A Pruning Guide for the Squeamish

 

Pruning trees and shrubs correctly is not as difficult as some careful people may think, though pruning incorrectly is as easy as some careless people make it look. First, leave those shears in the shed. Shears are effective at cutting back herbaceous perennials and ornamental grasses, but are otherwise detrimental to the health of woody plants because they leave behind stubs. Don’t leave stubs!

Stubs are what is left of a woody twig or branch after the person pruning it has failed to cut it off at the proper place, which is close to a node where it joins the main plant, and instead has cut it haphazardly somewhere along its length. Shears by definition make cuts haphazardly on woody plants, even if at a distance the poor shrub looks neatly trimmed in shapes that some people find pleasing. Who hasn’t looked at a shrub minding its own business and thought, “That bush would be much more attractive shaped like a cube”? After several swipes of the shears, the bush appears neatly cubed from a distance, but upon closer inspection it will be evident it has suffered numerous wounds it will have trouble healing, if it can do so at all. Don’t leave stubs!


Treelion M45
Hand pruners – or secateurs – in use. Photo by Pellencgroup. The cut being made in the photo is too far out along the branch to be a proper pruning cut. It could be a preliminary cut intended to take away most of the weight of the branch to reduce the possibility of bark tearing away from the trunk when the branch falls loose. In that case, the final pruning cut should be close to – but not flush with – the trunk, as shown with the cut a bit higher on the trunk.

There are three principle reasons for pruning trees and shrubs, in descending order of importance.

  1. To preserve the safety and well-being of people, other animals, and property. Obviously, this applies primarily to trees, since shrubs are typically less capable of menace.
  2. To preserve or improve the health of the plant being pruned, such as by removing dead wood and crossing branches.
  3. Aesthetics, which of course is in the eye of the beholder, though the beholder should remain mindful of the precedence of reasons one and two, and of the vital importance of not leaving stubs.

Timing can be another critical aspect of pruning, and it can be confusing in light of differing requirements from plant to plant, with some requirements relevant to plant health and others to aesthetics, as in promoting or preserving flowering. In areas of the country with winter freezes, however, there is one general rule applicable to avoiding injury or weakening of a woody plant, and that is to refrain from any major pruning in the weeks leading up to the first frost in late summer and early autumn. The reason is that pruning encourages new growth, and tender new growth is susceptible to cold injury. The results are not apt to be catastrophic for the plant, but it will have wasted valuable energy on damaged top growth at a time of year when it would be healthier for it to be storing energy in its roots. It’s like shaking a person who wants to go to sleep.

Later in the year, in winter and especially in late winter, it is alright to perform major pruning on many woody plants because they are dormant. The plant’s hormones will not awaken it to push out new growth at that inopportune time. The exception is a sappy plant such as a maple tree. As anyone knows who has ever tapped a sugar maple tree for maple syrup, a maple produces sap copiously in late winter and early spring, and drawing too much of it at one time, as occurs in cutting off a major limb, will weaken the tree. It’s better to leave pruning of sappy plants until summer, when they will only dribble, and not gush, from wounds.



These are all great bits from a first series episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, but the portion relevant to this post begins at the 9:46 mark of the video.

 

If it seems this language of pruning is evocative of surgery on humans and other animals, the good reason for it is that the two procedures are more alike than different in their effects, and it is helpful to be aware when pruning that you are making cuts into a living organism. Too many people with shears, particularly the mechanical kind, appear to proceed blithely without any awareness that their hedges and foundation plantings are composed of living organisms that must expend energy recovering from an assault with carelessly wielded cutting implements.

As for appearance, while there are few people who can carry off the page boy haircut look successfully, there are for some bewildering reason an awful lot of people who think the plant equivalent of that haircut looks just dandy on their shrubs. If the shrubs themselves could speak, they might express a preference to be left alone to allow their natural beauty to shine through, with only an occasional light touch from a deft hand to help them look their best. Most of all, to keep trees and shrubs beauteous and robust, don’t leave stubs!
— Izzy

 

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Waste Not

 

 

 

Wait! Don’t throw that Halloween pumpkin in the trash! There are any number of ways to keep that pumpkin out of a landfill and instead put it to good use. Before putting it to good use, however, it’s a good idea to clean up any wax or decorative bits from the pumpkin, restoring it to a state of pumpkin grace in nature, the way it had grown peacefully in some farmer’s field all summer before it became a holiday symbol for a few brief autumn days.

