Archives for posts with tag: tidiness

We spent a few hours yesterday (before heading up to Stonecrop Gardens; see March 22, 2014) and again today, cleaning up the ornamental gardens. Saturday’s session was particularly enjoyable because the temperature quickly rose into the 50s. One or two dark clouds passed by, trailing a sprinkle of light rain, but otherwise it was sunny and warm.

Today was a different story as the weather returned to a more wintery state, including a chilling wind.

We cleared away the scruffy remnants of the Russian sage, penstemon (a variety of foxglove), black-eyed Susans, Siberian irises, and hostas. In the main ornamental garden beds, Rachel pruned the hibiscus (we have three) and some young lilacs. Together, we tackled the Japanese maple, a gift from the mason (and natural gardener) who constructed our stone walls and stairs.

We’ve been putting this off for a few years now and I hope that we did not wait too long. The maple had grown taller than we wanted, more upward than outward, and was threatening to obstruct the view from the patio that overlooks it. We clipped its upper branches and the skyward pointing portions of its perimeter branches. It looks a bit awkward now (most things do immediately after pruning) but its appearance should improve once the leaves sprout.

Up front in the hosta beds, we had a bit more work to do. I’m not sure when we last weeded this area (mid-summer, perhaps?) but it was in dire need of it today, especially the bed to the left of the stone staircase that leads from our front yard up to the labyrinth. The grade is steep here and the plantings a mixed bag. We’ve been slowly making a transition to flowering bulbs and groundcovers such as sedum and lily of the valley but mostly, the plants here are unwanted—weeds, by definition—and we removed many of them.

Weeding is very satisfying—the difference between before and after can be striking—but it is also back-breaking. After two hours in the bracing cold we were worn out. The ornamental beds are now clear of old growth and we were heartened by the signs of spring—snowdrops and crocuses at long last!—that are slowly emerging.

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One of the ways I know that spring has arrived is that for the next few weeks, the sun will shine directly through my office windows. With no leaves on the trees to filter it, the bright light makes it difficult to see the screen of my computer but the solar heat on my face feels great.

Another indicator that spring fever has hit is my desire to get out into the garden and start doing something. The draw is getting stronger every day as more snow melts to reveal another task that needs attending to. This was a rough and stormy winter and consequently, the yard is in disarray. Order must be restored! In other words, it is time for spring cleaning.

Most of our work over the next week or two will be in the ornamental gardens. We don’t do a lot of cutting back in the fall—usually, only enough to facilitate leaf removal. In particular, we leave the black-eyed Susans and butterfly bushes in their bare-branched state to provide decoration and keep the garden from looking too empty. It is pretty, especially against the neutral background of winter white (i.e., snow), but as a result, the gardens are filled with dead wood.

To make matters worse, heavy snow came early this year and buried some of the plants we might otherwise have tidied up in the fall. These include the hostas, Siberian and bearded irises, and day lilies. In other years when we have left them, the faded leaves look crumpled and haggard by spring; this year, being crushed by snow for three months has done nothing to improve their appearance.

The first order of business, then, will be to trim everything back to make room for new growth. Clearing away last year’s detritus will also allow the sun’s warmth to activate the bulbs and rhizomes that have been lying dormant since the fall. In fact, small, spiky leaves are already poking up amongst the matted clumps of spent bearded iris leaves and I spy, with my little eye, a crocus peeking out through the cloud of desiccated Russian sage bushes.

I have some reservations about jumping back into it. Yard work is physically demanding and can be overwhelming (it sometimes feels as if the entire world needs tidying up after winter). But I know that it will also be immensely satisfying, a literal cleaning of the slate as we start the new gardening year.

Having harvested the last of the string beans (see September 25, 2013), we decided it was time to clear out the vines and start readying the west planter for winter.  Some gardeners would chop up the vines and till them into the soil to decompose and add organic matter (so-called green manure or green fertilizer).  Others might cut the stems off at the ground surface and leave the roots in place, hoping that symbiotic bacteria (if present) would continue to fix Nitrogen in the soil.

