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!

How’d It Grow? Dara, Wild Carrot

This plant was the biggest happy surprise of last season for me. Many thanks to the grower at Holly Hill Farm who sold me on it at their annual seedling sale.

Dara is an ornamental also known as False Queen Anne’s lace, ornamental carrot, and wild carrot. In my garden, some of the initial flowers on this plant opened up into broad 5-inch blooms, ranging from white to purple-pink to dark purple. Flowers that bloomed later in the season tended to be smaller, though still around 3 inches in diameter.DSC_0203

 

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It’s not a fussy, formal flower. Here it is, mingling with some orange cosmos. I get a bit of shade in my garden, so the Dara grew on the tall side of the standard 36-50.”

Pollinators of all shapes and sizes loved the blooms, and I enjoyed the buzz they brought to the garden so much, I cut only a few of them for bouquets.

Generally, they are a long-lasting cut flower, but some of them drooped right away in the vase and never revived. I learned later from the book Floret Farm’s Cut Flower Garden (which by the way, for locals is currently available through Old Colony Library and Hoopla) that it’s best harvested “when flowers are fully opened and are lying flat.” Older blooms begin to curl up, like umbrellas caught in the wind. DSC_0231

I’ve read dueling information about whether this plant is a garden thug, perhaps because Queen Anne’s Lace, the white flower often seen growing in meadow’s ditches, and scrubby patches, is listed as a noxious weed in some states (not in MA). It might also be worth noting that Johnny’s Selected Seeds specifically calls this plant False Queen Anne’s Lace.

Expert gardener Ken Druse discusses his experience with Dara on the podcast A Way to Garden. Ken–who enjoys this flower, but does take care to contain it– says his self-sown Dara seeds sprout in summer in NJ, overwinter, and then flower the following summer.

Here in New England, Johnny’s Select Seeds calls them an annual and recommends direct-sowing them. I can vouch that the ones I purchased as seedlings sown in a six-cell pack in the spring established themselves fine in my garden and bloomed the same summer. Is it a thug here? I’ll find out this summer.

A few takeaways…

  1. This flower fits in beautifully in casual gardens.
  2. Pollinators love them.
  3. Johnny’s recommends direct-sowing the seeds, but starting them indoors for later transplant also works.
  4. Plant them in groupings for greater effect.
  5. If you’re concerned about them taking over your garden, take efforts to contain them until you see how they behave in your area.
  6. Give them some kind of support to help keep them upright. I used twine and garden stakes.
  7. Dara is not a cut-and-come again flower like zinnias. You’ll get more than one flower per plant (7-15 stems per plant, according to Johnny’s), but it won’t keep producing all season. Still, its season extends a month or more, and multiple, staggered plantings can achieve a longer period of bloom. You may also get a longer blooming period if you keep them cut. I just didn’t have the heart to take them all from the bees.
  8. For best longevity in floral arrangements, cut them after they’ve fully opened. And once they begin to curl up, they’re on their way to seed.

 

How’d It Grow? The Cucamelon

After hearing a few gardening friends from different circles talk about cucamelons , I decided to give them a try this year for the first time.

Cucamelons–also called Mexican Sour Gherkins and Mouse Melons–resemble tiny watermelons. “Vines start growing slowly,” notes Johnny’s Selected Seeds, and, “Not particularly high-yielding.”

After planting the seeds in early June, I waited for a few weeks and assumed they’d washed away before I saw any sign of them. The emerging seedlings remained tiny for another few weeks. Some just disappeared, likely eaten as a snack by a couple of flea beetles. The vines that survived grew so slowly that all nearby plants outpaced them, shading them and further hindering their growth.

Around early August or so, I finally started seeing tiny yellow flowers.

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And by the time the fruit appeared, something else had already happened in my garden.

A cucumber explosion.

Evidently it was a banner year for cucumbers here in our area, based on the number of people at the garden talking about their great cucumber harvest. Which is great, of course. Only by the time the cucamelons finally made their entrance, I was already on the third act of cucumbers: canning and preserving.

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But here they are, like fairy watermelons, alongside a cherry tomato and a scarlet runner bean for comparison.

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Per Johnny’s instructions, I picked them when they were small, a little less than one inch. (Longer ones get seedy). Once the plants built up steam, they stretched out, clambering up the trellis and across the tops of my tall flowers. Cucamelons were tucked in all corners, though not in high numbers and not obvious among the foliage. I had to forage for them.

Their flavor? Like a slightly sour cucumber, lemony. Nicely crunchy. Their skin is a little thick. Sliced in half lengthwise, they’d probably make a nice addition to a fresh salad that I’ll be craving mid-winter. Or if I’d had enough at once, they might have made a nice jar of pickles.

A few takeaways…

  1. Given the slow start of summer in zone 6, I wouldn’t plant them any earlier here than I did, in the beginning of June. Even then, nights can still be quite chilly.
  2. I recommend protecting them under a row cover or cloche for a little extra warmth and insect defense.
  3. Just in time (hello, Frost), I’ve learned that cucamelons produce tubers that can be overwintered, which hopefully will mean a more vigorous start next season.
  4. Think carefully about space planning. The rest of your garden will travel into the future while your cucamelons stall in their own space-time dimension. They won’t grow well in the shade of other quickly-maturing plants.
  5. The cucamelon is no way to pad your harvest. It’s not like a hybrid cherry tomato, cheerfully producing early, across the full season, and in spite of disease pressure while you’re waiting for your heirlooms to come in. You may very well be weary of anything cucurbit-y by the time these guys produce.
  6. Is the novelty worth it? Maybe, and I’m willing to give it another try now that I understand more about its growing habit. I could see this plant working well in a garden where there’s not enough space for a full-sized cucumber beast. The cucamelon’s leaves and fruit are small and lightweight, unlikely to overwhelm surrounding plants if you don’t mind a little disarray and let a couple of vines ramble and find their way in the sun. Keep some sunshine carved out for it among your other plants,  and it may perform better than mine did.