Maryland Grows

Minimizing aches & pains


In recent years I’ve tried to find ways to prevent aches and pains from my garden work. Here are four things that work for me and that I recommend to you.

Recommendation 1: Invest in a quality weeding hoe. No, I’m not suggesting the standard hoe you see hanging with the shovels and rakes at big-box stores or even neighborhood nurseries, the kind many gardeners buy but seldom use.

I’m talking about a long-handled but light weeding hoe, such as the one I use (see photo). Mine is a winged hoe, but it doesn’t have feathers. Its wings are the two points. A sharp cutting edge, about 4.25 inches wide, runs between the points. The points make it easy to get at weeds that hunker close to garden plants. On the pull stroke, the edge between the points easily skims along or just below the soil surface to decapitate or uproot weeds. On the push stroke, the back of the cutting edge knocks soil from uprooted weeds.

Result: Fewer stoops, squats, and bends, and fewer aches and pains.

Generic names for this general design abound: half-moon, scuffle, shuffle, and diamond hoe. The diamond hoe, with four cutting edges, arguably is top of the line.

Unfortunately, local retailers seldom stock weeding hoes. If you can’t find one locally, search “halfmoon hoe” or “diamond hoe” on the Internet. Prices range from the mid-$30s to about $100. If someone in your family wants a hint for a gift you’d really appreciate, suggest, with a wink, “A diamond.”

Recommendation 2: Set time limits on your hoeing. Garden work is good exercise, but don’t overdo it. Hoe only 15 or 20 minutes, when soil is on the dry side so it falls off the roots of the weeds on your back strokes with the hoe. Bare roots + sun/air = dead weeds. Short, repeat hoeing sessions a day or two apart result in fewer weeds over the long run.

Recommendation 3: Let your hoe do the tough work—not your arms or your back. If your hoe has a 6-foot handle, you can stand upright, as you should. The long handle will give you leverage over bigger weeds. If you confront a leafy monster, attack it modestly from all sides rather than using your brute power to try to uproot it on your first chop. If you have to force the hoe to work, the soil may be too hard, and you may need to delay your project until after the next rain.

Recommendation 4: When you finish weeding, retreat to your lounge chair and enjoy a frosty glass of tea you’ve brewed from spearmint cuttings from your garden. Naps are eminently sustainable. Mine have minimal negative environmental impact—just my snoring.

A peanut problem

So this year I decided we are going to grow peanuts in the demo garden. I have only grown them once before, and that time I started them directly in the ground, and I think we got a few that matured. So I thought to steal a march and start them indoors.

A few did actually germinate, but I must not have planted them deep enough, because I don’t think this was supposed to happen:

They have been like that for about ten days now, and I don’t expect further progress, though you never know. Here’s one that germinated at soil level but is growing nicely:

Unfortunately that is my only success, so now that the soil is beginning to warm up we will try direct sowing this coming week. Peanuts are a fascinating plant, and I hope to at least get flowers and the subsequent “pegs” that bury themselves in the ground to produce the nuts, and maybe we will be lucky and actually get a (small) crop. More to follow if it works!

Recipe from Government House

Here is the first of several recipes from the chefs at Government House. We got to sample this one on our official planting day. Enjoy!
Dipping Oil for Bread
1 gallon olive oil
1 cup minced garlic
1/3 cup fresh thyme, minced
1/8 cup fresh rosemary, minced
3 tablespoons crushed red pepper flakes
4 tablespoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon lemon rind
1/4 cup lemon juice
2 tablespoons sherry vinegar
Combine all ingredients together and serve with your favorite bread.

Time to thin our raspberries


I really don’t like thinning new canes of our red raspberries. Removing about half of them seems counter-intuitive. More canes, more berries—right?

No, more isn’t always better in our gardens. Why?

The reasons are similar for many fruits and vegetables. Good spacing increases air circulation and helps prevent diseases. Thinning also promotes stronger plants and higher yields—sort of like suckering tomatoes or thinning beets.

So last Thursday I got out my pruners and cut off the extra canes where they emerged from the soil, leaving the remaining canes six inches apart in all directions—well, more or less. As I tossed the cuttings into piles, I tried to convince myself once again that the remaining canes will produce bigger berries than the crowded canes would have.

When an Alberta clipper come roaring through next winter and a “secondary low” sneaks up the Atlantic coast and dumps a few feet of snow on our driveway, I’ll go to our freezer, take out a bag of frozen Heritage raspberries, put a handful of the beautiful red berries into each of our cereal bowls, then cover them with hot oatmeal, and add a modest halo of milk.

Yummy. I won’t even remember my reluctance to thin the canes in April.

Big Day at Government House

Saturday was the official planting day at Government House. The first Lady joined Master Gardeners and Apprentice Gardeners to plant broccoli, cabbage, lettuces, arugula and chard.

Mrs. O’Malley also presented a proclamation from the Governor proclaiming April as Grow It Eat It month. Dr. Wei from the University of Maryland was on hand to accept it.

