Sunday, February 19, 2017

Georgia Organics Conference, Part 1

Yesterday, early in the morning, I drove across Atlanta with my friend Electa to the Georgia Organics Conference, which was being held at a convention center near the airport. We had a fun day, met people who grow and love good food, and learned lots.
Cover of the Conference Schedule. In real life, it is green.

Eight different topics were presented in each time slot during the day, and they pretty much all looked interesting and potentially useful. However, picking the topic to see for our first session easy, because my friend Terri Carter was presenting about Food History in the South.

I was especially interested in the maps of trade routes she showed us and in the role of failing economies in influencing which foods were adopted into the "mainstream" diet. 

At other presentations during the day, I wrote down ideas/thoughts that could help home gardeners. This is a not-so-short list:
  • Sustainability starts with the seed. Choose varieties that are disease resistant and that don't need pesticides.
  • In a small farm or garden, "diversification hedges your bets." Grow more than one variety of each vegetable.
  • In a small space, 'Georgia Rattlesnake' watermelon, which produces Very Large Fruits, might not be the best choice, even though its flavor is spectacular. The plant covers a lot of ground to make those enormous fruits.'Ice Box' and 'Moon and Stars' have a much lower brix reading than 'Georgia Rattlesnake'. You might want to try different smaller varieties than those two.
  • Look for open pollinated varieties when you can, since these tend to have a diverse genetic background. Even in bad years, some of these may survive and produce food.
  • Trellising saves a lot of space and can reduce fungal diseases on leaves and fruits by getting them up off the ground.
  • In trials looking at yields of tomatoes on different trellising systems, cages gave the most pounds of tomatoes per plant. 
  • For blackberries, our farmer-presenter got higher yields on North-South trellis rows than on East-West trellis rows.
  • The same guy shears off the tops of his tomato plants about a foot above his trellis system (he uses a fence system, of wire fencing on T-posts, for his tomatoes).
  • There are no effective sprays to stop diseases in organic systems. Serenade and Sonata sprays may slow down the mildews, but getting good coverage of the leaves is not easy, and these products need to be re-applied every 7-10 days.
  • Neem is not helpful for squash bugs.
  • Avoid composting plants that have root diseases, but composting plants that have leaf diseases is okay. 
More thoughts prompted by the conference will be in my next post. Meanwhile, I have completely ignored my own good advice and planted out some lettuce seeds. The weather is seductively warm, and I am ready for spring!





 


Sunday, February 12, 2017

Aphids on the Arugula?

One of my friends brought some arugula leaves to the office last week, to show me the many hundreds of aphids that were on them. The arugula is growing at a community garden that she had visited, and she had permission from the gardener to pick a few leaves.
Aphids on arugula from local community garden. PHOTO/Amygwh

We slid the leaves under the microscope and could see that, while a whole lot of the aphids are alive and active (the green ones in the picture), some had been "parasitized" by a wasp.

That means that a little wasp had laid an egg inside the aphid, and the egg was developing into a new wasp.

The aphids that have a baby wasp inside are the puffed-up golden ones in the picture.

When each wasp-baby is mature, it will bust out of the aphid body, leaving behind an empty aphid shell.

Are images from "The Alien" movie flashing through your mind yet? Sometimes, real life is just as weird as science-fiction movies. This is part of what keeps gardening so engaging.

In organic gardening, knowing that there are predators and parasitic wasps around, waiting to take care of a pest problem, provides an odd kind of comfort. Unfortunately, though, even if a swarm of ladybugs (surprisingly effective predators on aphids) moves in to help the wasps clear up the aphid problem, this arugula is going to need a lot of washing before it is added to a salad.

My venerable copy of Rodale's "The Organic Handbook of Natural Insect and Disease Control" (my copy is from 1996) offers some help for aphid infestations. The first suggestion is to wait for the predators to take care of the problem. Usually, in my garden, "waiting" is enough.

This is an odd year weatherwise, though, so it looks as though more active steps will be needed in some gardens. The next suggestion is to blast the little plants with strong spray from a hose to knock the aphids off. The next after that is to try an insecticidal soap spray. In a dire emergency, try a veg-garden-pest spray that contains neem.

Of course, the very first thing to have done, if anyone could have foreseen the aphid disaster looming from back in the fall, would have been to cover the little crop with a spun rowcover to keep the aphids out completely.

