Springtime Companions

I like to make the most of my garden space. No matter how big the garden is, I never seem to have enough. 

lettuce and peas planted together

I also enjoy having fresh salad greens all year, but lettuce has a tendency to bolt in our dry, warm summers.

I tackle both problems, and keep weeds at bay with companion planting. 

I plant most of my peas along the fence surrounding the vegetable garden, using the fence as a trellis for the tall varieties. The bed I prepare for them is 50 cm wide, and since I want them to climb the fence, the peas sit at one edge of the bed, leaving plenty of room for weeds to grow.

Instead of letting the weeds take over, I plant my lettuces and spinach in front of the peas. These low-growing plants quickly cover the soil, smothering weeds and naturally mulching the soil, protecting it from the drying sun. The taller peas provide shade to the salad greens for much of the day, preventing them from getting too hot and bolting early.

Both peas and lettuces finish around the same time mid-summer, so it’s easy to pull them all out at once and chop them up in place to thickly mulch the garden edge, preventing weeds from taking over.

And if I’m really thinking, I plant big rangy late crops in the beds nearby—pumpkins, cucumbers, melons or potatoes. They creep across the path and take over the space vacated by the peas and lettuce, making sure the garden space is used continuously all summer.

Watching the Weather

tomato plants in the greenhouse

October is over so I’m a little obsessive about the weather. Will we have another frost? Will it rain? Will it be warm and sunny? What will the wind be like? Every day is critical for the next two weeks.

I do my best to time indoor seed planting just right, so all the frost tender vegetables are ready to plant out on Canterbury weekend (in mid-November)—the date I can be 90 percent sure of no more frost. The slow-growing peppers and eggplants are first—planted the 15th of August along with all the frost-hardy crops. A week later, I plant the tomatoes and basil. Fast-growing cucurbits and corn wait until late October.

By the beginning of November, the greenhouse is full of plants waiting to be planted out.

Of course, no matter how hard I try, there’s a level of uncertainty. A particularly cold spring can slow down growth so I’m planting out tiny seedlings in mid-November. On the other hand, warm sun can mean my plants are chomping at the bit by the first of the month. Hence, my obsession with the weather.

This year, my tomatoes are at the perfect stage to be planted out now. In two weeks, they’ll be overly tall and leggy. So I’ll be checking the long range forecast to see if I can plant them this weekend instead.

The peppers and eggplants, however, could use another week or so in the greenhouse before being planted out. I’ll coddle them in their pots, urging them to put on some good growth before they’re at the mercy of bugs and birds. I’ll be hoping for good sunny days to kick their growth into high gear.

At the same time, I’ll be watching the early crops already in the garden. They’ll be starting to feel the heat—risking bolting if they get too hot and dry. I’ll be monitoring the weather to know when I have to turn the irrigation on.

In two weeks it won’t matter so much—it will be reliably warm enough, and predictably too dry. All the vegetables will be in the garden, and they’ll all need extra watering.

But for now, I have the weather forecast open on my browser at all times, watching carefully to make the most of what the weather has to offer.

Asparagus, Asparaguses, Asparagi?

asparagus spear infected with phytophthora
Asparagus spear infected with phytophthora

It’s asparagus season, and we are enjoying spears from our own plants, though not as many as we’d like.

We moved crowns from our old house to the new, and have had rather mixed luck. Some didn’t survive transplant. Others grew poorly last year, and did not show their faces this year. Still others sprouted this year, but have been succumbing to phytophthora infection—a new challenge for us.

Phytophthora asparagi is an oomycete. Its long-lived spores overwinter in the soil and infect asparagus roots and spears. Phytophthora infection interferes with water transport in the stem, causing shrivelling and a ‘shepherd’s crook’ curl to the spears.

Oomycetes were once thought to be fungi, because their growth forms can be similar. They are, however, genetically distinct and are now known to be more closely related to kelp than fungi. Many oomycetes are plant pathogens, and some, like late potato blight, sudden oak disease, and Phytophthora asparagi are of economic importance.

We never had trouble with phytophthora at the old place—our well-drained soil with excellent nutrient levels kept it at bay. But at the new property, the heavy clay soil devoid of nutrients provides perfect conditions for phytophthora growth. 

Two months ago, before we’d identified phytophthora, I planted a packet of asparagus seed. I wanted to fill in the gaps in the asparagus bed, where our transplanted plants had died. Now, with 38 beautiful asparagus seedlings in the greenhouse, I’ve got a different plan for them.

Michigan State Extension recommends fungicide and careful selection of planting site to control phytophthora. I’d like to avoid the fungicide, but I can manage the soil, at least a little.

asparagus seedlings

My little seedlings will need about 18 months in pots before I can plant them out. That’s plenty of time to prepare a special raised bed for them, filled with compost, sand, and soil for high-nutrient, well-drained growing conditions. In the meantime, we’ll enjoy the asparagus we are getting, and do our best to keep the old plant alive until the new ones can be harvested.

