Garden Spotlight: Soil Improvement

As I did four previous places where I had newly moved, when Julie and I bought Merrymoss in 2015 I began a garden.  From scratch.

When it comes to a garden, “from scratch” means tearing up part of the yard.  One never knows what he will get.  I’ve been greeted by quite the variety, from sandy soil to hard clay.  In Montague, I learned the hard way that, back in the day, people buried their trash.  I was regularly pulling cans and bottles from the garden.

At Merrymoss, I found decent dirt, but it was on the hard side.  It had not been touched, perhaps ever, but certainly not since the lawn was created in the mid ’50s when the house was built.  When a lawn, not only does the ground compact, it never gets fresh material added, which both improves the soil and adds air to it, making it lighter.

In the autumn of 1985, after my first year of my first new garden, I rototilled into the garden the maple leaves from our front yard trees.  It seemed impossible that the mess they were after the first pass of the tiller would result in their being completely mixed in and decomposed by the time I planted in the spring.

But, they did, and, wow, did they ever improve the soil.  So, I kept at it, and everywhere I’ve lived I’ve had trees which provide me with leaves.

At Merrymoss, we have a front yard oak tree.  Oak leaves do not decompose quickly, and their make-up isn’t as good for the soil as most other leaves.  So, I rake and bag those.  Our back yard has four large trees, as seen, below, from a photo from last summer: a beech, two maples, and a tulip tree.

The fallen leaves need to be moved.  A good method helps to make the work go smoothly, and it goes more quickly than I think it will when I undertake it each autumn.

I have found that using a tarp works more quickly than filling bags or a container.  As I rake and pile leaves, it is easy to rake a mess onto the tarp.

I gather the four corners and twist them into a handle.  It drags easily.

I head around the house and to the front yard.

The tarp dumps easily onto the ground.  I proceed to kick out the leaves, to fairly evenly cover the soil, two to four inches thick.

I didn’t count the number of tarps it took.  I think it was between 16 and 20. The next photo shows the covered garden before rototilling.  The second shot is after I ran the tiller over it one time.

It hardly appears that I got any leaves into the soil.  This close-up shows a nice mixture of dirt and leaves, which will help the process of decomposing.  If the weather permits, in a week or two I will rototill one more time before winter.

In the spring, many leaves will still be evident, but after one rototilling they will break down quickly.  The soil will look mostly like dirt.  By May, and one or two more tillings, no more leaves will be evident, but the ground will be lighter, more airy, and richer.

And, oh, how the worms will love it, and worms are very important to soil health!

I’ll provide photos in the spring.  Now, for the next four months to pass smoothly . . .

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Garden Spotlight: Compost

Six.  That is the number of places I have lived for more than one year.  It’s also the number of places I have kept a compost pile.

Thanks, Dad.

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Pile.  That’s the word for it.  No matter the way one’s kitchen-, garden-, and yard refuse is kept—such as seen, below, as I now toss it inside some fencing—it’s a compost pile.

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Last autumn, after I rototilled back yard leaves into my garden, I tossed the rest onto my compost pile.  By spring, they had reduced by half.  After using them two times in my composter, they were almost gone.  When I empty and refill the composter this autumn, the bin will be empty and ready for this year’s leaves.

Don’t let this short-of-glorious word, pile, give any less than impressive impressions, because what eventually emerges from the pile is worth more than its weight in pizza.

Tending the pile as Dad used to—which was the way I did it until some friends offered the composter, seen in the photos, which they no longer used—occasionally turning it over, introducing air and moisture to what is underneath, produced black, rich, decomposed matter in a year.

Using the composter, I have been getting three loads a year.  I snapped the shot, below, after refilling the composter in August, only the second time I took from it after filling it to the brim last autumn.

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What goes on the pile?

All of our kitchen scraps, including coffee grounds (filter, too) and egg shells, go into the bucket that we keep under the sink.  No meat, fat, dairy, or mixed matter goes into it.

