Cooling it: Helping your veggies through intense summer heat

Getting a good harvest through the summer, particularly in areas where temperatures regularly rest above 90F (32.2C), can be challenging. Today, it’s 97 (36.1C) and still. I watered early in the morning. A thick layer of straw mulch covers the ground around all the vegetables, and shredded bark mulch protects the ornamentals, but it doesn’t feel like much help.

Seeing my plants droop in the heat makes me depressed. More importantly, heat-stressed plants are more susceptible to viruses, fungal diseases, and all sorts of nasty stuff. So today, in anticipation of these ghastly temperatures, I went spelunking in the shed and found the old patio umbrella and cast iron stand. I set them up on the southwestern corner of the raised bed, where the umbrella shades the beans, tomatoes, and some of the peppers from noon until sunset. They do get morning sun, as well as reflected light all day from the gravel paths close by.

It may sound ludicrous, but providing your vegetables just a tiny bit of shade, particularly from the afternoon heat, can make a big difference in their resiliency over the season. Give it a try.

 

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Digging Durham: Is this a great library, or what?

As I mulched the vegetables yesterday before the temperatures hit 93 (34C), I thought about the second sowings I need to get started.  And I remembered that while I’d donated some seeds to the Digging Durham Seed Library back in the early spring, I hadn’t been by since the collection launched to see what my fellow citizens brought forth from their seed shoeboxes to share.

seedDigging Durham Seed Library vegetable packets

Free veggie seeds for the taking: Eggplant ‘Listada di Gandia’; squash ‘Blue Hubbard’ and ‘Waltham Butternut’; bush baby lima beans; bush bean ‘Contender’; and two packets of drying beans ‘Lazy Housewife.’

What incredible luck! This covers just about everything I had planned to grow but the sweet potato slips, which can’t fit into the little envelopes, and the Malabar spinach. If I had found Malabar spinach in the seed library, I would have fainted in surprise and been roused only by the echoing choruses of “Shh!!”

I’m still a bit giddy.

“Checking out” the seeds means taking them from the drawer and taking them home. I didn’t even have to flash my library card. As part of the deal, I will grow the crops, save some seeds at the end of the season, and return them to the library for next year’s growing season. What a fantastic way to try out new vegetable varieties.

Digging Durham seed library

The seed library’s baby photo

If your local library doesn’t have a seed library, consider starting one. I can tell I’m going to be a patron of ours for as long as I can.

Gardening as spiritual practice: Food and joy

I’m thinking more about why I garden. I’ll try to reflect on this topic twice a month. I welcome your thoughts on why you garden (or don’t).

Why I Garden: Food

As a topic this is (forgive me) low-hanging fruit.  I don’t have much space to grow edibles but increasingly I find myself trying to sneak edibles into the ornamental landscape. Any little pocket where I can edge in a squash plant or head of lettuce rapidly gets appropriated. But why?

Economics?

Some articles will tell you that it’s cheap to grow your own food. It’s not. The assertion that growing one’s own food is cheap boils down to a comparison of the price of a pound of tomatoes at the local supermarket against the price of a packet of seeds, from which one could, theoretically, grow dozens of pounds of the same vegetable. Any farmer will tell you that this is bad economics. Once you have factored in the cost of building raised beds; buying equipment such as stakes, bird netting, row covers, and fertilizer; not to mention the cost of water, it’s hard to argue that the first growing season, at least, has not yielded some very expensive produce. And what is your time worth? Remember, you’re not being paid to farm your own land. Economics is not the answer.

(See also, on my summer reading list, The $64 Tomato: How One Man Nearly Lost His Sanity, Spent a Fortune, and Endured an Existential Crisis in the Quest for the Perfect Garden, by William Alexander.)

Peace of Mind?

Maybe. I’ll never argue that it’s not good to know where one’s food comes from. But the peace-of-mind argument is one best made early in the season, before the aphids, flea beetles, squash vine borers, squash bugs, spider mites, and the rest of the tiny critters in my ecosystem have had their say. We’ve only had a few days above 90F so far, so my plants still look lush and strong. Check back with me in mid-September, when summer has begun its final month. Some garden pest or other environmental circumstance will have pushed me nearly to the breaking point, and I’ll be wondering whether the effort is worth it.

