One of two annuals still abloom in my garden: a volunteer pak choi plant probably self-seeded from one of last year’s volunteers. Several of these popped up in random places throughout my various planting beds in 2015.
Autumn has taken its time in central Pennsylvania. It was slow to arrive, its colors lingered for weeks, and it has held off frigid winter temperatures well into its second month. But for a handful of nighttime lows, autumn hasn’t been itself. In fact it is tallying an impressive count of warm days reminiscent of early or late summer.
And, there are blossoms. Sure, the cold-sensitive plants have melted away after freezing through on frosty nights, but a few stalwart annuals, and even more perennials continue on as if expecting autumn never to yield.
To celebrate Garden Bloggers Bloom Day, I captured photos. I’m a tad late in posting, but what you see is what was in bloom on this November 15. I hope I don’t find flowers in my garden in December.
Petunias along the south wall of the house continue to show healthy foliage and blossoms… though the blossoms are only on stems very close to the house. Guessing the wall of the house holds heat into the evening providing a sub-micro climate just warm enough to coax blooms.
Under the lilac bush, barely sticking out above autumn leaves, a small clump of violas is till pushing up blossoms. These plants have been spreading for a few years, but a patch died back last winter; I’m hoping for a better outcome this year.
Across the yard from the clump of tiny violas, I planted a new bed with two different varieties—both producing larger blossoms than the older clump. The plants aren’t well-established, but they’ve been in bloom since I planted them in July.
I must have found some Pincushion flowers on closeout in July. I don’t know the plant but photos online hold promise. So far mine have been dramatically unimpressive; my wife has spoken derisively about them. Still, there’s a blossom. I hope the plants spread a bit next year.
This is most certainly my last Echinacea blossom of the season. I set the plant out in July. It hasn’t put out much growth but clearly it’s healthy. There’s one more bud behind this one, but it shows no signs of opening. This variety, Cheyenne Spirit, was an All America Selections winner in 2013.
In my yard, Drift roses and Knockouts live up to their marketing hype. They’ve been in bloom for months and there are still many blossoms, though not all are in top form. This is on my only red rose plant; the rest are pink.
Still amazing me, this dianthus has been in bloom nearly continuously since I brought it back from a trade show in July. Sold as an annual, I’m hoping it survives central Pennsylvania winters. For blooms it has been a top performer. This variety, Interspecific Jolt, was an All America Selections winner in 2015.
Several of our Rudbeckia plants shriveled as summer ended. I suspect they’re not coming back next year. Several others continue to produce flowers. I guess the plants are deciding among themselves which are better suited to our garden.
Guessing this is Yarrow. I’ve often wondered whether my wife planted it some years ago; it appears each season not quite in a flower bed, but it’s so pretty (and insistent) that it seems intentional. This flower head lies on the most traveled pathway in our yard. The plant has been in bloom for several months.
At a casual glance, this photo shows a stick with a small branch. I deliberately shot from an angle that provides clues about the branch’s true nature.
I assembled some apple trees this spring, but that’s a story for another blog post. I mention it because every morning I’d check the progress of my grafts: were buds on the scions swelling? Were leaves emerging? Did the wood seem to be drying out?
One morning, I was astonished to find a small branch had appeared on one of the grafts.
For a few minutes I tried to convince myself the branch had been there all along but I hadn’t noticed it. I waffled between that explanation and the unlikely, crazy possibility that it had, indeed, grown overnight—or over the course of a few days during which my inspections had been too casual to spot it.
Eventually, the “branch” on my grafted apple tree relaxed and seemed ready to move on. This photo clearly exposes the branch to have been a well-camouflaged caterpillar—something in the inchworm family.
Then it occurred to me: my young grafted apple tree hadn’t grown a branch, it had acquired a resident. The branch was a caterpillar doing a really good job of looking like a branch.
