In the wintertime, I rarely take the opportunity to visit my Northeastern Ohio vegetable garden. This is doubly true in February, as this month is when I often forget I even have a garden. So on a cold, partly cloudy, early February Sunday afternoon, I breached my protocol and took a backyard tour.
Temperatures hovered in the low 40s, which I have to admit is mild for this time of year. I’d actually been out digging in the dirt a few weeks ago when we got up into the 60s. Why would one be working a shovel during a notoriously slow garden period? To dig up some food, silly. I purposely left potatoes, turnips and Jerusalem artichokes underground to store them. The earth is a much better place to keep these root vegetables from going bad than the refrigerator or the basement. Looking around, those uncovered places were now a dark rich brown. Everywhere else I inspected, the ground was covered with plants or other mulch, just as I planned it.
My garden design employs a blanket of organic material, whether it is fall leaves or common weeds. Covered soil is happy soil. Even in this bleak winterscape, the soil is alive with activity, albeit slowed down by the cold. I observed green even underneath the blobs of snow that dotted my raised beds and garden paths. Of course this green was not the bright vivid green of spring, but a dull representative of a future only a month or two away. After closer examination, I discovered some living leaves to sample. The citrus taste of lemon balm, the bitter garlic of garlic mustard, the spinach tang of Swiss chard, and the distinct flavor of oregano all reminded me that warmer weather was around the corner. The straw-mulched garlic peeked out from its blanket, becoming greener by the day.
Gazing around my semi-frozen field, I realized I had left plenty of untouched vegetable remains as tributes to fall’s frosts. Dead pepper plants stood blackened, as they can’t withstand even a touch of cold. Lamb’s quarters branch towards the sky, spreading their millions of tiny seeds with every winter blast. Tomato vines, long dead, twine through my fencing, reminding me to start their seeds soon for summer planting. Again, leaving these all here was done intentionally, as overwintering “good guy” insects need spaces to hide and survive.
As I returned to my house with numb hands and eyes squinting from the unusual bright sun, my thoughts turned to my perennials, as those need less care and return year after year. Strawberries were visible, even now, though it would be April or May before I’d see flowers. My Egyptian walking onions, so named because they spread themselves around the garden, were weak but present. The sage sat with a few leftover leaves on top like helicopter blades. Twelve-foot high Jerusalem artichoke stalks whipped in the winds, each one marking a treasure trove of calories and fiber we will enjoy this spring. Even the infant trees (maples, walnut, and honey locust) which coexist with my annuals made their presence known, though they all were still hibernating. I guess it takes a gardener to truly see what the future holds for this mostly brown dull rectangle of possibilities.
There is nothing worse than spotting groundhogs amongst your prized vegetables. Here’s how I’ve dealt with the critters over the years.
My experience with groundhogs began a handful of garden seasons ago, The first clue I had an issue was some barely noticeable missing leaves on garden plants, specifically spinach and broccoli. I didn’t think much of it and thought maybe it was insect damage. The next day, a few plants were stripped and others were just gone. My instincts told me I had bigger problems but I still hadn’t witnessed the perpetrator in action. The following day provided my answer – a decent-sized groundhog (who I named Woody) was inside my fencing. He had dug under to get to my veggies.
Knowing I needed to stop this menace, I bought a box trap from the local farm supply store. Using that intelligence us humans are always bragging about, I placed the trap inside the fence. I knew a groundhog was getting into garden, but I didn’t want to deal with other animals like opossums, raccoons, or skunks. Several days (and half my corn stalks later), Woody was looking back at me from the trap.
With a cage full of groundhog, now I had to figure out what to do with him. I could have killed him, but my heart wasn’t really into it. So after some soul searching, I decided to release him somewhere else. Technically this is not the most legal action in my state, but I was desperate. It was either this or just let him pass naturally, which seemed cruel. If anyone asks, I just tell them that Woody’s in a better place.
The next year, my groundhog situation was worse tenfold. Being a permaculture practitioner, I left a woodpile surrounded by brambles a mere ten feet from my garden. A momma groundhog took up residence with her little ones running through my fence like it wasn’t even there. These groundhogs were too smart to fall for my trap and I ended up calling in the professionals. Three groundhogs, three raccoons, and $300 later, my problem was solved for now.
Discussing the groundhog issue with my landlord, he thought a .22 rifle was a good solution. He said I could even practice with it by shooting targets off the very logs the groundhogs were living under. Had I lived within city limits, this wouldn’t have been an option. At this point, I had never owned a gun and couldn’t imagine having one in my possession. Not because I was against guns, but because I was unfamiliar.
In hindsight, a firearm could have saved money and the lives of those poor innocent raccoons (legally they can’t just be released). Several times I was within feet of these trespassers. A gun would have solved much gardening heartache. I think the issue holding me back was my lack of experience plus my girlfriend’s love of groundhogs. The trappers actually told her they were taking them to be released at a special groundhog sanctuary upstate or some other nonsense She didn’t truly believe it, but it did soften the blow.