But neither of these ideas appeals to me.  Even though the planter is not that big (four feet by 12 feet), turning the soil would be a lot of work.  And anyway, we are following the no-till approach, which moderates decomposition, improves drainage and minimizes weed growth by leaving the soil surface undisturbed.  Somewhat ironically, it also maintains better aeration by eliminating compaction and encouraging the earthworm population.  In fact, our soil is essentially turned over several times a year by an abundance of energetic Lumbricidae.

Leaving the roots in place would require less effort—even less than pulling them out.  However, we do not necessarily have Nitrogen-fixing bacteria and it is not clear that they would have enough time to make a significant contribution to the properties of our soil.  Besides, it is more likely that we have too much Nitrogen rather than not enough (see June 22, 2013), as evidenced by our crops of carrots, beets and radishes which produced more leaves than roots.

Being completely honest, it probably wouldn’t matter if either alternative had a scientific justification because pulling the vines out is more in keeping with my nature.  I have been described as a neatnik and it is a characterization I do not deny.  At a certain level, getting the planter tidied up for its long winter nap is much more important to me than ensuring that the soil has a proper concentration of Nitrogen.  Our soil’s nutrient distribution can be adjusted in other ways and at other times but I have to look at the empty planter all winter long.

Warning:  Insect photo below.

Over the last few days, the blight (or whatever it is) that has been affecting the cherry tomatoes almost completely overwhelmed them.  There are now only a few branches that are not mottled or completely brown.  This is the first time we’ve had a disease that affects the fruit.  Clearly, it is time for some aggressive pruning.

In the process of amputating the diseased branches, I uncovered four hornworms (I would say that my worst fears were confirmed except that I have come to accept their inevitable presence).  None of them was very large and one was quite small; two had been visited by braconid wasps and were carrying egg sacs.  And despite their numbers, they had done relatively little damage.  Instead of killing them, I simply pruned the branches on which they were munching and tossed them onto the refuse pile.

When I had snipped away all of the afflicted Sungold and Black Cherry vines, there was not much left to look at, perhaps one gangly stem per plant, several feet long, with a small fan of leaves and a few clusters of tomatoes at the end.  I carefully draped the stems over the top of the supporting cages to prevent breakage or kinking.  Some of the remaining fruit has nearly ripened so the season is not quite over for them.

Inspecting the other tomato plants, I found that the Aunt Ruby’s German Green and the Red Brandywine vines are suffering from the same disease; many of their branches, leaves and fruit are similarly overcast with a sickly brown pall.  I took the same approach as with the cherry tomatoes and pruned away the damaged branches.  Not surprisingly, I also found more hornworms.

Much earlier in the season (see September 2, 2013), the Country Taste Beefsteak tomatoes became ill but with something different.  Instead of a uniform brown cast, their leaves are speckled with small, brown polka dots.  Eventually, the leaves turn yellow, wither and then die.  Sometimes, the fruits develop the same spots but these do not otherwise impair their color, ripening or flavor.  Just to be on the safe side, I pruned away most of the afflicted branches.

The only tomato plants that do not seem to be suffering are the Yellow Brandywines.  Given their close proximity to the others, however, I do not give them much of a chance to remain disease-free.  Still, the season will probably end due to weather before a possible infection can have an effect on production.

After I was finished, it looked like the tomato plants had been given a military haircut.  There are next to no branches on the vertical portion of the stems and the foliage is only slightly bushier at the top.  On the positive side, there are still plenty of tomatoes left.

Many of which are green, including a big bowl of cherry tomatoes and several of the other varieties that were attached to the branches I had to prune (a handful ended up in the garbage because they were almost completely covered with the blight).  We’ll make the most of them:  one green tomato casserole coming up.

Okay, I admit it:  I let the tomato vines get away from me.  I was aware of the impending problem and had adjusted my action plan accordingly (see August 20, 2013) but then I failed to follow through.  I have not done much pruning while the plants have continued to grow with abandon.

The result is a nearly impenetrable mass of stems and leaves that occupies the upper third of all six supporting cages.  We have had to drape vines from each plant across the cages of one or two adjacent cages in each direction.  At the ends of the east planter, the vines reach out into space, looking for something to grab on to.  It makes walking around them more difficult.

