Thursday, April 10, 2014

Spring Harvest (!) and Soil Temperatures for Planting

My first real harvest of spring-planted veggies:

Cilantro, Black-seeded Simpson lettuce, Purple Plum radishes  PHOTO/Amy W.

The garden hasn't yielded much since January 1 -- a last little bit of broccoli before the hard freezes, a few green onions, some carrots -- so the lettuce, cilantro, and radishes that I harvested yesterday mark a turning point in the gardening year. They also made a great contribution to "taco night"!

As the spring crops mature to harvest stage, the planting for summer crops needs to begin. North Carolina State University has published a planting chart/calendar that includes soil temperatures to help us all work out the best order in which to plant our gardens. Gardeners who also have jobs, families, and other additional responsibilities don't usually manage to get the garden planted all at once, and knowing which plants can do well in cooler soil temperatures can help gardeners decide what to plant first.

According to the chart, corn can be planted at soil temperatures as low as 50 degrees F, and so can pole beans, but squashes and tomatoes need a minimum soil temperature of 60 degrees F, peppers and cucumbers need 65 degrees F, and okra, melons, eggplants and Southern peas need a soil temperature of at least 70 degrees F to do their best.

For those of us in Cobb County who are planning to put seeds in the ground this coming weekend, taking a thermometer out to check on the soil temperature at a 4 inch depth at various points around the garden can help determine what to plant. In my yard, the soil temperature is approaching 60 degrees F, which means there is a lot I can plant now. It also means that I might need to replant those cucumber seeds that I put in the ground last week, when the soil temperature was a little lower.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Almost Time for the Spring Planting Marathon

April is the biggest planting month for home vegetable gardens around here, and getting everything done can be tough. First there's the "waiting for the soil to warm up" part, and then there's the rush to get as much as possible into the ground as soon as it is even remotely feasible.

I like to start with some bush beans because they are early producers. I usually am able to bring the first beans to the kitchen in May.

Right now, I have lettuces getting close to what I consider "harvest-able" size. I'm not a big fan of baby-sized lettuces, which means I end up waiting longer for the larger leaves. Some of the spring radishes are almost big enough to pull, but the spinach and beets are all still pretty small. In the longer-range category, most of the seed potatoes have sent up some green leaves, and the onion-family crops planted in October are all still looking good.

A couple of the garden beds in the side yard are ready for planting. I worked on those yesterday, along with hoeing and/or pulling weeds in most of the other beds. In what is probably a jumping-the-gun moment, I planted some seeds in one of those beds.

The dill and additional radishes aren't at all early, but the little patch of bush beans and short row of cucumber seeds probably are. My reasoning was that seeds are relatively inexpensive, and I have more than I need this year. If we get a late frost and the little plants don't survive, it won't be a disaster. I can just replant those little sections. We are forecast to have rain for the next couple of days, which made the planting seem even more like a good idea -- no dragging out the hose to water the seeds!

If it works, I will have a start on getting the garden planted. If we get as much rain as the weather-guys are suggesting, the ground will be too wet to do any more work in the garden for several days, but as the soil dries and warms up a bit later in the week, I will probably plant another little section with some kind of seeds.

Most of the transplants for tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, and tomatillas won't be planted out until I know for certain that the weather has warmed, but one tomato plant is already in the ground. All the seeds for that variety germinated, and I ended up with extra plants.

I'll let you all know how it goes...

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Generosity of Gardeners

Earlier this week, a gardener from the Plant-a-Row-for-the-Hungry project in Kennesaw stopped by the Extension office with some seed potatoes leftover from that project's big potato-planting day, for us to give away to anyone who stopped by the office and might want to plant some potatoes this year. I've been pushing seed potatoes all week, as a result. 

A new gardener in the area had "scored" a lot of free seeds  - way more than she can plant - and she dropped those extra packets off at the office, for me to give away at tonight's Vegetable Garden Basics class. Last week that same gardener brought over some "Growums" seed starting kits that she'd picked up on sale, and we've been giving those to people who want to garden with children.

I'd already been giving away seed packets that had been brought over by the Keep Cobb Beautiful office, since we get more vegetable-gardener traffic than they do.