Happy tidyman

Compost your pumpkin! If you can’t compost it yourself, give it to someone who can. If your pumpkin is still wholesomely edible, you can of course eat it, or give it to some person or creature who will. An animal sanctuary operating on a skimpy budget dependent on the kindness of members of the community will almost certainly welcome the donation of edible pumpkins, free of any toxic byproducts, as a treat for the animals under their guardianship. Don’t forget to save the seeds when hollowing out a pumpkin prior to using it as a decoration: either eat the seeds yourself, or set them out for the birds (don’t salt the seeds if they’re meant for the birds).

Golden Guernsey goats eat pumpkin
A pair of Golden Guernsey goats eating a pumpkin in November 2011. Photo by Flickr user Rebecca. If these goats could talk, they might bleat a “Thank you!”

 

You will do a good deed by turning a symbol of the fall harvest, which has unfortunately also become a symbol of enormous food waste, into a positive boon for someone or some creature in some way, at least for a few days. Better than putting it in a landfill, where it will help no one. In two months it will be time to consider how to keep Christmas trees out of the landfill, and that will be a little trickier because hardly anyone wants to eat them, although goats might nibble the more tender parts.
— Izzy

 

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A Confusion of Mums

 


How hardy are the chrysanthemums sold at nurseries, garden centers, and grocery stores in the fall? What is a Dendranthema mum? Are any of the mums used for a fall display going to survive if planted in the ground afterward? The answers are “somewhat”, “no one really knows”, and “maybe”. Welcome to the wonderful world of chrysanthemums, a flowering plant second in popularity only to the rose, and just as susceptible to hybridization and the fickleness that is often a byproduct of botanical experimentation.

 


If a gardener is concerned at all about procuring a truly hardy, perennial mum when out shopping, he or she might be better off disregarding most of the confusing nomenclature and instead following the rough rule of thumb that the more daisy-like the chrysanthemum flower, the hardier the plant. All those pom-pom and button flowered cultivars have been created by plant hybridizers who were motivated by producing what they presumed to be the showiest flowers, in profusion and in a wide range of colors. As in anything else in life, there are trade-offs, and in the case of hybridized chrysanthemums, generally known as florists’ mums, the trade-off for an abundance of puffed up flowers in nearly every color was a weakened plant that many buyers treat as a tender annual.


Reading in the garden, (15468717167)
A mass of Korean chrysanthemums in bloom in October 2014 at the Conservatory Garden of New York City’s Central Park. Photo by Flickr user David McSpadden.


Here is a plant that has a short season of bloom, typically lasting only a month, which is not bad for a perennial, but is terrible for an annual. What makes most annuals a good value for gardeners is their tendency to bloom continuously for three or more months. Plant them in a particular spot in the garden and they will fill it with color for a season. Some annuals reseed themselves, making them yet a better value. Perennials typically flower a month or two in the year, but since gardeners don’t have to buy new ones each year, they are a good long term value. Many perennials also increase themselves by various means, such as underground runners in the case of truly hardy chrysanthemums.

The florists’ mums that take over stores in the fall are a marketer’s dream plant. Firstly, they demonstrate very well the axiom that “the flower sells the plant” because they have flowers to spare when the plants are at their relatively brief peak period of bloom. Secondly, their fickle requirements for success when planted out among the other perennials in a garden ensures they are only nominally perennials and are in practice annuals, and that translates to turnover for sellers, a yearly marketing bonanza as buyers get new plants each year. Lastly, the genetic pliability of chrysanthemums rewards the efforts of plant hybridizers to produce new and unusual cultivars year after year, driving novelty in the market and the higher profits accruing to patented plants.
Chrysanthemum zawadskii1
Chrysanthemum zawadskii in Osaka, Japan. Photo by KENPEI. These are also known as Korean chrysanthemums. The confusion of names makes plant selection difficult for people, but honey bees have no difficulty choosing to visit the flat, open flowers of these truly perennial chrysanthemums, which they prefer over the often tight quarters of the flowers on florists’ mums.

