Thursday, September 30, 2010

A sunny day

I remember a delightfully sunny day. Ah, yesterday! Predicted were two days of steady storms, so I spent it all outdoors. I'm glad the prediction wasn't completely accurate.

I did the expected things for a sunny day in the middle of lots of rain. I picked raspberries and small tomatoes for two days' consumption, at least. I mowed the lawn. So did Green Harmony Now, and they delivered wonderful, organic, fresh grass clippings. I love running my fingers through them! I did lots of mulching with them while it was so much fun. That involved a certain amount of weeding in non-garden, non-lawn places in the hope that it will remain weed-free for a significant time.

Much more emotional, I took out the unsatisfactory tomato plant. I needed counseling and a hug from Fred first. I don't think I have ever killed a mature, live tomato plant before -- but its tomatoes go directly from green to rotten, so I gulped and did it. My daughter assures me that the role of a gardener is selection, bless her.

I thought that the nearby eggplant and pepper plants thanked me. Fred doubts this, but they seemed so grateful not to have the embracing arms of a sprawling plant over them! It took FIVE little black pails to take all of that one plant to the compost heap.

My mourning is odd because I counted I have over 30 tomato plants this year,
including the volunteers in the front yard (of our north-facing house) and the compost heap (under the trees in the back). Why feel worried about removing one? It isn't like that poor little rabbit last seen diving under the neighbor's fence where the owner chasing the dog who had just broken his leash couldn't follow. I miss "my" rabbit, but that's understandable.

I must count carefully the number of eggplant and basil plants I have this year and raise that many from seed next year. The plants from the garden centers are not as satisfactory, although they aren't failures like that volunteer tomato plant. We ate our first dinner of yellow eggplant this week, and couldn't distinguish the taste or texture from that of purple eggplant. But if not picked, the eggplants rot when they are only 3" in diameter, so those I grew from seed are far more food-providing.

The garden center basil has MUCH smaller leaves than those I raised from seed. I think it is called "mammoth" basil. I picked one leaf yesterday that was at least 3" long and almost as wide, and this is much easier to prepare for pesto than the basil from bought seedlings. Furthemore, the latter go to seed lots, and I must be continually picking off the tops. I have the time now, but raising mammoth from seed is well worth the time of busy gardeners.

I was glad to get out and distribute some more grass clippings in a pause today, but I'm glad that sun is predicted to return this weekend. Not that we can trust that -- or ever could. But we all know climate change has changed all the rules about weather.

Enjoy indoor activities, maybe slipping out between the drops!


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Saturday, September 25, 2010

3 miscellaneous responses

-- A Master Gardener at Rutgers Extension Service says they recommend taking in tropical houseplants on Oct. 15, which makes sense to me. This doesn't mean that NJ veggies will die.

-- Someone writes he has lots of cat's mint in his back yard, but it doesn't seem to discourage woodchucks from scampering over it to the goodies in his vegetable garden.

-- Another reminded me of another woodchuck deterrent that is available only to men and has the same disadvantage as human hair; it must be done again after every rain (from the clouds).


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Thursday, September 23, 2010

#3 on woodchucks

Pepper writes that she thinks that fever few and cat mint deter woodchucks. She plants them around her garden. They thrive in either full or partial sun, and also under one of her trees.

Someone else wrote that she also had been told by an expert that Irish Spring soap keeping deer away is just a myth, but she uses it with success as I do. Bartletts has used it to effectively prevent disaster with their spring bulbs.

Another wrote, "I heard Epson salt is good for the plants as well as keeps woodchucks away. The only problem is, if it rains, you will need to reapply."

This reminds me that my first effort to keep woodchucks out of my garden was human hair. The nice woman who cuts my hair at Illusions would keep the hair on the floor of their beauty parlor separate from the other sweepings, and I'd go frequently to pick it up.

It worked, but had to be renewed after every rain -- a LOT of work! -- and I thought it looked incredibly ugly. So I hired the pest removal man and then entered into my own catching stage.

My daughter and I both had woodchuck damage for 6-8 weeks this spring, which cost me my broccoli crop and many peas, but then they seemed to have moved out. It makes sense that they are especially hungry after their long winter's nap. Maybe I'll try human hair for just a while this spring to get some broccoli. I could stand it that long... I think.

