Weeding time

Weeding is a never-ending garden chore, but it's a must if you do not want a garden full of chickweed. 

You know what comes next on the gardening schedule, right? Weeding and thinning. And more weeding and thinning. Keeping any pesky unwanted plants under control is important, especially when your seedlings are young.

In case you are new to gardening, or you have developed amnesia when it comes to why you need to be outside pulling weeds or a thousand excess carrot and beet seedlings, here is why: Competition may be the engine of capitalism but it is death to baby flowers and vegetables. Seedlings have enough to do without fighting for available food, water and sunlight.

Do it in five-minute increments every day. Or have a marathon session every Saturday. Or take away your kid’s cell phone until the “weed garden” chore is done. Whatever it takes, just do it. If you don’t, your yields will be diminished, your garden will look crappy (which matters to some people but not, to my husband’s dismay, to me) and the weeds you ignore will be back with more relatives next year.

Now that weeding and thinning are out of the way, there are a few other odds and ends that might be of interest.

• I received an email asking me what the difference is between sprouts and microgreens. It is a matter of age, really. Microgreens have developed rudimentary roots and leaves whereas sprouts have not.

• The New York Times recently ran an article called Reinventing the Tomato for Survival in a Changing World, that, among other things, introduced readers to Brad Gates of Wild Boar Farms. Gates is passionate about finding tomatoes that can adapt to the unpredictable climates we are experiencing and teaching gardeners how to “manipulate changing environments with cheap, DIY frames and covers, which can provide shade and warmth for outdoor plants as well as protection from freak hailstorms and rain.” He encourages each of us to save the seeds of varieties that reliably produce tasty tomatoes in our particular climates. If you are so inclined, his website (wildboarfarms.com) has a concise set of directions and pictures on seed saving. If you subscribe to the New York Times online, I urge you to read the entire article, especially the sections on what he has discovered about the different characteristics of various tomato colors, at nyti.ms/2EJD5Em.

• Every season I am asked to explain the difference between determinate and indeterminate tomatoes. Determinates are bush in size and shape, usually getting about 4 feet tall and then stopping as blossoms show up. They produce their entire crop within a short time frame, a week or two, and are great if you want a lot of produce at the same time. In Fairbanks, the tomatoes sold as suitable for growing outdoors are determinates, as they tend to produce early and fast and require little or no staking. They are ideal for porch or deck container gardens.

Indeterminates will just keep getting taller until you top them off in August or the weather kills them. They are known as vining tomatoes for a reason and need support and pruning to encourage fruiting. Their fruit is set over the season, so you get a steady supply but not the onslaught of determinates. They really need a greenhouse environment to reach their maximum yield.

A third option is semi-determinates, which have gained in popularity. They have a bush-growth habit like determinates (only generally a little taller) but are like indeterminates in that they produce all season instead of one clump of time. They often are billed as not needing any external supports but I have found that the sturdy stems, which grow taller than determinates, can bend in half in a strong wind.

• I am a cheerleader for consuming as much of a plant as possible. For example, using the carrots as well as its greens in soups, cooking the beets for one meal and the beet greens for another, eating broccoli leaves and stems as well as the heads, and so on. I also am passionate about composting and have been known to pick out eggshells that the husband tossed into the garbage and self-righteously march them past his face and to the compost heap. So how did the new fad for cooking your food in compost escape me?

Apparently, there is a restaurant in New York, which wisely remained nameless, playing around with this concept. Chef Jose Andres has featured compost-cooked potatoes in his latest cookbook and the recipe is starting to appear in articles such as this one in the Washington Post. And he is not alone. The writer mentioned a Spanish chef who has made mushrooms in a compost crust. It’s at wapo.st/2EJtQUx. 

In case you are interested in compost roasted spuds, the instructions are to “‘nestle’ the potatoes into an undetermined amount of coffee grounds, and then cover them with ‘a few scoops from your compost bin (avoiding anything too wet, like tomato pulp or cucumber seeds).’ Bake the potatoes for one hour at 400 degrees, and then peel and serve.” To be fair, the chef does use what the article terms “pre-compost,” the stuff sitting on your counter waiting to be tossed into the backyard bin, not the stuff that has been in the bin already.

I am more than enthusiastic about non-traditional composting. However, in this case I have to agree with food safety consultant Jeff Nelken, who pointed out that “Every 20 minutes, bacteria doubles. Anything coming out of the soil has an exposure to bacteria.”

You don’t know what could have taken up residence in the pre-compost you set on the kitchen counter last night; cooking at 400 degrees in home ovens that often vary in their actual temperatures will not kill off everything. I’d rather conventionally compost coffee grounds and store cast-offs like leek and potato peelings in the freezer until I have enough to make stock. I enjoy fusion foods that combine unrelated cuisines, but combining garbage and food is a bit too adventuresome for me.

• I have started getting questions about fertilizing and recipes for homemade fertilizers. Mother Earth News did a good piece a few years ago, more in-depth than I could write, so I usually recommend that people go to that for ideas and cautions at bit.ly/2Mjxz1l.

• And, finally, in the “What a Surprise” category, we have an article pointing out that the label “organic” is pretty much a guarantee of very little. It now includes hydroponics, which in my experience is the definition of growing with chemicals, large scale dairy and chicken farms where the animals are not exactly gamboling about turning their faces to sunshine in between tugging at fresh grass, and some dicey relationships between the agencies that award the organic label and the companies they are policing. The rise of organic farms has been, to quote the article, “meteoric” and so the push is on to consolidate and come under the wing of agribusinesses. For example, Kellogg’s owns Kashi and General Mills owns Annie’s. All of which is to say, another reason to grow your own if organic is important to you. I am not a die-hard organics convert but it annoys me to see the concept perverted; it’s even more aggravating when I hear of folks struggling to balance their grocery budgets and still buy expensive organics because they are supposed to be better for their kids. See wapo.st/2ELY6hH for more.

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