Posts Tagged ‘organic gardening’

Garlic cloves shoved into a grid in the prepped bed

Garlic cloves shoved into a grid in the prepped bed

Two days ago, I planted half of the hardneck garlic I intend to put in this year. I had chosen a bed that hadn’t held any last season and yanked out the desiccated tomato plants (we picked our last green ones, which are turning red on the porch as I write, about five days ago) and the defunct peppers. Loosened the soil with a fork, weeded what needed to be weeded and planted the cloves that I’d chosen from among the largest bulbs I’d grown this past year.

Since I first learned about hardneck garlic from Colchester CSA manager and grower, Theresa Mycek, probably ten years ago, and started planting it in my own garden, I’ve come to depend on it. Hardneck garlic is terrific because it’s delicious, beautiful (those tall green tops with the curlicue scapes are such a nice visual counterpoint to the clumpy greens and beans), and like a culinary Double-mint gum: it’s two, two, two garlics in one.

The first one is the scape.

Scapes before clipping off arrowhead tip

Scapes before clipping off arrowhead tip

Wait; let me back up a little. First, sometime in late-October through November, you sit outside on a nice autumn day, separate garlic bulbs into cloves and plant the cloves about 8 inches apart – I plant in a grid, others do it in rows – in a prepared bed. Tuck them in gently beneath straw or some other light but effective mulch. In spring when the earth wakes up, the green shoots start coming through the mulch. In about May, you notice that the shoots have grown rather tall – knee high at least. In maybe mid-June, when the tall stiff shoots have continued to grow and are now curled around themselves a bit (i.e. turned into true scapes), you clip or break them off – it’s kinda like asparagus; you snap them where they are happy to be snapped – bring them in and cook them any one of a number of ways. We sometimes tempura them, or grill them for a great snack/ hors d’oeuvre/side dish, chop them into omelets, sauté them with other veggies, quick-pickle them in the fridge in a vinegar-and-herb-and-peppercorn bath or hang them by the kitchen door to ward off vampires. Whatever.

Hardneck bulbs - notice the central hard neck

Hardneck bulbs – notice the central hard neck


Siberian, Russian Giant, Music and Keith's Garlic cloves

Siberian, Russian Giant, Music and Keith’s Garlic cloves

In July-ish, when the green tops have browned and died back sufficiently, you dig – or pull, depending on how soft the bed is – the now cloved-up bulbs, wipe off the earth, and hang them up to dry. (I clump them in bunches of about 6-8 bulbs and hang them on the back porch). Then you use them. They go into the spaghetti sauce I can during tomato-and-pepper harvest, into chicken cacciatore (which is ONLY truly delicious when made in season with fresh garlic, fresh basil and fresh parsley plucked only a few minutes before chopping into the red-wine-soaked braising liquid), into the oven to spread on homemade bread with good olive oil, into salad dressings, well, you get the idea. But if you’ve planned right and the fates have shined on you and your little bed of hardneck garlic, you will also have enough to save, separate into cloves and plant to continue the whole cycle. The miracle of gardening and life perpetuating itself.

This year, I prepped one bed, but the second bed I wanted to plant was a knotted thicket of wire grass, wild aster, which has determined root systems, and the bind weed just to put a topping on it all. My husband volunteered to dig it all for me, bless him, so this afternoon I’m going to sit outside with the dog, separate six more garlic bulbs into cloves and plant that bed.


Scapes beginning in late April-May

When I’m in prayer position on my knees stuffing the cloves – or anything for that matter – into the ground, I think about a little garden plaque a friend gave me years ago that said: Who plants a seed beneath the sod and waits to see believes in God. It’s an acknowledgement that while we can become really good gardeners, we are all at the mercy of so many other elements in life beyond our own control. But I have faith. And I keep on planting.


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Unknown     When I first heard of grafted tomato plants, I thought: Grafting? Of annuals? Really? Grafting woody perennials, yes. The time, attention and effort required to produce a successful graft rewards us with years of fruit (trees) and/or beauty (think: roses). But all that work for the tender stems of tomato plants that only last a season? Yet grafted tomatoes, watermelon, cucumber, eggplant, and peppers are catching on worldwide — and for good reason.

