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Leonard Moorehead, the Urban Gardener: Fruits of Our Labors

Saturday, September 02, 2017


Gravity pulls tasty tomatoes downwards as the vines clamber up and past the trellis tops. Snip off the ripe fruit, place gently into freshly soaked straw baskets. Use a kneeling pad and get right into the garden plants. Slow moves are less likely to disturb our often irritable ground nesting Yellow Jackets and other smaller stinging insects. We no longer have hosts of benign honeybees among our gardens, other more resilient pollinators less friendly to gardeners have filled the vacuum. 

Gardeners who kneel, crawl, or bend at the knees save unnecessary back stress. Groom the tomatoes underbellies. Remove yellowed leaves, harvest the tasty tomatoes. Our long hot summer was ideal for tomato growth and pollination. Dry weather, far short of average rainfall, reduced leaf mosaic and other fungal diseases who thrive in damp and wet conditions. Push mulch closer to main stems, encourage further roots on overgrown tomato vines toppled over onto mulch. Pile compost and mulch over the vine. A garden looks much different from the ground than standing. Change perspective for good. 

Thick mulches on top of double layered brown leaf bags prevent most volunteers. Summer old mulches are comfortable, clean surfaces beneath hands, feet and knees. They also prevent tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants from direct contact with soil’s ability to blemish or expose soil organisms and insects access to ripe fruits. From within the plantings it’s easy to spot opportunistic crabgrass, lamb’s quarters, and others unwanted in the garden bed. Tug from the plant’s base, glance for seed pods, break up the stems and leaves and tuck under the mulch. Reserve seed heads for compost or dispose elsewhere. 

Share your tomato harvest. Nothing rivals a garden grown tomato. Supreme quality is a major virtue. Moreover, heirloom varieties enjoy a Renaissance. Most are relics for their inability to travel well, produce fruit over a longer periods and are often in contrast to the conventional urbanized appearances. Dark tomatoes bursting with nutrient, like Black Krim or Striped Cherokee, puzzle consumers. Gardeners are beyond those restrictions, we hand tend our plants and enjoy taste above convention. We enjoy variety too. Thick fleshed plum tomatoes are best cooked slowly with fresh parsley, garlics, rosemary and basil. Cherry tomatoes are the sweetest and easy to pop in the mouth. Their decorative sprays increase visual appeal and allow guests and friends a chance to be closer to picking their own. 

Canning tomatoes does not reside in kitchen doldrums. Who can’t boil jars, lids, and transform 8 quart batches into over the top winter delicacies? Pack the best tomatoes into the jars, include fresh herbs at the present peak, boil as per directions, remove with tongs, and cool on towels spread on the kitchen table. As they radiate heat and create an internal vacuum, the lids will “pop”, goodness for winter’s health. 

There are many variations of canned tomatoes, as marinara, juice, or perhaps you prefer to remove seeds for improved appearance. Now is the time to seek out family culinary legacies. We’ll enjoy continuous tomato harvest into the next few months, sometimes in my garden the last tomatoes are many green unripe fruit, they may be preserved as relishes or wrapped in paper to slowly ripen into the holidays. 

Make a hard look at cheerful Four O’clock endemic in the garden. Most are dropping seeds for next year’s summer glory. Remove any crowds away from roses, Painted Daisies, and biennials such as foxglove or lunaria. Assess plant heights, perhaps it’s time to clear away taller sunflowers and Datura. Low growing shallots, potatoes, and shaded roses will rebound in the additional sunlight. Sometimes courage is called for. 

Who enjoys thinning out lush strawberry plants? Their runners have advanced along the garden margins or launched into the bean patch. Theirs is a subtle advance. Where once a few, now many. Snip the new runners and modest new plants apart from their parents. Pull up the older plants, replant, allow a new colony or place in the nursery patch. The new plants will produce larger berry crops than older plants next June. Their roots and fresh new plants separate easily from permanent mulches. Cover the plants removed from the soil with a damp burlap bag until you’ve found new homes for the plants. Relocating plants from site to site discourages the build-up of noxious pests and disease. Moreover, soil nutrients, ever increased with the addition of organic matter, may be depleted in beds less likely to be thickly covered throughout the year with compost and heavy mulches. 

