Digging Deeper In The Garden

oat-cover-cropOver the past few years our garden was slowly going down hill. After continual cropping, even the easy radish wasn’t so easy anymore. I used plenty of organic fertilizers like fish emulsion, seaweed, bat guanos, and sometimes dried chicken manure. But the soil was clearly exhausted and standard practices didn’t get results over time. My first thought was that I needed to start cover cropping. But the question was how to adapt farm style cover crops to 3 foot wide , often hand dug neat (sort of!) beds. The other question was time. We don’t have enough space to have half the garden in maturing cover crops all summer. Looking over the cover crop chart in the Johnny’s Selected Seeds catalog, only one – oats, seemed to be adaptable to small garden beds. I was also looking for something instant, maybe with a little magic. After several trials, the oat grass proved to be an excellent first step to solving my soil problems.

In the past, I grew wheat grass in shallow trays indoors, the seeds super close together, letting it grow only 7-10 days, and that became the model. Sowing the oats much closer together than recommended for standard cover crops began to miniaturize the process. Then I let the oat grass grow only 6-8 inches tall. This usually takes only 10-14 days. When the bed looks like a large tray of wheatgrass, ready to juice, I turned it under using a shovel. I’ve been amazed at how easy this turning has been (and I’m almost 69!) compared to my previous torturous bed turning without this cover crop. The soil takes on a new quality, not really like soil anymore, but overflowing with young roots and tender blades, all with a pillow-like texture that microbes seem to love and break down in a hurry.

In early August, I put in Chinese cabbage transplants the very next day after turning thechinese-cabbage oats under. It was an emergency and this was the only availabe space. I just pushed aside any grass pieces and inserted them within the living, decaying mulch – most of which disappeared within a week. The Chinese cabbage is doing nicely – usually a quite ungrowable crop for me, its halting growth attracting scads of tiny flea beetles. I find it difficul to buy organically grown Chinese cabbage, and we love to use it for kimchi. Now I’m hoping for a warm September so these will head up.

Over the next year I plan to learn more techniques to move this garden from limping to in sync with the latest soil science adding worm castings (still have to get the worm bin), compost, compost teas, and comfrey and nettle mulches. One of my great helps and inspirations has been John Kohler’s YouTube site, GrowingYourGreens.com. Many thanks to John! Next, My Inscrutable Grape Vines.




Fig in the House


I love figs and have had a Chicago Hardy fig for the last 5 years, gradually potting up to an 18 inch diameter root pruning pot from Rootmaker.com, called the Root Trapper Grounder. I would manage to move it outdoors every spring, but last year noticed that it never seemed to adjust to the sunlight and wind. Its large smooth leaves continually wilted and look sun scorched even in part shade and with plentiful water. So this year, I decided to leave it in the basement since it seemed happy and content with its light from the windows and flourescent lights. Over the past couple weeks, I’ve been harvesting _MG_5392a few figs every day – a gradual ripening which suits me perfectly. This  harvest is better than my outdoor harvest. They also like our well water, which is high in calcium and magnesium. Rain water seems not to be their cup of tea. No one talks about acid rain anymore, as if the problem is totally solved; but I suspect it is not. Judging from the sulking and harsh words from my goji berries (they need alkaline soil), it is still acidic.

I plan to keep it in this pot, so I may root prune it this winter as the Royal Horticultural Society (rhs.org.uk) suggests. Their roots like cramped quarters they say, but even figs need root pruning “every 3-5 years”. I’ll take a photo of my first large scale plant surgery when I get up the nerve.


Rock Portraits

From Mary:

I am mysteriously drawn to rocks. They seem to speak in a very deep code. With their utter calm an immovability, they seem to speak of a link to eternity….and with one glance, a primal feeling comes over me of surety and knowing.

Rocks have meaningful shapes, as ancient Japanese garden makers vividly describe, but they also have minute and detailed surface qualities which seem to lead inward, almost like a face. They also have a map-like quality, the study of which may lead to an eventual destination or solve a long lost riddle.

They appear embedded with ancient symbols, and I hope to decipher a few over time…

Rock Portrait number 1 Rock Portrait number 2 Rock Portrait number 3 Rock Portrait number 4Rock Portrait number 6Rock Portrait number 5

Rock Portrait number 7 Rock Portrait number 8 Rock Portrait number 9 Rock Portrait number 10






Meyer Lemon Surprise


I was pleasantly surprised to see lots and lots of lemons on our potted Meyer Lemon (Citrus limonia) this January – over 30! I’ve tended this lemon since 2008, received from Edible Landscaping, but have only had 10 or so lemons every winter. It has a humble place in our basement in front of a sliding glass door. When our fireplace is burning, it’s quite warm there, but when it is off – quite frequently – it’s downright chilly (50s).  So it is subjected to erratic temperatures but has plenty of light. Not ideal.

I’m trying to remember what I did differently this summer when the lemon was outdoors and forming buds. Probably two things:  I’m sure I covered it with compost tea – from T and J Enterprises –  on my rounds, and I also likely included it my rounds of nettle tea.  The compost tea did such wonders for every plant in the garden, I think it takes first place. However, since citrus needs trace minerals like iron, zinc, and manganese, I’m thinking that the nettle tea provided that along with all its other nutritional treasures. French Gardening.com explains in detail the elevated status of the nettle in France and how to use it.

