Easy, Low-Cost & Safe Gardening

I’m writing this post with the hope that we will get to plant in Perkins Park Community Garden this summer. It’s still a big IF, and even if we can open, we will likely face significant restrictions and limitations. So I’m taking a few guesses and posting some ideas to help with planning our plots. Or maybe at home you have a patch of sun and space for a 5-gallon container or window box.

Keep it simple. Now is not the time to design complicated garden layouts, especially if this gardening season is your first try. Pick one to a few things you like to grow or eat.  It’s okay to leave open space, but plan to mulch those areas if you can (see below). And know that even if we open up, there’s always a chance we could get shut down again if the pandemic worsens.

Try No- or Low-Dig Gardening. If ever there was a good year to try a more tools-off approach to garden prep, this may be the one, when our tool shed may not be open. See here and here  for the rationale and potential benefits of no-dig gardening.

Mulch.  Last fall, many of us mulched our gardens with leaves and other material, which can be brushed into the areas among new plantings (keep young plant stems clear of mulch). But if your plot is bare, laying down some mulch will save some work later by (1) blocking weeds, (2) improving water retention, (3) building more fertile soil and (4) protecting plants from soil-born diseases. If you use leaves from PPCG and have a tool like a hoe or rake, chop them up a bit so that they don’t form a dense mat that blocks water. Or use corrugated cardboard or brown paper lawn refuse bags/grocery bags, or multiple layers of newspaper. Weight it all down with rocks, jugs of water, etc.. Added bonus: worms love this stuff.

Be Water Wise. We may need to haul our water to the garden, or we may not be able to share hoses and watering cans, so just in case, start saving up those gallon jugs, beverage containers, etc. with caps. (This is one other good reason to keep your garden plan very simple.) Also, once your plants are established, work on watering deeply and less frequently to encourage the development of deep roots and more drought-tolerant plants. See here for more ideas and lists of drought-tolerant plants. And here’s another post on preparing for drought.

Improvise and use what you have and limit your trips out to the stores.

  • Kitchen implements such as serving spoons and forks can work as garden hand tools. Paper grocery bags and newspaper work great as mulch. Milk jugs can act as mini greenhouses or pest protection (just be sure to vent them). Use scraps of old textiles for tying plants. Scavenge fallen branches to support tomatoes and create garden trellises.
  • More garden hacks here and here.
  • Ordering of seeds is delayed at many sites. How about that old packet of seeds? Are they still good? Use them if you can. Test a few seeds out to see if they sprout using this method. DSC_3375See here, this Black-Eyed Susan vine (front, middle) planted on April 1, now nearly 1.5 months later? It sprouted, but lost its oomph. Poor girl. But many other seeds will do just fine from year to year. More seed-starting tips here.

No-crowd shopping.

  • The Lowe’s parking lot in Weymouth has been almost as crowded as Pond Meadow Park. (Not really, but PMP is unruly these days.) If you must go out and buy anything, try some outdoor garden centers that may be less crowded, such as Christopher’s Garden Shop and Farm Stand (Facebook link) in Weymouth or the Artery Garden Center at 625 Southern Artery in Quincy (in Goodwill parking lot).
  • Non-profit organizations that rely on annual seedling sales are being responsive to the pandemic and are coming up with safe shopping alternatives. See Marshfield, City Natives, and Holy Hill Farm. Stay tuned for Brookwood Farm, which is evaluating its inventory.
  • Does your grocery store or other essential shopping stop sell seeds? A few weeks ago, Kam Man had seed displays filled with a nice selection of Asian greens and other veggies not typically found in the Burpee racks at Home Depot.

Low-fuss planting.