We have a lot of seed packets from the Georgia Department of Transportation, too, all full of Cosmos seeds. Cosmos are great flowers for attracting pollinators.

Can I just say, now, how great it is to be in the center of this hub of garden generosity? I tell people that I   am "all about growing good food," and it is wonderful to see that a lot of other people are the same way!

Most of the "free seeds" are packets from 2013, so the germination rates are not going to be as high as for fresher seed, but planting a few more seeds per foot or per pot than usual will give a gardener plenty of plants.The seed potatoes (Kennebec and Red Pontiac) are for this year, and they are forming good eyes. Anyone who is interested in stopping by Cobb Extension to pick up a few seed potatoes should call the office (770-528-4070) to make sure there are still some here, but as of today, March 27, there are enough to provide for several more small gardens.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Waiting, but Busy

Seedling cilantro.
Here in Cobb County, we are expecting a drop down to 26 degrees F tonight, which is a little disheartening for local gardeners. What we all are longing for is warm-enough weather that we can, at the very least, start to move our trays of seedlings out to the porch in the afternoons.

What we have, instead, is a forecast for cold-enough weather that crops of many tree-fruits in the area are at risk. In my neighborhood, many of the dwarf fruit trees are in bloom. If the weather tonight is as cold as predicted, the blossoms won't survive to set fruit.

While we wait for the weather to moderate, there is still plenty to keep me busy. I've moved more seedlings from their original flats and Jiffy Pellets to larger pots; I've planted a block of green peas where the first round of tomatoes and peppers will be planted; and I've watered (!) the garden.

After last year's nearly non-stop rain, it seemed as though there had to be enough water in the ground to last us for years, but that didn't turn out to be the case. My lettuces and assorted other seedlings were standing in pretty dry soil until I dragged out the hose on Sunday afternoon.

Tonight, though, the gardening tasks include hauling "old spikey" (my key lime tree) and my lemon seedlings back into the house and putting covers over some of the smaller cool-season plants that are in the garden. Even the crops that can take a lot of cold are more sensitive when they are young.

Also, a couple of weeks back I went to the studio in Sandy Springs for America's Web Radio and was interviewed for two episodes of the Master Gardener Hour. The first aired on March 15, and the second aired on March 22. Not too surprisingly, Cheryl Lenker (the host) and I spent the whole two hours talking about vegetable gardening!

Both episodes are online in the archives for anyone to hear. I played the first one on Sunday afternoon, so I could hear it while I was doing some housecleaning, and it turned out pretty well.


Monday, March 17, 2014

Seedling and Potato Progress

My indoor seedlings are making good progress:
Pepper seedlings need to be bumped up to separate pots.

Tomato seedlings that moved into these "6-packs" two weeks ago are almost ready for new, larger pots.
I didn't work on these seedlings over the weekend (they should be fine for a few more days as they are), because I focused my gardening energy on getting the seed potatoes planted outside.

The crop rotation schedule that I designed has a flaw in that, some years, the tomato-family plants end up with less space than I would prefer, because not all of my garden beds are the same size. This year, the tomato/potato/pepper/eggplant space is alarmingly tight.

To make sure there would be enough room for everything, I hacked up some more lawn out at the ends of two beds for potato-space. After peeling off the turf part, I dumped on an inch or so of compost and dug that a couple of inches down into the awful red clay. Then I layered on more compost, laid out the seed potatoes on top, then spread another couple of inches of compost over the seed potatoes.

After the seed potatoes have sent greenery up above the surface, I'll pile on some more compost, then finish the top off with some old hay. As the plants grow, I'll water them a few times with a little fish emulsion solution for an extra phosphorus kick. At least, that's the current plan.

While poking around online to decide whether my plan could work, I found a really great article in Mother Earth News about growing potatoes organically. The article "How to Grow Organic Potatoes" is an interview with Jim Gerritsen, a professional grower in Maine, that hits all aspects of growing, and it even includes information for gardeners here in the South. The article goes on for quite a few pages, but, for anyone planning to grow organic potatoes, it's worth taking the time to read.


