Garden Notes

Snowdrops: Photo by Susan Safford
Snowdrops (galanthus nivalis) must be replanted quickly when divided after they bloom. Photo by Susan Safford

Springing into it

By Abigail Higgins - March 16, 2006

The blue-sky brilliance of February is past, replaced by the greyer days of March. As if the New England Flower Show, currently under way in Boston, were not enough to put us in mind of our gardens, then the mild temperatures will put us in the midst of our gardens! It is that risky time of year when we are tempted to turn on the outside water and prune the roses, despite knowing full well there may yet be a March blizzard, monsoon-like rains, or arctic air invasion. Be cautious and exercise restraint. The current soil temperature in our vegetable patch, a cold piece of ground, is a freckle over 40 degrees F; about 58 degrees F is good for in-ground sowing.

Pour the gardening urges into raking the lawn; liming and feeding lawns and borders with general fertilizer; doing touch-up pruning of shrubs and clematis vines; and sowing cool season vegetables - leeks, onions, cole crops, lettuce - inside or in cold frames. If snowdrops need dividing after bloom, scout new locations so that when the deed is done the divisions are replanted quickly.

Those of you who know what you are doing need no further advice or urging. In the space available for my column it is possible to give only the tersest description of methods and to mention only briefly my own preferences. What there is plenty-enough space for are guides to finding information. So increasingly I find myself pointing to books, publications, and web sites that the interested gardener can pursue at his or her leisure.

My intention is to provide information for those who may be unsure where to start or how to plunge in, because, above all, I think there are good reasons for people to grow whatever they can. Taste, economics, independence, convenience - the reasons vary. An alarming percentage of purchased organic produce when tested shows the presence of pesticide residues (news item, Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener, March-May 2006).

Good information is available
Somehow, the habit of home growing in the U. S. has diminished. Would-be gardeners have not had home growing practices modeled in their own upbringing. Having gardening books on your shelf is good back-up; provides interesting winter reading while waiting to do the real thing; and is often the source of an improved way to do something that you have half-way perfected on your own.

In the previous (3/2/06) Garden Notes I reviewed and recommended "Gardening When it Counts" by Steve Solomon, a garden manual for real dependence upon the home garden for food production. In today's column I take a look at what is more a manual for the art of gardening: "Organic Gardening" by Geoff Hamilton, another in the useful and well-illustrated garden and do-it-yourself series of books published by DK Publishing, New York, 1993, 288 ppg.

This is a great book to own, and I recommend it. (It may appear that I never met a gardening book I didn't like. I promise that I have-I just don't bother to write about them.) But there is an initial confusion: the title on the cover of the paperback edition is "Organic Gardening" but is given on the title page and elsewhere as The "Organic Gardening Book." By whatever title you find it, it is a comprehensive volume. Every page has one or more illustrations; many are color photographs. The growing techniques covered include vegetables, fruit, flowers, greenhouse growing, hedges, propagating, trees, lawns and even some landscaping advice. Mr. Hamilton has the added advantage of having had years of conventional gardening experience behind him before turning to organic methods, a change he is well pleased to have made and to write about.

Throughout the book Mr. Hamilton gives emphasis to soils and bed preparation. He favors deep beds (unlike Steve Solomon), the intensive bed system for encouraging downward growth of crops' roots and minimizing the area given over to aisles between rows. He points out that while gardeners tend to tailor their ornamental plantings to the conditions and soil that their gardens possess, all vegetable gardens are asked to support food crops irrespective of prior soil and conditions. Therefore the preparation and maintenance of vegetable gardens' soil and fertility is all-important.

Soil-building tips
He favors a three-year rotation, based on a four-part layout; the fourth part or section is for the perennial crops. Manuring, cover cropping, composting, and the addition of every sort of organic matter are crucial to building up the soil. I am afraid Mr. Hamilton recommends the dreaded double digging, sometimes ridiculed by American gardeners as a sado-masochistic British fetish but very much a necessity if gardening on poorly drained or starved soils. Prior to sowing, he recommends raking in about two handfuls of blood, fish and bone meal per square yard and covering that with about two inches of well-rotted garden compost. He then gives soil preferences for individual crops in the different sections for specific crops: leaf vegetables, root vegetables, fruiting vegetables, and so on.

In anticipation of the new season in the garden it is time to clear out remaining wintered-over crops such as leeks (which we can use to honor St. Patrick in the recipe that follows.) Also associated with him is the legend of planting one's peas by St. Patrick's Day. For many island garden soils, that date is too early in terms of temperature and dryness; the pea seeds may rot rather than germinate and grow.

Geoff Hamilton suggests instead planting the pea seed in a length of plastic guttering. "Fill a length of plastic guttering with soil and sow peas at two inch intervals. Make two staggered rows one inch apart and cover with soil. Leave the seedlings in the greenhouse until they are about three inches tall. [Then] using a planting board as a guide, make a straight seed drill with a draw hoe. Slide the entire contents of the guttering into the prepared furrow, firm in well and water."

Creamed Leeks
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
the white & pale green parts of 4 large leeks, cut crosswise into 1/2 inch slices, separated into rings, rinsed well, and soaked in cold salted water to cover for 30 minutes.
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/3 cup chicken broth
freshly grated nutmeg to taste
freshly grated pepper to taste

In a large heavy skillet heat the butter over a moderate flame until the foam begins to subside; add the leeks, drained well, and stir them to coat them with the butter. Add the cream and the broth, bring the liquid to a boil, stirring, and cook the mixture over moderate heat, stirring occasionally, for 10 to 15 minutes, or until it is thickened. Season the mixture with the nutmeg, salt, and pepper to taste. Serves 4. Happy St. Patrick's Day!