In addition, the unbalanced weight of the developing fruits is causing the cages to lean precariously this way and that.  We had braced them securely in the spring (this condition seems to be inevitable regardless of the size of the vines) and had we not done so, the cages would surely have toppled over by now.

Who knows what is going on in that tangled clump of vines—and with whom?  Hornworms may be munching away for all I know.  And with each plant intimately enmeshed with the others, if one contracts a tomato disease, they will all get it.  Luckily, there has been no sign of either, with the possible exception of some freckled and yellowed branches of the Country Taste beefsteak tomatoes.

The upside, of course, is that there are plenty of tomatoes of all varieties.  The beefsteaks are the most plentiful—there must be dozens of them, in all stages of development—while the Brandywines (which we think look more pink than red) are the largest.  We picked a husky specimen last week that must have weighed two pounds.  We could have made a pot full of sauce using just the one tomato.

Here’s another thing that can happen when tomato plants extend too far beyond their supports:  A far-reaching branch will develop a cluster of fruits which, as they enlarge, weigh down the stem and eventually exceed its capacity.  Sometimes the branch will break (and down it will fall); other times it will kink (what as a structural engineer I would call plastic deformation).

The latter has occurred with multiple branches of the apparently hapless Country Taste beefsteak tomato vines.  Despite their bad luck, they continue to grow enthusiastically.  Or perhaps it is the other way around.  Because of their unbridled expansion, they are experiencing mishaps directly associated with their size (see also August 13, 2013).  In other words, they are growing too much for their own good.

The beefsteaks are not the only ones.  In fact, all of the tomato vines have extended upward and outward from their cages.  Each now trails across the top of the adjacent cage to either side of its own.  The plants at the ends—the aforementioned Country Taste to the west, the Sungold cherry tomatoes to the east—have no cage to one side.  Consequently, their outer branches spill over and downwards, most of them kinked but not broken.

It puts me in an awkward position.  I had vowed to keep the tomato vines in control by careful pruning.  I have clipped the main stems and nipped the suckers on an almost daily basis.  But at some point in the last week or so, the vines sped past me during a moment (okay, maybe it’s a day or two) of inattention.  And now, not only are the vines very long, they all support several ripening fruit as well.  To cut the vines off at this point would mean losing a large part of our crop.

So I’ll adjust my approach.  On the longer stems, I will prune beyond the last cluster of fruit even if that means abandoning some blossoms.  For the vines that remain (and there a lot of them), I will do my best to support them from as many cages as necessary (without allowing the whole works to topple over).  We’ve ended up with a tangle of stems and leaves—the very condition I was trying to avoid—but at least we’ll maintain a good supply of tomatoes for the next few weeks.

And that, of course, is the whole point.  Our tomato harvest has really only just begun.  And the Country Taste beefsteak plant is looking to become the biggest producer.  We’ve already picked a couple of beauties—large, round, dense—and will be having them tonight for dinner.  Finally, a BLT.

I’ve been using an old plastic container, the kind in which plants from the nursery are potted (that’s how we came into possession of it), as a waste bucket.  It is a convenient place to toss weeds, pruned branches, rotted vegetables and other green waste from the garden.  It sits on the ground near the hose bib and next to the watering can and is a much easier target than the ravine beyond the pool fence.

I started this practice a few weeks ago and by today, the bucket was full.  So I walked it over to the refuse pile and flung its contents on top.  What I immediately noticed as the mass of organic matter plopped onto the pile was that the material at the bottom of the bucket, which had been kept moist by rain and warmed by the sun, had already started to decompose.  After less than a month, the green garden waste had become a dark brown, granular mass, well on its way to becoming rich organic soil.

In other words, my waste bucket had turned into a mini compost pile.  If I had let it bask in the sun much longer, I could probably have simply tipped it back into one of the planters to replenish the soil’s organic content.  Presumably, there is a little more to the process—balancing different materials, mixing them together, aerating the pile—but the experience showed me how simple the basic operation is.