Long live humans!


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Wednesday, September 22, 2010

When first frost?

Someone just asked when is the first frost in our area. This is a more complicated question than it might appear.

Three years ago, I would have answered, "mid to late November."
However, both last year and the year before we had a light frost in October that killed first the Malabar spinach, then another that killed the basil and some tomatoes. The "killing frost" that did in the tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant waited until November. I did cover them with burlap when the October frosts were predicted, so that helped -- but it won't work forever!

I heard an old farmers' tale decades ago that seems to be a good predictor. The first frost usually comes with a full moon. The Bartletts have found this to be usually true too. I assume it's because the gravity of the moon pulls the atmosphere away from the earth, leaving the growing things on the surface without the blanket they have at other times of month. That's my idea; I haven't read it anywhere. I think the scientific community doesn't believe in this old "myth," but the fact that the Bartletts have observed it to be usually true over a much longer period than I've been gardening suggests there is some validity to it.

Anyway, if low temps are predicted and it's full moon or near it, I take out those pieces of burlap I keep handy in the garage.

Perhaps I should add that lettuce and fall greens usually thrive until the holidays. I sowed some lettuce seeds within the past week. It surely seems unlikely today that we could have frost in a month, but life is full of surprises.


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Monday, September 20, 2010

Woodchucks again + deer

One of you wrote to me in response to my afternoon email:
Please inform your devoted followers that Euphorbia lathyris (splurge) is poisonous and should be handled with gloves. I would not plant it where there are small children. Throw the berries in the groundhog burrows.

Another forwarded a web piece that says it is native to southern Europe, northern Africa, and Asia, and is invasive when it gets to this continent.

Trina writes that she can catch woodchucks without bait simply by blocking other exits to their hole. I think I've done that too.

Another writer said the more she caught, the more that came, corroborating my experience.

My daughter, who teaches gardening classes, says they installed a "woodchuck ready" fence, bought for that purpose, and dug the recommended foot below the surface, and the woodchucks CHEWED or CLAWED through the fence and came into the garden!

Jose of Green Harmony Now offered to build me a fence, but he hasn't had any woodchucks in his own garden yet (at 69 Grove Street!), and he didn't brag about how successful he has been with installing woodchuck fences. Have you been successful, Jose?

Jean protested that I haven't said how pretty the flowers are. Come to think of it, I haven't seen any flowers -- or berries either. Since my strong neighbor helped us remove the largest plant because neither Fred nor I could do it, I have been removing them before they are full-grown. Where did all these young 'uns come from? Hm...

It reminds me of my biologist cousin, with top credentials, insisting that Irish Spring soap deterring deer is "only a myth." But I had one devastating visit and since I put the soap around the garden, none have returned, even though some have been seen in our front yard.

Life is puzzling, and that certainly includes gardens.


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Woodchucks (aka. Groundhogs)

Woodchucks, also called "groundhogs," have been the worst garden pest for me by far. Since I have received a number of pathetic appeals for help recently, I will devote an entire email to them.

I had none when I started gardening here 32 years ago, and for quite a few years thereafter. I remember hearing about their destruction in central Jersey with some skepticism, which now prods feelings of guilt. Then they arrived here.

It was more than 12 years ago because I my father was still alive. I asked him what his father had done about woodchucks. I still remember his answer with shock. His father was the supervising principal of the Middlesex Township public schools of Cape May County, traveling far and wide to lead many one-room school houses in those days before busses. Yet he raised the family's vegetables in Cape May Court House, as all good fathers did in those days.

- "He had me shoot them," my pacifist father said with downcast eyes.
- "What! You used a gun?!" He nodded, found out.
He had never joined my mother's relatives in their sport of hunting, and I sensed disapproval as they reported their adventures, although he did join in eating the hunting harvest.