Hoping that other gardens are relatively aphid-free!


Monday, February 6, 2017

Now You See Them, Now You Don't: Perennials in the Garden

Do you remember when you first figured out that some plants look great for only part of the year before looking as though they had died, but then they popped back up the very next year looking like nothing unusual had happened?
Daffodils in my yard.   PHOTO/Amygwh

When I see daffodils, which do exactly that magic act, I remember talking (maybe 15 years ago) with a young guy about his new home and its great yard. He was very concerned that he had already killed some of his beautiful flowers.

We eventually figured out that his flowers were daffodils.  The guy just had not yet learned that some flowers (like daffodils) come up early, bloom for a couple of weeks, and then begin to die back for the year.

It was a moment of revelation! I do not remember the exact moment when I learned about the "hibernation stage" of bulbs and the plants known as "herbaceous perennials", but I certainly remember when that guy learned. We talked some more about the strange ways of plants, and he was relieved to know that he had not killed his beautiful flowers.

Plenty of other flowers follow a similar life pattern. All of the spring bulbs (tulip, hyacinth, crocus, for example), Bee Balm, Anise Hyssop, Phlox, Bleeding Hearts, Trout Lily, Blood Root, and many more beautiful flowering plants do the same disappearing act for at least part of the year.

However, not many of our commonly grown food plants are herbaceous perennials, disappearing for awhile before returning. Asparagus is one. Horseradish is another. Fennel does that same magic act, too. A few weeks ago, all you could see of my fennel plants was some bare, brown sticks poking out of the ground. Right now, in the garden, the fennel is starting to show some dense feathery growth around the base of those sticks. They are reborn! Magic.


Sunday, January 29, 2017

When Can I Start Seeds for My Spring Garden?

The answer to “when can I start seeds for my spring garden” depends a lot on how much of a gambler you are. If you have seeds, seed-starting materials, and space with lighting galore, then anytime is probably a good time.

Basil seedling started at end of March, 2016, for sharing in May. PHOTO/Amygwh
If, like me, you have limited space, lighting, and materials, following a more conservative schedule may be a better choice.

For spring veggies and early flowers, my first planting usually begins in mid-to late February. That is when I plant seeds for English peas (and sugar-snaps), spinach, dill, and early flowers like larkspur outdoors in the garden. That is also usually when I set some seed potatoes in a single layer in a lighted space  indoors (sunny window can work) so they begin to sprout for mid-March planting.

The problem with planting earlier is that some seeds, peas especially, will rot in the ground if they are too cold and damp for too long. When they do come up, though, they can survive some very cold weather. So can little spinach seedlings. The dill and larkspur won’t come up until later, but they do better when planted early outdoors. That is just their way.

Seeds for other spring crops may come up in a stretch of warmish weather if planted outside very early, but if we get a return to actual winter, with temperatures dropping below 20 degrees F for more than a couple of hours, the little seedlings are not likely to survive. Spinach seedlings can take the cold, and it is possible that kale and collards can, too, but lettuces are sometimes less happy with such very cold nights, and new carrot seedlings might not make it, either.

Since the weather can still turn very cold in February, I keep an eye on the forecasts before planting even the most cold-hardy of veggies outside.

For most of my spring veggies, I wait until the first of March to start seeds indoors. That list usually includes lettuces, parsley, and beets. When these little plants are big enough, I move them outside for a few hours each day to help them adjust to life out-of-doors before transplanting them into the garden. By the end of March, they should be ready for that move.

Seeds for peppers often are slow to come up, and I tend to start some peppers, for summer, in the first or second week of March, too. Carrots can be planted outside at around the same time.

Tomatoes are a lot speedier to develop than peppers, so I wait an extra week or two before starting any of those.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Planning for the Community Gardening Year

Garden planning, for all kinds of gardens, needs to take into account a long list of factors for best success. The sun/shade conditions available, common disease and pest issues in the area, and the local climate zone are examples of what we gardeners might want to consider.
Community Garden in Mableton, GA PHOTO/Amygwh

The garden's multiple purposes are also important. Is it going to provide cut flowers to bring inside? Is it providing herbs or vegetables? Is it all about supporting pollinators? Is it a "beauty spot" in a green swath of lawn?

