity-tap beat as they roll along spewing cut grass in front.

The only caveat with a push mower is that mowing grass that has grown too long is very difficult. The solution? Mow frequently enough. It’s also better for the grass.

No need for the roar of exploding gasoline for a bigger lawn. For three-quarters of an acre, perhaps more, I’d opt for an electric mower, a cordless one. Battery technology has greatly improved in recent years, giving contemporary cordless mowers a lot more power and longer running times.

My choice among these mowers is Stihl. The cutting width is a bit narrow but the mower is extremely light and very spry to push around. With a mere push of a button and squeeze of a bar needed to start it, this mower won’t make you give a second thought to stopping to move a lawn chair or dog bowl out of the way. This mower plows through even long grass. Run time is 25 minutes on a charge but charging (with the more expensive of the two chargers available) takes only 45 minutes. Take a break; have a cup of tea.

The Stihl mower has just one downside: price. The mower, the battery, the charger, and the mulching attachment (better for the lawn) require a hefty layout of hundreds of dollars. But think long term. When you consider the cost of running and repair, over the long term this mower is cheaper to run than a gasoline-powered mower. And it’s a lot quieter and lighter.

An even bigger lawn? A larger area, even a few acres, can be eco-friendly by converting it to what I call, in my book The Pruning Book (which has a chapter on “pruning” grass), “Lawn Nouveau.”

With Lawn Nouveau, you sculpt out two layers of grassy growth. The low grass is just like any other lawn, and kept that way with, depending on the expanse of low grass, either the push mower or the cordless electric mower. The taller portions are mowed infrequently -- one to three times a year, depending on the desired look. “Clippings” from the tall grass portions are good material for mulch or compost.

A crisp boundary between tall and low grass keeps everything neat and avoids the appearance of an unmown lawn. That boundary itself becomes a landscape element. No need for straight edges and 90° corners; instead, carve out curves in bold sweeps that can carry you along, then pull you forward and push you backward, as you look upon them. Avenues of low grass cut into the tall grass invite exploration, and, like the broad sweeps, can be varied from year to year.

That tall grass portion could be mowed with a tractor, but more fun and better for the environment is to use a scythe. Not just any old scythe, though, surely not those heavy, dull ones you sometimes find at garage sales. I use a lightweight, European-style scythe with a razor-sharp “Austrian blade.” Scything in early morning (the swooshing of the blade doesn’t disturb neighbors) when the grass is dewy on the outside and plump with moisture inside, plant cells practically pop apart when touched by the sharp blade.

Quoting one-time Congressional candidate, homesteader, and swinger of a scythe into his nineties, Scott Nearing: “It is a first-class, fresh-air exercise, that stirs the blood and flexes the muscles, while it clears the meadows." And helps maintain Lawn Nouveau.

So there you have it: Three expanses of grass to mow; three environmentally friendly tools for the job. The push mower (Fiskars), the cordless electric mower (Stihl), and the scythe (available from and

Friday, October 19, 2012


“Cure” is a funny sort of word. It means, on the one hand, to relieve from illness, and, on the other hand, to subject to some sort of preservative process. (And, on yet another hand, a few other things.)

The chestnut variety 'Colossal'
Which brings me to my chestnuts . . .  no, they’re not diseased, but they do need to be cured. We chestnut growers face two opposing goals with our harvested nuts: Good storage versus good eating. A freshly fallen chestnut is rich in starch and moisture and, because it is alive, it’s able to fight off mold and store well if kept near freezing temperatures. But it doesn’t taste good. For best eating, the nuts need to cure, a process whereby some moisture is lost and some of the starch changes to sugars, dramatically improving flavor. But cured nuts don’t keep well.

This story has one other wrinkle, the chestnut weevil. This bugger lays eggs in the nuts while they’re on the tree and, after nuts drop, eats some nutmeat and then crawls into the ground for winter. 

Chestnuts begin to lose moisture usually as soon as they touch ground. They start at about 50% moisture and once moisture drops below 35%, they’re dead and will rot unless eaten quickly or thoroughly dried (for chestnut flour, for instance). The way to store chestnuts, then, is to make sure they’re plumped up with water, and the way to do this is with a dunk in water for about a week. Soaking also kills weevils. The nuts may begin to ferment, so the flavor is ruined after the dunking -- but they’re not supposed to be eaten yet. 

Another way to deal with hydration and weevils is with a 30 minute dunk in water heated to 120° F. The temperature and timing are exacting so I this week opted for the less exacting week-long soaking from my just-harvested nuts.

Kept plump with moisture and at temperatures near freezing, nuts subjected to either water treatment will store well until -- since they are alive -- they begin to sprout.

The way to get chestnuts ready for eating is to bring them to a drier and slightly warmer, but still cool, location. Depending on temperature and humidity, the transformation from foul to flavorful could take from 3 to 14 days. Cooler temperatures and moister air lengthen the curing time, but also offer better flavored chestnuts.

