Sunday, May 23, 2010

Seed Setting Collards and Other Things

My collard plants and I go back quite a ways. They had sojourned at the Hawkins house most of the previous spring in a small container, until I moved them to Stratford last summer. They were one of the first things I planted in what I now call the Random Garden. I was surprised that they survived this past winter, as we had some severely low temperatures here, at least by coastal Connecticut standards, any way. But I actually even harvested leaves throughout the winter and included them in a few holiday meals:

My collards in a small container (far right), over a year ago.

Picking some leaves this past winter.

In late March or early April of this year, the collards began to bolt skyward until they were nearly as tall as I am. They produced a lot of flowers, and it was only a few days ago that the last of their flowers fell away, completely exposing their seed pods:

Drooping collards laden with seed pods.

Some of the seed pods up close.

One of the oddest things, however, is what appears to be new growth emerging just below the older plants. I am not sure if these are juvenile plants spawn from seeds that might've dropped earlier, or simply new shoots coming up from the old root system. The idea that they are completely new plants seems unlikely given the fact that the seed pods themselves are relatively recent and still look pretty green. On the other hand, collards are not necessarily perennial plants (at least not in my zone), so how could these be new shoots from the older plants? 'Tis somewhat confusing to a relatively new collard gardener!

Two new collard stems rising from the earth. The smaller plant on the extreme left is probably a mint plant that somehow got seeded over here, about a yard or two from the nearest mint.

Regardless of the origins of the new growth, I will soon have to cut the old plants down. I am going to attempt to harvest as many seeds as possible and use them to cultivate new plants in other forthcoming garden beds. Only I am not quite sure how much longer to leave the old plants intact to allow the seeds to mature. My plan for now is to watch them closely and cut them down as soon as I notice the stems drying out.

My bee balm (likewise planted last spring) has also produced several offspring. Today, I attempted to transplant one of them to fill an empty spot in the expanding row of herbs along the front of the garden bed. When I dug, I found that the new plants were the result of two underground runners sent off by the parent:

Parent bee balm and offspring.

The two runners connecting parent with children.

Needless to say, I snipped the runners and carefully transplanted the new plants to their new location just within the border and right next to a recently-planted basil:

Newly transplanted bee balm.

I spent the rest of my allotted gardening time this afternoon laying cedar mulch down beneath the various border plants -- the sedum and wintercreeper along the sides and front, and the different decorative perennials forming the backdrop of the garden bed:

Lavendar, sedum, wintercreeper, basket of gold, dill, basil and veronica speedwell all got a little cedar mulch protection today.

As did the autumn joy, Russian sage, and bee balm.

Continuing with the mulch border around one of a number of stepping stones I've strategically placed around the garden to enable access to the plants.

As for the various vegetable patches themselves, I wanted to experiment with a living mulch this season, so I am soon going to plant buckwheat around the beans and squash. I figure that if I plant it at the beginning of June, and it takes about 30 days to mature, then my living mulch should be fairly well established in time for the onslaught of summer heat. I may then also cut it down if it gets out of control (thereby using the cuttings as mulch), and plant another crop of buckwheat on top of that old one. We'll see how all this works out. For a good summary on the use of living mulches, see this article by Tee Riddle of

Here are some other miscellaneous photos I took today or this past week:

The soil temperature in the Random Garden was a balmy 74.5 degree F today (although I also recorded about 72 degrees F in a shadier spot).

The perennial blue salvia is now blooming against its lush fern backdrop.

A view looking into the extreme northern tip of the tidal estuary behind our place in Stratford that I like to call The Fen. The early settlers wrote a bit about this area and the abundance of birds and other wildlife here. For me, The Fen provides a practically limitless supply of leaf mold for my garden plots. :-)

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Harrowing and Planting the Squash Patch

Today, I planted some recently sown "experiment station squash" seedlings. They are all children of a single acorn squash that I cooked for last year's Thanksgiving Day meal. This squash's seeds are amazingly prolific, and produce some pretty impressive yields.

Below is a photo of the current batch just about one week ago, after the seedlings began emerging from their peat pellets. The tray is sitting on my tile table in the Hawkins House mud room, which is well ventilated and gets a lot of sunlight and seems like an ideal nursery for most seedlings:

Last fall, after I had turned the garden bed that these seedlings were ultimately destined for, I sowed a mixture of winter rye and crimson clover as a wintertime cover crop to hold the soil together. Of course, once the temperatures began to warm up, these small crops began to grow dramatically. Below is a photo of the rye and clover mixture just a few days ago. You can see that much of the clover has already begun to flower:

A crimson clover's flower up close:

So last weekend, I incorporated the cover crop into the soil. I did this first by cutting the plants down by hand, and then used a stirrup hoe to separate the remaining stems from the roots and further break the root systems up just beneath the surface:

Then, tilling with a large cultivator, I worked all the material down into the soil as much as possible, and let the bed just sit the rest of the week to try to get the crop material to begin decomposing a bit:

Naturally, a small percentage of the clover and rye that didn't get completely incorporated was beginning to take hold again, so today, I tilled the soil one more time, and then tamped it down. The photo below shows much of the bed after the soil was tamped:

A view of the bed from the other direction:

Finally, I planted the squash seedlings and watered them. I planted a total of about 35 seedlings; five seedlings I had given to a friend for her garden, and about seven or eight didn't thrive. Not a bad yield, though, I thought, for a simple store-bought squash. The photo below shows the seedlings contently relaxing in their new home:

Today, I also directly sowed some tarragon, cinnamon basil, and wild marjoram seeds in a small area outside the border of the main bed:

Often, I'll fill small areas like this one (delineated by the fescue and the flagstone) with random plantings, with no particular objective or plan in mind. I refer to these small areas as micro gardens. Not sure exactly what motivates me to do this; it's just something I like to do.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Random Garden and Sluice: An Introduction

Early last year, after reading an article about the botanical collaborations of John Bartram and Peter Collinson in an issue of Early American Life magazine, I was inspired to re-create the large gardens that had originally dominated our place in Stratford, Connecticut.

