We have two big, old oak trees in our yard and every fall, up until a few years ago, we would spend our October and early November weekends raking and bagging and raking and bagging until our hands blistered. Then, we would drag all those bags, bursting with leaves, to the curb to be hauled away. Every now and then, I noticed that someone would pull over, load our bags of leaves into their car and drive off. Why in the world would they want our leaves? I wondered. I soon found out.
For gardeners, or anyone with a lawn, really, fallen leaves are nutrient-rich, soil-building treasure—and they’re free! According to Mark Keaton, staff chair for the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture, fallen leaves contain 50 to 80 percent of the nutrients trees extract from the soil during a growing season. They’re a particularly good source of nitrogen, offering anywhere from 1 to about 2 ½ percent nitrogen as they decompose.
What in the heck does that mean? Okay, figure that if a tree’s leaves offered 2 percent nitrogen it would take 100 pounds of dried leaves per 1,000 square feet to provide 2 pounds of nitrogen.That’s all the nitrogen 1,000 square feet of turf grass should need for a year, and it’s also about the right amount for a garden bed of that size, too.
But that’s not all. Research conducted by Alexander Kowalewski at Michigan State University has shown that using maple and oak leaves as mulch can help control dandelions in Kentucky bluegrass. Seriously! Go here to read that study. Unlike past studies in which leaves may have contained some pesticide residues, researchers at Michigan State used only pesticide-free leaves in their tests. And that reminds me to point out that it’s a good idea to avoid using anything but pesticide-free leaf mulch on gardens where edibles are grown.
The only hitch in this free fertilizer, and possibly weed killer, bonanza is that you need to mulch (which pretty much means shred) the leaves before you spread them on your lawn or garden. Whole leaves tend to mat down and hold moisture, causing mold and rot issues. Maple leaves are among the worst offenders because they’re so flat. Oak leaves are wavier, so they don’t mat down as thickly, which is good. But it’s still better to mulch all of the leaves you want to spread on your lawn or garden. Leaves break down faster when they’re mulched into small pieces, and they need to break down in order to make the nitrogen they offer available in the soil.
You don’t need any sort of fancy machine to mulch leaves. A regular old, cheap lawnmower will do just fine. You can watch this video we made at our house to demonstrate how to mulch leaves with a mower. Or you can just read the instructions I’ve written in the post below.Read More»
It dipped down to 28°F here in Minnesota the other night, so the day before I scrambled to harvest the last of the Sun Gold tomatoes that we’ve enjoyed all summer. I’m telling you, now that I’ve discovered this tasty, hybrid cherry tomato I will definitely plant one every year. And one is all you need because the indeterminate vine grew to nearly 6 feet tall this summer and produced sweet little orange tomatoes from June through, well, two days ago. And if the frost hadn’t hit, it would have just kept right on going.
As someone who is still learning how to grow many types of vegetables, I know how tricky it can be to figure out the best time to harvest in the fall. I’ve learned that you can’t rely on the stated days to maturity because that number can be affected by things like temperature, precipitation and the health and fertility of your soil. Instead, I’m learning which vegetables can tolerate frosts and freezes, as well as how to read the clues plants offer us at harvest time.
Generally, tender vegetables like tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplants, snap beans, summer squash and peppers need to be harvested before a frost, which can occur at temps between 32°F and 36°F. But other vegetables like lettuce, spinach chives, carrots and parsnips can tolerate a light frost. Cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts can tolerate quite a bit of frost, but they should be harvested before a hard freeze—24°F or below. I always associate winter squash and pumpkins with very cold temperatures, so I didn’t realize until recently that those actually need to be harvested before frost arrives because frost can damage their rinds and shorten their storage potential.
I’ve learned that Brussels sprouts actually taste better if you let them experience frost, and this is supposedly true of kale, too, though my own totally unscientific testing suggests otherwise. (It seemed the same.) Broccoli should be harvested while florets are still tight. Carrots can take a frost, and I met a farmer the other night who swears carrots taste better after a light frost. Anybody else think that? And I learned by accident, because I missed it in the garden, that Swiss chard weathers a frost just fine. (Which is kind of too bad because I’m honestly a bit tired of eating chard at this point.)
But getting back to tomatoes, I picked mine green and put them in a big bag to ripen. But had I left them on the vine through the frost, I’ve noticed that some experts say it’s just fine to can frosted tomatoes while others say it is unwise because the frost affects the fruits’ pH level, lowering the acidity needed to make them safe for canning. Who’s right here? I would love to hear your thoughts.
