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Leonard Moorehead, the Urban Gardener: Some Like it Hot

Sunday, August 13, 2017


PHOTO: Courtesy of Leonard Moorehead

While gardener’s wilt, flee to cooler beaches or country shade, others are rooted in place. Emerge for air conditioned work places and homes. Do not exile yourself from summer, dress accordingly and adjust to the season. Resilience is a gardener’s virtue. As the humidity thickens warm air and high pressure stalls over Bermuda we are venture into the garden in the cool morning or evening air. Bolder? Pick up a $1 wide brim straw hat at the flea market. Lean forward, soak head and hat, put it on to dry into perfect fit. Repeat as needed, maybe this time wiggle toes in the turf and splash the feet. Kipling who left the oven summers of India to more temperate Vermont wore one, “only mad dogs and Englishmen” venture into the mid-day sun. Squints disappear under wide brims. Our vision sharpens. We follow our nose, never are the tomatoes more fragrant.

Tomatoes, beans, corn, and eggplants relish summer heat. Zinnias, tithonia, roses, and petunias add color to the borders. Lavender is robust. Scan the garden for errant crabgrass disguised among daylilies and naturally, snug against thorny roses. Pull up and throw onto the sunniest mulch. Gone to seed? Remove from the garden and compost in fresh moist grass clippings steaming away in brown paper bags. The heat will finish off most seeds. Thick mulches and layers of brown paper bags discourage all but the most tenacious weeds. 

Tomatoes leap up stakes and trellises and shade out most competitors. Watch for the sudden appearance of morning glories, snip don’t pull, this fast growing vine. Their broad leaves intercept sunshine from those who need it most. Seaweed, compost, and hay under tomatoes encourages root development. Lift up the tomatoes on clad wire square forms easy to reuse year after year. Jute twine, doubled or tripled in arm’s lengths, are fine to gently guide fast growing tomatoes. Vigilant gardeners weave stems in and out of wire trellis’ but there are always stems that somehow escaped early detection. On old t-shirt, torn into ribbons are another time honored method of tying off tomatoes. Tie tomato stems gently upwards, enjoy the wonderful tomato fragrance. Save the back, it’s easier to harvest while standing. 

Some of us are picking cherry tomatoes and a few Beefsteaks have reddened. Today’s heat guarantees a large crop in the next months. Tomato flowers set fruit when night time temperatures remain above 65 degrees. Tomatoes are remarkably healthy plants. They relish humus rich soil, full sunshine and tolerate modest drought. Whenever possible, distribute tomato plants in separate areas, perhaps by variety. Plant cherry tomatoes, the sweetest and earliest to ripen, closest to the backdoor. Snip entire sprays of cherry tomatoes to enliven the salad bowl. Pop the first warm cherry tomatoes right into the mouth. 

Separate plantings make room for beneficial companion plants such as basil, parsley, or painted daisies. Chrysanthemums in the garden discourage most predatory insects long before becoming colorful mounds of bloom throughout the fall. 

Mulched isolated tomato patches of 5 or 6 plants are much less prone to infectious diseases such as black mosaic. Fungal diseases are more likely to reside among lilacs, phlox and beebalm. Harvest the beebalm as blooms fad dry for delicate herbal teas and scented dried botanicals. Fresh new growth will soon resurrect the patches. 

Tomatoes are popular. Notice bare stems and dark droppings first? Listen for the incessant crunching chew of the Great Horned Tomato Worm. Monstrous and creepy cool, the large tomato worm is ideally camouflaged among tomato vegetation. Hesitate before snipping off its unlucky stem and crushing beneath the mulch. If infested by rice like growths a parasitic wasp has laid eggs upon the worm. Let this worm perish as host to the friendly wasps. Far fewer Great Horned Tomato Worms will infest future tomatoes. Great Horned Tomato Worms are rare in my garden where all tomatoes are amid chrysanthemums and daises, natural insect repellants. And yes, I’ve left nature to its course and sacrificed hosts to act as nurseries for future caterpillar predators. 

Harvest spearmint, peppermint, lemon balm and beebalm. Snip at the mulch level. Among the best companion plants, the mints are best dried at the top of their game. Hang in bunches from rafters or lay upon screens under dry shelter. Strip the dried leaves and save in plain paper lunch bags, hung from a clothesline in a dry dark basement or attic with wooden clothespins. Label and date. Fold and break the stems to throw onto the mulch. 

Continue to sow beans in areas such as gone to seed beet and mesclun beds. See Jack and the Beanstalk spring into action. Beans germinate and grow quickly during hot weather and most yield fine fresh beans 60 days later. Count backwards from the average frost date for last bean planting to insure continuous bean supply. Beans are a regional favorite in my area, baked beans remain the Saturday night supper for many locals. Freezers have removed fresh green beans from the pickle jar. Explore the marvelous bean world. Italy is a genetic treasure trove of bean varieties, Asian varieties are becoming better known and the traditional Navy bean remains classic. French Horticultural varieties offer bi-color or pure red blooms as well as delectable vegetables. 

People who consume ¼ cup of beans daily are reputed to add 4 years of life over those who do not. Beans nourish our intestinal microbes, especially important among cultures who commonly ingest anti-biotic medications. Dark green beans are fibrous and rich in vitamins and anti-oxidants. For added nutritional punch and visual appeal, plant purple and yellow varieties. 

Perhaps your region, like mine, is in drought. Fresh water is never to be taken lightly. Exercise good judgment when watering. Far too often our precious water nourishes the largest by acreage crop in the USA: the lawn. Has your turf gone brown? Grass species are squarely in the eyesight of the unholy trinity of herbicide, insecticide and chemical fertilizer industries. Perhaps you’ve walked your pet or children past small warning signs on lawn edges. Rich green turf endures through drought and heat when grown upon thick humus soil. 

Gardens do too. Add mulch year round. Many types such as grass clippings, their chemical induced growth is free from water soluble chemicals leached into the aquafers below, are free for the asking. Who hasn’t seen truckloads hauled away to landfills? Similarly, seaweed is raked from public beaches for disposal. Salt water is far more then sodium chloride, many so called trace elements are present, leached eons ago from our soils or far more recently as algae blooms peak in estuaries near lawns attest Seaweed, a generic term for a fascinating array of marine flora, has no internal salts although some may be dried upon its surface. No worries, seaweeds make for handsome long lasting mulches. An added benefit is the absence of any terrestrial seeds and an astonishing amount of flotsam and jettison. Feathers, nearly pure nitrogen are common among seaweeds as are crab shells, lobster shells, skate egg cases, and who can resist picking up seashells? Bring a tote bag with you to the beach. 

Heavily mulched soils retain valuable moisture. Yet some additional moisture is expected, especially newly planted seed beds and transplants. Containers call for constant watering. Some like it hot, for me there is much peace and joy. Barefoot, thumb over the end for nozzle, nothing surpasses the peace open to anyone watering the garden on a hot summer evening or cool hours after dawn. Wear a wide brimmed hat for only mad dogs and Englishmen venture under the mid-day sun. 

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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