Friday, October 31, 2008

A swift demise

I have been meaning to get back to my plot with my camera after stopping by Tuesday afternoon.  What a difference a killing frost makes.  Most of the annual plants in my plot are showing the effects of rigor mortis.  I thought the wind had blown a dead tree branch into the plot; upon closer inspection I discovered it was my eggplant, which had been bearing enough to feed a family the week before, now brown and lying horizontally across my still-proliferating strawberry plants.  There was a stark contrast between the dead and the living.  My lettuce, though stunted, remained crispy and supermarket green while my green peppers, zinnias, and others appeared to have been sprayed with the same can of greenish-brown paint.  All of the color had been leached out of my zinnias.  A graveyard of skeletons,  just in time for Halloween.

I suppose that leaving the camera at home forces me to write more descriptively.  In any case, I just wanted to acknowledge these passings before they are really old news.  There will be more to write about over the next few days: a work day has been added tomorrow and the stones for the John Carroll memorial will be arriving soon.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Smart, but not smart enough

"It's called smartweed," John Carroll told me one day while I was helping him maintain one of the flower beds he had planted in the old Minton Stable Garden.  It earned that name, he explained, because it is smart enough to take on the appearance of a flower that one might grow on purpose.  With its greenish-pink brush-like flowers and long tapered leaves, it does seem too attractive to pull, especially when it adds some color to a fading fall garden.

But don't be fooled.  It may not strangle plant stems like bindweed does, but smartweed can still be invasive.  Known by its scientific name of polygonum hydropiper, there are two main types of smartweed: aquatic and terrestrial.  I've been encountering the terrestrial smartweed not only in my MSG plot, but also in my gardens at home, as you can see in a neglected flower bed next to my house (perhaps posting this photo will shame me into leaving my perch at the Ula Cafe to go home and weed, now that the rain has cleared).  

I could place a plastic bag over the smartweed before pulling it; that would greatly reduce the possible spreading of some of the 3000 seeds or more that the plant produces.  But I could also harvest it for medicinal purposes, to treat a variety of illnesses from common colds to cholera. 

I doubt that I will take either of these measures.  As I do every year, I'll just pull the smartweed out by the roots and admire its pretty pink flowers as I chuck them in with the other yard waste. 

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Annuals or Perennials?

Some time ago, some gardeners gave a friend of mine a bumper sticker that read something like, "Friends don't let friends plant annuals."  The obvious message is that growing perennials is morally superior.  I wondered if there was much of a polarization among gardeners over this issue, some analogy such as "annuals are to native perennials as genetically modified food is to locally-grown organic food."  In fact, on a large scale, there is some research indicating that annual cropping systems have a negative effect on soil quality and water use.  But when it comes to which flowers to plant in individual and community gardens, those who defend their preferences have different points to make.

Though annuals complete their life cycle in one growing season, some gardeners prefer their longer and sometimes more abundant blooming period.  They can be grown easily in containers and baskets, an advantage to those short on land.  Another point made in a forum I found is that a gardener can plant different flowers in different places from year to year, with ease.

I recently received a comment by a gardener who called herself "lazy" because of her leaning toward perennials, which live for more than a year and therefore do not require replanting.  If you don't plant your flowers from seed, perennials can be cheaper in the long run for that reason, though they are more expensive than annuals when first purchased.  Perennials can also be divided to give to friends and plant in other places.  As one commenter in the forum stated, "It's like having a garden centre in your own yard."

Many gardeners like the challenge of growing the right combination of perennials so there is always something in bloom throughout the season.  These folks may not only regard annuals as "too easy," but find some of their gaudy colors unnatural in fitting with the native landscape. 

Which do you prefer?  I think that many people prefer a combination of the two types.  If they are like me, they have a few favorite annuals, like zinnias and nasturtiums, and might throw a few others in a garden if nothing else is in bloom.  But in times of laziness there is still something that will come up.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Water woes

During this past week anyone in the Minton Stable Garden hoping to give their plants a good soaking were left high and dry.  No water was coming out of the spigots.  I tried moving the recently-installed diverters each way after turning on the water; still no luck.  I came to the obvious conclusion that the water had been shut off, and contacted a steering committee member to find out why.  He said he wasn't sure if Boston Water and Sewer had also shut off the water, but he had turned off the spigot valve closest to Gartland Street because that particular one was difficult to use.  

