- Spider Plant
- Pink Aglaonema
- Philodendron Lemon Lime
- Dracaena Purple Compacta
- Philodendron “Little Hope” Varietal
- Aglaonema Snow White
- Sygnonium Podophyllum – Arrow Head/Goose Foot
- Callisia Fragrans
- Ficus Microcarpa
WHAT ARE THE forward-looking steps in your fall garden routine—the most important tasks you take now to get your garden tucked in, that really focus on success next year? Over at the part-farm, part-garden of Lee Reich in the Hudson Valley of New York State, his emphasis is on building soil health, and also on stashing his tender potted figs, so they’re primed for another productive fruiting season in the year to come.
Lee Reich has degrees in horticulture, soil science and chemistry, and is the author of many books, including the just out one called “Growing Figs in Cold Climates” . He’s a long time no-till organic gardener, and an expert pruner, and a grower of many unusual fruits, and someone I’ve turned to for advice for my own garden countless times over many years. He offered some tips to help us tuck in smarter–and also some on mixing your own potting soil, if you are seeking alternatives to peat-based mixes.
Plus: Enter to win a copy of Lee’s new book by commenting in the box farther down the page.
Read along as you listen to the Oct. 25, 2021 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on Apple Podcasts (iTunes) or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
fall tips for cleanup and overwintering figs, with lee reich
Margaret Roach: Hi, Lee. You ready to give me some more advice?
Lee Reich: Yeah, anytime.
Margaret: Congratulations on “Growing Figs in Cold Climates: A Complete Guide,” very useful to people like me with potted figs to tuck away. So thank you.
Lee: Well, you’re welcome. And I’m really happy with the book.
Margaret: Yeah. So we did a “New York Times” story together recently, based on how to grow overwinter figs in pots, one of the techniques you cover in that book. And we’ll talk about that in a little bit, but first I really want to do some fall stuff, because everybody who’s got a garden has to do some fall stuff, whether they’ve got a fig or not [laughter]. I’m already starting. We haven’t had any frost yet on my side of the river, I’m already into some fall chores, though. What’s your most important focus that’s really on your must list?
Lee: I guess the Number 1 thing I like to do, and it’s mostly vegetables, is cleanup. Certain parts of the garden, not the vegetable garden, but other parts of the garden, I don’t like to clean up too thoroughly, because there’s a lot of beneficial insects and fungi and things like that, that really like the debris and overwintering sites, and some things look nice also. But the vegetable garden, in order to keep diseases down and pests down, I like to thoroughly clean it up. And the other reason I like to thoroughly clean it up is because then in spring, all I got to do is go out and plant. I don’t have to do anything else, pretty much.
Margaret: Right. And you’re a no-till gardener in that vegetable garden, right? And maybe just tell us a little bit about that.
Lee: Yeah. For over 30 years—I stopped counting a few years ago, but it’s over 30 still [laughter]. And for over 30 years, well, over 30 years ago I stopped tilling. And the main impetus for that was to minimize weeds, because weed seeds are buried in the soil and when you till, they get exposed to light and then they sprout. So that was the main reason.
But also it’s a whole different.. I think it’s better for the plants, it’s better for the fungi, it’s better for the earthworms. And so I stopped tilling and then every year, basically the only… Well, first of all, the vegetable garden is in beds, permanent beds. And every year, what I do is I lay a 1-inch depth of compost, finished compost, on each vegetable bed, and this provides all the fertility, all the plants need. And this is very intensively planted. It starts very early in the season and things are still growing now.
And so the whole season long, that provides all the fertility the plants need. It stomps out any small weeds and it insulates the soil and it feeds the soil microorganism. So it has a lot of benefits, besides just keeping weeds down.
Margaret: Right. So you’re topdressing the beds and you’re doing that in fall or spring? I’m sorry. I wasn’t sure when you said.
Lee: I could do it anytime, but I like to do in the fall, because this way in spring, I can just plant and it seems like there’s so many other things to do in spring, that anything I can get out of the way… And one thing I’ve been doing in addition is I plant cover crops [below]. Anytime before early October, if I plant a cover crop that can not overwinter, but can go late into the fall.
And what I use is oats, because oats winter kills. So that meshes with my no-till system, because I don’t have to till it up in the spring.
So what happens is that oats grow their lush greens into December and through December and around the end of January, they just winter kill and they flop down dead like a mulch, in place, which also looks sort of nice because it’s got these tawny stems just lying on the ground. And in the spring, I could plant right into them, but what I prefer to do is just sort of rake it up, which is very easy, because they’re not connected to the roots anymore.
But the best thing about the cover crops is like right now, I can look over at my garden, it’s just lush green, it’s like strips of lawn. Each bed is like a strip of high lawn and it just looks so nice. It’s a very nice green color.
Margaret: Right, as opposed to empty beds. And I love the expression for cover crops,”green manure” [laughter]. I always loved that expression. Green fertility. Yeah. So you talked about cleanup and very good garden hygiene in the fall, really cleaning up the vegetable bed. Are there certain crops you really target very fastidiously for that, or it’s wholesale? And then what do you do with the debris? If you had, like we had a lot of rain this year, some people had a lot of fungal diseases and tomatoes and so forth. Do you compost all the debris no matter? What’s the rule on that?
Lee: Well, first of all, I’d say the one crop that I’m most fastidious with is tomatoes. Just because there’s certain leaf spot diseases, specifically three leaf spot diseases, and two of them overwinter in the ground. So I clean up every leaf I can find on the ground, every tomato. And then between that and then covering it with the compost, that keeps a lot of the spores in the soil, any that might be left.
And then all the debris, whether it’s from the vegetable garden or my fruit plantings, everything goes into my compost soil. I know that if you read in some places, or most places they say, “Well, if you have anything that’s diseased, don’t put it in your compost.”
Well, I contend that if you looked at any part of any plant closely enough, there’d be something inimical in that, and it would have some pest or disease lurking there, and you’d put nothing in the compost. So I put everything in my compost. I’ve done this for decades and I’ve never had a problem as a result.
Margaret: Right. And is your compost kind of cooking along fast and hot, or is it passive? It’s in bins, I think, right?
Lee: I have to admit that my composts [below] do get quite hot, typically. I just built one and my compost is like 145 degrees, but the thing is a compost doesn’t have to be hot to kill all these organisms. It takes some combination of time and temperature. If you don’t get a hot compost and you leave it long enough, it’ll also kill the pathogens. And if you have a high temperature, you can do it more quickly. So one way another, they’ll mostly be wiped out and I would not worry about them.
And I think just for the environmental benefit of… I can’t see putting these diseased plant parts in a plastic bag and putting them in a landfill. I have this thing about landfills. I’m not a big fan. [More from Lee on composting.]
Margaret: Right. And you’ve proven again, you say over decades, it works. I mean, for you, it’s working, and it’s not increasing your disease load the next year or anything like that. Yeah.
But leaving it lying in the beds would be a bad thing. That’s definitely… The good garden hygiene is really essential, I think. And especially in fall, even with pests, with insect pests. Nothing like leaving your brassicas and your cucurbits, the squashes up, and those pests that just can’t wait to find a nice cozy place near their favorite plants to overwinter [laughter] or whatever. It’s not good, you know?
Margaret: Yeah. So you don’t want to leave that to be, or when they awaken in the spring to have the food source right there, some old shriveled, whatever. Right? It’s just bad business, I think, to leave a mess in the fall.
Lee: Yeah. The other reason I have to say why I do this is because it looks nicer also. Yeah, I like a certain messiness in the garden, but I also like a certain neatness, and it’s just nice to look over the garden to see everything in order.
Margaret: It seems like a sense of closure in a way to the season. Do you know what I mean? It has a sense of finishing, and completing, and leaving it in good condition and so forth.
Lee: Yeah. Well, actually, one of my favorite quotes is from a book from the late 1800s. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Charles Dudley Warner, “My Summer in a Garden”?
Lee: Oh, it’s a great book. It’s very well written and he takes a little swipe at politics at the time. He was a friend of Mark Twain. Anyway, I just found this quote quickly, he wrote that, “The closing scenes are not necessarily funereal. A garden should be got ready for winter as well as for summer. When one goes into winter quarters, he wants everything neat and trim.”
The whole thing about not being funereal and melancholy in the fall, having everything in order, or at least part of the garden—I have to say my perennial flower garden is very much not in order.
Margaret: [Laughter.] Oh. So fruit is a big thing for you and the first time I met you was when I think, I wrote a story about one of your earlier books, “Uncommon Fruits Worthy of Attention,” which then I think got republished under another title later on and so forth. But fruit, fruit, fruit, you kind of woke us all up, a lot of gardeners all over the place, up to the idea that we could grow more than a strawberry or an apple or whatever.
And figs are one of the things that I associate with you because you’ve helped me over the years to figure out how to make mine [above, ripening] work. And I just have one old one in a big pot and so forth.
So I thought maybe we’d talk about that a little bit for people. We just did a story about it, as I said, in “The New York Times,” in the garden column. And it was fun because in this new book, you do give multiple approaches that people can use. Some take a lot more work. The one that we talked about in the story was growing them in a pot because that’s the easiest, in a way.
But one thing I really learned talking to you this time was, and from reading the book is, don’t put tender plants—shrubs like this, or trees, in the case of the fig—don’t put them in storage too soon in the fall. Right? It’s not time at all. You don’t put yours away till mid-December or something, even though you’re in a cold zone, right?
Lee: Yeah. People don’t realize that first of all, figs are not tropical fruits, they’re subtropical fruits. They can take down to 20 degrees or possibly even lower. In a pot, maybe not that cold, because the roots would be exposed to more cold weather. So I’d leave mine out as long as possible. And typically around here, and this is Zone 5 in the Hudson Valley, till late December. I mean, you want them to experience that cold, because that really helps toughen them up for winter. And you want them to get as fully dormant as possible. You want them to lose their leaves—go to sleep, so to speak—and then they’re ready to take winter and stay asleep hopefully long enough.
Margaret: Right. And you can do a number of things with a potted fig. I just drag mine on a hand cart into the unheated barn, but it is insulated and it’s protected from wind and ice and so forth. And they just sleep in there. And it gets pretty damn cold in there.
But as you taught me when we talked recently, it’s a combination of protection and pruning, that’s the success to us Northern gardeners trying to get a fig to be productive. It’s not just keeping it, not getting down to zero or whatever in the winter. And it’s not just pruning. It’s those two things, yes?
Lee: Right. Right. I mean, fig is such a… Maybe this is what attracted me—oh no, couldn’t be this, because I didn’t know anything about figs when I started growing them—but I was attracted to growing them. But now, one thing that really fascinates me with the fig is how unique it is. And this is crucial for pruning, is that figs bear fruit on two different possible ways.
One is a new growing shoot, which is not common for fruits that we grow around here. The apple bears on branches a few years old, and peaches on at least one year old, but a fig will bear on a new growing shoot. The shoot starts growing this season and it bears. And they will also, in some varieties, bear on one-year-old wood. Most of the varieties that people grow in the north bear—or at least some figs—bear on two crops, a new and one-year-old.
But most of the figs that people grow in Northern climates bear on new growing shoots at the very least, and the easiest way to manage them if you grow them in pots is to cut the plant back. This also makes it easier to move the pot indoors and outdoors, wherever you’re protecting it.
But the one thing that people don’t realize sometimes is you can’t cut it back as much as you want, because the more it’s cut back, the longer it takes before it starts bearing. And if it takes too long to start bearing, then the fruit won’t ripen in the season.
So you have to leave, by my estimate, a couple of feet of old growth. And the very easiest way to grow a fig tree in a pot and prune it correctly is to train it to a single stem, have that stem be 2 feet high, and every year at the end of the season, cut back all growth to that stem and these are coming up from ground level everywhere. Just have a single stub, a 2-foot high stub, so it makes it very easy to prune, too, and very easy to move around. It just has a different look, fig tree can also be grown with a shrubby form. It’s not going to have that shrubby look then.
So Margaret, are you going to retrain, reconfigure your fig now?
Margaret: I’m so torn, because mine is more shrubby. So by being in a pot all these years, a very, very, very large pot, but it’s dwarfed it. And I do take it out every couple years and root-prune it as well. And that’s another important thing we can tell people about. So mine looks like a shrub, a big shrub, and I love the look of it. It’s beautiful, and fig leaves are beautiful. It’s very ornamental.
So I hate to do it as just a stub and then have the shoots come off it, but I know that would give me more of this current-year wood that potentially, because it’s coming off older wood, the trunk that’s left behind would potentially have plenty of time to develop and ripen lots of fruit, more than I’m getting now. And so I’m tempted to almost get a second one, and have it be my producer. You know what I mean [laughter]?
Lee: But you could actually have almost the best of both worlds by, on your shrubby one, any spindly growths, especially growing out sideways, you just cut that back, because that’s not going to do anything next year. And then any really robust growth, save that at least 2 feet long and don’t save too many or there won’t be enough energy to really pump a lot of fruit out from that. And then the moderate growths, you can leave some and remove some.
Margaret: And so pruning can happen—and this was another thing that you reminded me of in our recent discussions—it can happen anytime from after leaf drop, before storage to when it first comes out in late winter, early spring. Right? I mean, we have a choice of when we do it?
Lee: Yeah. The advantage of doing it now—not now, but before you put it into storage—is it’s easier to move around. I know because when I used to take mine down to the basement, it’s a very narrow stairway, so I couldn’t let stems grow too far and wide, so I would cut them back. But I would also tie them together so that they wouldn’t spread as much, just to move them around.
Margaret: Right. And as I just mentioned, the root pruning. So there’s this top-growth pruning. And we’re trying in the Northern climates where we may not have enough time or where with a lot of the varieties were going to grow—you’re better off going for that main crop. Not that crop on the older wood, maybe, but cutting back more, and having more of these new shoots and going for the main-season crop on the new wood.