For gardeners who can’t resist picking up a few florists’ mums in the fall, the good news is that they can plant them out and get more than one brief season of bloom from them if they educate themselves about the plant’s requirements and take great care with them the first winter at least. Many gardeners may decide coddling florists’ mums is not worth the trouble, and for them the most pleasing mum in their gardens will be the truly perennial chrysanthemum, and it goes by many names, most often Dendranthema. There is a confusing history to that genus name, a name which for much of the late twentieth century actually applied to all chrysanthemums. Or most of them. It’s hard to tell. Probably it’s best not to bother about it too much. The truly perennial mums can be hard to find in plant nurseries and shops, and much easier to find in old cottage gardens. They’re the waist high mounds of plants covered in masses of daisy-like flowers that honey bees love visiting.
— Izzy

 

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Of Thee I Sing

 

Recently an Etsy entrepeneur started marketing “Make America Greta Again” caps, “Greta” being Greta Thunberg, the young Swedish climate activist who has been in the news lately after her speech at the United Nations in New York City and her participation in the Climate Strike, which she inspired with the Fridays for Future school strikes she started a year ago. The entrepeneur, Johan Hansson, claims 100 percent of the profits from cap sales will go to Greenpeace, and if that is indeed the case, then it appears his primary goal in making the caps is trolling the current president and his followers, the MAGA crowd.

 

Mr. Hansson did not think up the slogan for his caps, which has shown up on placards at climate change protests since Greta Thunberg became an internationally famous figure, but he did think to put the slogan on caps that look exactly like the original MAGA caps. The typography and colors are the same, and all Mr. Hansson had to do was switch around two letters. It’s a clever twist, and as for trolling the trolls it is bound to be effective. The question is whether that is the best way to read the science behind climate change, as Ms. Thunberg continually stresses is the driving force of her activism, or whether it is merely a satisfying way to get under the skin of MAGA people by giving them a dose of their own medicine.

2019 Austrian World Summit Climate Kirtag (47958591021)
Greta Thunberg speaks at the May 2019 Austrian World Summit Climate Kirtag (or Fair). Photo originally posted to Flickr by the Austrian Foreign Ministry. Like the enlarged image of Ms. Thunberg on the screen at the left of the stage, her influence on the climate debate has grown in the past year such that journalists and politicians have attributed the tripling of seats gained in the Austrian parliament by the Green Party in the September 2019 election to what they call “The Greta Effect”.

The problem is not the altered slogan itself, but in how the design of the new cap mimics the original so closely that even from several feet away most people would be unable to distinguish the difference. The original MAGA cap has over the course of a few years become strongly associated with hatred and hatefulness, and the wearers delight in how its appearance “owns the libs”, or trolls them. For MAGA people, that’s part of the fun of wearing the cap. Since the new cap looks exactly the original from a distance, most reasonable people, associating the wearer with hateful beliefs and often unpleasant behavior, would probably steer clear, under the assumption the wearer is a devoted follower of the current president, a hateful person who often exhibits unpleasant behavior.

 

MAKE AMERICA
GRETA AGAIN

 

Fellow MAGA travelers, on the other hand, upon companionably sidling up to the wearer of a cap with a slightly changed slogan, may not even notice the difference until the wearer gives out unexpected opinions or points out the change to them. The old trick of switching two letters in a familiar word derives its surprise from how often people will gloss over the change in their minds and never even notice it.