What an awesome adaptation! Imagine you’re a caterpillar that sometimes shares trees with birds that like to eat caterpillars. One day, one of those birds perches just eight inches away! The bird sucks down several of your mostly green caterpillar neighbors, and several times it looks directly at you… but it doesn’t even lean closer because in those moments, you’re just a tree branch!
After that bad boy bird moves on, you can grab the branch with the rest of your tiny feet and inch away.
Seems to me this caterpillar had an excellent chance of growing into a moth. Apparently, even then it probably did well at avoiding moth-eating birds. The adult of this caterpillar has earthy, mottled colors on its wings so it nearly disappears when it lands on tree bark. If a bird doesn’t see you as food, it’s probably not going to eat you.
That was a long, satisfying adventure! Adventure? My Sunchoke Adventure started in 2009 and reached a major milestone three minutes before I wrote this sentence.
In late summer of 2009, I noticed towering sunflower-like plants on the vacant corner lot up the street from the Cityslipper ranch. These produced bright yellow flowers that resembled small sunflowers. I took many photos over the years, but until 2014 I failed to capture the character of these dramatic plants.
In 2009 I knew way less about ornamental plants than I know now (which is impressively little), and I supposed these were wild sunflowers akin to prairie natives that grow as perennials (I’d read about prairie sunflowers years earlier from an article about making agriculture less destructive—before “sustainability” was a word).
Wild sunflower non-germination
I wanted some. These flowers were gorgeous, and I thought they’d look great in my yard. So, I gathered seed heads when the blossoms faded, and let them dry out on the desk in my office.
Later, when I peeled apart the dried blossoms, I found nothing that resembled seeds. I tried again in 2010: I harvested spent flowers, let them dry in my office, and was unable to find seeds among the dried flower bits. I even planted the dried flower bits and kept the soil most for several weeks, but no seedlings emerged.
Not wild sunflowers; sunchokes!
Over the years, I photographed sunchoke flowers on the corner lot repeatedly, but I gave up on trying to grow the plants in my yard. Of course, I didn’t yet know they were sunchokes. But some time in 2012, I started to wonder, and Google led me to photos of these striking plants and to articles about them.
The containment ring in which I planted sunchokes simply doesn’t extend deep enough into the soil. Stalks grew this season on the outside of the ring. So far, I’ve excavated only those plants and have found tubers well below the bottom edge of the ring.
Sunchokes, also called Jerusalem Artichokes, are edible plants! The part people eat is a tuber somewhat like a potato (so I read), and the plants reproduce aggressively. I was most deeply moved by an article titled Before You Plant Sunchokes, You Need to Read This Post which remains among my most favorite Internet reads of all time.
In the spring of 2013, while browsing at a fundraising plant sale in Ithaca, NY, I found a sunchoke at a very reasonable price and bought it.
Late in the 2013 season, I set a containment ring in the soil—the center third of a food-grade plastic barrel—and mixed a lot of sand and compost with the soil inside the ring. There I planted the sunchoke.
In 2014, the plant expanded to produce, perhaps, a dozen stalks inside the containment ring—but without flowers. I left the plants untouched that year. This year, the containment ring erupted with sunchoke stalks.
In a minute or two of digging, I found a decent handful of plump tubers. I’m confident that if I jammed the rooted stems at the bottom of the photo back into the soil, they’d bounce back in the spring and produce more food in coming seasons.
The plants appeared healthy all season, though they never produced flowers… and flowers were what had drawn me to the plants in the first place. I planned to take a hand trowel with me some evening and dig a sunchoke plant from the corner lot; those plants clearly knew how to make flowers.
A month ago, it dawned on me: I didn’t need a trowel. From what I’d read, it’s hard to kill a sunchoke plant. On a whim, while walking the dog one day, I singled out a short sunchoke stalk on the corner lot. When I pulled on the stalk, it popped loose from the soil, sporting healthy roots and several apparent young plants emerging from the base of the stem. I planted the stalk in a flower pot on my porch where it happily blossomed and is now going dormant. I’ll find a place for it in the yard before the soil freezes.