Chef Medford Canby made mint tea and snacks using herbs from the garden. I’ll forward a recipe from him next time!

The best news of all? The first Lady announced that there will be classes presented in the garden at Government House beginning in May.

For a list of classes and to sign up, link to the first Lady’s website. http://www.governor.maryland.gov/firstlady/garden.asp

Explosion in our blackberry patch

Bad Bob. This year in general I’ve done an above-average job of keeping the flourishing winter weeds under control. But somehow I did an under-average job in the blackberry patch, which is to the south of our house and out of sight, out of mind, so to speak, because our routine activities don’t take us to that side of the house.

And then I walked that way. The blackberries were in great shape. They have put out beautiful, deep-green leaves, first hints, I hope, of a good crop to come. But then my heart sank. A quarter of the bed was covered with hairy bittercress (Cardamine hirsute), a winter, spring, summer, and fall weed, the first crop of which already has bloomed and started to go to seed. (Click on photos to enlarge.)

Hairy bittercress is doubly subversive because it tempts gardeners to ignore it. Its leaves pretty much hug the ground—easy to overlook. The flowering stems are quite fine—not as eye-catching as a stand of chickweed. But one feature of hairy bittercress is attention-getting—its seed capsules. As they mature, they coil in such a way that they “explode” and propel seeds up to nine feet when disturbed by a gardener, an animal, the wind, or a wandering garden gnome.

So there was my fine crop of hairy bittercress. When I looked closer and noted that the seed capsules still had a hint of green, I hoped they weren’t quite ready to scatter at the slightest touch. I reached down, grabbed the biggest plant, and pulled.

A shower of seeds bounced off my pants legs and rained down on nearby soil. For an instant, I thought of summer rain falling on my great-grandmother’s tin roof. Back to the reality of unwanted weed seeds, I shook my head in despair and redoubled my effort at “gentler” removal. Luckily, most seed capsules were not ready to explode—so I kept on pulling.

I’ll have to be vigilant all summer to make sure I uproot the crop of bittercress seedlings that inevitably will emerge. A reference work—“Weeds of the Northeast” by Uva, Neal, and DiTomaso—indicates, the plants may produce “several generations” over one growing season. Vigilance—weekly vigilance—is the price of freedom from hairy bittercress.

Sigh, sigh. Weed, weed. Pull up hairy bittercress—and, oh yes, uproot my two other blackberry patch nemeses—common groundsel (Senecio vulgaris), another winter weed whose yellow flowers already had gone to seed and which floated away on fluffy parachutes as I pulled them, and mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris).

Mugwort, sometimes called chrysanthemum weed because of the shape of its leaves, is difficult to eliminate because it reproduces mostly by rhizomes, or underground stems. Whenever I try to remove it, root sections that break off seem to establish a new plant within a few days.

In an hour the job was done. The bittercress, groundsel, and mugwort were gone—for now.

But I’ve learned a lesson that I’ve apparently failed to learn in scores of previous springs: don’t let winter weeds go to seed in your veggie garden.

Perhaps the three blizzards and the record snowfall in Maryland during winter 2009-2010 made me a bit complacent about winter weeds this year, but they were under the snowdrifts, insulated from the frigid Canadian air, waiting for the warming sun of February and March to stimulate their growth.

Next year I really will keep winter weeds under control. In fact, if I could only find a pencil I’d jot down my first New Year’s Resolutions for 2011.

It’s transfer time….again.


Ah, it’s good to be back! I haven’t posted for two weeks. My seedlings are growing very nicely. I had to transfer my okra and sugar snap peas into larger pots.

They are growing by leaps and bounds. I placed the sugar snap peas in one gallon pots and gently tied them to two foot stakes to give them a little support. As you can see, my cat gave me her personal approval…AFTER checking my work.

I also placed my okra into larger flower pots. I think they are going to do very well. They look very strong. They were a bit leggy, but I just buried the stems, so I think they will be alright. Since okra plants are heat lovers, I have to keep these beauties thriving indoors until mid-May or June 1st.

Speaking of thriving, there are plans in the works to get the garden cage repaired this weekend! I will be sure to post lots of pictures of the rebuild. I am relieved that we are finally getting this done as my cold crops need to get in the ground and grow nice and big for the market!

Ok, back to the plants. I have been saving all of my eggshells. Eggshells are a great source of calcium for tomato plants. You don’t have to do anything special with them, just let them dry out on a paper towel. I usually throw them in the hole with the tomato plants at transplanting time. However, this time, I crushed some of them up very finely and sprinkled them on the soil around my tomato plants.

Here’s a little growing tip for your plants. You may be tempted to plant tomato, pepper or cucumber plants outdoors now since all of the garden centers are selling them. In a word: DON’T. Tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, watermelons, eggplants, cantaloupes and others are heat loving plants.

Although the days are starting to warm up, nighttime temperatures are still in the low 30s and 40s and can kill your plants quickly. The only plants that can go out in the garden now are cold loving plants like lettuces, radishes, spinach, kale, collards, and mustard greens.

That’s all for now folks! Until next time….happy garden thoughts!