Archives for posts with tag: incremental changes

It would be hard to tell from this blog (because I have posted so few real-time entries since mid-fall, 2014) but I decided not to send any soil out for testing this year (well, technically speaking, last year).

During the previous three seasons (2011, 2012, and 2013), I collected soil samples in late September or October (see October 19, 2013, part 2 for the most recent account) and sent them off to the Rutgers Soil Testing Laboratory. Two weeks after that, the lab sent me via e-mail me a report of our soil’s properties (see February 14, 2014 for discussion of the October, 2013 results).

It was a worthwhile endeavor—information is power, and all that—and we made some adjustments that I am sure were of benefit to the vegetables. Probably the most significant factor that the tests brought to our attention was soil pH. Initially, it was too high and the following year (2012), we added Sulfur to bring it down.

But after that first year, we did not learn anything new. Our soil’s pH has stabilized within the optimal range and both the macro- and micronutrient levels have remained constant. The soil appears to have reached a healthy equilibrium and as a result, there have been no recommendations for change. And as they say, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

This year, the vegetable plants themselves are telling me everything I need to know. Almost all are very happy so the soil must be okay.

Our vegetables are giving us a visual reminder that the bright reds and greens of summer have transitioned—gradually, incrementally—into the oranges, yellows, and purples of fall.

After returning home from running errands this afternoon, I was surprised to find a voicemail message from the soil testing laboratory.  This is the third year I’ve sent them soil for analysis and I did nothing different this year compared to the previous two years.  What could the issue be?

I gave the lab a call back and learned that they were concerned that the tests I requested might not be appropriate for our soil.  Based on a brief visual assessment of the soil samples and their labels (“East Planter”, “West Planter”, “Ground Level”), and without checking the type of planting for which the soils would be used (as I had indicated on the back of the soil test questionnaire), the lab scientist thought that perhaps I worked for a mall and was checking the soil from its indoor flower beds.  I’m not sure whether to be flattered (or not).

It turns out that the basic soil tests I commissioned are intended for mineral-based soils and use acids to extract the nutrients of interest.   This method is efficient and quick and yields reliable results for total nutrient content.  However, for soils that have very high concentrations of nutrients in mineral form, the observed values may not represent how much of the nutrients are actually available to plants.  For example, a clod of partially decomposed ore may be rich in iron but spinach still won’t grow well in it.

Alternatively, for compost and other soils rich in organic matter, extraction by water solubility is usually employed.  Apparently, this method takes longer and is somehow more complicated (I infer, because it costs much more) but produces values that are closer to what is readily available to a plant’s roots.  I explained our soil’s situation—it is used for a vegetable garden—its composition—it is a mix of compost, peat moss and native soil—and its history—she looked up the previous years’ reports—and weighing this information, she decided the basic tests would be okay.

The soil scientist said that many people are (and here she groped for a politically appropriate word) enthusiastic about adding organic matter to their soil, by which I believe she meant to imply that they add too much.  Looking at our previous reports, however, she saw that although some of our nutrient levels are high (“above optimum” is the lab’s term), the values are not off the charts.  I think she concluded that the total and available concentrations of nutrients in our soil should not be too different.

Looking more closely at our previous analysis results, she liked that our soil pH was in the green zone (6.20 to 6.80) last year and noticed that in our first year (the east planter only, in 2011), our pH was high.  I reported that based on the report, we adjusted the pH by adding elemental Sulfur and that was probably why we were at the proper acidity by the end of the 2012 season.  She was happy to hear that someone actually followed their recommendations.

The lab will start the soil testing tomorrow and I hope to hear back from them next week.

Baseball has been described as a game of mostly tedious inactivity interspersed with brief moments of intense excitement.  For example, a game might go eight innings with only a scattering of hits and no score, a dull display of routine grounders and fly balls.

And then the offense makes a charge with a ground-rule double, a successful bunt and a deep line drive.  Suddenly, the bases are loaded with no outs.  The pitcher is still strong and the manager leaves him in to get out of the inning.

The outcome of the game hangs on the next few pitches and it could go either way.  Will there be a base-clearing grand slam homer or, even rarer, a triple play to save the day for the defense?  Or, as is often the case, will the excitement fizzle out with a pop fly followed by an easy double play at second and first?

