Garden Philosophy

with March anticipation

For the more linear-minded readers: I'm talking about two different things here, intermingled. I'm a person who enjoys a certain amount of data, and working numbers, etc., but I also enjoy feeling the soil beneath my bare feet, and watching for signs of renewed life each spring. SedumDon't lose the forest for the trees. 

There are now roughly seven weeks until the frost-free date I go by, April 20. But let me back up. When I moved to New Jersey after six years in Michigan, I was excited to be in zone 7. Some people said I wasn’t, as the USDA Hardiness Zones hadn’t yet been updated, and if a chart says something, well, the chart must be right forever. Chart bedamned; it was easy to tell right off the bat how things would be. This meant for me mainly that rosemary would live through a winter outside. Now the newer zone guide from 2012 calls the areas I lived in 7(a,) because no matter how you wish to view the world, it's all warmer than it was when the old data was used. To be honest, I already grew everything in Mid-Michigan as though it was zone 6, not 5, and other gardeners there did the same. You don't need a chart to tell you everything is growing for nearly seven months instead of less than six, and that some of the plants aren't dying under the winter snow.* 

Now I’m back in zone 6. For refined delineations, just west of me, it’s 6b; the urban heat island of Cincinnati, similar to the areas I lived in NJ, except a little cooler in winter. Here a mile or two east, they call it 6a. This actually means little to me other than not expecting rosemary to last in the ground all winter, so I pot it and bring it in. It's very rarely below zero, but the cold we do get is sustained longer.* And most outdoor planting starts about two weeks later. My in-ground herbs perform the same each year, lasting much farther into the year than I’m told to expect, coming back earlier in the spring in the same manner, but I don’t plant tender annuals earlier because of that, for a couple reasons. Abovetable

First, the soil is rarely ready to be worked until at least the second week of April. April is so agonizing! I stick a thermometer in the ground and watch the soil slooowwwwlllyy rise to above 50 [10] degrees (today, the pots are at 42 [5.5] and the ground is 40 [4.5]) as it also slowly begins turning workable, for putting in carrots, chard, and green beans. This is significantly different from New Jersey, where the soil is very sandy, and warms much faster in spring, though it is not tillable much sooner. The heavier clay-infused soil here is slow to warm, and I grow so impatient waiting for it, I have taken to more and more container gardening each year. I can start a couple weeks earlier that way with some of the things I grow. But that method usually requires more water.

The other reason is that nights here definitely stay cooler for longer into spring, even when the days are very warm. Peppers, in particular, need warm nights in order to grow well. I have three sweet/bell pepper seedlings already going, and planted six from a hot pepper mix and two peperoncinis yesterday, so they might need time in the little plastic greenhouse before beginning life outside sometime in May.

So anyway. Soil temperature and arability, and night air temperatures are my true keys to starting out well in the garden. Based on previous years, I’ve marked my wall calendar with expected tasks I can get done through March and April, and am getting the greenhouse ready for interim housing.

But that’s all data-based stuff,* and what I’m really doing is watching for signs of renewed life outside. Lemon balm appears first, then parsley and mint. I’m hoping to have success with peas this year; never do seem to get many peas, but when the parsley rises, the planting of peas and onions will inaugurate my season of outside pleasures. Newseedlings

PS: Easter dinner in many places has traditionally featured lamb with peas and pearl onions, and mint sauce. Early potatoes with new parsley, perhaps. The tradition is because that’s the fresh stuff available right at the beginning of spring. It’s neat to think about, though I’ve tended to live in areas where an autumn-cured ham was the end of winter holiday tradition instead, on the table with the new stuff just appearing. Isn’t nature awesome? Primrose

Another PS: Sometimes I dream of living in zone 8. I’d breathe better in winter. But I’d have to give up the Cincy Symphony, Jungle Jim’s, and the awesome Mt. Washington St. Vincent de Paul for it. Would I be willing to? …well, yeah. Near water; I like the nature of people who are friends with the sea. But that's drifting back in time to another topic altogether.

*For people who want more details on USDA chart drawbacks: Snow insulates the ground and also helps soil renewal, so some very cold places actually have warmer and richer soil than you might imagine, and stuff grows marvelously there in summer. In some places, the temperature range is so extreme, what grows well can't be predicted by how things go in January. To name two drawbacks to a chart based on low annual temperatures. Planttable


Full immersion: Garden 2015

This is probably my last full year here. I don't want to talk about that. I just want to make it lovely.

