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Even people, who do not think of themselves as ‘vegetable gardeners’ grow tomatoes because almost everyone loves that great ‘homegrown’ taste of vine-ripened tomatoes.

Besides growing tomatoes in the traditional vegetable bed, they have been grown in containers, hanging baskets, stuck in their own forty-pound bag of soil, and raised in herb and flower gardens .

The tomato is a charming fruit declared a vegetable by the Supreme Court in 1893, and one that inspires passions among many gardener, sending them on an unending quest for the best tasting tomato, the earliest ripening or the biggest fruit or largest yield. Many growers helped develop the many variations found in the tomato varieties now available. Hybridizers developed tomatoes for their sweet flavor, meaty texture, yellow color, pear shape, or type of usage.

Its history is just as bewildering. Early European explorers in South American took the tomato plant to Europe sometime before 1544. It was considered poisonous because of its relation to deadly nightshade, which as it name suggests, is a lethal poison. The tomato earned the name Pomme d’Amour, or Love Apple, which gives an interesting insight into personal relationships of the sixteenth century. Tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, potatoes, nightshade and jimsonweed all come from the Solanaceae family. We now know to eat the tomato raw only when fully ripened or to cook the green tomato, which breaks down the alkaloids that make it poisonous.

A warm season crop, tomatoes grow best in temperatures between seventy and seventy-five degree and won’t grow well until those conditions are reached. A touch of frost quickly kills them, so plant them after danger of frost is past. Garden centers sell many mechanical devices such as crop caps and ‘walls-of-water’ to protect plants set out earlier in the season. The best sites have rich soil that is slightly acidic with at least six hours of sun a day. Black plastic or straw or other mulch put around the soil helps keep the soil warm in cool weather. Tomatoes need watering once a week and the soil fertilized several times during summer. There are manuals and books galore on growing tomatoes that give more in-depth information than presented here.

Due to the diseases which tomatoes are susceptible to, it is best if you do not grow tomatoes in the same spot every year but rotate where they are grown for a series of four years. For the same reason you should never smoke around tomatoes, or handle them after handling cigarettes.

For the hunter of exotic of heirloom varieties, tomatoes are easy to grow from seed and are available from many catalogue and retail sources. When shopping for seeds or plants, look for short-seasoned tomatoes (quick ripening) for areas in colder zones, and select hybrids with the most disease resistance. The plant label should give you this information.

During the growing season you might have to protect your ripening tomatoes from local wildlife as many enjoy tomatoes as much as we do.  Also, if you see huge green caterpillars known as the Tomato Hornworm which has yellow spots and horns and is the larva of the Five-Spotted Hawkmoth, pull them off and destroy them in soapy water. Or get someone to do it for you.

Photo of tomato hornworm

Tomato Hornworm by Amanda Hill, and given to public domain.

Funchal Botanical Garden photo by Hedwig Storch from Widimedia

Since man first started growing plants he has organized them. Gardeners have designed gardens by utility for centuries. We define our gardens by their use: vegetable, herb, perennial border or cutting garden, ornamental, or water gardens. We grow plants selected for one specific idea together. That’s the whole idea behind a theme garden, but today’s gardeners have taken the idea to heart and have resulted in extremes where garden plans center on ideas and topics of personal interest.

Historical use gardens are always popular. They display how the landscape around a historical home or building might have looked. Knot and parterre garden patterns, while lovely at ground level, were designed for viewing from a balcony or window. These plans developed from the way monks in medieval monastery gardens laid out their gardens, which led to topiary gardens with their heavily pruned shapes and leafy animals designed for surprise and entertainment.

Photo of Hever Castle Rose Garden.

Hever Castle Rose Garden photo by Graham Beuld from Wikimedia

Herb gardens are often subdivided by use into culinary herb, scented herb, medicinal herb, and dye herb gardens. Theme vegetable gardens can be salsa gardens, salad gardens, square foot gardens, or vertical gardens. A newer trend is the decorative vegetable garden, or vegetables grown in a ‘designed’ garden manner rather than rows.

