Friday, January 25, 2013


My upcoming lecture schedule:


Feb 12, Planting Fields Arboretum (Oyster Bay, NY): FEARLESS PRUNING

Feb 16-17, NOFA-VT (Northeast Organic Farming Association, Burlington, VT): FRUIT GROWING SIMPLIFIED, NO-TILL VEGETABLES

Mar 2: Miami Valley (Dayton, OH) Garden Conference: WEEDLESS GARDENING

Mar 9: Philadelphia Flower Show: Fruit Growing Simplified


Mar 16, Thetford, VT: FEARLESS PRUNING


April 10, Rosendale (NY) Library: BACKYARD COMPOSTING


May 11, Margaret Roach’s Garden (Copake Falls, NY): BACKYARD FRUIT LECTURE, GRAFTING WORKSHOP

May 16, Brookside Gardens (Wheaton, MD): MY WEEDLESS GARDEN

by Lee Reich

And now, on to my post...

Growing vegetables is really quite simple. You put the seeds or transplants into sunny ground, you water and weed, and then you harvest your bounty. For that small effort, you can put on your plate food that is organically, sustainably, and (very) locally grown. Perhaps even richer in nutrients than food you can buy.

Studies over the past 10 or so years have documented a general decline in nutrients in our fruits and vegetables. Some people contend that our soils have been mined for their nutrients, worn out from poor farming, and therefore no longer able to provide us with nutritious food. The cure, according to these “experts,” is to sprinkle mineral-rich rock powders on the soil to replenish and rebalance that which has been lost. It all sounds very logical.

You might have sensed a big “but” looming. Here it is: But . . . further studies have pinned that nutrient decline on a dilution effect from increased yields. Pump up production with nitrogen fertilizer and water, or by breeding for increased yields, and nutrient concentrations decline; it’s as simple as that. The final nail in the “worn out soil” coffin comes from side-by-side plantings of low- and high-yielding varieties of specific vegetables. The higher yielding varieties end up with lower concentrations of minerals and protein. The problem, then, if there is one, can be blamed on breeding and farming practices aimed at producing more bulk.

I’m not concerned with nutrient decline in my own garden. First of all, I’ve chosen the varieties I grow -- Blue Lake beans, Cherokee Purple tomatoes, Lincoln peas, Early Jersey Wakefield cabbage, Ashmead’s Kernel apple, and Fallgold raspberry, as examples -- with one thing in mind: flavor! It just so happens that the most flavorful fruit and vegetable varieties are ones that have been around a long time. Yields may not be heavy, but these varieties are rich in flavor (and probably nutrients).

I’m also not concerned with nutrient decline because I don’t push yields to the max with repeated applications of soluble, nitrogen-rich fertilizers. My soil management is simple: One inch of compost per year spread on top of the ground of permanent vegetable beds; compost, wood chips, hay, and/or leaves around my fruit plants. As these organic materials decompose, nitrogen and other essential nutrients are bled slowly into the soil in response to warm temperatures and moisture, the same environment that spurs plant growth.

That compost is not just serving nitrogen to my plants, or just the big three, nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. Into the compost goes orange peels from Florida, avocado skins from California, and other kitchen waste, garden trimmings, some weedy hay, and, occasionally, horse manure. So the ground gets a wide variety of organic materials that, in turn, feed the compost and, in turn, the soil and the plants a wide spectrum of nutrients. And just to make sure that my soil lacks nothing, I occasionally sprinkle some powdered kelp around.

Even if herbs were rich in nutrients, their nutritional contribution to our diets would be minimal because of the small amounts used. But the small amounts needed to pizazz up a tomato sauce or frittata in winter also make herbs ideal for growing indoors in winter. A little goes a long way. 

The basic problem is that many cooking herbs are Mediterranean plants that, of course, thrive best in Mediterranean conditions, with bright hot sun beating down on them. So the expectations and the reality of a windowsill herb garden often diverge. Forget about growing basil or oregano in January. 

Bay laurel, 23 years old!
With that said, I nominate three herbs perfect for indoor growing in winter. The first is tarragon. Because my tarragon plant waned all summer out in the garden, I decided to pot it up so I could keep a closer eye on it. And then in autumn, as long as the plant was in a pot, I decided to bring it in to sit in a sunny window. It has thrived.