 

MAKE AMERICA
GRETA AGAIN

 

Trolling trolls may seem satisfying at first, but the long term result is like that of a wrestling match between a person and a pig in a muddy pen (once considered a fun event at county fairs), in which the person ends up filthy and exhausted, and the pig is happily in his or her element. The altered slogan would probably serve its ultimate, positive message of taking action against climate change better by rising above the muck where the current president and his followers wallow in hatred and hatefulness. To do that with the slogan on caps, perhaps changing the color or font or point size of “Greta” would make all the difference in signaling to friend and foe alike that the original was only a point of departure, and a lowly one at that. Maybe change colors of the cap and the typography of “Greta” entirely so that it stands apart, the way Greta Thunberg herself has demonstrated in dealing with the trolls. Nothing infuriates trolls more than not being taken seriously and having their distractions ignored as reasonable people go on about the business of taking serious action on real problems, and that can give climate activists some measure of satisfaction in denying the power of climate change deniers in MAGA caps.
— Izzy

MAKE EARTH
GRETA AGAIN
The possibilities are endless.

 

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The Glass Half Full

 

“And yet it moves.” Galileo Galilei (1564-1642)

In an idiotic stunt on her Fox News television program on September 6, right wing commentator Laura Ingraham thought it would be good fun to upset liberals by sticking plastic straws and incandescent light bulbs into a slab of cooked meat and then sucking on one of the straws. The stunt revealed more about her emotional immaturity and that of her viewers who might have enjoyed the bizarre demonstration than it did about the ultimate worth of the causes she was mocking. That wasn’t her point, of course; the point for people like Ms. Ingraham and her fans is provoking liberals merely for the dubious enjoyment of provoking liberals, an attitude that displays all the maturity of a seventh grader shooting spitballs from the back of a classroom.


Оптимист и пессимист
An Optimist and a Pessimist, an 1893 painting by Vladimir Makovsky (1846-1920).

The unwillingness of bad faith media figures like Laura Ingraham to honestly and substantively discuss issues such as the environment generally, and the Green New Deal in particular, reveals their worries about how environmental initiatives like the Global Climate Strike may disrupt their lives and worldviews, and how because of their fears they resent the people backing the initiatives. They see it all as an infringement on their liberty rather than as a concession to sharing limited resources and playing nice with those unlike themselves. To them, it is not a matter of viewing the relative fullness or emptiness of a glass as it is a matter of resenting the people telling them that for the health of the planet and all its inhabitants, flora as well as fauna, all of us had better accept the situation of a glass not entirely full because constant demands by a relative few for an always full glass are causing environmental degradation and eventually, perhaps sooner rather then later, the glass will be empty for everyone.

But that’s what environmental science is telling us. Getting upset about it or denying it and hiding one’s head in the sand is not going to change it, any more than immature and unhelpful behaviors have ever changed other scientific realities. Worse yet is attacking the messengers in a bad faith attempt to disregard the messages. Why disregard clear, coherent messages? Because they disrupt the status quo for powerful people with vested interests in keeping things as they are, in continuing the business as usual of corporate profiteering at the expense of the long term habitability of the commons. Right wing pundits may not always consciously carry water for corporate exploiters of the environment and of workers, but since their interests often align with them the result is the same. The pundits know their audience is uniquely susceptible to fear and hate mongering, and they peddle those wares regularly to enrich themselves.


In this talk Noam Chomsky gave in April 2019 in Boston, Massachusetts, he looked back at the original New Deal to examine how the Green New Deal promises to change economic relationships while enacting energy and environmental initiatives.

 

The Green New Deal is felt as a threat by right wingers and by entrenched corporate interests because its environmental initiatives will reach into and change the entire economy, and that’s something they cannot help but see any other way than as a negative, a glass half empty. The privileges of white people generally, and of rich people in particular, will be eroded during these economic changes, and that’s a good thing for everyone else and for the planet, because the over extension and abuse of those privileges has been largely responsible for getting all of us into this mess in the first place. No matter how the over privileged feel about the changes, they will have to accept them and get used to them, because the alternative for them is grimmer still, as well as for everyone on our lifeboat Earth as it continues moving around the Sun.
— Izzy

 

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Made in the Shade

 

For the home gardener or professional landscaper who absolutely must work in the sun on a hot day, there are no satisfactory ways to temporarily create sizable shaded areas. Beach umbrellas offer only a small circle of shade, can become dangerous projectiles in the wind, and at any rate are configured for people to sit under, not stand upright under, to gain their protection.