  • It can be hard to start plants from seed at the garden. They need extra watering care until they germinate and as seedlings. There may be pest pressure. Or if we get a big rainstorm, your seeds/seedlings may be washed away. Instead, start seedlings at home for transplant or purchase plants that are ready to be planted out in the garden.
  • Look for F1 or hybrid varieties that are more resistant to diseases than heirloom varieties.
  • Look for quick-maturing varieties. New Girl tomato, for example, matures in 62 days, whereas Grand Marshall takes 78 days. That’s a big difference. (Be aware, too, that in late summer, shade on the southern edge of PPCG grows long and will lengthen your ‘days to maturity.’)
  • Look for easy-to-grow crops. I like this article from High Mowing Seeds, which includes a planting schedule example. One note: zucchini isn’t impossible to grow at PPCG, but we do have some pressure from the dreaded squash vine borer.

It’s almost never too late. Even though we are coming upon the time when we could be planting our second succession of crops (warm-weather crops such as tomatoes, green beans, cucumbers, and peppers), there’s still plenty of time ahead for a third “slot” for planting (quick-growing warm-weather crops and cool weather fall crops).

Hope to see you soon!

What To Do This Spring While PPCG Is Closed

Check out The Trustees at Home, with links on gardening, virtual nature, keeping the kids busy, and more.

Complete a free vegetable gardening module from Oregon State University’s Master Gardener program. Some of the information in this program may be best suited for Oregon’s growing climate, but most looks like it’s relevant to us.

Follow the Insect Xaminer, a short video series from UMass Extension starting with (drum roll) the Gypsy Moth caterpillar. This first installment is quirky-gruesome in the context of  the pandemic, but I’m sticking with the series for its promised information on common insect pests.

Try a modified version of a technique known as winter sowing. I’m not encouraging anyone to run out to the store to buy anything, but if you can get your hands on a milk jug (or similar container functioning as a mini greenhouse), a small bag of seed-starting mix, and some lettuce seeds, cilantro, or spring onions, you can grow outside in a small, sunny space.

  • Because these plants like cold, you’ll have to open your containers on warm days or they’ll cook.
  • Once they are established with a few sets of leaves, you can probably leave the top off for good, unless we have an overnight with temps down into the 20s F.
  • I’ve never tried it, but some gardeners even start up their warm weather plants  (around now) in this fashion, though again, you’ll have to keep an eye on the weather. If we get a cold snap, throw a blanket over them.
  • There are a few benefits to protected outdoor sowing of garden plants. They’ll receive more light outdoors. (Even a sunny windowsill might not be bright enough for your plants, even if it looks bright to you.) Plus you won’t need to harden them off if you transfer them to a larger growing space. Just be aware that I don’t know when we’ll be able to get back in the gardens.

Holly Hill Farm–which like many other businesses is in need of our support–appears to still be having its early plant sale on April 18 & 19. (Their warm-weather plant sale usually happens in May.) Keep an eye on their website and/or sign up for email updates. They have altered their sales methods in response to COVID-19 concerns.

Stay tuned for more details from Braintree Farmers Market. They went to a virtual model on April 4, and it looks like the next date is May 2.

Download/stream the Birdsong radio app from RSPB.

Check out great gardening titles on Hoopla, available for free through Thayer Public Library.

Read all about why we need green spaces in The Wild Remedy, part illustrated diary, part scientific review of the mental health benefits derived from nature.

Go for a walk in any of the other numerous parks that are still open, such as DCR parks. Or try Great Esker Park in Weymouth, which was nearly empty on a sunny day this week.  For further info, here are links to the state’s assemblage guidelines and stay-at-home advisory.

Other ideas/comments? Please share below.

Photo credit: Gary R.

2019 Letter to PPCG Members

Hello Gardeners,

I always say this, but once again, I can’t believe we are already planning another season at PPCG. I hope we are getting out our 2020 contracts early enough so that we can catch any of you who head off to warmer places for the winter.

The 2019 season marked our 10th growing season at Perkins Park. I’m trying to

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remember who has gardened here since our first year, and I think we have a few, including Joe M., Jun W., Ed K., John and Christine S., me (Suzanne B.)…anyone else? In any case, thank you to everyone for all of the work you put into making our 10th year a successful one.

