Garden Notes

Native winterberry, (Ilex verticillata): Photo by Susan Safford
Native winterberry, (Ilex verticillata) a deciduous holly, still colorful after supplying bird food all winter. Photo by Susan Safford

Early spring chores

By Abigail Higgins - March 2, 2006

Only seven weeks till Easter (this year April 16) so it really is time to get busy. Many of you will have already sent in your seed orders and will have started to germinate early crops. On these nice days it is pleasant to be outside pruning woody plants to desired size and shape. You can usually tell by careful observation which are the leaf buds and which are the flower buds. Avoid pruning off branches containing flower buds unless of course you are looking for something to bring indoors to force.

In the process of renewing flowering shrubs to encourage more bloom, look for the older branches with evidence of previous bloom (deadheads, seed capsules, etc.) and, often, a finer network of branching. Then identify the newer growth, often straighter, less branching, and with less-weathered bark. Selectively remove a few of the older growth branches evenly throughout the shrub.

Clearing out accumulations of dead leaves that always drift and shift around during the fierce windiness of winter is another useful task. For me, being out in the yard or garden for the most inconsequential of reasons often inspires the best garden ideas.

Natural before chemical
There is a stack of enticing seed catalogues and related garden materials/product releases on my chair that is over a foot in height. In previous columns I have urged readers to treat troubled lawns with an application of compost before turning to herbicides and pesticides, especially in view of water well and wetlands protection. Many lawn problems can be traced to problems with the soil; many soil problems beneath lawn can be corrected simply by a yearly top dressing with compost. The difficulty of compost, for many who would like to have a chem-free lawn, has always been spreading it. There's no doubt about it: applying compost is labor-intensive.

So here come two introductions, in the new product department, from Coast of Maine, suppliers of a line of bagged composts, mulches and soils, which should be very good news to gardeners who wish to utilize compost. Their "Kennebunk Blend"™ ultra-light compost introduces the means to do so for anyone who can hoist bag to spreader. "Kennebunk Blend"™ has been developed for application with any conventional lawn spreader. It is used to "Top-dress lawns or large beds... or sprinkle-in by hand when planting ...." With the consistency of coffee grounds, it is a finely screened dark brown granule that is dry and lightweight. The handout says it is 100 percent composted hen manure, organically certified, and dehydrated to a moisture content of less than 15 percent (I could not find the N-P-K analysis numbers in the handout, however). It sounds almost too good to be true!

The second introduction is "Ogunquit Blend"™ mulching compost, described as an attractive, naturally dark brown mulch made from dehydrated compost, organically certified. (I believe it is actually the coarser material screened out from the Kennebunk Blend.) "All you need is a one-inch layer around any planting. Dig it into your soil in the fall, replenish once a year in the spring," according to the handout.

Drawn too from the stack on the chair is a review copy of Steve Solomon's new book, (2005, $23.95 from New Society Publishers, Tel. 800-567-6772) entitled "Gardening When it Counts: Growing Food in Hard Times." I think it would be a good choice for those who are rank beginners as well as those who want to acquire a better understanding of home vegetable growing and sustainability issues. Mr. Solomon, a seedsman and founder of Territorial Seed Company (great catalogue and selection!) and a longtime authority on vegetable growing, is especially interested in the relationship between soil fertility and human health and, incidentally, has created an online library, at where further reading on many interesting topics can be found.

In the introduction to "Gardening When it Counts," Mr. Solomon writes that at one time he grew vegetables according to the intensive gardening methods that had by then become fashionable, and had even written three books extolling them. Over time he came to see that intensive gardening methods were fundamentally unsatisfactory and unsustainable, due to high inputs and low yield-quality. He is opinionated and believes he has worked out methods that will work and supply a family with optimally nutritious food during what he refers to as the "coming hard times." This book is the manual.

Home food for hard times
The "coming hard times" will be linked to the fact that everything made with oil is going to cost a lot more: gasoline, food, clothing, transportation, heating of houses. Simultaneously, as oil is becoming more expensive, people in economies like ours are going to have less purchasing power. There is yet another variable when the unknown circumstances that climate change may cause are considered; irrigation and the oil-based systems to achieve it may not be the practical solutions they are today. Home food production will be an economic factor in the lives of those "in the know."

"Gardening When it Counts" is arranged in an orderly fashion, starting with the basics of soil fertility and things you need to know about how plants grow; what size garden will you need; which are easy, medium, or high demand crops; how to formulate your own complete organic fertilizer; and how to improve your soil. Chapter 3 takes the reader through a simple array of hand tools; how to care for them (19 out of 20 gardeners could use a lesson in sharpening a shovel with a file;) how to start a new garden using a tiller or not; and raised beds, slightly raised beds and hills.

Chapters four and five contain an insider's look at garden centers and catalogues, and some of the reasons gardeners might want to make themselves more independent from them, from selection of superior varieties to superior mail order outfits. Seeds and seed saving naturally play a big role in the sustainable home garden and Mr. Solomon provides important know-how from the viewpoint of a seedsman. Chapter six focuses on water and irrigation, setting up watering systems, inexpensive and durable alternatives, things you need to know to be water-sparing in your gardening practices; how your soil handles water. No book of this sort would be complete without a good discussion of composting, and Mr. Solomon gives the reader various ways of making various grades of compost as well as cover crops and green manures.

One of the more generalized sections, chapter eight, is on insects and diseases, necessitated by writing for different growing areas. (Extension services and localized entomological works are a better resource for the insects of specific regions.) Mr. Solomon shares his insights about insect life cycles and control measures, and again describes the immeasurable benefits to your crops' health of paying attention to the health of your soil. The final, long section of the volume is chapter nine, entitled "What to Grow...and how to grow it." The whole book is valuable, but this chapter probably contains the info that beginning vegetable gardeners most seek: plant profiles of vegetables comparable to those of ornamentals in the glossy gardening publications. In-scale root profile diagrams and specific directions for making seed accompany many vegetable profiles. An inclusive online and print bibliography and very decent index complete the volume.

I recommend "Gardening When it Counts." It will give growers of all levels of experience additional useful information about soil improvement, garden efficiencies, and confidence in fabricating devices and saving and growing from seed. Studded throughout each section are the tables, factoids, and observations that years of professional interest have accumulated. It is an advantage to have such a volume on your shelf.