Another consideration is whether we are going to save seeds produced in this year's garden to use in growing plants for next year's garden. Planning for seed saving will help a gardener choose good varieties for that purpose, and also help the gardener know how many plants to grow.

Seed Savers Exchange keeps information about seed saving online, to help gardeners get started. I also, though, will be giving a presentation about Planning for Seed Saving next week, on Wednesday, January 28 25, at the first 2017 meeting of Cobb County's Community Gardens group.

The group is a kind of "advisory committee," that meets four times each year. Its members are community garden leaders, members, and supporters who work together to keep Cobb County's community gardens vibrant, productive, and fun.

At the meetings, we (I am a member; can you tell?) share notes about what is going well in our gardens and gardening communities, and we help each other with problems that may have arisen. It is a great group!

The meeting will begin at 6:30 p.m., at the Cobb Water System Training Lab classroom, at 662 South Cobb Drive, Marietta. You don't have to be a member to come to the presentation, and it is always educational to hear what is going on in other people's gardens.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Choosing Varieties for the Small Veggie Garden

Choosing what to grow in a small veggie plot is a fun part of gardening. Right now, seed companies are sending out catalogs, and garden centers are setting up their seed displays. Pictures in the catalogs and on the seed packets all look so good!
Seeds from Irish Eyes for a small garden.  PHOTO/Amygwh

With so many wonderful seed options, how can we make choices that will be good for our own gardens?

Besides choosing crops that our families will actually enjoy eating, it helps to find out which varieties do well in our region, and it also helps to choose varieties that have been developed to stay smaller than the full-size versions.

Smaller crops can be easier to tend, since they stay “in bounds”, and a lot of the smaller varieties have a shorter time to maturity. ‘Little Gem’ Romaine lettuce is just 6 inches tall (super cute!) and should be ready to harvest as a full head in just 46 days. ‘Tom Thumb’ Butterhead lettuce is another small variety, taking 60-65 days to reach full size, and it has done very well in my own garden.

Clues to mature size are often right in the name of the variety. Look for words like spacemaster, bush, gem, little, baby, and jewel.

Of course, some veggies are naturally space-saving, all on their own. Carrots, radishes, and beets, for example, which only need a square of space 3-to-5 inches across per plant to grow well, can all be good choices for gardeners working with smaller spaces.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Drought, but the Garden Keeps Growing

Do you ever have one of those years when your life is undergoing a huge change? That year is the one I'm having. One side effect is that I haven't been keeping the blog updated. Another is that I have been making my garden smaller, to better match the time I have to tend it.

Considering the amount of water that I would need to be applying to the garden at its former size, this has turned out to be a good year for making such a change.

The last real rain at my house fell during the weekend of September 17-18. I was outside a lot that weekend, and I got totally soaked. All of us here, just north of Atlanta, are longing for another rain like that!

Now, outside, we are all covered up in smoke blowing in from forest fires in north Georgia and southern Tennessee, where many thousands of acres are burning out of control.
Park's Whopper tomato plant at the end of September. PHOTO/Amy

At home, though, the garden space I have been tending has done really well. To be honest, it was a great year for tomatoes in my yard, partly due to my having planted Park's Whopper Improved tomatoes.

When I finally pulled out that last plant in mid-October, I had to bring out an extra basket to carry in all the red, pink, and green fruits that were still on it.

The garden now has a couple of jalepeno plants that look pretty festive with all the red peppers. It also has some bok choy, kale, winter radishes (a family favorite!), the usual assortment of herbs, and the recently-planted garlic and shallots.The list is a little bit lean, but we will enjoy every bit of what we bring in.

Hope that all the other gardens out there are doing well!




Friday, July 22, 2016

The Summer Garden Looks Toward Fall

We are just about at the mid-summer crossover point, when many of the summer vegetables are either at or just beyond their peak of productivity.  Pepper plants are loaded with ripening fruit, tomatoes are almost flying into the kitchen, zucchini plants have been felled by the borers after piling up lots of squashes, winter squashes are big and beginning to turn from green to tan. You get the idea.

We've made pickles with some of our cucumbers, and we have hot peppers fermenting in jars on the counter for a Tabasco-style sauce. In addition, the dehydrator has been busily turning slices of tomatoes into chips that we can re-hydrate in winter for use in cooking. The dry tomato-chips are a great snack, too.