 

A portable canopy, such as may be found at a farmer’s market or a flea market, where it shades a seller’s wares, as well as the seller and any buyer, offers a sizable area of shade but is not as portable as one would like if the need arises to pick it up and move it several times during an afternoon of garden work. Four-legged canopies are also unsuitable on uneven ground, where they are likely to tip even without encouragement from a breeze. Preventing tipping requires the use of sandbags or other weights, and after a few repetitions setting up a so-called portable canopy becomes a real chore.

Guarda-chuvas em Cerveira
Umbrellas overhang a street in Vila Nova de Cerveira, Portugal, as part of an arts festival in August 2013. The original display of umbrellas in this way was in the Portuguese city of Águeda in 2011. Photo by Joseolgon.

Those are two of the more portable, easier to set up options. Other methods of creating shade, such as deploying sail shades, are hardly portable at all. The Labor Day weekend is the traditional end of summer in the United States, yet there is still plenty of hot weather in store for September and even into October. Working in a sunny garden would be more pleasant with the assistance of a device that is easily workable, portable, and gives a sizable amount of shade. What follows are guidelines for the inventor or inventors of such a sorely needed garden companion.

1) In order to be useful, the device should shade an area no less than 100 square feet, and still fold up compactly enough to fit in a small kit bag. It should weigh less than 20 pounds.

2) The device should remain stable on uneven ground and in the wind, though obviously within reason in both cases, and it should do so without the use of heavy weights.

3) One reasonably fit person should be able to erect the device or fold it up within a minute, and it should be easy for that person to move the device from one location to the next, also within a minute.

4) The shading material should be shade cloth with a density ranging from 60 to 80 percent, which allows cooling breezes through, is lighter than a more tightly woven fabric, and remains more stable in the wind.

5) The supports should be strong, light, and corrosion resistant. Use of spikes to anchor the device is inadvisable since shallowly penetrating spikes can be unreliable, and deeply penetrating ones negate portability.

6) Ideally it should cost less than $100, and definitely no more than $200, even though it should be able to take some rough treatment and last a decade or more.

Is that too much to ask? Certainly it may be too late to have the new Shade Giver ready this year, but surely by next year, when summer heat starts seeping in by April or May, some enterprising person will have created a prototype that could become the new Gardener’s Friend. Perhaps instead of a sail it will resemble one of the shells of the Sydney Opera House. Whatever the design of the device, it should bring sweet relief to those who must labor under the hot sun and still not hurt their backs or pocketbooks. In these warming times, asking for the protection provided by shade has become a necessary request.


Sagasiglar01
The Saga Siglar, a replica of a Viking ship, sails near Australia’s Sydney Opera House in September 1985. Photo by Islandmen.

— Izzy

 

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Under the Fig Tree

 

Figs are ripening now all across the southern United States, and by September the figs in the northern half of the country will ripen. If a gardener has 20 to 30 square feet to spare outside, preferably in a sunny spot protected from cold winter winds, then planting a fig tree would be a productive use of that space. For the gardener who doesn’t have enough outdoor space, then planting a dwarf fig tree in a pot and setting it by a sunny window is a great way to get plenty of fruits (technically a fig is not a fruit, but a fleshy stem with multiple ingrown flowers), and without a great deal of fuss over pests, diseases, and special requirements.

017 Squirrel in Bodhi Tree (9222176956)
A squirrel nibbling a fig in the Bodhi Tree at the Mahabodhi Temple in Bodh Gaya, Bihar state, India. Photo by Flickr user Anandajoti.

 

A self-pollinating dwarf fig variety does not require a tiny wasp to pollinate it, unlike varieties such as Smyrna figs. Contrary to common belief, most figs commercially available these days, either as fresh or dried fruits in grocery stores, or as plants for sale to home gardeners, are self-pollinating varieties and therefore it is unlikely consumers will eat a tiny, imprisoned wasp in a fig. Even if they did, there’s no harm in it, and anyway the enzymes produced by the ripening fig will have dissolved the wasp by the time the fig is ready for consumption. That delicate crunchiness inside any ripe fig generally comes from the seeds, and rarely from an insect exoskeleton.

