Alternative Techniques in the Garden

By Roger Erpelding
Contributing Writer

Since I have become a Master Gardener, I have been occasionally asked to speak to garden groups. They are curious to know how a blind person can garden. Fortunately, there are not a lot of alternative techniques involved. Hard work, good knowledge, planting the right things in the right areas, soil preparation, correct watering, and harvesting in a timely manner are just as important aspects of gardening as any special tools or techniques I use.

I do bring along a couple of tools. One of my most valuable tools is a Braille yardstick. They are available from Aids and Devices at the Department, are inexpensive, and quite durable. I have had mine for several years; it is beaten up and ugly from use. Of course, it has Braille numbers. But it also has raised lines of varying lengths for those who are newly blinded and just learning Braille.

Another tool I bring is my hoe without a handle. Standing up to hoe does me no good, as I can’t see what I am doing. So, I hoe on my hands and knees. This type of tool can be adapted for many gardeners who may have trouble standing for whatever reason. I got it from a driver who broke it off while hoeing. It is rusty and ugly from use, but so be it.

I also use Braille markers. I purchase inexpensive wooden markers that look like Popsicle sticks, make a label with dymo tape, and place it on the marker. These have proven to be quite temporary, and unfortunately, are too easy to move. Therefore, when spring comes, I oftentimes find that what I have marked last fall is no longer there. My wife, who is sighted, uses visual labels; she encounters the same problem. A case in point is a yellow peony which I purchased last spring. Unfortunately, its markers have disappeared, and we are not sure if it is up or not. I have raised peonies for years, and know their leaf form well. It appears that it may be breaking the ground, but the leaves feel finer, and the stems are not a stout as regular peony stems. So, the jury is still out. I’ll be visiting greenhouses soon, and the place I purchased this peony is on my list. I’ll know more in two weeks, and can judge accordingly.

My most frequently asked question is “how do you tell the plants from the weeds?” It depends. I have been involved in gardening, in some capacity or other, for about 60 years now, and have always gardened by touch. Some weeds are familiar–dandelions, Canadian thistles and clover are prime examples. Some wanted plants are also obvious from experience–corn, green beans, peas, radishes and lettuce. Carrots and parsnips are the toughest ones. I once asked my Mom how she can tell the carrots from the weeds when they are small and she replied “you tell me and we’ll both know.” So, like Mom, I let the carrots and weeds grow together until they are big enough to tell apart. I have also heard to plant radishes and carrots together to solve this problem. I’ve never tried it. Container gardening, which is now all the rage, also makes this separation question easier. I am a fan, and have lots of containers for gardening.

First Steps (Before the Snow)

By Roger Erpelding
Contributing Writer

The leaves are raked and mowed; the vegetable garden is cleaned off; all the pots that contained flowers, tomatoes, and peppers have been overturned in the garden so the soil can be mixed in for next year’s plantings; all the tropical plants are in the sun room; the rain barrel has been drained with containers of water in the garage and sun room; the bulbs have been planted for forcing; the hammock is in the garage; bricks have been laid for a border for the new flower bed in the front yard. Garden season is complete, right? WRONG!!!!! It has only begun.

Garden season never ends at my house. One year simply blends into the next. For all intents and purposes, 2012 gardening is pretty well wrapped up–well, sort of. Much to my great joy, the 2013 season is already under way.

The paperwhite narcissus, due to a warm and dry fall, are ahead of schedule. When I brought them into the sun room in early November, they were already a foot tall, and their flower spikes were prominent. I kept them cool in the sun room to slow their growth. About ten days ago I placed them in the west kitchen window, as they were beginning to bloom. For the first week, their fragrance was almost overpowering. Now the flowers are beginning to die, and by the end of the Thanksgiving weekend, they will be ready to be thrown out. The bulbs will not keep, they are not hardy outdoors, and they will just be a shriveled mass by next autumn.

The dwarf Dutch iris, or iris reticulata, are growing tall and strong in the sun room. Their leaf spikes are very tall this year, and we believe this is due to the abundant sunshine this fall. Once they shoot a flower stalk, they will be transferred to the kitchen as well.

The next forced bulbs in the procession will be the amaryllis. I purchased two bulbs at the Botanical Center bulb sale on November 2. The red one will go to my Mother as a Christmas present. It is planted, but I will keep it cool so it will not sprout until I deliver it to Mom. We saw a new bulb at the sale this year–Misty–and it’ll soon be brought into the warm kitchen so it’ll be fooled to thinking that spring has arrived. I was told it was pink, but Beth tells me the picture shows it is red.