Bee and butterfly gardens are designed to attract those insects. In bird gardens you will find plants birds use for food, habitat or nesting. In this section of Michigan, many gardens develop into deer gardens, even if the gardener didn’t quite have that purpose in mind.

Literature and art are other sources for theme gardens. In a Shakespearean garden, only plants mentioned in that author’s writings are grown. Biblical gardens contain plants referred to in that great book. I expect somewhere there is a Peter Rabbit garden and a Secret Garden based on the plants found in those stories. What a great way to introduce children to both gardening and reading! Gardens need not be limited to the literary works, gardens based on painters like Monet are popular.

Color based gardens are the most popular theme for flower gardens. Some mix all colors together in a flamboyant, breath-taking display. Then there are gardens devoted to all the flowers of one hue. Blue gardens with plants having foliage or flowers in that color are very popular, as are white gardens, which some call moon gardens if they have night-blooming flowers. Other types of theme gardens are devoted to a particular family of plants, such as a rose or daisy garden, but shrub, succulent, and bulb gardens are popular, too. Holland, Michigan, has a citywide theme garden based on tulips. There are shade gardens, woodland gardens, sun gardens, scent gardens and native plant gardens.

The wonderful thing about a theme garden is they personalize a garden and ideas for themes are limited only by imagination. If you decide to plan your own very special theme garden, here are a few helpful hints. Don’t be afraid to add a few elements like sculptures, or other objects, but the key word is ‘few,’ too many objects and you can lose the garden. A single color garden has predominately flowers of that color, but often a few plants of one or two other colors enhance the predominant color. Flowers or leaves repeating the same shape can be monotonous, so select different type of leaves when you choose plants. If you want a daisy garden, introduce some additional flowers with shapes that are not round.

Even in a theme garden the important thing to remember is to select plants capable of growing in your soil and climate. If you want an Orangerie like Louis XIV, and you live in a zone colder than Florida, you’ll have to grow your orange trees in tubs and put them in a greenhouse during the winter, like he did.

Book coverAn Organic Guide to Growing Vegetables, Berries, and Herbs in Cold Climates

By By John Whitman
University of Minnesota Press
ISBN 978-0-8166-9839-4
February 2017|
Gardening

FRESH FROM THE GARDEN is a marvelous book. It is a large and comprehensive volume for growing edible food plants only, but discusses edible flower garden plants and other unusual and unexpected edible plants. This book is for gardening in cold areas like mine, and as a long-time gardener, I know this can be difficult.

Part I is devoted to the basics of gardening and growing crops organically. It explains a variety of approaches from growing in containers to creating many types of land gardens. Soil and compost is explained along with how to water and fertilize. Directions for plant seeds is provided, but it also includes other methods of propagation. It explains how to grow crops and how to weed and harvest them. The information goes further to include culinary terms, food storage, and even gives reasons why some people love or hate a particular vegetable. All the tools and products necessary for gardening are listed along with safety tips. Great photos and many easy-to-understand charts supplement the text.

One thing among many I learned was that pH means potential hydrogen. I’ve known what a pH reading was and how it applies to plants, but not what the acronym meant. It’s not only the solid information but also the good advice provided, such as the myth the gardener controls their garden, and many ways exist to achieve a bountiful harvest. Author John Whitman encourages gardeners to use whatever method works best for them.

The most wonderful part of FRESH FROM THE GARDEN is Part II– an extensive listing of all the vegetables, berries and herbs that can be grown in the food garden. Many I have grown, but even more I haven’t. From asparagus to zucchini, every crop is described. The information includes when and where to plant, the plant’s nutritional facts, the varieties available, how to grow it, problems and pests that can occur, and how to harvest and store the crop.