Grafting joins two plants of the same species but different varieties to create one plant. It’s designed to be a marriage of strengths – usually disease resistant roots (stock) wedded to a top cutting (scion) of a less disease-resistant but more appealing variety, for example vigorous Maxifort tomato root stock joined to the scion of luscious heirloom Tangerine tomatoes.

The process of grafting annual vegetable plants is theoretically simple. Take a plant with a strong rootstock, slice off its green top at an angle then slice through the stem of the desired top-growth plant (scion) cutting off its roots. Mate the sliced ends of the two plants and clip them together until the slice heals.

Grafting Tomato plants

Grafting Tomato plants

“The plant can begin to draw nutrients within 10 seconds,” says Peter Zuck, vegetable product manager at Johnny’s Selected Seeds in Winslow, ME, which sells grafted plants, “but the after care of the newly joined seedling is critical.”

As soon as the graft is made, plants must be kept at just the right temperature (70-74F) and humidity (80%-90%) and remain in low light to prevent top growth while the graft heals completely.

“Some people incorrectly think of it as similar to genetic engineering,” says John Bagnasco, managing partner at SuperNaturals Grafted Vegetables in Vista, CA, “but it’s not at all.”

Unknown-2Grafting has been a horticultural practice for centuries. The Bible mentions grafting olive trees in the book of Romans. The Chinese grafted the strong roots of wild tree peonies to their favorite cultivated stems in the 9th century.* But grafted annual vegetables and fruits are a relatively recent addition to the horticultural pantheon.

“The Japanese began grafting them about thirty years ago,” says Bagnasco, who notes that Japan struggles with depleted, disease-prone, and challenging soils. “They have to graft to get

them to grow.”

Additionally, the 1997 Kyoto Protocols, which outlawed methol bromide used to control soil-borne fungal, bacterial and viral diseases, prompted an upsurge in the use of grafted annuals among its 197 signers, who needed an effective alternative to the pesticide.

Cut the stems of root stock and graft at exactly the same angle

Cut the stems of root stock and graft at exactly the same angle

“Almost 100% of the watermelons grown in Mexico are grafted now,” says Zuck.

In 2011, it was estimated that 1 billion grafted fruiting annuals were sold worldwide. In 2015, the number was 1.5 billion.

“Most were watermelon plants and most were sold in China,” says Bragnasco.

In addition to disease-resistance, the grafted plants tend to stand up to the kinds of climatic and regional stressors — soil salinity, temperature extremes, short seasons, and lower light — that can doom a vegetable garden, especially that succulent emblem of summer: tomatoes.

“Tomatoes don’t care for the broiling hot weather we have in summers around here,” says John Campbell of Annapolis, MD. Campbell has been growing grafted tomatoes in his home garden for ten years. “If the weather stays above 90 degrees for more than five days, they slow up on production. What I have found is that the grafted tomatoes suffer through this rotten summer weather with no problems, and I have not had any problems with disease.”

Tomato graft held in place with a graft clip

Tomato graft held in place with a graft clip

In addition to withstanding stressors, grafted vegetable plants can produce well despite less than optimal light. Most vegetables require six to eight hours of direct sunlight a day to fruit well.

“I had a small lot in Belfast [ME] with mature trees,” says Zuck. The tomatoes got about five hours of direct sun coupled with dappled sunlight and shade the rest of the day. “I found that the grafted plants helped me overcome that. They were much bigger and more productive than the non-grafted plants.”

“The plants produce anywhere from twice to three times the fruit, and they are exceedingly hardy,” says Campbell.

Another advantage for the home gardener with limited space is that grafting bypasses the need to rotate crops, a common practice used to avoid recurring soil-borne problems. Although grafted vegetable plants are obviously more expensive than non-grafted, for many home gardeners it’s worth it.


* An Illustrated History of Gardening, by Anthony Huxley, Lyons Press, 1978.



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Blanching leeks

Blanching potted leeks with straw

Well, looks like we finally have spring – or maybe early summer – so I’m hauling the cool weather greens that I started in the greenhouse in and out every day to both harden them and keep them from frying as the heat inside ramps up. (So far, the tomato seedlings are loving the heat).  Managed to get some pak choi, lettuce and kale into the ground over the weekend along with two packets of last year’s pea seeds, so I’ll be interested to see what their germination rates turn out to be.

