Saturday, July 20, 2013

Keeping cool while it's hot

During these hot days of July I've been keeping a close eye on the garden. Heavy rains early this summer encouraged generous growth, and I've been a bit worried as I watch the ferns fainting, the production of flowers slowing, and the drooping leaves of the potato plants. Their "performance" isn't what it's supposed to be. 

But the plants have an idea I think. As they sense the shortage of water in their environment plants have a bunch of options they can use to adapt. In the long run this helps them survive the rigors of drought and heat. 

One strategy they use is to close their stomata. Stomata are the pores, mostly on leaves but also present on other parts of the plant, that take in carbon dioxide and release oxygen. Plants manufacture their own nutrients from carbon dioxide, which is the raw ingredient for sugars and starch. But while the stomata are open water vapor, a by-product of photosynthesis (like oxygen), is also released. Plants lose water, lots of it, whenever they do photosynthesis. So in these hot, dry weeks our garden plants slow down. You could say they're on a kind of fast, just depriving themselves of nutrients for a few hot hours of the day to avoid overdoing it. 

The by-product of the "fast" is something we can observe. Fewer and smaller flowers, less than perky plants. Well it's July, and most of the plants have laid in a good store of resources already. So a few days of slowing down won't hurt them, not as much as a super soaking will hurt my water bill. 

I've been watching our cat too. Fin is a Maine coon, hairy and luxuriant. He's happiest in a blizzard or under the misty dripping April sky. Poor guy.  All he's been able to do over the past few days is splay himself out on the floor, wherever it's just slightly cooler than the rest of the house. 

Maybe we can take a lesson from nature in this heat. Slow down and chill out. Don't try to "accomplish" so much for a few days. 

Friday, July 12, 2013


Out in the morning garden, a still, cool, fragrant space. The new crop of blossoms pumping out their visual and olfactory luxury. What about the spent flowers? We deadhead them as a habit, partly to remove the unsightly, partly to encourage more buds and future growth.

In the context of garden ecology I look at it a little differently. We recycle our soil from year to year. We just finished loading the last of our reserves into the flourishing containers of potatoes, which threaten now to take over the whole yard. The soil we empty from the pots into our winter bin comes right from the stuff we used all summer. It's a cycle. But not a closed cycle. We are taking something from that soil every year. The leaves and flowers and roots all derive nutrients from the soil. Especially those flowers. Every gardener knows that to get great flowers you need micronutrients. 

So what does this have to do with deadheading? Those spent flowers are reservoirs of nutrient molecules. The life of the flower is short, no time to translocate nutrients back to the plant. If we throw away the dead flowers we're throwing away nutrients that we have to replace by going to the garden store, buying fertilizer, lugging it home, and putting it in the soil. I prefer to recycle the deadheads into the soil, let the microbes break down the plant material, and come out next summer with a new crop of healthy potting matrix. 

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Genius of Aroma

I'm a person who's visually biased- maybe most of us are. Our garden is truly a visual delight. But the visible is every day. Once in a while a garden aroma hits you that brings to mind words like "heavenly," "sublime," or "intoxicating." After a long winter indoors, nursed along by Janet at the foot of her potted Meyer lemon, the Nicotiana has come into full bloom. The lush, rich, ephemeral, transcendent fragrance of this mysterious flower is indescribable.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Popping Peas

They appear silently, stealthily, in the predawn morning. The day before they were flowers. Tomorrow they'll be too tough to eat. 

Back in April I planted peas, massively, in one of the big plastic pots we keep right outside the house. A spot with morning sun and extended shade after noon. Things were less than promising then, when the soil was cold and wet and the nighttime temps dipped just north of freezing. 

I watched the first greens jealously as they poked through a week or two later. Vulnerable and sweet, too many years these are a snack for sparrow and squirrel. This year they survived the early weeks and climbed with some force up up up. Early June and they started to flower, enjoying what felt like an endless succession of cold rainy days. 

This week as we hit a series of 90-degree days I think it will be time to say goodbye to the peas, still squeaking out the small ones, but reluctantly. The big healthy plants seem to say, "it's not our fault! We can't produce in this weather." But I don't place blame anywhere when it comes to the garden. 

These weeks they have been performing a miracle, converting sunlight into alternate forms of energy and birthing those new tender pea pods, night after night, silently, passively, without complaint. 

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Complexity, Diversity, Health

We had just moved into our new place, a stretch and a stress with three young kids. I was too poor or too cheap to buy a "real" tree so I rescued a six-inch birch sapling from a piece of soil next to the old basketball court at Hoyt Field. Into the ground it went, out front, next to the street. Not a hopeful spot. Shaded and sucked dry by a Norway maple and right where the neighborhood dogs liked to mark their territory. The soil was sandy and the rest of the "garden" was being used as a dog run by the women who lived next door. 

It got worse before it got better. As the sapling grew to two feet, three feet, the shade intensified, as did the imperious reddish roots of the maple. Then a bad winter, nowhere to put the salty slushy heavy snow than in our front yard. It never had "flowers" or a "lawn" so it took some time before the neighbors understood it was a garden. Meanwhile, anything to get those cars back on the road! So our birch bent and then snapped under the weight of filthy icy crud from the street. It took a few more years until it found its apical meristem and started to grow upward with any enthusiasm. 

Last year I noticed a change, a kind of push upward that accelerated this spring. Just a good season? And about a week ago we saw the first mushroom pushing its way through the thick leaf litter. A decomposer? Maybe...there's a lot down there. And then this morning after days of rain and muggy humidity, an unmistakeable fairy ring. Mission accomplished. The birch had found a mycorrhizal partner in the soil. The fruiting bodies of the fungus had arranged themselves around the growing tips of the roots, exchanging trace nutrients, water, and protection for photosynthetic sugars produced by the tree. From a trashed afterthought to a garden, complex, diverse, healthy.