While FRESH FROM THE GARDEN is invaluable for gardeners in cold areas, defined in the book as anywhere the temperature can dip below -20 degrees Fahrenheit, the basic information is relevant anywhere. The extensive list and discussion of crop foods makes this garden book one every gardener will seek out repeatedly, not only when choosing plants to grow for the upcoming season, but also whenever problems or questions occur during growing or harvesting of those crops. For beginning gardeners or experienced gardeners, FRESH FROM THE GARDEN offers effective gardening know-how.

phloxs

Take a section of land, perhaps put a fence around it to protect it from predators, tear off all the existing vegetation, prepare the soil, and plant what you want to grow: that can be either a farm field or a garden, a human creation. Both farmers and gardeners create gardens by imposing their will on nature. The gardener chooses the location, chooses the plants allowed to live and grow, and what plants (weeds) to pull and let die. A gardener creates a world in a garden. Does that give a gardener some type of God complex?

Gardens are hard work and take continued effort. If the gardener doesn’t keep up their garden, the natural world, believed to have been created by the real God, takes over. Local nature reclaims its property very quickly, making this world-building ephemeral. So why garden?

Certainly gardeners create gardens for food. Even with the cost of seeds, plants, fertilizer or organic materials to incorporate into the soil, watering, and the effort of all the work, a gardener can produce enough vegetables to feed their family through the winter for less cost than the grocery story. There is also satisfaction in this production of food, and the taste is usually far superior to any bought vegetable. The gardener knows what chemicals have been used on the produce which is often not the case with purchased produce.

Other benefits come with gardening beyond growing the family food. The creation of flower gardens and landscaping offer the chance to be creative, to mix the colors and textures of plants into vistas of extraordinary beauty. They offer the opportunity to inspect the beauty of plants up close, and discover the differences of each species. Wonderful flowering scents can permeate gardens. Gardening activities and plant selections can be very successful; some are failures, so gardening teaches the gardener about nature, about ecosystems, and the extensive world of plants, which leads to a greater appreciation for nature. This can lead to explorations of chemistry, weather patterns, and biology, adding a greater understanding of life.

Gardens are peaceful. They can give the gardener moments of single minded, thoughtless work, relaxing an over wrought mind. Just as often, gardening gives the gardener the ability to expand their personal thoughts. Either way can be very calming. Flowers, branches, leaves, and vegetables brought inside and made into an arrangement can bring the outdoors in, bringing the same beauty and peace found in a garden to a room

The successful efforts gone into making a garden give not only the gardener but also others something to enjoy. Having a visitor appreciate a garden brings the gardener another reward. Yet, just standing in the middle of a garden can bring a special contentment. Another benefit–good landscape increases property values.

Gardens tell time, give the seasons a distinct joy. Each season has its special jobs, its special plants and blooms. The joy of the first daffodils, to the ending summer’s chrysanthemums bring unique happiness, and a warning of how fast time passes.

Yet most gardens are doomed. Sometimes it’s temporary, like in Michigan where each winter the garden goes dormant, often providing an entirely different beauty. Ultimately, though, when the gardener is gone, usually so is the garden. So, gardens bring a sense of mortality providing the gardener the wisdom to enjoy each day; so not quite God, but a God-like experience.

All these reasons and more are why I garden.

Some gardeners insist on the necessity to improve their garden soil. They till in organic matter, peat moss, vermiculite, add sand to clay soils, lime and fertilize trying to achieve perfect soil for gardening. While this works very well, it is just that, work, and often very expensive. There is another argument that claims disturbing the soil causes more harm than good; these gardeners promote growing plants that naturally grow in the soil type found in their yard. It is certainly less work, and if the plants are adapted to your soil, they grow very nicely. Both are right. The argument is not about soil at all, but about the gardener, time, effort, and cost.

My soil is sand deposited by melting glaciers eons ago. It has fast drainage, so can go dry very fast. I have also gardened on very deep silt soil called Loess or the dusty silt blown off glaciers. It’s similar to clay in that it compacts and makes for poor drainage.

