Ace bell peppers are a wonderful option for gardening because they are prolific and mature from dark green to red providing multiple cooking options. (Photo: Bruce Dupree, Flickr, Public Domain)
Spring is the perfect time to start gardening, and growing your favorite fresh produce doesn’t have to feel like a chore. Landscape designer Michael Weishan, former host of The Victory Garden, joins Host Steve Curwood to discuss how to work smarter, not harder when growing herbs and vegetables.
O’NEILL: It’s Living on Earth I’m Aynsley O’Neill.
CURWOOD: And I’m Steve Curwood
Spring is here in the North and that makes it the perfect time to start a garden. And according to Michael Weishan there are ways of working smarter not harder and still having a bounty of delicious produce. Michael is a landscape designer, a veteran of Living on Earth and former host of the Victory Garden on PBS. He joins me now to share some tips on how to smooth your way into gardening without breaking your back or the bank. Michael Weishan, Welcome back to Living on Earth!
WEISHAN: I am so happy to be here Steve.
CURWOOD: Now I have to confess something and that is, while I've been very consistent about doing the broadcast over these last 30 years, I've been less consistent about gardening, traveling a lot in the summer not really able to attend to a garden. But this year, because of some delightful family changes, there's a grandchild in the neighborhood nearby. I won't be gone as much during the summer. And I thought, well, maybe I should start growing things to eat again, right? I mean, that's what gardens are for, right? Eating?
WEISHAN: Well, gardens are about pleasure. I mean, that's my version of it. A landscape, a garden should be about giving something back to you. So if your desire is now some fruit and vegetables that can be managed.
CURWOOD: Well, I have a wonderful wife, Jennifer, who takes care of the perennials and so we get that beauty that's really nice to have from a garden. But I'm thinking, I'd like to get started again, with something you know, fairly simple, maybe in a raised bed, out my kitchen door which can get plenty of sunlight depending on where I might put a raised bed and growing something that would be edible and would be tolerant if I do you happen to be away for a couple of weeks.
WEISHAN: Well the raised bed idea is a really good idea and as I'm getting older I appreciate it more and more. It was always a good idea because raised beds drain better. They're very easy to install too you can you know, choose a plot of grass, for instance, and just put the structure however is raising it with stone or timber whatever and then fill it with soil right over the existing lawn so you don't have to rototill, it's much easier to construct. It warms up quicker in the spring and now as I'm heading for my 60th year, I hate to even say that it is a lot easier to get down there. I find about 10 inches is the ideal, ideal height, because that gets you up just enough where it's very easy to you know, to bend over and do something but not too high so that if you need to put a wheelbarrow full of soil or you want to put something into it, you can still make that transition without it being you know, two feet and very impossible, very hard to do.
CURWOOD: Okay, I have to confess Michael, I'm not exactly the hardest working gardener in fact I'm downright lazy. So for this year to try to get back in the game, what do you recommend for the kinds of vegetables, the edible plants and alright, you can tell me that maybe I need to have a bit of something that has a beautiful blossom on it as well in there. But what are some of the things that I should try to grow in this raised bed?
WEISHAN: Well, you know, here's the question. People always ask me what I should grow, you know, what should I grow? And the answer to that is what d you like? And then you take triage of that selection about as to what is possible. So first of all, you have a site in full sun, right, Steve?
CURWOOD: We do. Yeah, I do have one.
WEISHAN: That's eight hours of sun a day, you know, no cheating.
CURWOOD: No cheating, yes.
WEISHAN: All right so that gives us a huge range of possibilities. So now tell me what you like to have at the table.
CURWOOD: Well, so I'm going to be nostalgic for a moment. I've had in the past great luck growing basil, for example. And then later in the season, when I harvest the basil and I get some pine nuts and a bit of olive oil, I wind up getting pesto which I get to keep in the freezer all winter long, so that's something that I really enjoy. It almost seems that the basil is idiot proof of I keep it in if it's in the sun and gets decent water, right?
