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April 26th, 2011

The Antisocial Weed

doug

Unlike some eco-minded gardeners, I’m not anti-lawn. In my yard, lawn forms the pathways among the garden beds and provides a place to set chairs when friends drop by. From a design perspective, it’s a calm counterpoint to the jumble of flowers and foliage in the beds.

To serve these purposes, the lawn doesn’t need to be pristine and weed-free, and it isn’t. In my opinion, if it’s green and ground-blanketing, it qualifies as lawn. Among the blades of bluegrass you’ll see plantain, chickweed, henbit, creeping charlie, and oxalis. There’s plenty of white clover, too—my gift to the neighborhood rabbits.

There’s one weed, however, that doesn’t qualify for my inclusionary policy: dandelions. The other lawn weeds don’t stray far, but dandelions send their seeds flying far and wide on the wind. They’d eagerly colonize the neighborhood if I let them.

So, out of courtesy to my neighbors, for whom a tidy lawn is everything, I hand-dig the dandelions before they can go to seed. Yesterday, a glorious spring day in Emmaus, that’s what I did after work: I removed each yellow-flowered offender, leaving a lawn that still fits my desire for diversity while respecting my neighbors’ pursuit of perfection.  —Doug Hall

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April 19th, 2011

Planting Vegetables in the Season of Mud

dougHow can I get the vegetable garden ready for planting when it won’t stop raining? This is a yearly dilemma for gardeners who live in climates where spring brings drenching rains. It’s best to stay out of the garden entirely when the soil is sodden; every footstep compresses the wet soil, squeezing shut the essential pore spaces. Digging in wet soil is worse yet—a guaranteed way to damage soil structure. I limit my early-spring planting to the raised beds, which I can reach while standing in the wood-chipped path.

Because my garden spot has been devoted to vegetables for more than a decade, the soil is rich and porous; no deep tilling is necessary. But this weekend, as I prepared to seed rows of leaf lettuce and spinach and plug in onions and broccoli transplants, I faced raised beds that were carpeted with a bright green ryegrass cover crop, planted last fall. Cover crops are usually turned under and left to decompose in place, but in this case I skimmed off strips of the ryegrass to make room for the transplants and seeds. I shook the loose soil off the roots and put the tops in the compost pile.

I did nothing more to the soil in the raised beds except to scratch shallow drills for my seeds into the surface. When soil is soggy, the less you work with it the better.

Mud season will pass. By the time I plant tomatoes and peppers in May, the soil will likely have dried enough for me to till under what remains of the cover crop. And I’ll bring out the hose to water in my transplants—something I definitely didn’t need to do on this rainy weekend.  —Doug Hall

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April 12th, 2011

Plants on my Doorstep

dougI believe in supporting my local garden centers, but they don’t always sell all the seeds and plants I’m interested in growing at home. That’s where mail-order comes in. Garden catalogs and online retailers give me access to nearly infinite plant choices. This time of year, the UPS guy leaves boxes of plants on my doorstep a couple times a week. It’s better than Christmas.

Trying to keep up with plants as they arrive can be a challenge. My advice: Open all boxes and immediately deal with anything that has been shipped bare-root. If I know where in the garden I want a plant to go, I’ll get it into the ground that day. If I don’t have time to plant until the weekend, I cover the roots with damp compost or potting soil in a big metal washtub—a process called “heeling in”—and leave the washtub next to the windows in my cool garage.

For many of the plants I order, however, I’m not sure where I want them to reside permanently. Some purchases, like the 15 grafted Japanese maples I ordered this spring, are still too small to go directly into the ground. So I pot these up in plastic nursery pots. Growing perennials, shrubs, and small ornamental trees in large containers for a season allows them to bulk up before they go into the garden. And it gives me a couple more months to make up my mind.  —Doug Hall

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April 5th, 2011

What's on the Minds of Gardeners

doug

Yesterday I spoke to a garden club in Hershey, Pennsylvania—a fine group of women who were willing to listen to what I had to say about organic gardening. Of course, there were questions from the audience. That’s always my favorite part of any garden lecture because it lets me know what’s on the minds of gardeners. Here are two of the questions asked by club members:

•  How can I keep deer away from tulips?

•  How can I keep Japanese beetles away from roses?

These are questions I’ve heard countless times, and we’ve covered the two topics many times in the magazine. They are difficult, chronic problems without easy solutions. Yesterday’s questioners knew that—they were just hoping that Organic Gardening had come up with cheap, easy, and miraculous solutions to the problems of deer and Japanese beetles since the last time they checked. No such luck. It’s still stinky deterrent sprays for the deer, hand-picking for the Japanese beetles.

Another question, about artillery fungus in wood-chip mulch, led to several cries of protest when I suggested that the problem of artillery fungus was overblown. Artillery fungus is a natural organism that occasionally grows on hardwood mulch and flings its spores onto house siding or anything else nearby, causing indelible spots the size of flyspecks. Several club members corrected me, describing artillery fungus as a scourge just shy of the plague. At least this one has an easy solution: If you want pristine siding, spread a mulch other than wood chips near the house.  —Doug Hall

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