Category Archives: General Gardening

A Lackluster Spring

(To those who follow my blog,  I apologize for being away for so long. Late summer, fall and winter was a time of some health issues that took my focus from writing. But I’m thankful for those who still view the site (100 or more views a day) and I’m back!)

This has been a terrible year for spring flowers.

In December we had temperatures in the 70’s and this caused the lilacs to start to bud. But the cold of January brought an end to the budding and the lilacs this year are a bust.

March was a warm month and all of the shrubs and bulbs started to grow. It looked like it was going to be a great season of early blooms but then came April with nighttime temperatures in the lower 20’s. Anything that had started to blossom was damaged and only the toughest of the daffodils survived the cold. The magnolia bush had started to bloom but the cold destroyed them.

peonyThe plant that I find the most interesting throughout this weird weather is the tree peony. By late March the plant was filled with leaves and buds. When the freezing nights of April came, I thought the plant would never recover but it did. A few of the buds opened but all of the rest of them just stayed there in a state of suspended animation.

It’s now the middle of May and the peony is green, bushy and heathy and still covered with buds that have yet to open. Recently I pulled a few of the buds off and cut them in half to see what was going on.

IMG_2222When cut open, I could see the stamens (male reproductive organs) and the pistil (female reproductive organ) of the peony but instead of being firm and health, they were soft and damaged. It’s clear that the cold weather injured these parts of the flower. Since the development of the flower depends on plant growth regulators that are produced by these organs, their impairment meant that flowering wasn’t going to happen. A few buds escaped the damage but most weren’t so lucky.

Yes, this spring was a bust. The weird weather caused all sorts of chaos for the flowering shrubs and bulbs. Flowers are one of the most fragile parts of a plant and this year was too much for them. The good news is that the plants are all fine and will live on to reproduce again another year. I have hope of seeing lilacs, magnolia, tree peonies and spring bulbs all flowering again – next year.

My Little Lettuce Chuppah

I’ve always grown lettuce but for me, it’s been a spring crop. I never tried growing it in the summer or attempted to keep a constant supply of lettuce coming from the garden.

But this year, I decided to try a serious lettuce growing program.

To start, I knew that I needed a mixture of seeds, some that are better in the spring, others for the summer and still others for the fall. On my own, it would have taken a lot of time and effort to search through all of the lettuce varieties and determine which ones to grow. Fortunately, Johnny’s Seeds has developed a head lettuce planting program that lists the best varieties for each season.

I also knew that I needed a location to grow the lettuce that would be easy to control, water and monitor. So I made a 4’x4′ raised bed and divided it into 9 squares. That’s a little larger than the square foot gardening technique, but I liked that it would give the plants a little more room to grow.

IMG_9811I also wanted to provide some shade to the plants. Since I had already put stakes at each corner and wrapped the bed with chicken wire, I had the framework to attach some cloth to the top of the bed. I stretched wire to each diagonal post to make an “X” across the top of the bed. Then I put a piece of floating row cover over the top and attached it to the posts. The end result looked like a little chuppah (!), but it would give the plants some shade while still allowing me to access the bed for watering, weeding and harvesting.

I chose four different kinds of lettuce from Johnny’s program for the summer growing season. I figured that two summer crisps (Muir and Cherokee), a butterhead (Adriana) and a romaine (Costal Star) would give me a good mixture of plants to see which grew the best in the lettuce chuppah. Since lettuce can have thermal dormancy (seeds don’t germinate at high temperatures), I didn’t direct seed the lettuce; instead, I started seeds inside in Jiffy-7s.

Lettuce Bed with Knife Ready for Harvesting!

Lettuce Bed with Knife Ready for Harvesting!

I’ve been starting seeds every 2 weeks and planting four plants to a square in the raised bed. So far, it’s working well. This has been a wet and somewhat cool summer so the plants haven’t been stressed by heat or drought. I’ve started to harvest some of the first plantings and the lettuce is good.

