Archives for posts with tag: weeds

Over breakfast this morning, we discussed a few ideas for the next growing season. It’ll be here sooner than we think.

First, we’ll move the peas and beans to the fence. We have two trellises now and rather than let one lie fallow (as we did this past season), we’ll plant one trellis with cucumbers and the other with legumes. We sow the peas and beans directly into the ground (as opposed to starting them inside, as we do the cucumbers) and I am pretty sure that there will be enough sun to germinate the seeds.

Second, we’ll plant the tomatoes in the ground only, not in a raised bed. I’m a bit surprised that we came to this conclusion because I was sure that the tomatoes in the planter would do better than those in the ground, mainly due to the soil being older and more conditioned in the planters (see June 8, 2014, part 2). Perhaps it was Murphy’s Law or maybe our tomatoes were contrarian by nature, but the vines in the ground grew fuller and produced more fruit. Go figure.

Planting only in the ground will mean fewer tomato plants—and, possibly, fewer tomatoes—but each plant will have more space. And because there will be no tomato plants in the raised beds, we’ll also have more room there to plant other things.

Which leads me to the third idea for next season: garlic. And now is not too soon to be thinking about it.

Because it turns out that garlic wants to vernalize—to spend a winter in the ground before sprouting in the spring. That means it needs to be planted now. Back in November, we purchased two heads of seed garlic (one hard stem, one soft) from one of our favorite market farmers, Jay. (By the way, seed garlic is no different from the garlic we eat as long as it has not been grown with any chemicals to prevent it from sprouting.)

Jay mentioned that he always waits until it is cold enough to make his fingers hurt to plant the garlic (and his garlic is always beautiful so he must be on to something). Today fits the bill, weather-wise, and I went out to plant. I first had to prepare a spot for it in the southwest corner of the west planter. I cleaned up the old mulch and fallen leaves, pulled a few weeds, added a topping of fresh compost, and raked it smooth.

I broke up the heads of garlic and picked the best cloves of each type. Perhaps we waited a bit too long; some of the cloves were starting to dry out. Still, I was able to get eight soft neck and four hard neck cloves and dropped them in one-inch-deep holes (root end down, pointy end up).

I covered the area with fresh mulch and gave it a good watering. If all goes well, we should see sprouts (also called scapes) in early spring.

I came down to the garden this morning to weed. I had the three things I needed (see May 17, 2014): good conditions (rain two days ago; sunny and warm today); good tools (my two bare hands); and a good mood (what a pleasant way to spend an hour or two after breakfast).

My task was simple and clear and the scope of work small and well-defined (another important element of successful weeding). We’ll be setting out the tomatoes, eggplant, bell peppers and summer squash later and I needed only to clear the raised beds and soil mounds of the weeds that inevitably (and spontaneously, it seems) appear in any fertile soil.

This would not be difficult weeding (no dandelions, for instance) and no tools would be required other than my hands. So, why did I end up with a tabletop covered with artifacts?

Well, first there was the coffee mug I brought down with me. It was not strictly necessary but I enjoy coffee in the morning and if I can do something else and drink coffee at the same time, why not?

Then there was the waste bucket. I can’t just throw the pulled weeds on the ground, can I?

Next came the sunblock and insect repellent. Gardening is one of those activities that easily leads to sunburn, especially on such a nice morning and while the temperature is still cool. Also, we humans are not the only ones who enjoy the great outdoors; the bugs were out in legion.

While weeding the east planter, where the peas and root vegetables are already growing, I remembered that I ought to treat the Sugar Snap peas to ward off aphids. Out came the herbal spray.

At about the same time, I came up with the idea for this blog. That meant fetching a pad of paper and a pencil (my favorite way to write when it is practical) and, of course, the camera (what would a blog be without photos?). A second trip back to the basement became necessary when I realized (for the umpteenth time) that I cannot read or write anything without my glasses.

I jotted down some ideas and moved on to the west planter. After a few minutes of gently pulling out the hay that had sprouted there, my nose began to itch. The result? Back inside for a tissue. (Thankfully, the allergens were not so bad that I needed an antihistamine. That would have meant a trip upstairs to the medicine cabinet.)

I finished the west planter and turned my attention to the squash mounds. As I bent down to start weeding, what did I spy but an anchor for the pool cover that had gone missing during the pool’s opening two weeks ago. (What a relief! I was not looking forward to getting it replaced.) I tried screwing it back into its insert (in the concrete pool deck) but I couldn’t really get a grip on it.

