Monday, March 25, 2013

Watching the Weather

Georgia gardeners and farmers have a lot to celebrate right now, even though they might not be able to get into their squishy fields to work. Due to last month's record-breaking rainfall, the soil-moisture deficit of the past few years is substantially reduced. There is such a thing as too much rain, but we aren't there yet. 

Weather.com's recent article "Another Warmer-than-Average Winter, New Report Says," summarizes data from a NOAA report about this year's winter weather.  This is the really great part for Georgia: "Parts of the state saw over a foot of rain during the month, and the statewide average was an impressive 9.92 inches, smashing the previous record from 1939 by over an inch."

NOAA's Spring Outlook report notes that the threat of minor flooding from the plentiful rainfall will continue into the spring, but that "Above-normal temperatures this spring are most likely across most of the continental U.S."

This morning, there were snow flurries at dog-walking time, and we are looking ahead at several nights in a row of freezing weather, which makes the looming "above normal temperatures" a little hard to believe. Last year, spring really was toasty warm very early in the season, but this year's spring is having a more-usual beginning: it's cold and windy. 

For local gardeners whose seedlings are busting out of their little pots, it's still to early to put the summer crops (tomato, pepper, squash, cucumber, beans, etc) out into the garden. Last year, the soils warmed up early, and planting time was also early. This year, our soil temperatures, as of today, are still below 50 degrees F, making it WAY too cool for the summer crops. Most of those summer crops will do best with soil temperatures in the 60s and above. We all will just have to watch the weather as closely as we can for a little while longer. I hope my seedlings won't mind hanging out indoors for a few more weeks!

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Garden Schedule for the Next Few Weeks

We are just about four weeks away from the average last frost date for Cobb County, which means that I am counting down to the time when I can really fill the garden again with food-producing plants.  The potatoes and peas are starting to come up, making the garden look a little less bare, but most sections of the garden are looking fairly empty. The spaces that still have some cool-season crops (spinach and green onions, for example) will be cleared over the next few weeks to make room for the next round of plants.

Meanwhile, the seedlings that I've started for spring planting all need tending, including watering and moving to larger containers as needed. I've put sweet potatoes into a flat of sand-plus-potting mix to make slips (which won't be planted until May). Some of the lettuces that I've started indoors will be ready to set out in a week or so, and the parsley might be ready then, too. I'll be putting out seeds for radishes each week through April, because Joe likes radishes and Moonpie LOVES radish leaves.

Depending on how the next couple of weeks go, weather-wise, I might plant a little patch of bush beans when I set out the lettuces. That would be a small gamble, but I have lots of bean seeds for replanting if a freeze knocks out the first round. Otherwise, there's some impatient waiting ahead.

One thing I've been working on while I wait is a more firm crop rotation schedule than I've had in the past. I've assigned numbers to the different planting areas in my yard, to make a six year rotation. However, the most "needed" crops are in two beds each year. This is how it looks so far:

Bed 1 year 1 - Green peas, followed by sweet potatoes, okra, and sunflowers, which come out in October and are replaced by onions, shallots, and garlic.
Bed 2 year 1 - Onion family comes out in June, followed by late tomatoes and Southern peas, followed by a winter cover crop.
Bed 3 year 1 - Zucchini, melons, and cukes, followed by buckwheat cover, followed by carrots, cilantro, and parsley.
Bed 4 year 1 - Corn, underplanted with beans or peanuts, followed by cabbage family plants, followed by green peas (leaving a little space for the early potatoes).
Bed 5 year 1 - Potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants, with early potatoes followed by bush beans, then replanted with late potatoes, then mulched.
Bed 6 year 1 - Zucchini, melons, and cukes, followed by buckwheat cover, followed by beets, spinach, and Swiss chard.

What's missing, of course, is a space for the lettuces and chicory. Hopefully, in the next three or four weeks I will have sorted out that little detail. And this year, it will take a little finagling to get the rotation right, because what's in the beds right now doesn't exactly match what I have mapped out.

Part of why I'm working this out is that many of the planting schemes I've seen don't take rotation (moving plant families around the garden) into account, and they don't use succession planting at all. I'm working on getting more cover crops into the rotation but also to keep quite a bit of space in production.  The plan isn't quite right yet, but I'm pretty sure the work will be totally worthwhile.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Bumping Up the Seedlings, and Other Goings On

We are having some pretty glorious spring weather this weekend in North Georgia, so Joe and I have spent a lot of today outside. We did our usual couple of hours of work on the farm (out on Dallas Highway) this morning, ran a few errands and ate at a Chinese place, but the rest of our day has been out of doors at home. This is some of what I worked on:
I had a lot of veggie-babies that needed to be moved to larger pots. There are still a few left for tomorrow, but I am very happy with the progress of my plants so far. Some plants had been started a couple of weeks earlier than usual, because I wanted to be able to show people at a seed-starting class what the seedlings would look like, and as a result I have some pretty big plants. Usually, I have more smaller plants now, and no big ones. The trio of tomatoes that got bumped up to the one-gallon containers is an especial surprise to me.

I know people who ALWAYS have big plants to set out in April, but that is not typically the case for me. I can only hope that I am able to keep those plants happy for the next few weeks! Most of them won't be planted out to the yard until mid-April. That leaves a lot of "indoor time" left.

Veggies aren't the only plants in my yard. I have been enjoying this pot of pansies all winter long, and soon it will have more color for me to enjoy.


When I was putting in the pansies, I put in a few bulbs first. I had been wondering when I would see them, and I finally have an answer! A couple of hyacinth are coming up now.

