The life-bringing hand of spring has worked its magic in the garden and carefully shaped beds now present a living mosaic of vibrant greens. Sample the first produce, and — in doing so — reclaim some of the energy you've put into your soil. Then spend healing hours among the rows, remembering that the gardener's footsteps are the world's best fertilizer.
Of course, it'd be wasteful to order a packet of 200 seeds when you really need only five or 10 (especially if the seeds are of a type that doesn't "keep" well), so the last-minute "by chance" planting opportunities are often missed. Well, a trio of seed merchants must have thought that was a pity, because they've come up with a thrifty answer to the "feast or famine" problem: the compact packet.
Le Jardin du Gourmet, Pine-tree Seeds and the Broom Seed Company are all offering small, inexpensive packages of seed that are just the ticket for late-season plantings. Prices range from 20¢ to 50¢ per packet.
Sunrise Enterprises offers a wide variety of seeds for Chinese vegetables — some that are familiar and others that are not so well-known — including eight kinds of Chinese cabbage and eight other Oriental brassicas, edible burdock, and garland chrysanthemum.
And, to learn more about some of the less common varieties of Oriental vegetables, you can order an 18-page bulletin from the Suffolk County Cooperative Extension Association. In addition to pictures, descriptions, and cultural information on Chinese radishes, bitter melons, and other Far East fruits and vegetables, the thorough publication also provides a dandy seed-source listing.
The USDA has also recently been studying the biological control of greenhouse pests. Its researchers have discovered that the Insidious Flower Bug (now there's a name!) will gobble up 53 varieties of other insects and mites and it's especially effective against thrips, two-spotted spider mites, and greenhouse white-flies. More observation is needed to determine whether our insidious ally can develop and reproduce in a greenhouse environment, but the agency has discovered two other insects that can do so, and are also effective in the fight against hothouse pests. A predatory mite, Phytoseiulus persimilis, reliably controls spider mites and a parasitic wasp, Encarsin formosa, is effective against whiteflies.
Judging from the response we received when — a couple of years back — we printed an article on growing antique apple varieties, you folks have a great deal of interest in our gardening (and culinary) heritage. And with the concentration of ownership of seed companies in the hands of giant conglomerates, more people are beginning to be concerned about preserving the germ plasm that we'd need to breed new cultivars if disease should strike down some of our monoculture-planted crops (see this article for further discussion of this problem). Then, too, many gardeners are discovering that a goodly number of the old vegetable varieties were abandoned not because they didn't taste good — they were often superb — but simply because they weren't suited to the needs of mechanical agriculture.
Well, It turns out that Roger Kline, of the Vegetable Crops Department at Cornell University, has been researching America's heritage crops, and he's written (with the help of Robert F. Backer and Lynne Belluscio) a pamphlet called The Heirloom Vegetable Garden. The brochure describes the varieties you would have found growing in a typical mid-19th century garden plot, including Warted Crookneck summer squash and Boston Marrow winter squash, Black Mexican and Stowell's Evergreen sweet corn and Early Jersey Wakefield and Drumhead Savoy cabbage. Other sources of heirloom vegetable seeds are those twin pillars of the California seed business: the Redwood City Seed Company and J.L. Hudson, Seedsman. Both firms offer seeds that represent our Indian heritage, too, including varieties grown for centuries by the Zapotecs of Mexico. Another good source of antique varieties — especially for northern gardeners — is Johnny's Selected Seeds.
The good folks at Tilth, the nonprofit organization dedicated to furthering biological agriculture in the Northwest, have done much to be proud of — and now a new book can be added to their list of accomplishments. The Future Is Abundant: A Guide to Sustainable Agriculture is edited by Larry Korn, who also edited Masanobu Fukuoka's The One-Straw Revolution. The work attempts to adapt the ideas of Fukuoka and Bill Mollison (author of Permaculture), among others, to the specific conditions found in North America. Although aimed at folks in the Pacific Northwest, The Future Is Abundant contains information that would be of use to anyone interested in organic agriculture.
Also specifically intended for western readers is the latest in the HP Books series of beautifully illustrated garden manuals: Western Fruits, Berries, and Nuts: How to Select, Grow, and Enjoy. Authors Robert Stebbins and Lance Walheim provide detailed information on raising such mouthwatering crops as apples, apricots, avocados, cherries, citrus fruits, figs, olives, peaches, persimmons, pomegranates, and quinces... as well as almonds, pecans, walnuts, filberts, pistachios and macadamia nuts.
Finally, yet another rather expensive volume ($24.95) has recently been published that's certainly worth a place on your local library's shelves . . . and perhaps in your home bookcase, too. Natural Landscaping: Designing With Native Plant Communities is a detailed examination of the major alternative to the traditional (and, many think, sterile ... as well as energy-intensive) manicured lawn. Authors John Diekelmann and Robert Schuster explain the techniques involved in designing and planting landscapes composed of native species with the goal of enhancing the attractiveness of our surroundings, conserving our environmental resources, and reducing the cost of landscape maintenance. There's an excellent discussion of the soils, climates, and plant communities of the northeastern and midwestern states and some terrific color photos that will sell you on the idea in a moment. Natural Landscaping is published by McGraw-Hill, and is available from many bookstores.
You may also use the Bill Me option and pay $17.95 for 6 issues.