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“Doesn’t it smell?”  I’ve received that question many times.  Because it’s all vegetable matter, it does not create a stink.  Rarely, when working at my compost pile, do I smell anything.

There are other items which I do not compost.  From the garden, I don’t put in full plants when they are done producing.  Yes, they will decompose, but because of their size and composition—many stalks have a woody quality—they take too long to break down.  I also do not compost flower plants.

I do not put oak leaves on my pile.  While I have recently learned that they are not as acidic as I had been told years ago, they decompose slowly.  So, the leaves from our front yard oak get bagged and hauled away.  Our back yard has two maples, a beech, and a tulip tree, and those leaves decompose nicely.  In the autumn, I cover the garden with a few inches of them and rototill them in.  When I rototill in the spring, they are almost totally broken down and mixed into the soil.  The rest of the leaves go on the compost pile to get mixed in with the vegetable matter.

Why bother with composting?

When I got my own home, my first garden already existed.  The woman had been known for her lovely yard.  I was the happy inheritor of her good work and the healthy soil she maintained.  Dad suggested where my compost could go, and I was on my way.

Every other place I have lived, I have had to create my garden from the lawn.  The soil has ranged from pretty decent, to quite hard, to a lot of clay.  After rototilling it many times, I was able to garden in it, but it needed a boost.

Decomposed vegetable matter does many good things.  It is lighter in nature, so when it is mixed with dirt it helps loosen it and keep it from getting so hard.  This requires patience; the process takes several years.  I had thirteen years of gardens in Port Hope.  Man, did I have that soil in great condition.

I did a test this year, to prove to myself how much help my composted material provides.  Last year, my potatoes did not do well.  The plants and spuds did not grow large, and many of the potatoes were poorly shaped.  The ground was too hard.  This year, I dug extra large holes for the seed potatoes and plopped in a nice amount of compost—which looked exactly like the stuff, below—and then placed the seed into it.

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Before I ever dug a spud, I was confident that my trick had worked because the plants grew tall and thick, as I was used to them doing.  And, sure enough, each plant gave me a good number of potatoes, many of which were nice and large.

The other important reason for putting decomposed material into one’s garden is the number of nutrients provided.  Nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium are the three major nutrients.  Thus, compost provides natural fertilizer.

You need not be vegetable gardener to benefit from composting.  Any gardens—and what homeowner doesn’t have flowers and shrubs adoring their yard?—will benefit.  One can keep a small compost pile in an out-of-the-way spot in the yard.  It takes little maintenance and little space.

If you are a conscientious recycler of plastics and such, think of composting as recycling vegetable scraps.  That’s exactly what it is, recycling what came from the earth back to the earth.

Not only do you receive benefit, it’s good for the world.

Garden Spotlight: Sun and Shade

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Our back yard is one shady customer.

I should stop being surprised when someone asks me whether vegetables can grow in shade, a question I have received many times.

Perhaps, folks look at the many flowers, ground covers, and bushes and shrubs, which do well in shade, and transfer this to vegetables.  I get that reasoning.  With veggies, though, it doesn’t apply.

Generally, your vegetable garden should receive sun from morning till evening.  Specifically, it can get by with six hours of midday sun.  Some cooler-weather-loving types—think greens and root crops—do okay with fewer than six hours.

The reason I put my garden in the front yard is because our back yard is far too shaded.  Our first year here, I put in a small garden on the west end of the back yard, as a test.  The spot doesn’t get full sun until after mid-afternoon.  It was not good enough.  Everything grew very spindly.

In the spring of 2016, I rototilled a strip in front of our house.  In both 2017 and 2018, I extended it a few more feet into the yard.

The 2016 garden extended too far to the east.  I planted corn on that end, and the first row received too much shade.  The stalks in that row were short and never grew decent ears.  I cut the garden back from the east by three feet.

I took the photos, below, at 10:00 a.m., on August 8.  The west end, where the tomatoes are, had been in the sun for under an hour.  Our neighbor’s tree keeps the east end shaded until 10:30 or so.