So if we’re doing that, the other kind of pruning we need to do is—because the plant’s going to exhaust its resources even in a really big pot, the underground resources…
Lee: Right. The roots will get too cramped plus there won’t be any nutrients, sufficient nutrients, left. So you have to refresh the soil once in a while, which you can do by putting it into a bigger pot, or you can just root-prune, you slice off the roots all around the root ball and pack new soil on there.
Margaret: And do you do that with a saw, or what is it that you use? Because we’re talking woody roots in there, right?
Lee: Right. Well, I used to use an old bread knife, which didn’t work that well. And then I can’t remember, there’s a name for this tool, but people usually call it Sawzall. A Sawzall with a metal blade and it takes two seconds. [Above, Lee at work on a fig.]
Lee: [Laughter.] It’s very untraditional.
Lee: But that works well. One thing you said that I just want to mention also, you mentioned that the way I talked about pruning, in Northern climates, you go for the main crop. If you are protecting the plant, moving it to shelter over the winter, and you have one that bears the first crop, which is the crop on one-year-old wood, which is called the breba crop, you actually could get an earlier crop with that, much earlier than you do the main crop.
So if you happen to have that variety and you save sufficient amount of one-year-old wood, you could get a more reliable early crop, but then you have to save a lot more wood. And then you have to prune it in a way that saves some of that wood, but also stimulate growth for next season’s new wood.
Margaret: Right. Right. So that’s a little more sophisticated, strategic-
Lee: Right. And you have to locate a variety—not that it’s that rare, but lots of times people don’t know what variety they’re really growing or people make up names for varieties—so you have to get a variety that specifically does bear a good breba crop, first crop.
Margaret: I have a completely stray question, not about figs and not exactly about… [laughter]. A surprise question. But it makes me think of it because a reader just asked it of me the other day. He, as I had, had read something about peat moss, not wanting to use peat moss, I think it was in an English newspaper, newspaper garden column. And you make your own potting medium.
So here we are, we’re going to re-pot this fig and root-prune it and make room for some new medium. So in the last couple minutes, I just wanted to ask you, I know peat is one of the things that you include in your own potting mix that you make. It’s not the primary ingredient, you have other ingredients. If we shouldn’t be using peat, are there any other things that people can use? You have a soil science degree and again, you mix your own soils and so forth. Any suggestions about that at all?
Lee: Yeah. Well it’s sort of funny because when I first started studying soils and started gardening, I looked up everything—there’s so many recipes for potting mixes, with all sorts of things.
There are certain things that you need a potting mix for. It has to provide a place for the roots to hold up the plants. It has to provide nutrients, it has to provide air. Ideally, it also provides organic matter to hold moisture. And there’s a lot of ways you can achieve that. So I came up with my mix, which happens, I based it on some other mixes I had read about and it works really well.
And so the simplest thing instead of peat, is coir, which is a byproduct of the coconut industry. So this is a sustainable, so they say, product.
So I have tried that and I have to say—and this is not heavy scientific experiment, just my, what’s it called—my anecdotal data. But I haven’t had good success with coir. So I really don’t use that anymore.
But quickly, if I just had to put together a mix, and I didn’t want to go through dipping into my peat container, I can use compost, because compost is an organic matter, which is what peat supplies. And you get a feel for it if you do it a lot, even in your hands of: O.K., this is going to have a good balance of air and moisture-holding.
So I’ve made mixes out of just compost and perlite, which probably also is not sustainable. You can make a mix out of compost and probably sand or compost and soil. I know that a local grower here, for all his seedlings, he uses just pure compost. I don’t know how that works. I don’t think it would work for long term, because compost being old, organic matter, over time disappears.
So you can use all sorts of, basically the idea is you have some sort of organic matter, which could be compost, peat, leaf mold is another thing. And you want some mineral product, which I use perlite, but you could also use calcined montmorillonite clay, which is also known as kitty litter, or one type of kitty litter. You could use coarse sand.
And I like to… I know potting mixes that you buy don’t have real soil in them, but I think there’s a certain benefit to having real soil-
Margaret: A little bit. Yeah.
Lee: … in a potting mix. So I use one-quarter of soil, but I wouldn’t use more than one-quarter soil. So there’s a lot of ways to make a mix that works.
Margaret: O.K. Well thank you, Lee Reich and congratulations again on “Growing Figs in Cold Climates.” I’ll talk to you soon. Thanks so much.
Lee: Yeah. Good talking to you.
(All photos except ripening figs from Lee Reich; used with permission.)
enter to win a copy of ‘figs for cold climates’
I’LL BUY A COPY of Lee Reich’s new book “Figs for Cold Climates: A Complete Guide” (affiliate link) for one lucky reader. All you have to do to enter is answer this question in the comments box below:
Lee said his most important fall task is cleaning up those vegetable beds carefully, then topdressing them with compost. What’s most urgent on your to-do list as we head into the dormant season?
No answer or feeling shy? Just say something like “count me in,” and I will. But a reply is even better. I’ll pick a random winner after entries close at midnight Tuesday, November 2, 2021. Good luck to all.
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MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its 11th year in March 2020. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the Oct. 25, 2021 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
Buying blueberries at the store or the farmer’s market can be pretty pricy. But did you know that growing your blueberries isn’t that hard at all? In fact, growing blueberries in a container is a convenient way to have fresh fruit at the ready whenever you want them.
The compact, easy-care fruit-producing bushes are easy to plant and grow, even if you have no outdoor land space.
If you want fresh blueberries for your pancakes, bake into muffins, or eating right off the plant, follow these steps.
1. Container Size
A blueberry bush produces shallow roots that spread out horizontally. A large container that is at least two feet across will be perfect to start your new bush out in.
As the bush ages and matures, it will need to be transplanted into a larger container, such as half a barrel, to accommodate its expanding root system.
2. Prepare Soil
Blueberry bushes grow best in acidic soil. Fill the container half full of acidic planting soil mix that is recommended for growing azaleas.
Combine all three ingredients thoroughly, then make a shallow planting hole in the center of the soil that is deep enough to accommodate most of the bush’s roots.
3. Select Bush
There are many varieties of blueberry bushes to select from, with varying mature sizes and berry harvest time. You should select the right variety for your USDA hardiness zone.
A good nursery will help you chose a cool-zoned type for your garden, such as the Chippewa variety for zones as low as Zone 3.
from: Nature Hills Nursery, Inc.Southern gardeners want to go with a Southern Highbush variety, like the Sunshine Blueberry.
Sunshine Blue Blueberry
from: Nature Hills Nursery, Inc.Regardless of the variety you select, usually two bushes will be needed for cross pollination. For the longest harvest, select blueberry varieties that produce ripe berries at different times of the season so you can enjoy fresh blueberries longer.
The age of the bush will also factor into how soon you will have fresh blueberries. If you start with a bush that is 2-3 years old, you will be eating fresh blueberries that same year.
RELATED READS: What Veggies, Fruits, and Herbs Can I Grow Indoors?
Carefully remove the blueberry bush from its purchase container by cutting the container away with a utility knife.
Try to keep all the soil intact around the roots and place it in the prepared planting hole. Gently press the roots into the soil and add two inches of planting soil mix on top of the roots, firm soil, and water well.
All of the blueberry bush’s roots need to be covered by planting soil, but not buried deep into the soil. Fill the remaining space on top of the planting soil with organic mulch that is acidic, like pine straw or pine bark.
Now that the bush is planted in its growing container, it needs the right location to help it grow.
Choose a sunny location in which to set the container, one in which the bush will receive 6-8 hours of direct sunlight per day.
While the bush loves sunshine, it will also benefit from a shady reprieve from direct afternoon sun in mid-summer.
Using a container that has wheels will make it mobile and easy to move in and out of the sun as needed or the container can be placed on the east side of a building or fence so the bush will have afternoon shade.
Blueberry bushes love consistently damp, cool soil, that’s why you often find them growing in the wild near the edge of a tree line in a dense pine forest.
The dappled sunlight, cool, moist soil that contains acid from the decomposing pine needles is the ideal home for native blueberries.
Keep the soil moist, but never soggy wet. Make sure the planting container has sufficient drainage holes in the bottom to allow excess water to run quickly out the bottom and away from plant roots.
The layer of acidic mulch on top of the soil will help keep the soil cool and retain moisture in addition to adding nutrients to the soil as it decomposes.
Follow that yearly feeding up with a twice a month feeding with a plant food that is high in acidity.
Stop fertilizing when blueberries begin to turn from green to blue.
When a 2-3-year-old bush is planted and all its needs met, you should be harvesting ripe blueberries within five months. The berries are ready when they turn a deep blue color and turn loose of the bush easily when pulled.
Be aware that birds enjoy tasty blueberries and have been waiting patiently for them to ripen.
Prevent birds from eating all of your fresh blueberries by placing fabric netting over the bushes as soon as the berries appear. Black fabric netting seems to be the color that works best as a berry-protecting bird repellent.
Last update on 2021-04-18 at 04:44 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API
THEY’RE AMONG the most popular and good-for-you vegetables, but brassicas—broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and the like—can also be a little tricky to grow unless you start with the right variety, get the timing right, and have a preemptive action plan to outsmart pests.
I got advice on how to accomplish all that from Steve Bellavia, who joined Johnny’s Selected Seeds in 1993, where today he’s product manager in their research department for peppers, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, and Chinese cabbage. Varieties you may not have tried, like flat cabbage, or mini-broccoli, or green-stemmed cauliflower (above) might be a better match and give you better results than the most familiar versions; we talked about those and more.
Read along as you listen to the April 12, 2021 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on Apple Podcasts (iTunes) or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
best brassicas and how to grow them, with steve bellavia
Margaret Roach: Hi. Steve, and right in time: We need the help. You go to the garden center at this time of year, and we all want everything to fill up the vegetable beds and so forth. But a lot of times the starts—the vegetable seedlings, cellpacks of seedlings—some of the plastic labels may just basically say “broccoli” or “cauliflower” or whatever. They may not even have a variety name. I think we have to do better than that to have good success, don’t we?
Steve Bellavia: I think so, yes. It’s better when you can choose the particular varieties you want, to address your particular needs as a gardener.
Margaret: Yeah. So maybe let’s start with broccoli, because you say “broccoli” and people visualize the big, giant green heads at the supermarket or whatever, or the farmstand. But I don’t know, I don’t even grow those kinds, do you?
Steve: I don’t, either. They’re fine, and I liked them but the reason I don’t is—there are several reasons. One is you get one big head and you cut it and you’ll get side shoots definitely. But eventually they’ll kind of peter out a little bit. And also I think the flavor of broccoli is good, but I think there are some of the other types of mini-broccolis [above] that are better. So what I usually end up growing at home are what we call at Johnny’s mini-broccolis.
Basically they’re often crosses of a standard broccoli with an Asian gai lan or Chinese kale, which is a real small-floretted variety. And those varieties are sweeter. So if you grow these mini-broccolis we have, such as ‘Noble Jade’ [below] and there’s another one called ‘Atlantis,’ you get a smaller floret. And when you cut them, they’ll keep coming back faster.
And another thing that’s really good about those is that they can take heat a lot better than the large-headed varieties. So when you have a summer day that it’s really hot and you have long days, you’ll get a better, sweeter crop from the mini-broccolis than you will with the big broccoli.
Margaret: Right. And I’m a longtime user and love… Johnny’s has so much information, what they call the Grower’s Library. And you’ve written a number of the articles, contributed a lot to the Grower’s Library over the years, sort of expert how-to articles. And I read one recently about these different categories of “broccolis,” and some are like broccoli raab and some leaf broccoli, and like you just said, sort of more Chinese mini-type. And I mean, there really is a diversity.
And yet again, if we go to the garden center in spring to get some broccoli, it’s probably going to be the basic, larger-head kind of a thing.
Steve: Correct. And some of the ones you had mentioned, Margaret, like the leaf broccoli [or spigariello, photo below]–those you would just direct-seed and grow them like a normal green, and then you could bunch them and you could cook them or saute them in stir fries, like you would any other kind of green.
The broccoli raabs are a bit more interesting, I think, too. Those are a specialty from Italy, and they basically, you have a small floret and then it’s quite leafy around them. And they have a slightly bitter taste that may not be so good raw. But if you saute those with a little bit of garlic and oil and have them as a side dish with pasta or other meals, they’re really good. That bitterness, when it cooks, becomes quite pleasant.
Margaret: The leaf broccoli you mentioned, I’ve heard people say spig-a-rello and I’ve heard people say spig-ar-iello. I don’t know how you pronounce it, but it’s a fun plant to grow.
Steve: It is, and it’s easy. And that’s a specialty that’s particularly grown in Southern Italy. So yeah, we grow that in our trials every year and I’ve taken that home sometimes. And just like with the broccoli raab, I’ve sauteed that with a little garlic and had it as a side dish.
Margaret: Yeah. And it just, well, like it sounds: leaf broccoli. You kind of are harvesting these leaves. Eventually it does get some little florets, as I recall, but it’s really more for the greens, isn’t it?
Steve: Correct. And if you keep it cut, it’ll just keep producing greens for a long time, just like a lot of other greens.
Margaret: Right. So are some of the ones we’ve been talking about, or is it within each group, there are varieties that are better for early, when it’s a little bit cooler, or the heat of summer, or fall, as it’s cooling down again. I mean, is that a factor, too, in choosing what we want to grow?
Steve: It is for the large-size heading broccoli, definitely.
Steve: For the mini-broccolis, they have good heat tolerance and you could plant those from spring to summer, and all of the crops will usually do pretty well. Though of course, they’ll do a little bit better when it’s cooler weather.
Margaret: Right. So I don’t know—because we’re going to talk about a couple of other brassicas, a couple of other cousins of broccoli—I don’t know if we want to talk about growing how to, and some basic pest prevention now before we go on to the next crop. Because I don’t know if there’s some general advice that you have for us on all of them, or what would be the best way to go about that?