 

  • In early June, we partnered with Gardin in Braintree, who provided us with over fifty basil, tomato, and cucumber seedlings to pass out at Sustainable Braintree’s table at the farmer’s market.DSC_2526 (2)E
  • A lot of garden fences went up this year, and as a result, most of us were successful in keeping out the deer. I do want to mention that a Swiss chard-loving deer was able to get into John and Christine’s garden by wiggling through a weak corner. Once they figure it out, we have to keep one step ahead of them.
  • The flower bulbs we planted for early spring food for our bees came up, but sadly the bees didn’t. Our beekeeper lost his colony last spring and did not return with a new hive. We’ve been contacted by another beekeeper, Andy Rice, who would like to put a hive on our property next year.
  • I’m hearing a lot about the threat of mass insect extinction–not just bees–worldwide. Aside from keeping poisons out of the garden, another way to support insects and other wildlife is to care for the native plants in our space such as burdock, goldenrod, chicory, aster, blackberry, and sumac.

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    In the spring/early summer, we pulled a bunch of garlic mustard, an invasive plant that outcompetes natives. And we’ve given room for native plants to grow around the edges. There’s always a balance to be achieved between the wild and cultivated portions of our space, so especially for those of you on the borders, if you are finding yourself cramped by wilderness (!), let us know. Gary always likes to keep at least enough space to pass comfortably with the mower. Similarly, the mint that’s taken over a large portion of the garden is enjoyed by a wide variety of pollinators, so we’ve resisted taming it. Next season we can reclaim some of that space if we have other herbs we’d like to grow.

  • We kept up John and Christine’s garden and grew lots of potatoes, Swiss chard, green beans, lettuce, and radishes. The tomatoes, zucchini, and peppers struggled all summer, so we had the soil tested, which found super high levels of phosphorus. I’m mentioning this because I’ve had this problem in my garden, too, and it’s a good reminder that even compost and organic products can be overdone. High phosphorus causes problems because it can bind with important nutrients such as nitrogen and calcium, which are then not available to your plants. There’s no way to get rid of the phosphorus, other than to wait it out. I put on a light application of blood meal and planted peas and oats as a cover crop to fix more nitrogen, which seemed to help.
  • We started a new policy asking gardeners to cover their plots for the winter season. IMG_20190427_110744510This practice is an easy one that will make a big improvement to long-term soil health. It’s up to you to choose what materials you’d like to use. Leaves and tree debris and healthy crop residue are free for the taking, but shredded mulch, straw, etc., and fall cover crops are other possibilities. Also consider leaving behind garden plant roots in the soil (or even leave the whole plant intact if it’s healthy) and limit your digging. I know the end results looks a bit messy if you are used to and evenly-raked clean garden bed, but these methods will build healthy soil.
  • Gary and I presented at Sustainable Braintree’s annual meeting with an overview of ten years of organic gardening practices at PPCG. I will work on getting that presentation up here on our blog; it’s interesting to think about how we’ve moved from a primary focus on excluding toxic chemicals to include other principles of organic gardening, such as the soil health practices I just mentioned above.
  • Let’s talk about food waste, please. We’d hoped to be able to donate unwanted veggies to local food pantries that accept fresh foods, but we ran into a couple of difficulties. 1) We had only dribs and drabs. 2) Gary and I don’t like entering into even gardens that appear to have been abandoned. So…that means we all have to keep an eye on our gardens and make sure we’re not wasting produce. Check on your gardens at least once per week, pick your produce, and/or offer it to other people if you can’t use it. And as always, if you find yourself unable to care for your plot, please ask for help or relinquish it for the season so that someone else can use it. You are always welcome to put your name back on the list to try again another year.
  • One more quick reminder: Our height limitation for garden structures and plantings is 6 feet to avoid casting shade into adjacent gardens.
  • After 10 years, the shed finally has a white coat of paint over the primer. Many thanks to Peter W. for doing a beautiful job. The shed looks ready for the next ten years.IMG_20190427_111133846 (1)E
  • More thank yous to:
    • Amanda and Leo H. for donating a beautiful 10th anniversary cake from Amanda’s business, Lucy’s Cupcakes and Confections.
    • Marie H. for tending to the pergola and herb garden every week.
    • John S. for taming the wisteria beast on the pergola.
    • The mystery gardener(s) who kept the garden mowed while Gary was away and repaired the hose at the shed.
    • I’m sorry if I missed anyone. Please let me know!