The soil topic comprises entire books, including the geology and science behind the types and how to handle them. However, there are one common sense tip for ordinary gardeners: know the soil type and the pH of the garden bed. A soil test will tell the soil’s composition, its pH, and the amount of NPK (Nitrogen, Phosphorus, Potassium–the components of fertilizer) needed for optimum plant growth.

Soil pH is important to know, indicating if the soil is acid or alkaline. pH 7 is neutral, anything below acid, anything above alkaline. Most low rain fall area soils are alkaline as various mineral salts accumulate and are are not washed by frequent rain, most soils in rainy areas are acidic as the various mineral salts are dissolved and washed away. So what? Some Plants have soil pH preferences, others don’t care. Some plants like blueberries want very acid soil, others like lavender prefer alkaline soils. Very acidic or alkaline soils limit the plants that grow in them. In many cases plant preferences depend on the plant’s original global location.

Other than that, there are very few soils that grow nothing, and few perfect soils that grow everything. The base of good soil or garden loam combines clay, sand, and silt, the three basic sizes of mineral content in a soil. Clay is the smallest and compacts easily into, well, clay bricks, but has greater surface area for holding necessary minerals. Sand is the largest and drains fast, but holds less fertility. Silt is somewhere between the two, created by water sedimentation. It has characteristics of both, and the problems of both. Clay soils hold nutrients and water, but they are slow to dry out, and once dry may crack into rock-hard plates on the soil’s surface. Sand soils hold little moisture or nutrients.

It is also important to know that the mineral content makes up only part of a soil’s content. Fifty to fifty-five percent of soil consists of air, water, decaying plant materials (humus), insects, worms, bacteria, fungi and other living organisms. Plant roots use the air, water, and humus for plant growth as well as the minerals found in the soil. Their pH preference helps them absorb these substances. All the living organisms within the soil help decay plant material and often act in symbiosis with the plant’s roots. I’ve read where there is more life below the soil’s surface than there is living on its surface.

Even if you have amended your soil, you need to know its basic type and how to work it. Three rules of thumb:
1. Never work in a wet clay soil, and don’t walk on a wet lawn growing in clay soil. You drive the air spaces out of the soil. Once compacted, reintegrating air space into clay soils is difficult.
2. Sandy soils need additional water and fertilizer applications.
3. In cases of extremely sandy or clay soils, garden in raised beds formed by mounding good loam on top of the native soil.

If you don’t have inclination for the work involved in soil improvement, grow plants for the soil you have.

Clay soil? Grow Aconitum (delphinium), Anemone, Aruncus (goats beard), Asters, Buxus (boxwood), Camassia, Digitalis (foxglove), Forsythia, Helenium, Hemerocallis (daylily), Ilex (holly), Leucojum (snowflake), Mondarda (bee balm), Myosotis (for-get-me-not), Narcissus, Paeonia, Rudbeckia (coneflowers), Solidago (goldenrod), and Viburnum.

Acid soil? Grow Achillea, Allyssum (gold dust), Artemisia, Echinacea, Eryngium, Gaillardia, Helianthemum, Iberis (candytuft), Lavandula, Lilium, Oenothera (evening primrose), Salvia, Sedum, Sempervivum (houseleek). Look up the plants preferences before you purchase them. If you don’t, invest in one for a trial growing period. If it thrives, grow more.

A good garden book will give you more plants for each type of soil. If a plant requires good drainage it will do well in sand. If it requires rich soil, it might grow better in clay or loam soils. Good drainage and rich soil usually means soils leaning towards sandy with high humus amounts.

Last week Bill and I took a trip up to TC for the Friendly Garden Club of Traverse City’s annual garden tour. This was his first tour, and my fifth. It, of course, had to be one of the hottest days this summer, and it was along one street with jaunts off into the small side streets. Traffic was heavy, and finding a parking spot difficult, but well worth the effort. Here are some of the garden sights: (click on image for larger view)

A beautiful front yard

A beautiful front yard


Decorative walk way through front yard's garden.