The second herb is bay laurel. This plant, a small tree trained as a “standard,” has spent the last 23 winters near a sunny window. A freshly plucked leaf brings to soups and stews a flavor only hinted at by the dried leaf; to me, it’s reminiscent of olive oil.

The third herb, rosemary, is my favorite for indoor growing. Rosemary tolerates being trained as a standard or fanciful topiary; it looks equally good left to its own devices to grow as a relaxed, small shrub. Pinching off a few stem tips with leaves not only puts some warm, Mediterranean sunshine into tomato sauce but also encourages growth of side shoots to keep the plant dense with shoots and leaves.

Once spring warmth has settled in around here, tarragon, bay laurel, and rosemary move outside to bask in the full force of Hudson Valley sunshine. 

Thursday, January 17, 2013


Do occult practices contribute to the health of my pear trees? After all, there I was, clomping through lily-white snow in boots tossing what looked like puffs of smoke at each tree. As I moved from tree to tree, a gray halo settled to the ground arround each tree’s base.

Yes, those puffs of smoke would be contributing to my pear trees’ well-being. No, all that puffing was not occult, not even really smoke, in fact.

The stuff was wood ashes, and I had three reasons for what I was doing with it. First and foremost, I was disposing of it. Wood ash is rich in potassium and alkalinity. Potassium is an essential nutrient for plants, and alkalinity is good to counteract the increasing acidity of our soils, where rainfall constantly washes out its alkalinity.

But too much of a good thing is a bad thing. My woodstove generates a panful of ashes every couple of days or so, and too much wood ashes on the ground causes an imbalance of nutrients in soil and plants, especially of magnesium, another essential nutrient. Too much wood ashes in one place would also make the soil too alkaline, which brings on deficiencies of yet more essential plant nutrients, such as iron and phosphorus, lessens the soil’s ability to hold onto nutrients for later use by plants, and can increase plant susceptibility to certain diseases, such as potatoes, to scab. So I spread my wood ashes far and wide, at a rate where their goodness does good.

The minerals in wood ashes, and its dark color, have another use under my pear trees. It melts snow. I like snow as much as any child but mice, free from the gaze of predators, run amok beneath that white blanket, stopping to gnaw on bark. A few inches of snow also give rabbits a leg up to reach higher into young trees to do similar work on what were low branches. That gray halo eats away at snow near the base of each tree.

In throwing that ring of wood ashes at the base of each tree, some inevitably clings to bark and branches. If I were a rabbit, a dusting of wood ashes would make a meal of bark or branches less appetizing. Perhaps they feel that way, too. Anyway, that’s my third, neither occult nor particularly well-founded, reason for those puffs of “smoke” and halos of gray around each of my pear trees.

Winter has finally come. Besides all the beautiful, white snow, we finally have some cold. I’m keeping a close eye on how cold it gets, as should any good gardener, farmdener, or farmer, because the depth of cold is one determinant of what plants I can grow and how those I do grow might fare in the coming season.

Noting the temperature at 9 o’clock in the morning from a thermometer suction-cupped to the kitchen window or hanging on a post on the back porch will not do. Temperatures usually plummet to their lows around 4 or 5 in the morning, and by 9 a.m. have already risen a few degrees, especially on sunny days as days grow longer. Also, a thermometer sheltered beneath the roof of the front porch or house wall catches some indoor heat radiating out a window or wall so reads warmer than one hanging out in the garden near plants.

I’m not recommending anyone padding out on the snow to the garden in their slippers at 4 a.m. each morning to get an accurate temperature reading for the next few weeks. (Coldest temperatures usually arrive within a month on either side of the end of January.) Modern technology comes to the rescue in the form of minimum/maximum thermometers.