Pak Choi and kale just about ready for harvest

Pak Choi and kale just about ready for harvest

The experimental kale and pak choi are going to be ready for harvest this week (can’t wait – looking up recipes for inspiration) and the leeks I planted in two pots are looking happy, unlike the poor guys I planted in the garden when the blankety-blank plant company sent them two solid weeks before I had specified on their site while ordering. The garden leeks look moribund, though I’m going to give them a chance to resurrect themselves. But the potted leeks have grown quite a bit in the past week-plus, and are now about 11 inches out of the soil with beautiful blue-green shoots. Time to start blanching them by shielding the stalks from the sun while keeping enough greenery exposed to gather rays so they can actually continue to grow.

potted Buttercrunch lettuce nearly ready for a salad

potted Buttercrunch lettuce nearly ready for a salad

Leeks take anywhere from 90-120 days or so to come to a size that you’d expect to pull and use them, so this will mean I need to feed these potted guys a little as I go along with organic fertilizer. I had planted them the same day I put their confreres in the garden in a combination of soil and compost. Their long growth rate, and my competitive longing for huge, fat stalks, compel additional feeding of the potted ones every four weeks or so.

I love leeks. I often sauté them with shallots, poblanos and a few dried chopped tomatoes (and some chili, adobo and hot sauce) and bake them into a frittata, though last night I added them to the cod filets for supper. Yesterday evening,  I shaved some carrots and chopped leeks (bought) and a shallot, sautéed them for about five minutes in olive oil, added the cod and a splash of pinot grigio and simmered for another five minutes until they were barely done (they were thin). I added some capers and served it up with a dollop of sour cream. Quick, easy, delicious. Gotta love leeks.

p.s. I didin’t think about photographing supper last night until I started writing this — sorry. It looked pretty with carrot ribbons and spirals of leeks alongside a glass of white wine. Boring description will have to do.


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Garlic cloves shoved into a grid in the prepped bed

Siberian, Russian Giant, Music and Keith’s Garlic cloves

The past three days were gorgeous, like a return to spring, so my mind naturally returned to the garden — which I  confess I had left pretty much to its own devices the past several weeks.  I had planned to plant hardneck garlic this year as usual, but had left it kinda late. Came the hurricane, and chill weather, and a feeling that I had missed the horticultural boat. Then Gary, spurred on by the brief Indian summer, foolishly sweetly asked what he could do to help. Over morning coffee, I gave him the chore of prepping two small beds, figuring he would forget it during a day of brushing goose blinds. Wrong. He went out immediately with a garden fork, looking a little like a man marching into battle, and not only weeded and dug and fluffed the beds, he also spread two loads of compost over them, which meant I really had to follow through that day instead of sitting in a garden chair with a beer and book and a blissful expression on my face enjoying the last balmy days of the year.  So I did. Get up off my duff, that is.

Garlic is the Rodney Dangerfield of the larder. It gets no respect. Even sophisticated cooks settle for those aging white knobs in the supermarket, most of which come all the way from China, which is the world’s largest garlic producer last time I checked.  But most of us settle because we haven’t experienced the locally grown difference. I hadn’t until a few years ago when I tasted Music hardneck garlic, a large-cloved Italian variety with a sweet pungent flavor named for Al Music who brought it to Canada in the 1980’s. Compared to the store-bought stuff I’d been using for years, it made me feel as though I’d been cooking with oven mitts over my taste buds. Crisp and juicy, it brightened everything  – aioli, pesto, chicken cacciatore, pepper hummus, Moroccan beef, and 10-minute pasta. (Throw together in a bowl: torn brie cheese, chopped fresh tomatoes, fresh basil, and mashed garlic. Add salt, pepper and a splash of olive oil. Cook linguine then dump the hot drained pasta over the raw sauce and mix. Supper’s ready. Don’t forget the red wine.).

Softeneck garlic varieties grow a bulb that’s a clustered clump of cloves, while hardneck garlic has five to seven cloves in a single ring around a hard center stem. Hardneck types also produce a late spring scape, an elegant edible green curly-cue at the top of the stem, so hardneck’s a kind of two-fer culinarly-speaking. Softneck garlic, which has no center stem (hence no scape) usually stores better and some say they’re easier to grow, but hardnecks, which store up to six months in a cool, dry place, have better flavor in my estimation.

