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Dirty Fingernails: Sometimes a mixture of old and new works best in the garden
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Dirty Fingernails: Sometimes a mixture of old and new works best in the garden

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Heirloom Tomatoes

Colorful heirloom tomatoes.

Q: Is there any reason not to grow only heirloom vegetables?

A: If you have not tried growing heirlooms, you might want to begin with a mixture of heirloom and modern types. Heirloom vegetables are best known for remarkably good flavor. The ones I grow have the best taste imaginable. On the other hand, heirlooms originated in a particular area, often a very small one. Some are adapted to those local conditions and are sickly or flavorless if grown elsewhere. Modern vegetable varieties have been bred to succeed in a greater range of growing conditions. What they lack in superb flavor they often make up in superb health.

Certainly there are heirloom vegetables which I have tried and given up on. They include several heirloom peas. After many trials, I now grow only one relatively new variety. I grew the heirloom Prudens Purple tomato until I discovered that a different heirloom, Pink Berkeley Tie-Dye, was much better in my garden. (I have forgiven the poor plant its dreadful name.) There used to be a small seed company near Bozeman that sold Montana heirloom vegetables, but they no longer exist. I have not so far found other Montana heirlooms that seem suited to my garden.

There are other reasons for growing a mixture of old and new varieties. Perhaps the least important is that heirlooms frequently offer lower yields. Unless one’s garden space is limited, the obvious answer is to grow more plants of the heirloom variety.

Sometimes the scope of an heirloom vegetable is limited because they do not ship well. For instance, all the carrots I have grown for years are of the Nantes variety. They are never grown commercially because they are so crisp that they break in shipping, but they have the best flavor of all carrots. I admit, though, that when modern Nantes hybrids were developed, I switched to them because of their greater yield.

Probably the most serious flaw in heirloom vegetables is that some are not insect or disease resistant. Tragedy strikes in the garden when nearly ripe vegetables collapse overnight or are eaten into lacework. One of the reasons for breeding new varieties is so that they will be unpalatable to pests and can shrug off disease organisms.

There are still other values to heirloom vegetables, not least of which is that they preserve genetic variety. All the old ones are not good, though, nor are all the new ones bad.

Q: Is it time to take the mulch off my garlic?

A: I just did. Mine gets uncovered when I peek under the mulch (in my case, pine needles) and see that several garlic shoots have broken through the ground. I try to remove the mulch before too many of the plants are growing and turning yellow for lack of light. Also, I try to pay attention to the weather forecast. I want to uncover the garlic when its season will begin with a few nice days, not when its naked shoots will be exposed to a hard freeze on their first night without protective cover.

Although there is a native wild garlic — which can be a major problem in some parts of the country — it is a distant relation of the garlic we eat. Garlic has been gardened for so many thousand years that its wild ancestors cannot be found. Most plants grown for food no longer resemble the wild ones which have been domesticated. In the case of both garlic and parsley, the chain of knowledge has been broken by time. If any wild forbears exist, we do not know of them. Edible garlic now exists only in cultivation.

Q: We bought an older home with a landscape which once was carefully planted but which now looks overgrown. What can we do to make it look better right now? We cannot afford to rip out everything and start over.

A: The same rejuvenating principles apply to a newly purchased landscape as to one you have owned for many years. If you looked out the front window on a recent spring morning and said, “Oh, this looks dreadful,” be glad that it is spring. This is the best season to make changes.

Start your reform by looking at any perennial beds. Are there plants at an edge which are hanging too far out of the bed? Dig them out. If that would leave a hole like a missing tooth, split the plant and remove the outer half. Second, take a critical look at the remainder of the perennial beds. Are there any areas which are too crowded? Dig out whole plants from the congested spots. If you are particularly fond of a plant you are removing, replant it where it has enough space. If there is no space, give it to a friend who wants more flowers. If the plant is not a favorite, recycle it through the compost pile. It can return as a more beautiful flower.

Turn your attention to the trees. Do some have low branches that could be removed? This procedure, usually called “limbing up,” allows more daylight under a mature tree. It changes the perception of a dark and overgrown yard into a light one, and it causes the trees to look more youthful. Newly lightened areas may even be planted with flowers or shrubs, although it is a good idea to wait a year before making that decision. You may decide that you prefer grass around a tree trunk. You may discover that you have created a new area for seating, or even for a picnic table or children’s play space.

It is safe to remove a third of a tree’s branches when limbing up; however, only if the tree is an old monster is exposing that much bare trunk necessary. Work upward from ground level, taking a critical look often and stopping when you are pleased with the change. You may want to remove more, or less, than your original idea.

Finally, cut back any overgrown shrubs. Plan for the process to take three years. In the first year, shorten their height. In the second year, cut back one side; cut the other side in the third year. If the shrubs are conifers, do not trim branches. Instead, remove a whole branch at a time. If a line of shrubs is badly overgrown and crowded, prune out whole sections of some shrubs. The pruning also will stimulate new branches to grow.

If a whole hedge tempts you to have it pulled out with a tractor and chains, consider a less drastic solution. Cut the entire hedge back to a few inches in height. It will look raw for about a month but will soon start growing again. The time of ugliness will be shorter than if all the bushes were pulled out, and the hedge will be gorgeous within two or three years.

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