Saturday, October 29, 2011

Be Prepared to Expect Surprises

A leaden sky greeted me as I drove home from work today - seriously leaden, as if the snow were going to fall out of the sky as anvils instead of flakes.

I realize that my blog's byline is "be prepared to expect wonders" - a nod to Thoreau from his essay on his great faith in seeds. But today I am reminded that gardening is also full of surprises...

Particularly surprises from the weather.

It's been rather balmy up to now. First frost was this past Tuesday - four days ago...
Two days ago -- yes, that would be October 27th -- it snowed. (See photos below!)
And tonight into tomorrow, we are forecast to get 6-10 inches of snow.

Halloween does not usually look like this!

Yes, I'm surprised.
So were the tomatoes.
I really was not prepared - I honestly did not think that the snow would stick overnight!
So I did not cover my plants and the tomato vines met their chilly end.


I picked the last of the tomatoes, peppers and purple bush beans Friday after much of the snow had melted. Then I tore out the vines and bushes - the tomato and pepper plants were destined for the burn pile and the bean plants went to the chickens. 

The yellow mums are chill with the snow.

On Friday, the snow melted quickly as the sun's rays slowly wrapped from the east around to the south and then to the west. I was surprised with how long it took for the sun to make it over to our yard, which faces southwest. There is certainly a difference between summer sun and fall sun.

It will be really interesting to look out the window tomorrow and see what new surprises Mother Nature has bestowed upon us.

Monday, October 24, 2011

A Great Nation Deserves Great Gardens

I went to our nation's capital last week and was surprised at the scarcity of trees.

Washington D.C. indeed holds many of our national treasures - the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument and its reflecting pool, and the Smithsonian Museums, just to name a few - and wraps them in all the best aspirations and values of our democracy. Anyone, no matter what race, religion or immigration status, can walk the Mall and visit the monuments and memorials installed there, and anyone can view the collections of the Smithsonian without needing to show identification or pay a fee.

But I have to say that I was a little shocked that D.C. has so little of what I consider to be America's most defining feature - the magnificent natural landscape. There's certainly no amber waves of grain in this city, nor purple mountains' majesty - just block after block of concrete, asphalt, steel and glass. The only trees I saw in my two days' visit were saplings in the planters outside the US Department of Transportation, a few anemic street trees near E Street, and the trees providing shade to the Occupy DC protesters in McPherson Square. Even these trees were not enough to distract my attention from the buildings, buildings everywhere.

Where are the street trees and landscaped medians? Where are the public gardens? Where are the streetside planters with colorful annuals designed to break up the monotony of grey buildings and grey sidewalks? Considering that Washington D.C. was built on a swamp and has to have enough concrete to provide an office for every lobbying group, advocacy organization, federal worker and Congressional staffer, I'm not expecting this city to look like Yosemite Valley. But it seems that Americans and foreign tourists alike are being let down when the only hints of America's impressive national endowment of natural resources in the Nation's Capital are housed indoors in the American Art Museum or hidden away in the National Arboretum several miles from the National Mall.

Gardens make even the starkest concrete jungle more beautiful, adding color, vivacity and charm into an otherwise moonscape-like setting. Gardens bring life to an inanimate, people-dominated world and remind us that our roots are still connected to the earth. Gardens can be a national monument to showcase the outstanding, amazing native plants of the United States - what could be more American than the National Tree, the mighty oak? I've never been to see the cherry blossoms bloom near the Jefferson Memorial in the spring, but I'd be willing to bet that a grove of mature oak trees would be just as stunning.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Fall Clean-up Time

There's a reason that my husband learned a clean-up song during kindergarten - the singing distracts five-year-olds from the fact that cleaning is not very fun.

Each month, I have been reading Notes from the Garden by Henry Homeyer, the local gardening guru in my region. This book is a collection of his newspaper columns, organized by month, and I've been reading along as the months go by. The essay collection is wide-ranging on the topic of organic gardening and reminds me that I know very little about gardening. One of the October essays also gave me the kick in the pants that I needed to do a thorough job of fall garden clean-up this year. It's not as catchy as the clean-up song, but the essay certainly got the message across.

The kitchen garden at the Old Manse in Concord, MA - a bit of garden tourism during fall clean-up time.

The hardest part about fall garden clean-up is finding time to fit it in. There are so many other fun things that you could be doing - this year, Columbus Day weekend involved not one but two sets of family get-togethers, including a lovely visit to Concord and Lexington, MA and apple-cider-making. Unwilling to set aside what I had just learned from Henry Homeyer, I spent almost all day on the long-weekend Monday outside in the garden. I focused largely on two major garden cleanup tasks: taking diseased and weedy plant matter to the burn pile not the compost pile AND weeding the empty bed before putting down slow-release organic fertilizer and mulch.

My compost pile, like most home composting operations, does not heat up sufficiently to kill weed seeds or kill many plant diseases (fungi and bacteria don't die easily). An interesting experiment to test the weed seed theory is to "plant" some compost and see what grows - we got some sheep/alpaca/chicken manure a few years ago and a surprising number of nettles started sprouting in our vegetable beds. So, I took a wheelbarrow full of vegetation up to the burn pile, which we will light up during a long dark winter night.

The second part should earn me extra brownie points from my future self. By weeding now, I'm helping myself get ahead of the weeds in the spring; they will have less of a head start. By amending the soil, I'm enriching the garden and allowing plenty of time for nutrients to become incorporated into the soil ecosystem. I hope at some point, I'll have enough aged chicken compost to be able to spread a layer over the gardens each fall, but I'm not quite at that point yet.

More fall clean-up lies ahead, as we haven't even had a hard frost yet... but it's nice to feel ever so slightly ahead of the cleaning cycle.