Ever wonder why in the world we carve pumpkins for Halloween? I did, so I went looking for the story and here is the abbreviated version. We have European immigrants to thank for bringing Halloween to America. Back home, they carved scary faces into turnips, potatoes and gourds, which they lit with candles or just placed in windows and doorways to keep malevolent spirits at bay during “All Hallows Eve.”
The only trouble was, those vegetables were scarce when they arrived here in the mid 19th century, so those clever new Americans (and Canadians) carved the most plentiful, practical thing they could find: pumpkins. Clearly, we should all be glad for this change. But don’t you want to know what it’s like to try carving a turnip o’ lantern? I mean, turnips are frightening enough with their lumps and bumps and scratchy tufts of weird hairs. It can’t take too much carving to turn them into something downright hell-raising, right?
I’ve got to try it. And if you’d like to too, Makezine has a great how-to piece that takes you through every step. You’ll find that here. It was written by Diane Gilleland, the writer behind the fun CraftyPod blog and podcast in which she teaches people how to make all kinds of stuff.
I’ve been out of town on vacation, so I’m behind on posting. I’m working on something that should be up later today or early tomorrow. But, first, I need to apologize for making an error in my recent post about Scotts. In that post, which you can read here if you missed it, I talked about how the company pleaded guilty earlier this year to charges that they had used insecticides known to be toxic to birds, fish and other wildlife on two brands of bird seed they were selling. They did this to help protect the seed from pests during storage. The products have been recalled, but not before more than 70 million units were sold over two years.
In my post I explained what happened and how Scotts ended up pleading guilty and being fined. But I got one part wrong, which someone from Scotts pointed out to me, so I am correcting my mistake, which I should. I wrote that Scotts tried to cover up the fact that they had coated the seeds with toxic insecticides by falsifying EPA documents. This is not correct. The company’s falsification of government documents was actually part of a separate legal issue going on at the same time involving Scotts illegal sale of pesticides that were not registered with the EPA.
I confused the two issues when researching my column and thought the fabricated paperwork had to to with the bird seed. I do apologize for that mistake. I know how important it is to get your facts straight on these things. I also know it’s easy to glaze over and tune out when talking about legal stuff. But these issues with Scotts are serious and the company’s products are everywhere. As gardeners, we need to stay informed so we can make safe, healthy choices about the products we buy and use in our homes and gardens.Read More»
There’s a lot to love about the Minnesota State Fair, but the contests have always been on my Top-10 list. Across the fairgrounds, everything from pies and jellies to seed art and orchids compete for praise and ribbons. Standing in front of the brightly lit cases and displays, it’s not always clear why one chocolate chip cookie beat out another, or why the dahlia on the left is superior to the one on the right when both were displayed singly in empty Michelob bottles.
But when you get to the Horticulture Building and enter the vegetable room, things become much more straightforward . Sure, there is still some head scratching to do over the difference between, say, the award-winning red potatoes and the losers. But it is immediately clear how the winner of the “Largest Scalloped Squash” contest nabbed that title.
And the same is true of the “Largest Banana Squash” and the seemingly vast yet strangely uncrowded category of “Largest Squash (other than banana or scalloped).” The rules are simple: You are the biggest; you win. Giant pumpkins don’t have it so easy. In the world of pumpkins of unusual size, weight is what matters, and the biggest pumpkin isn’t necessarily the heaviest.
I know this because I just finished reading Susan Warren’s Backyard Giants: The Passionate, Heartbreaking, and Glorious Quest to Grow the Biggest Pumpkin Ever. If the subtitle sounds hyperbolic, let me assure you, it isn’t. Warren, who is a deputy bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal, spent a season with a handful of the many enthusiastic and, okay, obsessive people who grow giant pumpkins all over the world.
Dick and Ron Wallace, a father and son team who have been growing giant pumpkins in Rhode Island for years, are the main duo we get to know. But there are other endearing growers at the center of this book, and Warren followed them all as they endured bugs, heat, rain, lightning, rot, ulcers, varmints, foaming stump slime, financial pain, jealousy, heartbreak and more in hopes of growing the world’s heaviest pumpkin in 2006.
It sounds weird, I know, but the ups and downs of the growing season were so suspenseful, I honestly couldn’t wait to get to the end of the book and find out who wins. Now all I need to do is check to see if there are any giant pumpkin weigh-offs going on around here yet this season. If I’ve missed them, I am definitely going to get to one next year. The results of the 2012 Giant Pumpkin Commonwealth weigh-offs are still coming in. But you can check them here if you’re interested. In 2011, Jim and Kelsey Bryson of Ontario won the world record with a pumpkin that weighed in at 1,818.5 pounds. Check out of photo of them and their otherworldly pumpkin here.