I've got onions, chard, Chinese cabbage, lettuces and peas coming up. Planted purple, yellow, and green beans this weekend, with an interesting radish, and some zinnias. I've brought the tomatoes out and plenty of seedlings to plant in a couple more weeks.

But now is time to look at the fairy garden again. The arch I bought last year is really too large, but I'm going to hang a bird feeder from it; squirrels will have a harder time than with the one on the post. I'm going to line the area with some inexpensive brick or stone instead of the plastic border there now. Add a couple more perennials and another pot or two.

This year, the lemon licorice came back, so it might be ready to stay for good now. It's mingled with the Kentucky Colonel mint, which is fine. There's also a soapwort, a spiderwort, a Japanese fern, a coral bell, and maybe a couple other things will turn up again. For some reason, the artemesia hasn't appeared. I like to plant frosty-looking things in that area, but they need to be able to grow in part shade.

Fullview Soapwort

Turn, turn, turn: weekly photo update

I cut up the eggplant plants today. Yesterday I realized that many of them were overripe, although only a couple were full-sized. So I picked those, might do something with them, might not. They will be bitter if not done right. Sadeggplants

And today I picked all the rest and cut the plants apart. Now the jalapeno and serrano peppers will spread a bit more, and continue on their merry ripening way. Happyeggplants

A couple weeks ago, I counted 16 tomatoes on the forlorn Lemon Boy plant. It was hit first and hardest by the septoria. Before today I'd picked 4, and today I picked 5, so there are 7 left to ripen on its Charlie Brown Tree remains. As soon as they are sugared-up enough, I'll pick the rest, and pull up the plant. Next to it, the septoria has done far less damage; different varieties are more or less prone to it. But all six planted in that area will have a short harvest life. Lemontree

Did you think about how I appear inconsistent in using words or numerals for numbers? Actually, I am not, even though I don't always follow protocol. I do them a bit like books and chapters, albums and songs.

The Royal Burgundy snap beans are the most prolific I have ever grown. This week I'm planting more wax beans, and some Kentucky Wonders, but Royal Burgundy will definitely be back in the spring. Bowl

Indigo Rose tomato plant has done very well, and so has the wild currant tomato. But I am less likely to plant them again next year. I might do the wild currant in a new spot, just for interest. I've picked about a quart of those little guys, but they are more novel than useful for lunch. Indigo

The Cherokee Purple has a few fruits that are just starting to turn. Cherokee
It was kind of an afterthought, and I'll probably skip it next year, as well as the Black Krim. Both are always low-producing for me, and I'll have to focus on heartier, hardy varieties. The Cherokee is hardy but not hearty. If that makes sense. The Krim tends to be neither, although those guys taste amazing. I'll find Rutgers again, and Early Girl, and definitely stick with a Brandywine or two. I haven't decided about the German Queen. It's a gorgeous plant, but also not a high producer, and if I plant fewer plants, I want more fruit from them. The Queens have a little less flavor than the Johnsons, too, although they are still pretty nice, and rather more reliable.

And Mister Stripey, well, I love that guy. He's always hit or miss, but always welcome by me. Hopefully I'll have pictures of what he ripens to next week.

101 days til first frost

This is an all-sorts post. It's going to rain all day and I want to put more poles up for my winter squash, but I'm not sure I won't wait until tomorrow.

I've been reading more about crop rotation and about mixed plantings. Well, mixed plantings work so well for me, rotation becomes something of a crazy puzzle each year. Normally I do figure it out, but have to be extra careful of next year to make sure the leaf spot fungus is thoroughly eradicated. If I owned this space, I'd just expand...

I want to plant some kohlrabi. I could put it where the zucchini are now, or between the two artichokes I grew mainly for corner interest. But I'd planned on my cabbages along that side next year. I could put it up where the lettuce was and onions still are for now, and the remaining lettuce would help keep white flies away. That might be where the in-ground tomatoes need to be next year, with a ton of soil amendment. That spot might not have enough nutrients just now for the kohlrabi.

Or I could put it in where the snap beans and carrots are growing. If I do that, the soil there will require more amending next year than I'd planned, but then I'd put onions there. This might make the most sense.

Then I think I'll plant some more beans where the onions are now, and that will help for putting tomatoes there next year.