Meanwhile, the okra pods have only just begun to come into the kitchen. Those plants are typically slow-starters, but they will produce until frost.

Over the past weekend, I pulled out lettuces that had been left in the garden to produce seeds. I will be leading a seed-saving workshop next week (Thursday, at the Extension office), and I wanted to have lettuces for participants to see and pull seeds from. After clearing that garden space, I dumped on some more compost, mixed in an organic fertilizer that I hadn't tried before, and planted seeds for a late patch of bush beans.

The pole beans we are eating from the garden now are Blue Marbut (find them in the pole/snap category on the linked page) and I LOVE these, but a friend (thank you, Kim!) gave me a little packet of Dragon's Tongue bush beans to try, so those are what I planted. Hopefully, they will germinate and grow in this hotter-than-usual July. The seeds were in one of the beautiful packets from Hudson Valley Seed Library, so I can enjoy the artwork while I wait for my plants to appear.

The next space that opens up in the garden will be sown with buckwheat as a place-holder (some people would say "cover crop") before re-clearing the space for a fall crop. Even though the weather will still be quite toasty, I am sure, mid-August is the time to get some of our cool-season crops seeded into the ground.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

A Movie for Pollinator Week (3rd week in June)



One aspect of vegetable gardening that sometimes surprises new gardeners is finding out that many insects and other small creatures provide important support to the garden's health and productivity. Most gardeners are not "in it" for the bugs! 

However, as a gardener,  I have learned a whole lot about insects and other critters. Some of these are pretty strange-looking and may seem a bit unlovable, but quite a lot of people appreciate the beauty of butterflies. 

Monarchs Across Georgia, a group that has a mission to study Monarch butterflies and restore butterfly habitat, is hosting a viewing of the Disneynature movie Wings of Life as part of its celebration of National Pollinator Week. The movie, which is rated G, runs 77 minutes.

To defer costs, the group is asking for a donation to the Environmental Education Alliance of Georgia (the group's "parent").

The movie will be shown on Saturday, June 25, 11:00 a.m., at the Midtown Art Cinema in Atlanta (931 Monroe Drive, NE, 30308). A theater seat can be reserved online.

The description of the movie included in the ad-copy on the MAG website is this:

Released as part of Walt Disney Studios' Disneynature banner, filmmaker Louis Schwartzberg's documentary employs macrophotography in order to show moviegoers a world they have likely never experienced. The secret lives of bats, butterflies, hummingbirds, and bumblebees come to life before our eyes as Schwatrzberg and his talented team highlight how the determination and interdependence of these diminutive creatures keep our chaotic world in balance.

An Educator's Guide webpage for the movie offers a download-able activity booklet and lessons designed for grades 2-4, and additional film clips are available there, too.  


At the theater, native Georgie milkweeds, the host plants of the Monarch butterfly, will be available for purchase.

See you there?
 

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Long, Slow Spring

Into the kitchen...
My garden strawberry plants are almost finished with their production for this year. I will miss the sweet little fruits when they stop coming in, but I chose a "June-bearing" variety on purpose.

In about a week, after the last berries have been picked, I can pull up the bird netting, cut off all the old foliage, remove about half of the old plants, leaving some of the babies that have been sent out on runners, and generally refresh that whole bed.

Then, the only work to be done over the coming year will be a little weeding, amending the soil, and topping off the mulch, until next spring when, once again, I get to harvest big bowls full of berries every day for several weeks.

The end of the strawberries is going to draw a definitive line in the seasons for my yard, with the far side of the line being "summer." Some people might ague that we've had some plenty-hot weather already, but the last of the spring veggies are still producing in my garden.

My strawberry patch.
The potatoes already are out; I dug them up last weekend (and they are glorious!), but the kale is still doing well in the garden, and we have a few more beets. All of that will be pulled this weekend, though, so I can FINALLY plant the last of the peppers and get some okra seeds into the ground.

Meanwhile, I harvested the first zucchini yesterday when I got home from work, and we will have green beans from the garden today. The tomato plants have little green tomatoes coming along, but we won't have ripe tomatoes until early July.


Monday, March 21, 2016

Bitter Greens Ahead?


Plant babies in the garden, enjoying some cool weather.
Cool season crops, planted a few weeks ago from transplants that I started indoors, have taken hold in the garden and are looking very promising.

