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Leonard Moorehead, the Urban Gardener: Pomp and Circumstance

Sunday, June 17, 2018


June is immortal. Like fog creeping on cat’s paws, June surrounds us, we succumb. Sun and Moon, Earth’s axial tilt, all tip us into garden paradises. Let’s put on our wide brimmed hats and a study pair of cotton gloves. Regalia nearly complete, June is manna for us. Humming birds are summer’s grand marshals, green emerges from each toehold, so many of us proceed into careers, marriages, and move on to life’s great adventures. Lots of the time, we celebrate in our gardens. 

Why not? Roses, iris, false indigo, foxgloves, violets, and honeysuckle are there to welcome us. Lettuces, endive, kale, Swiss chard, chives, and peas are at the top of their game. Long gone are the days of mono culture. Urban gardeners’ passion is discovery. Diverse plantings produce large yields from small spaces. Imagination creates vertical planting systems, some ingenious re-purposed wooden pallets lift strawberries from the larger footprint of horizontal beds. Or more likely, gardeners like variety. 

Intersperse rows or patches of individual types of lettuce for instance with mustard, cress, or radishes. Each type of plant requests slightly different nutrients from soil. In effect increasing soil space. Mimic nature’s clover and grass, clover fixes atmospheric nitrogen in symbiosis with microbes within root nodules. Turf’s appetite for nitrogen provides dense green lawns. Associate alternate plantings to foil predatory insects. Challenge slugs and their ilk with limited servings spaced apart. Damage is limited to outposts rather than crop failure.

Painted daises and oriental poppies are superlative beauties. Each has lovely colors to choose from among their perennial families. Painted daises contain pyrethrum, a toxin hostile to predatory insects. Plant several Painted daisies in sunny, well drained, soil. Their bloom initiates the procession of star petal flowers, lasting for a brief few weeks. Their benign influence prevails throughout the year. 

Oriental poppies require much the same soil and sun. Little else will interrupt their awe. Many poppies resist cultivation, preferring to shake their distinctive seed rattle pods to the windward. They sprout up along the margins, between mulch and pathway. Oriental poppies are sterner. Their traffic stopping blooms evoke emotion. Select a permanent location, they are fickle transplants until established. Poppies will endure until the Flood. Have fun, red, pink and white type petals all surround black pistols and golden stamen. Each large bloom slowly lifts upward upon bent stems until the glorious blooms form distinctive seed capsules. 

Poppies narcotic properties are notorious. Our garden types are not the gateway to addiction. Their protective chemistry is hazardous to predatory insects. Beans, tomatoes, and summer squash grown are thrive under poppies protection. Their robust orange/red blooms remind us peace blesses. 

Farmer’s markets are invaluable seed and plant sources. Blue, red, yellow and the common spud are sold as food for far less than seed catalog prices. Many urban gardener’s dismiss the potato as far too cheap and abundant for their high priced urban garden space. Hold the horses! 

Blue potatoes are truly novel. Their flesh is blue throughout, much as a beet is reddish. All potatoes ask is for a sunny location. Engage children in the garden. Potatoes are large tubers, each “eye” will sprout a new potato. Youngsters quickly identify the root node or eye. Supervise any activity with blades or while browsing at the farmer’s market, select very small potatoes. Potatoes can be grown in a bale of hay sunk a little into topsoil. Bales of hay divide into “leaves” perfect for inserting seed potatoes, press back together, water occasionally. 

Garden fresh potatoes are delicious. Grown in hay or just under a thick permanent mulch, potatoes yield a constant harvest. Gently pry among the tuberous roots, break off enough to eat, press back the mulch or hay bale. The bale will become humus, the crop sustainable. Mounds of old mulch suit much the same purpose. Distribute potatoes apart by color and foil insects with parsley. Snip off generous amounts of parsley leaves to enjoy with fresh potatoes. The nutritional value is vitamin and carbohydrate rich, the joy of awaking interest in gardens is lifelong. 

Potatoes naturalize in gardens under permanent mulch. Some are always overlooked, others exposed during cultivation and quickly buried under foot, re-establish. There is no need to remove the crop for storage, potatoes dug from under snowy mulch are superb winter fare. Look for heirloom types that rarely reach the common markets. Plant potatoes with children and in hand, history and culture are more apparent. Andean cultures created myriads of fascinating cultivars. Each narrates our common bonds across generations. 

June is forever fixed as immortal. Important steps In life are its oxygen, careless beauty its pathway into being. Mix plant types and foil insects. Associate protective plants with those grown for the table. Spend precious time with those whose gift is a long procession of future gardens. Pomp? Circumstance? Garden, I offer the lowly spud, blue of course. 

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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