Whatever the case may be, hopefully the water is back flowing again, and as I write this in another state, the last garden work day of the season (scheduled for today) went off without a hitch.  The main task involved planting the communal raspberry patch that I'm sure would have needed a decent watering once finished.

Okay, now to annoy the newcomers again with another "I remember when..." story.  Before the garden was redesigned and became "official," there was no water source, so we had to haul in our own water.  My husband and I used to have a cat, so I'd fill about four plastic kitty-litter jugs (about 3-5 gallons each) and shuttle them down Williams Street in a wheelbarrow.  Someone had acquired a few rain barrels, so once in a while Allan or some other abutter would run a few connected hoses from his house.  We'd have to cover the barrels to avoid breeding mosquitoes.  

You can imagine how luxurious it first felt to be able to turn on a tap on the premises.  Now, just like the way people get used to having a washing machine, the inconvenience of having that feature taken away feels doubly oppressive.  

But even with running water, on some days I would remove the sprayer from the hose and fill the watering can a few times, usually because it's a pain to drag the hose to my plot then recoil it, but also in the interest of water conservation.  With the watering can I can direct the water toward the roots, and less water is wasted by evaporating off the leaves.  However, I am never sure that I am giving my plants enough water, and I'm too lazy to find out how much is needed.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

In praise of zinnias

"Like an/Autumn flower/In the frozen rain," Langston Hughes described an old woman in the poem "Troubled Woman."  I think the flower he referring to was a late-season zinnia, one of the fall's last signs of color.  Sure, they are not alone at this point--some nasturtiums, marigolds, and phlox are also floral holdouts, but I visualize the zinnia because of the way it ages so gracefully, the color of the blooms still faded but beautiful.  Their stems stand with dignity until it's time to give in the the fall chill.

I've been planting zinnias since I was a child, probably for the same reasons all along: they're easy to grow and almost always a success (except for the one year I planted old seeds).  A few seeds in May, a little water and full sun and by late July you have a colorful reward.  Although I've leaned more toward perennials in recent years, I still can't give up that 3 by 4 foot patch.  During the peak of their blooming season, a bouquet can last for a week.  Zinnias are still there for me after I've deadheaded and cut down every other flower around them; they stand guard and distract the eye from the tangle of vegetable plants that I know I need to clear out, soon.

First believed to have been cultivated in Austria in 1613, zinnias have been selectively bred since the 19th century.  The annual plant as we know it has its origins in the southwestern US, Mexico, and Central America, so their love of sun should come as no surprise.  I find them growing in about at least a dozen of the 40+ plots at the Minton Stable Garden.  They might look a little garish next to native perennials, but in a plot of mostly vegetables they add a colorful contrast.  

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Genetic freakshow

It's October, and I guess this is the point in time when I should be posting pumpkin photos. However, the one pumpkin I found growing in the MSG has already been harvested.  Also, while my daughter and I spent a few hours at the Topsfield Fair last night, we were too busy riding elephants and ferris wheels and watching Canadian mounties parade their horses in formation that we never made it to the pumpkins.  If we did, we still would not have caught a glimpse of history in the making; as you may have already seen or read in the news, a farmer from Sharon (located about an hour south of Boston) has been growing the world's largest pumpkin.  Latest reports have it weighing in at 1,878 pounds and gaining 11 pounds a day.  Tomorrow in Warren, Massachusetts, there will be a competition during which the broken record will become official.

What's the secret to an enormous pumpkin?  Well, obviously you need to start with a genetic seed.  In this case Steve Connolly used Atlantic Giant seeds originally patented by a Nova Scotia farmer, and kept it thriving on a diet that included North American kelp, cow manure, maple leaf compost, and fish fertilizer.  Growing these megapumpkins has become quite the sport these days; I wouldn't be surprised if a new record of over a ton will be established next year.