Minimum/maximum thermometers come in two “flavors”: mechanical and digital. Mechanical min/max thermometers have two sliding indicators that are pushed by either the temperature-reading needle of a dial thermometer or by the expanding fluid in a liquid in glass thermometer. One indicator stays where it is pushed to its high point, the other at its low point. High and low temperatures are indicated for the period since the sliders were last reset by being slid back against the needle or fluid.
Digital min/max thermometers work by . . . who knows? They do essentially the same thing as the mechanical min/max thermometers, except are reset with a push of a button. One advantage of digital thermometers is that some can transmit readings wirelessly indoors. I read the minimum, maximum, and present temperatures from the warmth of my bedroom while still in my pajamas. Still, mechanical thermometers are reassuringly simple and reliable. I have both kinds.
No need to reset a minimum/maximum thermometer every single day. Once, at the beginning of winter, suffices for knowing the ultimate depth of cold for the season.

Friday, January 11, 2013

The Tipping Point, Passed

We’re now at the tipping point. No, not the global climate one after which our climate permanently veers off in a new direction. Nor a sociological tipping point that describes, for example, how many instigators are needed to create a mob action. Nor the biodiversity tipping point, the threshold after which biodiversity irreversibly plummets. This tipping point is more down-to-earth and not open to debate: buds on houseplant stems are poised to grow, seeds are ordered, and the sun is slowly rising higher in the sky and lingering longer each day.

I feel it and act accordingly. As soon as buds start to open on indoor plants, I’ll put a little fertilizer in with the water when I water them. Not the tablespoon per gallon per week that’s recommended on the packet label. The plants can’t use that much yet; any extra is wasted and contributes to salt buildup in the potting soil. I’ll start with only a teaspoon per gallon and offer it every other week, gradually increasing it commensurate with growth.

Generally, I don’t use soluble fertilizers. Outside, nutrients locked up within the compost and other organic materials I add to the soil is gradually solubilized by soil microorganisms. But compost and other organic materials are bulky so there’s no room to keep adding them in sufficient amounts for feeding plants growing within the confines of flower pots. Compost added to my potting soils provides sufficient food for seedlings and small plants that spend little time in pots, but houseplants spend their life in pots. Hence the soluble fertilizers that I’ll soon start adding to their water.

As we’ve crossed the threshold to having longer days and brighter sunshine, some potted plants need more than just nutrients. Their roots have run out of space in which to grow. They need either to be moved to bigger pots or to have their roots hacked back to make room for fresh potting soil in the space that’s been freed up in their existing pots.

My weeping fig is the first candidate for re-potting. In its native, tropical haunts this tree grows a hundred feet high. As a familiar houseplant, it’s easily held in check at six feet high. My bonsai weeping fig tops out at only six inches high, and grows in an index-card sized, shallow pot an inch deep.

Every year the weeping fig gets its soil refreshed. Once I ease the plant out of its pot, taking care not to disturb the mossy mat that now covers the soil surface, I tease soil out from among the roots at the bottom of the root ball. After snipping back some roots and laying some new potting soil at the bottom of the pot, I return the plant to its home.

Larger, potted plants get more brutal treatment, especially my potted, edible figs, now in twelve to eighteen inch diameter pots. I’ll slice a couple of inches of soil from all around their root balls. But no need to do that yet; those plants are still dormant in the cold, dark basement

New seeds on their way by mail to welcome in the New Year provide an incentive to discard old seeds. Seeds are living entities, albeit quiescent, and eventually peter out. How long a seed stays viable depends on the kind of seed and the storage conditions, the ideal conditions being cool and dry (around 45°F. and 10% humidity). Consistent temperatures are better for storage than variable temperatures.

I used to store my seeds with a silica dessicant in airtight, plastic tubs in the refrigerator -- perfect, but no longer feasible. These days, I have too many seeds so they have to make do in rodent-proof tubs in the garage.

Today I’m checking the date on each packet of seed, either written there by me or already stamped on the packet. The onion family has least longevity; I order new onion and leek seeds every year. Next in longevity comes the carrot family, which includes parsley, celery, fennel, parsnip, and, of course, carrot. Because my storage conditions are less than ideal, I also replenish these seeds every year. Under good conditions, these seeds, along with non-family members okra, beet, chard, pepper, and corn, would stay viable for 2 or 3 years. Seeds of tomato and eggplant, and cabbage and its kin, keep well for about 4 years, as do lettuce and legumes (beans and peas).

