Saturday, April 5, 2008

Floppy Trees & Tomatoes (and a small rant)

Don’t let your tomatoes flop around and be fodder for a frost.

I wrote in an early draft for my book Roots Demystified:

“There are all kinds of ways to start plants well ahead of the time when it’s safe to transplant them into the garden. These include cloches (bell-like glass coverings), plastic-tubing walls filled with water to catch and hold the sun’s heat, and sunny windowsills or greenhouses. It’s been my observation, however, that large plants started well ahead of transplant time may not produce tomatoes any sooner than small seedlings planted after any threat of frost and in warm soil.”

I gave a talk today about roots. The conversation turned to tree trunks and how to best stake them. I talked about how the nurseries often tie the whole tree, from its base to nearly the tip of the growth, to a 1”x1” stake. When the poor trees are released from this bondage, they simple flop over. Trees need to blow in the wind to develop a sturdy trunk with a healthy girth. (See the illustration to see how to determine where to stake a flopping tree so it can move in the wind to be healthier tree.)

A woman came up to me after the talk to say last year she had started some tomatoes early in a Wall-of-Watertm—plastic-tubing walls filled with water to catch and hold the sun’s heat. When released from this frost protection, the plants immediately fell over—like the staked trees. She had to tie each new shoot to the hog-wire trellis she uses to grow tomatoes. The tomatoes set out after the average date of our last frost thrived. The wind buffeted them and they rambled up-and-through the hog wire with carefree abandon.

Begin Rant
I had to go to the plant nursery for a friend after the talk (on April 5th). The weather was an ideal 70 F plus and throngs of people were at the nursery. There were also throngs of tomato seedlings. I wanted to yell “All the ’ole timers say never set tomatoes out into the garden until after May 1st as there is still a chance for a hard frost in April.” But the nursery was happy to sell these tender seedlings to gardeners’ dreaming of early tomatoes. Most nurseries prey on those who try to jump-start tomatoes. Shame on them, but money at any cost is money I guess.

I suspect some will find brown-green plants laying flat on their faces before May 1st. (Some of the low-lying vineyards had to spray water last week on the vines to help prevent damage to the new buds as the temperature hovered around 32 F.)

Patience furthers. A gardener needs to calmly wait until the soil warms up before planting the treasured tomato seedlings. (Besides, there’s probably lots of weeding or composting to keep you busy!)
End Rant

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Thursday, April 3, 2008

Family Nutritionist: Greens -- an introduction

Family Nutritionist: Greens -- an introduction

I like how this site covers vegetables in detail - even edible "weeds" like Miner's lettuce. And she covers a wide number of cultural diets/recipes. Strange that I can't find her name. But she does provide the caveat - The Family Nutritionist has no formal training in diet or nutrition. She does extensive research. Same as me. And seems to test the recipes on her friends. None have died as far as I can tell. Check it out. Let me know what you think of the site.

(The photo is of an tulip's edibles petals. Good for stuffing with crab salad, cream-cheese combinations, egg salad, tuna fish salad - just about any typical cold stuffing.)

To see more detail of the illustration(s) put you cursor over the image and double click.
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NOTE: The comments section at the bottom of the post has disappeared. Click on the "___ Comments" button or the title under the "Blog Archives". Thanks, Robert

Visit my web site to learn about my gardening books.

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Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Grazing in the Garden

I’m weeding food.

My garden is filled with Miner’s lettuce. Both the deer and I nibble the large plump outer leaves. I mostly graze while weeding. All this seed germinated on top of last years newspaper covered with mulch. It’s wall-to-wall of Miner’s lettuce (
Claytonia perfoliata) in vast parts of my garden. Where the seed comes from is a mystery to me.

I’ve liberated the lavenders from the web of Miner’s lettuce so they get more sunshine to begin bringing forth their smoky-green foliage. I nibble what the deer have left behind. This year, I'm trying to just weed most of the garden and save the newspaper with mulch for the wilder perimeters. I'm enjoying, for the first time in years, hand weeding.

(Miner's lettuce does have a minor amount of oxalic acid. Oxalic acid is of some concern in high amounts as it can form kidney stones. While Miner's lettuce is high in calcium, all but about 5% is tied up by the oxalic acid. Spinach has a much higher amount of oxalic acid. The rule is the Grecian guideline: "all things in moderation".)

I haven’t seen the deer on their usual morning walk from the forest through my garden. Last week a single doe went from my garden back into the deep shadows of the huckleberries and Douglas fir trees. There used to be three does that came through like clockwork every morning about eight AM. Then there were two. Now only an occasional daytime visit. But the nibbling of the Miner’s lettuce seems to indicate they’re here somewhere. When they disappear it’s usually because the mountain lion is back. But no scat on the driveway to confirm this.

