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Molly Hackett

Molly Hackett.

ASPARAGUS repub 7-11-18

Q: I am new to asparagus growing. The roots I bought last year have done beautifully, but they now are done for this year. Do I cut off the tops or what?

A: You leave the tops to grow and mature. The stems will get tall and hard. The tips that you would have eaten will separate and branch into fronds that look rather like ferns. Meanwhile, underground they are going about their business, which is feeding the crown.

During the rest of this summer, buds will grow on the underground asparagus crown. Next spring they will emerge as tender stalks to eat. For the rest of this summer, it is important to keep the asparagus plants well nourished, so that they make large numbers of buds. Be sure that the asparagus bed gets enough water until the end of summer.

Most asparagus growers like to give the plants an extra shot of fertilizer as the ferny tops are starting to grow. We cannot see the results, but I like to think that the fertilizer makes more and healthier buds for next year's harvest. I also think--without any experimental results to verify the idea--that nitrogen is what matters right now because it will feed the leaves.

As your asparagus plants grow older, they will make occasional new spears during the second half of summer. Leave those latecomers also, to mature and become part of next year's breeding stock.

Q: My wife and I are having a disagreement about when to pull the garlic. When do you harvest yours?

A: There are too many written statements about when to harvest garlic, and I find most of them vague and contradictory. For instance: harvest "when the tops start to die back," "when the lower leaves start to brown," "when the tops bend over," "when the tops begin to yellow and fall over," even "when the stems lose all trace of green."

Through trial and error I have learned to dig my garlic when the bottom three or four leaves have turned brown. That gives me a specific and visible cue to what is going on underground. Each leaf on a garlic plant is connected to one layer of skin on the bulb. Some leaves have to dry out to protect the bulb in storage. However, if too many leaves dry, none are left to cover the bulb; it separates into cloves. The individual cloves dry out quickly, and the storage time is short. If none of the leaves have died, there is no wrapper for the garlic bulb; its storage time will be even shorter.

All garlic growers agree on the principle of letting outside layers dry to protect the bulb; they disagree only on how to identify the right day for harvest. It may well be that garlic behaves differently in different parts of the country, but for me the three or four leaf rule gives maximum storage time.

Incidentally, the operative word for harvesting garlic is "dig." If the bulbs are pulled, some of the stems will break off. For long storage time, garlic bulbs need to dry with their stems attached until they are dry enough to break naturally.

Q: Why do lilies bloom so much later than tulips and daffodils? Are there earlier lilies?

A: Spring-flowering bulbs like tulips make their flower buds the year before. In other words, next year's tulips already are growing, underground and invisible. The buds are programmed to stay where they are until next winter. A period of cold weather, followed by warming soil in spring, tells the buds that it is time to grow and open into flowers.

Lily buds form on the bulbs only in spring, so they take longer to appear. Only the purchase of forced bulbs would make it possible for them to bloom earlier. Latest of all to flower are the summer-blooming bulbs like gladiolus and dahlia. Their leaves have to grow, then carry on with photosynthesis, to make food. By late summer the leaves finally have produced enough energy to make flowers.

Q: I am already tired of digging weeds, and summer has a long way to go. What can I do to keep my vegetables from being smothered by weeds?

A: Stop, take a deep breath, and change the way you battle the weed invasion. Digging weeds and tilling the ground regularly are farming techniques. Gardeners can control weeds in easier ways which are successful in gardens but inappropriate in fields.

First of all, minimize the weed problem by letting sleeping weeds lie. If the seeds are buried, they are harmless. They may well be eaten by the small creatures which live in the soil. If soil is not tilled, the buried weeds stay underground, and nearly all weed seeds are able to sprout only after they have been exposed to light.

Instead of tilling, cover the soil surface with any kind of organic mulch. It will keep weed seeds in the dark and will smother weed seedlings trying to get started. Weeds themselves, if cut down, make an excellent mulch. Their stored nutrients leach into the soil to feed garden crops. Be sure that the weeds were cut before they made seeds, so that they cannot inoculate the garden soil with a fresh weed source.

Most garden weeds are annuals. They reproduce themselves only by making and spreading seeds. Purslane is probably the champion; it can make a quarter of a million seeds on one big plant. Pigweed, at 200,000, may be second. Many weed seeds have long lives and can stay dormant until growing conditions are good. Some live at least half a century. Fireweed, for example, became a problem in London only after World War II. The bombing of city centers created open soil and sunny areas where buildings were destroyed. Most of the bombed sites in London sprouted fireweed in the next few years.

Most weeds are fast growing. After you have cleared an area, you have hardly turned your back before new weeds appear. Cover the area with mulch, or ignore the new weeds until they are big enough to be worth cutting. Then cut them at ground level and let them become part of the mulch. It is true that weed seeds will be resupplied in the garden, brought by wind, by animals, even by ants, but at least they must arrive from somewhere else.

In the case of perennial weeds, also cut them down. I prefer to starve the roots of perennial weeds as quickly as possible by cutting new shoots as soon as I notice them. Some gardeners wait to cut perennial weeds (like Canada thistle) just as they are beginning to flower. The weeds have put forth maximum energy to make flowers, and their roots are depleted. The cut weeds return food to the soil instead of to the weed roots. Perennial weed roots are best left to die in place because many can regenerate from pieces accidentally chopped off when they are dug.