Music Garlic waiting to be broken apart at last year’s CSA planting

Planting garlic is simple. (And once you’ve grown it, you can save some and plant your own for next year’s crop.). Each planted clove produces a new bulb. It needs well-drained soil and will rot (as mine did one year) if you plant it in too-wet ground without enough steady sun to dry it sufficiently, or if you mulch it too heavily and leave heavy sodden mulch on during a damp spring. Having said all that, it’s actually easy to grow.

The two beds Gary prepped are both new to garlic in our garden and are fairly well-drained so we have high hopes. Break the bulbs apart into cloves, being sure to leave the plate (the flat foot of each clove) intact; it’s where the coming season’s roots will emerge. Push each clove down into loamy earth on a dry day (like yesterday — it was lovely, warm breeze, sunshine, gorgeously prepped bed I could get my fingers into easily) about 6-8 inches apart. I plant mine in a grid and will mulch them lightly with fresh straw once I get hold of some in the next few days.  

Planting garlic at Colchester Farm CSA 2011


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I’m not an agronomist, and I have a feeling you’d really need to be one to properly assess this book. But I’m totally on board with the notion that you need to feed the soil and all its critters before it can feed the plants that grow in it. That’s the premise of the just-published Building Soils Naturally: Innovative Methods for Organic Gardeners by Phil Natua (Acres USA, 2012, $19.95). Nauta, who taught organic horticulture at Gaia College and was a director of the Society for Organic Urban Land Care, asserts that feeding the soil well not only helps maintain the health of our planet, it grows vegetables and fruits that are so nutritionally dense that they don’t rot for weeks. I find that last claim a bit suspect, though it does make sense to me that the more nutrition available for fruit and vegetable uptake from the soil, the more nutritionally dense they will be. Twinkie-effect aside, the book is well organized, is written in a breezy style and has lots of great info.

There are three sections:  The Soil and Its Inhabitants, Six Steps to Creating Healthy Soil, and Garden Action Strategies. Within those sections are short chapters on such things as Soil Nutrient Testing (and choosing the best testing facility), Calcium and Phosphorous, Other Major Nutrients, and Garden Health Management Plan. Each chapter has a short review list so you can quickly check to see what chapter might be most helpful to your particular question if, like me, you have trouble keeping every single bit of chemistry, Cation Exchange Capacity (CEC) and the chart of Reams-Based Ideal Nutrient Levels in Soil in your head.

Natua restates – but enlarges upon — much of the currently accepted wisdom in the spiral-bound Master Gardener tome that’s laughingly called the ‘handbook,’ though Building Soils Naturally is a much more detailed look at soil ecology and chemistry and includes soil nutrients’ effect on Brix (a measure of the dissolved solids in plant juice, including sucrose and fructose, vitamins and minerals, protein and amino acids and more), which has got to affect the density of vitamins and minerals in their fruits.

Nauta also takes issue with some current conventional wisdom. For example, he says that soaker or drip hoses that target individual plants deprive the organisms in the un-watered soil and affects nutrient uptake; he prefers to overhead water since research at University of Nebraska shows it loses only about 4% to evaporation. (I would think the real percentage loss would fluctuate depending on ambient temperature, wind velocity and sun exposure, but never mind.).  Regardless, overhead watering, which is what Nature does, makes sense, provided you’re strategic and not profligate with it.  For example, in our garden during drought, the dust from the surrounding fields coats the leaves of everything. A good overhead soaking very early in the morning every ten days or so washes off the leaves, clearing stomata, while giving the plants and the critters in the surrounding (mulched) soil critical hydration. It produces visible benefits – even though the sprinkler water is chlorinated town water and does more to keep things alive than to grow stuff. The water I haul from the rain barrels every five days or so and pour only on the plant roots actually helps things grow. There’s a visible difference.

I question some of Nauta’s assertions, but as I said, I’d need to be an agronomist to do a proper job of it, in which case I might agree with them. And I find that taking issue with assertions usually means we do further research and pay closer attention, good things in gardening and in life. I highly recommend Building Soils Naturally. The bibliography runs to 43 books, some of which look like they’d be really good additions to a serious gardener’s (and a serious planet-dweller’s) library.

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