Steve: There is general advice. What I would say for all of these brassica crops, what I like to do on my home garden is used the spun-bond row covers to put over the crops. That will exclude flea beetles, which are really damaging, particularly to seedlings. And it’ll also take care of cabbage loopers, and other types of butterfly and moth pests that can really do quite a bit of damage to a brassica crop.
I find that to be the easiest way to control them, rather than have to go out and treat them. If you don’t use row covers, then there are many different organic products that you can spray on the crops, but you’ll have to spray them repeatedly that way. And it’s just a lot more work.
Margaret: So with the Agribon or another fabric, the spun fabric, like you’re saying, timing is everything, right? I mean, you don’t wait a week or two to put it on do you after transplant [laughter]? [Above, Agribon fabric over hoops at Johnny’s trial fields.]
Steve: After you direct-seed or transplant, you put it on the same day, and you want to tuck in the edges and then cover them with soil so there’s nowhere for the insects to get in.
And there are different weights to those fabrics. There’s a lightweight one called Agribon 15, and then there’s another one, Agribon 19. The 15 is really good for brassicas. It’ll protect from insect damage, but it doesn’t increase the heat very much. And for brassicas being a cool-weather crop, they’ll do much better staying cooler.
The Agribon 19 would be more for crops like tomatoes or peppers or melons where you want to exclude insects and also increase the temperature underneath. So the brassicas go for the 15-weight Agribon.
Margaret: So you did mention in terms of other sort of general growing advice, that’s some good pest prevention advice. But with the general growing, you mentioned the spigariello or the leaf broccoli, we could direct-sow. But with the rest, are you recommending we start seedlings. And do we do successions, and any other sort of getting started growing advice?
Steve: Yeah, generally we transplant most of those crops and the seed’s relatively expensive, so most growers do that. Also you can get the plants right where you want them in the garden. So we tend to do that; it’s more predictable.
And as far as succession planting, probably every three to four weeks is good. That’ll give you a new crop coming in when the old crop is going out. You can also go a little bit longer than that, it’ll just be diminishing returns.
Steve: And another thing about growing these crops, you have to make sure you give them adequate water and reasonably good fertility. Brassicas, they need water and they need good fertility to perform well.
Margaret: All right, so those are some important… And I think the pest-control thing is just—I mean, it’s almost not worth it because it all strikes me as if you’ve just put up a big flare or something saying, “Hey, brassica pests. I’ve just planted some.” I mean, really, the cabbage white butterfly for me is the biggest one that produces the imported cabbage worm as the larval phase. And that’s like, they just show up in 10 minutes [laughter].
Steve: That’s a problem here. And for us, at least where we are, the flea-beetle pressure is so high that if I were to transplant brassica seedlings in my garden at home, there’s a fair chance they get completely eaten and destroyed. There’d be no crop at all if I didn’t cover them.
Margaret: Right. So what we want everyone to know is you’re not doing something wrong if you have those pests. It’s that you’re doing something wrong if you don’t protect your crop right away, the minute you sow or transplant.
Margaret: [Laughter.] Yeah. So what about cabbage? I mean, here’s another one where frankly, unless I want to make coleslaw maybe once or twice a year, I don’t really want a big giant purple or green bowling ball. But what about cabbage?
Steve: Yeah, cabbage, it’s interesting, because before I started working at Johnny’s, I just thought about cabbages being green and red and never really thought too much about it. But to me now it’s one of my favorite crops, once I’ve explored it more. There are a lot of different types of cabbages that can be used for different uses.
There are some of the real small green ones, which are real early fresh-market types. And those ones are great. There’s a variety called ‘Tiara’ [above] another one called ‘Farao.’ They have really thin leaves and they’re sweet. And those ones, they tolerate heat well. So you could grow those by planting them in the spring and harvesting in the summer. And you could really use them like you would lettuce in the summer. And we all know trying to grow to lettuce in the summer can be difficult. They bolt and you can get bitterness, but the ‘Tiara’ and the ‘Farao’ cabbages really maintain their sweetness very well.
Margaret: So the leaves are thinner you’re saying? So it’s not that really thick texture of a cabbage that I might make coleslaw out of, for instance? It’s not like where I have-
Steve: Because they’re a little bit thinner, because the heads are smaller, they’re quite tender and tasty.
Margaret: Oh, interesting.
Steve: And another one of my favorites, it’s called ‘Tendersweet,’ which is a flat cabbage [above]. And the flat cabbages, they’re really popular in Asia. And in Asia, they tend to cook most of their cabbage, and they grow a lot of flat ones there. They tend to have thin leaves. So if they cook it in a stir-fry, it’ll cook really fast and cook at the same rate as the other vegetables that they’re adding to the stir-fry. If you try to stir-fry a real thick-leaf cabbage, sometimes the cabbage takes a lot longer than the other vegetables.
Margaret: O.K. So when you say flat, meaning it’s not a big ball-shaped head?
Steve: No. ‘Tendersweet’ is really a flat-headed cabbage. It’s really cool looking.
Margaret: Oh, huh. And Chinese cabbage? I have hardly ever grown it and yet I enjoy it when I have it. When someone cooks with it or whatever, I enjoy it. So is that harder, easier, the same?
Steve: Chinese cabbage is similar to growing regular cabbage and it’s easier than growing broccoli or cauliflower, because Chinese cabbage naturally has some good heat tolerance. The crop originates in Asia in areas where it’s traditionally hot and humid. So you can grow Chinese cabbage in hot weather in the summer and it’ll do pretty well.
Margaret: Yeah. I can’t remember if I’ve ever, but I don’t think I’ve ever really grown it, and yet it looks so good. And as I said, I enjoy it when I do have it to eat. And then one that strikes me as really hard and that I’ve never succeeded with—and now comes in colors in recent years—is cauliflower.
Steve: Yeah. Cauliflower is definitely, I would say, the most difficult of the brassicas to grow successfully. Even the varieties that have the best heat tolerance don’t do well if heat gets really extreme, or in particular, if you get wide fluctuations in the weather, where you might have a 50 degree one day, and then the next day it’s 80. It really creates havoc for the plant and causes the heads not to form properly.
So it’s really best in the fall. But if you’re going to grow it in the spring, you have to choose the correct varieties. And just realize that if you have really a bad stretch of weather, it may not do so well.
And another thing about cauliflower is it definitely needs to have high fertility and adequate water, even more so than broccoli and cabbage do. If it doesn’t get those two things, it really won’t do very well.
Margaret: It kind of makes sense when you look at the plant and you look at what it’s trying to accomplish, if it were to perform in a peak manner. You know, it’s a pretty big undertaking, right? [Laughter.] I mean, from that little seed, you’re going to have this big head. I mean, water makes sense, and fertility makes sense. It looks like a hard job to produce that.
Steve: Right. It has to make a real big plant and then it has to produce a big head from that. So yes, you’re asking a lot more from the plant than you would broccoli.
Margaret: Right. What about the green-stemmed cauliflowers [photo, top of page]? I’ve read about them, but I’ve never tried them. What’s that about?
Steve: Yeah. Those are exciting. The green-stem types, those are also from Asia, and they also grow those quite a bit in areas that are hot and humid. If you look at them, they look a lot like a traditional white cauliflower, but if you turn them over, the stems are pale green rather than white. And the curd is usually not quite as white. It’s usually just a slight tinge of orange, and they tend to be a little bit looser. Like they get called loose-curd types a lot as well.
And there are several things that I think about the loose-curd types, the green-stem types, that make them a lot easier to grow than the white types. What I’ve noticed when we’ve grown these is that in heat or nutrient stress, they tend to come out of it and perform a lot better than the traditional white types.
And also another thing is that the florets are looser, so when you cut them from the heads, they’re a lot easier to cook with, because they’re a little bit smaller, and the flavor is also quite a bit sweeter. They’re very flavorful.
Margaret: That sounds like it’s worth a try if one wants to try cauliflower, you know what I mean? That sounds more forgiving, a little more forgiving.
Steve: A lot more user-friendly. And just, if you grow those, just recognize that when you look at the head, there’s going to be a slight yellow color, rather than white. That’s perfectly normal and O.K, and it’s not a problem.
Margaret: One of my favorite vegetables of all is Brussels sprouts [laughter], and maybe it’s just because it’s such a preposterous creature. [Above, Margaret and her sister, Marion, one Thanksgiving maybe 10 years ago with Margaret’s homegrown Brussels sprouts.]
Margaret: It’s this big tall thing, and it’s got all these crazy little satellites on a stem. It’s just a funny, funny thing. And when I succeed with it, I just feel so victorious. And also frankly, because at like the fall holidays or Thanksgiving time, I mean, in the organic market, they’re pretty expensive at that time of year. So if you’ve grown your own, you really feel like you got your money’s worth out of your seeds and then some.
So what about Brussels sprouts? Are there easier/harder ones, or is there a timing? It seems like there’s a timing with those, especially.
Steve: Yeah. I would say timing is a big issue. We like to sow the seeds in the greenhouse in May.
Steve: And then we transplant around the last week of May, beginning of June. I’m sorry. We sow the seeds in the beginning of May and then transplant around the 1st of June. And then that means when the crop is maturing, it’ll be doing so when the weather is cooling down. So that you’re way more likely to get a successful harvest than if you were to, say, start them in April, where they’re going to be growing through the whole, hot growing season.
And also, like cauliflower, Brussels sprouts really need quite a bit of fertility and quite a bit of water. If they don’t get those two things, they really don’t do that well.
Margaret: So just for perspective, you’re talking about a set-out date around early June. What’s that relative to like your frost date or when you’d put out, say, tomatoes or something? Is that around your frost date or is that after or before or what?
Steve: We put out tomatoes around the first week of June usually. Our frost date up here is usually right around Memorial Day or so.
Margaret: O.K. So even though Brussels sprouts are more of a “cool-season” crop because they take a long time and like to develop the sprouts at the cool end of the season, we’re putting them out when we might be putting out our warm-season, like our tomatoes or something. So we don’t want to start them too early and have them, like you said, trying to mature in like August or July or something. That’s not a good thing.
Steve: Right. They don’t mind growing when it’s hot. They’re perfectly happy. It’s when they’re starting to put out the sprouts, if it’s real hot, that’s when they really don’t like that. But if they’re starting to set the sprouts when the weather’s cooling off, you really get the firm sprouts that are real good quality. And then once you start getting some frost on them, that’s when the flavor really sweetens up and improves.
Margaret: So in the last few minutes, I wanted to just talk a little bit about some of the… I mean, as long as I’ve been gardening, I’ve been using the references—it used to be in the catalog, and then, of course, on the internet in the Grower’s Library online. Lots of information in there. And as I mentioned before, you’ve contributed to it. So kind of just give us a little bit of a tour, a couple highlights of what can we find there.
Like I love the… I have one on my site, too, I built a seed-starting calculator, when to start seeds. You have that, and lots of other kinds of videos and articles and so forth. Tell us a little bit—I think you have a planting program grid kind of a thing also that you’ve told me about.
Steve: Yeah. At Johnny’s, we like to give our customers a lot of information to make them successful too, rather than just sell them seeds. And if you look on the website, or in the catalog, we’ll have what we call planting programs.
So for example, if you pulled up a planting program for broccoli, it will tell you which varieties are suitable for transplanting and harvesting at which seasons. That way you won’t make the mistake of planting a broccoli variety that likes to mature in cool weather in the spring, and have it mature in the hot weather and be unsuccessful. So those planting programs are real helpful. We do those for cauliflower as well, and for some other crops.
Margaret: O.K. And so obviously we’ll also give some links to some of the articles that I referred to, like the one about the different types of broccoli and broccoli relatives and so forth that you’ve contributed to.
When we’re speaking, it’s early April, are you already out in your own garden yet? Is the soil ready yet for you? Have you planted anything in your garden, Steve? [Laughter.]
Steve: Not quite, Margaret. It’s getting close, but it’s probably a little wet and cool yet up in Maine. Probably in the next week, I’ll be able to poke around a little bit and maybe plant some peas.
Margaret: Yeah. That’s what I was thinking, too. It’s been mucky here and we’ve just been having some windy days. So it’s starting to dry out. I think normally I try to get the peas in earlier, but I think it’s going to be this weekend before it really feels O.K. So we’ll see.
Steve: You’re a little bit earlier than we are, you being down near Connecticut.
Margaret: Yeah, down in that direction. Well, I’m glad to speak to you and to get some advice on growing some of these brassicas, and especially the timing and the fact that selecting the right variety is so important to success. So I appreciate your making the time and I’ll talk to you again soon I hope. Thanks.
(Photos, except of Margaret and her sister, from Johnny’s Selected Seeds.)
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MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its 11th year in March 2020. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the April 12, 2021 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
EVERY TIME over the years that I’ve spoken to today’s guest, one word comes up: oak. If entomologist and University of Delaware Professor Doug Tallamy sounds a little fixated on native oaks, it’s because they are the most powerful plant there is, and he wants us to be very clear on that and plant them.
In his new book, “The Nature of Oaks: The Rich Ecology of Our Most Essential Native Trees” (affiliate link), he makes the case more strongly than ever, with twists and turns and the tales of all the creatures we depend on, who depend on the genus Quercus.
Doug Tallamy is well-known to most every gardener as a longtime leading voice speaking in the name of native plants. His 2007 book, “Bringing Nature Home,” was for many of us, an introduction into the entire subject of the unbreakable link between native plants and native wildlife. He followed up with the 2020 “New York Times” bestseller, “Nature’s Best Hope,” and now, just out, “The Nature of Oaks.”
We talked about the importance of oak leaf litter, about galls on oaks, about mast years when there’s a bumper crop of acorns, and even about how periodical cicadas and oaks have some things in common. And of course we talked about planting oaks.
Read along as you listen to the April 5, 2021 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on Apple Podcasts (iTunes) or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
Plus: Enter to win a copy of the new book by commenting in the box near the bottom of the page.