One defensive maneuver I have implemented after all this groundhog fun was to turn those groundhog harboring logs into a hugelkultur mound (with help from the landlord). This act, plus mowing down the brambles around the area, reduced the chances of another groundhog infestation. Leaving an overgrown area with piled wood is just asking for trouble. You are literally aiding and abetting the enemy.
Last season, I was again faced (literally) with a groundhog. He was traveling several hundred feet (and several neighbor’s yards) from his home to graze next to my garden. In his defense, I do have some really nice clover out there. One day, I found myself nose-to-nose with him, as I ran to block his escape route. There we stood, a mere 5 feet from each other, deciding what to do next. My inner voice whispered softly, “If you only had a gun right now.” Instead, here’s the cellphone picture I took of him fleeing the scene.
Thanks to my giant hugelkultur mound and diligent garden fence reinforcement (including chicken wire bent in an L shape out into the grass – the Snarky Girlfriend’s idea), this particular varmint hasn’t made his way into my garden. But as long as they are in my yard, there’s always a danger of an invasion. This year (knock on woodchucks) there has only been one groundhog sighted and he lives out by the road, far away from my precious veggies.
I want to leave by saying I am an animal lover, which is why I’ve taken quite the twisted path to my current stance. I find myself thinking “How adorable!” when spotting a groundhog eating away in the grass next to the road. I don’t look forward to personally ending the life of a groundhog (or any creature for that matter). But since I’m not vegan, I’m eating animals all the time that didn’t die of old age. Cognitive dissidence is a funny thing. We humans kill by proxy all the time but society thinks poorly of hunters because they are “killing Bambi”. I believe next time I’m faced with a garden invaders, I will “dispatch” them with a newly purchased .22 rifle. I guess we’ll see.
Earlier this year, I wrote up a post for Mother Earth News about seed libraries. One point I made was that the only way a seed library will survive and thrive is for people to give back. Well, now’s the time for action.
My seed library experience
For example, my neighborhood seed library, the Seed Library of the Kent (Ohio) Free Library) just sent out a request for gardeners to bring in collected seeds.
Here’s a few of their reminders:
We collect vegetable, herb, or flower seeds.
If you had a successful crop using seeds from the Seed Library, we’d like you to bring back at least twice as much seed as you “borrowed.”
Donated seeds don’t have to be from plants you grew from Seed Library seeds! Anything you’d like to donate helps grow the collection.
Review seed saving guidelines to be sure that your seeds will be viable and “true”–for instance, double check whether plants needed to be grown a certain distance away from other varieties in the same family or whether seeds can be harvested from the plant the first year, or are biennial and need to overwinter.
Save and dry your seeds according to recommended practices.
Bring your seeds to the library in a clear plastic bag and be sure to completely fill out a donation form.
Unfortunately for me, my checked out seeds didn’t fair well. I borrowed 4 varieties of beans, yet none survived. Between our drought and hungry rabbits, no beans were produced. I do have other seeds though, including the pictured Jacobs Cattle beans. Turnips, tomatoes, and peppers will round out my donations.
The most important idea to remember about seeds is they are an abundant resource when saved. Our consumer society wants you to believe seeds must purchase them from giant organizations hundreds of miles away. Truth is, one tomato or turnip plant can produce literally thousands of seeds. As a seed saver, you will have so many you won’t know what to do with them all. Why not give some back to the community?
Isn’t “invasive” just another word for “abundance”?
One of my favorite weeds is garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata). Yes, that invasive biennial that’s the bane of naturalists and ecologists everywhere. Ever since I discovered it a few years ago, it has held a special place in my heart. Most of its detractors (“haters gonna hate”) don’t know a dirty little secret – garlic mustard is edible. It’s in the New World because settlers brought it over from Europe as a culinary herb. Garlic mustard is a mustard green that tastes like garlic and has no natural predators here in Ohio (including our veracious deer and groundhogs). It grows where other plants don’t (shady, wild, and disturbed areas) and makes a really delicious pesto. My garlic mustard adoration stems (pun intended) from its resilience. It’s the kind of resilience and vigor I wish all my plants had.
During a library gardening presentation, I was describing my garlic mustard love. One woman stopped me mid-sentence as she finally put two and two together and realized that I was talking about Garlic Mustard (cue the evil music). She thought I was actually cultivating it, and was abhorred at the idea. For the record, I’m not purposely growing it. I try to harvest as much as I can carry every spring so it doesn’t take over the world. Truth be told, because of its “invasiveness”, I will never have to cultivate it. Garlic Mustard can really take care of itself.
