NATURE’S TURN: The business of an ecological home and garden

Quaker Ladies aka Bluets, bloom April through May. Photo: Judy Isacoff

May 3–16, 2021     

MOUNT WASHINGTON — This spring and summer, plan to cultivate crops that grow well into autumn and successfully overwinter in the garden with no more protection than deep mulch. Ready for harvest in late summer and until the ground freezes, and again in early spring, parsnips, carrots and sunchokes — for starters — provide bumper crops of fresh, especially flavorful roots. When a root cellar is not an option, nor an extra refrigerator and the energy to run it, a garden grown and stored in place appears as a superior route.

Before continuing the story about the roots and tubers, permit me to introduce the Quaker ladies, or little bluets, Houstonia caerulea, at the head of this page. They burst on the scene over a week ago, growing in a nearby lawn, scattered about in fanciful clumps near ledge, near tree roots and unpredictably where the grass is thick or thin, volunteering their cheer. Unfortunately, these wildlings are mowed down with the grass. Despite the mowing, they return every spring.

The proliferation and expansion of lawns is a serious environmental concern when we consider the sacrifice of life-sustaining biodiversity to install turf. There are the inputs of fossil fuel necessary to operate mowers and trimmers, and to produce chemical fertilizers and biocides for the common lawn. Mowing and leaf-blowing alone disturb the peace for the conduct of life for all living beings.

When I had the occasion to ask Bridghe McCracken of Helia Land Design and Helia Native Nursery to recommend low-growing plants that would create a walkable landscape without mowing — to replace a lawn — she replied, “Creeping Thyme, Bluets, Vanilla Sweet Grass.” The bluets and vanilla sweet grass (Hierochloe odorata) are native to North America, the thyme (Thymus serpyllum) — included in many Berkshire lawns — is of European and North African origin. I am awaiting plant lists for additional grasses and herbaceous plants to continue the development of this topic.

Turga parsnips from Turtle Tree Seed, harvested March 27, 2021. Photo: Judy Isacoff

The parsnips shown here were seeded in early May 2020 and harvested around the vernal equinox this year. They were planted in soil friable to a depth of 18 inches. Parsnips are a long-season crop, maturing as summer turns to autumn, about 120 days after sowing. I soak the seeds for several hours before planting — a tip I picked up on a seed packet. Although more tedious to plant wet, this is a widely recommended practice. Note that parsnip seed is viable for one year, so be sure to plant seed packed for the current growing season.

I am beginning this first week in May seeding parsnips as companion plants to peas and in a bed that will host a bean teepee. According to the Old Farmer’s Almanac moon phase planting guide, from now until May 8 is auspicious for sowing parsnips, among other root crops. Stella Natura, the biodynamic planting calendar, lists today and tomorrow, May 3 and 4, as “root days,” motivating me to sow seeds for an early carrot harvest with leek seedling companions.

Carrots planted in July, mulched heavily to prevent weeds and then to protect from freezing, provided particularly flavorful, robust roots in November and again in February — all without use of strategies for indoor cold storage. Likewise productive, sunchokes aka Jerusalem artichokes may be attractive as a permanent border in your garden or landscape. More about this delicious tuber in future posts.

Robin sitting on nest with a rim of snow that looks like fur. The photograph, taken through window glass, seems to have a patina. May 9, 2020, 9 a.m. Photo: Judy Isacoff

Heres to creating biodiversity and harmony in the garden and its environs.

Opportunity to Participate

May 7-8: Berkshire Botanical Garden’s 44th annual Plants-and-Answers Plant Sale curated by the Garden staff. Hundreds of annuals, perennials, organic herbs and vegetables, and container arrangements will be available along with advice on gardening. Members-only early buying is Friday, May 7, 9 a.m.–12 p.m. Public sale is Friday, May 7, 12–5 p.m. and Saturday, May 8, 9 a.m.–5 p.m. Free admission and parking.