I’m committed to gardening sustainably, with no chemical pesticides or fertilizers, so I can feel secure in the safety of the produce I bring in from the garden. In early June, I can comfortably argue in the words my father sometimes says, “That’s not nothing.”

Better Health?

A sample cover image of Organic Gardening magazine

A sample cover image of Organic Gardening magazine

Growing a garden does make you eat your veggies, assuming you grow what you like to eat and aren’t fussy when your produce doesn’t look exactly like it belongs on the cover of Organic Gardening magazine or the pages of the bible of vegetable porn, the Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds catalogue. Your tomatoes may crack. Your carrots may split or twist. They taste good anyway. And if you aren’t bombarding those veggies with every chemical on the Home Depot garden department shelves, you’ll be better for it. So yes, better health is one reason.

 

Joy

I think joy may be the real reason I garden. Work, bills, obligations, and the challenges of raising near-teenage children drain me. I fret a great deal about the state of the world today (good heavens, what will I be like when I’m in my eighth or ninth decade?). I have met neurosis, and she is me. But when I’m in the garden, I feel none of it.

I don’t kid myself: I’m not in control in the garden, no more than I am in control of nuclear proliferation negotiations or whether Antarctic ice sheets melt. Mother Nature is much bigger than I am. Rather, being in the garden reassures me that my place in the world is quite small, that little in this world depends on me, and that realization is the source of the joy. The seeds I plant would come up with or without my help, because that is what they have evolved to do, but as I shepherd their growth I can marvel at the result of millions of years of work that went into the making of this one moment, when I watch the vine reaching for the sun.

http://instagram.com/p/o3rCsYQJk8/

Edible groundcovers

Grass is an expensive groundcover. Many homeowners love the calming look of a broad green carpet welcoming them home from work, but to keep their lawns looking their best, they turn to cartloads of chemical fertilizers, herbicides to control weeds, and pesticides to control the grubs and insects that try to coexist in the landscape.

This level of consumption comes with serious costs, both financial and environmental. Turf lawns individually consume 10,000 gallons of water each year, on average, on top of the rainfall they receive.  Unprecedented droughts and the water restrictions that often accompany them make maintaining a large turf lawn impractical and irresponsible. Expensive chemical herbicides and pesticides, whether applied by the homeowner or by a contracted landscape service, are thought to contribute to honeybee colony collapse disorder, which will have huge impacts on food availability and food prices if it isn’t curbed.

Why not try a more sustainable and innovative approach to landscaping this summer? Replace a portion of your lawn with attractive edible groundcovers and shrubs. You’ll have less mowing, more leisure time, and home-grown herbs and berries to enjoy.

Blueberries

Blueberries can be grown throughout much of the United States. In the South or on the west coast, try rabbiteye blueberries (Vaccinium ashei) like ‘Climax’ or ‘Premier’ or Southern highbush varieties like ‘Blue Ridge’ and ‘Legacy.’ In the northeast, lowbush blueberries (Vaccinium angustifolium) perform best, and in the Midwest and Pacific northwest, northern highbush blueberries (V. corymbosum; try ‘Bluegold,’ ‘Duke,’ and ‘Elizabeth’) can provide attractive groundcover and fresh fruit for summertime desserts. Blueberries need acidic soil (contact your county extension service to test your soil’s pH and get advice on correct soil amendments), regular water, and sun to produce the best fruit, although they will produce fruit in partial shade. The leaves turn beautiful shades of scarlet and crimson in the fall.

blueberry leaves

Blueberry leaves covered in frost

Lingonberries

What will grow in the acid soil beneath blueberries? Lingonberries. Hardy in Zones 2-8, lingonberries are a low-growing evergreen shrub related to blueberries and cranberries. They require the same acidic soil as their blueberry brethren, and lingonberries benefit from some shade in hot weather. Plant these low-growing shrubs at the same time as your blueberries, taking care to be gentle with both plants’ brittle roots. Depending on the variety, lingonberries may provide one or two crops per year, typically once in late summer and again in winter. They’re delicious in pancakes, or made into jam or sauces.