Sunchokes in the kitchen
As I started writing this article, the question arose: What about the harvest? Trowel in hand, I examined the sunchokes and their containment ring. Clearly the ring had failed; there were many stalks on the outside.
Sunchoke tubers washed and ready to eat. I immediately sliced one up, tasted it, and found it very pleasant: a soft crunch with a mild lettuce-like flavor. Minimally, I’d use these in salads, but I’m curious to try them cooked. I’ll give that a go in the next few weeks.
I dug most of those stalks and excavated a generous handful of sunchoke tubers. Minutes later, I’d washed off the soil and sliced up a tuber for a tasting; I’d never eaten sunchokes.
What a thrill! Sunchokes have a delightful crunch and a delicious, lettuce-like flavor. At the very least I’ll include them in salads over the next several weeks.
I’ve heard mixed reviews about cooked sunchokes, so I’ll have to prepare some for a second taste-test. However that goes, I look forward finally to having sunchoke flowers in my yard. I’ll plant the wild one without a containment ring and deal with the consequences as they arise… If a domestic sunchoke wouldn’t stay in its place, it seems pointless to try to contain a wild sunchoke.
A fresh bouquet in the lobby of the Freer Gallery drew my eyes to a formal courtyard. The Gallery featured works of Asian art.
My wife and I visited our daughter during Georgetown University’s family weekend. On Friday night we had a stimulating dinner at a restaurant called Zaytinya specifically to try authentic Turkish food (it was very good). Then we dropped our daughter at her dorm and we headed to Bowie, MD for a night at my brother’s house—though his family had gone to White Oaks Farm, their spread in West Virginia.
We recovered our daughter from Georgetown on Saturday morning and parked on the south side of the National Mall. After a short walk, we decided to tour the Freer Gallery of Art.
Wooden statues stood at opposite ends of a long hallway in the Freer Gallery. Both statues appeared angry, though this one was clearly the angrier.
The gallery featured Asian works which suited me fine; I’m very fond especially of Japanese paintings. I was impressed by an Indian dagger made from a meteorite, and by how advanced Syrian glassmaking was by the 1,300s. We walked through an exhibit by modern African artists that interpreted Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, and then we drove to the National Arboretum.
The Arboretum deserves its own post. I’ll need to select from, perhaps, 150 photos. It’s a big number considering we visited only the bonsai exhibit, the herb garden, and “the Columns” and were back on the road in under two hours.
We stopped at the Eastern Market which is a large collection of tents in front of and alongside an old market building that includes a dining area and dance floor. I love these markets. There were vendors of jewelry, art, clothing, produce, meat, cheeses, prepared foods… enough to hold your attention for hours if you stroll without a deadline.
The point of the story
And here’s the whole point of the story: We had made our way to the farthest vendor tents and started back to the car. We came to a produce vendor selling several varieties of winter squash, among them: Neck Pumpkin.
Visiting the National Arboretum has been on my mind for more than 30 years; I remember wanting to check it out when I was in college. My wife, my daughter, and I went and it was too short a visit — it also was in the wrong season; I want to return in late spring or early summer.
The columns used to be part of the US Capitol building. Workers removed them years ago to make way for an expansion. The columns are strangely out of place at the arboretum, yet they provided some compelling photographic moments.
Neck Pumpkins are common in central Pennsylvania, and relatively unknown elsewhere in the US. I’ve written a lot about them over the years and was quite surprised to find, there on the neck pumpkin display, a photo of myself holding a neck pumpkin!
I’m probably the only person in the world who would have recognized me in the photo—it shows my legs and my right hand. I had set my camera on a tripod, put the shutter on its timer setting, and posed on our screened porch. The photo appeared in one of my earliest blog posts about Neck Pumpkins—in 2009. In fact, I harvested neck pumpkins just a few days ago that are direct descendents from the one in that photo.