WEISHAN: Yeah, yeah, pretty well. Sometimes it's susceptible to various fungal problems so if it's a very wet summer, sometimes it'll go down. But yeah, most of the herbs I mean, you can buy little pots of herbs and grow them for the summer, fresh thyme for instance, oregano, basil, all that parsley, for instance, which I really like it goes so well in so many different kinds of things. But you know, so I guess the question is, so what you would like to grow and also what's cost effective to grow.
WEISHAN: A lot of people say to me, okay, well, you know, I like this and I like that. For instance I love carrots but I don't grow carrots because carrots are a buck fifty at the market. And they're very fussy to grow yourself because they're very fine seeds, you have to weed them constantly, you can't mulch them individually. And if you don't have really deep perfect soil, they get all crooked so that would not be my choice. Now I am a huge fan of both peppers and tomatoes.
CURWOOD: Oh tomatoes! Now so here's the problem I have with tomatoes. That is at a certain point, the plant looks really ugly and you know as it kind of gets on. So, but I do love tomatoes and nothing like a fresh cherry tomato sometimes just loaded with sugar and the large ones too, are great fun. So the guide me in the area of tomato and how I can keep them looking better.
WEISHAN: You can't really keep them looking better and the problem is that a few years ago in New England, this late blight was introduced, which is a very veracious disease that just really consumes the plants, the fruit, the whole thing starts to collapse and once it does, it's over. You know, you can try fungicides, but I don't because you know, I don't really want to be eating that stuff. It used to be we would have tomatoes till frost, they didn't look right, but you'd have them right till frost. Now we're lucky if we get tomatoes through the end of August, early September, which is a month and a half before our frost time here. Interestingly, this year I have been experimenting with growing or will be starting because we're about to seed next week, some different varieties that are made to be resistant to this late blight. I don't have any experience with them yet but if you go through the catalogs for instance, you can see you know, late blight resistant late blight resistant or we're trialing that for this. So that's one of the tips is to look at the plants and their disease resistance. And so again, you know, the things that you like, so I go the things I like and things that are expensive.
WEISHAN: Before air we were talking about you have a little raspberry patch, right?
WEISHAN: Well that's something I always tell people to grow because raspberries are unbelievably costly and they're unbelievably easy to grow. If you prune them back at the proper time they just produce raspberries by the gallon practically. So you know, that's a phenomenal part to have something to have in your garden.
CURWOOD: Hey before we move on from raspberries. How do you get a new set going?
WEISHAN: Well, you can divide them, you can just dig them up in the spring and pull apart the canes and plant new ones. Because they spread by underground runners, right. So you can just chop them off and redistribute them. As long as the plants are healthy, sometimes they go down with various blights and fungal diseases. After a number of years they start to lose productivity. If that's the case, then just buy some new canes fresh and started a new bed. But I've had great luck. I think the raspberries I have here, which are a thornless variety called candy which is very nice for picking so you don't get stabbed. It's a terrific terrific variety.
CURWOOD: Alright, continue now with a raised bed and some vegetables and the salad greens like romaine or arugula, which some people are some varieties are known as rocket, maybe some some herbs of cilantro or I suppose the basil will be fine in there. And then you suggested that peppers can be expensive and really good to grow in a raised bed. What do you have in mind?
WEISHAN: Well, for the New England area there's a variety called ace which is the only one that I've ever gotten to grow successfully that has more bell peppers than you've ever. I love stuff bell peppers, so it has more peppers than you could ever use in a season. And the nice thing about this right is it starts green so if you like the green, you can have them green and then it matures through yellow to red. So you can go all the way to whatever color you like and they each plant produces I don't know, half a dozen or a dozen bell peppers, whatever weather whether it's hot or cool. A fantastic variety. The farther south you get you have a much larger selection of peppers, because they really require heat. But I grow a whole group of them. But again, you know, peppers. Some good peppers are really expensive, even in the summer market. So why not grow? It's easy to produce.
CURWOOD: Yeah, they can get a buck or even two bucks just for a single pepper sometimes.
