The Dirt Diva

Tailoring your garden to your needs!

September 25, 2018

Preparing for fall frost in the veggie garden

a typical garden scene in late September

This week marked the autumnal equinox, that time of year when day and night hours are of equal length, and we head into decreasing daylight hours, as the nights become cooler and days are cast in sharp contrasting light. This is the time of year my clients ask how to prepare for the onset of winter in the veggie garden, and shift from the summer weeding and watering routine into the harvest and protection routine of fall.

Low tunnel covered with clear plastic = a mini greenhouse

The main concern is frost (temps below 32 degrees F), which will kill certain plants, and strengthen others. My advice is to harvest the frost tender (those that are hurt by frost) crops as often as you can, as soon as they are ripe. If your crops are still ripening, you can employ the use of row cover aka remay, which is spun polyester cloth that helps hold in heat, and is used as a blanket over tender crops. Some crops are tall (like tomatoes or pole beans), and you gotta get creative in covering them. Clothespins and binder clips are handy for attaching the cloth to trellises and structures around the plants. Shorter crops like peppers, bush beans and eggplants can be covered the same way, or you can make a low tunnel like this, using remay or clear plastic over hoops to support the cloth, creating a mini greenhouse. 

I have also surrounded pepper and eggplant plants with haybales to create a little “house”, which I then cover with remay to form a kind of roof. Peppers often start to set tons of new fruits at the onset of fall, which is ironic, because for us Northeasterners this time of year is marked by frost, which can kill pepper plants. If you’ve got a hot pepper plant loaded with flowers and young fruits, it is also possible to carefully pot it up into a large planter filled with new potting soil, and bring it inside to finish ripening, as long as you’ve got a warm sunny room to keep it in. Here’s a list of crops that you’ll need to harvest or protect before a hard frost because they are not cold hardy (32 degrees F): 

  1. crops in the nightshade family: tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, ground cherries, tomatillos, potatoes
  2. beans and peas
  3. basil, cilantro
  4. summer squash, zucchini, cucumbers, melons, winter squash
  5. fruits: peaches and plums

Here’s a list of crops that can stay in the garden without frost protection because they are cold hardy:

  1. crops in the brassica family: broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, kale, collards, turnips, radishes, mustard greens
  2. root crops: carrots, beets, parsnips, celery root, celery
  3. salad crops: arugula, spinach, lettuce, chicory, endive, Swiss chard 
  4. alliums: onions, garlic, shallots, chives, leeks
  5. herbs: parsley*, dill, thyme, sage, oregano, rosemary*
  6. fruits: raspberries*, pears *and apples*

*can take frost but not freeze, so harvest or pot up and bring into the house 

*note that freezing is different than a frost, and there are some crops that can stay in the garden well into winter. They are:

  1. kale, collards
  2. leeks and garlic
  3. spinach and arugula, under low tunnels

What are some of your tried and tested fall veggie tips? Share in the comments below.

March 19, 2017

First-time Veggie Gardeners, Callicoon Center NY 2016

What a proud Dirt Diva I was last year when I had the chance to work with these new gardeners and help them achieve their goal of self-sufficiency, feeding themselves and their neighbors (and co-workers and family) from their very first veggie garden! Careful planning, full sun, deep beds of fertile soil, attentiveness, and timely weeding, watering, planting and harvesting all lead to a bumper year in the garden for this family. All the work was done by them, with crop layout and monthly oversight provided by me. I dubbed them garden parents, because they were so attentive to the needs of their garden, and that attention helped everything thrive, as you’ll see in the pics!

Brand new garden, Spring 2016

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February 26, 2017

Before and After: Perennial Garden Renovation and Installation, Ferndale NY 2016

I am constantly reminded how lucky I am-to be invited to properties in remote corners of the Catskill and Upper Delaware River Valley region for the purpose of reviving forgotten gardens, building new ones, and giving new life to properties adopted by new owners. This 1800’s Colonial farmhouse on an old Catskills hotel property in Ferndale, NY is an absolute treasure, and this post shows the first phase of renovation that took place this past summer and fall, 2016. Most of the old gardens were long gone, but a few shrubs, trees and perennials held on long enough to be untangled from weeds, vines and invading lawn. One of the most fertile properties I’ve seen, the property was almost jungle like, with vegetation swallowing parts of the house, completely overtaking an old fenced veggie garden plus massive locust trees looming overhead, ancient overgrown apple trees crying out for pruning and insect control. To start the project, we ID’d the priorities: prune back the most threatening locust trees, prune and spray an ancient Winesap apple tree, renovate existing gardens, clear the vegetation touching the house and replace with ornamental, well-behaved shrubs and perennials, fenced from deer, mulched to keep weeds down. New apple, pear and peach trees were planted in a newly cleared, previously overgrown area adjacent to the house, where the owner’s could keep a watchful eye on them from the side porch and kitchen windows. New photos will be continuously added as the property evolves. Stay tuned!

