The Ancient Gardener's Instructor: Dispatches from Wesley Greene
April 2, 2013
Removing transplants from hot bed
Cabbage transplants under bell glass
The cabbage plants, sown on a hot bed in early February, are now ready to move to the garden. You may judge the plants suitable for transplanting when they have five or six leaves. In anticipation a place in the garden that has been well dunged and lying full to the sun must be prepared. Plants grown in the hotbed or nursery, without the benefit of pots, must be handled with considerable care. Begin by separating the plants from the surrounding soil by plunging your trowel to its full depth into the soil and slightly slanted under the plant at about two inches from the stem. Repeat this on all four sides of the plant, rocking your trowel gently towards the plant to firm up the root ball. It is then ready to be lifted from the nursery bed using your trowel as a lever and your hand to guide the transplant out of the soil and onto the trowel.
It is very important that the young transplants are not allowed to wilt when first set out. For this reason they are best moved on a cool, overcast day, “taking all possible opportunities of showering weather, when it happens,” as explained in The garden vade mecum by Mr. Abercrombie, “and plant them two feet and half distance.” If your seedling plants have become leggy, bury the stem up to the first set of leaves.
After the cabbages are planted they should be well watered to settle the soil around the roots and then placed under bell glass until they strike root. If the weather should turn hot lift one side of the bell with a shard of pottery or any other device to prop them open and give vent to the hot air within the glass. If bell glasses are not available a clay pot, bucket or wooden crate will serve just as well. Take every opportunity to remove the coverings in mild, overcast weather and within ten days or a fortnight the glasses or other coverings can be removed for good.
March 27, 2013
Radish seed, carrot seed and sand
Radish and carrot seedlings
This week we are making our second sowing of radish, mixed with the first sowing of carrot seed. All root vegetables must be thinned so that they may achieve their full perfection without competition from their neighbors which would surely stunt their growth and mar their form. Carrots are particularly tedious to thin but we have learned a method to ameliorate the task. It is described by Mr. Hill in 1773: “Let the Surface of this Piece of Ground be leveled: then mix with the Seeds a good Quantity of Sand; and chusing a calm Day, scatter them as equally as possible over the Ground. This Care will prevent their rising in the usual irregular Manner in Clusters in some Places, with great Vacancies between.”
Mr. Hill continued: “When all the Seed is sown, tread over the Ground, and then rake it in. Observe when they come up; for the Weeds will rise with them. As soon as they have a little Strength, let them be thin’d and clear’d from the Weeds that are among them…the Plants should be left at about five Inches Distance.”
This method can be further improved by incorporating the advice found in Adam’s Luxury and Eve’s cookery that, with a little practice, will greatly lessen the need for thinning: “You may sow at the same time a few Radishes, which will be drawn off presently and not hurt the Carrots.” By mixing the radish and carrot seed together with a little sand the seeds will be far more evenly distributed and the carrots are thinned by the act of harvesting the radishes. I, myself, have spent hours thinning vegetable plants when a little restraint and better management at planting time would lessen this most onerous of chores. We would do well, when sowing our seed, to remember Mr. Shakespeare’s words when he wrote in Henry IV, part I: “More than a little is by much too much.”
You may learn more on the science of root crops within the pages of Vegetable Gardening the Colonial Williamsburg way, 18th century methods for today’s organic gardeners (Rodale Press)
March 20, 2013
Black Spanish and German Beir Radishes
We have harvested the last of the winter radishes and the spring radishes are spreading their first true leave from seeds sown the middle of February. The Roman author Lucius Columella named the radish “radicula,” from the Latin radix, or root, and from this we get the English “radish.” It has long been one of the most popular root vegetables at the English table. In 1577 Thomas Hill wrote in The Gardener’s Labyrinth, “The Garden Radish with us, is better knowne, then I with pen can utter.” The ancient radish was a long, thick, generally white root. A black form, known as the Black Spanish, was introduced in the 16th century and these large radishes provided the winter crop.
Long Scarlet Radish
The trend towards a smaller, redder radish began to take root in the latter part of the 17th century. William Salmon recorded in 1710 of the common garden radish, “Its Root is long, white within, and of a reddish purple color on the out side toward the top or it.” These roots were still primarily white with a purplish hue near the top where the root jutted above the soil line. By 1767 John Rutter recorded that the, “Short topped purple radish is [the] original radish, long scarlet just coming into fashion.”
The long scarlet was generally of a good red color throughout the length of the root and became the preferred spring radish until it was replaced by the smaller, rounder radish that is common today.
For a complete description of the radish and its culture you are invited to examine Vegetable Gardening the Colonial Williamsburg Way, 18th Century Methods for Today’s Organic Gardeners. (Rodale Press)
March 13, 2013
The onion seed bed in winter.