Gardening could be described in a similar way.  For much of the year, nothing much changes from day to day and if one actually stopped to watch, there would not be much to see.  But an emerging seedling, new blossom, or ripening tomato can get one’s blood flowing.

In fact, there are other similarities between gardening and baseball that give it a run for the money as America’s favorite pastime.

The season starts with the intense physical activity of cleaning up the planters, starting seeds indoors and preparing new beds (spring training).  This is followed by the growing of seedlings, a potentially dull period (preseason play) that is not without its exciting moments, such as when the freshly-germinated seeds first pop through the soil surface (the emergence of a potential star player).  Of course, the non-performers must be culled (roster cuts).

Then comes early spring and the first planting of seeds and seedlings outdoors (Opening Day).  Nothing can match the exhilarating feeling of transforming a fallow garden into a verdant patch of hopefulness and promise (anything is possible).

Early Summer is for growing, which can be quite monotonous.  There can be long stretches where the garden looks more or less the same every day for a week (early season games).  But then the radishes ripen and the Sugar Snap peas start producing and the thrills of having a garden are remembered (a perfect game is pitched).

By mid-July, it is clear which vegetables, a particularly productive variety of turnips, say, are the best performers (the All-Star Game).  Favorites are determined and shared with family and friends, often accompanied by recipes.  Fellow gardeners trade seeds with each other (baseball cards).

At summer’s peak, the abundance of the garden is appreciated every day when planning dinner (give me some peanuts and Cracker Jacks).  At some point, a friend might gift a seedling of their own to try in the garden (a free agent is signed).  Throughout this period, a carefully planned order of succession planting must be followed and, sometimes, tweaked (batting order adjustments).

As summer progresses, the early performers are harvested and fade away while later season vegetables take the stage (changes in division standings).  Some develop disease or are infested by insects and have to be removed (players placed on injured reserve or out for the season).  Others will produce beyond the wildest imaginings (home run hitting records).

When fall approaches, only the plants with the greatest stamina still survive (the playoffs).  Each week, as the days shorten and the temperature cools, the tomatoes, then the string beans and next the autumn radishes (late-season surge) fall away, unable to sustain their summer success.  Finally, only the hardiest plants, such as the winter squashes are still standing (World Series champions).

After the euphoria of harvest (the Fall Classic) fades, there is a lull of activity followed by the preparation of the gardens for winter.  What grew well and what did not?  Tough decisions must be made (off-season trading).  Despite the thrills of victory and the agonies of defeat, plans are made for a better garden (just wait until next year!).

Funny what will happen when you aren’t looking.

Due to a combination of other activities (which used up all of my available time) and inclement weather (which kept me indoors when I was not out running errands), I did not make it into the garden yesterday until after dark.  I made an inspection as best I could (the solar-powered bird lights from Ikea do not cast much light) but was only able to determine that nothing major had occurred in the garden all day.

Or so I thought.  This morning, while making my rounds, I discovered that most of the string beans have sprouted.  And “sprouted” would be an understatement.  Not only have the seeds germinated and the stems pushed their way to the soil surface, but already, the seedlings are three to four inches tall.

String beans produce stocky stems right from the start and most of the stems already support a pair of true leaves.  With only two days of growth, some of them already look larger and hardier than the beets, which have been growing since April.  The seedlings of the Bush II beans are a bright pea-green while the stems of the Amethyst purple pole beans are a ruddy green, a color similar to rhubarb.

The seedlings emerged two days before the early estimate provided on the seed package.  Funny how fast a plant will grow when the conditions are right.

There is always so much to be done—my to-do list is lengthy—but only so many hours in which to do it.  On any given day, I have to make several decisions about what I can accomplish before the sun goes down.  To a few things, I say “Yes”; everything else gets an implicit “No”.

The choice can be difficult, especially when the garden is on the receiving end of one of those nos.  When that happens, I sometimes feel like I’m neglecting the vegetables and that something critical may occur while my attention is elsewhere.  Perhaps hornworms will appear on the tomatoes (Yikes!) or a first eggplant will form (Rejoice!) and I won’t be there to witness it and take appropriate action (removing the offending insects for the former and photographing the blessed fruit for the latter).

