Gardening in Almonte: The seasons they are a changin’

[David Hinks]The weather continues gloriously summer-like this week with temperatures 7 to 8 degrees above seasonal averages. It has been a fabulous growing season with lots of heat and limited requirements to water. In my garden most vegetables have responded enthusiastically – particularly those such as eggplant, peppers and sweet potatoes that relish heat.

The regular sweet basil has grown very large. It is not at all obvious where some early picking of leaves has taken place. I have not pinched out the flower heads – it is time consuming and I don’t feel that it will make a significant difference to the amount I harvest.

Warning: Basil is extremely sensitive to cold weather. It doesn’t even need frost for the leaves to turn brown and fall off — so as soon as nights drop to 5 degrees or less get out in the garden and harvest your plants.

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The Swiss chard is really growing prolifically – I need to keep harvesting the lower leaves to keep it from crowding out its neighbours.

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The heritage kale has also done extremely well. I have harvested large branches already. The general rule of thumb when harvesting leafy vegetables such as chard and kale is to harvest no more than one-third of the plant at any one time and then give it a chance to recover before the next picking (assuming that you want a continuous harvest through the growing season).

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I mentioned last week that I’m picking the flowering branches off my tomato plants in the hope that they will put their energy into ripening the green tomatoes that have already formed. I follow a similar strategy with other vegetables as well, for example, the Brussels sprouts have formed many sprouts along their main stem. I want these to keep increasing in size so I break off the top cluster of leaves so that the plant does not keep forming new small sprouts.

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Notwithstanding the lushness all around, signs of the end of summer are hard to ignore. I try to do as much preparation of the soil and garden as possible in the fall – our spring can be very, very short. As the weather gets cooler I find that I have more energy to do more of the heavy gardening duties such as spading or turning over the growing beds. I use a long handled round-nosed shovel and leave the bed with lumps and clumps intact as shown in the following photo. I believe that the soil should not be worked up finely or raked as this will destroy some of the structure that we have worked hard to establish by adding compost. Let the freezes and thaws of winter break down the clumps naturally.

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This is also the time of year to review your composting set-up. A good compost pile needs four elements: some carbon-containing material, some nitrogen containing material, oxygen and some moisture. One recommendation is that the amount of moisture is slightly damp, about as damp as a wrung-out sponge, however in my experience it can function quite well with a higher level of moisture.

The set-up can be as simple as four pallets wired together or any of the ubiquitous black plastic but generally the pile should be no more than three feet in any direction. It is important to balance `wet` materials such as vegetable and fruit scraps, that are high in nitrogen with `dry` materials such as dead leaves and straw that are high in carbon – aim for 1 part wet to 2 parts dry. When composting kitchen scraps over the winter, make sure that you have ‘dry materials’ available. There are lots of free materials such as leaves in the fall – I store several old garbage cans (with a lid on to keep them dry) full of leaves and throw in a couple of handfuls after I dump kitchen scraps in the winter.

Don’t try to compost a lot of wet green material that is tightly compacted such as lawn clippings. This mess is likely going to smell bad and will make composting an unpleasant exercise for both you and your neighbours. Always mix 1 part of wet greens with at least two parts of dry materials such as leaves and add a scoop of garden soil. If your compost starts to smell bad, add more dry material.

To turn or not to turn? Oxygen is necessary for decomposition to take place. This is why people turn their compost piles. Turning the compost pile once a week can produce finished compost in 8 weeks or less. I believe that if you successfully layer the dry and the wet, turning is probably not necessary but it may take longer. Other strategies would be to layer with course materials such as sunflower stems or to insert pipes into the pile that will act as conduits for oxygen.

Some gardeners like to have a perfectly clean garden in the fall but I have learned to be a bit more relaxed about it. One thing that we can do to help our feathered friends to survive the winter is to leave any plants that have gone to seed and that have stiff stems so that the seeds will be above the snow. The following photo shows an American Tree Sparrow feasting on coneflower seeds in January. This could just as easily be radish or lettuce plants that didn’t get pulled and were allowed to go to seed.

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