Will this success continue? Time will tell. Warmer days are ahead and we’ll see if the plants bolt or turning bitter. Also, in August I’ll stop starting seeds of the summer varieties and switch to a couple fall varieties of lettuce.

If this experiment continues to work, that little 4’x4′ bed with its chuppah covering might just be the way to keep a steady supply of lettuce coming in from the garden. I could start in the spring and keep planting through early fall using the nine squares to grow lettuce all season long.

To Till or Not to Till – That Is the Question

A couple of months ago I read Jeff Lowenfels’ Teaming with Microbes. This book describes the microbiome of soil and the various living organisms that make up a healthy garden soil. He outlines the bacteria, fungi, archaea (organisms that were first classified as bacteria but later classified as a separate group of prokaryotes in 1977 – a new class of organisms to me!), arthropods, insects, and worms that are all a part of a healthy soil system. With all of this life going on under the surface of the soil, it got me thinking about how I garden.

Like a lot of gardeners, I’ve always assumed that you needed to have a nice, soft, fluffy bed of soil in order to plant seeds and grow plants. In order to achieve this, it means using a rototiller every spring to stir up the soil in order to create this desired texture.

But Lowenfel got me wondering if this is really necessary or even beneficial. There aren’t many farmers that plow their fields like they used to in the past – they just plant directly into the soil without any preparation. So could it be that this no-till approach is something that I should consider in the garden? After exploring a lot of sites devoted to soil and rototilling, I’ve come to the conclusion that there are some pros and cons to tilling the garden.

 

TroyponyThere are benefits to tilling:

  • It can break up heavy, compacted soil.
  • Large amounts of organic matter can be incorporated into the soil to improve its texture and tilth.
  • Tilled soil dries out and warms up more quickly in the spring.
  • If the soil’s pH needs to be adjusted, tilling distributes the lime, aluminum sulfate or sulfur throughout the soil and lead to an even adjustment of the pH.

 

 

There are also problems that tilling causes:

  • no-rototillerStirring up the soil disturbs communities of microorganisms as well as shredding earthworms.
  • The incorporation of a lot of oxygen into the soil leads to a rapid breakdown of organic matter and the release of a lot of CO2.
  • While tilling will kill surface weeds, it brings buried weed seeds to the surface where they can germinate and grow.
  • Quicker drying in the spring means that there’s less water in the soil later in the season.

I had always thought that you needed to till in order to open up the soil and allow for easier water absorption and root penetration. But I now see that in a healthy soil, decaying roots, tunnels created by worms and the hypha of fungi all provide avenues to allow water to enter the soil. Also roots are strong and while they can’t break through a hard dead-pan, they can easily make their way through the average soil.

Many think that fertilizer or compost needs to be mixed into soil in order for the plant to be able to absorb the nutrients. However, this isn’t the case. The majority of feeder roots of plants are close to the surface and the natural process of leaching will bring the needed nutrients to the plants. Side dressing plants with compost or fertilizer will work well and limit the amount of wasted fertilizer.

After a lot of reading, research, and thinking, I’m moving in the direction of not tilling. This year I left a couple of beds untilled to give it a try. I find that the untilled beds have more moisture in the soil than the tilled ones. While the soil might not warm as quickly, here in south central PA, untilled soil warms quickly enough. When I planted seeds, I just used a hoe to loosen the soil a little and the seeds germinated well.

The biggest challenge to planting in untilled soil was a mental one. I’ve come to expect that garden soil should be as loose and fluffy as a bag of potting mix. It seemed a little strange to plant in soil that was more firm and dense. So far, the plants don’t seem to mind the difference so this is probably something that I need to get over!

Now don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying that I’ll never till again. If I was preparing a new site for a garden, I’d till the soil. If I planned to add a lot of compost or peat to the soil, I’d till it in. If I had pH issues, I’d rototill the lime or sulfur into the soil. And if this no-till experiment doesn’t work, I’ll certainly go back to using the rototiller.

