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 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.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Root Knot Nematodes in My Beets

Root knot nematode damage on a Grex beet. PHOTO/Amy W.
Some of my fall-planted beets grew well and were large enough to harvest back in December. These didn't show any sign of nematode damage, so seeing masses of knotted roots when I pulled the last few beets last week was a surprise.
It hadn't occurred to me that root knot nematodes would affect my winter beets, even though I know that my garden is occasionally troubled by these pests, but the knots on the beet (from a packet of 3-Root Grex) pictured here show that winter barely slowed them down.

It probably didn't help that November and December were so warm; the ground didn't get good and cold until around mid-January.

Really, having had three wet/rainy years in a row didn't help, either. Nematodes are less likely to proliferate in drier soils. It also doesn't help that I've been bad about keeping the weeds out this winter. According to the University of Arkansas publication "Control root-knot nematodes in your garden", "Root-knot nematodes also feed and multiply on many garden weeds, although they may not injure these plants to any extent."

Since this nematode problem is unlikely to just go away on its own, I have developed a plan to bring the population down to a less-horrifying level. I've already turned the soil in the affected bed, to remove weeds and expose more nematodes to the cold, drying air. In a week or so, I'll repeat that activity, and then again a week or two after that. Normally, I would not want to disturb the below-ground community so much, but these, apparently, are desperate times.

After the soil-turning series, I plan to plant collard and mustard greens just as thickly as I can, since their presence suppresses root-knot nematode populations. A week before spring planting, which will rely on as many nematode-resistant varieties as I can find, I'll turn under those greens.

This plan will not make the nematodes go away, and I may need to work out some additional strategies to keep the momentum going. A big component will be keeping the weeds out. Wish me luck!

The good news is that not all garden crops are troubled by root-knot nematodes, and, according to a publication about nematodes by the University of California IPM Program, not only will resistant varieties of crops produce in spite of showing some galling in the roots, "An additional benefit of growing a resistant variety is the nematode levels in the soil decline rather than increase..."

Sounds good to me!

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Is It Spring Yet?

Walking to the neighborhood coffee shop on our "snow day".
November and December were so warm that they hardly counted as "winter months" this year, but we finally had a little snow to cap off three weeks of cold weather, and that really is just about enough winter. Are other gardeners as itchy for spring as I am this year?

Right before the coldest nights, we pulled most of the remaining beets and winter radishes and about half the remaining carrots, since the tops that stick up out of the ground can get mushy from exposure to very cold air. I haven't checked under the row-cover yet, but I am hopeful that the last couple of cabbages are not too damaged.

The spaces created by pulling up those crops have me thinking about what to plant next. I know that the "last frost date" is a long way off, but some more cool-season crops can go into the garden sooner.

This weekend, I finally will sit down with my stash of seeds and the pile of 2016 seed catalogs and begin work on my seed-starting and planting schedule for the year. That activity has been put off this long because always, when I start thinking about it, I want to get started right away (even when the schedule I create has a first-seeds-starting date in late February!).

Luckily, even though (in theory) it is too soon to start seeds of most crops, I will be leading a seed-starting workshop in February, and to get ready for that I can start a small number of plants as part of the demonstration portion of that workshop. Those first few plants will be from my own stash of seeds. For the seed-starting workshop, though, Park Seed has Very Kindly Donated some seeds for participants to plant.

I had asked for seeds of the Parks Whopper tomato, since that variety is very hardy in our area, and it is a very tasty tomato that not enough people know about or grow. In addition to the packets of Parks Whopper, they also sent three packets of peppers (California Wonder, bell pepper, organic seed, and Karma hybrid sweet pepper) and a couple of additional tomato varieties (Little Napoli, a great variety for container growing, and Early Girl hybrid that is a UGA recommended variety for our area). It will be great to be able to send participants home with planted-seeds of varieties that are known to do well in our area!

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Can You Dig This? - The Movie

On Tuesday evening, Joe and I went to see the movie Can You Dig This at a one-time-only screening. The movie, set in LA and featuring Ron Finley and other area residents, shows how the simple, basic act of growing food can transform lives.

The movie, in addition, was a powerful reminder that not everyone has access to health-giving produce, straight from the garden, and I know I am very fortunate in being able to grow food in my front yard.

We saw the movie at a theater inside the perimeter, and after the movie, people who are very involved in urban farming and the Atlanta local-foods movement stood up to say a few words about urban farming in the metro area.

One of the speakers was Eugene Cooke, of Grow Where You Are. I love this guy's vision of integrating farming more fully into communities, but he seemed to be having trouble containing some of his frustration as he spoke at the screening. He is hoping that more growers step into leadership in the urban-ag arena, but right now there are many other players who are poking their fingers into his pie (I know - mixed metaphors, but I am hoping the point comes across). Since Eugene follows agro-ecological principles and uses Veganics as his guide, it is likely that a lot of people who visit his farm don't really understand how much of his work goes into building and maintaining the soil.