(Much of this information was gleaned from an article by Greg Miller in The Chestnut Grower, Greg is the owner of the Empire Chestnut Company,, which sells high-quality chestnuts, chestnut trees, and chestnut seeds.)

The sweet potato harvest is in, as it should be before cold threatens. Soil temperatures below 50° F. cause chilling injury to the roots and internal decay. As I’ve written previously, I planted the vines atop piles of wood chips and leaves that arborists and landscapers dump here and that I spread as mulch later in autumn. All summer, the sweet potatoe vines multiplied and stretched out as far as 20 feet from my original plants. 

Unfortunately, it looks like the plants put more energy into making vines than fat roots. From 4 plants and a lot of vine growth I harvested a mere half-bushel of sweet potatoes. A couple of the potatoes were football-sized, others were below average, and too many were like swollen, orange strings. 

Stringy roots result from too rich a soil, but I didn’t even plant in soil! Probably the hot summer and sometime moist weather sped decomposition of the chips and leaves to release nutrients.

But we’re here to talk about curing. Like chestnuts, sweet potatoes need to be cured for good storage and good flavor. In this case, what’s needed are a week and a half of temperatures 80 to 85° F. and high humidity, not easy to find this time of year. My greenhouse benches are cleared and temperatures there  get quite warm on sunny days, so that’s were I’ve spread out the sweet potatoes. Longer curing times are needed at cooler temperatures, such as at room temperature. Covering potatoes with cloth or putting them in perforated plastic bags, or keeping them in the greenhouse, maintains high humidity.

Once cured, sweet potatoes are ready for eating. My paltry crop will be eaten soon, but for longer storage, medium humidity and temperature around 60° F. are ideal. Refrigeration is a no-no. The roots get chilled, just as they would in the ground (or my mulch pile), and show it. 

Black walnuts trees abound and the nuts are raining down and free for the taking. The sooner the fleshy husk is taken off, the less stained and better-flavored the nuts. No end of innovative ways have been devised for separating the husk from the shell, everything from spreading the harvested nuts on the driveway and running over them with your car to stomping on each nut to cutting the husks off to letting the weight of a small sledge loosen them and then twisting them off with gloved hand. We opt mostly for the latter, followed by hosing and drying them in the sun for a couple of days.

Of course, hulled black walnuts are not yet ready to crack and eat; they need to be cured, for a couple of months. Curing black walnuts is simple, involving nothing more than storage in any cool or cold, dry location impervious to squirrels. There are plenty of black walnuts for human and squirrels alike, but a cache of hulled, clean nuts is too tempting to those rats with tails. 

Thursday, October 11, 2012


Shortening days and cooling temperatures have certain potted plants crying out to be brought indoors. Soon, soon. Subtropical plants, such as bay laurel, rosemary, and fig, tolerate -- even enjoy -- temperatures below freezing, so cold isn’t the threat, for the next few weeks at least. But the later the evergreen plants come indoors, the more chance that I will have fired up the woodstove. The resulting drier air will shock plants if they’ve recently come in from cool, moist outdoor conditions; leaves will yellow and drop.

As for my poinsettia, staghorn fern, orchids, and other tropical plants, temperatures that dip below freezing could do them in.

But nobody’s coming indoors yet. First I have to make sure that no creatures are hitchhiking in with the plants. No, not creatures that would threaten me, but creatures that would threaten the plants themselves, and those would be mostly scale insects. Outdoors, ladybird beetles, parasitic wasps, some fungi, and other natural predators and diseases keep scale populations more or less in check. Indoors, plants are on their own.

Scale insects are so named for the waxy covering that protects the adults. They need that protection because once they start sucking plant juices through their straw-like stylets, they settle down in one place for good. Infested plants become weakened and the insects secrete a sticky honeydew that drips on the plant and surrounding furniture and carpet. A dark-colored fungus feeds on this honeydew, blackening leaves and surroundings. Blackening of the leaves, although superficial (the fungus isn’t attacking the plant), further weakens the plant by shading it from light.

Scale trivia: Male scale insects die after a couple of days without ever feeding. Some scale species consist only of females. Some scale insects are herded by ants who move them about and protect them from predators; in return ants “milk” the insects for their sweet honeydew. And not all scale insects are bad. Red cochineal dye comes from a scale insect, as does lacquer.

For the past few weeks, once a week, I’ve taken out my arsenal against scale insects. Insecticidal soap is relatively nontoxic and is a kind of soap especially formulated to kill soft-bodied insects. Two teaspoons of mild detergent in a gallon of water is also effective.

Repeated applications are needed because the soap is ineffective against scale insects protected by their covering. It’s the little ones, the “crawlers,” as they are called, that I’m gunning for. After birth, they scoot out from beneath their mother’s protective cover to find their own sucking spots, and that’s when they’re most vulnerable to soap. My goal is to keep at it to kill each hatching until there’s no more fecund mothers still giving birth. If the soap merely knocks crawlers off the plant, a subsequent spray will also kill or knock off any that climb back aloft.