And: Read the interview with Doug I did in my column in “The New York Times” for more on the story of oaks and their importance.
the power in an oak tree, with doug tallamy
Margaret Roach: Yeah. You should see my copy of your new oak book, there’s Post-its sticking out everywhere and four sheets of folded-up paper inside, covered in notes.
Doug Tallamy: We’ll have to get you a new one then.
Margaret: No, no, no, no, no. I didn’t write on the pages. But so much to learn [laughter]. And so maybe we should sort of start with a little CV, a little resume of the genus Quercus. What you found out about its powers when you started research all those years ago, comparing native and non-native plants and their ecological value and so forth.
Doug: Well, the first thing I found, thinking about their role in ecosystems, I always focus on food webs first. Plants of course, are capturing the energy from the sun and turning it into food, and then how well they pass that energy on to animals depends on how many animals are there. And not all plants are willing to pass it on. A lot of plants are very well-protected and they hang on to that energy.
But oaks pass it on better than any other plant genus in North America, so that’s what I focused on. But in doing that, I learned they’re also great at other ecological roles. They’re great at sequestering carbon, which we certainly need today. They’re great at pumping that carbon into the soil, which we certainly need today. They’re great at managing our watershed, because they have such big canopies and big root systems. The only thing they’re not great at is supporting pollinators because they’re wind-pollinated, but three out of four, that’s pretty good.
Margaret: [Laughter.] And the numbers are staggering. You often speak in caterpillar counts, which I tease you about, but how many caterpillar species, many of them from moths, are making use of a particular genus of native plants and oaks really are powerhouses on that score, yes?
Doug: Yes, the most productive plant in this country. Over 900 species of Lepidoptera—and most of them are moths—use oaks and there’s no other genus that comes close to that. The reason that’s important is that caterpillars are transferring more energy from plants to other animals than any other type of plant eater. Measuring the caterpillars in your ecosystem is a really good measure of how well that energy is being transferred out and how much biodiversity you actually have in that ecosystem. [Above, a one-spotted variant, a kind of inchworm, is among the caterpillar species reliant on spring oak foliage.]
Margaret: Right. Maybe we’d better, right off the bat, recite sort of an homage to leaf litter because it’s spring cleanup time in a lot of places. And I really shudder after reading the new book, to think of all those vacuums and shredders going at it around the nation, in the name of garden cleanup. It’s a good thing that oak leaves are plentiful and that they resist breaking down, right? It’s not some plot to drive gardeners mad.
Doug: [Laughter.] That’s right. Leaf litter of course, it’s the blanket that protects our soil. And if that blanket doesn’t make it through the summer, which many other trees’ leaf litter doesn’t, so things like maple and birches and tulip trees, they disintegrate very quickly, but oak, oak-leaf litter can last up to three years after it falls. That provides a permanent cover and that’s exactly what all of the creatures that live in the soil, and there are more species that live in the soil than live above the soil, they need that protective blanket to maintain the moisture level, to return nutrients to the soil, put that organic material into the soil. And again, oak leaves are better than most other trees in terms of doing that.
One of the things we’re learning and it’s something I hadn’t thought about earlier, is that those caterpillars that are so vital to the food web, most of them develop on trees, but then they fall from the tree. And they’ve got to complete their development—either they tunnel into the ground and pupate underground or they spin a cocoon in the leaf litter under the tree.
And if you look around you and see the way we landscape, there is no leaf litter [below] under the tree, we have grass right up to it or bare soil or cement and we compact our soil so much by mowing and walking on it, that it’s very difficult for those caterpillars to get underground. The way we landscape underneath the tree is now becoming just as important as the type of tree that we choose for our yards, in terms of allowing that vital part of the food web to complete its life cycle.
Margaret: Right. I was interested in the book to note that you note that two possible, very practical advantages that leaf litter, oak leaf litter in particular, offers is that it may suppress the incredible spread of the invasive Japanese stiltgrass, and also Asian jumping worms, which are another threat to forest, especially forest, ecosystems.
Doug: Right. And it’s hard to figure out which one’s worse, but Japanese stiltgrass just, it takes over it. It produces seeds, not only at its terminals, but at its axils right next to the ground, so you can mow it as often as you want and it’ll still make seeds. It’s an annual, but it keeps coming back, blankets the ground and excludes everything else.
And then those jumping worms eat all the leaf litter, and that’s where oak leaves again, stand out because they’re so tough and full of tannins and lignins that it’s the one type of leaf litter that jumping worms really don’t like. I’ve heard of examples, yeah, they’re eating some of it. But typically when you have an oak forest, those worms stay away.
Margaret: Some years with oaks, anyone who lives with oaks knows, there’s wall to wall acorns on the ground in fall [below]. And so can we talk about mast years, the phenomenon of mast years, and how they work and maybe what some of the hypotheses are as to why that happens, why sometimes there’s such a profusion, such a big crop.
Doug: Yeah. That’s called oak masting, and usually it’s within one of the oak groups, the white oak group or the red oak group will mast a particular year. And often they don’t mast the same year. But you’re right, they produce a lot of acorns in a single year and then go one or two or maybe even more years without producing very many at all. Why do they do that? One of the hypotheses and the most popular one is called predator satiation. Things that would eat acorns we call acorn predators. And there’s a lot of things, all the deer and the squirrels and the turkeys and so many birds and the acorn weevils.
And if you look at what the acorn collection looks like under a tree after all these things are eating the acorns, there’s very little left on a typical year. But on a mast year, so many acorns are produced, it swamps the population size of the squirrels and all the things that are eating those acorns. It’s a strategy for overwhelming the predator pressure that is on acorns. If they produce the same amount every year, the population of all those things that eat acorns would be steady as well, but at a very high level and there would be very few acorns left to make new oaks. That’s one of the hypotheses.
Another one is that it takes a lot of energy to make acorns. And it takes a lot of energy to grow new shoots and get bigger as a tree. And typically there’s not enough energy to do both, so oaks—and there are other trees that mast as well—but they allocate that energy. Sometimes some years they put it towards reproduction, sometimes they put it towards growth, but rarely both.
There’s also a hypothesis that because they’re wind-pollinated, if all the oaks produce their catkins and produce an awful lot of pollen in a single year, then pollination is much more effective, it’s much more efficient.
And there’s a fourth hypothesis that in producing a whole lot of acorns one year, it allows things like mice and squirrels to really explode their populations. They get very, very numerous. But then the next year there’s hardly any acorns and those populations crash, which means if they produce acorns the third year after that, there’ll be very few things around to eat it. It’s close to predator satiation, but a little bit different.
And none of those hypotheses are mutually exclusive, they all could be happening at the same time.
Margaret: Right. And that was the case with so many things in the book. In fact, you end a lot of the sections by saying, “And like I’ve said, it could be all of these things, because it’s interconnected.” [Above, a white oak.]
Doug: We humans like to make it black and white, very simple. It’s this or that, but it’s often a lot of things happening together. It can be very complicated.
Margaret: Yeah. A lot of chapters in the book, which you’ve arranged month by month through the year, starting in chapter one is October, they tell these sort of intimate, intricate stories of creatures, like the ones in the leaf litter and so forth. And of course I expected caterpillars to be a prominent character in the book about oaks, but the list was like, oh my goodness: katydids, walking sticks, tree crickets, lace bugs, plant hoppers. Tree hoppers, gall wasps, blah, blah, blah. And I could go on and on and we could fill a page with the animals that are involved with oaks.
But then maybe most surprising one to me and you’re going to have at your house, in your area, a brood emergence of them there this year, in 2021, is the periodical cicadas. I didn’t know they had anything to with oaks. Tell us a little bit about that.
Doug: Well, the periodical cicadas are not specific to oaks, but they love them. Of course cicadas, the periodical cicada, comes out in two broods, either the 17-year brood or the 13-year brood. The one at our house is going to be the 17-year brood. It’s been 17 years since they appeared. And the oaks that I planted at our house have grown a lot in that 17 years, so it’ll be interesting to see the size of the population, because they were just small trees when the cicadas around the last time.
And I’m not expecting that many cicadas because the eggs were laid when they were small trees, there weren’t that many around. But this year there’ll be a lot of eggs laid and then 17 years from now, we’ll probably have a pretty good emergence.
So periodical—they’re periodical for the same reason that you have oak mast. There’s no predator of periodical cicadas that can track that 17 or 13 year old period. They can’t wait that long to come out to eat again.
Margaret: To eat [laughter].
Doug: There’s a lot of things that eat those cicadas, a lot of birds and all the rodents and everything, but they swamp them. They come out by the millions and then they successfully get to reproduce. I do have one recommendation:
The media loves to sensationalize everything and they’re making this brood sound like it’s just going to be the worst scourge in the world. It’s terrible. Everybody should hide.
It’s actually one of the most fantastic biological phenomena that you’re ever going to see. You should go out and appreciate it. But it’s probably a good year not to plant small trees in the spring. Wait till the fall, because the cicadas do lay their eggs in the terminal twigs of branches and it kills the branch from that point on, it causes what we call flagging. And if it’s a very small tree, 3 or 4 feet, it really can knock it back. Wait till the fall this year to plant your trees and you’ll be happy you did.
Margaret: Am I correct in understanding also from the book, that part of the reason—and I’m going to get this imprecise, I’m sure. But part of the reason that the cicadas take either 13 or 17 years to grow and eventually emerge as adults is because living underground all that time, they are sustained by sucking xylem from the roots of trees, including oaks and this is a very watery substance, not a lot of nutrients, and so you grow really slow to adulthood when you live on xylem. Again, I’m paraphrasing, but is that another sort of connection?
Doug: Yes. Xylem is practically pure water. There are very few nutrients in it. But it doesn’t totally explain the very long periods, because of course we have the annual cicada, which comes out every year, but we don’t actually know how long it takes the annual cicada to develop underground. We know they come out every single year, but each individual was underground more than a single year, but it’s not 17 or 13 years, so they can develop faster than those periods.
But xylem is the worst plant resource that’s available [laughter]. It’s water with just a tiny little bit of nutrients. But it’s one of the reasons you can have so many sucking on a tree and unless you have a serious, serious drought and I mean serious drought, they really don’t harm the tree much at all. They’re taking very little from it, and very slowly.
A friend of mine did his PhD on cicadas, trying to measure the impact on trees, and it was immeasurable. He couldn’t measure any difference on trees that had 20,000 cicadas on their roots versus trees that had none. In terms of what the nymphs are doing underground, don’t worry about it.
Margaret: Yeah. Galls: I want to just touch on galls for a minute or two here. And I have to confess that honestly, over the last year, when I saw the initial pictures of the coronavirus spike protein, I kept thinking, oh, it looks like a gall; it looks like a gall [laughter].
Doug: [Laughter.] It does, it does.
Margaret: I shouldn’t laugh about that, but it does to me. Various insects that make sort of bumps and balloons and lumps and other odd formations on leaves—and we’re talking about oak leaves here—gallers, I think you even refer to them. What startled me, especially about that and people may have seen these things, was that there’s also a way to see it from the oak’s side of the equation. Maybe that it might actually help the oak, these gall formations.
Can you explain what a gall is? And people may have seen them, some of them just look like kind of balloons or anyway, yeah, can you explain a little bit about galls?
Doug: Yeah. The ones on oaks are made by the little wasp in the family Cynipidae, so cynipid gall wasp. And the female will lay an egg in the buds of oaks, the meristematic tissue. And along with that egg, she injects plant hormones that manipulate the growth of the cells. Those are undifferentiated cells, and it creates a species-specific growth on the tree that we call a gall. It’s been likened to cancerous growths, and there’s some similarity, but it’s very controlled. Cancer keeps growing; these do not. And it provides a little house that the galler can develop in. Some nutrients from the tree are directed to that gall.
It’s a good deal for the galler, but the tree is not a total loser here, because way back when, those were insects that essentially tunneled into tissue. And if they tunneled up and down a branch the way a number of beetles do, they wreck the vascular system of the entire branch, and the damage to the tree from a single insect borer can be a whole lot more than the damage by a single galler, which is contained in one single place.
People have had traditionally looked at galls as something that happens to a tree, and it’s a disease type of thing, and it’s all terrible for the tree. When in fact it’s really in part, the tree’s response to this insect in a way that it can manage without too much damage. There are a lot of species of galls. There are 5,000 species of cynipid gallers. Most of them are on oaks. There can be 70 species of gallers on a single oak tree.
Doug: And it’s even more complicated than that because they have what they call alternation of generations. There’s two generations a year. The first-generation galler has a particular morphology. It looks like a particular type of wasp. The second generation looks totally different. It’s the same species, but it looks totally different. And both generations make galls that are totally different from each other. I’m still amazed at the oldtime taxonomists were ever able to figure out that we’re really talking about the same species here, but in different times of the year, everything—the gall and the insect itself—look totally different.
Margaret: Right. But the oak gets a benefit that the herbivory is confined to these little spots, not all over the tree. That kind of was a light bulb for me. It was like, oh, O.K., that’s a good deal. That’s a good deal.
Doug: I know what’s what some people are thinking because there have been some introduced species of gallers. There’s one introduced from Europe, and you know what that means, they’re here without their natural enemies. And they can get very numerous on a tree. People say, “Oh no, the galler’s going to kill the tree.” And in some cases that galler can get so bad it actually can.
But those aren’t the native ones that we’re talking about here. Gallers, for some reason, host more species of parasitoids—the other wasps that lay eggs in the gallers—more species of parasitoids than any other type of insects. They’re clobbered by these natural enemies, and that keeps them in check. But these introduced gallers don’t have any, and that’s why they go crazy.
Margaret: In the last four or five minutes, I wanted to talk about maybe the most important mandate of all in the book, which the final chapter is about it, and it’s mentioned throughout: We need to plant them. We need to get past all our gardener/human objections about, “Oh, the leaf litter sticks around. It’s too long. It’s too heavy. It lasts too long. There’s acorns everywhere. Oh the tree is too big for my yard. It lifts up the sidewalk.”