I’ll just look down from the second-storey window next to my computer and see how soon they return.

Please post a comment - I want to know what you think.

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NOTE: The comments section at the bottom of the post has disappeared. Click on the "___ Comments" button or the title under the "Blog Archives". Thanks, Robert

Visit my web site to learn about my gardening books.

All Rights Reserved. Copyright 2008

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Lettuce Consider Garden Diversity

As spring's passionate climax approaches, I'm thinking about how much diversity does a garden need?

My mind drifts back to 1982. As I wrote my rough proposal for a book on edible landscaping
while at Oyster Bay, NY. (Designing and Maintaining Your Edible Landscape – Naturally; 1986, Metamorphic Press.) I gazed across a well-clipped estate lawn to an recently-abandoned tennis court.

After just a few seasons of neglect, every fissure in the asphalt had been filled with grasses and a wealth of herbaceous weeds. More remarkably, well-anchored saplings of the mimosa tree (Albizia julibrissan) were already several feet high and beginning to heave the tarmac. In less than a decade, those mimosas' will have completely cloaked the court's rubble with a prosperous, verdant forest. How quickly nature can reclaim what we pretend to husband or nurture. All the human effort we put into cultivated gardens is dwarfed by even the casual momentum of nature. Once untended, even the most environmentally-kosher garden soon returns to nature's bosom. Buried within this steady, powerful momentum are the seeds of nature's renewal—which are more powerful than any human garden.

I visited the site of Allan Chadwick’s Covelo, CA garden just a few years after it was abandoned. Allan Chadwick was the guru of French-intensive, biodynamic gardening. Apprentices flocked from around the world to learn from this strident and demanding teacher. Yet, the garden was a riot of weeds. The most prevalent were lemon balm and comfrey. Proof that their composting was not hot enough to kill all garden seeds. The comfrey was (and probably still is) a biological nightmare. Just a tiny piece of root can sprout become a huge plant in matter of a few years. Probably the apprentices had skimmed bed of comfrey for compost, but skimmed deep enough to gather the crowns of the plants. I used to plant comfrey, some 38 years ago during the early days of my infatuation with intercropping, companion planting, and the silica-enhanced comfrey At the time I assumed that planting it in with vegetables would allow its deep roots to bring up special minerals from deeper places than the vegetables could reach. I regret to this day that the tillage of those gardens spread unwanted comfrey throughout the beds. Now my comfrey is five feet from any tillage, is never watered, and the leaves are cut well above the crown for compost. Yet I have to struggle to remove the roots that have found the moisture of the raised bed with it’s lemon bush. Slow learner I guess. Now, in any design I do for a client there is no comfrey to be found.

A common theme in the sustainable/organic/permaculture world is the premise "diversity equals stability." I wish the continual references to "Diversity", “Climax”, and “Stability” would end. While diversity within an ecosystem allows for a complex interaction between all the elements, plants, animals, and people; it is not a panacea. A “mature, climax” forest is often the model of “stability”. Yet winds knock down trees to open up little meadows to start the whole process again. The edges often have to repeat what lead the forest to have a mixture of trees and other plants. Trees die to be replaced by some of the same progression leading up to a climax.

A climax forest is not always the natural climax. Vernal pools, sand dunes, chaparral, bogs, and other ecosystems thrive without forming a continuous canopy of trees. Too often in gardening books, what appears to be a great way to garden is based on the experience of tropical ecosystems. Using tropical diversity as a model is childlike. While the tropics often have lots of vertically-integrated plants, the temperate American landscape, with its hardwood forests, meadows, and prairies, is less vertically complex and is more adapted to the growth of annual plants than the tropics. More importantly, in the tropics the nutrients are stored above ground in the biomass. Whereas in temperate ecosystem, the nutrients are stored in the soil. Randomly-chosen diversity or complexity doesn't necessarily provide any special benefits.

A good example is the wish that beans climbing corn will feed the corn with nitrogen. However, beans don’t “share” much of their nitrogen nodules with other plants while they're growing.
unless they go into severe drought, die, are mowed, grazed, and after tilled under just as blossoming begins. (See page 49 of Roots Demystified, Change Your Gardening Habits to Help Roots Thrive. 2008, Metamorphic Press.) The legume is selfish, it is building up a supply of nitrogen in its rots to move it into the formation of seed. Only then, will the nitrogen become available to other plants. But most of the nitrogen will, by that time, be in the seed, not the foliage or roots. That’s the temperate dynamics. In the tropics, nutrients cycle so fast that even some leaves falling off the older stems of the bean plants rot and release some nitrogen on the surface of the thin layer of soil.