In growing figs outdoors, southern gardeners have a big advantage over northern gardeners because they have to do relatively little to protect their trees from winter cold. Wrapping the branches in burlap and perhaps adding a layer of mulch around the roots are all that is required in the South. There will be some branch die back even so in an average winter, but usually nothing like the major losses incurred by fig trees in the North unless gardeners lay the trees down in trenches and pile mulch and wind protection on top of them.


For a 2017 album, Blakey Morton performed Scott Joplin’s 1908 song “Fig Leaf Rag”.

 

Once a fig tree has established a vigorous root system over the course of five to ten years it can withstand die back of the entire above ground portion and still bounce back in the spring with enough new growth to produce fruit later in the summer. But the difficulty in the North is that without sufficient winter protection the roots themselves may die, and of course that is the end of the tree. Italian immigrants to the northeastern part of the country deemed the extra work worthwhile for the sweet figs they could pluck off their own trees at the end of summer, and they introduced the practice of laying the trees down in winter when they first started arriving in this country in the late nineteenth century. The people of this country, almost all descendants of immigrants themselves, can surely appreciate the sweet taste of the fig along with its rich lore and its association with other immigrants and their generous sharing of knowledge; and since a fig is much more in cultures around the world than a simple fruit, perhaps the people of this country of immigrants can even find enlightenment under the fig tree, wherever it grows.
— Izzy

 

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What’s It to Ya, Doc?

 

“It ill becomes us to invoke in our daily prayers the blessings of God, the Compassionate, if we in turn will not practice elementary compassion towards our fellow creatures.”
Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948)

Anyone who has ever been a vegetarian or vegan even for a short time has probably at some point encountered hostility from a meat eater, perhaps on several occasions from many different people. The experience can be baffling, particularly if the vegetarian or vegan does not make a big show of their practices. Self-righteous and preachy behavior can be annoying, certainly, but even when a vegetarian or vegan abstains from being a smug boor, some meat eaters will attack them as if they had been. A couple of recent news items help illustrate the innate hostility some people harbor for those who don’t adhere to mainstream dietary practices, even though it’s no one’s business but their own and the majority of them do not go out of their way to bother anyone.


Arby’s, an American fast food chain specializing in roast beef sandwiches, has come out with turkey meat processed to look like a bloated carrot, and in London two men have been found guilty of disorderly behavior after they ate raw squirrels in front of a vegan food stand. The actions of both Arby’s and the London squirrel eaters are obvious attempts to troll vegetarians and vegans, and their reasons for doing so say more about their own stunted mentality than anything else. Arby’s has for some time used an advertising slogan which proudly declares their enthusiasm for meat, and plenty of it. It is a fair guess that even if the political culture of Arby’s management is not necessarily right wing, they do assess their customer base as right wing, and trolling the perceived political correctness of their fast food competitors who have lately been offering vegetarian menu options is a good way to appeal to them.

Marzipan carrots for carrot cake
Marzipan carrots for carrot cake. Marzipan consists primarily of almond paste and sugar or honey, and vegetarians would partake of it, though if honey were in it, vegans would not. Photo by SKopp.

Like everything else in our society, there is a political division in people’s dietary choices. Vegetarians and vegans are mostly liberals. Other liberals who are meat eaters are more likely to react to alternative diets with indifference or polite curiosity. At any rate, most of them do not perceive vegetarians and vegans as threats. Not so political conservatives, particularly those with authoritarian leanings. The difference is so striking that it can almost be used as a reliable indicator of political beliefs: hostility to diets at variance with the mainstream is a good clue that a person might be right wing. Often these people will appoint themselves to keep an eye on vegetarians and vegans for backsliding, no matter how innocuous their target is about minding their own business and not actively posing a threat to them. If threats are not real, they will be imagined! We have met the enemy, and it is Them, the Others!

