The first week of summer found Marjorie and I spending as much time as possible in the garden, completing the planting, cutting down birches and cherries damaged in the December ice storm, and making plans for expansion of the vegetable garden. For me, in this first full year of retirement, every day from dawn to dusk is filled with this work, minus the time spent walking Mia the Beagle up the lane and back, three half-hour periods evenly spaced through the day that keep her mellow while I work. Between walks she digs deep holes in a grassy area between perennial beds.
Finally, all of the plants are in the ground! Most of the vegetables, small fruits, and perennials have been mulched with either shredded leaves or composted manure, their soaker hoses installed. Pots planted with annuals rest on stumps or rocks in an area that once was filled with tall spruce and fir, trees that were removed to allow more sun into the garden. These pots surround a fire pit where we often spend the last hour or so of the day, bone weary but not wanting to leave the garden.
From the fire pit we have a view of the fringe tree (Chionanthus virginicus) in bloom, each terminal truss of dark green leaves skirted with drooping clusters of fringe-like, creamy white petals. The flowers have a subtle honeysuckle fragrance that carries on an evening breeze. A year ago we hung a birdhouse from a branch of this small tree and this spring, before the tree leafed out, I noticed a chickadee showing intense interest in it, spending the better part of a morning going in and out or sitting on the branch just in front of the entrance hole. Yet she and her mate never took up residence. I wonder, now that she can see the house surrounded by a fringe of flowers, if she has regrets.
Containers Filled with Annuals that Attract Pollinators
This summer, most of our garden containers are planted with annuals that attract pollinators, including Lobelia erinus ‘Lucia Dark Blue’, Salvia guaranitica (blue anise-scented sage), S. coccinea ‘Lady in Red’, S. elegans (pineapple sage), Centaurea cyanis (annual batchelor’s buttons), Cosmos sp., Tithonia rotundifolia (Mexican sunflower), Sanvitalia procumbens (creeping zinnia), and Zinnia pumila ‘Cut and Come Again’. With the blue salvia, batchelor’s button, creeping zinnia, and zinnia already in bloom, the air is filled with butterflies!
Pole Bean Trials
After the December ice storm, there was no shortage of stout birch branches that could be converted into bean poles. Using eight of these branches, I set up two tepees, each made with four poles, to grow eight varieties of Romano-type pole beans, the flat-pod Italian beans that I grew for the first time last year. (For more information about this garden trial, including the varieties involved, see my column for May 20, 2014: gardeningintunewithnature.bangordailynews.com/author/rmanley/.)
Rather than sow the seeds into cold soil, I decided to sow the seeds in peat pots (against advice from most sources that beans do not transplant successfully), germinating them and growing the seedlings in an unheated greenhouse, then transplanted the young seedlings into the garden beds when the soil temperature had settled well above 60 degrees F. This worked well for all but two varieties that failed to germinate even in the greenhouse, presumably because the soil temperature was still too cold. I direct-sowed these two varieties in mid-June and they are now climbing their respective poles.
I will report the final results of this trial, including completely biased taste tests, later in the year. Meanwhile, if you are looking for a good pole bean for northern New England, it is not too late to direct sow. Try to find some seed of Northeaster (Johnny’s lists them), a variety that is doing best in my trials at the moment. After germinating quickly, it is winning the race to the top of the pole.
Dealing with Flea Beetles
Flea beetles wasted no time in finding the small transplants of pineapple tomatillos we recently planted. The day after planting, I noticed the small holes they make in the leaves as they feed and before long each leaf was riddled with these shot holes and the plants looked severely stressed. I finally resorted to spraying the plants with neem oil, a product extracted from the seeds of a shade tree native to Southeast Asia and India. Used in strict accordance with the label instructions, it has a deterrent affect on the adult flea beetles.
Neem oil is easily washed off by irrigation or rain and since it rained the night after application, I had to reapply it the following morning. In both applications, I used it at half the recommended strength and made sure that there were no bees around during application. At the same time, I planted radish seeds in a large pot and positioned the pot at the end of the bed. Radishes are a “trap crop” for flea beetles, so the plan was to eliminate the present problem with the neem oil and depend on the fast-growing radish plants to attract any future outbreak of beetles. So far, so good.
Succulents in the Gutter
Last summer, on a visit to the Berkshire Botanical Garden in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, I discovered a novel way to grow succulents in the garden. They used a long section of gutter fitted to one of the fence rails, filling it with a well-draining peat-based growing medium to grow hens-and-chicks, sedums, and other succulent plants. I had to steal this idea for Marjorie’s Garden.
I spray-painted the outside of a 10-foot-long aluminum gutter and, once it had dried, drilled a series of half-inch drainage holes in the bottom. After attaching the gutter to a 2×6-inch board spanning adjacent fence posts, about five feet above the ground, I lined the bottom with row cover material to prevent soil loss through the drainage holes, then filled the gutter with a mixture of 50% Pro Mix (a peat-based soilless mixture), 20% composted manure, 20% garden soil, and 10% course perlite, adding several handfuls of worm castings as a microbial boost. A local garden center provided a wide variety of succulents to fill the gutter, including some that will spill out of the gutter and cascade down.
Tomatoes in Containers Outgrow Those in Garden Beds
Lacking garden space for all of the tomatoes we want to grow, we put half of the transplants in garden beds and the other half in individual 10-gallon nursery pots. So far, those in nursery pots are twice the size of those growing in beds, an observation that is consistent across several varieties. I thought this might be a root temperature effect with plants in the black pots experiencing higher soil temperatures that those in the ground, but a check with a soil thermometer showed no differences. This leaves me thinking that the difference lies in the nutrient composition of the soil, mainly the composted manure and worm castings that were mixed with the potting soil at final proportions of 60% Pro Mix, 20% screened manure, and 20% garden soil with several handfuls of worm castings. I’m going to scratch some worm castings into the soil around the other tomatoes and see how they respond. More about this later.
Growing Vines on the Deer Fence
The black plastic deer fencing surrounding the vegetable garden does double duty in providing a scaffold for herbaceous vines planted on the outside of the fence. For example, a narrow bed along the entrance side of the garden is planted with the pink-flowering perennial sweet pea (Lathyrus latifolius) while a potted morning glory grows next to one of the fence posts. This year the space in front of the sweet pea vines contains annual bachelor’s buttons, annual milkweed (Asclepias curassavica), and the perennial swamp milkweed (A. incarnata), the later two for any monarch butterflies that come visiting.
The plants may be in the ground (or pots), but their is always something to do. I have 16 cedar posts to set as we expand the vegetable and small fruits garden, creating more space for raised beds. All those containers need daily watering and frequent deadheading. There are always weeds to pull. And soon the harvest begins, blueberries and raspberries in July followed by garlic and shallots in mid-August, everything else as summer’s weather determines.
I wouldn’t have it any other way.