The under-planted bulbs in the pot of pansies are a great addition to my yard. If I hadn't been giving talks on container plants last fall, I wouldn't have been motivated enough to make it happen, but I am Very Happy that I took the time to make this happen.

It will be great to see more flowers.


The leaves and flower stalks are on their way. Right now, the flower stalk is just a little nub, but it will be stretching up above the pansies in the next several days.


Something else we worked on today was beginning to clear some space for some Tree Removal Guys to come and take down a loblolly pine tree. Joe cut down a couple of small trees, and I helped trim and stack the branches so that they would be easy for the city workers to take away to be made into mulch.

The Loblolly pine is coming down because it is infested with black turpentine beetles. The tree had had an earlier infestation, but this year there are  enough visible pitch tubes on the lower portion of the tree-trunk that I am getting a little concerned about the tree's viability.

Turpentine beetles don't kill a tree with the same speed or certainty as Southern Pine Beetles, but if there are enough beetles the tree can be girdled.

The picture to the right shows the abundance of the pitch tubes. The photo below shows some up close:


And this last photo shows the height of the tree. The guy who came to give us a cost-estimate for the removal of the tree said that this is a big tree. He guessed that it is at least 110 feet high, maybe 115 or more.

Needless to say, the tree's removal won't be cheap, but my front garden will, at least, be getting a little more sun this summer.

We have a little more work to do to get ready for the big tree removal, but we also have some weeding and planting to do in the veggie garden.

The potatoes are in, as are most of the peas, but there is still another patch of peas to go in. That will be part of tomorrow's work.

Hope everyone elses's weekend is going well!

Thursday, March 7, 2013

"Organic" Organic-Matter for the Garden

I spoke with someone this week who wanted to know where to find the absolute BEST compost for her organic garden. She has a compost pile in her own yard, but it doesn't make enough for the whole garden. I suggested that she try  Farmer D's compost, which - even though it is expensive - is locally available and an absolutely beautiful product. It is made partly with leftover produce from multiple Whole Foods stores.

However, she was concerned about pesticide residues, since not all of the produce at Whole Foods is organically grown. She also pointed out -- when I brought up mushroom compost as an alternative -- problems with the substrate that commercial mushrooms are grown on, which then is often made into (some pretty good) compost. Apparently, she had read that sometimes bits of particle board and other pressed wood products, some of which contain formaldehyde, are used as the growing medium.

Many of us are going to be a little less picky about the residues in the compost, since most of the worst chemicals will have broken down into components that (hopefully) are less of a problem, but my friend has some issues with past chemical exposure that have made her understandably wary of bringing any more potentially risky chemicals into her environment.

After discussing and rejecting a couple of other possibilities, it became pretty clear to me that there is almost no way to obtain large quantities of completely non-contaminated, composted organic matter for use in the home garden.

The only good alternative I could think of was intensive use of cover crops to add the needed organic matter. For new ground that can be kept out of food-production for a full year, starting now with some kind of peas (it won't matter which kind), plowing those in then leaving them for a week or so to begin decomposition, followed by buckwheat in May that is plowed in after it has begun to flower, followed by another round of buckwheat or some cowpeas, followed by a winter cover of rye plus either hairy vetch or Austrian winter peas, would get the soil into pretty good shape. The cover crops would, of course, need to be amended following recommendations on soil test results, especially with regard to bringing our area's naturally low soil pH into a better range for the desired plants.

Most organic gardeners here in Cobb County need to incorporate cover crops in the rotation anyway, to keep the soil phosphorus levels in bounds, but to get a big slug of organic matter into the soil using cover crops alone will take some planning.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Tracking the Harvest: Jan. & Feb. 2013

Winter radish - a crop that we love but that is almost done in our yard. 
Tracking the harvest totals last year taught me a lot about my garden, so I'm going to try it again this year. Something I had already figured out is that the next two or three months are going to be pretty slim, harvest-wise, but tracking the harvest really emphasizes the leanness of the coming weeks.

The next two or three months are why we put veggies in the freezer and in jars "for later." Not too surprisingly, "later" has finally arrived!

Here are the weights, in kilograms, for the veggies that I weighed after bringing them in from the yard.

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January Harvest
Asian persimmons
0.6
Lettuce
0.65
Broccoli
0.7
Radish, winter
0.55
Swiss chard
0.2
Beets plus greens
0.6
carrots
0.95
Bok Choy
1.5
Kale
0.1
Spinach
0.15
Cabbage
5.6
February Harvest
Radish, winter
0.55
Lettuce
0.1
Broccoli
0.25
Onions, green
0.25
Beets plus greens
0.3
Carrots
0.7

January's harvest total is 11.6 kg, which converts to 25 pounds, 9 ounces. February's harvest total is just 2.15 kg, which converts to 4 pounds, 12 ounces. Altogether, the 2013 harvest amounts to 30 pounds, 5 ounces of food from the yard.

That's not bad for a start to the year in a small garden, but we are about to slow waaay down. Right now in the yard we have a little patch of radishes, spinach, a little kale, some green onions, a few stragglers in the carrot patch, and some beets, cilantro, and parsley -- all of which will be ready to eat within the next several weeks if not sooner. This won't get us very far, but it will all be good!

There are also onions and garlic planted that won't be ready until about June, and some peas that just went in the ground today. I had planned to plant potatoes this weekend, but I finally decided that it was a little too cold and that it could wait a few more days.

I also sorted the remaining sweet potatoes, pulling out a few for starting this year's slips. The rest went into the oven, since I had it turned on for sourdough bread, anyway. The mashed sweets will go into freezer bags, to be eaten over the next couple of months, after they've cooled.

Hope everyone else's gardens are off to a good start!
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