Every year it is a challenge to make sure the Christmas cactus blooms at Christmas. Beth and I have done two things to help in this regard. She noticed that the buds closest to the window were larger than the buds on the other side, so she turned it 180 degrees the other day. Even though we have had temperatures near 20, I have not heated the sun room as of yet. With temperatures nearing 40 in this room, the cactus will grow slowly. If the weather remains unusually mild into December, I might supply a little supplemental heat to push the cactus buds along, and to make sure the hyacinths and tulips will know that they just can’t sit there dormant forever.

Monday the 19th was an exciting day. Hawkeye Bob began to read the first 2013 seed catalog–Gurneys–a catalog I have ordered from for years. My long list of seeds is being Brailled, and I should have an order ready in a couple of weeks. What should I plant and where should I plant it? What kind of green beans should I plant? Of course, the Blue Lake 274 are a mainstay, but what about some new cultivars such as derby and jade? Why not? And how about trying some champion radishes next spring instead of cherry bell or French breakfast? There are two kinds of habanero pepper plants listed–should I try both? My mind is full of garden maps and possibilities.

December will arrive, and so will more seed catalogs.  The Christmas cactus will bloom, the amaryllis will sprout, and perhaps some of the forced hyacinths will stick their noses up above the soil. Yes, it has only just begun.

Dry Garden Harvest

By Roger Erpelding
Contributing Writer

Despite the fact that the garden is pretty well burned out, and all that is in the forecast is more hot and dry weather, there really is a harvest going on.

I have been gardening for 35 years, all of it as a blind guy, and I’ve never had a worse crop of green beans. The plants are stunted, and their pods are limited. I have picked twice now, and have had enough beans in both pickings combined, to have a small meal. Experience has taught me when the pods are ready. I pick them, near the main bean plant stem. When the pods are about 6 inches long, and feel plump to the touch, then they are ready to go. Many of the pods this year are soft, and have very few beans in them; this is another sign of too hot and too dry. Since the plants are alive, there is still hope if the weather in August and September turns more moderate and wet. 

On July 8, I planted another wide row of green bean seeds where the lettuce, spinach and radishes were planted this spring. I haven’t had the nerve to see if the plants have even sprouted. We did get some rain last Friday morning, July 13, so it is possible they are up. Even if they are germinated, unless I water them extensively and frequently, they won’t amount to much. I did not use sticks and a string in this effort. The west edge was bordered by the old perennial bed, and the east edge was the fence that separates the garden from the rocks, bench, and footstool. 

The cherry tomato in the large pot is dying, but it is nothing to worry about. It still has some tomatoes on it, and I estimate that we have picked over 100 fruits from it. It has paid its dues, and if it chooses to die, I choose to quit watering it. It could be a blight, it could be the weather, it could be old age; I simply don’t care. The new growth at the ends of the vines is still green, so again, if the weather turns moderate, it may produce more flowers and fruit. I have given up trying to stake and tie up the vines. It did well in its rampant state, and if it isn’t broken why fix it? 

I got tired of waiting for it to rain appreciably, so I dug up the elephant garlic. The foliage was dead, and I could tell this by touch. I found a trowel that was long and pointed, and went to work. The trick here is to dig the bulbs without damaging them. I gently dug a couple inches from the base of the plant, and did so slowly. When I had enough soil removed to find the bulb, I stuck the trowel underneath it, and pushed up. I damaged no bulbs this year, but split a couple into cloves as a result of this process. I will use the cloves first, and save the whole garlic until later. The bulbs were a little smaller this year, but definitely satisfactory. I let them dry in the sun for a day, then took clippers and cut off the tops about six inches above the bulb. Again, this is an easy task for a blind person, as it is all done by touch. 

Even the six garden tomatoes have yielded a few fruit. I went to the garden and found the obvious ones that were ripe, close to the bottom of the plant. A friend came by last night and picked those that were just starting to turn. I placed them on the back of a kitchen cabinet, and they will be eaten last.  Even though the crop is subpar, it is better than last year. 

