Seasoned gardeners try something new

submitted to dorchester banner/laetitia sands Paul and Peggy Sharp standing in front of the raised beds that he built and she painted. Experienced home gardeners, they plan to try a different method of gardening this year.

submitted to dorchester banner/laetitia sands
Paul and Peggy Sharp standing in front of the raised beds that he built and she painted. Experienced home gardeners, they plan to try a different method of gardening this year.

Many gardeners get an urge to branch out into something different from time to time, such as an unusual plant or a novel method of gardening.

Personally, I’m besotted with the idea of growing a miniature lemon tree. (After how many years will it produce fruit, did the catalogue say?) Of course, if I moved to Florida – another tempting idea – lemons would probably grow everywhere, like weeds, and cost less than a box of cereal.

So far, the price has restrained me as much as fears the catalogue nurseries may have treated their lemon trees with neonicotinoids, pesticides which kill our precious bees indiscriminately, along with bad bugs. The European Union, by the way, has just banned the use of neonicotinoids in their member countries for good. Three cheers for the EU!

Back to the Eastern Shore, recently I stopped by to see my friends Peggy and Paul Sharp and found them working in the vegetable garden. It was an afternoon in early May, with the temperature well into the mid-80s. Peggy, wearing a floppy hat that almost hid her face and wielding a red paint brush, was painting a pergola Paul had built.

This year, Peggy explained, she and Paul – both experienced home gardeners –were “a bit late” planting, due to the unusually cold weather and high winds earlier on. A month ago, Paul had rebuilt their raised beds after the old ones rotted, he told me, “But the painting took time, we don’t have to paint them, but we wanted to do something different.”

What I already knew from a previous conversation with Paul was that Peggy wanted the wooden base of the beds painted red, while Paul preferred green. In an admirable compromise, whose spirit our politicians should emulate, they agreed to make the bottom planks green and the top ones and the pergola red.

“Where’s the green?” was my first question, after noticing mainly red. Paul pointed to the base of the beds, painted a pale khaki green, similar to the color of the soil.

They also decided to try a new method of gardening this year, the Mittleider System, invented by the late Dr. Jacob Mittleider, a long-time California nursery owner. More on that later.

The Sharps have six raised beds. Four of them measure four by four feet each and have one truncated corner each. “We’re going to put a pergola in the middle, it’s in the garage now, “Paul explained. One bed will hold nothing but asparagus. “We like asparagus!” Peggy said. The second bed held three eggplant plants and three peppers last year, “way too many,” according to Peggy, but they haven’t decided what to plant there this year.

The third bed is their herb garden and will contain chives, rosemary, thyme, parsley, cilantro and basil “in pots, because basil doesn’t like acidic soil” (which tends to be the norm in our part of the country). They’ll grow lettuce and chard in the fourth bed.

Beyond the group of four small beds sits a 12- by three-foot raised “berry patch.” Two 10-inch deep dividers separate a pair of blueberry shrubs on one side from two thornless blackberry plants on the other, because the blackberries “want to take over everything,” Paul said.
Then there’s the main bed, eight by 12 feet, where they grew tomatoes, green beans and peas last year. This year, “we’ve talked about growing eggplants and peppers there – that would leave a bed free,” Paul said, “and I don’t know what we’re going to plant in it.” Peggy interrupted: “I bought some melon seeds.”

Paul told me, “All plant questions should be referred to Peggy. I just dig holes and do construction. That’s my job.”

“Oh, you do a lot more than that!” Peggy said. “We used to have two peach trees here,” she went on,”but every year, the peaches all disappeared before they were ripe and all of the peach pits were in the grass.”

“It was the squirrels, I blame the squirrels,” Paul said. Despite living in a semi-urban environment, the Sharps have the usual animal problems that plague gardeners in our region. To foil rabbits, Paul built ingenious covers of netting for the small beds. He clamped the netting to arches of plastic tubing and attached it all, with hinges, to the wooden structure of the beds. That way, the picker need only raise the cover to harvest crops, then set it back down again. The small holes in the netting keep out animals and birds, but not pollinators.

The berry patch will be protected by bird netting fitted over the pergola. Paul plans to make gates into the bed, for easier human access. And he’ll put rabbit fencing around the main bed, but it won’t keep out squirrels, he said, adding “squirrels are a real problem.” Red foxes come into their yard, too, and deer have been seen in the neighborhood, but not in their garden…so far.

Hungry animals may devour some of their crops, but the Sharps hope to have plenty to spare, due to the Mittleider system of growing they’ll be using. The controversial method, explained in “The Mittleider Gardening Course,” published in 1999 and available online, has been dubbed “survival gardening,” because it yields so much produce.

Dr. Mittleider’ s goal was to conquer poor soil conditions, while using as little space and water as possible to grow food.

Instead of garden soil, the Sharps will put a blend of “mostly peat moss, compost, vermiculite and sand” in their raised beds, Paul said. Then, they must feed the plants weekly doses of a special mix, ordered online from Amazon, consisting of a total: “25 pounds of 16-16-16 fertilizer, four pounds of Epsom salts and 10 ounces of micronutrients” formulated according to a Mittleider recipe.

“Mittleider says that in a 30-foot bed (18 inches wide), you can grow 680 pounds of tomatoes!” Paul enthused.

Critics fault the system for relying on “bagged chemicals,” in the words of one online source I found, which may leach through the artificial soil in the bottomless raised beds and into the ground and ground water.

But growers in more than 25 countries use the system and the Sharps plan to give it a try. To them and to you, I say: Happy gardening!
Editor’s Note: Laetitia Sands is a master gardener in Dorchester County.

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