But that’s not the point. The point is: there in a Washington DC produce vendor’s booth, I found myself holding a neck pumpkin.
Footnote about copyright
It is illegal to use a photograph for commercial purposes if you do not have express written permission from its creator (or owner). If you can’t find any statement accompanying a photograph that says the photo is free for you to use; don’t use the photo. If you really, really want to use the photo, don’t. But do contact the owner and ask nicely. There’s a reasonable chance you’ll get permission.
Nearing the end of a pleasant stroll at Washington DC’s Eastern Market, I found myself. I’m the legs and the hand holding the neck pumpkin in the sign in this photo. I first published the original photo in a 2009 blog post titled Neck Pumpkin: a Home Kitchen Garden Marvel.
One of my cousins eloped. Months later, he threw a party. In Minnesota. (I live in central Pennsylvania.) I went. I drove. It was a very pleasant escape.
A benefit of making a long road trip alone: None of your passengers complains when you make side trips, stop to take pictures, drive too late into the evening (or next morning), or fail to find cushy lodging for the night.
I stopped often, but not often enough. Captured photos along the way, but not enough. Moved into a cousin’s house in Blooming Prairie, Minnesota and stayed for two nights. Loved seeing him; we was a great host. Loved his dogs: two yellow labs—one old and slow, one the same age as my Nutmeg.
The Blooming Prairie branch of our family is my Mother’s sister’s clan. We don’t cross paths often; a thousand miles is quite a barrier for busy families. In fact, I hadn’t seen anyone from the Blooming Prairie gang since the year after my mom died; there was a family reunion out there, and we packed our kids and the camping gear into the minivan and drove west.
On that trip, we caught up just a tad (toting a toddler took attention), we attended a July 4th parade that was an hour longer than the longest July 4th parade ON EARTH, and we went fishing at The 40.
This post is about The 40
My uncle invested in land. I learned on my recent trip that he bought farmland and leased it to farmers. He also bought a 40 acre parcel for recreation: The 40. I don’t know the history of The 40’s development. Apparently, the pond is bigger now than it was years ago. In several visits—including the one with my family 20+ years ago—I’d never gone farther than the shore of the pond which is at the bottom of a hill near the entrance drive.
This trip, my cousin showed me The 40. We walked trails from one corner to the other, and he pointed out areas planted in walnut trees, in corn and turnips, in prairie grasses, and in garden flowers.
The 40 is gorgeous. I took photos. I hope you enjoy them.
We walked around the pond and from a wooded hillside caught this view of some very mushy-looking landscape.
If I followed my cousin’s explanation, a big chunk of this duckweed-covered pond is on The 40, and some is on neighboring land. It looked like a great place to put in a canoe and paddle around.
My cousin planted patches of corn in a corner of The 40. When it was spent, he planted turnips for deer to munch. I enjoyed the visual textures.
While my uncle planted a flower garden that included a whole bunch of equinacea, my cousin has been acquiring native prairie grasses and planting them on The 40. He believes he has varieties that are native to Minnesota; a nice touch considering that state-run reclamation projects often work with prairie grasses from other states.
The sumac berry clusters on The 40 tended to hang down and my cousin called them poison sumac. I’m certain these were staghorn sumac—you can harvest the berries, cook them in water, add sugar, and drink the resultant pink liquid as a hot or cold drink. It seemed odd they were too lazy to hold their berry clusters upright, but perhaps that’s a regional variant. I wouldn’t recognize poison sumac if I saw it, but Googling it convinced me that the sumac on The 40 is edible, not poisonous.
At one of my stops during the trip (not at The 40), I found a turtle pond (as opposed to a duck pond). The logs were lined with turtles, but most slipped into the water while I was getting my camera into position.
If you’re a farm stand, produce market, or garden center in the northeast, you sell chrysanthemums in autumn… which begins, apparently, during the last month of summer.
On my many forays to Ithaca over the past three years, I noticed and grew fond of a farm market just northeast of the city. The Bigsby Market is on route 13 and 366 just beyond where the two converge on the way to Dryden.