You and your wife, Cindy, 20 years ago basically set about planting acorns when you got to your new home and you’re super-happy that you did obviously. And so how to plant them. If I see them popping up, tell us what Doug Tallamy would like us to do to be sort of parents to some oaks [laughter].
Doug: Well, two of the objections of oaks is that they’re too expensive, and they grow too slowly. You can get past both those objections if you plant them very small. We really did plant a lot of our oaks as acorns, and that makes them free, or 2-foot bare root whips, $1.50 each. They did very well. What you’re doing is you’re allowing a very small tree to build its full-size root system.
And that allows it, it takes a couple years to build that root system. In the first year, gee, what’s the figure?—something like, there’s 10 times more root biomass laid down by the oak in its first year than leaf biomass. That’s what they’re doing. It looks like they’re not growing. They’re just sitting there, but they’re really building that root system that then allows them to take off.
And if you buy a 15-foot oak tree with a giant root ball and you plant it, that tree has been root-pruned so seriously, it will sit there without growing a bit for 10 years, trying to rebuild the roots. Good chance it will die, and it does cost thousands of dollars. Do yourself a favor and plant small trees that will be much healthier and they will pass that big tree once they get going in not too many years.
Margaret: Right. And when these oak seedlings or saplings are babies, we want to protect them from herbivorous animals, from animals and so forth that are going to chew on them, so we put them in what, like a 5-foot cage to protect them in their early years?
Doug: Yeah. We’re talking about deer. It’s the old deer problem. If you’ve got a fenced property, you don’t have to do that. But I certainly had to do that, because the deer—just like the caterpillars—the deer love oaks. They will snip off those babies. It doesn’t kill it right away, but it keeps it in a bush shape. There’s so many deer now that they’ll do it forever, and eventually they will kill it. I’d go to Lowe’s or Home Depot and get those 5-foot galvanized wire rolls and make a nice cage around it. You don’t want it tight against the tree. You want the branches to be able to spread. And keep it there until it grows past the point where the deer can eat it to death.
Then I call that graduation. You take the tree off and I’m still using the cages that I made 20 years ago when we moved in. I just keep moving them around. It’s a downside. The problem is not with the oaks, it’s with the deer [laughter].
Margaret: I want to be sure in our last minute here, just to do a shout out for your recently launched website, homegrownnationalpark.org. And besides information about your work and your books and so forth, there’s a call to action for all of us to sort of join in and put our properties, where we’re growing native plants and doing the kind of work that you inspire, the kind of planting that you inspire—to put it on the map, there’s an interactive map. And more than 5,000 people have already answered that call. I want to ask my readers and listeners to have a look there too and get involved, yes?
Doug: Yes, absolutely. The biodiversity crisis that we’re trying to address here is it’s a global crisis, but it has a grassroots solution. Every one of us can manipulate the part of the planet that we live on in a positive way. And that’s what this get-on-the-map effort is all about, trying to get people interested into joining. We’re tribal, we love to belong to something. We’re going to belong to Homegrown National Park here and put life back where we live. And we can do that by simply shrinking the area that we have in lawn right now.
Margaret: Right. Well, Doug Tallamy, I am loving the new book. I’m on my second pass through, because as I said, I have so many Post-its and notes and whatever. Such an eye-opener about really how complex what’s going on with our oaks out there is, and how important they are. Thank you very much, and thanks for making the time today in your busy schedule.
Doug: Well thank you, Margaret.
(All photos above from “The Nature of Oaks” were shot by Doug Tallamy; author photo by Rob Cardillo.)
more from doug tallamy
enter to win ‘the nature of oaks’
I’LL BUY A COPY of Doug Tallamy’s new book, “The Nature of Oaks: The Rich Ecology of Our Most Essential Native Trees” (affiliate link) for one lucky reader. All you have to do to enter is answer this question in the comments box farther down the page:
What’s your current oak count at your place–or are there oaks along your street? Any acorn seedling popping up?
No answer, or feeling shy? Just say something like “count me in” and I will, but a reply is even better. I’ll pick a random winner after entries close at midnight Tuesday, April 13, 2021. Good luck to all.
(Disclosure: As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.)
prefer the podcast version of the show?
MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its 11th year in March 2020. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the April 5, 2021 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
Using grow lights to start seeds indoors is a great way to ensure your seedlings have everything they need for success.
If you have any experience keeping houseplants, you already know that regular light bulbs don’t produce the same type of light as the sun.
In other words, you can’t expect to grow plants (or sprout seeds) indoors without some help.
While placing your seed starters in a bright window can do the trick, this isn’t an option for everyone. This is when grow lights can be very handy.
Not All Lights Are the Same
To the human eye, there’s very little difference between the light that comes from the sun and the light that comes from a bulb. To plants, there’s a huge difference.
Light is made up of a range of wavelengths, which we generally divide up by color. Plants rely on blue, red, and UV wavelengths to complete photosynthesis and grow.
Most household light bulbs produce only yellow and orange wavelengths. They also emit a ton of heat, which will burn plants placed too close.
Grow lights are specifically designed to give off large amounts of red, blue, and UV light while staying cool.
Seeds need light, too
You might be thinking that seeds don’t need light to grow since they’re buried in the soil. But this isn’t true for all plant species.
Some seeds, like lettuce and petunias, won’t germinate (or sprout) without sunlight. These seeds grow best when scattered on the top of the soil’s surface rather than buried deep underneath.
Others do require darkness to germinate. As soon as these seeds sprout into seedlings, though, light is a must.
It’s important to know whether the plants you want to grow need light or darkness to germinate.
Either way, you’ll need to have a lighting setup ready for the moment your seeds turn into tiny seedlings!
Plant needs change as they grow
To make things even more complicated, young seedlings need slightly different light conditions than their adult counterparts.
Red light (and similar wavelengths) mostly support sexual reproduction. This includes flower and fruit production.
On the other hand, blue light supports foliage growth.
No matter the species, your seedlings are going to need a ton of blue light to feed their rapid growth. But they won’t need much red light, at least until they reach maturity.
6 Best Grow Lights to Start Seeds Indoors
In recent years, grow lights to start seeds indoors have become extremely accessible. What was once a niche product is now available from a wide range of online and brick-and-mortar retailers.
Don’t just buy the first grow light you find and call it a day. Here are the best grow lights for starting seeds indoors this spring:
1. GE Grow Light LED 40W Balanced Light Spectrum Integrated Fixture
The GE Grow Light LED 40W Balanced Light Spectrum Integrated Fixture is a great example of a high-quality grow light from a household lighting brand.
This grow light features a balanced light spectrum. The equal mix of red and blue wavelengths is ideal for all growth stages, including germination.
Despite the high light output, these GE grow lights consume very little energy and produce very little heat.
The linear design is perfect for hanging over a seed tray.
2. BESTVA DC Series 2000W LED Grow Light
For a compact, full-spectrum grow light, the BESTVA DC Series 2000W LED Grow Light is a great option.
This light includes nine bands of LEDs that produce red, blue, and white wavelengths.
Its powerful light output can cover an area just over 7-by-7 feet when hung 24 inches above your seed trays.
Another key feature of this grow light is its efficient heat dissipation. According to the manufacturer, this unit’s core runs 50 to 60 degrees cooler than other LED grow lights.
3. EZORKAS 4 Head Timing Grow Light
You don’t need a ton of seeds to justify using grow lights to start seeds indoors. The EZORKAS 4 Head Timing Grow Light is the perfect solution for anyone interested in starting a small batch of seedlings indoors.
This grow light can easily be placed on a tabletop or desk. It features four flexible arms that allow for customizing your seed-starting setup.
With a combination of red and blue LEDs that can be independently switched on and off, this grow light is excellent for all plant life stages.
You can also choose from nine intensity levels and three timed light cycles to meet your seedlings’ needs.
4. SPIDER FARMER SF2000 LED Grow Light
Whether you’re starting seeds to transplant outside or ensuring your houseplants get the light they need, the SPIDER FARMER SF2000 LED Grow Light is a wonderful investment for any home gardener.
This hanging grow light can easily be mounted from the ceiling or from the top of a shelving unit. It covers an area up to three-by-four feet, so you can deliver light to multiple planters or seed trays with one unit.
This grow light includes a wide array of LEDs that produce red, blue, white, and infrared wavelengths.
You can customize the light intensity with the built-in dimming knob — connected lights can be controlled from a single knob.
5. Mosthink LED Full Spectrum Sunlike White Grow Light Strips
There’s no question that grow lights are an incredible tool. But many gardeners are reluctant to set up a bulky unit in their homes. The Mosthink LED Full Spectrum Sunlike White Grow Light Strips are the perfect compromise if you don’t have room for a full-size grow light.
These LED strips offer the same benefits as a traditional grow light but can be mounted almost anywhere.
Each light strip has four intensity levels and an automatic on-off timer.
You can mount these grow lights with screws, zip ties, or the included double-sided adhesive backing. Each light has a 78-inch power cord for maximum flexibility in installation.
6. GE BR30 Grow Light LED
Maybe you already have a stylish lamp or light fixture that you’d like to transform into a functional grow light. With the GE BR30 Grow Light LED bulb, you can do just that.
This nine-watt bulb fits most standard light fixtures. It produces a broad spectrum of wavelengths that are perfect for germination, seedlings, and later growth stages.
You also don’t need to worry about this bulb “looking” like a grow light. While the GE BR30 bulb produces a balanced mix of red and blue wavelengths, the light looks white to the human eye.
Everything You Need for Successful Seed Starters This Spring
By using grow lights to start seeds indoors, you’re already on the right track.
But for your most successful growing season yet, you’re going to need more than a few seeds and a light.
Not all plants thrive when started indoors. The sooner you know which plants are okay to start under grow lights in your house, the less time and resources you’ll waste trying to germinate seeds that need to be planted outside!
As a general rule, root vegetables (potatoes, turnips, and similar plants) should be planted directly in the ground. Squashes respond poorly to transplanting, so should be started in the ground whenever possible.
Some plants, like peas, are extremely cold-tolerant. There’s little point in starting these species indoors.
The Old Farmer’s Almanac offers a great, easy-to-read chart that lists which common vegetables prefer indoor germination versus outdoor germination.
The biggest question new gardeners have is how early to start planning for the next growing season.
When it comes to starting seeds indoors, you’ll want to start most plant species about six weeks before your area’s last frost.
This can vary by seed variety, so be sure to double-check the ideal timing for your specific plants.
There are also tons of great resources out there that can help you determine the best time to start seeds and transplant your seedlings. The Old Farmer’s Almanac Planting Calendar is one such tool.
From the ground up
For the best results, your seed-starting “soil” shouldn’t be soil at all.
When starting seeds indoors for most vegetables and flowers, a mixture of vermiculite and peat is best.
Unlike true soil, which contains lots of organic matter, this mixture is unlikely to contain disease, fungi, or weed seeds.
Turn up the heat
Most popular vegetable and flower seeds germinate best when the temperature is between 68 and 86 degrees Fahrenheit.
Starting seeds indoors with grow lights lets you control the ambient temperature much easier than starting seeds outdoors.
The distance between your seedlings and your grow lights can have a huge impact on their effectiveness.
Placing the lights too high above your seed trays will mean the seedlings don’t get enough beneficial light. Placing them too close could burn your delicate baby plants.
First, you need to know if your grow lights are LED or fluorescent.
Place LED grow lights between 8 and 12 inches above the very top of your seedlings. Place fluorescent grow lights between 5 and 6 inches above your seedlings.
As your new seedlings grow, the distance between your grow lights and plants will shrink. Plan ahead when setting up your seed-starting area so you can easily adjust the light height as needed.
Expect a loss
No matter how perfect your seed-starting practices might be, you will never have a 100-percent success rate.
Some seeds will fail to germinate. Others will sprout but will die off as seedlings.
It’s always better to have too many plants rather than too few, especially if you have a particular project in mind. Plant extra seeds from the start to prepare for the inevitable losses.
Still unsure about how to use lights to start seeds indoors? Here are some of the most frequently asked questions about getting a jump start on the gardening season:
Do I need a grow light to start seeds indoors?
Technically, no. But using one will ensure your seeds get the necessary light to germinate and grow into strong seedlings.
Even if you start your seeds in a bright window, they might not get enough sunlight.
Most vegetable seeds need a minimum of six to eight hours of direct sun. This is hard to achieve in late-winter and early-spring when the days are short.
Do I need a T5 grow light?
While you don’t need a T5 grow light to successfully start seeds indoors, it’s a good choice.
T5 lights feature fluorescent bulbs with a balance of red and blue wavelengths. These grow lights produce very little heat, so you can safely hang them directly above your seeds and seedlings.
How long should I leave grow lights on per day?
The whole point of using grow lights to start seeds indoors is the ability to replicate natural sunlight. Leave your grow lights on for 12 to 16 hours per day to mimic the regular day cycle.
If you don’t want to deal with remembering to turn your grow lights on and off each day, invest in a set of lights with a built-in timer.
You can also use an outlet timer to keep your lights on a consistent schedule without the hassle.
Get a Head Start on Your Garden This Year
It’s never too early to start planning your spring garden. Whether you have a small garden bed or several plots, use lights to start seeds indoors can be a great way to boost your vegetable harvest this year.
The best thing about using grow lights is that you don’t need to make a huge investment up front. While grow lights were once quite expensive, there are now tons of affordable options to choose from.
If this is your first year using a grow light to start your garden seeds, don’t be afraid to experiment. Every plant species is different, and you might be surprised by what conditions truly help your seedlings flourish.
Which plants do you start your garden with each year? Are you trying any new species this year? Let us know in the comments below!
Last update on 2021-03-27 at 14:23 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API
DO YOU REMEMBER your very earliest gardening books—the ones that transported you into the world of plants, whether that was last year or years ago? Or other books that have earned a permanent spot on your bookshelf as old trusted friends along the way? Ken Druse and I got to talking on the phone about our favorite formative volumes the other day, and decided we’d let you in on the conversation, too.
