Thursday, September 25, 2008

September garden and Marcia Sward

September is a poignant month. The garden is lush, the food delicious, but there are signs it is about to end. Now is a good time to collect your burlap if you are traditional, or some old blankets or sheets, against that day when a light frost is predicted over night. Throwing them over tomato, pepper or eggplant plants may preserve your crop for a few more weeks, perhaps a month.

We used to have our first frosts in November, but the past two years they have been in October. First frosts tend to occur at the full moon, when the moon's gravity pulls the covering atmosphere away from the earth. The October 2008 full moon is only a couple of weeks away. Today's beauty is fragile.

Malabar spinach and basil are not likely to make it through a light frost. Now is the time to freeze spinach and pesto. If you calculate it right, you can pick the eggplant, tomatoes and peppers just before the first killing frost, and have a frenzy of freezing at that time.

Now is also the time to prepare for winter crops. I sowed some more lettuce seed outdoors today. My lettuce has not been flourishing in recent months, but some is trying. The arugula is wonderful, so we have good salads. Identifying the volunteers in the garden is challenging. Is that green that looks like collards the real thing? I've been coddling some collards, kale, pak choi, and Chinese cabbage in my greenhouse window to supplement that which does not come up on its own. The Chinese cabbage in the cold frame is looking promising for January stir fries.

The poignancy of September seems special this year for two reasons. My own life is joyful and full of good harvests, but we all know what is to come. (Medieval schedules would have me now in December, but I live in the 20th century, so I'm still in September.) A contemporary, Marcia Sward, died on Sunday, making me especially aware of the temporary nature of life. In June she was happily at her daughter-in-law's graduation from medical school, but on July 4 she began her bout with what would turn out to be terminal cancer.

A close friend emailed that she "never wept, complained or looked back. She concentrated on enjoying what life was left and the friends around her." Marcia was the first female executive director of the (national) Mathematical Association of America, and I saw her only twice a year. Yet it was important to me to talk to her over the phone while she was still alive.

She told me happily that her first grandchild will be born this winter. Recently she has been director of a regional Audubon Society. Forgive me if this doesn't seem appropriate in a gardening email, but to me this week, it's relevant. Marcia Sward lived a good life, as my tomatoes and peppers are doing now. Marcia Sward reminds us to cherish life while we have it, in the garden and elsewhere.


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Thursday, August 28, 2008

Raspberry Riches

The second crop of Heritage raspberries is in full swing. What a sense of being rich one has as one nibbles around a raspberry patch!

Its past time to cut out the dead raspberry bushes (no, not by the roots), but there is no great problem if you're late. Dead bushes wait patiently. I keep thinking I've done it, and then find more. This morning three bags were taken away; in Montclair you put them out on recycling day and they go to commercial composting sites. I save the bags in which I have picked up others' grass clippings, so I always have plenty of bags available. That's not a problem. But starting a fifth bag... One was taken last week. Quite a few dead bushes were tucked away in and near the Jerusalem artichokes, with whom the raspberries compete for land. Actually, the strawberries are entering the competition; I guess they are resigned to not having much light since they surely are tiny compared to their two competitors.

Unlike roses, the thorns on raspberries are usually relatively peaceful. I believe last week was the first time in my life that one drew blood. Everything is growing with more passion than usual this year. If you don't remove last year's dead plants (raspberry plants live only one year), picking the fall crop will be unnecessarily prickly, and apparently hazardous. Leaving the roots increases the probability that another plant will rise next year.

I first got the idea of raising raspberries in the spring of 1978 when I was eating lunch in a staff lunch room. My companion was eating a container of raspberries. He told me he had raised them, and said they were very easy to raise. He didn't offer me a single berry, so by the end of lunch, I felt truly raspberry-deprived. I ordered ten plants (the minimum number) from a now-defunct mail-order source, and planted them. They all died.

They were guaranteed, however, so in 1979 ten more arrived without charge. That summer we drove to western Pennsylvania to visit my Great Aunt Ruth Nail in the home where my grandmother grew up on our way to visiting Marie Smilanich in Minneapolis. My pre-teen children picked raspberries in her yard as I had when I was a child and my father had when he was a child. His Uncle John had dug their ancestors out of the Allegheny Mountains before he went to fight in World War I. That summer (1979) Aunt Ruth insisted that my daughter and I go over old photos with her as she labeled them. At the end she said we should take them with us. She died the following January.

More surprisingly, she insisted we take some of the raspberry plants. She packed them nicely for the trip, but all the friends and relatives who were our hosts were astounded when we took them out of the trunk each evening and watered them. "You think they are going to last until you get home?!!!"

They did, and I harvested from their descendents this spring, memories of that home where my family lived for 83 years. Back in 1979, I said to the struggling Heritage raspberries, "Now if they can survive a trip to Minneapolis and back, you can certainly hang on here!" One of the ten survived, and bore some fruit the following spring. It also bore six babies before it died that summer, each of whom had at least five babies, and my raspberry crop had begun. I've given away many and sold them on behalf of various charities.