Some of our Asian persimmons - Ichi Ki Ke Jiro.
Other speakers included someone from the Georgia Farmers Market Association,  Dr. Ruby Thomas who is a pediatrician promoting veganism for her patients (her website is called The Plant-Based Pediatrician), a representative from Truly Living Well who said that the group would be increasing its outreach to children and families in the upcoming year, someone from the Georgia Food Bank (I think ... my notes are getting more sketchy as I go along) who mentioned the work of Georgia Food Oasis Robby Astrove who has headed up the planting of many, many fruit trees in the metro-area, and last of all, Cashawn Myers of Habesha, whose chance to speak was cut short by the beginning of the next movie. I had hoped, actually, to hear what Cashawn would say, since two of my friends have been through his farmer training program, but I will have to wait for another opportunity.

The refrain that ran through the movie and ended the evening was "Just plant some shit!", and there already is a planned "Plant some shit day of action" on December 15,  from 2-4 p.m., in Edgewood at the corner of Whitefoord and Hardee. The flyer I picked up on the way out of the theater specifies "Dress to get dirty, bring gloves, water, & garden tools."

Meanwhile, at home, I am reaping some of the rewards of having "planted some shit" already. Joe brought out a ladder today to harvest the rest of our persimmons, and we have plenty of cool-season vegetables from the garden still adding to our meals.  Feeling very blessed...

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Field of Greens

At the little farm where Joe and I volunteer on Saturday mornings, the lower field has so many rows of greens - mustards, collards, radishes, and a little bit of kale - that there is no way for us to fully harvest the crop.

The guys who manage the farm, who pay attention to the farming lore of local old-timers,  plant the field each fall from end-to-end knowing full well that many perfectly good greens will go uneaten, just like in years past. For them, even though they enjoy eating greens, the main point of that crop is not so much Food as it is Pest Control.

They call those greens their "fumigant crop", and it is planted to keep the root-knot nematodes at bay. In spring, when they are ready to plant the warm-weather crops, they just turn under all the remaining greens to let them finish their good work of pest-control. Not too surprisingly, research supports the practice of the old-timers.

The book Managing Cover Crops Profitably, published by SARE (3rd edition, 2010), which can be downloaded for FREE, cites research that demonstrates the "nematicidal effects" of Brassica-family plants like mustard greens and radishes.

When I was talking with a county resident last week about his garden, he mentioned that he'd been having trouble with root-knot nematodes in his 1.5 acre garden over the past couple of years. I told him about my friends and their field of greens, and he went silent for a minute. Then he said that he hadn't planted greens as a winter crop for the past few years because his freezer was full, but he had in each of the previous 20 or so years of gardening in that spot.

I am pretty sure that, regardless of the state of his freezer, next September my new gardening friend will be planting a whole lot of greens.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Fruit of the Season, Beautiful Fruit

Ichi Ki Ke Jiro, fruiting abundantly. 

Where there are no pumpkins...
The yard keeps tossing food our way, and we keep enjoying it. It doesn't hurt that some of the food is lovely to behold.

The orange fruits of the Asian persimmon are some of the loveliest. They will show up even brighter when the leaves have fallen, but they already are very visible against the dark green foliage.

When we were trying to decide "what to do about decorating a pumpkin" this year, we ended up decorating a few of our persimmons instead, because we have lots, and they are orange.

The original plan was to just paint scary faces on a couple, then set them out by the door to stand-in for jack-o-lanterns. Joe carved one, though, and he found that the fruits already are delicious.

On Halloween, a few of our neighbors even realized that our "jacks" were persimmons!

We have not yet had a frost in our yard, but one of my friends just a little further north, in Canton, GA, has woken up to a frosty yard twice so far this fall. The distance between our homes is not huge, but there is a lot of cooling woodland in between; my town is more nearly continuous with the enormous heat-sink that is Atlanta.
One of many bees, happy that the salvia still blooms.

The local bees are happy with our current frost-free state, because flowers are still everywhere. When the first frost hits, the bees will have a bit more trouble finding pollen and nectar, because the masses of salvia and zinnia currently blooming in our yard will be gone.

Luckily for the bees, we have plenty of other plants in the yard that will bloom most of the winter, including chickweed, violets, and dandelion. Our weedy lawn supports a lot of pollinators!

Meanwhile, we have gotten so much rain that the ground is mushy. I am glad that I set my new strawberry plants in garden beds that are mounded up a bit above ground level, because those shallow-rooted plants do  not do well in soggy conditions. So far, they all look good.

From the rest of the garden, we are bringing in lettuces, kale, a whole rainbow of radishes, bok choy, cilantro, parsley, and beets, and we still have one pepper plant (a "chocolate bell") providing fresh peppers. The spinach is a bit small for bringing in, as are the cabbages, broccoli, and carrots.

I hope that all is well in other gardens!
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