The east end remains in the sun until late afternoon, thus giving it at least six hours of midday sun.  This year and last, everything I planted on that end grew very well.

The west end faces a situation that I did not encounter until this year, with the garden a few feet more toward the street.  The next photo was taken at 3:00 p.m.  Note the shade has landed upon the tomatoes and the entire west end.  This is not good!

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Here’s the weird part, which has been a lesson for me, never to forget as long as that oak is there.  The arc of the shade only glances over the back half of the garden.  My watermelons are nearest the house.  Next to them was my corn, then a row of peppers, then the tomatoes.  The shade remains over the back side of the garden for way less time than it does over the front.  The watermelons have grown great.

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The photo, above, was taken around 3:00 p.m, on July 22.  Looking at the four corn rows, from left to right, see how the corn grew according to the sun/shade mix.  The row closest to the house grew tallest, and that corn was ready first.  Each row, moving toward the tomatoes, was a little shorter, and the corn was ready a few days later in each successive row.  The row closest to the corn produced fewer good ears of corn.

In all of these photos, note the size of the tomato plants.  With how well my garden grew this year, they should be to the top of the cages, with their branches completely filling the cages.

It took me until mid-July to figure out the reason they are so small.  I stuck those tomatoes in a bad spot.  They get too much shade, not enough midday sun.  Last year, that chunk of ground was grass, I wasn’t growing there, and too much shade didn’t dawn on me.

The sun returns in the very late afternoon, and the tomatoes get enough total sunshine to be growing and bearing fruit, but I stunted their potential.  So far, I’ve gathered perhaps six quarts of tomatoes.  Easily, I would be at twenty quarts by now.

Lesson learned.  Next year, I will likely place spinach or kale there.  I rotate my crops, never putting the same thing in a spot until at least the third year, so I’ll have to be mindful.

Anyone putting in the time and effort to grow vegetables wants to harvest a good crop.  Placing your garden where it gets plenty of midday sunshine is one of a handful of keys to success.

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Here’s my best proof that the back of the garden gets plenty of sun.  This is our first watermelon of the year.  My granddaughter was impressed with its size and potential sweetness, but not with the seeds.  She set out to remove them by hand.

Garden Spotlight: Corn

Corn is easy to grow.  It’s a snap to harvest.  Best of all, when you eat it fresh from your garden, it is among the dandiest summer treats.

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I plant one packet’s worth of seeds.  This year, I got 108 plants from the packet.  I think that was about twenty percent more than the past couple of years, so be aware that packets vary in quantity by seed company.

On July 23, I picked the last of the corn.  Beginning on July 12, I harvested seventy-six ears.  Here’s the rundown:

  • July 12: 11
  • July 14: 10
  • July 16:   9
  • July 18:   9
  • July 19:   5
  • July 21: 25
  • July 23:   7

There were fifteen to twenty more that did not fully develop and went into the trash, and several stalks sprouted late and did not grow ears.  The day that I picked twenty-five, Julie was out of town.  I cooked them all, ate seven, then cut the kernels off the rest, filling five pint bags for the freezer.

The seventy-six were perfectly formed and delicious, as in the photo, below.

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My granddaughter, Margot, eagerly helped me shuck the first two pickings.  After that?  She had moved on to other interests.

This year was remarkable in that I had no animals get into my garden—the first two years here, I lost about thirty percent to raccoons—and of the dozens of ears I shucked I only saw one insect and zero worms.  I don’t have a fence, and I did not put neem oil—which I use for insect control—on the corn.  If I would have seen signs of pests, I would have used the neem oil; they simply never arrived.  Perhaps, they had their fill from my broccoli and collard greens, where I lost the battle with them.

Growing one’s own corn requires a bit of a commitment.  With some crops, such as tomatoes and peppers, there is a window of several days when they can be picked, but when sweet corn is ready to harvest you need to pick it.  Letting ready ears go for even a couple more days will result in kernels which are overgrown and mushy.