2020 Contracts are now available for returning members. Have a happy New Year and an easy winter, everyone!

Suzanne & Gary, Co-Managers

PPCG 2019 Plot Plan & Spring Shade Map

For PPCG members, our 2019 plot map with garden assignments is linked here.

The below diagrams show the shade patterns on our plots in spring, for garden planning purposes. You won’t have much shade at all until around the first week of May, when leaves start to fill in. Please note these sketches were drawn roughly last year at broad intervals and may not represent all of the sun/shade in your plot. I noticed even ten minutes can make a difference. Also, shade does shift throughout the growing season.

Here’s a guide for plants and their suggested light levels.

Happy gardening, everyone!

 

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Queenright

Queenright. “Of a colony of social insects, especially honeybees: possessing a queen.”

I would love to talk about the potential broader uses for the word ‘queenright,’ but since this is a community gardening blog, I’ll stick to the information I’ve been reading about honeybees and beekeeping.

Here’s the new hive that’s been set up at PPCG by a local resident. To my untrained eye, the bees look all right. I’ve enjoyed watching them come and go and now have a better understanding of the word ‘beeline.’ These gals don’t bumble around.

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Most of the bees in any hive are workers, females who do the work of collecting pollen and nectar, among other tasks. They can, for example, lay unfertilized eggs, which become male bees.

Male honeybees, drones, are far less numerous and exist for one main purpose: to mate with a queen.

A queen (one per hive) will lay fertilized eggs that are capable of becoming workers or queen bees, depending on how they are tended by the worker bees. All of the larvae start off being fed a substance called royal jelly for a few days; then, all the bees destined to become workers get switched to regular old pollen and honey, the stuff of of the plebeian masses. Should the hive need a new queen, the selected queen-to-be gets a continued diet of royal jelly.

The key here is that for the first few days, any larva from an egg laid by a queen can be turned into a queen. As long as there are young larvae from fertilized eggs available, a new queen can be made.

Can you guess where this is going?

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Pictured above, the beekeepers are inspecting the hive at PPCG, searching for, among other things, the queen. Apparently she’s gone. Why? Maybe she flew off to mate and got eaten by a bird or met the grill of a car (no joke, here’s a study on insect deaths by vehicles). The consultant beekeeper (above right) mentioned that around 30% of queens who fly off never return.

So a queenless hive is not an uncommon problem, but the hive at PPCG is looking like it’s not going to create a new queen on its own. In addition, it’s producing no new female workers to keep everyone fed and maintain the hive. I’m skimming over details here; hives are fascinating, complex systems. When one part of the system goes wonky, the whole thing can fail.

There is another option if the queen doesn’t return. A new one can be installed, within another short window, which means the beekeeper will have to purchase a mated queen and go through a process of introducing her to the hive. It sounds tricky, but if she gets installed properly, the hive will be queenright again.


For further info…

More details on queenless colonies here.

Lots of great info on honeybees and beekeeping. (University of Arkansas)

Honey bee waggle dance (3-minute Smithsonian video)

Watch a honey bee hatch (short National Geographic time-lapse photography)

Beginning Backyard Beekeeper (It’s not easy getting started. Growing a Greener World episode)

Honeybee decline (link to USA Today)

Another perspective (honeybees, shm-oneybees: a little vinegar from NPR)

The decline of flying insects (opinion piece in the New York Times)

A bee’s POV? This novel by Laline Paull has been been on my TBR pile.