So I reluctantly returned to the toolbox to retrieve the large Allen wrench that came with the pool cover and was explicitly designed for this purpose. On returning, though, I found that the anchor would still not twist into its sleeve. Even more reluctantly, I retraced my steps back to the toolbox for lubricant.

Anyway, you get the idea.

By the time I had finished with the diversion and was ready to get back to weeding, the day had warmed and my coffee had cooled. It was time for a drink of water—and yes, another trip inside.

It turns out that when I was describing the benefits of crop rotation two weeks ago (see May 4, 2014), I was only half right. The process can be much more complicated—and substantially more advantageous—than merely planting different families of plants in different plots each season. The key is choosing what to plant and the order in which to plant it.

A good example of a more scientific approach to crop rotation is described in an Op-Ed piece by Dan Barber, chef of the restaurants Blue Hill (in New York City) and Blue Hill at Stone Barns (in Pocantico Hills, New York), that appears in today’s New York Times (see “What Farm-to-Table Got Wrong”).

Chef Barber buys his wheat from a farmer in upstate New York. On a visit to the farm, he learned that the wheat is only planted at the end of a four-year cycle of carefully selected crops, each of which performs a specific task for conditioning the soil. The procession follows a basic order which can be modified as soil response and weather patterns dictate.

First up is a cover crop such as mustard, which cleanses the soil and adds nutrients. Next is a legume to fix Nitrogen. Rye follows which, apparently, crowds out weeds (and also “builds soil structure”, although no explanation is given as to what exactly this means). Last to be planted is the wheat, the crop that outsiders (and until recently, Chef Barber) would think of as the whole point of this enterprise.

What is lamentable in the wheat farmer’s case is that the market for what those outsiders might call the off-season crops—the mustard, peas and rye—is scarce. While the wheat commands high, New York City prices, the other vegetables and grains go unwanted and often end up as feed for animals raised as food. Such use is not considered by most experts to be a very efficient use of resources.

Chef’s response to this situation was to develop menu items at his restaurants that incorporate the lesser crops and thereby elevate their stature and, presumably, their price (I hope that he pays his farmer as much for the mustard, peas and rye as he does for the wheat). It’s an elegant solution—a no-brainer, in retrospect—and also a win-win. Really, it’s a win-win-win because not only do the farmer and the chef benefit but the patrons of Blue Hill get tasty meals out of it, too.

So, how might this concept apply to the backyard gardener? Well, I’m not sure about growing an entire planter full of rye or mustard but half of a planter mixed with other like vegetables or grains might work (especially if Chef shares his recipes). And I never feel like we have enough Sugar Snap peas so the year of legumes would not be a problem. The primary issue is space, something we never seem to have enough of.

Maybe the question for me is, where can I put two more planters?

You need three things for effective weeding: the right conditions; the right tools; and the right attitude.

If any of these are missing, weeding can be miserable. Weather too dry? The weeds snap off at the stem. Too windy? Their seeds are scattered about the yard, making your efforts pointless. Too hot? You get worn out (and possibly sunburned) before getting much done. On the other hand, a day or two after a long, soaking rain, many weeds will practically jump out of the soil on their own.

The best tool for most weeding is your hands. But for certain types of weeds, specialized implements are essential. For example, dandelions have a long taproot that extends deep into the soil. It is exceedingly brittle and without a tool that can break up the earth around the taproot (see May 11, 2013), attempts to remove the dandelion will leave most of the root behind.

The hardest thing to calibrate is attitude. At its most fundamental, weeding is a chore and like most chores, it falls low on people’s lists of preferred activities. It’s bad enough when you have plenty of time to get the task done, but if you are feeling rushed or desperately desire to do something else instead, weeding can feel like torture.

Still, despite the considerable downside potential, when all three factors—weather, equipment and enthusiasm—are in place, weeding can be immensely satisfying. For me, it becomes almost meditative and when I get into a groove (or what Daniel Pink would call the flow), I can clear a large area before eventually tiring out.

And that’s a good thing, too: last year’s bumper crop of dandelions was followed this year by an exponential increase in their population. Even if I spend an hour a day in the groove, it will take me until fall to get them all (and that’s not counting the purslane, bitterroot and crabgrass).

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.

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.

The garden is not a place for instant gratification.

Advance planning is recommended (if not, strictly speaking, required).  Depending on the scope and extent of a garden’s design, much work must be done to construct it and make it ready for planting.  And once the seeds are sown or the seedlings set out, the plants take time to grow, mature and produce fruit.  If one wants a ripe cherry tomato—right now!—planting a cherry tomato vine is not the way to get it.