Here are some photos I've taken over the past few days. This week will be both good and bad for those tomatoes; cooler air means they won't mourn for all the shelter I've cut away. But they are very soggy right now...











There's just no in-Between

Every year I plant two eggplant plants and harvest 1-3 eggplants. This year I planted three eggplant plants, and flanked them with jalapeno pepper and serrano pepper plants, because I read it's good for their root systems.

I don't know if that's why, but this year so far I've picked a dozen (well, 6 today, so actually about 15) eggplants, there are 15 more still growing, and my boys don't even like eggplant. I am going to make melanzane parmigiana (my mother would pronounce that meelannjohnny,) though, and make them eat it. I'll cook sausage with it. I am aware this is Japanese eggplant rather than Italian, but so what? (What is that it is a little sweeter and requires less drawing out of water.)

I have pretty much gotten the knack of growing only as much zucchini as I can use, but with the eggplants, I'm not certain I can hit the middle ground target. Next year I'll just grow two, though, and still with hot peppers. 


Daily harvest bowls

When I had my community garden plot in New Jersey, I gave myself a nice little tradition of the daily harvest bowl. I have a big red bowl and each day I collected vegetables for it in a peaceful ritual. I do that here, but last year's harvest was so poor and discouraging, I didn't take many pictures as I had the year before. This year, I probably won't have the tomato harvest I hoped for, but everything else is doing well, and today I picked my first bowl of food. It will be another week or two before I can expect to do that every day or most days, but I'm going to tweet pictures of each one, as #dailyharvestbowl

In New Jersey, there was a nearby soup kitchen which accepted fresh food offerings from the community garden, so I dropped something off for it from each of my bowls. I can't do that here, so I'm going to be sure to add something to the Green BEAN bin each week, instead. In summer, I have them mainly bring me extra fruit and things I can't easily grow myself.

I picked snap beans for the last several days, meant to cook a few with potatoes on Friday, but saved them instead, and now there are several full servings to cook at once. They're such bright happy things.

Twine, bamboo, duct tape, and trash

Pretty much all you need for garden construction projects. I remember telling someone how important it is to designate an area where you can keep things you might reuse or turn into something else for the garden, but at the same time, to not let what you save out-measure the space you have for it. If you do that, you probably aren't using it and are one degree closer to having to make paths through your house to get to the bathroom.

It's true of all creative stuff. And things you collect. Designate where these things go. When that area is full, you can't put anymore in until some goes out. Easy peasy. I still have more books than shelves, so I'm working on that aspect, personally.

Recently I put up a bird feeder in the fairy garden, and Theron and I have enjoyed watching a remarkably wide variety of birds come through. There's also a birdbath I constructed in the new flower garden, from a plant stand and a shallow ceramic plant dish, this being half the cost of the cheapest birdbaths available. He helps make sure it's filled, being such a "correct" person, bless his heart.

I didn't mind at first when the squirrels found the bird feeder and knocked all the seed out. Birds just ate it off the ground. But then they tore into the begonias the man planted. And started chewing on the side of the feeder. And generally being the awful little rodents they are. So today I did this:





So we'll see if the wee little devils can scurry up the pole now.

Also, every year I use bamboo poles as much as possible to stake plants, tie things together, and so forth. Bamboo and sugar cane, totally renewable; look for stuff made from them. I constructed these trellises with bamboo and twine for some of the winter squashes. I know one side has delicatas (I bought a "harvest mix" seed packet, so silly, not doing it again,) and there might be a buttercup. These will do just fine on my makeshift operation. If one turns out to be spaghetti squash, as I suspect the giant on the deck might be, that will require some additional thought. The ones I was sure were butternut are in the little sunny center of the fairy garden, and may spread as they please.



The trellises have gigundous tomato poles in the center for support, trying to use less of that material, but at least it does not need to be replaced for a long time, same with my buckets and bins. I figure the key is to make it count, make it work well for you. That includes pretty white duct tape on the back of the birdhouse pole.

An early garden point of view

I get impatient. I want early May to look like mid-June. But there is time enough for that. Maple seedlings are flying just now, and we haven't had most of the spring storms yet, and the nights have just turned officially warm.

People who want life to always look like a catalog page at every stage are people who miss out on a lot of stuff.