And, just so you know, the plural of asparagus is asparagus.

Spring Cleanout

The equinox has passed and we’re on the sunny side of the year. The greenhouse is filled with vegetable seedlings. Flowers bloom in the yard. Asparagus spears and artichoke buds are popping up to grace our dinners.

Now is the time to scour the cupboards and freezer for what’s left of last summer’s bounty. It needs to be eaten before this year’s crops start to come in and make us forget.

As usual for us, the frozen peas and corn are long gone. The carrots I froze from last year’s bumper crop have been eaten, too. The currants, peaches and strawberries never stand a chance of making it to September—they are like bright sparks for winter’s darkest days.

As usual, what remains is pumpkin. Baked and frozen when the fresh pumpkins started to rot back in July, frozen pumpkin has become a staple in our springtime cooking as we scramble to finish it off.

Maybe I should plant fewer?

Except it’s the only vegetable left at this time of year. And maybe pumpkin isn’t traditionally considered a springtime vegetable but pumpkin pie, cake, galette, and pancakes are delicious any time of the year.

So bring on the flowers, the sun and the warmth. And bring on the pumpkin! We’ll enjoy it while it lasts.

pumpkin cake glazed with yogurt frosting
Pumpkin cake … best way to eat pumpkin?

Pandemic Poetry–2021 Edition, #20

daffodils in a vase

A few days of warm wind, and it seems like the plants have all woken up. The pines across the road certainly have—everything is covered in gritty yellow pollen. 

Springtime’s chorus
The magpies’ warble
A chittering of sparrows
The buzz of bees
Among the pansies
The distant drone
Of a lawnmower
The quiet chirp
Of frogs after dark.

Pandemic Poetry–2021 Edition, #17

Grow little plants!

Hard to be upset about lockdown when the weather is beautiful. In fact, I was a bit disappointed I was asked to go into work today. I would have jumped at the opportunity on a rainy lockdown day, but today … well I would rather have been in the garden.

Spring has sprung
It’s time to plant
Your vegetables and flowers.

The birds are busy
In the trees with
Twiggy nests and bowers.

Hoe in hand
I soon forget
The viral threat we’re under.

With bright warm sun
And growing things
The season’s full of wonder.

Field of Dreams

If you mulch it, they will come.

When we first bought our property, we started right in on soil improvements where we knew the vegetable garden was going to be, long before we even had house plans finalised. That work was terribly depressing. The topsoil had been stripped off by the developer, and what was left was compacted clay studded with rocks. It barely grew weeds, and the combined effort of a rotary hoe and hand tilling only managed to penetrate about 5 cm into the soil. There were no worms, no beetles—and we later learned, no nutrients either.

I wondered if we’d made a huge mistake buying the land.

Since then, we’ve poured compost and manure into the soil, mulched heavily, and done our best to avoid compacting the soil so painstakingly loosened.

As I began turning beds this spring, I was stunned by the number of worms in the soil—thousands upon thousands of them. The clay is honeycombed by their tunnels, and you can’t dig a hoe in without bisecting a few (sorry!). It is truly astonishing.

Where did all those worms come from? Were they there all along, but hiding deep below the surface? Did the few worms there when we first moved in simply reproduce like mad when we started adding organic material to the soil? I’ll never know, but I begin to have hope for this garden. 

I feel a little like Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) in Field of Dreams—create the right conditions, and the players will appear.

Pandemic Poetry–2021 Edition, #12

Another day, another … day. The good news is I’ve gotten work done in the garden around the rain we’ve had the past few days. I cracked open the compost pile, and the final product is excellent—always like Christmas when you discover you’ve got six cubic metres of compost to play with!

Unfortunately, it looks like the rain is going to hang around for a few more days, so any more work out there may have to wait.

Rain, rain, go away
So we can go out and play.
Covid’s got us stuck at home.
Lockdown means we cannot roam.
Because we’re tired of being lazy
Rainy weather makes us crazy.

Pandemic Poetry–2021 edition, #7

garden
Yesterday’s accomplishment–a relatively weed-free winter garden.

This poem was inspired by how little writing I got done yesterday. The weather was so beautiful, the day required three walks and four hours working in the garden. The garden’s looking great, but I do need to try to focus more today.

Hot Desking at Home

Who gets the desk?
The dining room table?
I’ll take a window whenever I’m able.

Who’s got a meeting
And needs a closed door?
Maybe I can work here on the floor.

Who’s making coffee
At quarter to nine?
I’d like milk and sugar in mine.

Who’s going out
For a short walk?
I’ll come along, we’ll have a nice talk.

Who’s having lunch
Just before noon?
I’ll finish this meeting and be there soon.

Who took their laptop
Out in the sun?
A few more pages and then I’ll be done.

Who’s gotten nothing
Accomplished all day?
I thought we’d do better working this way.