Looking for a little light reading to take with you on vacation this summer? I’d like to recommend the new book, “Coffee for Roses . . . and 70 Other Misleading Myths About Backyard Gardening.” In it, author C. L. Fornari deconstructs some of the most time-honored tips for getting the most out of a garden. It’s easy reading that also informs.
I admit that I’ve traded around a good bit of what’s discussed in this book—some of it right here in this column—including the tip of putting a handful of eggshells into the hole when setting out tomato plants. The calcium in the shells supposedly prevents dreaded blossom-end rot.
According to Fornari, we can stop saving our eggshells or dropping Tums into planting holes for tomatoes and peppers, because it turns out that blossom-end-rot isn’t caused by a lack of calcium. Rather, stress is to blame. “The most common cause of stress is uneven watering,” says Fornari. “Allowing the plants to dry in between soakings is frequently the culprit, especially for tomatoes grown in pots or raised beds.”
There are other environmental stresses on tomatoes: excess water, heat or cold, dry soil, or too much fertilizer. What to do? Fornari recommends mulching to preserve moisture, watering thoroughly but less frequently to encourage deep root growth, and if necessary, watering container-grown tomatoes both morning and late afternoon. Back off on fertilizer.
Another tip the author dissects is the advice to plant cucumbers and pumpkins in hills. Says Fornari, “We all know the difference between ‘in’ and ‘on’, but when it comes to planting vegetables, gardeners have overlooked the distinction. The [planting] instructions say in hills, not on them. What a difference one letter makes!”
“Hill,” Fornari says, “is an old agricultural term for a group.” So, planting cucumber, squash and melon seeds in a hill means to plant several seeds in a group rather than in a row. She doesn’t say why planting in a group is advantageous. Perhaps the clustered leaves help shade the soil and prevent evaporation.
Planting “on” a hill creates the challenge of keeping squash and cukes well watered. Water tends to run off the hill and the soil in hills dries out faster than the rest of the garden.
In some regions, it’s even advantageous to dig a depression when planting squash; the tender roots of new seedlings and young plants benefit from a lot of moisture. Planting squash in a depression also makes it easier to cover plants with floating row covers to protect from cool spring weather and insect pests.
In our area, which tends to clay-heavy soils, depression planting might not be the way to go unless you’ve improved your soil with a lot of compost, but we can certainly stop dutifully planting our seeds on a mountaintop.
Another tip Fornari debunks: oak leaves and pine needles make compost or soil more acidic. “Although pine needles and oak leaves might have a low pH in their raw, pre-composted form, once decomposed they are closer to neutral.” And that’s not because their acid is leached into the ground. In the composting process pH is neutralized. Any finished compost, regardless of the ingredients, will test at around 6.5.
Oaks and pines grow in areas that tend to have naturally acidic soils, “This stems from the minerals in the soil, not the trees that grow there,” she says.
The book is nicely written, and beautifully printed with lots of four-color photos. The advice covers annuals and perennials, shrubs, trees and vines, compost, soils and fertilizers, insects and diseases and “random folklore.” Each tip is covered thoroughly yet succinctly; you can read a few tips, put the book down, and come back to it later. I also love this book’s small-ish size, about 7 1/4” square, which makes it easy to tuck in a beach tote.
Pam Baxter is an avid organic vegetable gardener who lives in Kimberton. Direct e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org, or send mail to P.O. Box 80, Kimberton, PA 19442.