August is finally here; weather patterns are still strange and unpredictable, but let's hope the month is warm and sunny. This morning I read for inspiration in "The Art of French Vegetable Gardening," by Louisa Jones. Then I spent the rest of the day under fair summer skies in my vegetable garden, red-tailed hawks soaring overhead, their piercing calls filling the air.
A primary objective was folding over the onion tops. These onions are grid-locking the garden. I need their space. In a couple of days I will pull them and put them to cure, done by leaving them on the ground in the sun for a couple of days more. The outer layers of the bulbs dry and the necks shrivel. If the weather is uncooperative I can take them into the barn, but an airy shed, mudroom, or porch is fine if you have no barn. The usual recommendation is to braid them or store them in mesh onion bags, after sorting out any with double centers or imperfections. Use these immediately because they will not store.
I set up some black leaky hose around the eggplants. I grew 'Listada di Gandia' this year, a beautiful lavender and white Italian heirloom that has been pining, I suspect, for more hot, sunny degree-days than it has been receiving. It will be miraculous if I have any to enter in the Fair.
I transplanted tiny Batavian lettuce seedlings from the 20-row tray into the ground. I "dug" (rolled back hay and picked up) some tasty, four-inch 'Yukon Gold' potatoes and boiled them, served with butter and chopped flat parsley, for lunch. Sweet peas' requirements are the opposite of eggplants' - it is getting too warm for them. I gave them water and combed them over for deadheads. I stripped the 'DeCicco' sprouting broccoli of florets to cook with.
Weeds are always a factor. My practice is never to go into the garden to harvest anything without pulling at least three weeds. I keep a large bucket handy that they go into, and from there they go into the compost tumbler. The soil is in good enough tilth that it weeds and cultivates easily and the green matter helps heat the compost. I weed as I work, making piles then collecting them.
Health of the soil
Every gardener needs to think constantly about improving the garden's soil. Many of our gardens are new, mere infants, but in large parts of the world, garden plots have been in use for hundreds if not thousands of years. Consider for a moment the terraced agriculture/gardens of Peru, Bolivia, France, Italy, India, China, and of course the rice culture throughout Southeast Asia and the wine culture of Europe.
While different crops have differing requirements, in all cases, these sites are maintained over long periods of time, not depleted and abandoned. Lazy, old-time farmers used to like virgin soil, or "new ground," because it has few problems; with use, plots acquire their measure of pests and contaminations. Soil needs to be cared for by working it and constantly improving it.
One of the strengths of organic gardening is this attention to the needs of the soil, treating it almost like a parallel crop to the one that is being grown to eat. Consider that the very basis of our food chain is the soil beneath our feet. Its quality affects everything that comes from it, including us. A book of traditional skills, "Back to Basics," edited by Abigail R. Gehring (Skyhorse Publishing, 2008, 456 ppg.) describes it: "The ideal gardening soil is soft, loose, and crumbly. It should be rich in organic matter and free from stones, roots, and debris." Elsewhere in the volume, Gene Logsden, a garden writer and farmer, says: "Organic gardening is not just gardening.... It's bringing your life into mental and physical harmony with the world around you."
One way to view diseases and pests is as stress opportunists. They attack plants that are stressed in different subtle ways. There's a problem? They'll find it. Soil quality, or lack of it, is a "ground-floor" (root?) cause. If you have been having a difficult season in the garden due to soil-borne diseases or insects, take a critical look at what you have been doing and how you can do better in future.
Soil splash leads to many different types of foliar problems and may be controlled by use of mulches, either organic materials or man-made, such as plastic or landscape cloth. Organic mulches help build better soil structure that pays off in healthy, vigorous plants better able to live with insect and disease infestations.
Take soil samples and send them in, so that you can act on the recommendations you receive before next summer. Plan to renew and improve the soil by sowing sanitizing cover crops in fall and incorporating them into the soil early next season. Hairy vetch is recommended for mitigating diseases of tomatoes, and mustard crops are showing promise in mitigating soil-borne diseases of strawberries. Manure the garden with well-aged horse or cow manure, or start composting. It is not a question of what you can spray on your plant to make it healthy, but how healthy your soil is.
Polly Hill Arboretum
Early-bird readers of today's MV Times may just catch the talk that last night's David H. Smith Memorial lecturer, Prof. Doug Tallamy, gives today, Vineyard Oak Appreciation, from 10 to 11:30 am.
Dan Hinkley, well-known plantsman, is featured in two events at the arboretum next week. On August 19 his program Plant Hunting in Asia begins at 7:30 pm; $10/$5 for PHA members. On August 20 the arboretum is pleased to present Wine, Cheese... and Trees with Mr. Hinkley, 5-7 pm, $50. Please call 508-693-9426 for more details.