But for now, no-till gardening seems like a good idea. It preserves the communities of life within the soil. It appears to maintain soil moisture better. And let’s face it – it’s a whole lot easier!

So, to till or not to till? The question is still open, but I’m going to see how the not-to-till option works for me.

The Vegetable Garden 2015 – A Late Start and an Early Start

This could turn out to be an interesting year in the vegetable garden.

I planted some cool weather crops like broccoli. kale, collards, onions and lettuce back in April, but the weather was a little too cool even for them. They sat in the ground in a sort of suspended animation and did nothing for a number of weeks. During this time, there was also a really cold night that nipped the brassicas and set them back even further. Add to all of this that there hasn’t been very much rain and the whole spring garden seems to have gotten off to a very late start. Only now are these plants starting to grow and get settled into their place in the garden.

But as is often the case, a slow, cold spring suddenly changes into summer within a day or two.

May 1st - Vegetable Garden Planted

May 3rd – Vegetable Garden Planted

In early May that sort of change occurred. Temperatures were in the 70’s and even crept up into the 80’s. Here in south-central PA the frost-free date is around May 15th. But this year, when I checked the Accuweather forecast, I could tell that the frost-free day for 2015 was going to be much earlier. It was May 1st and there was no sign of a cool down in the coming two weeks.

I also noticed something happening in the garden. Volunteer seedlings of squash and tomatoes were starting to pop up in the beds. While I’ll be hoeing out these plants since they’re little more than weeds, they served as a sign to let me know that the soil had warmed enough to allow them to germinate.

With the soil warm and the temperatures safe, I planted most of the warm weather vegetable garden on May 3rd. I transplanted tomatoes, sowed seeds of beans, cucumbers and summer squash.

My early planting seems to have paid off. The squash and beans are germinating, the tomatoes are fine. The only negative is that I had to water some of the plants – that’s unusual in May but until we get some real rain, I think I’ll have to continue doing it.

This year, the peas and broccoli might be later than usual, but I’m likely to have beans and summer squash much earlier than other years. I guess that’s the trade-off with having a late start with cool weather plants and early start with warm weather plants!

Mycophilia – For the Love of Fungi

While climatologically it has been the warmest winter since they’ve been keeping records, here in PA it’s been a cold winter with a very slow transition into spring. I haven’t been able to do very much work in the garden.

downloadBut snuggled in the house, I’ve been doing some reading. One of the books that has fueled my imagination is Mycopilia: Revelations from the Weird World of Mushrooms by Eugenia Bone.

While reading this book, I realized how little I think of fungi and how little I know about them. In college, fungi were a small part of botany class and in plant pathology we learned about the fungal diseases of plants. But I never realized how ubiquitous fungi are. Fungi are the second largest group of organisms (insects are the largest).

I was amazed to learn that fungi are a class of organisms that, while they look like plants, are more closely related to animals. The cell walls of fungi are made of chitin, the substance that makes up crab shells and isn’t found in plants. Fungi store carbon as glycogen, not starch, just like animals. And the ribosomal RNA of fungi is 80-85% the same as our rRNA. I’ll never look at a mushroom or spot of mold in the same way now that I know these organisms are more animal-like than plant-like.

When I think about soil, I knew that there are fungi in it, but my focus has always been on the bacteria in soil that break down organic matter. While the bacteria are important, the fungi are the real workhorses of rot and decay. Mycophilia has made me want to learn more about the role of fungi in healthy soil.

As a word lover, I also appreciated some of the new words that I learned from this book. My two favorites are mycoremediation and entheogenic mushrooms. Mycoremediation describes the technique of using fungi to break down specific waste in the environment. Who knew that fungi could break down oil? Entheogenic means “to create god within” and is used to define hallucinogenic mushrooms that are used to create a spiritual experience. I doubt I’ll ever be able to work these words into a conversation, but I like them none the less!