“Indeed, Homo sapiens is perhaps the weediest of all species, and the more he dominates the landscape, the more he seems to thrive. If we confine the concept of weeds to species adapted to human disturbance, then man is by definition the first and primary weed under whose influence all other weeds have evolved.”
Crops & Man, Second Edition, Jack R. Harlan, p. 87
I do find it interesting that people love to villainize flora and fauna with the “invasive” tag. As I was going through my Permaculture Design Course, my instructor Peter Bane wouldn’t even utter the word. He called it the “I word”. This label is put on plants and animals which are seen as invaders from another land. They take over niches that “native” plants have and squeeze them out. Of course, from an environmental point of view, I get the whole “keep our natives native” concept but the problem I see in this discussion is the elephant in the room – us.
Humans are more invasive than any other creature except maybe cockroaches (you know, the whole surviving nuclear war thing). Yes, settlers did displace the native people that were here in the Americas 400 years ago (thanks to the animal-based diseases Europeans carried with them), but those “natives” have only been on the continent maybe 15,000 years maximum. Considering the Earth is 4 billion plus years old, and humans have only been around a 200,000 years in our present form, native is extremely relative. All I can say is that maybe all our efforts to eradicating invasive species could be put to better use, like creating sustainable ecosystems and using “invasive” resources to feed and warm us when the oil runs out.
Permaculture stresses utilizing on-premise resources. My plea to you is research the wild plants on your sites. Try to learn as much about them as you can before dismissing them. “How may ways can this plant be useful?” is a question every permaculturalist should be asking (otherwise known as “function stacking”). Many of your “weeds” came to your location as food and/or medicine. Here’s a list (in order of deliciousness) I came up with here at Snarky Acres (my .91 acre Kent Ohio urban farm) by asking this very question.
Fact that only interest me:
Most descriptions I find for unknown edible plants state that they taste and cook like spinach, like the plant version of “it tastes like chicken.”
Lamb’s quarters are in the same family as quinoa and is closely related to spinach and beets. I found this in my backyard last year, saved some seeds. and tossed them throughout my garden. The plants I discovered almost didn’t make it as the friendly neighborhood groundhog seemed to prefer it over other plants in the backyard (which tell’s me it’s delicious). This last season I ended up with about a dozen plants, one was 10 to 12 feet tall, during our mild drought (resistant!). I don’t think I’ll ever need to worry about having enough lamb’s quarters again.
Violets (a perennial) not only show up in my garden, they are also spread throughout my yard. I didn’t know until last year they are edible but have been eating them ever since. The leaves are pleasant and remind me of spinach. Like many leafy greens, the earlier in the season the better.
Best way to eat violets: leaves and flowers in salads
Also known as white man’s foot, plantain is a yard and garden staple. It loves compacted soil, so you’ll notice it growing near where there is a lot of foot traffic. The leaves are full of nutrients with a spinach like taste. Plantain can be used medicinally for bug bites and scrapes.
We all know the good old dandelion. I laugh (just in my head) when people talk about eradicating them from their yards. Not only can it be eaten, but it helps in other ways. The yellow flowers give bees pollen early in the season when they need it the most. Its long tap root brings up minerals and nutrients that are then utilized by your garden plants. Just hoe the plant down and use the leaves as mulch around your veggies. Don’t worry – the tap root stores plenty of energy and will help the plant grow back in no time.
Best way to eat dandelions: young leaves in salads, flowers in fritters, and roots in beer or wine
Purple Dead Nettle (Lamium purpureum)
In the mint family. purple dead nettle is a bee favorite. It comes up early and often on bare ground in gardens. As a salad addition, the taste isn’t the greatest but a few flowers at a time doesn’t hurt too bad.
Best way to eat purple dead nettle: just a few flowers in salads
Ground Ivy or Creeping Charlie is a ground cover in the mint family. It’s not my favorite food but the bees seem to love it. Ground Ivy’s little purple flowers give plenty of nectar to small native insects. It’s strong mint-like flavor makes ground ivy a good companion plant and natural mulch.
Best way to eat Creeping Charlie: it’s too strong for my taste, but I’ve read it makes a good tea.
“Permaculture creates abundance through nature” – Don Abbott
Seven useful weeds listed (including garlic mustard) and many not mentioned, including quickweed, hairy bittercress, purslane, multiflora rose, , and poison ivy (just kidding), raspberries, pigweed, and pokeweed. Pretty impressive.
Another place I hear the “I-word” is with common herbaceous perennials. Everybody knows that the mint family (including the Creeping Charlie mentioned above) can run amok if left unchecked. I even relocated my chocolate mint from my main garden to a more secure and bordered shady plot next to my house. I wasn’t as careful with my oregano and lemon balm though, and both have taken over a few areas of my production garden. What’s not always discussed with the mint family is their wonderful purple flowers. The oregano especially ends up looking like a pollinator airport once the flowers open up for business. Bees (both native and the non-native honey bee) and predatory insects swarm all over to the point I have to avoid the area completely so not to get stung.