Chrysanthemums are formidable pest repellants, a quality that takes back stage to their upcoming starring role as autumn’s glorious salute. Pinched back twice over the summer, some are beginning bloom, others wait until shorter days, most are fallen and sprawled. Cut fathom lengths of jute twine, double up the strands, and wrap chrysanthemum plants into taller bunches. Do this twice, a tie above the soil and again closer to the plant top. Open space will appear around the thick chrysanthemum bundles, each taller and more erect. Tuck broken stems deeply into the soil. 

Stand back. The results will guide cold weather lifting and dividing. Move the chrysanthemum plants around the garden, keep in mind they do best in sunny, rich soils able to retain moisture over dry summers. Potted chrysanthemums sold next to heaps of pumpkins and cornstalks will over winter and flourish with modest TLC for many years. 

Un-pot root bound specimen plants after their showy place at house entrances and desks. Water, soak the root mass and loosen tight roots. Dust with root tone to stimulate root development. Prepare a site high in organic content, enrich with bone meal. Tuck the potted plant into the site and firm soil around the plant to the former pot’s soil level. Water, mulch, and keep clear of competitive foliage. Most will thrive into larger, more robust versions of their humble origins. 

Consider future compost sites. Leaves are a major harvest. They compost very well when covered under soil and not allowed to dry out. As a mature gardener, I abandoned most schemes for compost making and resolved to enrich soil in place. I save labor and the back, by digging modest trenches in the garden bed. The topsoil is piled, often on burlap bags, off to one side. Most gardeners abhor exposed soil. Relax, this won’t last long. One or two spade depths is fine.

Place thick stalks, kitchen trimmings, and whatever organic material is nearby, virtually free and abundant. Leaves fit the bill for me, I gather hundreds of bagged leaf rakings from friendly neighbors, often lined neatly along the sidewalk. Stuff the trenches with leaves or organic material, up to a crown. Soak dry leaves in the trench, cover with the top soil removed to make the trench. Brown paper leaf bags are convenient rectangles or may be torn into shape. Tuck the paper over the soil, anchor into the sides of the trenches. Cover the paper with a bit of soil and the winter mulch. Most trenches actually sink in height as the materials are transformed by soil bacteria and worms into fertile, moisture retaining humus. Save precious time by not lugging materials to compost piles and later back into the garden plot. 

Trenching is a time tested approach to creating raised beds, composting on site and saves labor. The remains in former trenches are ready gold mines of future humus. Remove old trench compost as needed, fill with freshly groomed shrubs, rose trimmings, and clippings during the year. 

Our soils are far from dormant, rather they are robust micro fauna and flora communities ever hungry for new materials. As the organic content in soil increases, bio diversity recovers from past harsh treatment of our lands. Gardens high in humus are least likely to suffer from heavy rains, rather, the soil becomes sponge like and absorbs rainfall. 

Rise up from your garden crawl. Lift up your heart. Bite into a fresh tomato, ignore the juice on the chin. Life’s endless procession includes the fruit of our labors. Rest and contemplate. Breath. Autumn approaches and much is ahead in the garden. Visualize places for those hardy plants such as kale, grown for the fall and winter garden. It’s not time to store the trowels, spades and pruning shears yet. 


Leonard Moorehead is a life-long gardener. He practices organic-bio/dynamic gardening techniques in a side lot surrounded by city neighborhoods in Providence RI. His adventures in composting, wood chips, manure, seaweed, hay and enormous amounts of leaves are minor distractions to the joy of cultivating the soil with flowers, herbs, vegetables, berries, and dwarf fruit trees.


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