TAM­ING THE RAIN

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - GARDEN - Story and pho­tos by Adrian Hig­gins

Too much rain has a mea­sur­able ef­fect in the gar­den, not all of it neg­a­tive. The veg­etable gar­den is the most dy­namic cor­ner of the gar­den­ing world — where else can you have three gar­dens in one year? — and it is here that the pre­cip­i­ta­tion has formed a jun­gle of un­re­strained lush­ness.

In my own lit­tle plot, all the cu­cur­bits — zuc­chini, win­ter squash and cu­cum­bers — have taken on an ex­tra­or­di­nary vigor. The ques­tion in wet years is whether the har­vest will be in­sipid be­cause the fruits have had their sug­ars di­luted. This has been the case with some early toma­toes. Oth­ers have tasted fine. Con­tin­ued rain will also bring fruit-split­ting. I now har­vest toma­toes just this side of green and do the fi­nal ripen­ing on the kitchen counter.

Rain brings more work for the gar­dener, in time spent groom­ing — re­mov­ing dis­eased leaves, cut­ting back way­ward growth, and ty­ing up sprawl­ing tomato and squash vines and lean­ing dahlias and sun­flow­ers. I find this tidy­ing cu­ri­ously sat­is­fy­ing. Less ap­peal­ing is deal­ing with the con­stant on­slaught of weeds, made worse by the warmth and the rain. Poke­weed, a thug by sum­mer’s end, is al­ready 8 feet tall in un­tended ar­eas.

Rains that bring flash flood­ing have the ob­vi­ous ef­fect of wash­ing things away — new seeds, mulch and the earth it­self — but what isn’t as ap­par­ent is the way that they beat up the soil. On un­pro­tected beds, a del­uge leads to a crust that must be bro­ken up. Or worse, the rain com­pacts the vi­tal top layer of the soil.

There are a num­ber of ways of pro­tect­ing the soil, the eas­i­est with a good layer of mulch — in the veg­etable beds not with shred­ded bark, wood or wood chips but a gen­er­ous blan­ket of straw. It saves the soil from tak­ing a beat­ing. Mulch also sup­presses weeds and con­serves soil mois­ture.

Soil that is made loamy through or­ganic mat­ter is bet­ter equipped to han­dle heavy rain; it acts as a sponge and re­sists ero­sion and com­paction. Ex­perts say don’t add sand to clay soil be­cause you’ll cre­ate some­thing akin to ce­ment. But in my raised beds, I have in­cor­po­rated gen­er­ous blends of sharp builder’s sand with leaf mold — sup­ple­mented with each new plant­ing — and the re­sults have been good. In a drought, I’d have to wa­ter this fever­ishly.

An­other ap­proach is to adopt a no-till method of gar­den­ing in which the soil is not sea­son­ally dug and amended, and seed­ing and plant­ing take place with min­i­mal soil dis­tur­bance. The idea is to keep soil microbes in­tact and to con­tin­u­ally add or­ganic mat­ter to the soil sur­face, to be taken in and bro­ken down by all the crea­tures that live in the un­der­ground bio­sphere.

Jon Traun­feld, di­rec­tor of the Mary­land Home and Gar­den In­for­ma­tion Center, has been try­ing this ap­proach in a part of his own gar­den and says it has helped in pre­vent­ing weed growth and soil com­paction. He says, how­ever, that plant­ing into un­cul­ti­vated soil takes more ef­fort.

An­other ap­proach is to plant cover crops, some­times called green ma­nures, dur­ing pe­ri­ods be­tween crops. Com­mon choices in­clude buck­wheat, an­nual rye, hairy vetch and clovers, and they can be used in no-till gar­dens or in con­ven­tional ones.

I’ve thought of th­ese as some­thing to plant in the fall to get your soil through the win­ter, but at Thomas Jef­fer­son’s Tufton Farm next to Mon­ti­cello, in Vir­ginia, Keith Ne­vi­son likes to sow buck­wheat ev­ery time a bed is turned over.

He re­cently sowed buck­wheat in beds of newly har­vested pota­toes, gar­lic and onions. The plots are ear­marked for fall greens in a month or so, when the quick-sprout­ing buck­wheat will be chopped and worked into the soil. The buck­wheat will re­plen­ish the phos­pho­rus lost with his­tor­i­cal tobacco farm­ing. “We strive never to have a vac­uum,” he said.

The paths around the beds, which would be a sloppy mess this year if left bare, are planted with a tough peren­nial cover crop named New Zealand white clover. It has en­dured the pound­ing of both rain­drops and hu­man feet. “There’s been very few weeds, and it has al­lowed us to give nu­mer­ous tours,” he said.

And speak­ing of tours, I asked Luis Mar­mol at Dum­bar­ton Oaks to show me the re­splen­dent veg­etable gar­den at the his­toric es­tate and aca­demic center in Wash­ing­ton. Where my three lone ma­ture and headed cab­bage plants had rot­ted away in July, Mar­mol’s potager was brim­ming with pris­tine redleafed and crinkly savoy cab­bages, and the un­likely gera­nium bor­der plants had per­formed beau­ti­fully.

His lay­out and plant se­lec­tion this sea­son were in­spired by the Potager du Roi near the Palace of Ver­sailles.

He at­trib­uted the vigor and health of the plants in the sum­mer gar­den to its lo­ca­tion: open and sunny with good air cir­cu­la­tion, and a slight tilt to the ground plane that al­lowed mea­sured drainage. There was, how­ever, one glar­ing omis­sion: not a sin­gle tomato plant.

“Too many dis­eases,” he said as he handed me a fat, wa­tery cu­cum­ber.

Gar­den­ing tip: If late­sum­mer lawn ren­o­va­tion is in your fu­ture, the work can be made eas­ier and more evenly paced by de­thatch­ing lawn ar­eas over the next few week­ends in ad­vance of seed­ing. Use a de­thatch­ing rake. Re­mov­ing built-up thatch will give seed the soil con­tact it needs to ger­mi­nate.

Cab­bages are at home in cool, North­ern gar­dens, but an open, sunny lo­ca­tion helps them in warm, hu­mid lo­ca­tions.

You can pro­tect your soil eas­ily with a good layer of mulch. A blan­ket of straw will do for your veg­etable gar­den.

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