“The common definition of a weed – that is a plant in the wrong place – conceals two important implications. Firstly, the word “wrong” implies a human opinion, since right and wrong are human concepts not inherent in nature. Secondly, the word “place” implies some characteristic dependence on environment, or in other words an ecological relationship, and clearly that relationship has to do with man’s own botanical activities in farming.” – A.H. Bunting (1960)
The invasiveness of weeds is a human judgement. We as humans put values on things we often don’t understand. Both honey bees and earthworms are not native to my eastern United States home, but everyone accepts them as a positive thing. Some day I’m going to ask those who describe living things as invasive to explain to me why these two examples (plus us humans) don’t count. Should make for an interesting conversation.
“Potatoes grow best in soil that is well drained, loose and high in organic matter. Soil that is too sandy, rocky, or clay is not good for potatoes.”
This is true, but we don’t always have perfect conditions. My research found mention of taters being used to break up clay soil back in the day, especially in areas previously covered with grass. I believe the process of hilling up soil and organic materials around the growing plants assists in the soil building process. I’ve used both straw and fall leaves to cover the stems with nice results.
“The soil should be tilled at least 10 inches deep or double shoveled and raked. The PH for growing potatoes is 5.5 to 6.0 which is lower than most vegetables as potatoes favor a more acid soil.”
Um – normally I don’t till and all this shoveling and raking sounds like work to me. Usually I just dig a small hole or run my hoe down east and west to make a furrow. Then I drop seed taters in and cover them up with soil and/or leaf mulch. As for pH, it’s never been a major concern for my little gardening mind.
“Last years potatoes or grocery store potatoes should not be used as seed potatoes, use only certified seed potatoes which are state inspected.”
This rule is usually not broken unless I have spouted stored potatoes and extra ground to bury them in. I’ve been known to plant a potato variety I’ve seen at the farmer’s market if I haven’t seen anywhere else. This being said, my recommendation is to buy certified seed whenever you can.
Potatoes need 1.5 inches of water per week, more during dry spells. Do not water from above but by drip irrigation or soaker hose. Weeding potatoes is essential to disease and pest control, however you can grow potatoes using plastic mulch. The mulch can be cut with a bulb planter every 12 inches and hand planted in rows about 18 inches apart. Drip irrigation works well with this method of planting.
As a rule, I don’t water my garden unless we are in a drought. Spuds I’ve grown in the past seem to have survived just fine without the water. Hoeing and hilling the dirt around the potatoes keeps weeds down naturally. Also, I’m not one to use non-organic materials for mulch, but if you want to, be my guest.
“Potatoes can get early blight which are small circular brown spots with a target like spot in the middle. This will kill plants and is caused by plant debris overwintering in the bed you plant them. Plant rotation is extremely important with potatoes. Do not grow in the same bed for 4 years. Clean up the garden in fall.”
I try to keep from growing members of the nightshade family (tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, eggplants, and ground cherries) in the same place for 3 years, which is the minimum time suggested by most experts. I’m not always able to accomplish this as I grow A LOT of tomatoes and taters. To keep this all straight, I utilize GrowVeg.com planner software. This platform lets me know if I’ve grown something from the same family in a specific spot in the last 3 years. I don’t always take the advice (especially with legumes like beans and peas) but the Nightshade family does get my respect.
“Common Scab is caused by a bacteria that can be in the soil for a long time, even when potatoes were not planted in that spot. The main cause is decomposing material such as vegetable matter not cleaned up. Using an acid based fertilizer can sometimes help, or find another place to plant.”
The Snarky Gardener’s tubers were infected with common scab a few season’s back. They tasted just fine, but it was a concern. After reading up on the subject and doing a soil test the following year, I traced the problem down to high pH (7.4). I haven’t planted nightshades in that area since and haven’t seen scab on my taters grown in other places either.
My takeaways from the Penn State Extension Office article:
I’ve been growing potatoes in our Northeastern Ohio clay for the past decade. Besides a small common scab issue, I’ve had little to no problems. I do appreciate advice given by people who have WAY more experience and knowledge than the Snarky Gardener. The article was written from the “maximizing potato output” point-of-view. My gardening designs lean towards minimizing labor, soil disturbance (“low-till”) and “outside my property” inputs. This means I might not get the biggest or best harvests, but I will always get something. And isn’t that the goal of every gardener?
I’ve also learned that I don’t follow instructions well (never have, never will). For me, gardening is as much art as it science. If we aren’t allowed to try our own systems and practices, the fun of the garden is removed. And I’m all about having a great time out in my yard, even if it’s hard work sometimes. Nothing beats growing plants, harvesting produce, and eating meals created with food that you grew (even if you are not following the directions).