Saturday, April 30, 2011

Getting the Soil Started

Yesterday I received the following message. I decided that thinking about it over night and sharing my reflections was worth the time. I suspect there are many of you who are in some sense starting a garden about now. It's a good time -- except that it would have been best to have been making compost all winter long.

"....last year I experimented with planting my herbs and vegetables directly in the soil. That turned out to be unsuccessful so this year I would like to build a bed. I've been reading various books and even looking at various online sources about constructing a raised bed. My confusion arises from this issue: I currently have grass on the spot where I would like to build the bed. Some sources recommend that a raised bed depth should be 8 to 12 inches. Is it recommended then that I remove the grass and then dig about 8 to 12 inches deep? I was planning on installing wire mesh on the bottom of the bed to prevent any grass or weed from invading into the raised bed soil but now I'm uncertain of what to do."

One doesn't make an experienced garden in one year without a lot of resources that most people don't have. Northern NJ 21st century clay soil is NOT good gardening soil. It must be improved, and that takes time both short-term and long-term.

"Raised beds" are not the point. Getting organic-rich gardening soil is. The deeper the good soil, the better, but six inches is enough for lettuce and some other small greens. Beans and peas are much more tolerant (and giving) than peppers and eggplants.

When I started gardening, the jargon was "intensive gardening." I read about "double digging" in "How to Raise More Vegetables Than You Ever Thought Possible on Less Land Than You Can Imagine" by John Jeavons. It took me a full half hour, the limits of my strength, to double dig one patch 2' x 2'. "Double digging" means you go down two shovel lengths. The actual depth will grow each time you do it if that's your goal.

Yes, I remove the grass before I start and shake off as much soil as I can easily. Then I compost the rest.

Now I start digging. Take the top layer, whatever depth is convenient, of a small patch (I first used about 1' x 1') and put it aside, in those days I put it on a used plastic bag. Then dig the next layer to make it loose. Then put some organic matter in there. Compost is ideal, but at first I compromised with dead leaves, which the books discourage. Then go to the next small place, put its topsoil on the empty spot, dig below, and add organic matter. (My uncle used to dig in his kitchen garbage each day.) Go around in a "circle" until you are next to where you began. Take the topsoil you set aside and put it where you now have an empty spot.

Now improve the topsoil. Compost is pretty essential now. Dig it into the topsoil, and rake it to look like a garden.

Now you have broken soil down two shovel depths (whatever that is). The roots of your plants don't have to work so hard to find nourishment, nor do the worms have to work so hard to help. The more organic material you have introduced the better.

I did this spring and fall for my first three years of gardening, and then the soil was the black, friable stuff I now have. Each time you can go a little deeper. Jeavons advocates 2' as your goal, but I think I settled for 18", which is enough. But don't expect to do it in one year!

Tomatoes, lettuce, beans, and many greens will thrive your first year. It's a bit late to start peas, but I'm told they are good too.

Wooden enclosures have become fashionable in the past decade or two. They keep people from getting too ambitious and encourage concentrating efforts where they can matter, but I think they are unnecessary and a nuisance. They do keep grass from invading the garden, which is good. On the other hand, they make it hard for the gardener and the sunlight to get right up to the edges, they cost money, and they insist upon neatness, not one of my higher values. Judy Hinds has used them wonderfully, and you can see her garden in Nutley on May 14 for a "square-foot" approach to organic, abundant gardening.

There are many viable approaches and your goal is to find one you like. They all, however, insist on richer soil than you will find in a typical yard in or near Montclair.