Zucchini Onionsisters

I knew I was a gardener. Part Two

This isn't about what happened next. It's raining today. It rained for about 30 hours, then we had a dear lovely reprieve yesterday afternoon, then it started in again. I visited my little green bean row just now, to see how it's getting on. 12 little soldiers, rising from the mud. I haven't yet put in the second row next to them, but that's all right. They grow so fast there's plenty of time for that. I took my chances yesterday and potted some of the sweet peppers to set on the deck. Sweet pepper nights begin next week, but they were tired of their mixing bowl. 20140429_135325

You see, they all started out together in cute little trays. And then they were too big for just their starter cups, so I stuck all them all in a big mixing bowl filled with nice rich soil. That's a garden, right there. But of course, they need more and more room to stretch and grow. They wanted that room now! Yesterday! So I gave it to them. They'll be fine.

I first thought I was a gardener when I found I took real pleasure in growing things in a mixing bowl, using Mama's old blue speckled soup spoon. When I first began using the soup spoon in the garden, I was self-conscious about it, a little. But it's so handy. And knowing my mother, it was probably already ancient when she bought it, so that's neat. I didn't have much money, though, and yearned for nice shiny New Tools, instead of soup spoons, serving forks, and borders made of shells not because they were pretty but because I could just go down the street and pick them up off the beach for free. Shells are good for the soil anyway, by the way.

Only, when I did have money for my super awesome trowel, for a good sturdy yard cart, and for buying a few plants simply because they looked good rather than because I'd get to eat something from them, I found myself still mixing soil the way I might mix a cake. Or soup.

The gardeners at the Lawrence Township Community Garden were largely the same way. Nothing matches. Nothing has to.

Over the past...let's say five years, urban farming has become hip. I'm so glad! But some of them are driven far, far in the other direction. Use absolutely nothing new. Nothing petroleum-derived. Nothing "commercial" at all. To me, that's fussy, and a bit fascisti, at least when they get on the online horn and start telling everyone else to do it any other way is wrong. Let's learn from each other, but not battle each other for superiority. It isn't about that. 4778521658_af94224317_o
This. Is what it's about.

I remember when I was being driven nuts by cooking for my large family with mixing bowls that were never quite large enough or plentiful enough, and excitedly running across some at Dollar Tree for...a dollar each. I got three! Do you think at that time what mattered most should have been why they were a dollar or what they were made of? If so, I'm happy for you that you have never been in that position where they were just the thing you needed. The one I still have, some years later, currently has poncy organic potting soil in it, and four plants I grew from organic "heirloom" seed. It is just as great a thing to use as when I was mixing apple bread in it for young hungry children.

Gardeners are frugal, not just because they often need to be, but because it is so, so satisfying to make something out of nothing. We save all the bits and pieces of things we buy because you never know when you might find a use for something to make a cold frame or string up a lot of cucumber plants, or who knows? I remember feeling so victorious over life because I had all these different colored pieces of embroidery floss tying everything to old bamboo sticks people left in the "dump" area of the community garden. Last week I bought a ball of twine, just because it was there and I could, and it'll work better, but after all, it's just twine. Having been able to buy it will not increase my pleasure in using it. 20140426_094127
Pretty psyched about my new scissors, though.

Here's a tip, while we're on the subject. Save everything you think you might need, but only as much as you have room to keep neatly stored. Next year, if you haven't used it, you didn't need it. Send it on its way.

So I have my beautiful little container garden started on the deck. Off to one side, though, is a large roasting pan full of water, with a ladle in it for careful watering, and an old vinyl tote filled with three different soils from last year's leftover pots. I'll use Mama's soup spoon to mix it up and add fresh nutrients to it.

Today I can't spend much time in the rain. It distresses my chest in its current condition. But that first community garden summer had a long hot period with no rain. Long for New Jersey, where it rains on average every third day. (Partly why it gets to be "The Garden State.") Finally, the sky broke up one day, and I rushed up to my little plot. I raised my hands to the sky and rejoiced in the moisture bathing the earth. I pulled weeds! I found myself laughing and laughing, hugging the world to my heart. And I knew then for certain, that for all the rest of my days, I am a gardener. 20140424_174441


I knew I was a gardener. Part One.

I discovered it almost too late. Perhaps it's best I didn't have the chance earlier, to sign up for a garden space at the Lawrence Community Garden. It would have hurt even more to leave it. I had a season and a half there, when if only I'd known, it could have been three and a half. But the time I spent there taught me I was a real gardener.