One out of twenty mail-order Heritage plants survived, and they surely taste wonderful this week. You can buy "Heritage" raspberry plants at many garden centers. Aunt Ruth's raspberries don't have a fall crop, but they are juicer and have a different, luscious taste in the spring.

Another activity which should be done now or a tad earlier is sowing seeds of collards and pak choi for fall and kale and Chinese cabbage for winter. I hope that this strange season will be kind to those of us who are a bit tardy in our planting. It's always time to plant lettuce, but this is an especially auspicious one.


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Saturday, June 21, 2008


Lisa asked for the Italian recipe for collards and wrote, "I like to saute them with onions, garlic, ginger and then add some chopped tomatoes and a little coconut milk- YUM!!"
It was my garbage man who told me he raised collards in East Orange; I had always thought of them as being a Southern crop. However, they thrive in our ecosystem. At first I cooked them with ham ends, which we liked, but then we became vegetarians.
The old Italian recipe, according to more than one open garden visitors, is to brown chopped walnuts slightly in olive oil, stir in washed chopped collards until they droop, turn down the heat, sprinkle some parmesan cheese on top (cheddar will do), and cover for a minute or two. Then serve over brown rice. We happily eat this every three days spring and fall.
I'm going to a series of potlucks this week, and finding it is a hit.
Collards usually volunteer in my garden, but if they don't in yours, you can start them from seed from August to October. They grow well until the holidays, at which point I used to think they died. One year I was negligent and didn't pull them out. They began growing again in March! We eat them again from March into June. They reappear earlier if I cover them in the winter with floating cover.
They are VERY easy to grow, and it seems that woodchucks don't like them. They are delicious when the standard NJ crops aren't available. They don't like frosts below 20 degrees, but we have months when the temperatures are above that but get below freezing. Furthermore, the summer crops take a while to get started after the frosts are gone, and collards are great during that time.
In this food-price-soaring days, I highly recommend collards!

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Friday, May 30, 2008

Start now? Yes!

Several of you have wondered if it is too late to start a garden. Every time is a good time to start a garden! ...unless the ground is too frozen to dig. I just harvested lots of lettuce I planted in January.

Now is much better than January. Tomatoes are amazingly adventuresome, and homegrown tomatoes are vastly better than anything you can buy. Yes, there are still some tomato seedlings on my front steps. (I think about 250 plants have been taken away this year.) You can also plant beans, but I recommend just putting bean seeds into the soil, about 2" apart and 1"-2" deep.

Anything the garden centers are selling is still timely to plant. Deborah Dowe developed a system in Union County of disseminating the left-over plants at the end of the planting season that the gardening centers were going to throw away to children and senior citizens, who derived pleasure from planting and raising the left-over's. I can put anyone who feels a calling to start a similar movement in Essex County in touch with Deborah. Meanwhile, buy anything you see on sale at the gardening centers, and don't worry about it being too late.

The gotcha is your soil. If you have virgin Montclair clay, you have to dig; and that's no small project. "The more organic matter, the better," was the mantra of ORGANIC GARDENING magazine when I was starting to garden. "You can't get too much." I still believe that. If you are starting in Montclair clay, you might be content with tomatoes and beans the first year, although chard or kale might grow too.

Lettuce needs only 6" of good soil, so you might be able to buy enough topsoil or enough compost to mix with your topsoil to get that needed 6" layer. It doesn't take a lot of space to raise lettuce in good soil. Two square feet can produce a reasonable amount, although more is better... up to a point!

If someone has been gardening in your plot within the past 400 years, your beginning will be easier. You won't know until you dig if someone made your ground a thriving Victory Garden in WWII, in which case you're in luck. But even without such luck, you can have a decent garden this year, and a wonderful garden two years from now. Mine was a central milk delivery spot in the 19th century, so it had not been dug before and I hit a cement layer about a foot down that I mixed with the soil for some handy lime. In my third year the soil was almost as fertile as it is now. I double dug spring and fall each of those years. See HOW TO RAISE MORE VEGETABLES THAN YOU EVER THOUGHT POSSIBLE ON LESS LAND THAN YOU CAN IMAGINE by John Jeavons to learn how. However, unless you have plenty of time each day now, you probably want to get started with your tomatoes and beans after a single digging.

Someone wrote about tired lettuce. All lettuce dies in a few weeks, but it becomes spectacular first. "It bolts." If your lettuce isn't thriving, it probably needs more nitrogen in the soil, but six inches will do, as mentioned above. I plant lettuce every 3-4 weeks, so I'm always looking for another spare plot for lettuce.

It's a great year to start gardening. I hope lots of people do!


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Thursday, May 8, 2008

My 50+ Harvests

The May 22, 2008 MONTCLAIR TIMES claimed I raise over 45 edibles in my back yard, and I wrote the following to see whether that was true. It is! Some things thrive better some years than others. Nobody knows why. This was a good year for peppers and basil, but poor-to-bad for parsley and leeks.

