As snow falls, it's time to think about the garden

If the snow and cold weather this week has not got people thinking of spring, then perhaps a gardening class offered by Carl Westerlund will.

Mr. Westerlund, a Wilton gardener, will offer a two-part class on organic raised-bed gardening through Wilton Continuing Education on Wednesday, Feb. 19 and 26, at 7 p.m., at Wilton High School. The cost is $50 for residents, $60 for nonresidents. He will also offer a class on safe garden pest control Saturday, April 26, from 11 to 1 at the community garden in Allen’s Meadow. The cost for that class is $25 for residents, $35 for nonresidents.

“I used to garden at home,” Mr. Westerlund told The Bulletin last week, adding that like many in town he suffered from a lack of sun. “So I did containers on my front porch,” he said.

Then he was invited to share a plot at the community garden.

“Lo and behold, it was a new experience for me,” he said. That winter, the semi-retired carpenter and tile setter spent hours in the library reading about gardening.

When he then explained the process of transpiration in plants, someone suggested he start teaching. Basically, he said, “I want to share. I’m not writing or promoting a book. I’ve read enough of them.” His first mentor advised, “Never let a day pass that you don’t learn something.”

His philosophy is simple. “There are no failures in gardening,” he said. “If something dies in the garden, you’ve got fertilizer.”

Mr. Westerlund practices raised-bed gardening. He puts together a wood frame about five feet by 30 inches, and digs deep into the ground. He then backfills with material like weed litter, grass clippings or rotted wood. Organic liquid nitrogen and a compound called Azamite add nutrients and trace elements.

Opening day of garden season is St. Patrick’s Day, he said, which is why he is offering the class in February, to give people a head start. By then you can plant spinach and peas. Planting peas is important, he said, because peas are legumes, which are soil builders. “They take nitrogen from the air and transfer it to the soil,” he said.

During class he will have handouts of various carbon-nitrogen ratios for composting and different kinds of soil mixes. But what is much more impressive is the collection of photos documenting Mr. Westerlund’s plots in the community garden overflowing with vegetables of all sorts. At one point, he said, he picked 30 pounds of produce from one bed.

It’s not rocket science, but gardens do require attention. Ample watering is a must, lest you harvest hot radishes.

“Any place you have a patch of sunshine you can grow something,” he said. “Unlike trying to train a cat, a plant wants to grow.”

Pest control

Pest control can be a formidable effort, but gardeners need to look and think before they act, he said.

“In a community garden there’s always something that’s ready to eat your produce. It’s like being on an airplane. Somebody coughs and everybody gets a cold,” he said.

The first defense is to grow healthy plants. Just as with a healthy human body, a healthy plant will be more resistant to diseases and parasites.

While Mr. Westerlund will use organic compounds, he said there is also a mechanical aspect to consider. That is whether to pick off pests or leave them. He showed a photo of tomato plants besieged by hornworms, but growing nearby were the larvae of a wasp that preys on the hornworm.

“Nature brings something,” he said referring to the pests, “but it also brings something to control it.”

When the plants need some help, Mr. Westerlund turns to things like diatomaceous earth and simple soap and water. He also uses plastic to cover the plant rows at certain times of the day or growing season.

Plants have a job to do, he said. “They shade the soil and they fruit and then die.

“There’s a reason you should pick your fruit,” he continued. “By picking the fruit you’re telling the plant it’s not time to die yet.” It will keep producing.

Mr. Westerlund, who has lived in Wilton about 20 years, said his main reason for gardening is not what he gets out of his garden but what he gets from it: therapy.

“The important thing about gardening,” he said, “is it will make you feel good.”