And although many people do demand instant gratification (as my mother recently observed, it used to be only children; now it’s everyone), there are obvious benefits to waiting.  Like the study that offered children one piece of candy immediately or two pieces if they agreed to wait for an hour, a garden promises a prolonged bounty of vegetables (nature willing, of course) to those who take the time to nurture it.  As an added bonus, the produce is usually of much higher quality than anything that can be procured in a market, especially when out of season.

Also, it is my experience that instant gratification often leads to deferred aggravation.

For instance, if I put off making a minor household repair (and here, the instant gratification is putting my feet up and watching television instead), that leaky faucet or loose floorboard may develop into something requiring more extensive—and expensive—work to remedy.  And whenever I go too long without weeding, Mother Nature teaches me a lesson by allowing them to overrun the garden.

In fact, a garden is a good tool for overcoming procrastination.  The procrastinator’s motto (attributed to Mark Twain) is, “Never put off till tomorrow what you can do day after tomorrow just as well.”   It’s a useful phrase and nicely turned from Thomas Jefferson’s, “Never put off till tomorrow what you can do today” but as an approach to gardening, it is not very effective.  In the middle of summer, if you put off watering till the day after tomorrow, there may be nothing alive left to water.  (This might help explain why Jefferson is known for his garden while Twain is not.)

Unless, of course, that is the ultimate goal.  Yet another variation of the anti-proverb states, “Never put off till tomorrow what you can avoid all together”.

Both the east and west planters are now completely occupied but we’re not done for the day.  This year we are thinking (and moving) outside the boxes and planting vegetables directly in the ground.

Yesterday, we removed the sod (see May 26, 2013) from the now-sunny area west of the west planter and covered it with mulch.  Today, we laid out the locations for the six mounds on which the squashes will grow.  A week ago, we had figured three-foot-diameter mounds spaced at three feet on center (see May 19, 2013) but looking at my sketch today, I noticed that I didn’t leave any walking space at the far end.

As I reconsidered the layout, I realized that because we are staggering the mounds, they can be spaced closer together.  We adjusted the west walkway from 2’-0” to 1’-9” and the spacing from 3’-0” to 2’-9” and were able to gain 1’-9” at the west end (I find the symmetry to be pleasantly reassuring).  This will be very helpful because the grade drops off steeply just beyond the garden area.

We extended a measuring tape along the ground longitudinally to form a baseline and then used a carpenter’s rule to measure the offsets in the short direction.  At the center of each mound, we pounded in a wooden stake.  After setting each stake, we checked our spacing both longitudinally and diagonally (we calculated that each mound should be about 3’-10 1/2” from its kitty-corner neighbor) and everything checked out.

When we got to the end, however, the final dimension looked a little short.  In fact, after measuring it I found that it was off by 3 inches.  In setting out the stakes, I had forgotten to reduce the first dimension (measuring twice doesn’t help if you are using the wrong number!).  We could have moved all of the stakes but decided that what we had was good enough.  Plus, having more clearance next to the planter is probably better than having symmetrical edges.

Next, we set our tape measure and rule to 18” and, placing one end against each stake, slowly rotated around it, removing the mulch to create a three-foot-diameter clearing.  We redistributed the mulch to the surrounding areas and were left with what looked like a small set of crop circles (we’ll keep an eye out for alien invaders).

Then, we dug.  Or, more accurately, we picked at the soil with shovels.  As I have noted many times before, the soil in this part of the yard is fill brought in during the pool renovation many years ago.  It is not of very high quality (from a gardening point of view) and is composed primarily of clay and rock.  Digging it is a slow, tedious project (the kind of task usually given to prison inmates).

After an hour of hacking away, each of us had dug one hole about 16 inches in diameter and six inches deep.  A large rock protruded into the hole I was digging and even with both of us working on it, we could not get it to budge; the squash plant who will live here will just have to work its roots around it.  Because it was getting late in the afternoon, we opted to plant these two locations and come back to the others later.

To fill the hole and create mounds (to elevate the plants above grade), we combined equal parts (roughly) of compost and peat moss, using the wheelbarrow as a mixing bowl.  I dumped the soil into the holes and Rachel formed it into mounds.  At the top of each mound, we dug a small hole into which we placed a summer squash seedling.

Finally, we covered the mounds with straw mulch.  In addition to helping the soil to retain moisture and discouraging the growth of weeds, the mulch should prevent the soil from washing away in a heavy rainfall (of which we can expect many over the course of the summer).