My last couple of sprays will be oil, which smothers protected mothers and crawlers. (I know this sounds brutal, but experience yourself a houseplant heavily infested with scale and the associated sticky, blackened carpet and furniture before passing judgement.) Oil can damage plants also, especially evergreens, so the oil to use is “horticultural” oil, also known as “summer” oil, which is highly refined to remove harmful ingredients. Like soaps, these oils are relatively nontoxic to nontarget organisms.

Usually, scale insects hardly make their presence known until just after midwinter. I do notice a couple of scaly bumps on citrus and staghorn fern; these I deal with mano a mano, with a flick of my fingernail.

Strawberry guava, though, already has plenty of tufts of white cottony cushion scale on it. The guava also is loaded with ripening fruits so needs all the energy it can get, especially with shortening days. This tropical fruit tastes nothing like strawberry but has a sweet, perfume-y flavor with a nice tang. The reddish flesh and abundant, edible seeds probably give rise to the “strawberry” part of the name.

Friday, October 5, 2012

It Ain't Over -- The Fall Garden Begins

If I wasn’t a gardener, I’d look upon the late summer and fall weather as a glorious succession of warm sunny days and crisp nights with intermittent periods of mostly gentle rains. As a gardener, the crisp nights make me a little nervous.

Temperatures so far have only dipped into the low 40s; any night, though, that low could plummet below freezing. Below freezing temperatures would ring the death-knell for okra, peppers, tomatoes, and the any other summer vegetables still braving cooling temperatures. 

Actually, there’s not much oomph left in the okra and tomatoes. Okra doesn’t bear pods except when temperatures are downright hot. And disease, mostly early blight (not the dreaded late blight of a few years ago) has reduced tomatoes to nothing more than bare stems capped by a few green leaves and fruits. So loss of tomatoes or okra would hardly be noticed except to indicate it was finally time to clear those beds and ready them for next spring.

Peppers are another story. The leaves are still green and spry, and cool weather hurries the fruits along on their way to full red ripeness. 

With cooler and cooler weather descending on the garden, the race is on with cool-weather vegetables -- cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage, turnips, and winter radishes. These vegetables tolerate temperatures well below freezing. But will they do what they have to do, whether it’s making flower buds, heads, or roots, before their growth slows almost to a standstill? Further south, they could wait out winter and finish growing as weather warmed. This far north, they eventually succumb to cold, perhaps headless, flower bud-less, or fat root-less.

I seeded cauliflower, broccoli, and cabbage in early June and transplanted them a month later. Turnips and winter radish seeds went directly into the ground in early August. According to my records, they should all be on time. But roots are only just beginning to swell in the ground beneath the turnips and radishes, and there’s no sign yet of flower buds on broccoli and cauliflower or developing heads on cabbage. Which makes me nervous.

Kale, of course, is yielding abundantly. It enjoys both warm and cool weather. All it needs to do is keep growing leaves, which it does.

No need to leave everything to Mother Nature; I’m going to change the weather. On a very small scale, within my cold frame. For years, I’ve used my cold frame -- essentially a 5 foot by 5 foot wooden box with a hinged, clear top sloping southward -- to extend the season for fresh salad fixings. This year it has become a hotbed, which is a cold frame with warmed soil.

Soil can be warmed in a number of ways. Most modern is with an electric soil heating cable made for this purpose and woven back and forth beneath the ground. Most old-fashioned -- and the method I’m using -- is with manure, utilizing the heat of its fermentation.
Successfully growing plants in a manure-heated hotbed demands a mix of art and science. Too much heat, too fast is to be avoided as is, of course, too little heat. To start, I and my able assistant David dug almost 2 feet of soil out of the cold frame. I had on hand horse manure mixed with wood shavings and a little straw; the mix was fairly fresh and moist. As David forked the manure mix into the bed, I watered it and occasionally got right into the frame and stomped it down -- not too hard, which would drive out all the air, but enough to pack everything together for a critical mass to start heating.

Once the bed was filled, the mix was topped with a 4 inch layer of ripe compost. Those few inches are needed to keep young, tender roots above the hot layer which, as it eventually cools, can increasingly accommodate roots. A few days later I scratched out furrows into which I sprinkled lettuce, spinach, and arugula seeds. Spinach usually survives winter here in a cold frame. Lettuce and arugula do not, so will provide a good measure, along with speed of growth, of the efficacy of the heating. 

One week after planting, temperatures about a foot down into the bed are around 80°F.

I’m lucky in not having to leave things to Mother Nature even if the hotbed’s performance proves less than stellar. A few steps away is my greenhouse, now sprouting a panoply of cool weather greens, as well as ripening cucumbers and figs.