When I’m in Ithaca, I’m not about to invest in large amounts of produce, but I still stop to enjoy the displays and I try to buy something I can use. I’ve chatted with various employees there, and learned that some of the produce they sell comes from central Pennsylvania. In fact, they often have produce purchased from the Buffalo Valley Produce Auction which is about eight miles from my house.
I was in Ithaca two weeks ago, and I stopped at Bigsby Market late in the day. The market was decked out for autumn, and the late-day/late-summer sunlight provided the kind of illumination that excites all photographers.
I bought one delicious, perfectly ripe Bartlett pear, and I captured a whole bunch of photos from which I chose a handful of favorites to include in this post. It seriously looked like autumn at Ithaca’s Bigsby Market. Please have a look.
Employees at the Bigsby Market stack pumpkins and winter squashes to make small towers. Some of the squashes avoid the fate and end up in heaps or bins.
Sometimes things just fall into line. The Bigsby Market had an astonishing amount of produce; this is a modest sampling.
Sweet peppers at The Bigsby Market shown in the evening sunlight. It won’t be long before local growers no longer have fresh produce to offer. At least for a little while, we can enjoy the colors and textures of autumn’s harvest.
I assembled a hanging planter this spring and included in it ageratum and begonia. It was cheaper to buy a six-pack of small plants than to buy a single pot holding a large plant. I bought the six-packs and extras ended up in our front planting bed. Ageratum, I think, looks best up close.
It was a beautiful day and I spent quite a bit of it in the garden taking photos. To participate in Garden Bloggers Bloom Day, I selected a mere fraction of those photos to post here. These blooms are from all over the Cityslipper ranch—both the vegetable beds and the various (and increasing) ornamental beds.
The vegetable garden is still going strong, but with diminishing sunlight and cool nights, things must certainly be slowing down. I’d love to harvest another half bushel of tomatoes and a bit more winter squash before frost shuts things down. In any case, I hope you’ll have a my blossoms. Maybe you’ll agree I had a pleasant time in the yard.
I don’t think I’ve met a begonia I didn’t like. This variety is super common in area gardens. The blossoms are spectacular though tiny. Planting a whole lot of these close so they grow together would make a dramatic display. Two or three of them in a large planting bed are no more than a color bump.
This is crazy. Flox plants in our south-facing planting bed are still putting out gorgeous flowers. In past years, flox has blossomed copiously but for a limited time; plants usually look rather ratty by mid-September.
This dianthus won’t quit. I brought it home from Cultivate15 in July when it was in full bloom. By the time I set it in the garden, the blossoms had finished but a few weeks later it was back in full bloom! Since then, it has continued to blossom less dramatically but impressively. It hasn’t been tested for cold hardiness, so I can only hope it winters over and puts on another show next season. The variety is “Interspecific Jolt Pink” and it’s an All America Selections award winner.
Hiding in morning shadows, the gaillardia has thrived in its second year. My wife had planted gaillardia several times over the years, but this is the first time any has survived a winter in our garden.
We have three or four gladiolus beds. Blooms in the main bed finished almost a month ago. These blooms are from bulbs I planted late.
Just three feet from the gladiolus, violas are spreading in the shadow of a young hydrangea. I brought the violas home from Cultivate 15 and have been impressed at their enthusiasm to display blossoms even as they divide and conquer the planting bed.
Our Russian sage plant lacks the form of ones I see in photos on line. It puts up spindly branches that seem to fall every which-way which works for me cuz every which-way is an excellent description of our garden design style. I love the delicate blossoms and the silver-purple colors… and apparently they appeal even more to cabbage butterflies.
I’m calling this gaillardia though it only vaguely resembles the gaillardia my wife planted. I sprinkled a bag of “instant wildflower meadow” on the bank of my rain garden and this is the only plant that emerged. In its second season, I don’t want it where it is… but I love having it in the garden.