Saturday, March 8, 2014

Potatoes and Lettuce and Peas (and More!)

It's been a beautiful day for getting things done in the garden, so of course I am running behind. I spent part of my day just sitting on the back deck, listening to birds and admiring the trays of seedlings that I had moved out to a dappled spot.

The good news is that the trout lilies are blooming in my yard, and that is my signal that the soil is warm enough that peas and other cool-season crops planted now will actually germinate and grow rather than rot in too-cold soil.

I've planted some peas, planted out some little lettuces that I had started indoors a few weeks back, and planted some radish seeds. If all goes well tomorrow, I'll plant some more peas, lettuces, and radishes, and possibly also some spinach and beets.

Not all of the peas that I plant this weekend will be left in place long enough to produce peas; some are going to serve as a late-spring cover crop and will be turned back into the soil about six weeks from now. They will help get the soil in shape for the summer crops that will follow them.

The garlic, shallots, and multiplying onions all made it through the worst of winter and look good. I am hoping that the cold will actually help the hard-neck garlic! When the winter is warm, they don't make as many cloves-per-bulb.

When those onion-family crops all come out in June, they will be followed by a late planting of tomatoes. The June-planted tomatoes won't produce until late August, but they will give my tomato-supply a welcome boost when they finally begin to ripen!

I've also set out (possibly too early) some seed potatoes. On a quick run through Home Depot I saw a display of boxes of seed potatoes, and I found myself buying a pound of Kennebec potatoes in addition to whatever it was we went in for. When I got the box home, the seed potatoes already had good eyes, so after a few days I went ahead and planted them. They haven't poked any green up above the surface yet, which is good, because there is more cold ahead, I'm sure.

I had already placed a small order through the Potato Garden for a pound of Garnet Chili seed potatoes (I grew them once before, and my recollection is that they were wonderful), a pound of Red Pontiac seed potatoes (good to eat and super productive in my yard), and a pound of Rose Finn Apple Fingerlings that a friend wanted a half-pound of, so we will be sharing those. The box of seed potatoes arrived in yesterday's mail. None of the spuds in the box have developed good eyes yet, so it will be another week or two before those can be planted outside.

Really, though, the urge to fill the garden with cool season crops is very hard to resist; there is so much good food that can be planted and grown successfully now! Sadly, most of those crops wouldn't be ready to harvest until sometime in May -- well past the time when I will want to have some of my summer crops planted.  If I want those summer crops ready to harvest in a timely manner, I can't fill the garden with cool-season crops now.

It helps that I spent part of my time at home in the last winter storm mapping out a plan for my 2014 garden; the map/plan supports my resolve to keep my hands off the packs of broccoli, collards, etc plants at the garden stores, so I'll have space for all the peppers, squash, okra, tomatoes, eggplants, cucumbers, sweet potatoes, white potatoes, melons, beans, parching corn, etc. that I have planned to grow in my little garden.

Hope that everyone else is enjoying the beautiful weather!

Friday, February 28, 2014

Gardening Books for Georgia - Part 1

Back in 1990, when my little family first moved to Georgia, I already knew a bit about gardening. However, in spite of having gardened successfully elsewhere (and having a degree in Botany), I had trouble growing food here. Part of the problem -- very tall trees surrounding and shading the backyard -- was resolved through moving the veggies to the sunny front yard. I needed, though, to learn more about the rhythms of planting and harvesting for this area.

To help with that, we bought a copy of the go-to guide of the time, Don Hastings' book "Gardening in the South: Vegetables and Fruits." Hastings' book contains sections for each kind of vegetable grown in the area, with timing and fertilizing information, which is what I needed. It also contains what I now consider to be "the usual advice" about choosing the garden site, planting, amending the soil, and generally tending to the garden.

Most of that basic information can be found in other gardening books, but some parts of the book still stand out as being particularly memorable. One great narrative thread is about the author's working with farmers in Egypt and the Philippines. Details relating to these adventures pop up throughout much of the book. Another is about his family's variety of corn.