This book can be a little tedious at times when Bone is name dropping and describing her travels to hunt mushrooms. But despite this, the book is filled with information about mushrooms and fungi. Mycophilia hasn’t inspired me to start foraging for mushrooms or to try to have a mushroom-fueled entheogenic experience (maybe I can work this word into conversations!), but it has sent me on a quest to learn more about this amazing and mysterious group of organisms. That alone make this book worth reading.

 

The Slowest Spring

I find that recently I haven’t had much inspiration to post on this blog. I’m not sure what that’s all about but I think part of it has to do with the weather – at least that seems like a good excuse!

Oak in Bloom

Oak in Bloom

After a cold and long winter, spring has come but it’s taking it’s time to fully arrive. There have only been a couple of days in the 70’s and the nights have been cool. All the plants in the garden seem to be in slow motion. I’ve only had to mow the lawn a few times; the perennials are just coming out of their winter dormancy; asparagus is just now ready to be cut.

A local garden writer whose ideas and opinions I respect posted that we’re about three weeks behind where we usually are at this time of the year. That seems about right – it feels more like mid-April than early May.

Now I know this will change. The forecast for the coming days does show a bit of a warm up and it looks like we’re past the point of having any more frost. But I’m still holding off on planting a lot of things, especially vegetables. While the onions and lettuce are doing well, the soil is still too cold to plant beans and summer squash. I could plant peppers and tomatoes but I know that if I did, they’d just sit in the ground waiting for warmer weather.

So I’m taking my time with planting and letting Mother Nature be the one who decides when I can plant the rest of the garden. It might be a while but the time will come.

Hardwood Bark Mulch Season

I don’t know if this is the case in the rest of the country, but here in south central PA, you know it’s spring when the bark mulch starts to be delivered and spread. I don’t ever remember seeing this mulch until I moved to PA. Here, bark mulch is ubiquitous. Every suburban house, every shopping center and every institution with landscaped grounds uses this brown mulch.

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I have to say that it does make beds and borders look neat and clean and it does a good job of preventing weed growth. There can be a few fungi problems like artillery fungus (Sphaerobolus), stinkhorn (Mutinus caninus), bird’s nest fungus (Cyathus olla) and slime molds (caused by a variety of fungi), but they’re just saprophytes breaking down the bark and living off of it. Personally I’ve never had a big problem with any of them. (This summer I’ll try to capture some pictures of these various fungi if and when they appear).

Over the years of mulching, I’ve learned a couple of tricks that make the job a lot easier.

In years past I wouldn’t put down the mulch until late May. By that time perennials has started to grow and annuals had been planted. There were weeds that needed to be pulled and it was hard to get the mulch around the plants. A lot of time was spent on my hands and knees working the mulch under the leaves of various plants.

One year I spread the mulch earlier (I don’t remember why) but since then, I always try to finish the yard by mid to late April. At this time in the growing season there are few if any weeds to pull. The perennials are just coming up so you can sprinkle the mulch on top of them and they’ll grow right through it. And as far as annuals, I just mulch the beds where they’ll be placed and plant them later, carefully pulling the mulch aside as I plant.

There is one down side to spreading mulch early – the soil won’t warm up quite as quickly. But in my mind, that’s a small price to pay in order to make mulching easier. Also, any effect it might have appears to be minimal.

Manure Fork

Manure Fork

The other “mulch miracle” that I’ve found is a manure fork. This tool is available in any hardware store. It usually has five tines and is the best way to scoop mulch into a wheelbarrow and the greatest tool for spreading mulch. The tines make it easy to scoop up the fibrous mulch (unlike a shovel) and the fork allows you to place the mulch were you want it or to sprinkle a layer over a large area.

What used to take weeks now takes days thanks to mulching earlier and using a manure fork. Seven scoops of mulch are spread and I have to say it looks nice. Now it’s really spring since the mulch is in place – I guess I’ve become a true Pennsylvanian!