1. – 8. I raise at least 8 kinds of cutting lettuce most of the year (including black seeded Simpson, green ice, salad bowl, red salad bowl, red sails, oak leaf, royal oak leaf, and green ice), usually from a blend or two.
9. Arugula
10. Parsley
11. Basil
12. Hakai turnips
13 – 15. Sweet-100, Sun gold, and Burpee Supersteak tomatoes,
16. Peppers
17. Eggplant
18. Cucumbers
19. Celery
20. Yellow beets
21. Malabar spinach
22. Broccoli
23. Green lance
24. Kale
25. Collards
26. Parsnips
27. & 28. Sugar snax and Nantes fancy carrots
29. Zucchini
30. Roma bush beans
31. Pole beans
32. Early corn (the raccoons eat any that ripens in August, but allow me my July crop)
33. Sugar Ann peas
34. Sugar snap peas
35. Jerusalem artichokes
36. Garlic
37. Nasturtiums
38. Strawberries
39. Heritage raspberries (available in garden centers)
40. Raspberries descended from the ones my great uncle took from the Alleghany Mountains before he fought in WW I
41. & 42. Bartlett and Bosque pears
43. & 44. Macintosh and red delicious apples
45. White mid-summer peaches
46. Native plums
47. Arctic kiwi
48. Concord grapes
49 Chinese cabbage
50. Pak choi
51. Leeks
52. Arugula
53. Onions
54. Potatoes and several types of blueberries

No wonder my family enjoys eating so much!


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Sunday, March 9, 2008

How to Start

What an opportunity is presented in the following! "I have never gardened and know nothing about growing things. Can you recommend where to start? I took some kids books out of library on "my first garden". I also signed up for adult school lectures on gardening. The thing I struggle with most is where in the yard to create garden and when to start planting?"

Best wishes! You are in for some real excitement. A garden has two basic needs: sun and soil. You can improve your soil dramatically, but you have to CHOOSE the sunniest place. The main criterion, therefore, in deciding where in your yard to create a garden is to consider the amount of sunlight each part gets. Go out several times a day and notice where the direct sun is shining. It would be prudent to write it down, so you remember and can make intelligent comparisons.

The other decision you must make immediately is how big the garden will be. You have seen mine. It took several years to get to that size. When you start digging, you may change your aspirations on garden size.

To improve the soil, you want to get as much organic matter into it as possible. Around here we have "clay" soil, and as you dig in organic matter, you will loosen the soil. I recommend double digging to get organic matter down into a deep garden. The best instructions I know are in John Jeavon's book "How to Raise More Vegetables Than You Ever Thought Possible on Less Land than You Can Imagine." It's not expensive, and it's well worth the money. In any case, you and your children need to dig your soil and put in as much compost and other organic matter as you can find.

When to start? That depends on when you have the digging done! I planted some Sugar Ann peas today. They are low growing and don't need a fence. You eat the pods, so you get a lot of pea for the area. They aren't as sweet and tasty as Sugar Snaps, but they don't need a fence and they come earlier. Sugar Bon peas are also good and low growing. I'm told you can plant peas throughout April, but I try to get all mine in during March.

The best crop for beginners is tomatoes. Tradition says you should plant them on May 15 in this part of the world, which is the traditional "frost free" date. However, our last frost last year was mid-April, and the two previous years we had no frost in April or May, so you can cheat on that quite a bit. Depending on how ambitious you are, you can buy wall-of-waters and plant tomatoes VERY early. That requires, however, raising them from seed, which a beginner may not want to do. However, since you are enjoying this with children, you may decide that is worth your time. It's exciting to watch seedlings grow. I wrote about starting seeds last week. I recommend sweet 100 tomatoes, but most "cherry" tomato types will be fine for starting early. I wait until the traditional time for the beefsteaks.

The third crop that is good for beginners is beans. Plant them in mid-April, sowing each seed directly in the soil. This is a great activity to share with your children. You can continue to plant beans through July and expect harvests.

If you have a fence or trellis on which you are growing Sugar Snap peas, Malabar spinach is a fine subsequent crop. I suspect I'll have seedlings to give away in late May. (Pea plants die in July, when Malabar takes off.)

If you have lots of sun and compost, zucchini is fun. If you like chard, it will grow; you can plant it in April. Lettuce and arugula can be sown in April, or earlier if you want to fuss. You can continue to plant them until about September. They will turn bitter and die before the season is over, so if you like to keep eating them, you have to keep planting them every few weeks.

Don't plant any root crops, including carrots, your first year. You need really friable soil for root crops to get through, and there is no way you are going to convert Montclair clay to friable soil this spring. If you aspire to grow carrots, double dig every spring and fall, and try them your third year.

If you don't have reasonable sun, don't try broccoli. Lettuce and collards have grown on my compost heap to edible size, so they need remarkably little light. Three years ago I saw a tomato seedling among never-dug dirt in front of my north-facing house. I looked at it in disbelief.

"You stupid thing! Don't you know that tomatoes need sun?" But it kept growing, so I gave it a cage. It bore tomatoes! Not as many as the ones in the back with sun and good soil, but delicious tomatoes. Last year I had almost a dozen seedlings, children of the one that had been there the previous year. So it seems that you can grow sweet-100 tomatoes with little sun, although more is better.

Now is the time to dig. Any other questions?


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