However, in both climates it is well proven that a green manure crop of any number of legumes greatly increases the total amount of nitrogen. Crop rotations where a field or planting bed is left to fallow for a year with legumes also increases nitrogen for the next crop.

But our garden's diversity must be, to our current knowledge, composed of the proper plants. For example, the kudzu vine is theoretically a multipurpose plant with many edible parts and useful fibers. Adding kudzu would be another unit of diversity in your garden. But you better leave town before your neighbors come after you as the kudzu vines entangle everything that's moving slower than 25 miles-per-hour! Kudsu is an extreme example of exotic plant from Japan and China gone wild. Kudzu plants grow rapidly, and may extend to100’ in length at a rate of about one foot per day.

More subtly, you may think twice about nurturing edible lamb's-quarters (often treated as a weed) if you're growing lots of heirloom tomato plants because this "weed" also harbors verticillium wilt—the Achilles Heel of many non-hybrid tomato plants. Too much diversity, or the wrong kind, only promotes that universal dynamic called entropy via chaos.

Too much diversity, or the wrong kind, only promotes the universal dynamics called chaos and entropy. Nonetheless, the organic movement will only continue to grow both literally and figuratively.

In my opinion, gardeners are not as important to nature as we think, nature eventually takes back everything and we should endeavor to stay humble and in our place—relative to the grander scheme of things.
As George Carlin so eloquently observed in his 1992 (a man ahead of his time) HBO special: "
Save the planet!? Are these fucking people kidding me? There's nothing wrong with the planet that it can't fix. We still haven't learned how to care for one another—and we're gonna save the fucking planet? So, take care of yourself. And take care of somebody else."

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The image is of a kudsu vine covering two tractors and a forest. Photo by Jack Anthony, from

Visit my web site to learn about my gardening books.

NOTE: The comments section at the bottom of the post has disappeared. Click on the "___ Comments" button or the title under the "Blog Archives". Thanks, Robert

Monday, March 31, 2008

Radio Ramblings

Radio shows can discombobulate me. (Notice bob in the word.)

I was on the radio last night. The other guest was very fascinating as she described wining a gold medal twice at world’s most prestigious flower and garden show—the Chelsea Garden Show in the UK. This was a display put together by an American, trouncing dozens of garden displays by British gardeners. Like the California bread maker that had best of “show” in a French competition. Americans are giving some of Europe a run for their money.

When the conversation drifted into what the Queen was wearing when she stopped by the display garden, I got a bit frustrated as roots—I was there to promote my book Roots Demystified— and the Queen of England don’t seem to have much in common.

Finally the conversation turned toward my book. I got flustered which is rare for me on a radio show. There were so many things I realized later I wished I said, but had slipped my mind. Such as:

Where should I feed my shrubs and trees? This question came before I explained that trees and shrubs have roots that extend well beyond the canopy—sometimes as far as three to four times the radius of the trunk-to-dripline (the edge of the foliage). The illustrations on his blog are taken from my book and shows how dramatic the root spread can be with a walnut tree and two apple tree as examples. (Click on the illustration to get a bigger version that shows how far the roots travel from fruit trees.)

What other plants beside mint have long running roots? I said bamboo and Bermuda grass, failing to mention the illustration in my book showing Bermuda grass with roots nearly six feet deep. I forgot all about kikuyu grass that is so aggressive it makes Bermuda grass look tame. I first saw it at the Esalen Institute, Big Sur, CA. To stop its on slot into the vegetable garden they had to keep a two-foot trench open between the grass lawn of kikuyu grass and the vegetable garden. Roots can travel sight unseen great distances, even if they are not as diminutive as a grass. I failed to remember the popular tree near town that has crossed under two lanes of asphalt to pop up on the other side.

I explained how Steve Solomon was able to dry farm carrots one foot apart along the row with five feet between the rows. I neglected to say his estimate was planting eight times further apart than that recommended by followers of the French Intensive-Biodynamic method only reduced yields by one-half. And all without irrigation.

There is much more detail and suggestions in my book Roots Demystified.

Would I go back on the airwaves again? You bet. But not with the Queen of England!

Please post a comment - I want to know what you think.

To see more detail of the illustration(s) put you cursor over the image and double click.
All Rights reserved. Copyright 2008

Visit my web site to learn about my other gardening books.

I have lost the usual way to leave comments. To do so, simply click on the "___ Comments" below or click on the Blog's name under Blog Archives. Thanks, Roberts