My regular alter ego, Ken Druse, needs no introduction, but he is of course the author of not a small number of gardening books himself, 20 at last count, including some I know changed the way I look at plants. He’s back today to take a stroll through our mutual garden bookshelves.
Plus: We’ll have a giveaway of a couple of favorites; enter to win in the comments box at the bottom of the page. Note that we checked that all of these books are available–often used–with a little Google searching for those that are out of print. With the ones I’ve given Amazon links for, there are used copies in all prices and conditions available, so dig deep.
Read along as you listen to the March 15, 2021 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on Apple Podcasts (iTunes) or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
our formative classic garden books, with ken druse
Margaret: Hi, Ken, how are you?
Ken: Hi, I’m Margaret. I’m your alter ego?
Margaret: Yes, I think so. I’ve decided. Some days I’m you [laughter].
Ken: I thought that I was like Clark Kent and you’re Superperson or vice versa [laughter].
Margaret: Well maybe we should get a couple’s therapist and see what they have to say about that.
Ken: What’s your take on capes? No, books. Books.
Margaret: Books. So I think what we should do is have a giveaway of one of the books, but I don’t think we know yet until we chat, which one it’s going to be. So we’ll tell that with the transcript, but there will be a book giveaway of one of these goodies.
So, do you remember your first sort of gateway books into this world, where you and I have spent more decades than we may care to admit [laughter]?
Ken: I’ve been asked this question many times-
Ken: … and the first book that comes to mind is, I know, it’s probably the first book that comes to mind for you, too, because it’s seminal, and it’s “The Principles of Gardening,” by Hugh Johnson.
Margaret: Oh, yes, yes, yes. It’s a very unusual book.
Ken: Well, he mostly known as a wine author, writer, and blogger now, too, he’s still doing it. But this book contains mostly two-page color spreads on all sorts of aspects of gardening with short text, big captions and photos. The Dorling Kindersley books, kind of… this was the progenitor in some ways. But there’s photos and drawings and paintings from history of gardening to greenhouses, to wind and rain, to gardens around the world, to landscape history, to plant families and names, to alpines and hedges.
It’s just everything—perennials, trees, color design, and they’re all in these bites that are two to four pages, and it’s a turn-on, but it’s also… Well, he has history on landscape architecture and William Kent. You just learn so much, but it’s so easy to digest, and someone like me who likes non-fiction and doesn’t read so well, it’s perfect.
Margaret: The book is so different from the table of contents of a first gardening book that you would expect. So it doesn’t have like perennials. I mean, it does have perennials, but it doesn’t have… or chapters like spring, fall, summer, winter, it’s not traditional in its organization. But you’re just transported into all of these different, as you said, these different ways of looking at and connecting really to the garden—through the weather. And so it’s not like sections like spinach—how to grow spinach, or how to grow tomatoes. Do you know what I mean?
And it’s like historical examples of different cultures in history, how they’ve related to the garden. And I mean, it’s really, it’s a must. I think it first came out in ’79 and then was revised in ’96 or ’97, so there’s old copies out there, but it’s a must. It goes on both our lists, right?
Ken: Well, I don’t know about your list, but definitely. It probably does.
Margaret: So that was one of your early, early books that you-
Margaret: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, I think quite a different kind of book, in a more traditional structure and so forth, that would be right around the same time, maybe a couple of years earlier, was James Underwood Crockett’s “Crockett’s Victory Garden.” And we’ve talked about that probably in the past. I mentioned it a lot, because it was my first how-to book. But it’s outdated because things are different now, chemicals that he used and so forth, we wouldn’t do a lot of those things. But the idea of looking at the garden through all the seasons is still very important. And so, it was sort of the companion to the PBS series that he did and so forth. Yeah.
Ken: When gardening was actually on television.
Margaret: Yes. Remember, remember? So what else was early for you in the formative, Ken Druse’s formative-
Ken: I think in the earliest days I was into indoor gardening when that was… and it’s back, and now people are doing that again. But yeah, I started indoors, in an apartment. And I think one of the earliest books, the first books, was “Garden in Your House,” by Ernesta Drinker Ballard. It’s a black-and-white book with photos by her husband, Fred, and it’s arranged in exposures. So, there’s plants for north-, east-, west-, and south-facing windows.
Ken: And I really… I just read it, and re-read it, and re-read it. And that reminds me of kind of a plant porn book, “Exotic Plant Manual” by Alfred Byrd Graf, which is a reference book. Do you know that book?
Margaret: I have seen the book. I don’t own the book. I don’t own either of those book two books actually. Huh.
Ken: I would spend hours with the black and white “Exotic Plant Manual.” I don’t know, it weighs about 4 pounds. And I just would look at the plants and look at the plants. The plants for greenhouses, windows, and warm climates outdoors, and how to grow them, and some description of what they’re like. And then a small version came out of that. And then a big version came out called “Exotica,” and then a big version in color came out called “Tropica.” But “The Exotic Plant Manual” is… I don’t know how I could do it. I would look at that for, really, actually, hours over and over, and learning so much.
Margaret: Interesting because the “Exotica” and “Tropica,” the later sort of iterations, I have both of those, but I don’t think I have the original. Yeah. And it is, it’s really… Well, and I think those titles… I think, actually, the title “Exotica” really describes that sort of genre of book. It’s perfect for those books right, because it is… It’s like you’re saying, you’re like transported and you couldn’t close the original one.
It’s like you said, you just kept looking and looking at all these exotic creatures and wanting to learn more about them and where they came from and so on and so forth.
Early on, I got some house houseplant books, too, and I still have it on my shelves, especially Thalassa Cruso. She was British-born, but lived in the U.S. and I think she… didn’t she make that… yeah, it was a public TV show for WGBH in Boston. She had a show, “Making Things Grow,” and don’t… wasn’t she on like Johnny Carson or something? Did I make that up?
Ken: She was on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson. I didn’t see those originally, and I’ll bet you can still find them on YouTube. I wouldn’t be surprised, because they were kind of funny. And it was like the cooking things where she would try to do something and he’d be making faces in the background, but she was a very good sport. And that book… She would have sort of projects, so it would be indoor plants, but it would be: how to make an indoor plant tower.
Margaret: Right, right, right, right. Aspirational [laughter]. Yeah. That was… I bet hers was one of my first… Crockett had an indoor garden, I think it was just called like “Crockett’s Indoor Garden” or something like that book too. But Thalassa Cruso’s would have been one of my others, and early-earlies.
My earliest books, when I started thinking about making a garden outdoors, not just having houseplants, were kind of like hippie dreams and back-to-the-land focused, and they weren’t horticulture exactly. And I still have my copies of these, which were vintage even at the time, what was it called—”Five Acres and Independence,” which was a 1940 book by someone named M.G. Kain. And it was, again, a back-to-the-land Bible, and then Helen and Scott Nearing’s in the 1950s-
Ken: Oh, wow.
Margaret: ... they wrote “Living the Good Life.” They were in Vermont and then eventually to Maine, and they were an inspiration for so many people that I’ve met over the years, including Eliot Coleman, the great organic farmer and inspiration to an entire generation, since they inspired him. So the Good Life series of books, especially “Living the Good Life,” I don’t know. I just, I wanted to learn to can and put up my food and grow my own, and it just, again, it was like aspirational in a way.
And I guess that’s why… that’s what led me not to have a garden in the city where I grew up. or even on Long Island at the beach front or whatever, but to come to a rural place. I think it was really those books that directed me north into the Hudson Valley/Berkshires area—you know what I mean?—into a rural setting were books like those. And then, of course, Ruth Stout. Did you ever read any Ruth Stout books? Speaking of the 1950s?
Ken: Yeah. When you’re saying that, I always think of the bales of hay, when you say-
Margaret: [Laughter.] I know. I know. What she would call “mulch gardening,” meaning throw it all down on the ground, like piling… I mean, I think they ended up calling that recently, like lasagna gardening, and in farming, they call it sheet mulching sometimes. But she just would pile stuff up to suppress the weeds and tease it back, and plant in between it. And yeah, I mean…
And the thing about that and about the sort of hippier books, is they hold up because, again, the chemical thing, they never used chemicals. It was sort of organic gardening before we’ve talked about it exactly that way. And so, whereas some of, as I said before, the Crocket stuff and so forth, it feels a little wrong, because it’s a lot of times about a chemical intervention.
So these more natural, sustainable, etc. books kind of hold up technically, even though they’re funky and funny, and obviously, from another period. Again, they were even vintage when I read them or you read them. But, yeah, Ruth Stout, definitely had… Her books were like “How to have a Green Thumb without an Aching Back,” I think that was one title and “Gardening without Work.” And she gardened in Connecticut, and anyway, she was born in Kansas, she gardened in Connecticut. But she’s definitely was a pioneer of… I don’t know, I just loved her. I love her. So I could still read those books.
Ken: Well, those books, which are kind of general advice, the thing about these old books that bugs me is that the plant names have all changed so much.
Margaret: I know.
Ken: It’s frustrating. Not that we can’t figure it out, but that’s one thing about old books. Right?
Margaret: Right. Right. Right. And I next dipped into a British phase, because I think when you and I were really starting to garden keenly and became garden writers around that time, we Americans all looked to the British for our inspiration. It was… Do you know what I mean? They were/are, I mean, they were those that you look to for inspiration, leave it at that.
Ken: Well, they just had been doing it a whole lot longer.
Margaret: Right, right.
Ken: And there were a whole lot more, and they have so much more forgiving weather, and great soil, and the temperature’s just wonderful, and long hours of daylight in the summer. So it’s not really fair, but just like everything, when you say a house is old here, it’s like 1840. And when you say a house is old there, it’s like 1610 or something [laughter]. They’ve just been doing all that stuff so much longer.
Margaret: Right. So we mentioned Hugh Johnson, we mentioned his “Principles of Gardening” already. Yeah.
Ken: Oh yeah. I don’t even think of that in that same group, but yes.
Margaret: No, no. I know, but I’m just saying, I was just going to bring up the idea of British… books from people from the U.K. And in preparing to talk to you today, I found that at 81, he’s still blogging. He has Trad’s Diary dot com, derived from Tradescant, or like Tradescantia the plant. And so he’s definitely one, but many others. I mean, obviously early on, I read vintage books by Gertrude Jekyll and so on and so forth. William Robinson, who’s Irish, not English, but William Robinson. Yes?
Ken: William Robinson, well, he did a book that was very popular called “The English Flower Garden,” I believe, but I had a book called “The Wild Garden”-
Ken Druse: … by him before that. And when we hear the word wild, we think native, but wild, in this case, is naturalistic, and he encouraged naturalizing plants. But he would show fields of daffodils and there is one native daffodil to Great Britain, so it’s different. But that book was… Just that whole style, just think how that influenced American gardening, even to this minute.
Margaret: Yes. And “The Wild Garden,” it’s credited with leading to the popularizing of the style of cottage gardening, looser, not the formal within parterres of boxwood, putting your flowering plants inside the rigid… it was like getting away from that. And he was a big critic of that formality, really.
Ken: Yeah, it’s a backlash.
Margaret: Yeah. Yeah. And so by loosening it up, then the cottage garden style, I believe, became more popular.
Ken: People don’t even know what bedding is now. You say bedding out-
Margaret: Bedding schemes.
Ken: … or carpet bedding, people don’t… Americans don’t know what that is.
Margaret: Right. So that sort of formal stretches of color within usually sort of geometric-shaped, again, like boxwood and so forth parterres and yeah, yeah.
Ken: Mostly annuals, too.
Margaret: Yes. Lots and lots of color.
Ken: That’s a really long story, because Great Britain colonized all these places that had annuals, and then they could make greenhouses inexpensively for the middle class. It’s a big, long story, and then William Robinson said, “To heck with this.”
Margaret: Right. Loosen it up, baby.
Ken: I want to see the woods, right?
Margaret: Loosen it up. Right. Right. And he was very influential in garden writing, garden journalism, not just his own writing, but he started “The Garden” magazine and “Gardening Illustrated” and other… He founded a couple of gardening magazines, etc., so he was… I mean, I highly recommend “The Wild Garden” as a book to read.
And when he… With his success, he ended up buying Gravetye Manor, which was another English home of note, and so forth. So lots to learn, I think, even now from his books. I think that The Wild Garden, I think it was written in like 1870 when he was in his 30s or something, so it’s an oldie.
What about Margery Fish? Did you read any of her books?
Ken: Well, I was going to just say that Gertrude Jekyll was his disciple.
Margaret: Oh, was Robinson’s, right.
Ken: She wrote for his magazines and her books, like “Wood and Garden,” her books were enormously popular and she was, still incredibly popular. But anyway, she worshiped at his feet until they probably had a fight over some sentence or two [laughter]. Sorry. Now, where were you going?
Margaret: I was just going to say, did you ever read any books by Margery Fish, a bit more contemporary?
Ken: Yes. And I think I had her “Gardening in the Shade” book. I remember… Reading her was… they say these things like having a friend in the garden?
Ken: It’s really like having a friend in the garden.
Margaret: Yes. Yes. She, Margery Fish—so the book of hers that I love and recommend, and I think it was reissued maybe 2002 or something, I think as recently as that. It’s this tiny little book and it’s called, “We Made a Garden.” And apparently her working title, which I love this, was “Gardening with Walter,” Walter being her husband. And basically it’s like, between the plantsmanship and the inspiration that you get from reading it, but also the, “You’re not putting that over here.” “Yes, I am.” “No, you’re not.”
Margaret: You know what I mean? But her publisher said, “I’m sorry, nobody will buy a book called ‘Gardening with Walter.’” So they called it “We Made a Garden.”
Ken: Oh, I think that’s a better title, actually. Not as funny.
Margaret: I know, but anyway. But Margery Fish, I love her. And maybe that’s one of the ones we should give away, because it is, again, it’s been reissued, and it’s out and so forth. Any others you want to share?