The Hastings family had developed a variety of sweet corn that performed well in the Southeast. In the part of the book about growing corn, Hastings tells that his neighbors were still growing Hastings sweet corn long after his family had switched to Silver Queen, which they decided was a better variety for their purposes. There's probably a little lesson in the tale, but I still haven't figured out what that might be.

Another part of the book that I especially remember is about the author's return to Georgia after a couple of years away. His prize flower bed, which had always had the very best soil of all his planting beds, had typically been amended with organic matter a couple of times each year. As a result, the soil there was usually wonderfully dark and rich with humus. In just that short time of being left on its own, the bed had reverted to solid red clay. That story provides great incentive for continuing to add organic matter to my gardens each season!

Of course, I am sitting here writing without having the Hastings book in front of me to double check my memory; it's possible that I've gotten some details wrong. This is pretty close, though.

A newer book (2007/2008) for Georgia gardeners is Walter Reeves and Felder Rushing's "Guide to Georgia Vegetable Gardening." This book contains the same basic information as the Hastings book and adds some newer weather and pest details. All the information is solid, researched, and reasonably up-to-date, and it includes names of recommended vegetable varieties that weren't available at the time Hastings wrote his book.

What the Reeves and Rushing book is missing is the thread of personal stories and asides (such as the note in Hastings' parsnip section in which he quite honestly says that he neither likes nor grows them!) that keep a reader interested. In other words, the Reeves and Rushing book is good for reference, whereas Hastings' book is good for both reference and recreation. Also, I've just checked the listings on Amazon, and it turns out that the Reeves & Rushing book is out of print, with used copies listed as selling for $99. The Hastings book is still both readily available and affordable.

Books aren't commonly addressed on this blog, but I decided to write about books for several reasons. One is that it lets me think about gardening while it is still too soon to do much planting (it's a useful distraction!). Another is that other gardeners new to the area might be looking for a resource, like I was those many years ago, that addresses the rhythms of gardening in this area. Another is that a friend has loaned me a new book for the South - Ira Wallace's "Guide to Vegetable Gardening in the Southeast" - and I'd like to have the other basic books in my mind as I read it. A review of that book will be coming soon.


Monday, February 24, 2014

Tilling, or Not

One of the most pervasive images in garden magazines and advertisements is of gardeners working their gardens with tillers of one kind or another. However, even though tilling seems, at first, to be a worthy and useful activity, it isn't always.

Tilling brings oxygen down into the soil, which sounds good, but that increased oxygen can stimulate the growth of soil micro-organisms that then get busy with their main job of breaking down organic matter, which releases nutrients. If crops are planted to absorb and use those nutrients, then that release of nutrients from tilling can be good. Here we are, though, with winter still at hand and no (or few) crops available to use those nutrients. Releasing them now would result in waste.

However, a gardener planning to plant potatoes in mid-March might want to till in a cover crop now, to get the decomposition on that foliage started.

This topic is on my mind because I actually turned one garden bed this past weekend, when we had some beautiful, warm, spring-like weather. It was a bed that had a cover crop on it (more chickweed and deadnettle than winter peas, but it held the soil well), and I want to plant some lettuces into that bed.

This was a case of turning under a cover crop to get a bed ready for planting. (I don't actually "till," since I don't own a tiller, but I do an equivalent activity with my grub hoe and spading fork.)

In my own garden, I try to not turn the soil in each of my garden beds more than once per year. The big turning is usually in spring, and when it's time to pull out an old crop and plant a new one, I tend to just use a tined cultivator to loosen the top few inches for planting any seeds.

One reason for minimal tilling is that breaking up the soil also breaks up the underground communities of bacteria, fungi, and other little life-forms that help keep crops healthy. Here in Cobb County, I talk with plenty of gardeners who think that the soil isn't in good shape if they haven't pulverized it to a fine powder, when the truth is that their powdered soil has had the life pretty much beat out of it.

Potentially good reasons to till or turn the soil include mixing in amendments and turning under a cover crop. Some gardeners  use a tiller to weed the paths between rows in row-cropped gardens, and some till to break a crusted soil for planting seeds. Those are probably ok reasons, as long as the gardener understands the risks.