We have a holly bush “next to” our front walk. It overhangs the walk, blocking about 1/3 the width. Clearly, it doesn’t belong in the space it was given and I’m afraid moving it would require removing some of the walkway. We’ll probably continue to abuse the poor plant for years. That said, it’s in bloom. The blossoms are gorgeous but you really have to lean in to get a look.
Sedums in the new rock garden are in full bloom. I love the red here, and in the way back a pink that barely shows in the photo. There are clouds of white blossoms in a corner you can’t see… but still plenty of bare spots I’ll fill in with new additions next spring.
The lavender blossomed months ago and faded. I was a bit surprised to find several spikes of fresh blooms today.
Tomato blossom! It’s too late in the season for a tomato blossom to produce harvestable fruit before first frost. I guess the plants don’t know it… there are plenty of fresh, hopeful blossoms.
By far my favorite bean is the French Gold Pole Filet Bean. The vines don’t overwhelm trellises as some bean vines do, but they produce well and the beans taste great. I’ve found seeds for these only at Renee’s Garden, and I plant them every year. These flowers hang below a trellis; that’s the tip of a ripening bean entering the frame from the top right.
The most awesome moment in my garden today came when I was taking photos in the rock garden. A soft buzzy hum made me look up to see a humming bird drawing nectar from the canna flowers. The little photo-bomber managed to get into several compositions.
Harvest sweet potatoes after blossoms emerge on the vines. That’s the rule of thumb, but it can create timing issues: Ideally, you harvest while there are still some hot days left on the calendar; sweet potatoes should cure at 80 humid degrees for ten days before you put them in storage. On the other hand, vines need a very long season to produce flowers—sometimes long enough there aren’t any hot, humid days left in the year.
We had dinner guests last weekend and there was a catch. One of our visitors was having discomfort with her teeth. She reported that she was on a soup-only diet; chewing was out. I was excited to make up a pot of curried squash soup.
There was a problem. I visited the community garden and harvested what was ready, but not one of my winter squashes was ripe. On my way home, I passed two farm stands selling winter squash but decided not to stop. Eight miles north I’d visit the flea market where one of my favorite produce vendors would, no doubt, have a decent selection of squashes. Or not.
There was no winter squash at the flea market. I got involved with a familiar vendor in a discussion about winter squash timing. It’s still summer, he pointed out. I should shop for winter squash in winter. Then he asked what type I wanted and assured me he could have it for me on Wednesday at the farmers’ market. Except, I told him, I was going to eat the squash tomorrow (Sunday), so Wednesday just wouldn’t do, thank you.
He suggested I visit a grocery store, but I had another thought: Forget winter squash, instead I’d make curried sweet potato soup.
I didn’t plant the cucumber in a sweet potato patch. No, the sweet potatoes were so happy in their patch they decided to take more ground, surrounding cucumbers, zucchinis, and peas.
Sweet Potato Harvest
My sweet potato patch is one of the season’s great successes. You can’t see the mulch for the vines, and tendrils reach into the pea patch, the cucumber and zucchini patches, and through the garden fence onto the lawn. Flowers emerged about a week ago, so by the rule of thumb (don’t harvest until the vines flower), there must be sweet potatoes ready to dig.
I think I dug up two plants. The vines are such a mess, it’s hard to tell where one plant ends and the next begins. In any case, I ended up with two large sweet potatoes, one of medium size, and several small ones that together might have made up one large one. I’m so looking forward to harvesting the entire bed; there must be more than 50 pounds of food in it.
Curried Sweet Potato Soup
The soup was amazing. I made it up as I went along, and it was a tad complicated but worth the effort. Here’s about what I did, written as a recipe:
What was probably two plants yielded about three pounds of gorgeous sweet potatoes. Every tuber in this photo went into the curried sweet potato soup described in this post.