I think the lemon was just waiting for a catalyst to unlock its dormant potential. It had well drained but moist soil, about 1/3 peat/coir mix, 1/3 fine expanded shale , and 1/3 compost, and was fed with fish emulsion (5-1-1) and kelp sprays. Its pot is a soft root trapper type which causes the rebranching of small feeder roots resulting in many more root surfaces to absorb air and nutrients. But microbes seem to be the magic something that unlocks potential.

This compost tea, because it has been such a magic elixir, has inspired us in all things compost. Last summer, we built two compost bins to handle all our vegetable and garden residue.

Oceanic Skullcap

Picture of skullcap growing in our gardenI have always loved the colors, textures, sculptural forms and under-seascapes of coral reefs. One of the reasons I love gardens is that they remind me of the lush exuberant whirling dervish atmosphere of underwater life. I like the thought of bringing this primordial template onto land –  so if a plant reminds me of a sea anemone or sea urchin, I’m likely to plant it. So when Rico Cech  of  Horizon Herbs described the purple flowers of Baical Skullcap (Scutellaria baicalensis) as  “schools of dolphins breaking through green waves in a summer sea”, there was hardly a choice but to order seed and add to my seascape vision.shot of skull cap blossoms in the garden

The seeds germinated well and I grew the small plants in pots most of the summer. In September, I put them in the ground. At that point there wasn’t much oceanic about them. This spring, I strained to see something – anything –  emerging, and finally there were some tiny but determined looking shoots.  Since they are native to Mongolia and Siberia I need not have been concerned. Our West Michigan winter only went down to zero this year. Over the summer they grew by leaps and bounds – maybe of those dolphins – surprising me at every turn.

I haven’t tested out their lauded medicinal qualities yet – harvest of the roots is the second year – but I plan to next year. Mr. Cech asserts that the roots cure dysentery (rare here is West Michigan) and avian flu (not so rare). He says “there is really no better anti-infection agent in herbalism, to my knowledge”.

With such ringing endorsements of its medicinal prowess, it may seem an afterthought that the flowers make beautiful short bouquets, perfect for a tabletop where you must be able to see the person across from you (well not “must”, in some cases a bouquet of sunflowers would be preferable). But if beauty itself has  any healing power, then skullcap is healing from top to bottom. Bees and hummingbirds are also Baical Skullcap enthusiasts. Between the Nicotiana (in the background) and the Cosmos (over yonder), the hummingbirds seem to be thrilled.

Now these gardens are a little closer to that uninterrupted, flowing, oceanic, mysterious quality I am cultivating.

Garden Highlights

'Black' zucchini

Zucchini – ‘Black’ – Pinetree Garden Seeds –  1931 Heirloom – “Excellent taste” (true)

Zucchini may be common but there is drama in zucchini – at least this year, which, channeling on my Chinese roots (circa 5,000 years ago) must be called the Year of the Bug. Every day I’ve been looking for three villains:  dark grey large squash bugs, striped cucumber beetles, and weird grey spider/bugs which live in clusters mostly and have fast nervous movements. These last (which I haven’t identified so far) laid waste an innocent cucumber plant several years ago so I’m well acquainted with their serious intentions.  I’ve had no choice but to drown them in soapy water (with added lid for the Houdini-like cucumber beetles). Since I’ve been appropriately watching old reruns of Gunsmoke lately, I think I know a little about how to be the sheriff in the Garden of Dodge. It’s a tough job but someone’s got to do it – even if it means not ever marrying Kitty – however I have managed to stay married.

So I got fast at dropping those bugs into my jar – all to maintain peace and order so the zucchini can go to school on sunlight and water, and graduate zucchinis for Zucchini Mushroom Quiche from the Cabbagetown Cafe Cookbook by Julie Jordan. This is my favorite all time cookbook.  It appears out of print now, but used copies are still available. Or the Vegetable Rosti with Tomato Corn Relish from the June issue of Vegetarian Times Magazine.

This zucchini has great flavor and texture – not watery and bland like some I have tasted.  It is an heirloom and doesn’t bear wildly as do zucchini hybrids. But this feature is one I sought out since I could just go crazy trying to keep up with barrels of zucchini. I am planning to save seeds from this plant – if it survives.  To save the seed, according to the book, Seed to Seed by Suzanne Ashworth,  let a zucchini grow till its rind is hard and cannot be dented by a fingernail. Then remove the seed three weeks or longer after harvest. (I plan to store it in the refrigerator.) Rinse the seeds in a colander under a stream of water and remove any debris.  Dry the seeds in a single layer on a cookie sheet. I’m hoping to gradually evolve seed that is acclimated to my garden and maybe even has a little resistance to our bugs due to its better vitality. Another heirloom zucchini from Johnny’s Selected Seeds is called Costata Romanesco which also sounds delicious but looks a bit different than the classic zucchini, with ribs and a pale grey-green color.