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Urban Gardener: Sweet Summer Gardens

Saturday, August 02, 2014


Photo credit: Leonard Moorehead

Summer heat, sunny days, reward the intrepid gardener. The long arc of the garden year reaches higher. For many urban gardeners this is the epitome of garden efforts. Constant mulches, nurture, care, hope, and faith bind gardener and garden in green matrimony. Our planting, composting, plant selections and crossed fingers gather new strength as we survey the green garden. Amid the hubbub and noise of urban life our green oasis answer our calls for peace and abundance. Distant from the slings and arrows of misfortune? Yes and more.

Never are the gardener’s rewards so apparent. Do not confine horticultural efforts to one plant or single type of crop. Diversity is never so strong as expressed within the garden universe. Rare is the gardener who ignores the immense garden vocabulary. For most of us, the garden is a metaphor for many human qualities. Indulge the senses, intrigue the mind, inspire the soul.

Urban gardeners can rely upon their patch for culinary, gustatory, and sheer joy. Envious of other gardens? Do not forsake this need. A garden can be started at any time and is the most perfect definition of the calendar. Look around for examples of plants and crops. Our cultural tapestry is a great introduction to the many plants that never enter the mass market. The personal garden is the trampoline to jump into exploration of unknown vegetables, flowers and fruits. Perhaps the most endearing qualities of gardeners is their willingness to share their joys and failures. Surely we all know someone happy to raise the largest zucchini known to town. Or less likely, those who retreat from rampant weeds or infested cucumber vines and migrate to the produce section in the market.

Lilies bloom over a long period during summer. This large tribe has deep roots in our communities. The daylilies and Asiatic lilies are more common for good reasons. They require very little care, thrive in sunshine, are tolerant of moderately fertile soils and offer many lovely flowers. Stargazer lilies have established themselves at the forefront of fragrant lilies. They are a happy marriage of color, scent and form. Reaching to nearly six feet, they are slow to establish from walnut size bulbs. Plant in well drained loam with plenty of sunlight. Give them a good start with a generous helping of bonemeal at planting and an annual top dressing each year. Try not to disturb the bulbs. Mulch at all times and exploit their height by planting an understory of pleasing long lasting blooming plants, I enjoy great success with an understory of petunias, another fragrant bloom, which will start blooming before the Stargazers and persist right up until frost for constant fragrance and color. Dead head as needed.

Perplexed by the invasion of American gardens by bright red foreign beetles? Apply soapy sprays to the lilies that contain a homemade mixture of dish detergent and tobacco, strained to keep fine nozzles unclogged. Repeat. It also pays to keep a small wide mouthed container with a small amount of any vegetable oil inside. Pick off any beetle or swipe them from the leaves into the jar. The vegetable oil will clog their wings and body until you pull back the mulch and pour the cheap stew of insects onto the soil and recover with the mulch. Prowl your patch and get in touch with the plants and the insects that live among them. Most insects are harmless or beneficial to the garden. A well-nourished plant has considerable powers of resistance to enemies. Restrain from strong mixtures of chemicals that have long guidelines for application and especially, disclaimers for poison. Few chemical insecticides target specific species, most are lethal to organisms of any rank in the garden. Sincere gardeners do not create deserts and call it peace.

Photo credit: Leonard Moorehead

Some classic garden staples thrive in mid-summer heat. Sweet and hot peppers have identical cultural requirements, well drained fertile loam and plenty of sunshine should do the trick. Their deep green foliage is pleasing and effectively shades the small white flowers. Plant peppers in beds for good cross pollination.  Sweet bell peppers are eatable at just about any stage of maturity. The longer they are left on the plant, the larger they become. Totally mature sweet peppers become a lovely red and manifest true sweetness. Gardeners have grown peppers for generations and many cultivars are ready for choice. Gently snip or twist the pepper from the main plant to prolong yield. I plant seedlings in May and surround each with a paper collar cut from re-purposed brown paper leaf bags. Fill in the close gaps with another layer of paper and cover all with mulch until the paper has disappeared. Very few weeds will penetrate this multi-purpose mulch and yet allows rain and water to easily penetrate. Few parts of the garden will rival the pepper patch for its stalwart green foliage and vitamin packed, non-fat fruits. The culinary choices are endless, peppers, onions fried in olive oil with garlic to taste beg for more.

Hot peppers are rewarding. The pepper seeds contain the heat, the skin the colorful flavor. Do not neglect choices here, there are hot peppers that come in various degrees of heat and most especially, color. Red, white, green, purple, black, and golden yellow hot peppers delight the eye. Sometimes grown as specimen plants, hot peppers are easy to preserve. Later in the summer or whenever so inclined; I thread a needle with common sewing thread, pierce the neck just below the stem, and thread the peppers in long strings.  They retain their punch right up to the next harvest. Rare is the kitchen that suffers from strings of colorful hot peppers, ready to be snipped off the string as needed.

Photo credit: Leonard Moorehead

Plant thickly. Weeds stand out among dense plantations for easy identification. Just now, the tomatoes are still reaching for the sky. A few cherry tomatoes are ripening down below. Happiness is finding glimpses of red cherry tomatoes among the thick foliage. The Great Horned Tomato worm makes their appearance now. This monstrous caterpillar has an insatiable appetite for tomato foliage. Look for leafless stems and dark droppings on foliage. Somewhere nearby is the culprit. Be brave. Pull off the worm, lift up the mulch, bury and recover with firm foot step. However, the Great Horned Tomato worm has his nemesis in parasitic wasps. If you discover a tomato worm covered in white sac like cocoons, sacrifice a few leaves and do not disturb. The cocoons are the wasp’s next generation about to hatch and breakfast upon the worm. Nature seeks balance. Let the predators exist and control your pests naturally. Find a couple ripe cherry tomatoes? Eat! Enjoy!

Mid-summer gardens are Eden. Look beneath your thick mulch and notice how moist the soil remains after hot sunny days. The humus beneath the mulch is the very life blood of future gardens. Tend the plants, tying up errant tomatoes, support burgeoning pole beans, deadhead spent flowers, renew mulches with fresh layers. Banish cares, enjoy the companionship of fellow gardeners and eat hearty. Home grown tastes so sweet.

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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