Watch for the cobs to look full size and the silk to have turned brown.  If you think cobs are ready, give them a grip, which, with practice, will tell you whether the kernels are full size.  If you aren’t sure, pull down the husk and look at the kernels.  If they are small, simply pull the husk back to cover the ear as it finishes maturing.

 

Plant corn in a block.  Because the ears are pollinated as the pollen falls from the tassels to the ear’s silk, having the rows next to each other increases the likelihood that breeze-blown pollen will land on silk.  Corn planted in a single row stands a good chance of being poorly pollinated, which will result in spotty kernel growth.

I planted an early variety, so that I would have it all harvested before the end of July.  Next to my corn, I plant a vining crop, such as squash or canteloup.  This year, it’s watermelons.  Vining crops require a lot of room.  By the time the corn is ready to pick, the nextdoor vines are encroaching the corn, as seen here.

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As soon as I pick the last of the corn, I pull the stalks.  The vines now have all of that space to grow.

 

I rotate my crops, not putting a vegetable on ground for at least every third year, as each type of plant takes nutrients from the soil at varying degrees.  Thus, next year’s corn will not provide the temporary privacy fence as this year.  Despite the cover, when I was sitting on the porch, below, and Mac, across the street, walked down his driveway to get his mail, he peered through the stalks, spied me, and gave me a wave.

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Despite our being friendly neighbors, I don’t share my corn with Mac.  He has his own.  After sharing some of our produce with him and his wife, Alice, from our first garden two years ago, they put in their own . . . including a patch of corn.

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Garden Spotlight: Pest Control

You can do everything right—keeping your garden weeded, watered, and fertilized—and end up with little or no crop, because of plant pests and disease.

For years, I used sevin dust.  I’ve long since ceased.  While it worked well, the stuff is dangerous.  Julie and I began searching for a safe alternative.  Folks swear by this one or that—soapy water, for example—but I was never happy with the results of everything I tried.  Last year, Julie found neem oil.  It worked great!

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Neem oil is natural.  It comes from the fruits and seeds of the neem tree, which originated in India and has now been introduced to other areas.

The stuff is easy to use.  I mix it in my watering bottle, then drench my plants in the same manner in which I fertilize.  While the directions calls for also wetting the undersides of leaves, my watering-can method makes that extremely difficult.  Thankfully, I have found that the oil works well, without the undersides being covered.

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As you can imagine, if it rains, or you water your garden, the oil will be washed off.  I watered on Sunday, we had no rain in the forecast, and used the neem oil on Monday.

I only use it on certain plants, the ones which I can see have begun to be pestered.  Some things never get bothered by pests, and rarely by disease.  On my summer squash and vine crops—such as watermelon, cantaloupe, and winter squash—I have rarely had pests or disease.  Some years, green beans are not bothered, and some years worms infest them.  I simply keep an eye on the telltale signs, whether the leaves look eaten or unhealthy.

This time of year, the Cole crops—broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, kohlrabi—are the object of worms’ appetites, as are some greens—our kale and collard greens—while other greens are left alone—our spinach and Swiss chard are worm-free.  A bit later, as the tomatoes begin to bear fruit, worms will be attracted to them.

Neem oil is safe, not too expensive, and easy to use.  You should be able to find it at larger store that has a garden center.

Because my bottle is my trusty sidekick, I’ve name it Leonard.

Leonard Neem Oil.

Garden Spotlight: Tomato Cages

It is Wednesday, June 13.  My tomatoes have reached that stage where they need to be caged, lest they heed the call of the broccoli and make plans to go in search of greener pastures.  (Note to self: silence the broccoli.)

The first decade that I was a gardener, everything I tried in my effort to keep my tomatoes upright, failed—driving a stake and tying the plant to it; then triangle-shaped, taller and stronger metal stakes for the same purpose; and, of course, those three-feet tall round cages, which the tomatoes outgrow by the end of July.

No matter how hard I worked at it, my plants fell all over the place.  Branches wound up on the ground.  I could barely find spots to step among them.  I tried to prop them up.  I put grass clippings under them.  I lost lots of tomatoes, which rotted when on the soil.  Thankfully, in stepped my friend, Rick Hughes, with a suggestion, which I have now used for thirty years.