Lingonberry 'Koralle'

Lingonberry ‘Koralle’

Thyme

If your climate tends more to the hot, dry, sunny side, replace part of your lawn with low-growing thyme (Thymus sp.). This Mediterranean herb likes full sun, excellent drainage, and low water. Bees and other pollinators love the nectar from thyme flowers, and thymol, a natural compound extracted from thyme, has antimicrobial properties and helps control parasitic mites that stress honeybee populations. Thymus serphyllum, creeping thyme, grows 6 to 12 inches tall and will spread to 1 to 3 feet wide (depending on the cultivar), providing a tough, low-maintenance groundcover. Thymus serphyllum ‘Annie Hall’ is covered by tiny pinkish-lavender flowers. ‘Pink Ripple’ also has pale pink flowers and a lemon scent to the foliage. Culinary thyme (Thymus vulgaris), has a more upright habit, but you can keep it compact by shearing off handfuls to use in soups, sauces, salads, marinades, and to flavor meats and seafood on the grill. Variety ‘Silver Queen’ has attractive white edges to the petals. Lemon thyme (T. x citriodorus) is also edible, and has (not surprisingly) a bright lemony taste.

Savory

Slightly larger than thyme, but similar in appearance, winter savory (Satureja montana) is another herb that provides great groundcover and requires little input from the gardener. It grows 15 inches tall and wide, but harvesting the stems and leaves keeps the plant compact and thick. Like thyme, it appreciates full sun and well drained soil. It is hardy to Zone 6.

Purslane

Purslane (Portulaca oleracea) is an underused annual herb that tastes faintly of citrus. Its fleshy leaves are rich in Vitamin C and omega 3 fatty acids. Popular in Asian and Middle Eastern cooking, it spreads rapidly by seed, which can be good or bad depending on your landscape goals. You may wish to grow it in a container for a year to see how you like it, before planting it out in the landscape. Be careful not to confuse purslane with spurge (Euphorbia chamaesyce, prostrate spurge, or Euphorbia maculata, syn. Chamaesyce maculata, spotted spurge), which can irritate skin and eyes and can be poisonous. Buy purslane seeds or plants from a reputable nursery and try the fresh new growth in salads–there are lots of recipes online. If you keep backyard chickens, you can share it with them; you’ll have plenty.

Purslane (Portulaca oleracea)

Photo of purslane (Portulaca oleracea) by ZooFari (http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:ZooFari) via Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Try replacing a portion of your resource-hungry lawn with these easy edible ground covers. Your wallet and your wildlife neighbors (not to mention your dinner plate) will be glad you did.

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Sustainable fertilizer: Nettle tea

Among other new things I’m trying out this year, I’m making a liquid fertilizer out of stinging nettles (Urtica dioica).

Urtica dioica grows easily from seed and spreads easily by rhizomes, so I grow mine in a container. potted stinging nettles urtica dioica and spiderOften used in traditional and herbal/alternative medicines to treat a wide variety of conditions in the urinary and gastrointestinal tracts, the skin, joints, and allergic conditions, stinging nettles contain significant amounts of trace elements like iron, manganese, and calcium. The plant also contains the major nutrients potassium and nitrogen. Nitrogen, of course, promotes new green growth, and potassium (symbol K, the third number in a fertilizer analysis such as 4-3-3) is often described as a multivitamin for a plant, promoting resiliency and overall good health.

stinging nettle urtica dioicaGardening literature from the UK suggests that nettle tea is an outstanding natural fertilizer. To make it:

  1. Gather stems and leaves of stinging nettles. (Use gloves. They really do hurt.)nettle stem showing spines
  2. Crush the leaves and stems with your gloved hands or chop them with a knife, and place in a large bucket. Weight them down with a clean clay pot or saucer.harvested nettleschopped nettles
  3. Cover the crushed nettles with water. nettles submerged in container of water
  4. Leave them to soak for 3-4 weeks. Word has it that the brew gets a bit smelly, so keep a lid on the bucket and perhaps locate it away from pathways or entranceways.
  5. Once the liquid has steeped, dilute it at approximately 1 part tea to 10 parts water. Apply to any plants, but especially those that seem to be struggling a bit.

 Note:

Nettles can interfere with certain prescription drugs, including blood thinners and blood pressure and diabetes medications. Don’t take them without consulting a doctor about potential interactions with your current diet and medications.