I feel a little sorry for these plants, even if they have no brains.  They sort of remind me of child models and athletes that have been cultivated and paraded around, unable to live a normal life.  What happens to a pumpkin that size when it dies?  Does this variety taste good enough for pie?  Could you start your own roasted seed business?  You couldn't just put in in the compost, you would need to cut it up so it could fit into several bins, or just dump it in the trash.  Maybe Connolly will preserve his just like someone would stuff an animal.

If genetic engineering could produce something of such an unnatural size, I wonder what's next.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Last chance

So this is it, according to my husband who was listening to the weather forecast this morning.  He called me from his car and told me to get the rest of the basil out, as tonight's temperature will plunge into the 30s and a frost has been predicted for Northeastern areas as far south as Connecticut.  Since he's in New York I guess that will be my job.  There's not much left in our plot but we have some in planters out back.  A friend of mine suggested drying it in the oven, but some believe that freezing it with a little oil will better preserve its flavor.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Don't just sit there!

Fall--a time for birthday parties, open studios, apple picking, the Roslindale Parade, etc. and after shivering for a few hours in the fall chill, lounging on the couch under a blanket, coffee and Sunday paper within reach, checking the foliage status of the maple across the street...gardening is over, right?  Of course not.  

But like the cleanup at the end of a party, it must be done.  I guess that would really happen in November, so October is like that period where you start shutting off the music and yawning in front of your guests, telling how great it was to see them, and making sure everyone has a ride home.

October is one of the busiest months of the year, especially when it comes to the planting of trees, shrubs, and bulbs, as well as dividing and transplanting perennials, composting, and protecting some plants from the winter elements.  With the exception of a raspberry plant I brought home from the Perennial Divide, most of my transplanting involves moving around a few perennials at home.  

In my Minton Stable plot, I'll keep my lettuce and carrots watered, cut back spent perennials, and pull out and compost the tomato plants.  I'll try to get around to harvesting the basil before it's too late; most of it's out already.  I'll keep the zinnias blooming and, as much as I know there won't be a harvest, I can't bring myself to pull out the peppers and eggplant until next month.  According to the community garden rules, the plots must be cleaned out by November 30, so I have time.  If I lived a little farther north, in Zone 7, covering the strawberries would be a good idea.  I did nothing to protect them last year and they still proliferated.

I'll think about a winter cover plant that would enhance the soil, such as winter rye, which my husband swears by but is hard to find.  I'd be curious to know what other gardeners are planting.

Okay, it's Monday, the sun is out, so it's time to stop procrastinating.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

But do they garden?

Tonight some of my friends are coming over to watch the first and only VP debate.  During this time of anxious uncertainty over who could be a heartbeat from the presidency, I can understand why they are spending more time at political blogs such as the Daily Kos than here.  But having witnessed enough lunacy, we have pretty much decided who will get our votes anyway.  So why not explore another angle--where do these candidates stand on their gardening philosophies and practices?

An internet search for answers revealed little.  One search using the words "Sarah Palin organic gardening" uncovered a page from the Huffington Post that addresses organic gardening but not Palin--the reason it came up in my results was that on the same page there was a link to a poll that asks "Is Sarah Palin's lipliner a tattoo?"  I could not find any evidence that Joe Biden gardened either, though a gardener dedicated her blog post to her positive interactions with the lawmaker.

Perhaps a career in politics leaves little time for gardening.  So instead consider some of their positions on the environment.  We've all heard that Palin supports drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge; Biden opposes it.  Another noteworthy observation is that the Humane Society has agreed with 80% of Biden's positions, and that he had advocated for more compliance with mercury regulations as well as an increase in cleanup of this dangerous substance.  

Whoever we elect for #1 and #2 should appreciate the importance of gardening for many of us, and the advantages shifting the emphasis more toward locally grown food.   They wouldn't be the first executives to consider it, as this video shows.