A man's fancy turns to thoughts of lovely tomatoes

May 27, 2006|By ROB KASPER

In May, when the weather is benign and the bugs are asleep, all schemes for garden success seem possible.

If, like me, you have never met an heirloom tomato plant you didn't like, then the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend usually finds you at the Herb Festival in Baltimore's Leakin Park (details at baltimoreherbfestival.com), up to your eyeballs in recently purchased leafage. In prior years, I have bought enough vegetables and my wife has snared enough flowers at this festival to fill a station wagon and drain a bank account. This year, when it became apparent that we were going to miss the Herb Festival, we reacted not by buying fewer plants, but rather by acquiring more earlier in the season.

We hit plant day at Cylburn Arboretum two weeks ago, dropped by a plant sale in Bolton Hill last Sunday and made several runs to local nurseries. I got up early one Saturday morning and drove to McDonogh School to pick up two dozen tomato plants grown from seed by Michelle M. Motsko. Motsko lives on the campus with her husband, Tony, who is a member of the faculty, and their three children. She is an accomplished attorney whose mission in life appears to be covering the world, or at least a part of the Baltimore area, with heirloom tomatoes.

Once I got the tomatoes in the ground, along with a few peppers, some eggplants, lettuce, peas, carrots and basil, I girded my loins for the next garden saga, battling weeds.

Over the years I have employed a variety of tactics against garden weeds, and, overall, the weeds have been winning.

Once I went the plastic route, covering bare ground with layers of black plastic. The black plastic heated up the ground, which was good for the garden in the cool spring, not so good in the ferocious furnace of a Baltimore summer. The theory was that weeds could not penetrate the black plastic. The weeds found ways to maneuver around the barrier. My experience with black plastic and weeds seemed to parallel those border states that put up fences to stop illegal immigration. On paper the theory seems good, but on the ground it is filled with holes.

I have also tried battling weeds by covering bare ground with something called landscape fabric. Again the theory seemed solid -- water and air could get through this fabric, weeds couldn't. Again the weeds found a way to beat the theory. Instead of pushing from the ground up, the weeds attacked from the top down, pushing their roots through it. Yanking up these weed-choked pieces of landscape fabric was a struggle, like trying to pull up pieces of tacked-down carpet.

My latest tactic in the war against weeds is covering the bare garden ground with straw. The theory is that if the covering is thick enough, the weeds will not be able to poke through.

I knew that Baltimore fire department regulations discourage stores in the city from storing bales on their premises, so along with Ewlin Guild, my fellow weed battler at the community garden in Druid Hill Park, I phoned suburban garden supply stores looking for bales. Last weekend he drove out to a store in Ellicott City and loaded bales in the back of his van. He had removed the seats from his van. This is a crucial step in transporting bales because, if you do not remove your car seats, pieces of straw stick to them and never let go.

Once the four bales landed in my garden, I began scattering them on the bare ground around the planted vegetables. When I finished, my garden looked like a horse barn at Pimlico

I looked at what I had done and was not sure it was such a good idea. Hay cools the soil, according to a garden book, Rodale's Garden Problem Solver, that I consulted.

I had put such a thick layer of straw on the garden that in some cases I could barely see the plants. I think I had laid it on too thick, a criticism that is often made of me by members of my family. Moreover, cooling the soil might be a good idea in July and August, but not in May.

Instead of helping my garden plants I might have chilled them out.

So it goes in gardening. Throwing straw around your garden may or may not squelch weeds. But I do know that putting a bale in your garden gives you a real nice place to sit and enjoy nature's soft sunshine.

rob.kasper@baltsun.com

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