My peppers are all in pots, and despite the rabbit damage, continue to produce. I raised some jabaneros for my son Jack, and when I meet him for lunch tomorrow, I’ll be able to give him the first harvest–perhaps six peppers or so. The sweet peppers continue to do well. I pick them early to avoid sunburn. Again, I judge by size, and a handy pair of small scissors is with me to snip them off near the main plant stem. I have already frozen two bags, and each time I make a salad, I stroll out to the garden to harvest an additional pepper or two for fresh eating. It is my hope to get an additional bag frozen this week. These pots are on the edge of the garden, and get watered frequently. The cherry tomato and pepper pots have done well; I’ll try eggplant in a couple of pots next year. There is an area of the garden that seems to not grow things well. My goal is to have about 30 large pots in produce next year, and place a bunch of them in that part of the garden. 

The basil in the herb garden continues to struggle, even though it gets frequent drinks. However, the basil in the pot just east of the bench area is doing fantastic. The fennel in the herb garden is taller than I am, with lots of seed heads now coming to maturity. Generally, most herbs like dry weather; it would have been a great year to plant rosemary in the herb garden for this reason. 

The potatoes are dead, but since I have a couple of pounds of them in the storage cabinet, I have not attempted to dig them. I look for a small and poor crop, but the small ones are always good for boiling, or browning in the oven; they won’t go to waste. I enjoy digging them, but will wait until it rains to make this task a bit easier.

The Garden Is Dry

By Roger Erpelding
Contributing Writer

The early spring has caught up with us. With hot weather here, and the plants requiring tons of moisture, the lack of rain is also telling.

I took a quick look at the garden last night. Everything is stunted. I think this is due to the fact that the weather warmed quickly, and the cold weather crops just gave up early. I see this in the broccoli, potatoes, radishes, lettuce and spinach. But the warmer weather crops are stunted as well–cucumbers, squash, green beans, tomatoes, and eggplant. This, I’m sure, is due to a lack of moisture. Due to the configuration of the garden, it probably will not be watered.

And then there are the container peppers. They are looking great, and I’ve already harvested some banana peppers–some sweet, some hot. The bell peppers look good, although their fruit set may be somewhat inhibited by the hot weather.

While Beth was watering container plants last week, she spotted a tomato. It was small, but very tasty. The tomato felt hard to me, and would not have been easy for me to spot.

How does a blind person harvest tomatoes? It isn’t always easy, but it is usually very doable. In fact, while I was wandering around the garden last night, I harvested two tomatoes independently. There are some general guidelines. I noted earlier that the tomatoes are stunted. They are not very tall, have limited vines, and look rather spindly. I bought large plants which were in bloom at the time of purchase in late April. So, while I was walking along, I checked inside each cage to check on fruit. I started at the bottom, as tomatoes always ripen from the bottom up. Sure enough, I found two firm, but a bit soft, fruits. Even though it was after 7:00, the plants and soil were still warm. Therefore, after I picked them, I also smelled them, noting a slight tomato fragrance. Yes, these dudes are ripe, and I can’t wait to devour them, probably tonight.

The Sweet 100 cherry tomato is a different story. It is in a container, receiving plenty of water. These tomatoes remain hard, even when dead ripe. However, if you are blind, and no one around is there to help, you can still harvest. Again, start at the bottom. The Sweet 100 definitely have a small maximum size, and ripen from the bottom up. If it is hot outdoors, and the tomatoes are in the sun, the ripe ones may be a bit soft to the touch as well. I have successfully harvested several of them from the plant, and eaten them out in the garden, still warm from the sun. They were almost as tasty as a chocolate candy bar.

Harvesting the container peppers is even easier. Some like to let the peppers set until red. I don’t care about color. Some claim the peppers are sweeter when red, but perhaps my taste buds are a bit deficient–I can’t tell the difference. But leaving the peppers on the plant too long is risky. They may get soft, they may get diseased, they may get sunburned, or perhaps the insects get to them, or they may even begin to dry out.

My key indicator is size. When the banana or bell peppers are the size I want, I take a small scissors from my pocket, and cut the stem between the main plant, and the fruit itself. Be careful, as pepper foliage is quite brittle. Caution on the side of being careful and slow. I’ve already broken off one of my nice-looking pepper plants at soil level; nothing to do but throw it into the garden as compost. Some of the peppers have very short stems connecting to the main stem, and again, take your time and protect your plants.