Ken: You’re mentioning a husband-and-wife team, and that makes me think of, when I lived in Rhode Island. But I had a book that was, everybody had this book, “America’s Garden Book: The Only Book You’ll Ever Need to Plan, Design, and Grow your Garden,” by Louise and James Bush-Brown, people call it Bush-Brown.
Margaret: They call it Bush-Brown. Yes.
Ken: And that was a general book on just about everything, in black and white, my copy was black and white; I don’t know if it’s been reissued with color. But it had hedges, paths, things like that in a very digestible way and very thorough. But they were from Providence. But I used to walk by where they used to live.
Margaret: Huh? I bet you read “Green Thoughts” by Eleanor Perenyi.
Ken: It’s funny. I’ve just was talking to someone about that book, and I can’t remember who it was, but we both agreed that it was the right book at that time [laughter].
Margaret: I think it was like ’80-ish or ’81, or is that right? Something around there.
Ken: Is it really that long ago. Huh?
Margaret: Yeah, I think so. I think it was ’81. And it’s just 72 little essays, some of them are half a page, some of them are two pages long, strung together alphabetically, you know what I mean? So it could be, T is for trowel and P is for petunia, whatever. It’s just… Those are not necessarily two of them, but it’s idiosyncratic, it’s not linear.
Ken: I’m sure P was for peony [laughter].
Margaret: Maybe. Yeah, it was called “Green Thoughts” from Eleanor Perenyi. That’s another one that’s been reissued repeatedly. But the cultural stuff doesn’t hold up, for me, because again, the recommended ways of feeding plants and dealing with pests and so forth, seems so out of date, or they are so out of date.
Ken: Yeah. Well, you’re right. [Laughter.]
Margaret: So any others in the last few minutes that you want to share, that you are keeping on the shelf?
Ken: Keeping on the shelf. Why do I have “Wyman’s Gardening Encyclopedia”?
Margaret: Me, too, honey. I have it, too. And it’s a one-volume… It looks like a thick dictionary, kind of a book, and that’s what it is like it’s alphabetical, isn’t it? You can look up each entry, pruning or whatever, or a Latin name of a plant.
Ken: And I have “Hortus Third,” which I haven’t touched for years, and probably all the names are wrong in that, but we used to go to that for plant names.
Margaret: Right. And now you go to… I go to theplantlist.org, which is the multiple botanical institutions around the world, collaborating on the latest Latin taxonomic correctness. And what’s named what, and what’s a synonym of what. So, now I do it online. I don’t even have a book for it.
Ken: You were talking about the Thalassa Cruso, and I was thinking she was like the Julia Child of indoor gardening [laughter].
Margaret: That’s well-put. Yes, yes, yes.
Ken: Lucky him, right?
Margaret: Yes. And it’s been updated and so on and so forth, and yeah. Yeah. But that’s a… it’s a reference book. It’s not a read from page one to page whatever, it’s a reference book; I use it as a reference book.
Ken: Although you could read it from page to page, and it has so much in it. And it seems to be every student, even kids who go to school for landscaping, they get that book.
Margaret: Yeah. So do you have one more that you want to tell us before we bid adieu?
Ken: Well, I guess in a way, I might say “Noah’s Garden” by Sarah Stein, which is-
Margaret: Oh, wow, yes.
Ken: … also many years later, but that really changed a lot of things.
Margaret: Speaking of loosening us up and making us look differently at… yeah, so speaking of wilder [laughter].
Ken: Right. Well, she wrote a book called “My Weeds,” I think. And then she got religion and she realized that, wait a minute, I don’t want to just let everything grow that wants to grow. I want to make it local and indigenous and native, and she did. And that got… That was revolutionary. That’s when the habitat garden [Ken’s book “The Natural Habitat Garden” that he and Margaret worked on together] came out.
Margaret: Correct. Yeah.
Ken: And we were promoting native plants-
Ken: … and now that’s not even outrageous.
Margaret: No, no. Well, Ken Druse, we’ve used up another segment. It’s good—I’m going to go dig through my book bookcase and put some on the bedside table. So thank you for reminding me of some of these, because some of them like Margery Fish are going to get another read. So thank you. And I’ll talk to you soon. O.K.?
Ken: O.K., great. Thank you.
enter to win ‘we made a garden’ or ‘green thoughts’
I’LL BUY COPIES of Margery Fish’s “We Made a Garden” and Eleanor Perenyi’s “Green Thoughts” for two lucky winners. All you have to do to enter is comment in the box at the bottom of the page, answering this question:
What book influenced you early on in your gardening (whenever that was, long ago or recently)?
No answer or feeling shy? Just say something like “count me in” and I will, but a reply is even better. I’ll pick a random winner after entries close at midnight Tuesday, March 23, 2021. Good luck to all!
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prefer the podcast version of the show?
MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its 11th year in March 2020. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the March 15, 2021 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
LONGTIME GARDENER AND FIRST-TIMERS went all out in this craziest of years, bringing the expression “victory garden” back into the headlines. We all planted in spring like mad—in fact, so much so that seed companies were swamped, and even ran out. But planting season is not over, not even up North where I garden. For late-summer-into-fall harvest and even beyond into winter, I’ve asked year-round vegetable grower Niki Jabbour to coach us in the next steps of succession sowing, and in smart tactics for plant protection, too, to stretch the season.
Niki Jabbour is author of three books so far: “The Year-round Vegetable Gardener” plus “Groundbreaking Food Gardens” (affiliate links) and “Veggie Garden Remix.” She’s also a contributor to the blog SavvyGardening.com. She creates the award-winning radio program, “The Weekend Gardener,” which is heard throughout Eastern Canada, and she gardens with a vengeance in Nova Scotia. So, if Niki can do it people, so can we.
Read along as you listen to the July 13, 2020 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on Apple Podcasts (iTunes) or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
Plus: Comment in the box at the bottom of the page for a chance to win a copy of her book “The Year-Round Vegetable Gardener.”
fall vegetable garden, with niki jabbour
Margaret: Are you having any rain, and are you having heat? What’s going on up there? Just so we have the temperature. [Laughter.]
Niki: Yeah. It’s been weird. We had early, early heat, which is kind of unusual for Nova Scotia, and then it morphed to cool. But we had about six weeks where I had maybe not even a quarter-inch of rain and I had to deep water a lot, but last night, the heavens opened. We got probably an inch and a bit of rain, massive thunderstorms. So, I feel like we’re getting back to balanced. It’s getting nice and hot again, so it’s a perfect time to get out in the garden.
Margaret: Good, good, good. Well, I’m waiting for that heavens-to-open thunder thing over here, myself.
Niki: Fingers crossed.
Margaret: Yeah. So, I bet you’re madly taking advantage of every square inch of your garden that becomes available as things are harvested. I sort of picture you up there, if she sees a square foot or 2 square feet or a linear foot come available, she tucks something in madly. So, are you into multiple successions already up there?
Niki: Oh, yeah. I mean, in some beds I’m probably in our third succession crop and I think that’s a pretty accurate description of me right now. [Laughter.] I was eyeing some of the lettuce earlier today going, “I think you’re to bolt so I’m going to harvest you today or tomorrow,” and then in goes some carrots and some beets. And of course, I’m also thinking ahead for later in the season, too.
So yeah, there’s no empty space in my food garden right now. It’s a very looking very lush, even if everything isn’t quite in full production yet, at least it looks very green.
Margaret: Yeah. When do you get your first tomato?
Niki: You know, well, I’m a cheater because I have a poly-tunnel now. It’s Year 2 for my poly-tunnel, so I will probably get my first tomato in about two weeks. but usually, it’s the last week in July, first week in August when the Sun Golds start to roll in. So, I’m hoping mid- to late July.
Margaret: O.K. So, before we dig in deeper to sort of tactics and which crops and so forth, I want to just say to everybody out loud, both of us are Northern gardeners, of course. And in other regions, the timing of all of this wisdom that you’re going to share is different. And I’m going to give a link with the transcript of this show to state-by-state, region-by-region calendars and charts and so forth, so that people in other areas can adapt this, get a little guidance to adapt this, so I’ll do that with the transcript.
And also that we’re going to have a book give away of your earlier hit book, “The Year-round Vegetable Gardener,” and the subhead of that is, “How to Grow Your Own Food 365 Days a Year No Matter Where You Live.” So, there you go. [Laughter.]
Niki: Yeah. And they know it’s really very easy. I think all people really need to know is their first expected fall frost date. And then, when you’re looking at seed packs, the days to maturity. So, it’s easy math. If I can do it, anybody can do it.
Margaret: Now the math, do you add in what some seed people call “the fall factor,” because days are shorter and temperatures are generally cooler in the second half of the season, as opposed to lengthening hours of light in the spring sowings? Do you add a couple of weeks for the sort of fall factor of diminished light and heat?
Niki: I do. I add about seven to 10 days, and I mean, I just kind of tack an extra week on as I’m calculating and that seems to work really well. I don’t add more than that, because at that point then things become ready too early, and then they might be harvested before winter or late fall, when I don’t want them at that point. So one week works for me.
Margaret: So, here we are, I’m waiting for my first ripe tomato as well, poly-tunnel or no poly-tunnel because I don’t have one. [Laughter.] But I know I need to start fresh with some other crops, for instance, I put in another row of bush beans the other day. So, what are some of the food crops?
And a lot of people who are listening are probably new listeners, new readers of the website, a lot of people who have gotten into the throes of gardening this year in great numbers. And even some experienced gardeners have expanded what they’re doing because of the sort of situation out there. So, if we haven’t stretched the season before really, if we haven’t grown the second or third sowing of this and that, what are the things that you would want us to try our hand out most of all?
Niki: I think the most important thing to first realize is that anybody can succession plant. Growing up, we had this little family vegetable garden and we never succession planted. So, when that initial crop of beans was done, that was it. We never had more beans. And now, as you mentioned, I kind of use up every square inch of my garden.
But even people listening who maybe are in condos or only have a deck, you can still succession plant in pots. So, everybody should be succession planting if you definitely want to get as much food as possible this season.
So for me right now, I am putting more bush beans in, like you said; every two to three weeks until usually mid-July, I will put bush beans in. I’m also planting a fall crop of ‘Sugar Snap’ peas. I’m tucking more zucchini and cucumbers in the garden, because they take anywhere from 50 to 65 days. And I still have that in my season before that frost, even with the fall factor worked in. So there’s time for that.
Soon it’ll be time, in about a week or two, for all the fall and winter carrots and the beets. And of course, cabbages, cauliflowers, all of those cabbage-cousin crops, broccoli. I’m starting them indoors right now under my grow lights so that I can put them in the garden in about four weeks, because if I direct sow those in the garden, it’s going to be hard to keep those little seeds and seedlings happy in the intense hot heat and sun of summer.
Plus the slugs, even though it’s been dry, they have been just brutal, is the best way to describe them this year. I mean, it’ll be hot and sunny and I’m out there handpicking slugs. I can’t even explain it but they’re multiplying like crazy. I’m picking teeny-tiny ones, giant fat ones. I’ve had the point where all of a handful of slimy slugs, I don’t even care anymore. I’ll just keep on picking them.
So, I do like to start some things indoors under grow lights, because it’s a little easier than trying to nurture them along in the garden when the soil is hot and dry.
Margaret: So, that’s one of your tactical approaches, is to start it in a more controlled environment and have these homemade plugs to plug in when you see that square foot come available, when you pull some of that lettuce, right?
Niki: Yeah. And it’s one of the easiest things you can do. If you have grow lights, use them because even like you mentioned lettuce, lettuce won’t germinate when it’s hotter than, well, I don’t know the Fahrenheit but 27 Celsius. So probably 80 Fahrenheit, I guess. So, if you want the lettuce for fall and winter, start them indoors in mid-to-late August, plug them in your garden when they’re a couple of weeks old and you’ll have just bypassed the frustration of trying to keep the seeds and seedlings happy in again, that hot dry soil.
Margaret: Now, the list you just gave, which I know it wasn’t like the comprehensive list that you were reading from a script or something or from one of your books, by the way. But it includes almost everything except for tomatoes, peppers and eggplants and potatoes. I mean, it’s pretty comprehensive that you can push a lot of things. You can do it again with a lot of things.
Niki: It is. Although Margaret, you’re making me feel a little guilty because I actually have a few tomato suckers I’ve rooted-
Margaret: Oh, boy.
Niki: …and I’m just going to try to put those in and see happens. And I might have accidentally gone to a garden center today, and I might’ve accidentally bought another pepper plant so we’ll see what happens. Normally, I wouldn’t plant those in early July, but I’m going to give them, I’m going to put them in pots, I’m going to put them in my poly-tunnel, and maybe I’ll still get a harvest from them this year.
I don’t think it’s a bad thing to experiment and try new things. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but it’s going to be fun.
Margaret: So, you didn’t mention, I don’t know if you mentioned herbs, but one of the other things that I like to do is, the basil that I put in May—my last frost is sometime in later May so sometime in May that I might’ve put young plants out of basil. They are starting to flower or they have been flowering and they’re going to get woody and big and whatever.
And my tomatoes, my paste tomatoes for my sauce, that’s not coming till August, September cusp really, in big amounts. And so, I might do some more basil. Do you do herbs as well again?
Niki: I actually do. I had gotten some seeds from Johnny’s not that long ago, including a new downy mildew-resistant basil. And so, I started them about a month ago and they’re now about an inch-and-a-half tall so I have about, don’t ask me why, but about 40 basil seedlings I need to find more space for in my garden. So I do, I usually plant basil twice for the exact reasons you mentioned. The tomatoes come on much later. They’ll start to flower; I do pinch the plants back during the growing season for a while, but of course it’s not as effective forever. It’s best to have a second crop.
So, these guys are going to go in the garden in the next week or so, and then they’ll be ready late August, early September into late September, or whenever that first frost comes.
Margaret: One of the things I love the most in the second crop is the peas. I love edible-podded peas and shelling peas. And then, it almost feels like they’re sweeter in the second, the fall, harvest because they’re not bumping into that heat of July. My first sowing bumps… is around now. It comes to harvest around early July, late June, early July. So, it kind of gets fried.