Also, how magical the process is, almost like alchemy.  It is very encouraging and will motivate me to find a place where a pile of garden discards can be transformed into a useful soil amendment.

I got what I asked for (see June 25, 2013) and summer arrived in spades on the Fourth of July.  We’ve had mostly 90-degree days ever since.  The humidity is high and it rarely gets below the 70s at night so almost needless to say, our pool—and our one small air conditioner—are getting a lot of use.

We’re a bit exhausted but the vegetables seem to be enjoying it.  The tomatoes, peppers and eggplant are all heat lovers and are growing by leaps and bounds.  The squash and cucumbers are also looking pleased with the warmer weather.  We have not had any rain to speak of so I have been careful to run the water every day (the remaining heads of lettuce get a mid-day sprinkling as well) to keep anything from drying out.

Not everything is responding well to the heat, however.  The arugula has been struggling to get beyond the seedling stage even with frequent watering.  And some of the carrots and beets have been in the ground since April.  The carrots in particular are looking a bit scraggly and are probably in danger of bolting.  So we decided to pull out all but the last row of carrots and turnips.

We were not surprised to find the turnips large and meaty—they have been performing well all season—but we were positively ecstatic to discover that the carrots had quietly grown to normal size.  We planted a mixture of seeds that were marketed as a rainbow of colors but comprised only red, orange and yellow, the Roy in Roy G. Biv (I guess that puts us on a first name basis with the rainbow).  Of these, the red grew the largest (and sweetest).

In the space left behind, we transplanted a six-pack of cauliflower seedlings that we purchased a week or two ago from a small, family-owned garden center nearby.  Of the Bishop variety, the seedlings have been toughing it out in their plastic container waiting for an opening in the garden.  We arranged them in a staggered row, loosened their root balls and buried them up to their first set of leaves (their stems had gotten quite long).  These are the only vegetables we did not start from seed and it will be fun to compare the outsiders’ progress to that of the natives.

Between uprooting and planting, we noticed that something has been getting into the basil and nibbling on the leaves.  I can’t say I blame whoever is responsible—the basil is incredibly lush and irresistibly fragrant—but I will say that they are not very tidy.  Several of the basil leaves are covered with scat (frass might be a more appropriate term).  We clipped and discarded the affected leaves and reminded ourselves to carefully wash whatever basil we use.

I’ve been thinking about how to keep track of the various seedlings, especially the different varieties of tomato which at this stage look a lot alike.  Currently, I have them lined up in groups with only one row marker per group.  I never did make it back to the store for more stakes.

If any of our family and friends takes some seedlings, we will need to mark each pot individually to identify its occupant.  I suppose I could simply write on the pots with a Sharpie but that is permanent and I would like to be able to reuse the pots next year.  Also, that’s just not my style.

Then an idea came to me:  adhesive labels.  We have sheets of Avery labels that we use for holiday cards (and other large mailings) and they are easy to print up (Word has templates for them, tied in to the Avery product numbers).  Looking through our stationery supplies, I found some return address labels that we had decided were too small for letters.  They will be perfect (or, at least, much more than good enough) as ID labels for the seedlings.

It is true that the labels are not waterproof but they do not need to last for long.  And when the seedlings have been transplanted to the garden, the labels can easily be removed.

When we returned from a hike this morning, we discovered that a critter had taken a merry romp through the planters.  Like Paul Bunyan and his blue ox Babe (who, while roughhousing, created the Rockies and the Grand Canyon), the little beastie disrupted the smooth surface of the soil and left it hillocky and rough, the mulch scattered about.

I’m aware that I am sometimes overly concerned with order in the garden and am an unabashed neatnik.  I know that tidiness does not lead to better produce and that oftentimes, in fact, the effort I exert laying out straight rows of vegetables and sweeping up spilled compost might be more efficaciously applied elsewhere.

I’ve come to this conclusion on my own, though, and do not need a self-righteous squirrel or busybody woodchuck to show me some tough love.  Besides, I will have to clean this mess up and when I do, the mulch and compost I layered on yesterday will get mixed in.  Don’t these animals know we prefer the no-till method?