I'm not totally sure what brought this on. No doubt part of it was inspired from reading about the extensive gardens that Bartram cultivated at his home on the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia, as rendered in this drawing by his son, William Bartram, in 1758:

Undoubtedly, another source of inspiration was my memory of the large English gardens that once existed throughout our yard. Planted in the early half of the last century, a few remnants of those gardens were still around when I was growing up. Today, all of this is gone, though you can still make out traces of the original garden plan, if you know where to look.

So, it was inevitable, perhaps, that last spring, I embarked on this journey to restore the old gardens. In time, my long-term planning evolved to include herbs and vegetables, and I decided to attempt a large-scale kitchen garden or potager, by combining what I remember of the old gardens together with elements from traditional New England kitchen gardens. That would be the overarching objective, anyway. Certain other parts of the yard will also eventually be devoted to more experimental or exploratory gardening, including such things as nicotiana and New England wild flowers.

I started by reclaiming a large garden plot that would be the easiest to dig because it was still something of a functioning garden. We regularly used to plant tomatoes here, and then about 20 years ago, the tomatoes gave way to roses. Today, there are a few surviving roses that still manage to bloom despite a lack of maintenance over the years. But all that will change in time. The roses will be retained, and at some point, this plot might once again be returned to a full rose garden, but for now, it will participate in the potager:

Top: The first plot selected to re-work. Note a few roses and armilary sundial toward the center. The future kitchen garden will ultimately consist of about eight or nine plots, some interconnected, all approximately the same size as this one. Bottom: An old scalloped border is nearly covered over by sod. These blocks will eventually be removed in favor of a natural border.

If you've ever gardened in New England, you know the soil situation here: Rocks, roots, and hard-pack. You cannot readily dig deep spits and turn them over to start a new plot. Doing so would basically leave you with a rock pile. In my first attempt, I dug a relatively shallow plot (about 5-6"), and removed some of the larger rocks I dug up. Then, I spread a thick layer of leaf mold that I obtained from a nearby fen (I envisioned John Bartram exploring unknown territories in search of new fauna, as I descended down into the fen, of course), and filled the plot with a mixture of the original soil and prepared garden soil containing the usual sphagnum peat moss, manure, et cetera:

Top: Leaf mold spread in the plot. The plastic children's pools are very useful for collecting soil without making a mess. Bottom: The first section of the plot filled with soil and smoothed over, just prior to initial tamping down.

With the next section of broken ground, I got a little more ambitious. I decided to dig a deeper pit and use a sieve to filter some portion of the larger rocks out of the soil. I'm assuming that this is more or less what was done with the original garden plots. In fact, there is a very old fireplace in the yard that was constructed a long time ago by hand and made exclusively out of fist-sized stones. I assume all these stones were produced by turning the original plots over, though I suppose we'll find out for sure when I attempt to re-dig them.

Using some 2x lumber that happened to be on-hand and exterior-grade screws, I assembled a frame for the sieve. In the photo below, I had just added the first of two braces (the sieve frame is in the upper portion of the photo):

Cutting and attaching a metal lath acquired from the local Home Depot completed the sieve; I fastened the lath to the frame with galvanized roofing nails:

The completed structure reminded me a bit of the old sluice boxes that gold miners used, so I just started referring to it as "Sluice". Sluice performed remarkably well when I turned over subsequent sections of the plot. I dug much deeper (about 12-15") and filtered out a prodigious number of rocks. I then filled these deeper sections more or less in the same manner, alternating layers of original soil/garden soil mixture with leafy mold layers. I also made it a point to regularly add rocks back into the soil to make sure the soil held together and continued to drain reasonably well. But at least the impentrable hard-pack occurs at a much greater depth than before. Needless to say, this all amounted to quite a bit of hard work....

Top and Bottom: Roses blooming amidst all the digging

The photo below shows a view of this garden plot toward the end of last summer. Quite a number of different things ended up being planted here. I created a natural border of alternating sedum/stonecrop and winter creeper (I'm not sure why I did that; I just did). I also planted beans, collards, many different types of herbs just within the border, and various decorative plants amidst the ferns toward the back of the plot. There are also a number of containers with tomatoes and other plants in the vicinity of the armilary. And all the existing roses are in there too, of course:

All this is in the spirit of a true potager, I suppose, but the relatively random collection of items got me unconsciously referring to this plot as the random garden, even though it's supposed to be a coordinated portion of a much larger garden of the future. The next photo is a close-up of some of the purple sequoia bush beans I had planted here, along with a new offspring bush posing right alongside its proud parent:

As winter approached, I sowed a cover-crop mixture of winter rye and crimson clover throughout the relatively exposed portions of the plot to hold the soil together and fix more nitrogen for the following summer. In the next article, I'll write more about the subsequent incorporation of that cover crop in anticipation of spring planting, something I had actually accomplished the very same day I published this posting.