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!

Friday, October 16, 2015

Plant, Harvest, Process, Repeat

50 Chandler Strawberry plants, from Ison's Nursery
It is too late in my area for planting most cool season crops, but this is the month to set garlic and shallots in the garden, and last night I planted a lot of little strawberry plants that had arrived (very well packaged) on Wednesday. There are still about 20 plants that need to be set into the garden, but the ground is mostly prepared for them. 

Planting is a very hope-filled activity, and it usually involves some serious work.

We still are bringing in hilariously large quantities of peppers from the garden, along with the first of  the cool season vegetables.We've brought in bok choy and winter radishes, and the first beets are almost ready to pull. The sweet potatoes, one of the remaining summer crops, will be coming out of the ground this weekend, too. This part of gardening for me is packed with amazement and joy; always, I think "wow! this really awesome food grew in my garden!", even when the day's harvest is just one radish.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Road Trip to Monticello

Me (left), Electa (center), and Susan (right) at Monticello
A couple of weeks ago, I took a Friday off from work and drove with two friends to Monticello for the harvest festival, and Oh My Goodness we had a great time!

Electa had visited there before, but Susan and I hadn't, which is one reason we made the trip. The other is that Electa had some Georgia-heirloom hard-neck garlic that she wanted to share with Ira Wallace of Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, and Ira was scheduled to be one of the speakers for the event.

Considering this need, how could we not go?

We arrived early enough that the morning mist hadn't cleared.
The one obstacle that we had a hard time getting past was locating a nearby hotel room. When I was calling around to make a reservation and running into many fully-booked hotels, I was amazed to think how many gardeners were planning to be at the harvest festival!

We later found out that harvest festival weekend was also a football game weekend for Virginia, and that most of the hotel reservations were for sports fans rather than gardeners. To be honest, I was a little disappointed to make that discovery, but the festival would have been pretty crowded if all those football fans had been at Monticello.

I took lots of archeology-related pics for my youngest son.
The good news is that we were able to speak with many other gardeners who actually did attend the event.  We also met seed-savers and sellers we hadn't yet known about, listened to a couple of talks, and, of course, each bought more seeds than we have space to plant.

The festival included many presentations and vendors, but it also featured some Living History people who were demonstrating how things were done/made back in Jefferson's time.

When Susan saw a Living History guy (on loan from Colonial Williamsburg) splitting a long piece of oak tree to make a basket, she was very happy, because, in addition to being a thoughtful gardener, she is a basket maker. She had been at the John Campbell Folk School for awhile this summer to learn more about using native materials in basketry.

She spent enough time watching and asking questions that the guy waited for her to come back from a presentation to let her help split the heartwood of the piece of oak tree he was working with that day. The heartwood is used to make rims and handles.
Susan got to help split the heartwood to make handle and rim.

So ingenious...
While Susan was learning more about making baskets from oak trees, Electa and I were asking people questions about their gardens: what is your soil like; what grows best for you; what are your garden's biggest challenges; which varieties do you choose, and why?

To be honest, we may have gone a little overboard on asking about other gardens, because by the time Susan caught up with us, she had already been asked if she was "part of that Marietta group" (yes, that was us!).

We had arrived at the harvest festival on the first
shuttle from the parking area, and we were among the last to leave. We really enjoyed the gardens, the people, the exhibits, and the presentations. We got the most out of the day that we could, because the very next day we were planning to drive back to Georgia. Electa and Susan are (mostly) retired, but I needed to be back at work on Monday. Luckily, my gardening friends are happy to do a crazy long drive for a one day event!

Banners with plant-related quotations hung from trees.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Muscadine Time

Over the past couple of weeks, we have been harvesting muscadines at the little farm where we do some volunteer weeding and other work, and those little Southern fruits have been a great addition to my weekday lunch basket. Hearing other people's reactions on seeing them is interesting, too. The locals all are interested in finding out where I was able to find these Southern grapes, so they can have some, too, but people from "up North" tend not to have taken to the thick skins and stronger flavor.

I am not from here, either, and it took some time to adjust, but, really, how could I not fall in love with all that wonderful fruit? The vines are nearly trouble-free, and they are very productive.The only drawback I have seen is that finding the fruit in the mass of foliage can take some time. On walking up to the trellises, not much fruit is visible. To find the most in the least amount of time, I press my face right through the foliage, as though I were snorkeling, to get the clearest view.

It probably helps that I wear glasses, which protect my eyes. Also, moving slowly, as though taking a leisurely swim over a shallow reef, helps to keep the wasps (who also are interested in all that sweet fruit) from becoming startled.

In the yard at home, harvests of summer vegetables are slowing down, and the first leaves of some  cool-season crops are coming up -- even the beets!

Hope all is going well in the other gardens out there!

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Planning for More Good Food

Twenty pound "Luscious Golden" melon from our front yard.
My not updating the blog for 3 weeks doesn't mean the garden isn't still a productive and wonderful place. It is, actually, providing surprising quantities of good food, considering that it also has been a little neglected.

We are running short-staffed at work, during our busiest time of year, and work-stuff has spilled over into my non-work time. However, the bosses have interviews lined up to fill at least one vacant space, so we are hopeful that the whole "short-staffed" thing will be short-lived!

In the meantime, I am thinking more and more about the fall garden. Last weekend, I amended some areas with compost, planted seeds for chicory, beets, parsley, green onions, and one last patch of bush beans, and I started seeds (late!) in a flat for broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, more beets (in case the outside seeds don't make it -- they can be finicky), and bok choy.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Vegetable Abundance

Yesterday's harvest from the front yard.
This is a time of abundance in the garden, which means we are busy in the kitchen. I put up tomatillo salsa in jars over the weekend, and I blanched more green beans for the freezer. Joe has kept the dehydrator full and humming with tomatoes and okra, and he's smoked some of the hot peppers, then dried them and ground them to powder to store the full, amazing flavor in tightly sealed jars.

Even though the garden still is fairly bursting with good food, it is time to begin the transition to cool season crops, which will provide fresh vegetables in winter.

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