Nothing delights these self-appointed guardians of imagined societal standards more than catching a vegetarian or worse, a vegan (and therefore probably a liberal!) in an act of perceived hypocrisy, because then they can denounce the entire belief system and not be bothered anymore by any of its implications, such as cruelty to animals or environmental degradation. A problem ignored is a problem solved! Meat eaters who worry about the perceived sanctimonious behavior of non-meat eaters occasionally like to bring up the supposed fact of Adolf Hitler’s vegetarianism, as if the actions and beliefs of one ogre tarnish all vegetarians. That is like suggesting the beliefs and actions of all Christians are suspect simply because some white evangelical Christian leaders are terrible human beings.

In this Merrie Melodies cartoon from 1947, Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd are at odds with each other as always, and the cartoon finishes with action that for its time was considered normal.

It is interesting to note that in dealing with hostility from some meat eaters, non-meat eaters discover they can assuage the unease of their interrogators when they ask about the reasons for their choice by stressing the healthful benefits over the other issues. That approach is not entirely dishonest, since there are real benefits for human health in foregoing or at least restricting meat eating. The American diet of meat with nearly every meal is not the most healthful, nor is it the historical norm. Most Americans could stand to reduce their consumption of meat, and in doing so they would benefit their own health as well the health of the environment and the quality of life for billions of animals. It is interesting and sad to note that of the three primary benefits of an alternative diet, only the first sets well with right wing authoritarians, and only on account of selfish reasoning.
— Izzy

 

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Goldilocks Tomatoes

 

Americans have become spoiled by the year round availability of produce at the supermarket. The tomatoes available in the store most of the year are hardly worthwhile, but there they are nonetheless, waiting for shoppers who have no other option. Summer is the time for homegrown tomatoes, which definitely are worthwhile, however too many Americans appear to carry over the habits they’ve learned from grocery shopping and believe they should be able to harvest tomatoes from their small patch of a few plants nearly every day all summer long. It’s as if they thought someone might be hiding throughout the day near the tomato patch and coming out under cover of darkness to restock their plants with newly ripened fruit, and just enough to satisfy the consumer’s need for the day.

 

That would be a pleasant scenario, but unfortunately it’s a pipe dream. There are only two factors broadly setting the pace for when tomatoes ripen and in what quantity, and they are the genetics of a determinate versus indeterminate tomato plant, and the weather, particularly temperature. A determinate tomato plant grows to a point of maturity, sets fruit, generally earlier in the summer than other tomato plants, and then goes dormant. An indeterminate tomato plant continues growing, vine-like, throughout the summer until frost, and sets fruit sporadically from mid-summer on, although the fruits borne late in the season as cool weather approaches may not ripen on the vine.

Rajčata&skleník
Growing tomatoes in a greenhouse or cold frame is a way to extend the season by exerting more control over growing conditions than can be had by subjecting the plants to nature. Photo by Fredy.00.

Temperature as a determining factor for tomato plants setting fruits and ripening them is important across the board, no matter what type of plant, whether determinate or indeterminate, or whether the grower advertises a particular plant as an early, late, or mid season variety. Nighttime temperatures below 55 degrees are no good, as are daytime temperatures above 85 degrees. Everything else is meaningless if the temperature does not reside within that sweet spot, that Goldilocks zone. Growers of hothouse tomatoes know this better than anybody. Yet year after year home growers select their tomato plants at the garden center each spring with a plan of spreading out the harvest throughout the summer based on type of plant and promises made by the seller of when to expect the harvest to begin.

There will be some variation in growth early in the season when planting a patch of a few tomato plants, and staggering planting dates may be of limited utility early on as well. As summer progresses, though, and hot weather takes over day after day, all the plants will end up near the same stage of growth at the same time, and the poor gardener, whose best laid plans called for perhaps only a few ripe tomatoes each day from June through September, instead finds himself or herself with an avalanche of ripening tomatoes in July and August, or hardly any at all. These are the risks of subjecting our desires to nature’s control, rather than going to the supermarket to buy a lackluster but sturdily dependable tomato.

What to do? If enough space is available, put in more than a half dozen plants, even if that means a potential glut of tomatoes in a bumper year. More plants is good insurance against a bad year and brings the dream of an evenly spaced harvest closer to reality. Put those plants in slightly different locations, varying the microclimate for each plant, rather than subjecting all of them to the exact same conditions, and potentially the exact same problems. Spread them out if there’s space available. Tomato plants should get at least six hours of sunlight each day, but the kind of sunlight matters a great deal. All tomato plants like to get early morning sun to dry the dew off their leaves. In the South, they appreciate shade from the hottest afternoon sun.

