Garden time

The quickest way to ruin fresh tomatoes is to put them in the refrigerator. 

I keep an ongoing electronic file of gardening articles I mean to get back to when I have the time. This week, I finally carved out some hours and found several pieces that may be of interest.

I receive a lot of questions about squash and usually they concern one of two issues: why are the blossoms on my plants refusing to pollinate and/or what should I do with any lower leaves that are getting yellow and maybe even diseased? Well, sometimes one action can help with both problems.

Lack of pollination is commonly attributed to the notion that bees are just not that into squash and zucchini, so hand pollinating is necessary. If you are unfamiliar with the technique, don’t worry — it is easy. Look for the male blossoms at the end of long thin stems. Gently peel back the petals and then rub the pollen filled nub inside every female flower you see; the females are the ones that look like they have tiny fruits behind them, giving you great hope until they cruelly rot off for lack of having had male attention. One male can take care of all the females. (I’m sure you can think of all the applicable jokes yourself.)

Yellowed and diseased leaves need to be discarded immediately. They do no good and can actually harm your plant’s production. But while you are at it, clear out the thicket of leaves by snipping off some green ones. In my experience, whacking out the dead, diseased and excess leaves not only helps the plant stay healthy, it seems to increase bee pollination. I have no insight into bee brains, yet I imagine bees are a lot like me — if I see it, I will eat it, but if things are out of sight, I don’t bother with them. Pruning helps insure that the bees see what the plants are offering.

If you hesitate to trim out robust green leaves, take a look at this video at bit.ly/2Xfg57X. The presenter blathers on a bit before getting to the point, so save yourself time and start at about the five-minute mark.

Next, we move from squash to tomatoes. Right about now, many of us are experiencing a glut of them. I can them in many different forms (if you like spicy, email me for the Smoking Hot Skillet Tomato Jam recipe. The results can be water bath canned or frozen. It is killer.) In addition to my frenzied canning, tomatoes appear on our plates for every meal. In the past, I have shoved them into the fridge, hoping they will last until I have time to get to them.

This is OK if you intend to turn them into tomato soup or pasta sauce, since the spices will compensate for flavor loss and the texture will be changed anyway by the cooking. In fact, you can throw whole tomatoes into plastic bags and freeze them until you are ready to attend to them. However, if you want to eat them straight up, do not refrigerate. This article tells you why, at wapo.st/2G8SMFG. Basically, if you are going to put them in the fridge for a later meal, you might as well just eat the ones from the grocery store.

I love tomatoes, but I am always looking for plants that can do double duty as ornamental and edible. It turns out that hostas can be used to feed your soul as well as your face. Who knew? It’s at bit.ly/2XDeFb4.

Finally, the topics that have generated the most “You are an idiot” emails over the years: discontinuing the use of rototilling or chemical fertilizing in established gardens. They are connected, in that both of them damage the underworld of soil that you don’t see but that keeps your plants well fed and productive.

I have given gardening writer and garden magazine publisher Andrew Mefferd’s perfect summary before: “Tillage implements crush the soil into plantable submission, chemicals kill anything that might compete with the crop, and chemical fertilizers replace the fertility that was either lost from the soil or was no longer being cycled efficiently by biology ...”

So this is me yelling through a bullhorn: stop tilling, use compost or other bulky organic additives to side dress your plants every year, and your gardens now and in the future will do better than they ever did when you were spending time and money on rototilling and Miracle Grow.

Here is how it goes at our house: when we clean the chicken run and hut of the poopy straw, I pile it into the same wheelbarrow or 33-gallon trash containers where I have been throwing my hedgehog’s bedding. The years when I do not have chickens, I beg soiled straw from a horse keeper; when we kept sheep, I raked up and used their waste. Every fall I empty my hanging baskets and containers of their old soil (which started out mixed with compost the past spring), into a different wheelbarrow that I park by the composter for the winter. During the summer I mix up several wheelbarrows of last year’s depleted soil and any soiled straw I have collected over the months, adding some compost if I have any ready.

Usually the wheelbarrows end up about a third straw, a third used up soil and a third compost, but some years it is half straw and half crappy soil because I am out of compost. If you think that part of our backyard must resemble a parking lot for wheelbarrows and gardening wagons, you would be correct.

I use this concoction to side dress my plants, an inch or two applied around mid-June, when the mixture won’t keep the soil from warming up. This new application will start breaking down quickly in the heat and moisture of watering, but meanwhile the plants will have been feeding off the side dressings I applied last year. I also use it to hill up my potatoes and leeks, which need much more than an inch or two, so I really pile it on. You cannot use straight chicken poop on your plants because it is too “hot” but the amounts in my mix are small enough that my plants don’t get burned.

At this point, I use a commercial fertilizer in my gardening plot, usually that stinky fish fertilizer, only at the time of transplanting. That is a pretty stressful event for the plants, so an initial boost of a water-soluble feed is helpful to them. I do continue to use it throughout the summer in my hanging baskets and containers because they are overloaded with plants in order to make them look showy, and the roots are confined so cannot seek out other sustenance.

My garden soil is rich and loose and retains water instead of shedding it. I cannot remember when I last had blossom-end rot, which usually happens when the plant can’t take up the calcium. People often advise adding calcium via crushed eggshells, but if the soil is too dry the plants cannot make use of the calcium that is already in there. Your best bet is to feed your soil amendments that will improve the quality of the dirt so it will hold moisture.

The last section of this column all started because I wanted to offer up yet another gardening expert, in addition to the ones I have quoted in the past, discussing why not to till or use chemical fertilizers. So, here it is, by Lee Reich, the author of “The Ever Curious Gardener: Using a Little Natural Science for a Much Better Garden,” at bit.ly/2JL3uTQ.

Linden Staciokas has gardened in the Interior for more than two decades. Send gardening questions to her at dorking@acsalaska.net.