It is Memorial Day weekend and we are looking forward to setting out as many plants as possible before the holiday is over.  It might be my favorite gardening task.

But first, I had to face what is easily my least favorite.  In preparation for setting out the summer squash seedlings and sowing seeds for the winter squash (see May 19, 2013), we needed to remove the sod that is west of the west planter.

I’ve described—and complained about—this process several times already, so I will skip the details and the griping.  I will say, however, that due to yesterday’s rain and the sparsity of grass, the weedy sod (well, mostly it was loose soil) came up with much less effort than ever before.  I’m not saying that it was easy but it didn’t hurt quite so much.

Even so, it took us about two hours to finish the first half.  After a quick break for lunch, we cleared the remaining half in another hour and a half.  Then, we spread, raked and tamped eight bags of cedar mulch.  Now, almost the entire area north of the pool deck—a length of 50 feet—is devoted to garden.  It is a much better use of the space than lawn.

This should be the last sod removal of the year.  I’d like to say it is the last ever but given our tendency to expand, I know that eventually we’ll be removing more.

Future home of the summer and winter squashes (time for a swim!)

Our plan this year is to expand the garden and plant the squashes, both the summer squash seedlings and winter squash seeds, directly in the ground to the west of the west planter.  It is also our intention to grow the cucumbers along the fence, just behind (i.e., north of) the planters.  When we hatched this plan in the middle of the winter (see January 16, 2013), it seemed like we had all the time in the world to make it happen.

Well, five months later, it is still only a plan.  The difference is that now we have two dozen seedlings that are almost ready to be transplanted.  That we have not yet prepared the garden for them is not yet critical (they’re still fine in their pots) but getting it done has increased in urgency.  The plants will continue to grow regardless of what we do—or don’t do.

Sadly, the weather has not been conducive to outdoor activities.  It remains unseasonably cool and unusually rainy (all of the showers we were supposed to have in April arrived this month instead).  The work will have to wait a bit longer.  But that doesn’t mean we can’t continue to refine and better define our plans.

Preparing the ground for the squashes will first mean removing more sod, 160 sq. ft. of it to be specific.  This is almost exactly the same area (158 sq. ft.) as we removed around the planters at the end of April (see April 27, 2013, part 2 and April 28, 2013) so we have a long day (or two) ahead of us.

It’s not something I look forward to but I am heartened by the fact that there is not much that would qualify as sod in that part of the lawn.  It is mostly weeds and bare earth which should come out with substantially less effort than the soil in grassier regions, especially if the conditions are favorable (e.g., shortly after a rainy day).

Once the sod is removed, we will cover the area with cedar mulch to match the adjoining garden.  That will leave us with a blank canvas on which to lay out our squash plants.  According to the seed packets, they should be spaced at about five feet in each direction and we know from experience that squash plants can get quite large.  Even so, we would like to fit as many as possible within the available space.

So I sketched a rough plan of the garden as it currently exists to the east and as we envision it to the west.  The squash zone is eight feet by 20 feet and we will need aisle space on each side and between it and the west planter.  Assuming one foot for the former and two feet for the latter leaves us with a useable area that is six feet by 18 feet.

This divides nicely into 12 sections, each three feet square (and each nine square feet).  We have enough seedlings (and seeds) to plant all of them but that might result in more squash than we can handle.  Also, if we plant the entire area with squash this year, we would have to find someplace else to plant squash next year to avoid replanting in exactly the same place.

Instead, we will plant six of the sections in a staggered arrangement and leave the other six sections vacant (next year, we will swap locations).  We will plant two of each type of summer squash (crookneck and zucchini) and one of each variety of winter squash (Kabocha and Delicata).

When they mature towards the end of the summer, the squash vines will be more circular than square in extent and that means there will be a narrow space between them (about 15 inches, or three feet times the square root of two minus one).  This will provide some additional access.

The cucumbers are a bit easier to configure.  We will plant three of each kind (slicing and pickling), spaced at two feet, behind the east planter.  We planted cucumbers in the west planter last year and will plant them behind it next year.  It is neither a long-cycle crop rotation nor a long-distance one but we hope that it will keep the striped cucumber beetles guessing, at least for a little while.

Rachel predicts that we will next decide to convert the area east of the planters (about 64 sq. ft. are available there) and jokes that eventually, the pool will be surrounded by the vegetable garden.  At the rate we are going, it is probably no joke!