If there’s ever a doubt about seed viability, it’s easy to test germination by counting out, say, 20 seeds to put between the folds of a moist, paper towel. If the towel is kept moist on a plate covered with an upturned plate, any viable seeds should germinate within a week or so.

Seeds readied and plants re-potted or fertilized, as needed, take advantage of the change in our planet’s orientation. We’re off to another year of gardening. This season’s tipping point is thankfully repeated every year. 

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Let It Be?

“Let it be, let it be” went the old Beatles’ lyric, and this could very well be a mantra in gardening. Sometimes, sometimes a little, and sometimes not at all.

Take, for instance, the climbing hydrangea cloaking the north wall of my brick house. Even now, bereft of leaves and flowers, the finger-thick vines, with their papery peeling, tan bark are a pretty sight weaving their way across and up the russet red wall. Come spring and through summer, bricks peek out from behind a cloak of heart-shaped, glossy green leaves. In summer, white flowers open on short, horizontal stems that reach out from the wall, the whole effect, with the leafy background, like twinkling stars against a dark sky.

I planted the vine about 7 years ago, knowing that it’s slow to get started and that it can coexist with trees or brick walls, damaging neither. My plan with this vine has been to “let it be” although I did wonder what might happen once stems reached roof eaves and corners of the wall. Now I know: A couple of years ago, stems began to reach around the two corners to start their journey to the other house walls and initially thin stems also began to work their way beneath roof fascia.

The house would look cool thoroughly enveloped in this beautiful, ever-expanding vine, but could the structure handle it? I drew the line, with pruning shears, loppers, extension shears, and ladder, at roof eaves, wall corners, and windows (also threatened), lopping or breaking off errant stems. Climbing hydrangea is just too pretty to remove completely. I can “let it be,” but not too freely.

For the past few weeks, Whenever I sit down to eat I also give an occasional, worried glance at the bare bulb sitting on a plate at the far end of the table. A pointy shoot a couple of inches long pokes out its top. Has it grown longer?
I’m wary because I had this plant once before, decades ago. I knew I could “let it be.” The bulb doesn’t need to be planted! Even without soil, the shoot will stretch upward and then an eerie purple “flower” will unfurl, much like an upside down skirt. Up the center of the flower will rise a long, pointed, purple stalk (which is actually a spadix on which are the true flowers). So far, so good.

The problem is that Amorphophallus, the botanical genus of this plant, is pollinated by carrion insects, and the fully open flower attracts its pollinators by reeking of dead flesh. To spare my very sensitive nose, I have to stand ready to cover the plant’s head in a plastic bag and whisk it down to the basement at the first hint of carrion-ness, just like I did with the plant I had decades ago. Or just lop the head off.

I accepted a recent offer of this plant, which multiplies readily, because it’s so interesting and so attractive, sort of. Once the bulb calms down from flowering, it does need soil, either in the ground in spring or in a pot. Then comes a leaf stalk, pale, olive-green with dark-brown splotches. When the snake-like stalk reaches a couple of feet in height, a single leaf unfurls into three leaflets that spread out like spokes of a wheel. At this stage, the plant is quite attractive and still eerie. 

Last night at dinner, as I was eyeing Amorphophallus, I was enjoying a fresh, very, very local salad; the ingredients travelled 75 feet, from my greenhouse. A welcome crunch to these fall and winter salads is fresh celery.

Celery is not the easiest vegetable to grow. The tiny seeds germinate slowly and take a long time to mature into succulent, crunchy stalks. And then, for best eating the plant topnotch growing conditions: cool, moist soil rich in nutrients and organic matter.

Celery may be difficult, but I can just “let it be.” I don’t even have to plant celery anymore. This winter’s stalks, seedlings from last winter’s stalks, will go to seed as summer approaches. The four to five foot seedstalks will mature in midsummer, then bow their seed-laden heads over and drop seeds to continue the cycle. Seeds sprout late each summer, seedlings thrive in cooling temperatures of autumn, and by early winter -- that is, now -- I have plenty of mature celery that will grow slowly to keep me in stalks until spring. “Let it be, let it be.”