Niki: It’s true, totally true. And you know, the summer peas, because they’re planted so early, a lot of people think they need cold temperatures to germinate but they don’t. They germinate really quickly and just fine as long as you keep the soil moist in early to mid-summer. So, the ‘Sugar Snap’ peas are my absolute favorite, and I’m going to be sowing a very heavy crop of those. And we’ll probably start harvesting those early to mid-September, but they’ll take us through for about three to four weeks. And I mean, peas in September, what a treat. You can never have enough.
Margaret: It really is, it really is. And that’s the only time I really do the shelling peas, is I don’t do them in spring, but I do them in fall for using in recipes that I’m going to freeze or just freezing bags of. Do you know what I mean?
Margaret: So, if I want to try…. I need you to come here for some therapy, some onsite therapy. [Laughter.]
Niki: If the borders were open Margaret, I’d be on my way down.
Margaret: So, my idea of season-extension—I’ve never had a greenhouse, I’ve never had a poly-tunnel. I kind of rig things up and it’s a little “informal,” let’s just say. And so, at my house, you might see wire hoops that I’ve had for years. I have different sizes and so forth of hoops that basically stretch across a bed and a foot or 2 high.
I have fabric, lighter-weight and heavier-weight fabrics. I use a lot of clothes pins to hold them on. [Laughter.] But if you wanted to get started, if you were going to teach us, here’s the thing to start with in terms of… because there’s some gear we need to do some of the season-extension besides succession-sowing tactics. We also are going to need to be there with some protection and so forth. So, what would be—would it be a frost blanket? What would it be that you would say, “Here’s the beginner’s kit.” Do you know what I mean, the beginner kit of gear?
Niki: Totally. Yeah. I love the way you look at that, actually. Well, to be honest, the beginner’s kit isn’t going to cost you any money. If you’re going to start with one thing for season-extension this year, I would get some shredded leaves, the fall leaves that fall in your lawn in autumn, mow on them, shred them up. And then I would put them over the top of my carrots and my beets before the ground freezes, which for me is usually sometime in mid- to late November. And then, you can harvest those carrots or beets all winter long.
If you want to take it a tiny step further, you mentioned the frost blankets, the row covers. Absolutely. You can make little wire hoops out of 12-gauge wire. You can buy hoops, you can make PVC hoops, you can make hoops that have a lot of things. I’ve even used hula hoops to make hoops. Cut them in half and it’s a low hoop, but it works. And cover it with that row cover or a clear sheet of plastic. And you can extend your season by four weeks or more depending on what type of crop you have. You could cover lettuces in October-November, spinach, arugula, kale. I mean, there’s really no end to the different crops you can use for season-extension.
So, you could start with a mulch, which is really easy and cheap, or you could start with maybe some fabrics and hoops. And I mean, after a year or two, you might think, “Maybe I do want a cold frame.” You could build a super-simple cold frame from a wooden box with a clear polycarbonate or an old window top. And then, all of a sudden you’ve got this little mini-microclimate that you can use to produce food all winter long. So, it’s sort of like the gateway, I think, into year-round vegetable gardening. Once you get that first cold frame, there’s just no looking back.
Margaret: Now, when you do use fabric, such as the simplest form of fabric would be like a row cover–the thicker, heavier kind for adding warmth, for instance, at the end of the season. How do you hold it down? What is your method? Do you use those earth pins, because I find that kind of wrecks the fabric a lot of times? Do you know what I mean? What’s the gear that does the holding down, so it doesn’t blow away or whatever?
Niki: Well, for my mini-hoop tunnels… But it’s just fabric; fabric isn’t something I would use all winter long. I would use that in spring or fall so I’m not making something super-strong to hold it from winter winds and stuff.
So, for spring and fall, I generally will weigh it down with rocks or logs around the sides. I don’t like the staples too much, because as you mentioned, they poke holes in the fabric thus shortening its life dramatically, because once you’ve got a hole, it’s going to tear, and it’s frustrating. So, you can weigh it down really easily.
You can also bury the ends of the fabric. I tend not to do that too much unless I’m trying to use lightweight fabric to prevent insect damage, because otherwise, every time you want to harvest, you’ve got to un-bury the fabric and it gets messy. So, I try not to do that too much. I prefer to weigh it down.
And if I’m doing plastic mini-hoop tunnels for winter harvesting, I actually along the sides of my bed, the length of the mini-hoop tunnel, I will just take like a 1-by-2-inch by 8-foot-long (because my beds are 8 feet long), piece of untreated lumber, and just roll up the sides of that plastic into it. And then, I’ll put like two screws into my raised wooden beds, and that’ll hold it down for winter. And then, I’ll just lift the ends open when I want to harvest.
But I don’t do that for the fabric, because again, that would damage the fabric. And again, the fabric is only on for a short amount of time. But for the six months of winter I get, the little plastic-covered mini-hoop tunnels work great.
Margaret: So, no matter what we do, really, no matter what we sow or plug in that we’ve sown indoors, or which gear we buy, we will also want to have this sort of tactic of the best care of these plants, each generation of these plants. And you’ve alluded to a little bit of this, you kind of talked a little bit about when it’s hot out, it’s harder on the young plants especially and so forth.
But some of your sort of cultural tactics for the second half of the season that might be different from in spring, because obviously, the soil is less moist naturally, stuff is coming older, stuff’s coming to harvest—any sort of cultural tips you want to share as well?
Niki: Well, I mean, this is a time of year… Usually, I’m complaining about the amount of rain we’ve had, and this year is not that year. I’m complaining with the lack of rain. So, I’ve been deep watering. Now, when you’re succession planting, I mentioned when the soil is hot and dry, it’s hard to establish a crop. So, when you do have newly planted seeds or seedlings, you’ll have to give those areas a little more TLC.
You could put a little wire hoop tunnel over the top of your newly planted succession bean bed or your carrot bed, and then cover it with shade cloth or row cover now just for the first week or two, so that the soil doesn’t dry out as quickly and those seeds have more of a chance to germinate. And once they popped up, you can remove the cover so they can have the sunshine to grow. So, I do use mini-hoop tunnels in summer with those types of covers.
But paying attention to watering, especially when you’ve got crops like the peas and the beans and the cucumbers and zucchinis. Once they begin to flower and fruit, they have higher moisture needs. So, if they’re not getting it from rain, I’m going to have to play mother nature and get out there and deep water them.
And I think most gardeners know that deep watering is better than getting out there every day and giving the water a little sprinkle the soil, you want to make sure you water to encourage plenty of deep roots. And then I mulch, I mulch my tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, cucumbers, zucchini, any longterm crops that are in the garden. They’re mulched with straw or shredded leaves to lock that soil moisture in.
And then of course, you’ve got the side benefit of fewer weeds because there’s a mulch on the soil, and as the mulch breaks down it adds organic matter to the soil. But also around things like tomatoes, it helps prevent the spread of soil-borne diseases like tomato blight. So, there’s many benefits to mulching your crops so I’m big on mulch.
Margaret: It’s been very interesting this year. You talked about the stress of dry conditions, which we’ve had here, too. And we’ve had this up and down. It was hot when it isn’t usually hot, and it was cooler when it wasn’t usually cool. It’s all over the place. But what I haven’t had a big outbreak, and I know I’m going to kick myself for mentioning this-
Niki: Knock on wood.
Margaret: Knock on something. I haven’t had a lot of insect infestations. Normally by now, I would have seen in the kale, collards, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, cabbage, whatever, the brassicas, I would have seen various kinds of what do you call them…caterpillars.
Niki: Cabbage worms.
Margaret: Yeah, exactly.
Niki: I can send you some, it’s no problem. [Laughter.]
Margaret: Nice. Thank you so much. Are they allowed to cross the border? I’m not sure.
Niki: Sadly, the border doesn’t seem to work for them. And it’s only the past week that I mean, early in the season I go out… I did have my cabbages covered with insect netting over wire hooks. So, I didn’t have the early moths laying their eggs. But then I took them off to let more light in, and then I got the eggs and now I do have some cabbage worms. But I go out and I pick them off, and the robins are all throughout my garden so I keep just tossing them to the robins so, they’re grateful at least, I don’t know.
Margaret: That’s hilarious. For an organic gardener, there’s really no substitute for sort of a ritual. And I like the early morning time of day of inspection, of especially the undersides of leaves, I think, where things are lurking, like eggs.
Niki: People should, if you see eggs on the underside of your leaves, before you squish them or wipe them off with a gloved hand, make sure you know what they are. Because I know the cabbage worm eggs look like tiny little yellowish bullets, so I recognize them. I’ve had them for years, I know. But I mean, they could be ladybug eggs or eggs for lacewings or something else that’s good that you want in the garden. So, before you kill a bug or an egg, people should definitely ID it or learn what it is first.
Margaret: Yeah. My favorite place is BugGuide.net. It’s a bunch of universities in the U.S. I guess; it’s a volunteer thing. But I find that I can upload there if I’m really stuck. A lot of times I have a field guide that will tell—I have enough books, reference books, entomological reference books, that I can usually figure it out. But then, I can use BugGuide.net or some people just use like iNaturalist.org or one of the other citizen-science apps and just upload that picture and get a crowdsourced ID pretty quick, if they know what the plant is and what the region is and the date and the picture—that usually helps someone say, “Oh, that’s such and such,” which is great.
But I think there’s no substitute for vigilance in the organic garden really, is there?
Niki: No, I mean, it’s an incredibly important, and my province is organic so you can’t go buy weed-and-feed for your lawn. You can’t use these chemicals anymore, and we haven’t been able to for, I think, 19, 20 years now. So, you have to learn what these things are, and a morning cup of tea in the garden, as you’re looking for slugs and looking for cabbage worms, it’s kind of a ritual. I love it out there early in the morning.
Margaret: Yeah. So, in the last few minutes I wanted to ask you: I don’t know what kind of projects you’ve been up to. I know you have been working on a new book that will come out, when is the new book coming in the fall?
Niki: It was supposed to be next year, but actually they pushed it up. So, it’ll be coming out in December of 2020, so sooner than later.
Margaret: Great. So besides that, I wondered any new project in the garden? Any new crop that, the last book, “Veggie Garden Remix,” I think was the last one—so many new crops that even I had never heard of.
I put in a whole new asparagus plot because my 30-year-old one just was petering out and I decided for my old age here, I wanted the rest of my life to have plenty of asparagus every year. So, that’s what I did. So, anything that you’ve done this year that you know is different?
Niki: Well, I mean, here in Nova Scotia, we were all, like many places, locked down, and we were home for three months. And it’s only just opening a little up now. But during that time, I think everybody took time to put in gardens, look at their lawns, make new decks.
So, I’ve been tackling lots of outdoor projects and my ornamental garden that I put off for far, far too long.
But I’ve also built new cucumber trellises. I’ve put in so many pandemic potato patches. I had extra straw bales, so I’ve been growing these huge gardens of potatoes in straw bales [above], where I’ve loosened the straw everywhere so the potato plants will produce the potatoes within the straw, so they stay really clean. So, I’ve got probably 200 seed potatoes planted in a loose straw.
Niki: I know, listen, I don’t even know what to say to myself anymore.
So, anywhere I could plant more food this year, I did. Mainly because everybody I know said, “We’re coming to your garden this year if the grocery stores start to close.” [Laughter.] So I was like, “I better expand my plantings.”
And I am planting more fun things for myself, but because this was a year where the seed companies, oh my gosh, they were overwhelmed. It was hard to get stuff. I did get some things early, but certain things I never did get.
So, I’ve got a few new types of cucumber melons this year, sort of like along the lines of Armenian cucumbers, which I grow because my husband’s Lebanese, and I have seeds from his village from many years ago. And so, I grow a lot of cucumber melons but I’m growing lots of new tomatoes. There’s a 14-, 15-year-old tomato expert from Toronto, Emma Biggs. And so, she sends me tomato seeds and I send her other seeds and I’m growing some of her amazing varieties. So, I’ve got a lot of fun little things I’m growing, but unfortunately, because of the lack of seeds and the pressure of the spring, I didn’t get as much as I would’ve liked to try this year.
Margaret: Oh, quick, quick question. The cucumber trellises you just mentioned, are those of concrete reinforcing wire, or what are they made out of?
Niki: They should be, but again, it was hard to source them. So, I have a whole bunch of cucumber trellises that are vertical made of those, I made years ago. I have tunnels for cucumbers made of those, which the 4-by-8 sheets of concrete reinforcing mesh. But these ones, honestly, I had some scrap wood from another project so I just made like 5-foot-tall, 3-foot-wide, just honestly, an A-frame trellis, really simple [above]. I also grow cucumbers in my poly-tunnel up strings and twine. So, I grow cucumbers in lots of ways. The only way I don’t grow them is on the ground, because I get bugs; I get diseases. If I can grow vertically, it’s going up. That’s my rule.
Margaret: Well, Niki Jabbour, as soon as the border opens, I’m going to expect you for the consultation onsite here. [Laughter.]
Niki: I’ll be there.
Margaret: Thank you. And we’ll have the giveaways of the book, as I mentioned. And thank you so much and lots of links for other people in other regions as promised. Thank you so much for making the time today.
Niki: Thank you so much for having me. It’s always a joy. Take care Margaret.
more succession-sowing help
(Photos, except of peas and cabbage worms, from Niki Jabbour, used with permission.)
enter to win niki’s year-round book
I’LL BUY A COPY of Niki Jabbour’s “The Year-Round Vegetable Gardener: How to Grow Your Own Food 365 Days a Year No Matter Where You Live,” for one lucky reader. All you have to do to enter is answer this question in the comments box by scrolling all the way down the page, after the last reader comment:
Do you grow any edibles in the “offseason,” whether indoors or under cover or in a greenhouse–even if just a few extra weeks before or after frost?
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MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its 11th year in March 2020. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the July 13, 2020 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).