As readers of this column know, I have several times advocated old newspapers, laid eight sheets thick, as a mulch for bare soil in many garden situations.
Paper soaks up moisture and lets it penetrate to the soil underneath. Eight sheets are thick enough that light cannot penetrate, so buried weed seeds cannot sprout. In the moist darkness under the newspaper, conditions are ideal for soil microbes and larger recyclers like earthworms to go to work.
They will recycle plant remains and other detritus, turning them into rich soil for new plants. Not least among the advantages of newspaper mulch is that the paper itself decays into carbon-rich soil nutrients, feeding the garden bed after its days of protecting the soil are over.
I have just had the opportunity to put the principle into practice again. The result is a reminder that gardening experiences can be not just good but perfect. Last year I realized that my declining raspberry production was caused by a virus. Since there is no cure for viral diseases in plants, the raspberry bushes needed to come out, to be replaced this year by new raspberries in a different place.
Last September I cut the raspberry canes short, dug out the biggest part of the crowns with a shovel, and ran a string trimmer over all the weeds in the bed. Then I covered the 3 x 16 foot bed with newspaper. I scattered handfuls of compost and dirt over the paper, enough to hold down the edges and keep the newspaper from blowing away. Then I walked off and left the raspberry bed to natural processes.
Last week I decided to plant part of the bed in peas. I set up a trellis for the peas to climb on, then took a look at the soil where they would be planted. The newspaper still made a layer on top, the printing no longer legible and the paper sheets amalgamated into a soft gray blanket. The blanket tore at a touch, revealing the soil beneath — damp, dark as chocolate cake, so soft that I could push in a finger or lift up a handful without effort.
The mulched soil shows no sign of sprouting weeds, no remains of old raspberries. If a gardener were to dream of the perfect new gardening dirt, this would be it. Given a winter's rest, the life of that well-used soil is demonstrating its strength. I look forward to finding out what the peas think of it.
Q: Last year something bad happened with my cabbages. I used to grow the kind called 'Early Jersey Wakefield,' but no one seems to sell those plants anymore. The cabbages I planted looked normal. They made nice big leaves, but the plants never developed a dense head. At the end of summer they were still a collection of loose leaves. What did I do wrong? Did I give them too much nitrogen?
A: No, nitrogen was not the problem. It feeds leaves, and leaves of cabbage were what you wanted. Too much nitrogen is what makes huge tomato plants with hardly any tomatoes. I think that the only thing you did wrong was to live in the wrong place for those particular cabbages. I think so especially since you have grown Early Jersey Wakefield successfully. It is an "early" cabbage, requiring a growing season only half as long as "main crop" cabbages.
I suspect that your garden is like mine — cool enough to grow excellent lettuce but too cool for eggplant. I can grow only early cabbages to maturity. Your cabbages sound as if they were doing well but ran out of time. The same thing happens in my garden if I plant later cabbages; they simply do not have enough days to develop a tight head before cold fall weather arrives.
I recommend that this year you try growing an early cabbage and see whether that does not solve your problem. If you cannot find plants for Early Jersey Wakefield, look for any other variety that has a pointed head. They will be early cabbages also. Or look for round head cabbages that are advertised as early but small. Two that have succeeded for me are 'Parel' and 'Farao.' The bonus is that, because we live far enough north for very long summer days, the cabbage heads will be bigger than advertised. They may not grow to ten-pound giants, but their size will be closer to medium than small.
Q: I always have a successful vegetable garden, but I can't grow beets or Swiss chard. They make only little bitty plants. Is there something wrong with my soil?
A: I think that the problem is in timing. Beets and Swiss chard are cousins, and they grow in similar fashion with similar requirements. Neither is as weather resistant as lettuce, so they are usually planted after the peas and lettuce. They are not as tender as corn, so I plant mine between the early and late vegetables, usually in the middle of May.
The other thing that is critical to successful growing of either beets or Swiss chard is thinning the plants. Each "seed" is really a cluster of seeds; in other words, clusters of seedlings are inevitable. The plants must be thinned to one at each location, and they must be thinned early in the season. If thinning waits too long, both beets and chard will be permanently dwarfed.
Try to thin these plants when they are two inches tall, and be sure to thin by cutting off the smaller plants and not pulling them. Pulling is likely to damage the sensitive roots of the plant you want to save. Allow four inches between each beet and eight inches between chard plants if you want optimum growth.
If you like beet greens, they can be harvested while the root is still growing. Leaving half the leaves when you harvest will allow the plant to continue growing without being stressed.
Interestingly, the red color of beets comes from chemicals not typical in red plants, but which are a common source of industrial red coloring. Some people cannot metabolize them, and their urine is harmlessly stained pink.
Q: My rhubarb is outdoing itself in recent years, and I want to split off a piece to give to friends. When is the best time to divide the plant?
A: Right now would be perfect. Early in the season, as soon as the rhubarb can be located, is a good time to move divisions. Expect it to be hard work to chop off a piece of crown; it will be large and woody. If you keep the division out of the ground for a minimal length of time, it will hardly notice its move.
Of course your friends should not pull any stalks this year, while the roots re-establish, but they should be able to eat a few stalks from their new plant next spring.