Reasons to avoid frequent tilling include maintaining the biological community and avoiding release of nutrients at the wrong time, plus that pulverizing the soil can - paradoxically - lead to compaction of the soil as the powdered bits settle, plus that using an actual tiller for tilling can cause the garden to develop a "hard pan" below the tilled layer of soil. Also, tilling when the soil is too wet, which is a danger for all of us impatient gardeners, can cause the soil to form rock-hard clods that are difficult to break up later in the season.

As always with gardening, there is a lot to think about!

Thursday, February 13, 2014

It's Magical Outside

The title words for this post are the words I woke up to this morning. It was insanely early in the morning, but Joe was right. Snow was everywhere, covering the ice that had coated everything yesterday. Magical. We don't get to see the landscape so transformed very often here in Kennesaw.
After Joe took our old coonhound out for a brief slide around in the yard (her back legs aren't very stable these days), we took our younger dog for a long, pre-dawn walk. Snowflakes were still falling, and no one else was out.

We've spent a couple of days at home since Georgia declared a state of emergency over the winter weather, and I've been contemplating the coming spring for much of that time. I've plotted the crop rotations for the year, put in my last seed order, and hovered over a flat of seeds so recently planted that only the lettuces are visible above ground. The tomatoes should appear in a few days, but the peppers and eggplants could be much slower.

I've also done a bit of small-farm research for a new farmer who came to the office on Tuesday, and I've been reading more about community gardens, permaculture, and agro-ecology. If it sounds like I've had a great couple of days, well, it's all true!

In the news, there was talk of widespread power outages, so we have kept the woodstove going. Yesterday we had a pot of crowder peas (harvested and shelled out late last summer) on that stove most of the day; today we have vegetable soup on the woodstove, and I've made bread. Power at our house has stayed on, but a transformer "blew" up the street, leaving some of our neighbors without electricity for a while. Luckily, repairs already seem to have been completed.

For me, it's been a pleasant  couple of days, complete with garden thinking-and-reading, phone calls from concerned relatives (in Oklahoma, Texas, and Louisiana), text updates from local friends, cozy moments with my pet bunnies, magical moments with Joe, and comfort-foods hot off the woodstove. I hope that other gardeners have also found ways to enjoy the break from their usual routine!

Monday, February 10, 2014

DIY Potting Mixes and Seed Starting

Many of my gardening friends have complained in the past few years about the quality of the standard potting mixes that are available in most garden-stores. One friend in particular, who starts a thousand or more plants each spring for school gardens, community gardens, and a Plant-a-Row-for-the-Hungry garden, has lost many hundreds of plants as a result of "burning" from a bad potting mix.

Last year, my friend used a bag of a professional potting mix, Faford brand, that she bought from a greenhouse supply store up in Ballground. The mix did not include fertilizer, so she was able to regulate the amount of nutrients that were available to the plants and to avoid burning her seedlings, which are so very sensitive to the salts in conventional fertilizers.

In my own shopping for potting mixes, I've also noticed the variable quality issue, even in seed starting mixes that are no-fertilizer-added products. Some are just very finely textured peat, and some are the finely textured peat plus perlite and possibly something else. For seed starting, the finely-textured aspect plays an important role in keeping very small seeds from washing too deeply into the soil to push their seed-leaves up into the light.

This year, I've started some seeds in Jiffy Pellets, but yesterday I also mixed up a batch of my own mix, filled a flat, and planted some seeds. The recipe I used is based on one from ATTRA, from its publication "Potting mixes for certified organic production." If you go the webpage to view (or download!) the publication, the recipes are way down toward the end, in appendix 3.

My mix is equal parts compost and peat moss and a quarter-part of perlite. This mix filled a 5-gallon bucket about 2/3 full. To these main components, I added a couple of Tablespoons of an organic fertilizer mix. If my compost had been "heavier," I would have used more perlite. Also, if I'd had vermiculite in my supply area rather than perlite, I might have used that, instead. Basically, I used what I had on hand.

For those who might not want to sort through the numerous mixes in the ATTRA publication, Organic Gardening offers a pared-down list that was gleaned from the ATTRA set.