In my wanderings last night, I noticed that the elephant garlic has rapidly matured, and is ready for harvest. I let it flower, as each floret is actually a very small garlic bulb; I will not bother to save or plant them. When I checked them last week, they were looking good, and the leaves were still green. However, last night I noted that most of the leaves are dead. This is not surprising, as this is a cool weather crop, and the garlic was already making great strides in March. I usually harvest in mid-July, which is only a bit over two weeks away. The biggest deterrent to harvest now is the lack of rain, which means the soil will be rock hard. Again, this harvest will be an easy task, and is very doable by a blind person. And better yet, you won’t need much experience to conquer this endeavor, either. When I harvest, I’ll report accordingly.

Autumn Already?

By Roger Erpelding
Contributing Writer

The calendar says it is May 22. However, I have already received three catalogs with fall merchandise and delivery dates.

My first catalog arrived in April. My ordering from it was limited. The second to arrive was an iris catalog. Beth and I picked out three selections from it. We are aiming for height, fragrance and color. Our choices were one blue, one white, and one gold. I have submitted the order, and the labels are Brailled. An August 27 ship date is expected, which means delivery in early September–a fine time for planting iris. 

The third catalog is large, and contains over 50 pages of tulips, plus other spring bulbs for fall delivery and planting. So far, I am a little disappointed in the hyacinth selection, but with at least six catalogs still to come, I am far from worried. In previous years I have told Beth “I’m not going to force so many bulbs next year.” I did not make that promise this winter or spring.  In the current catalog I am reading, I have found the paper-white narcissus Beth enjoys, along with the Dutch Master daffodils which should bloom indoors by Beth’s birthday. Also in this catalog, Beth has found some blue allium I will order for her. I will not force them. Three cultivars of hyacinths are also on the order list.

The main emphasis in the garden over the past two weeks is water, water, water. Beth watered a variety of flowers last night and this morning, and I will water any potted plants she did not get to after work. This effort will continue until we are blessed with rainfall again.

What’s New?

By Roger Erpelding
Contributing Writer

It is always an adventure reading the seed catalogs, gardening magazines and touring the local greenhouses for new plants. Many catalogs have their new entries prominently displayed toward the front of the catalog. Magazines have new items featured in their winter columns.

Seeing pictures, or reading about the new plants does not compare to actually going to the greenhouses to see what is available. Two new items displayed at a greenhouse where Beth and I went for the first time on May 8 caught our eye.

Beth does not like peonies. In our small area, peonies are not a priority for me. Many of the neighbors have them, and if I have a hankering to smell their flowers, I can walk along a sidewalk near 73rd and Willshire to have my fill. I do have a fern leaf “Mother’s Day Peony” given to us by a friend. It has a favored place in the north part of the old perennial bed. Its flower petals are silky smooth, and its ferny foliage unique. Although everything else was exceedingly early, ours bloomed fairly close to its scheduled time, near Mother’s Day in mid-May.

Traditional peonies come in red, pink, white, or a combination of these colors. They also come in single or double forms. When I lived on Seneca, I had a little of all of these varieties.

Imagine Beth’s surprise when she saw a bright, sun-yellow peony blooming at this greenhouse. Its flower form, fragrance and leaf form were traditional in nature. I figured it was a pastel yellow, but Beth assured me it was bright, more like a yellow daffodil. The plant was healthy; the price was healthy as well. Later Beth saw more of these at another location, at even a higher price.

Even though our gardening budgets were stretched, we purchased this new cultivar. I do not know its cultivar name. A lilac bush had died in the perennial bed, and I was looking for a shrub called “Rose tree of China” to replace it; my attempts were unsuccessful. The peony was planted out immediately upon its arrival at the house. It has not rained since then, but it has received two 2-gallon watering cans of water from me, and will continued to be babied throughout this year. 

When I planted the peony, all the roots and soil tumbled out of the pot in a loose pile. It was in a large container, so my fear is that I planted it too deep; this may mean no blooms in subsequent years. Over-watering is not a concern of mine at this time.

