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March 29th, 2011

The Two-P Approach to Weeds

doug

I find pleasure and tranquility in a solitary weeding session and a sense of satisfaction in the tidy look of the garden once all weeds are gone and replaced with a fresh topdressing of compost. But when weeds have grown out of control—in spring, this seems to happen when you turn your back for just a moment—weeding becomes an overwhelming chore, not a quick once-over. Overgrown weeds get in the way of having fun in the garden.

When dealing with weeds, remember the two Ps: prevention and persistence. Preventing weeds from germinating in the first place is easier than pulling or hoeing them later. So I layer the soil surface with organic mulch. Mulch is a great weed preventer, and it has other benefits, too, like conserving soil moisture and slowly enriching the soil.

Even with mulch, a few weeds always seem to elbow their way into the garden, and that’s where persistence comes in. Weed early and often, before the weeds have a chance to establish vigorous roots, and definitely before they flower and form seeds.

Enough talk: Instead of clicking away at my keyboard, it’s time I did something about those chickweed seedlings popping up under the azaleas.  —Doug Hall

March 22nd, 2011

The Uncompostables

doug

The other day, an Organic Gardening reader emailed us a question about whether or not he should add shredded newspapers to his compost pile. (My opinion: Shredded newspaper is OK in moderation, especially in piles that are blessed with too much nitrogen and need some extra carbon-rich materials to balance it out. In my garden at home I’m more likely to utilize newspapers in an unshredded layer under the mulch, where they have a compounding influence on the mulch’s beneficial effects.)

The reader’s question inspired me to start a list of items that shouldn’t be added to a compost pile. Weeds that have gone to seed; meat scraps from the kitchen; used cat litter: Some things are obviously unwelcome as compost ingredients.

Others require some research. Wood ash, for example, is often considered a safe compost ingredient—in small quantities. But it is highly alkaline and raises the pH of the decomposing pile, allowing nitrogen to be released into the air as ammonia gas. Not just smelly, but a waste of an essential plant nutrient.

In the end, I came up with 10 items that are best kept out of the compost bin. Look for the list in the Skills & Abilities section of the June/July 2011 issue of Organic Gardening—Doug Hall

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March 8th, 2011

Maple Insatiable

dougLast week I blogged about the impossibility of choosing a single variety of tomato to grow. This weekend I discovered that choosing just one Japanese maple is equally perplexing.

My front yard has two big shade trees—a red maple and a little-leaf linden—but there’s plenty of room for smaller trees. I love Japanese maples in all seasons (especially fall, when their foliage ignites into crimson, orange, gold, and scarlet hues), so I pulled out my Forestfarm catalog and started reading the descriptions.

Forestfarm, a mail-order nursery in Oregon, lists 178 cultivars of Acer palmatum, aka Japanese maple, in its current catalog. Add to that number a few dozen cultivars of related species of small Asian maples, like Acer shirasawanum and Acer japonicum. All are described in glowing terms. Even with the help of J. D. Vertrees’ authoritative book Japanese Maples, which I checked out of the library, I couldn’t narrow my wish list to fewer than 15.

So I ordered 15 trees. Where will I put them all? I’ll worry about that later.  —Doug Hall

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March 1st, 2011

A Sophie's Choice of Tomatoes

dougIf you had room to grow only one tomato plant, which variety would you choose? Would it be a hearty heirloom slicer like ‘Pink Brandywine’, a sweet pop-in-your-mouth cherry like ‘Sungold’, or a chef favorite like ‘Amish Paste’?

Thank goodness this is just a rhetorical question for me. I have room at home and in the Organic Gardening test garden for dozens of tomato plants, and I devote the space to as many different varieties as possible. At the magazine’s tomato-tasting event last summer, the diversity of tomato flavors was obvious to all. In addition to the basic flavor variables of acidity and sweetness, some varieties add wildcard flavors: smoky, fruity, earthy, zesty. Yum.

Last year, we trialed eight tomato varieties in the test garden. As I selected the test varieties for 2011, I tried to limit myself to eight again. Obviously I was not up to the task; we’ll be growing 12 varieties of tomatoes this year. And there are others that I’m still having second thoughts about. Maybe we could squeeze in a couple more?  —Doug Hall

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