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Friday, April 29, 2011

Update, Cornucopia Newsletter

The Cornucopia newsletter is now online, announcing our tour of six organic vegetable gardens on May 14 beginning at 2:00 PM. You can read it at

Spring even SEEMS to be here this week! I went to the plant sale this afternoon of the Master Gardeners at Edgemont Park. My eggplant and peppers have not germinated after two months of encouragement, so I bought some there today and brought them home in the basket of my bike. Their eggplant plants are almost 9" high! How can that be on April 29? In the past I've sometimes persuaded Bartlett's, the garden center on Grove Street between Montclair and Route 3, to give me eggplant plants earlier than usual and I repot them and have them bigger than I otherwise could. Incidentally two other garden centers are Ploch's on Broad Street, Bloomfield, and one on Center Street Nutley. I have bought at all of them happily, but try to raise as many of my own seedlings as I can. The weather seems fine for planting out, so I now have peppers and eggplants in my garden.

The collards started growing rapidly on Tuesday, and it looks like Fred and I will not have a hiatus from fresh greens, as I had feared we might in a couple weeks for the first time in years. (The cold frame provides them all winter, including this one. We're still eating the yield from there that I picked before sowing green beans and corn in its place.) I can see some tiny strawberries. Happy discovery! Also, I actually have some flowers on my tomato plants. I've taken some of the WOWs off them, but want to leave a few for showing off for a while. They seem to be thriving both in and outside the WOWs now. It's always time to plant lettuce seeds, and now is a good time for outdoors. My outdoor lettuce plants are about 2" high, so I sowed another plot this week. If you want greens, it's fine to sow seeds outdoors.
I've sown summer veggies and flowers in my greenhouse window, but I suspect you can also safely do that outdoors.


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Monday, April 18, 2011

Yesterday's Open Garden

As usual, I had a delightful time hosting several groups of delightful people yesterday.

The nicest thing that I learned was that the flowers of Chinese cabbage taste good. I don't usually have said flowers, but this past March 20 a woodchuck ate Chinese cabbage in my cold frame for the first time, so I closed the lid to keep them out. That made it too hot for the plants, and the healthier ones shot up and flowered. The others died. In either case I didn't have nice plants to give to Toni's Kitchen, as I usually do in April. So I kept the cold frame there for yesterday's tour since I've had lots of questions about it.

"What do you do with the flowers?" asked one guest.
"Compost them," I said, wondering what the right answer was and sensing this was not it.
"They taste very good," she said. I handed her one. "Uhm...!"
I tried another. Yes! Then I handed around Chinese cabbage flowers to all venturesome people present, and there didn't seem to be any disapproval as they sampled them.

Another new feature of this open garden was a gardener from Europe with an immigrant daughter serving as translator. She spotted my tiny sprouting sugar snap peas faster than anyone else and exclaimed about them.

My 2-3 inch Sugar Ann peas are dense now and promising a good yield in late May, one of the few impressive things in my woodchuck-invaded garden yesterday. "Will you thin them?" one visitor asked. "No, I plant them pea by pea at two-inch spacing. That's the most tedious job in my gardening, but I usually do it in March when planting anything is exciting. After they are eaten, I will use that space for zucchini." It's near the house, which is why the snow disappeared there for early pea planting.

Much interest was expressed in my wall-of-waters around the tomatoes surrounding the fence where I will plant sugar snaps in late April, the latest that peas are supposed to be planted. By then the tomato plants should be tall enough to protect them from woodchucks. Some are over a foot high already.

The most common question this time was, "What do you do instead of using a commercial fertilizer? Just compost?"
"And a mulch of other people's grass on all the bare spots in the garden." I should have added that I plant winter rye over the winter and when I have them, I add wood ashes to cut the acidity of NJ soil.

One man came at the beginning and wanted to know what I do for grubs. I insisted I don't have any, so he decided to leave without seeing the garden. Fred told me that Nancy said he should use milky spore disease. Oh, my! Yes, the fifth neighbor back on my east side and I shared the price of the smallest purchaseable quantity of milky spore disease and we spread it around both properties. Before that I did have grubs. Poor man! It's hard to remember everything, so I'm glad Nancy remembered. It appears to be a long-term remedy.