Today's gardeners can't use that method of checking our wildlife. It's against the law. So at first I hired a pest exterminator. We paid him $75, and he didn't catch any. Then I bought my own woodchuck-sized cage. At first we were as successful as the exterminator, but then Trina told me you can catch them if you put the cage with bait just outside their hole, blocking any other escape, so as they come out hungry, they don't notice they are walking on metal. I used Jerusalem artichoke leaves and caught many. One can, of course, use anything they eat in your garden for bait if you have something left.

It didn't seem to decrease the number of woodchucks. There were more and more, as I caught more and more. At the July 2008 Open Garden the topic of woodchucks came up, as by then it always did. Jean Blum said she had trouble until she got a plant from a gardener in central NJ that seemed to keep woodchucks out of the garden. She offered me some, and in August 2008 I planted three around my yard. I had no noticeable woodchuck damage for ten months.

Then I had by far the worst of my gardening career. I've had essentially no broccoli the past two years, and before that it was a winter mainstay after I ate and froze lots in the warmer weather. I would harvest it until Christmas.

Last year my peas were almost non-existent. The woodchucks not only ate the peas, but tore down the vines so neither they nor we would get more! This year I have had a decent crop, but not like before. I started Sweet-100 tomato plants in January, and put them with the peas to climb up the fence. I harvested decent peas where the tomato plants protected them. I tried the same with pac choi with no discernable success. I guess next year I will have LOTS of tomatoes. (Not that I don't this year, but I like tomatoes.)

Meanwhile, last August (2009) we hired Keil's Construction Company to replace our garage floor since we had seen them burrowing through in many places. That seemed to stop the woodchucks for another 10 months.

There was much less damage this year than last. The euphorbia (the official name for the anti-woodchuck plant) has been prolific, and perhaps that helps.

However, now it is VERY prolific and I spend an amazing amount of time tearing it out. Since I'm retired, it's okay; I prefer doing this to having woodchucks wreck havoc with my garden. However, I hesitate to recommend it because it is so invasive and there are other variables that may have caused my decreased woodchuck damage this year. Also, I still lost my broccoli.

Last week Pepper left me a perennial plant that she claims woodchucks don't like and isn't invasive. Can you give up its name, Pepper?
Perhaps I should cautiously share some of my euphorbia with those who beg if they assure me they know it is very invasive. Someone told me that Plock' sells it under the name of "mole plant" because it deters moles. Others assure me that there are 2000 varieties of euphorbia, and my eyes and knowledge don't support finding more details of the name. I'll spread the word if someone who thinks they know tells me the complete name.

Gardening is still satisfying and healthy for me, but writing this emphasizes how truly we are all "beginning gardeners."


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Monday, September 13, 2010

Open Garden Report

I had a wonderful time at Saturday's Open Garden, and I gather most of the other hosts did too. It is wonderful to bathe in communication with so many good people! About 60 came through my back yard, and many more enjoyed the butterfly tent in the front.

We seemed to have an unusually sociable group of 40-60 butterflies. Trina would open the tent flap, and offer the butterflies an opportunity to fly freely, but a remarkable number would sit, apparently happily, on children's fingers. Some remained so long, I wondered if they were injured, but eventually they took off and went far, far upward! They seem to like children's fingers, and the children clearly like them.

In the back yard I fielded many questions. Probably the most common was, "My garden and my neighbors' looks so dry. Why is yours so lush?

I think there are two answers. One is the as-thick-as-possible grass mulch that covers my vegetable garden. The other is the organic matter in the soil that holds water for a long time. I described double digging, which you can learn (as I did) from John Jeavon's book, "How to Have More Vegetables than you ever thought possible on less land that you can Imagine." It's in the Montclair public library. When I started gardening, I double dug spring and fall for three years, and then the soil was as friable as it is now.

This led to the question, "Aren't you afraid of the poisons on the grass clippings?"
"Yes, I think they are terrible. Please see the display about Safe Lawns Montclair (or its website), which is working to abolish them in Montclair. They are totally against the law in the entire province of Quebec. The lawns there look just as lush as ours." Then a discussion would ensue about unpoisoned lawns in Montclair, including one on Upper Mountain Avenue. We old timers told about the beautiful lawns before lawn chemicals became available.