Decorative walk way through front yard’s garden.


More front yard.

More front yard.


Backyard lily pool.

Backyard lily pool (included frogs).


Small stream with waterfall to pool.

Small stream with waterfall to pool.


"Look, grandma, fish!"

“Look, grandma, fish!”


Another view of the pool.

Another view of the pool.


An artist in the garden! This is the front side, there were more artists in the backyard.

An artist in the garden! This is the front side, there were more artists in the backyard.


A planting of shade plants.

A planting of shade plants.


A serene backyard border.

A serene backyard border.


A sunny border.

A sunny border.


A shady border leading to...

A shady border leading to…


Another sunny border.

Another sunny border.


Beautiful large planter of coleus.

Beautiful large planter of coleus.

improperly pruned forsythiaOne of my gardening pet peeves is forsythia. Yes, a beautiful shrub, a shot of sunshine in early spring able to lift winter-worn spirits, which many enthusiasts love, but poor pruning often mangles the potential for beautiful sprays of flowers. My own employer is guilty. The photo shows shrubs found at the entrance of otherwise well-landscaped grounds.

Of course, before any shrub is every placed in the landscape, it should be selected for how its characteristics will naturally develop. Plant selection, however, is an extensive topic in its own right, and not of importance now if you already have one in your yard.

Forsythia develop into beautiful natural-looking hedges, but are not meant to be sheared into smooth planes of foliage like privet. If you want topiary, begin with a shrub more inclined to become what you want. Forsythia’s natural character is to look unkempt and natural-looking with long arching branches. They can overgrow their site, which again goes back to the subject of plant selection. Next year’s flower buds form during the early summer, so shearing branches after they leaf out removes next year’s flowers.

New homeowners often inherit ungainly forsythia problems. The yard came with these shrubs in place. After years of neglect, forsythia might be growing in shade. These shrubs should be removed as they will never bloom to full potential. If it’s a case of an overgrown shrub or little flower production, pruning is a (relatively) easy job. The best time to prune in very early spring before they shrubs bloom, or just after they bloom. Yes, if the plants are pruned before they bloom, flower potential is being cut out, but it is easier to see the branches, or canes, at that time. One third of the thickest, oldest canes should be cut back to ground level, along with any dead or broken canes, or any that look wildly out of place.

That’s it! Pruning forsythia three years in a row rejuvenates the entire shrub, and it won’t need pruning for a few years unless a smaller shrub is desired. Isn’t that simple? Next spring the long elegant canes will reward all viewers with a profusion of flowers.

Gardens bring both the gardener and the viewer great joy. A few moments looking at a garden filled with a riot of color feeds our souls with cheer and hope. There is no other word for it. A well-designed garden can bring inspiration, sooth the wounded spirit and calm the angry one. Even a single plant in full flower in an otherwise barren yard can make us believe in goodness and that life will outlast the greatest disasters. Yet most gardens are doomed unless under the care of professional gardeners in a major botanic garden. Like all life, gardens are ephemeral moments of glory, because when the garden moves on, nature takes over.

Once the garden is left untended, the environment changes. Only the strong will survive. While nature is a magnificent, and an awe-inspiring force, it is merciless and can devastate an untended garden.

Gardeners delight in growing plants from all over the world, some of these non-natives can outgrow anything in the local habitat and become unwanted menaces. Others only survive because of the gardener’s diligence, and disappear along with the gardener.

Sometimes, however, the remains of long ago gardens can be recognized. One reminder is often the jubilant daffodil. They mark homesteads that have disappeared in time. By their very nature these non-native spring flowers endure.

About fifty species of narcissus are known, coming from Europe and North Africa. Because all parts are poisonous, most predators and insects leave them alone. They grow in full sun or full shade, and while some prefer to grow in warmer climates, most are very hardy. In the right site, they seem to last forever, a monument to the gardener who once grew them, and to the “Once upon a time” ephemeral nature of gardens.

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