And only a few feet from the yellow peony was a pastel pink iris, which was unique to Beth. Its cultivar name is “magic returns” and we’ve since seen it in an iris lover’s catalog that arrived a few days after we purchased the plant. The iris had two long, tall stems that required immediate staking. I can imagine colors, but there was no imagining its magnificent flower form, and its strong iris fragrance. Form and fragrance for me, visual beauty for Beth–definitely a winner! Iris are planted shallow, as their rhizomes are prone to over-watering and rot. A crabapple tree that was dying was removed last fall, leaving a sunny spot in the back; tailor-made for this sun-loving beauty. While I planted (with the iris leaning against a fence for support) Beth got a wooden trellis and string. The trellis was “planted” along with the iris, and when I stood up, Beth tied the flower stalks to the trellis before they could fall over. These flowers will die soon, but I’ll leave the stalks as markers for next year. If the old flowers form seeds, I’ll cut them off, so the energy goes into the leaves and rhizomes. 

One of the Shasta daisies I purchased is new to me, but not to the trade. Its cultivar name is “banana cream”. Beth tells me the daisies open light yellow, but will fade to white. Their large flowers are what attracted me to this cultivar. I checked on it yesterday (with watering can in hand) and it continues to do well.

Vacation Planting

By Roger Erpelding
Contributing Writer

I took the week of May 7-11 off for vacation. The weather was beautiful, and I spent a considerable time in the garden. We had 1.2 inches of rain on May 6, which was of great benefit.

I had purchased seven large tomato plants on April 28. I potted the cherry tomato earlier. On May 5, I planted the six large plants. Since they are along the west edge of the eastern leg of the garden, I had two corners to help me begin the row. My trusty Braille yardstick was again at its job, along with a large trowel. Beth read the labels, I planted them in a row, north to south, as I desired. I had them in a large pan of water on the patio, which meant they were very wet. I like to set my plants in wet, as it will become dry in the garden soon enough, and any water boost I can give them will be helpful. The plants were easy to set in their holes, and soil replacement was also easy. I did not use a row of string for this purpose. After planting, I went near the patio, found 6 tomato cages, and set them up on that same day. I placed the tomatoes 2 feet from the west edge, and placed them 2 feet apart.

Eggplant and ground cherries were planted just east of the tomatoes–two feet to be exact. I used an old row of string that was still intact to achieve this task. Again, the Braille yardstick measured the distance of one foot between plants. This time I started at the south end, working north. I had a little space on the north end of this row, where I placed cucumber and summer squash seeds. They are too close together and too thick, but we’ll see what germinates, and I’ll thin as need be.

I noticed that there was plenty of room further west, on the eastern edge of the old perennial bed. It was off to a garden center on May 7, to purchase acorn squash and pumpkin plants. Four additional sweet banana peppers were also purchased to go into pots. They were planted on the 7th, even though the soil was a little wet. I knelt in the well-mulched perennial bed to prevent compaction.

May 5 was also the day for a box of perennials to arrive from a mail order catalog. They were immediately placed in the water bath as well, and planted on the 7th in the afternoon. Since they were placed in the apple tree and pine tree gardens, for the most part, I knelt in the grass to dig their holes. I did not use a yardstick, string or sticks for this purpose. Their placement was random, wherever there was room. Three of the plants went into the old perennial bed to replace plants that had not survived earlier plantings in previous years.

Tuesday, the 8th, was the day to go to 3 out-of-town garden centers. Two of them were new to Beth and me. One had a few sweet woodruff plants left, which I purchased, and planted under the magnolia tree that afternoon. Another had some nice Shasta daisy plants, and some good-looking raspberry plants which went into the car as well. The third had some new items, which I will discuss in a subsequent blog. After time in the water bath, the daisies went into the apple tree garden. The raspberries were not planted until Thursday, along the south garden fence. Again, I placed them where there was the most room for them.

Late on the morning of May 9, I set forth to plant green beans–one of Beth and my favorites. These were planted west and south of the tomatoes, on the south side of the garden, south of Beth’s bench and footstool. I started on the south end, and worked north. I used the tomatoes for my eastern border, and in large part, the apricot tree determined the western border. I began 14 inches from the south fence, placed my sticks and strings in place, dug a furrow with my hoe without a handle, and went to work. The north row had the fence behind Beth’s bench as its northern border.

As I write this, it has not rained for twelve days. Many of our plantings this spring are in the hurt bag. We have never seen it dry out so fast! We thought there was plenty of subsoil moisture, but we may have been wrong. Timing may be a part of this as well, as our long-established plants don’t seem to be suffering yet. Our water bill will definitely be higher next month. All forecasts indicate that rain is not likely for at least the next two weeks.