The past couple of weeks of very warm weather, though, have me wondering whether these great looking little plants will have the chance to become tasty additions to our meals.

Lettuces, spinach, beets, and cilantro (there is a short row of kale further back) are the cool season crops that are shown here. We call them "cool season" crops because they can survive some very cold weather.

Closer view of a little lettuce. March 2016.
They won't grow much while it is freezing cold, but as spring comes along and moderates the air and soil temperatures, they grow quite well.

They will even grow in the summer, but the flavor is not nearly as good, especially for lettuce, which gets bitter enough that tasting it is an experience most of us would prefer to miss.

In addition, lettuces and all the rest tend to send up flowering shoots (we call this "bolting") as the temperatures rise into the eighties, and in a spring like this one the leaves might not have a chance to get big enough to make much of a meal before the plants all bolt.

I know some kale fanatics who grow kale all through the summer, since it is one of the few cool-season crops that doesn't bolt and turn bitter in the heat, and they claim that it tastes good, but I have eaten summer-grown kale and it is not as sweet as the winter kale. To me, this makes a big difference. I will keep the spring kale in the garden until I need the space for summer veggies, but that won't be any later than mid-May. By then, it will already be less tasty.

In the meantime, slightly cooler days have returned for a brief while. If we end up with a very short spring, with early high temperatures that mess with my plants, my gamble with the spring crops will be a loss. This is a case, though, of "you can't win if you don't play," so I will be glad that I tried, regardless of the outcome. Some years, this gamble pays off very well, and we have wonderful lettuces and other cool-season crops until well into May. The great news is that, if the cool season crops don't work out now, I will have another chance in late summer to start more for fall.






Sunday, February 21, 2016

Mildew Resistant Cucumbers: Possible, or Just a Fantasy?

Every summer, around mid-July or early August, I start hearing complaints about cucumber, squash, and melon plants whose leaves have acquired that gray-ish look that goes with Downy Mildew.  Productivity slows, and the plants die. Out of desperation (possibly) and a longing for more fresh cucumbers and squashes and melons (likely), many gardeners treat their ailing plants with an array of sprays, from baking soda mixtures to compost teas to official fungicides purchased in the pesticide section of a garden center. All of these can slow down the spread of Downy Mildew to some extent, but none will actually cure the plants.

In general, the inability to cure the problem is a good reason to grow the most disease-resistant varieties we can find.  UGA Extension publications list varieties that are good to grow in our area, and a big reason varieties make it onto the list is that they show pretty good resistance to diseases that are common here in the Southeast.

These are the currently recommended cucumbers: Salad Bush Hybrid, Bush Crop, Fanfare, Burpless Hybrid, Diva, Marketmore, Straight Eight, Sweet Slice, and Sweet Success.


When I first started gardening here, about 25 years ago, I tried several different varieties of cucumbers before settling on Straight Eight (notice that it's on the recommended varieties list) as the best for my yard, but I later switched to Straight Nine, a selection of Straight Eight from Sand Hill Preservation, and each year I find that it out-performs most other varieties in local gardens. Part of its charm is that it is slower to succumb to both Downy and Powdery Mildews.

This year, though, I am going to grow another cucumber variety alongside Straight Nine. I found the seeds through my trip to Monticello with a couple of gardening friends last September. We had a great time meeting other attendees at the Harvest Festival and asking about their gardens, but we also met some seed producers, one of whom was a young man from Commonwealth Seed Growers. After a brief conversation with the grower, we bought a few seed packets and added our names to his mailing list, and then we moved on.

When the catalog showed up in the mail, though, I saw that a big focus of the group is identifying and producing varieties of cucumber/squash/melon family plants that resist Downy Mildew. Talk about a great gift to gardeners and small farmers here in the Southeast!

My seed order from that group includes a packet of the cucumber variety DMR-264, a selection released from Cornell University. The variety has shown excellent resistance to Downy Mildew on the farm where it is being grown out for seed, and I am very interested to see how it will compare to Straight Nine.

I have friends, including some at local Community Gardens, who have been looking for mildew-resistant squashes, melons, and cucumbers, and it seems possible that Commonwealth Seed Growers could have the seeds of our dreams.

I surely am hoping so. Meanwhile, next weekend, I will be looking into more new varieties and other gardening discoveries at the Georgia Organics conference. It will be great to spend some time with other people who are so very focused on growing good food.


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