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Leonard Moorehead, the Urban Gardener: Heat Waves

Sunday, July 09, 2017


Gardeners are optimists. Our large and small plots exercise hope. Mystique guides our garden efforts, a profound sense of place anchors us, we bend at the knees, move aside thick green foliage, vigilant eyes spot crabgrass, fingers reach beneath the grass stems and pull roots and plant to place on nearby mulch. Thick summer heat slows every effort, hats and at least one glove pull a basket along for pickings. Growth is everywhere. 

Each garden is personal, our choices, opportunities, and vision is clearly evident. Many urban gardeners are masters of adaptation. We re-purpose 5 gallon plastic buckets and plant cherry tomatoes, reliable such as Jetstar, thrive in commonplace leaky buckets. Cherry tomatoes are the sweetest tomato, their bite size red burst flavor unsurpassably good. Savvy chefs with sunny spots prune away basil leaves, tarragon, and rosemary. Fresh or dried, bottled in vinegar or oils, these herbs capture summer’s hottest days. All do well in large pots. Lemon verbena and rosemary become topiary marvels, each pinch inspires more growth. 

Do keep containers moist. A beach vacation due? Are you drawn to the ocean, to sail, swim, and to breathe salty air? Does a quiet hand held barefoot walk on wet sand remove cares and worries, make love? Clam cakes and chowder appeal? Go, enjoy. Keep a saucer of some kind under pots and containers, soak until the saucer fills. Ask a gardener friend to come while away and water. Keep watering cans full for their convenience, mention something like a quarter twist for each watered pot. Geraniums really prove themselves during vacations, they thrive during intermittent dryness. Pinch away spent blooms, compost or dry for winter fragrance. Red, pink and white geraniums welcome vacationers home just right.  The family’s potted Aloe Vera or as mother called it, “the Unguintine Plant”, soothes sunburnt skin, especially the tops of feet and face. 

Beach combers always carry baskets. Seashells are treasure troves of ph neutralizing calcium carbonates. Seagulls harvest quahogs and sea clams during low tide and drop them on rocks or more likely, parking lots. Bring home prized wampum, iridescent blue mussel shells, or pearly white clam shells. Layer shells over the containers. The shells offer a splatter proof surface to containers, slows evaporation, reflect light upwards, and last many seasons. Most migrate into the main garden plots each autumn when potting soil is dumped into the compost heap. 

Dried clusters of seaweed line the high tide mark. Rarely one type of seaweed drifts ashore, kelp and rock weed are beginning to wash in, Irish moss turns from red to gelatinous white in a few days. Beware fishing lures among tangled fish twine, a hook is nearby. Seaweeds, a careless misnomer for marine flora, are complex jumbles. Feathers are nitrogen rich, crab and lobster shells, starfish, skate egg cases, and sponges are welcome in the garden. Unlike composts and hay mulches, seaweeds contain no seeds nor Sodom and Gomorrah salts. Amuse suburban friends, tuck dead horseshoe crab carapaces under hostas or New England asters. “Are these crabs in the garden?” a straight face is useful, “We have land crabs in the city, no worries, they are slow moving”. “How did one get up into the potted fig?” “They can jump at night, the streetlights confuse them”.  Blame climate change. As if gardeners cannot smile. 

Heat waves bring tomatoes, sunflowers, eggplants, and other heat lovers, such as beans and cucumbers, into their own. In our plots we stake or trellis tomatoes, remove unhealthy foliage. Common jute twine, keep a large roll in the garden shed, is very useful around plants grown upwards or trained. Double or triple up the jute twine into gentle loops, guide tied plants upwards. My father tore old t-shirts or sheets into narrow rags to provide the gentlest collars for his prized Big Boys and Beefsteaks tomatoes. Each material composts later in autumn. Remove lateral stems that appear at each tomato’s leaf juncture. Some will inevitably escape notice, all will yield tomatoes. Layer mulch closely around plant bases, mulched tomatoes are never soiled and protected from soil borne insects and infection. Tomatoes fruit when night temperatures remain above 65 degrees, small green fruits feed our optimism, only a few weeks away from the first bite into your homegrown Brandywine, Beefsteak, Cherokee, Black Krim or Mr. Stripy tomato. 

Heat waves are colorful. Gladiolas relish sunny heavily mulched soils. They are perennial in humus rich Zone 6 soil, plant corms 6 inches deep and mix in bone meal, beneath them. Plant as annuals a week a part, get in the last bag of bargain size assorted mix that just seems to linger. Soak overnight, the corms will swell. Replant any corm uncovered during off season digging. 

Lilies add color and scent to summer heat. Plant different varieties to find the type best suited for your plot. Asiatic lilies, day lilies, the fragrant Stargazers, and native Turk’s Cap lilies lift up the heart. All are easily propagated and most will naturalize. Their vibrant red, yellow, striped, and white blooms attract hummingbirds. Daylilies offset their short individual bloom by extravagant numbers. Lift and divide in cooler weather, replant with generous helpings of compost, bone meal, and mulch. 

Turf remains green and hearty through torrid weather when cultivated in thick topsoil. Beware native violets, ajuga, and myrtle. Pull up these vine like roamers, their chief nemesis being broad, thick leaves, which shade out turf. Mow turf on higher settings, allow to grow a bit taller than putting greens. Keep a bag of grass seed in rodent proof containers and scatter wherever taller plants tend to sprawl onto turf, such as asparagus, asters, and chrysanthemums. Tie back or put small temporary fences between turf and taller neighbors. Inoculate garden soil with BT, a microscopic grub parasite. 

Pinch back the growing tips, the apical meristem, of chrysanthemums and asters. Lateral growth will double the showy blooms in late summer and early fall. Dry chrysanthemum foliage and tips, as well as Painted daisies, nicotiana, and Datura. Clearly label gallon sized plastic jugs and steep the dried flowers and leaves, include several table spoons of Neem oil, or soap. Strong healthy plants grown in highly organic soils are naturally pest resistant. However, at the first appearance of red beetles on prized, expensive lilies, spray this herbal tea. Vegetable oils are fatal to flying insects, moreover, add a tablespoon to any standing water beneath containers. Mosquito larvae are trapped beneath the biodegradable oily film, flying insects’ wings are disabled. 

Thin self-sown sunflowers, remove large lower leaves. Our native sunflower has global appeal. In the 1890’s Oscar Wilde sported a sunflower on his lapel during his speaking tours to western silver mining camps. No one can ignore their towering presence, least of all, hordes of Gold Finches, whose plumage merges seamlessly into seed laden sunflower seed heads. Gardeners look up and enjoy their distinctive chirps. Fibonacci numbers are present in many blooms, never so eloquently as among tight seed packed sunflowers, nor so colorfully as in chrysanthemums. 

Carefully move established chrysanthemums into sunny places or grow in sunken large pots. Keep chrysanthemums in large buried pots, treat them to fish emulsion, remove taller neighbors. Although buried, the pots benefit from an extra watering and prefer a mulch. Pinch back for full robust growth and shape. We’ll dig up the pots late in summer to display in more public spaces and return to the ground before frost. 

Gardeners welcome heat waves. Water the garden and find peace. Barefoot or not, soak your garden hat, wear it, hold the nozzle, and spray life giving water. Shed old habits and dash out to a sprinkler, timing helps a little, move to a dry location, and stifle if you can, laughter if soaked. Come on, it’s hot outside. Move, nurture, harvest, eat, enjoy. Gardeners are optimists, life is good. 

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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