Ingredients for Soup
~3 lbs of sweet potatoes
1 medium onion
16 ozs of mango pieces (I used a pint jar of home-canned mangoes)
1 pint of heavy cream
1 – 2 cups milk
1 tsp cumin powder
1 tsp chili powder
1 tsp turmeric powder
1 tsp paprika
1 tsp garam masala (or substitute curry powder)
¼ tsp beri-beri seasoning or cayenne pepper
1 tbs amchur powder (if you can find some)
Wash and skin the sweet potatoes and slice them into ½-inch thick filets. Brush these with olive oil and grill for about 3 minutes on each side. You’re trying to develop a little char, but don’t worry about cooking the tubers all the way through. Set them aside while you work on the curry.
Set a one-gallon pot on the shy side of medium heat and add the butter. As the butter melts, chop the onion and stir in the pieces. Grate a chunk of fresh ginger into the pot—½ inch of a piece the thickness of your index finger—and mix it with the onion and butter.
Stir in each of the seasonings in the order listed in the ingredients box, letting each cook for about a minute before adding the next seasoning.
Stir and scrape the bottom of the pot to keep things from sticking and add the grilled sweet potatoes. Stir thoroughly to coat every piece with the curry mixture.
Add the mangoes and the liquid in which they were canned (if you’ve used fresh mangoes, add about ½ cup of water at this point), stir it all together, cover the pot, and lower the heat so it simmers without burning. Cook until the sweet potatoes are soft—about 15 minutes.
Transfer the hot curried sweet potatoes and mangoes to a blender and puree until the mixture is very smooth. Add some of the cream if necessary to make it blend.
Rinse the pot to remove any chunks of food and return the pureed sweet potatoes and mangoes to it (for a perfectly creamy soup, work it through a sieve on its way back to the pot). Raise the heat and combine the cream into the pureed sweet potatoes and mangoes. Stir to prevent burning.
The combined cream and curry mixture is likely too thick to serve as soup. So, stir in milk to achieve an appropriate consistency. I like it crazy thick, but it’s a very rich soup, so you can cut it quite a bit and retain its character.
Serve the soup hot. While we didn’t eat it this way, I imagine the soup would be very nice served over a mound of basmati rice.
That gash of exposed soil was the first planting bed in my community garden plot. Digging up the meadow was, perhaps, easier than digging a new bed in a lawn, but way more work than I wanted to do. In about an hour, I’d turned soil and removed weeds to create a two-foot-wide, 20-foot long planting bed.
When I rented a 30’ by 30’ plot at a community garden this spring, I hoped to work the plot without tilling it. However, as I explained in my last post, Small Kitchen Garden Goes Community, I didn’t get an actual garden plot; I got a meadow.
The no-till approach I had in mind was to bury the entire garden in mulch; I started looking for farmers who had spoiled hay to sell. I had learned from reading the works of Ruth Stout that weeds generally can’t grow up through a six-inch layer of hay—and any that do will eventually give up if you keep piling hay on top.
Building Soil Without Tilling
Soil quality is a huge issue for vegetable gardening. If you start a garden on bad soil, your best course of action is to figure out what the soil lacks and add those things. Usually, there’s tilling involved.
I cleverly followed the curvature of the Earth when I dug my community garden plot’s first bed… The darker blobs of soil are compost I wheeled some 200 yards from the far end of the community garden.
Building decent soil without tilling is a three-or-more-year project (unless you’re rich; you can have perfect soil in a few days if you have enough money). As a no-till gardener with modest resources, you collect autumn leaves, lawn clippings, horse manure, spoiled hay… whatever organic waste people might be anxious to get rid of. This you spread on the soil, and you continue to add more organic matter month-after-month.
Organic stuff closest to the original soil decays into rich loam. As you pile on more organic waste, it also decays. After several seasons, the loam becomes thick and will support many varieties of vegetable plants.
I wasn’t going to wait several seasons! I hadn’t yet planted peas, and spring was moving ahead. I’d have to till.