We are now separating and transplanting the onions that were sown in the fall. This indispensable esculent has one of the longest histories of any garden vegetable. The ancient Egyptians were famous for their fondness of onions, leeks, and garlic to the point of deifying them. King Ramses IV, who died in 1160 BCE, was entombed with onions covering his eye sockets. To the Egyptians, the concentric rings of the onion bulb signified eternal life. The onion has been considered a staple by all civilizations since that time and indeed, the Scottish politician Sir John Sinclair observed, “It is a well known fact, that a Highlander with a few raw onions in his pocket, and a crust of bread or bit of cake, can work or travel to an almost incredible extent for two or three days together.”
Many modern gardeners grow their onions from sets obtained in the spring. If you are using sets it is important to remember that the larger the set, the more liable it is to go to flower prematurely to the ruination of the bulb. With sets, smaller is better.
We have found that onions grown from seed are not as liable to run to flower as those planted from sets. We sow our seeds near the end of September, which produces plants that are large enough to withstand the trials of winter but not so large as to run to flower in the spring. By the middle of March the onions are ready to transplant to a bed where they will form their bulbs. We set our transplants on furrows spaced six inches one from the other. This provides a loose soil for the bulbs to form in that is never waterlogged. There are always extra transplants that are not needed for planting and these will provide the first scallions of the year. In the northern colonies, where onions will not stand the winter, sow your seeds outdoors after the danger of frost is past.
For a fuller discussion of the Allium family you are encouraged to examine Vegetable Gardening the Colonial Williamsburg Way, 18th Century Methods for Today’s Organic Gardeners. (Rodale Press)
March 6, 2013
The pea seeds were planted two weeks ago and we anticipate their emergence any day, so it is not too soon to gather the sticks needed for the trellising of them. There are several ways to support the peas depending on the variety and how vigorous their growth. For the smaller, earlier varieties such as the Prince Albert and the Sickle pea we use a method recommended by John Rutter in Modern Eden published in England in 1767. Plant the seeds in two rows, approximately one foot apart, setting the peas with a dibble at two inches one from the other. “When they are half a foot high,” Mr. Rutter advised, “some boughs with all the twigs upon them should be stuck into the ground between the rows for them to climb upon.” In this manner, two rows of peas are trellised by a single row of twigs. Once the pea season is over, the entire row of sticks and pea vines can be rolled up and easily disposed.
For the larger, later varieties such as the Marrowfat and Blue Prussian peas we use a somewhat more substantial system. As these types of peas will often grow six to eight feet tall we find they are better grown in an elongated teepee-like structure. To construct this trellis, begin by placing paired rows of six- to eight-foot sticks in the ground, one on either side of the row of peas. Tie the paired sticks together over the center of the row and then add long horizontal sticks across the top and at intervals along the sides to bind them together. This trellis provides a form for the peas to climb upon as well as a structure around which to wrap cheesecloth that will effectively exclude the rabbits, which can be a particularly pernicious pest in the early spring garden. If well constructed, this trellis can be re-used to grow pole beans on after the peas have been harvested.
Once the peas begin to flower, they are greatly annoyed by any disturbance to their roots, so any weeding should be done with great care and with as little disruption to the pea roots as possible. It will serve the gardener well to conduct a thorough weeding while the peas are young and the weeds are small.
For a fuller discussion of the culture of peas you are invited to examine Vegetable Gardening the Colonial Williamsburg Way, 18th Century Methods for Today’s Organic Gardeners (Rodale Press)
February 27, 2013
Colored flowers of the field pea.
It is now time to plant your peas in the middle colonies. In Williamsburg we endeavor to have them in the ground before Mr. Washington’s birthday and certainly no later than the middle of March. The garden pea is the relatively recent offspring of the ancient field pea whose primeval ancestor has never been found and is likely extinct. The matriarch of all peas, however, is thought to have originated somewhere in central Asia between Afghanistan and northern India. This was not, however, the garden pea beloved of gardeners everywhere. The ancient pea was used only in the dry state and is the variety forever immortalized in the children’s nursery rhyme of “pease porridge hot, pease porridge cold.”
White flowered green pea.
The first recognizable variety of green pea to appear in the historic record was known as the Hastings pea, first recorded in the fifteenth century and like all peas eaten in the green stage, it bore white flowers. The ancient field pea bears colored flowers. The green pea achieved its first real fame in France as the petit pois. A 1695 letter from the court of Louis XIV records, “The subject of peas is being treated at length: impatience to eat them, the pleasure of having eaten them, and the longing to eat them again are the three points about which our princes have been talking for four days. There are some ladies who, after having supped with the King, and well supped too, help themselves to peas at home before going to bed at the risk of indigestion. It is both a fashion and a madness.”
In colonial Virginia the green pea was no less fashionable. Thomas Jefferson famously engaged in a yearly competition with his neighbor George Divers to see who could bring the peas in first, the winner having the honor of hosting the other to dinner. Mr. Divers always triumphed, except in the year before Mr. Jefferson’s death when his peas were ready first. According to his grandson Thomas Jefferson Randolph, “When his family reminded him that it was his right to invite the company, he replied, ‘No, say nothing about it, it will be more agreeable to our friend to think that he never fails.’”
For a further examination of the culture of peas you are encouraged to examine, Vegetable Gardening the Colonial Williamsburg way, 18th century methods for today’s organic gardeners (Rodale Press)