So my goal is to avoid missing the garden for more than one day.  Frankly, not much happens in the garden in any particular 24-hour period and often the garden will go for several days with no discernable changes, good or bad.  (Those dreaded hornworms, which can chomp their way through entire tomato plants in a very short time, might be an exception.)  If I have to be away longer, I get someone to look after things.

Ironically, blogging about the garden can be counter-conducive to the actual gardening activities themselves.  Noting the progress (or lack thereof) of the vegetables, taking photographs, writing about it (probably the largest demand on my time), and posting; these things take time.  That’s time that could be spent doing the things that eventually I will be blogging about.  It could easily become a Catch-22:  I can’t write the blog if I don’t do any gardening but if I spend too much time gardening, I can’t write a blog about it.

And, sometimes, it feels preferable to blog about something rather than do it, a la Andy Rooney.  For instance (nasally, whiny voice):  Don’t you just hate it when you have to remove sod?  It has to be the most difficult part of constructing a garden.  And what do you do with all of that sod, anyway?  It’s not like you can sell it or exchange it for other plants.  (With no disrespect to Andy Rooney, who wisely—or luckily—made a long, successful career out of such rants.)

While I’m on the topic of ironies, here’s another one.  At times, I feel reluctant to harvest vegetables when they are at a near-perfect state of ripeness and aesthetic beauty.  They look so nice, the well-formed squash, blossom still attached, or pristine white turnip, peeking out of the ground with a symmetrical plume of succulent greens on top.  It would be a shame to spoil the tableau.  And once harvested, a void remains, a barrenness, an absence of beauty.

But, hey, this is dinner!  I snap a few photos, grab the vegetables and head for the kitchen.

A recent article by Pamela Doan in the June 21, 2013 issue of The Paper (see “When It’s Okay to Kill a Plant”) led me to some further reflections on tree removal.  I share the writer’s angst over removing a tree—or any other plant in the garden, for that matter—and, like the author, I also agonize over the decision (see, for example, February 6, 2013).  I agree that there are several factors to consider and believe that removing a tree should not be undertaken lightly.

One issue she did not address is that often, removing a tree improves the conditions for the trees that remain.  For example, we live in a deeply wooded area where there is little to check the growth of the trees.  Each year, thousands of maple seed whirligigs twirl to the ground and many, if not most, of them germinate.  I (and my aching back) know this because hundreds of seedlings pop up in our gardens and patio areas every spring.  I must pull them out like weeds lest the house be swallowed up.

A proportionally larger number of seedlings sprout in the woods where there is no one to pull them out.  Instead, they take root firmly, continue to grow unabated and, with the passing years, become taller and larger.  They all crowd together like riders on a subway train, producing a dense canopy of sun-seeking branches above and a deeply-shaded understory below.  Commuters lucky enough to get a seat on the subway during rush hour know how it feels to be beneath the tangle of outstretched limbs.

The trees produce elongated trunks as they push their leafy tops higher and higher in search of a clear view of the sun (imagine the subway riders standing on tiptoe to read the advertisements that form a frieze along the sides of each car).  The trees wind up over-tall, spindly and top-heavy.  Aesthetically, they are lacking and the inefficiency of their shape cannot be good for their health.  Also, the preponderance of maple trees crowd out other varieties, reducing the diversity of species (probably 3 of 4 or 8 of 10 trees around us is a maple).

In a better world (or, at least, a better woods), I would take the same approach to the maple trees as I do with the radishes and beets:  thin early, thin often.  A larger spacing would lead to fuller trees that would not need to grow as high to gather their solar radiation (and they would look better) while still shading the forest floor.  Fewer maples would allow other tree varieties—oak, elm, poplar, even evergreens—a chance to increase their numbers and would make the entire woods less susceptible to harmful diseases or insects.

Like the crowding on rush-hour mass transit, it is a situation that is not easily changed.  I have often surmised that we could spend a week with a chainsaw, pruning and culling, and hardly make a noticeable difference in the local population density, never mind the entire woods or beyond.  Instead, we will take it tree by tree and consider the possible beneficial impacts—incremental and local though they may be—that could result from a tree’s removal.