Flash in the Pan 

Rules of green thumb

Now that Mother’s Day is in the rearview mirror, western Montana potato growers are cleared to plant spuds. This old rule of thumb, geared to our home climate, is intended to spare the potato patch from the wrath of all but the most unseasonable hard frost or deluge.

Such rules of thumb contain crucial information about culture and place, and farmers and gardeners trade them like baseball cards. With a full set, you could plan your whole food year around these earthy clichés:

Plant your tomatoes on Memorial Day, unless it’s pouring rain, in which case plant corn, which should be “knee high by the fourth of July,” at which point get ready for a drive up to the Flathead because the cherry crop should be coming in. And so on.

The more you understand the principles behind these clichés, the more you can finesse them. Take the potato rule. If you’re a commercial grower and want to play the markets—or you just can’t wait for new potatoes—you might have planted an early crop a month before Mother’s Day. Maybe three out of four years, you’ll get your early crop, and for a month you’ll have the market all to yourself—which hopefully will make up for that fourth year when it rains for two weeks and your early potatoes rot in the ground. Meanwhile, procrastinators can often sneak spuds into the ground right up until the summer solstice and still get a crop.

And as your experience accumulates, you can formulate your own rules of thumb. After years of growing strawberries in my garden, for example, I like to say “strawberries make a garden better.” Okay, maybe that isn’t the catchiest rule of thumb, but the fact remains. The plants last for years and require almost no work once they’re established. When you have strawberries, people linger in the garden. When you have strawberries, you can eat them with cream.

In addition to creating a ready supply of one of the world’s tastiest fruits, you’re saved from having to purchase strawberries that were treated with methyl bromide—and unless you buy organic strawberries, you can assume they were. Perhaps the most controversial agricultural chemical since DDT, methyl bromide is injected into the soil before planting, killing pests and weeds. It also kills the ozone layer and causes neurological damage in humans.

Now is a great time to plant strawberries. For a few bucks you can buy a dozen plants at Marchie’s or Caras nursery, both of which carry “Tristar,” my favorite variety, which will pump out delicious berries five months a year for the next four years.

Trim the little roots to about four inches and plant them so that the crown of the roots is half-covered with soil, with the roots spread out below the soil’s surface.

Strawberries are so named because of the common practice of mulching—covering the ground between plants—with straw. There are several reasons to do this. Mulch helps keep the weeds at bay, keeps moisture in the soil, and insulates the soil from dramatic temperature fluctuations. Mulch also keeps the strawberry fruits off the dirt, preventing the berries from rotting.

The plants might start flowering almost immediately, but take it easy, tiger. It’s best to pick off the flowers for a while and let the plant focus on getting bigger. The more fruit you forsake this summer, the better next year’s crop will be.

This week’s final rule of thumb involves a rather advanced topic: nitrogen fixation. Although it might sound like some neo-Freudian form of nerd deviancy, nitrogen fixation refers to the process by which atmospheric nitrogen is converted into a more plant-friendly form. With legumes like peas and beans, nitrogen fixation occurs in little nodules on the roots. These nodules are created via a symbiotic relationship between legume roots and a bacterium known as Rhizobium leguminosarum.

Rhizobium exists naturally in most soils, but if you want to make sure that your peas and beans will fix nitrogen, you can buy rhizobium inoculant from garden or hardware stores. To inoculate means to introduce a microorganism into an environment suitable for growth.

The other day I was planting peas and I forgot to inoculate them. In a panic, I called a farmer buddy and asked if he had a rule of thumb about inoculant.

“I inoculate whenever I remember,” he said, going on to explain that if you can find some clover (or any other legume) growing in your garden, pull it up and look at the roots. If the roots have nodules, then your soil is already inoculated with rhizobium

I did this and was pleased to find nodules.

No nodule-envy for Chef Boy Ari. Just nitrogen fixation.

But just in case, when I plant my beans next week, I’ll remember to inoculate. It’s a good rule of thumb to follow.


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