John Denver performed the Guy Clark song “Homegrown Tomatoes” for his 1988 album, Higher Ground, and the song then appeared on his 1991 compilation album, Take Me Home, Country Roads.

If not much space is available, put in as many plants as possible without crowding them, which leads to poor air circulation and consequent fungus and blight problems. Use deep containers with adequate drainage, and mount them on wheels to make it easier to take advantage of varying light as summer progresses. Above all, stop looking at the tomato patch as a supermarket produce section where the fruit appears only as required. Outside under the hot sun, through irregular rain showers and storms, and at the mercy of pests and competing weeds, the tomato plants are taking their own sweet time and are subject less to the gardener and more to nature. If it seems like having only two or three plants makes for a Goldilocks garden, where everything has to be just right to get a spread out harvest, or even any ripe tomatoes at all, then diversify and put in more plants in more spaces. What ripe fruits you get will always be better than supermarket tomatoes and well worth the effort, and you shouldn’t have too much trouble finding takers for the surplus in good years.
— Izzy

 

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Weed Is the Word

 

There are many respectable plants bearing the word “weed” in their common name, such as Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa), Joe Pye Weed (Eutrochium spp.), and Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis). Some are easily available at garden centers, some are available only by mail order, while still others will show up in the garden on their own. All demonstrate a propensity for spreading easily if conditions are right, and that is perhaps the reason for the designation “weed” in their common names. Latin names typically are not prejudiced against these less formal plants that straddle both the garden and the wilds.

Monarch on Butterflyweed (4678376261)
Monarch butterfly on a Butterfly Weed at Cape May National Wildlife Refuge in New Jersey. Photo by Laura Perlick for the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS).

 

Some gardeners do not look beyond the word “weed” in a name before they reach for their hoe or a chemical plant killer. They are not independent thinkers, but ones who are locked into a binary view of the natural world, viewing everything as either good or bad. Try to explain to them that the inclusion of “weed” in a plant’s name can be merely a case of poor public relations. It’s worthwhile to get overly judgmental gardeners to stay their hand regarding these plants because they are often beneficial to butterflies, birds, and other wildlife, more so than a highly hybridized rose bush.

Other weeds, of course, do not have the word included in their name but have acquired it as a general type by reputation. For those weeds, gardeners and farmers have less tolerance and are apt to destroy them whenever encountered, though even those exist on a sliding scale. People are divided into several camps about Dandelions (Taraxacum spp.), for example, while they nearly universally abhor Palmer’s Pigweed (Amaranthus palmeri) and Lamb’s Quarters (Chenopodium berlandieri). Even those last two plants offer the feature of edibility, making them attractive on however limited a basis to at least some people and animals.

One important group of plants has acquired the name “weed”, and they are in the genus Cannabis, also known as Marijuana. Growers and users of the plant have called it “weed” and many other names besides for reasons of its outlaw, rebel status, as well as its diverse nature in checking off boxes from good to bad. Marijuana plants can spread readily on their own; mismanaged large scale cultivation, as opposed to the former practice of clandestinely maintaining relatively small plots, can have a negative impact on the environment; and for people the plant can range in usefulness from good to bad depending on the inclinations and prejudices of the person beholding it.



Paul Reubens as Pee-wee Herman performs “Surfin’ Bird”, a hit song for The Trashmen in 1963, in the 1987 movie Back to the Beach, with Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello.

 

The word “weed” embraces many meanings, and means different things to different people depending on their tolerance level. To hear “weed” in a plant’s name and automatically seek to eradicate it from the garden is arbitrary and foolish. Better to take a more nuanced approach regarding the plants that don’t threaten to choke out every other plant in a garden plot. Some can be seen as friendlier than others regardless of being handicapped with a bad name. As for that other kind of “weed”, the kind some folks like to smoke, legally it’s gaining more widespread favor despite its outlaw name.
— Izzy

 

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