WEISHAN: Yeah, exactly. And when you grow them yourself, I mean, it's a much, much better process. I also like to grow spinach. I know spinach is cheap but it's really fantastic when you have it just fresh because you can keep picking the the individual leaves. And another real favorite of mine especially now early in the season are sweet peas, you can have snow peas, you can have regular fleshy type peas. I mean, the whole process of just picking your own fresh peas and then putting them right into a recipe in the early spring is just phenomenal.
CURWOOD: And of course the peas if I recall back when I was a little more active in growing things, they'll be gone by the time some of these other things are ready for the raised bed.
WEISHAN: And then you get into the whole thing about sequencing and so this is the other other issue. You don't necessarily need a huge space, right? Because you're growing early crops. For instance, you can grow scallions now you can start putting out not quite now but very, very soon and certainly to the south of us now. And then they're quickly harvested and then replaced by say tomatoes or peppers. You can grow peas early on, and then those are replaced by vegetable crops later on. There are also some really small types of diminutive summer squashes. You know, generally the zucchini the summer squash they get to be these huge bushes. But there are various new varieties out that are quite compact. And you know if you harvest them early not wanting them to get into these like baseball size..
CURWOOD: Baseball bat size.
WEISHAN: Yeah, exactly! Monstrosities. When you can do really nothing with them. When they get that size I just throw them to the chickens because the chickens just eat them. But after that you know when they're that says they're just get tough but if you pick them young and fresh, grilled with a little fresh dill ah fantastic! With olive oil, fresh dill, little salt, throw them in some aluminum foil, throw them on the grill, cook them till they're tender. Perfect accompaniment to chicken or brass or steak or any type of grilled meat. Fantastic.
CURWOOD: So I'm going to check in with you after I've tried this for a while Michael and, and see how I've, I've been doing.
WEISHAN: Now remember, you can't be a lazy gardener. [LAUGH] There's no such thing as being a lazy gardener, lazy gardeners go to the supermarket. So you have to put in a little bit of work. But I'll give you one tip. If you're going to travel a little and you go about your business during the summer make sure the beds are mulched because that will preserve the water, you'll have much less weeding and you'll have a much more even crop. And the best type of mulch I like for vegetable gardens is grass clippings. You know, you just bag it from your mower and spread the grass clippings about a vegetable plants they break down very fast, very nutritious, and they don't linger too long so when you rotate the crops you're able then to you know push them aside and get the new plants in without too much trouble unlike say wood chips.
CURWOOD: Now, one last question about this raised bed area. The dimensions? Yeah, 10 inches off the ground. But how big a raised bed does it make sense to have? For the alright, no such thing as a lazy gardener but for the gardener who has other chores in his or her life to deal with as well?
WEISHAN: Well, so this is a question I get a lot too because it's an interesting compromise between productivity and space. So the worst thing you can possibly do is to open a really large space, and then not do it well. Because then you get discouraged, it gets full of weeds and you stop. So better to start small with a four by four cube or five by five or whatever. Say, wow that was pretty easy, love that, and make a five by ten you know, the next season.
CURWOOD: What impressed me as a little little kid was that my grandmother had a kitchen garden and some of the few things that I do know about gardening I know from that and also I was at a camp where we had to garden all the time. And now there's a there's a grandchild in my in my orbit and so I'd like to have her see that in fact, food does come from what we do with the sun and the earth and the water and not just out of the grocery store a cellophane package, so..
WEISHAN: That is such an important lesson, Steve and you know during my Victory Garden days I often lectured at schools about just about that very issue about, you know, because a lot of times kids have no association with the fact that the earth produces the product. You know, bananas and grapes and vegetables and carrots and all these things just don't appear in the store they actually appear from human effort in the soil. And I really think that that's the beginning about teaching kids about the value of nature is showing them firsthand how marvelous and miraculous something as simple as seed germinating can really be. And once they start on that path, then they understand almost intuitively that the world is a growing thing and the climate is a real issue and they start to be really caring and concerning about the world around them.
CURWOOD: Michael Weishan is a master gardener. He's been the host of PBS's his Victory Garden and he's helped us garden here on living on Earth. Michael, thanks so much for taking the time.
WEISHAN: Steve it's always y pleasure. Anytime you want to talk about gardening I'm right here.
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