Then I would tell about how dramatically my health improved after a few years of eating my own fresh, organic food. The short story is, "The garden is good for me, even with the poisons. I'm sure it would be better without." Later that day Jose, president of Green Harmony Montclair landscaping service, offered to bring me poison-free clippings. Whoopee!

"Do you turn your compost heaps?" No, I did at first, but that has lost its charm. My heaps turn to compost in a few months in the summer, and more slowly in the winter. I have plenty of compost.

"Do you water your compost heaps?" No

"Do you use bio starters?" No, I put weeds in the compost heap, and apparently the soil on their roots provides enough microbes to get the composting going.

"Why do you have all that soap around?" It keeps away the deer. Last year I had one devastating night in the spring, and I assume it was deer. I've heard that Irish Spring soap keeps deer away, so I sent Fred out for some and he immediately bought an 8-pack. Since then I've had not apparent deer damage in my garden, although some deer have been seen in my front yard.

"Why don't you water your lawn?" Mostly because I think I have better things to do with my life. However, the world is having a water crisis, and it makes sense to get into habits of not wasting it.

"What do you do about woodchucks?" That's worth an entire email, which I hope will get written within a week.

Happy gardening!


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Wednesday, September 8, 2010

What you can see in Saturday's open garden

My refrigerator is sufficiently well stocked with fresh raspberries that I can abstain from taking more until the Open Garden this Saturday from 2-4 PM. Barring an untimely visit from purple grackles, that will leave plenty for delicious nibbling by (at least) early guests. Take only those that are dark and ripe, and come off the vine easily! The almost-runs will be my treat on Sunday.

In the garden you can see impressive tomatoes (if I may be allowed some gardener braggadosio), eggplants, peppers, basil, carrot plants, celery, parsley, and just-planted-out pak choi, kale, collard, and Burpee's two-season Chinese cabbage, among other things. The last is in my cold frame, available for $325 from Johnny Seeds, so you can see where I will be picking in January. Oh, yes, and there is the Malabar spinach, pretty on the fence, but not yet providing free seeds.

See you Saturday!


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Friday, September 3, 2010

Eggplant, grass clippings, euphorbia

The will of living things to continue living is impressive. I pulled a large euphorbia (also called "anti-woodchuck plant" or "mole plant") out of the middle of my garden this week and saw a stunted eggplant plant there. It didn't get much sun, and it was competing for nourishment from its roots, but it didn't give up. It was about half as tall as its siblings, but there it was, looking healthy! Its most mature siblings have been giving me delicious eggplant parmesan for two weeks now, and they are really beginning to "come in."

Inspired by that, I planted out today the runts of the eggplant litter that I started in April. They looked really pathetic when I planted out the others, but I kept them in my greenhouse window. Today I decided they were ready to be planted where I've been clearing out. We'll see if they have time to be fruitful before frost.

This living thing is feeling really let down this evening at the lack of rain. I've promised Friday rain all week! Hurricane Earl is doing enough of trouble elsewhere. Why can't it water my garden, as promised? Maybe the weed growth will be less enthusiastic. Last time I complained about the weeds, some of you thought I was worried about weeds in my garden. Not really. With my grass clippings mulch, I don't get many. I may have twice as many as usual this year, but that's hardly worth mentioning. Also the lawn may have twice as many as usual, but that
too is hardly worth mentioning. It's not quite true, as two landscapers told me over 20 years ago, that once you remove the weeds from your lawn, they don't come back, but it's true enough so lawn weeds are not a real problem.

It's those other places that are far more prolific than I thought they could be! And the borders between them and the garden or lawn. Weed, weed, weed! I was delighted to get three containers of fresh lawn clippings last Saturday, Sunday, and Monday, so weeding is satisfying this week because I can mulch afterward and have some hope the situation is under control.
And then there is the euphorbia popping up all over. Jean warned me, and her warning has made be reluctant to offer or recommend it to others. Still, if that's the reason I haven't had woodchuck problems since spring, and not nearly as many then as last year, it's worth it. How can one tell causality in a garden? (or elsewhere...) Anyway, I'm digging out the 3"ones and oodles of tiny ones, which are very easy to remove, and leaving well-placed 'tween-sized euphorbia scattered thoughtfully around the property.

Happy weeding!


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