Several people asked about what I do for squirrels, and my answer wasn't very satisfactory there either. The woodchucks have made them seem unimportant recently, especially since hawks are now seen picking them up to feed hawk young. May the hawk population thrive!

Questions about rabbits are easier: they can't get over a one-foot fence, and humans easily can.

Today I took the cold frame apart and put it in the garage. Now I'm picking the remaining Chinese cabbage for domestic consumption, and soon I will plant green beans and corn there.

Happy spring planting!


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Monday, April 11, 2011

What to see and dig on Sunday

When my garden at 56 Gordonhurst, Montclair, is open to the public this Sunday, April 17, the viewings won't be too impressive, but I do have seven varieties of plants that you can dig and take home if your bring your own bag. Extra trowels will help, but I will have some around for the trowelless. I will not have time to distribute bags that busy afternoon.

Actually, right now there is a lilac plant on the right of my steps and two pots of columbine on the left (alphabetical order). The big pot has a columbine I dug from the compost heap, and the small one has two small plants that thought they might invade my vegetable garden. No, no! First come, first take.

For Sunday I have lots of minarda, also called "bee balm" because of the way it attracts bees (and hummingbirds), that I hope people will dig out between the street and sidewalk. It does well in the shade and has nice magenta flowers. I've enjoyed it and its visitors for years next to the north-facing house. When I made the street garden, I thought a little there might be nice. Bad idea. It behaves itself in front of the house, but thinks it wants to take over my front garden. If visitors would dig it all up and put it in tidy shady spots, I would be grateful. Warning: you don't want too much for yourself because it does spread.

Down the neighbor's driveway both chrysanthemums and strawberries are invading my lawn. I'd like that edge straightened to match the line nearer the house. Both will spread. The chrysanthemums are yellow, and their ancestor was given to me by Fred's parents after their 50th anniversary celebration in 1985. They like my front yard, and I like them, but I have some to share.

There are also strawberry plants in the back yard to be dug to straighten the edges of the lawn.

Both in the front and back Dutch iris needs to be trimmed. These have smaller light purple flowers that bloom the week after the Siberian iris. They were given to me by Mrs. Stroili down the street when I moved here in 1975. She brought them when she immigrated from Holland and told me as she delivered them, "They are guaranteed. If they die, they will be replaced." I didn't need to cash in on the guarantee and now have some to share. They aren't terribly invasive, but they've had plenty of time.
Years ago I bought one oregano plant at a Crane's House sale, and its progeny need to be curbed from the back lawn. I'd also like less under the kiwi arbor.

The myrtle (also called vinca or periwinkle) was at the back of the yard when I moved in, but it's moving toward my garden and I have plenty for folks who want to help me retrieve my lawn and take some home.

The garden itself won't be nearly as impressive. You can see tomato plants in WOWs and garlic looking good. I'm not going to invite visitors into the inner garden this time because I don't want to risk damage to the electric fence and you can see fine from the grass now. It's far from the jungle I anticipate in the July and Sept. Open Gardens.

You can see over the fence that the low peas are nicely up. I'm planting out lots of broccoli INSIDE the fence, hoping for a crop for the first time in three years. I'm feeling seriously broccoli-deprived, and there is nothing you can buy that tastes anything like garden broccoli. You will also be able to see the pathetic collards plants that I started from seed in February. Or was it March? Usually I'm eating fresh collards in March, but this year it will be well into April if I'm lucky.

I will leave up my cold frame, partly to show it off, but partly because this year's garden crises mean our eating patterns are different from other years, when by now I have planted that spot to beans and corn. Next week will have to do this year.

With decent eyesight, you will also be able to see my lettuce, pac choi, arugula, and Tokyo Cross turnips, tiny seedlings sowed directly in the garden.

So I expect a respectable show. Right now the flowers are lovely, and I hope that lasts five more days. This year's problems have given this gardener a slight spasm of stage fright, but I think I will have recuperated my composure (and my garden's) by Sunday. See you then!


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