The Pea Patch
After another hour or more of digging, stirring, mixing, and raking, I’d combined the compost with the loosened soil and smoothed over the bed. It stood in stark contrast to the wild meadow with emerging perennials and last year’s dead grasses.
On April 13th, I cut a planting bed into my meadow. I used a garden fork to lift soil along with plants growing in it, and I removed every plant (now officially “weed”). When I had a two-foot wide row down the middle of my plot, I brought several wheelbarrows of compost from the community compost heap and I mixed it into the soil. Finally, I raked it smooth and planted peas.
This wouldn’t do! Meadow plants surrounded my pea patch, and it was inevitable they’d try to grow into the newly-worked soil. I still planned to smother the weeds with mulch, but the tilled patch would provide an escape hatch especially for weeds that reproduce via rhizomes. I needed a strategy to protect this tilled pea patch from the untilled surrounds. That’ll be the topic of an upcoming post.
In early April, snow had just melted from the community garden; no one had even tried to plant peas on St Patrick’s Day.
In March I researched local community gardens for a newspaper article and found only four such gardens within the newspaper’s coverage area.
One evening I was describing my exploration to my wife and I mused, “Maybe I should rent a plot.” Without hesitation, my wife somewhat threateningly replied, “You better not.” That sealed the deal.
I chose the largest of the area community gardens in part because it’s a stone’s throw from where I teach a class on most Wednesdays. It’d be an easy trip once a week.
This is the package they offered as it looked on paper:
- $10 per year for a 30’ by 30’ plot—that’s more than double the size of the main planting bed where the Small Kitchen Garden blog started.
- A shed full of tools including wheelbarrows, shovels, rakes, hoes, mowers—any tool I’d ever use in a garden
- Heaps of newspapers and cardboard for use as “sheet mulch”
- Running, potable water with hoses that reach every plot
- Heaps of compost and mulch with no apparent restrictions on their use
- A community of gardeners with varied experience and interest working as many as 100 plots
My community garden expectations
One great lure of this particular community garden was its embarrassment of riches: a grand heap of compost sat next to another grand heap – of mulch. These are available to all members for use within their plots, and for maintenance of paths among the plots.
Having visited dozens of community gardens, I imagined a plot like so many I’d seen: rich, loamy soil, loose and ready for planting. I was excited to get started. I’d bring my “no-till” enthusiasm to bear and grow some decent vegetables with minimal effort.
Thing was, my wife had clearly expressed disapproval. I’d have to visit the community garden during business hours while she was at work (she’s a school teacher). What’s more, I’d have to keep up with the gardening at home so she wouldn’t get suspicious about how I spent my time (I had several very large home gardening projects in mind for 2015).
My community garden reality
Winter hung on a long time in 2015 and scheduled events at the community garden didn’t always happen. However, I managed to attend the garden’s first work day on April 11th before I’d been assigned a plot. I spent my time there helping an older new member prepare a half-sized plot for planting.
My first look at my new garden plot left me crestfallen. I had paid to garden in what looked like a mature, though dormant, meadow. A far cry from the manicured, rich-soiled plots I’d seen at so many community gardens, my plot clearly would need at least some tilling to produce the vegetables I wanted it to grow.
Partway through the work day, I got my plot assignment and walked over to have a look. It was kind of depressing: My plot was a meadow. It was a meadow of deep-rooted perennial meadow plants (weeds) in dormancy.
My plot had a three-foot tall rodent fence in place. The former renter had erected the fence to protect tender salad crops from rabbits and woodchucks. I didn’t know at the time I’d get to keep the fence… but I hoped so.
I’d return to my plot a few days later to begin work. I desperately wanted to plant peas which I should have planted, according to a rule of thumb, on March 17th. Lettuce, spinach, carrots, and onions were also on my list for early spring planting, and early spring was almost over. My biggest concern at the time: with all the well-established weeds and the need to plant immediately, it would be hard to manage the plot this season with only no-till methods.