Before-View 1 of house front June 2016

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February 5, 2017

The Phenological Wonders of February

The first week of February is significant in many cultures, for it’s the point in the year which signals the arrival of spring, long before the spring equinox on March 21. Pay attention outdoors and you’ll notice the earth has begun to show signs of awakening from its winter sleep, even when snow remains. Have you noticed the quality of sunlight has changed? Have you heard more birdsong lately? Doesn’t the air smell different?

These collective signs are known as phenology:

phenomena + ology=

1:  a branch of science dealing with the relations between climate and periodic biological phenomena (as bird migration or plant flowering)
2:  periodic biological phenomena that are correlated with climatic conditions

Cultures all over the world acknowledge this time of change with various rituals. In North America, the arrival of early spring is heralded by a furry hibernator emerging from its winter den, known as Groundhog Day. Christians celebrate this time as Candelmas, the feast of the purification of the Virgin Mary, since Feb 2 is forty days after the birth of Jesus. On Candelmas, candles are blessed, feasts are held and the drab days of winter begin to seem brighter. In ancient Rome, the time between the winter solstice and the spring equinox was known as Lupercalia. For them, it was a celebration of the founding of Rome by the twins Romulus and Remus. During Lupercalia, thong-clad men ran through the city, whacking people with bits of hide from a sacrificial goat as part of a purification ritual. Yikes! The ancient Gaelic celebration of Imbolc symbolized rebirth. In the Imbolc tradition, a serpent emerges from its underground den on February second, forecasting the eminence of spring. Candles and bonfires were also lit to honor the Irish goddess Brigid, the guardian of the hearth and home. For ancient agrarian societies, and to modern farmers, this time of year is marked by preparation for lambing season, and for gardeners it means planting time is around the corner. I celebrate this time by sewing some spinach in my cold frame, taking longer walks to observe the changes in the woods and fields, and hosting friends for a night time bonfire to welcome back the light.

What changes have you noticed taking place lately?


February 21, 2016

Before and After: Rhododendron Garden, Willowemoc NY 2015

This project was inspired by my clients’ travels in Bhutan, where wild and cultivated Rhododendrons grace the mountains en masse.

Rhodies in bloom against a Bhutan mountainscape.

Rhodies in bloom against a Bhutan mountainscape.

To re-create a mini version of the effect at their wooded property in Willowemoc, NY, a large and conspicuous area of scrubby trees and brambles had to be cleared, rocks had to be removed, a special soil blend for these acid-soil-loving evergreen shrubs was brought in to create berms, and a drip irrigation system to keep it all watered was installed. There are tens (maybe hundreds) of thousands of cultivars of Rhododendron, and I was fortunate to be able to source ten different cultivars at Korwan’s Tree Farm in Jeffersonville NY, who specializes in these evergreens and are grown from seed and cuttings by Mrs. Korwan. Thirty-three individual plants were installed, which included not only Rhododendron, but Azalea and Mountain Laurel as well, which accept the same growing conditions and flower on the earlier and later ends of the Rhodies, (from April to June), which is the same timing as Bhutan’s flowering apparently. When not in flower, the contrasting foliage of all the different cultivars will extend the interest of this garden. Can’t wait to see this garden at maturity in 3 years!

February 13, 2016

Before and After, Lew Beach Raised Bed Vegetable Garden

Come on, be brave! Do away with your lawn and build your food plot right onto your house! It’s super practical. I am grateful to my clients who trust me when I suggest this idea. Many are skeptical at first, but all are glad in the end when they learn how easy it is to keep an eye on their gardens, and access them with minimal effort. After considering other locations on the sloping, rocky property, it was decided that the south facing front of the house was the best location, and since there was already a garden there, the soil was much improved over the property’s native soil. For these first time veggie gardeners, I knew the easier and less intimidating the garden was to work in, the more they would interact with it. The compact size will limit what can be grown, but I consider the limitation a benefit in this situation. Regarding the fence, come spring 2016, the wood will have aged a bit, so the fence will start to recede as the garden’s contents take center stage. By dressing up the outer perimeter with perennial flowers and herbs, the fence will become less visible still!

February 10, 2016

Before and After: Meadowscape, Callicoon

Meadowscapes or meadow gardens are becoming increasingly popular, thanks in part to the NYC Highline garden, designed by Danish garden designer Piet Oudolf. Meadow gardens look wild/native/natural and are very low maintenance once established. Creating one is a lot of work, as plant selection, soil and site prep are extremely important. They typically include a lot of grasses, and  prairie-type perennial flowers which are tolerant of dry conditions once established. Meadow gardens come into their own in their 3rd year of establishment. This one was planted over the course of one season, but will have growing pains for at least another year.

February 10, 2016

Before and After: Callicoon Cottage Garden

Photos showing the transformation of a newly built foundation garden into a flourishing cottage garden full of pollinator activity and color! Beechwoods area of Callicoon. Plants pictured include: Agastache, Allium, Amsonia, Aster, Digitalis, Hydrangea, Nepeta, Peony, Thalictrum, Verbascum, Zinna.