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When I planted, I used the cages to mark the spots for each plant, so that the cages would butt up against each other.

Rick told me to buy garden fence, four feet tall, with 4″ x 2″ wire sections, enough feet that, when I cut into eight foot lengths, I would have enough cages for all of my plants.  Next, roll the eight foot lengths into circles—this gives them a 2.5′ diameter—and secure them, top and bottom, with zip ties.  Then, at various spots around each cage, high and low, cut out some of the wires to make 4″ x 4″ holes, which will be large enough through which to get my hand and retrieve the fruit.

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My current cages have many 4″ x 4″ holes, but lately I have expanded some of them to 6″ x 8″, as in the photo, above.  With the smaller holes, I tend to catch the edges and scratch my arms.  The larger holes take care of that problem . . . mostly.  (Shush, broccoli!)  I haven’t cut the larger holes too close together, lest I weaken the cages.

When the plants get large—if you take good care of them with water and fertilizer, they should grow over the top of the cages; most years, I have plants that reach as high as my eyes, and I am 6’1″—a windy day can result in them falling over.  I keep that from being a problem, two ways.

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First, I secure the cages to each other, as in the photo, above.  Second, I drive a stake next to them, as the next photo shows, and attach it.  If, when the plants grow large, I find that one stake doesn’t do the job, I’ll add another, on the end.

(Confession time: It’s only the past few years that I got wise and planted so that the cages touched each other.  Before that, late in the season I drove stakes next to each cage, as needed.  Experience has been a great teacher!)

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Here is where I would insert a photo of my large tomato plants, from a previous year.  Alas, a search of my computer, my Facebook photos, and those I’ve posted to my blog have left me empty-handed.

Perhaps, that will ensure your checking in as the summer rolls on.  (See, broccoli, I ain’t so dumm.)

Garden Spotlight: Fertilizing

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Somehow, I was able, with my right hand, to take this picture of myself, with my left hand, accurately watering this hill of watermelon plants.  Okay, I wasn’t entirely successful; it took a half-dozen tries to get all of the components working in unison.

There are four things which are musts for a successful garden:

  1. Keep it weeded.
  2. Water it when rain doesn’t provide enough moisture.
  3. Control any pests.
  4. Fertilize your plants.

There are a number of ways to fertilize.  My dad taught me with the granular type, 10-10-10 formula, which you put on the ground next to the plants, and then cover it just a bit.  I did it that way for several years.  It worked fine.  I don’t recall what prompted my changing to water soluble fertilizer, but when I did I never went back.

There are far quicker ways to fertilize, when using water soluble, than to mix watering can after watering can, but I have been doing it this way all these years because of the slow process.

You read that right.  I like the slow process.

For me, fertilizing my garden is as much about the time spent among the plants as it is feeding them.  On a lovely summer day, to stand over each tomato or pepper plant, or the rows of corn and green beans, is pure joy.  It is a time to soak up the beauty, to ponder when this or that will be ready to harvest, to appreciate everything the garden does for me.

My garden takes an hour or so to fertilize.

I use this stuff—

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—one two-gallon watering can at a time.

For vegetables, two scoops go into two gallons.  For flowers, only one scoop.  I hang the can on our outdoor spigot, and the force of the water thoroughly mixes the blue grains.

The box recommends fertilizing every one to two weeks.  I always intend to do it every week, but rarely do.  Making sure to apply this at least inside the two week window, I have large, productive plants.

The bigger question is how much to apply.  It is easy to apply too little.  You can think that you’ve watered the plants nicely, but if you scratch the dirt around them you will find that only the surface is wet.

I douse them nicely—for example, around single plants I pour until a puddle forms—before moving on.  After I empty the can, I return with the refilled one and hit the plants again.  Everything gets two applications.

Keep up with your fertilizing, along with weeding and watering and controlling pests, and you will enjoy a successful garden.  Here’s how mine looked on June 30, 2017:

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