I learned early on that experts say it takes five years to really establish a garden. My first big garden became self-sustaining in its fourth year, the year I left it behind. A similar pattern has developed over the years, and so I know I can do it in three. The fourth year, if I get to have one, is the Big Payoff. But I can't count on that. So in my third season in Lawrence, New Jersey, I waited eagerly all winter to sign up for a 400 square foot plot about three miles from our house, and on sign-up day, I arrived early. Not knowing how it all went, I ended up fourth in line, but that was a good thing, because the man in front of me told me the person who'd had number 48 was giving it up, and that was prime real estate for me to take hold of. So I paid my twenty dollars and went for it.

Delays in plowing and tilling meant, however, that we didn't have the month of April to set things up for ourselves and put in early crops. The plots weren't ready until May 1. For weeks, I kept my little plants in flexible vinyl 5 gallon buckets, agonized over how I'd arrange my space, and often drove to the garden field to have a look at the flat, untouched canvas. These aren't allotments people can keep for themselves year-round. Only annuals must be planted, only temporary trimmings must be added. People do sign up for the same plot or plots each year, and newcomers who miss out on the few open spots are put on a waiting list.

Finally, the twenty by twenty spaces were marked with numbered stake and strings, and the fun and work began. 4777558511_f6c936113d_o

Everyone did things in their own way, and their personalities were on display through the plants and crops they chose, the equipment they used, and how they decorated their space, if at all. One woman had her husband help her arrange a space much like a back patio of a house she might once have enjoyed. It had two rocking chairs, a bird bath, flower pots, and a few rows of things like peas and beans. One man grew a solid  square of nothing but tiny chili peppers.

There were two wells, equidistance from my lovely spot, and that was where people met and talked. But just as with any other group setting, there were talkers and there were those who never said much at all. Most of the gardeners were quiet people.

In my own space, I laid out my inexpensive ceramic floor tiles. 4778196968_016620e5da_o

I say inexpensive because they'd been imported from Italy and laid in a kitchen I got to enjoy for a short while, and when we moved across the state, I brought the extras with me. I laid them in an X-formation so that I had four triangles of growing space to define, but between them, my daughter planted many Cosmos seeds so that by the middle of summer, the center was lush and golden and surrounded by bright red and green vegetables. I grew several varieties of tomatoes. Nine perfect cabbages. Lots of peppers, zucchini, green beans, and winter squash. A Caribbean man showed me how to sow a few potatoes he gave me. People watched my space with curiosity, and some of them told me I owed my initial success to the previous occupant. I don't know what they said about me to the person who took it over in 2012. But I do know I worked hard at it, and felt completely at peace and "at one with the world" whenever I was there.

Sometimes we worked hard side by side, watering or weeding or shoring up big tomato plants. The most interesting part of it to me was wandering around to see what others were doing with their own spaces. Some had two, which seemed wondrous and a little terrifying to me. I know if I was still there, though, I'd have snagged the space connected to mine the moment I could.

No one batted an eye to see me ladling water from my 5-gallon buckets with a soup ladle, or tying my acorn squash plants to the outside of the little fence I'd created around my space. At first, I imagine they thought I was just there for the look of the thing with my cute fence and tiles and series of found object sculptures I used to decorate the front of it. The guy opposite the little road from me was very serious with his straw and homemade fertilizer. The woman across the little path on the front side spent ages putting down newspaper to keep weeds at bay where we walked, and had a fussy, nervous disposition. I remember the only thing that really bothered me while I was there was watching a family who had gone in on four plots together (we were allowed two at the most,) plant their entire area with soybeans. That seemed awfully commercial, and as a rule-follower, this niggled at me. But near that area someone set up a long table with bins on it so that we could give extra produce to the Trenton Soup Kitchen. It brought me great joy to bring a percentage of everything I picked over there so that someone else could eat it, too. I got to help feed people!

Everything had to be taken down or apart by November 15. The next year we were able to start two weeks earlier, but I had to abandon it all in mid-July to move 600 miles west. I don't know if the help I asked for in bringing in a harvest to give away was actually followed through on, and in August, that area was hit with huge amounts of rain, and flooded twice. By then, I was learning how to dig through clay so I could put in winter squash plants I'd brought with me in buckets in order to have something to show for the season.

More after I'm composed for it, and have tended to my morning garden tasks.
There will always be weeds to pull.