Monday, October 27, 2008

Hardiness Zones

Most seed and plant catalogues include a USDA Hardiness Zone Map based on national climate data. The map (published in 1990) puts my yard firmly in zone 7; the finely detailed versions of the map, like this one, show my yard as being on the edge between zones 7a and 7b.

Checking the plant hardiness zone map is important in determining what plants to buy and when to plant them, to avoid potentially costly mistakes. No one will want to lose either the money or the effort that goes into planting and caring for plants that are not suited to a particular yard or that have been planted out too soon!

Interestingly, the map in most of my catalogues is based on older data. In 2003, the American Horticultural Society (AHS) issued a new map (pdf file and really interesting article) based on a more recent set of climate data—from 1986-2002— for the U. S. The newer map shows a big swath of zone 8 right up into north Georgia, with a little patch of zone 7 just NW of metro Atlanta. The map does not include the half zones (a and b divisions).

The Arbor Day Society also created a new hardiness zone map (in 2006), using the same data source (but with more recent years) as the USDA did for the 1990 map. This map looks a lot like the AHS map, and also puts Atlanta in zone 8. However, the Arbor Day Society has provided a great little tool to let people look up their hardiness zone as shown on the new map. The results show that my zip code is in both zones 7 and 8 (apparently, my yard is still “on the edge”) and includes a disclaimer about the effects of microclimate as an influence as to which way my yard actually swings.

Ever since seeing the new map, I’ve been careful that plants I order are successful down to zone 8, just in case. Some plants have a minimum "chill" time, or days of freezing weather requirement, below which they don't set fruit. This requirement might not be met in zone 8 for a "hardy for zones 5-7," for example, plant.

For gardeners who want to be extra-careful in choosing plants for the yard, it is also useful to look at the AHS Heat Zone Map (another pdf file) since some plants can tolerate cold but not excessive days of heat. Anyone who reads garden blogs whose writers live in the Pacific Northwest will understand the difference the heat makes. Many of those gardeners can grow salad right through the summer. Even though our hardiness zones may be identical, here in Georgia the summer heat sends all the cool weather veggies into bitterness and bolting.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Great Traditions

Growing food in the yard is one of the great traditions of our country, for people from all income and socioeconomic levels. I am doing my part to make sure this tradition isn't lost!

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Planting Garlic

When I harvested garlic this July from cloves planted last October, the 40 heads looked like a lot of garlic. However, we’ve already eaten 18 of those heads, and I pulled apart four heads to get 40 more cloves to plant today. We have 18 garlic heads left. At this rate, we will run out of homegrown garlic in January! To get a whole year’s worth of garlic from my garden, I would have to plant at least twice as much, 80 or more cloves. Wow. We seem to use quite a bit of garlic in our daily cooking.

We will, however, have to make do with a half-year’s supply, because, even though garlic is easy to plant and takes relatively little space, when Spring comes I will want all the space I can get for other vegetables.

The 40 cloves I planted today went into a space that was just 22 inches by 30 inches, since the cloves need to be only about three inches apart. After loosening the soil and amending it with compost and a little fertilizer, I laid out the cloves on their 3-inch spacing, then pushed each one down into the soil, pointy-end up, so that the pointy tip was about a half inch below the soil surface. Then I tamped the soil down with the back of a hoe, spread a thin layer of mulch over the top to keep the soil from crusting over, and watered the cloves in. If all goes well, in a few weeks, even though the weather will be cold, little green garlic-shoots will appear.

Today, I also planted multiplier onions, but they are still in the experimental stage in my garden. I planted them for the first time last October.

I had ordered a one-pound starter bag, received 5 onions to plant, and had two of those rot before the correct planting date. I planted the three survivors, which produced plenty of small-to-medium sized onions along with several quite large onions in radiating clusters, the way shallots grow. The instructions from the supplier had said to save the biggest onions to plant again in October, to keep the supply going (just like I do with garlic, saving the biggest “seed”—the cloves— from one year to replant for the next). However, the biggest onions did not survive into October so I was going to call this plant a failure for my yard.

Then, in an old Garden Way booklet about growing plants in the onion family, I found a different set of instructions: the booklet recommended replanting the smaller onions, so today I planted twelve little multiplier onions, nine inches apart and pushed under the soil like the garlic. Sometime next summer, I will know whether this strategy, and possibly this kind of onion, will work in my yard. If it doesn’t, there is always the possibility of growing more garlic…

Friday, October 17, 2008

A Garden Song

Although this sounds like a song for Spring planting, getting the soil ready for Spring starts now. As older crops come out, I add more mulch: leaves stolen from the curb and wood chips left from the pile a tree removal service dumped by the driveway in the summer.

Last year, when my office/work hours were earlier, my time in the office overlapped with the janitorial staff, and we talked some about gardening. One woman's pastor was encouraging everyone to start a garden and to plant fruit trees, in preparation for the hard times to come, because "the Lord will save his children, but they have to do their part." Mulching now to protect and build the soil is something to do now, as our "part." As a bonus, my husband will be glad when the last of that chipped wood pile is out of the way of his mowing!

Friday, October 10, 2008

Investing in the Yard

Lots of people are probably reconsidering their investment strategies this week, as the DowJonesIndex has dropped so dramatically. At the close of trading yesterday, the Dow was at 8579.19; exactly one year ago, it had been at 14164.53. This is a drop of more than 39%. Yikes! Needless to say, we have been concerned about our retirement “savings,” which, like so many people’s are 401k-like and include a big dose of the stock market. Those accounts are pretty well stuck due to our employers’ limited offerings, so there isn’t much we can do about them, but we have been thinking about planting more food as an addition to our other plans.

Years and years ago, we planted blueberry bushes, raspberry canes, and three wild plum trees in our yard. This has turned out to be a great investment because these plants have been giving us fruit for years. We aren’t going to retire on our berries and plums, of course, but, like Ben Franklin said, “a penny saved is a penny earned.” As a result of having those (and other) fruiting plants in our yard, for a few months every summer we don’t have to buy fruit at the store in order to have fruit to eat every day. In addition, we have some fruit in the freezer and in jars for the winter. In a house full of boys, this supply of fruit saves a heck of a lot of pennies.

This gardening investment has required my having a “buy and hold” attitude. Like all gardeners, I’ve had to be patient. Most cane fruits, the raspberries and blackberries, require a full year to start providing berries, bush fruits may take two or three years to produce, and trees can take longer. The speedier results from the cane fruits helped me, early on, to stand firm in the commitment to perennial fruit rather than rely only on the regular, annual garden for our yard-food.

In addition, just as in the real stock market (where a portfolio heavy in the financial sector would have been a disaster over the last few weeks) a diversified fruit portfolio is important to good and consistent yields. In 2007, when we had a freakishly late hard freeze, we didn’t get any plums but still had some later-fruiting blueberries(overall yields were down about 50%) and plenty of raspberries. Having more than one kind of fruit can help insure that, even in a bad year, the yard provides some fruit.

Since planting those first fruits, we’ve added more.

About seven years ago:
A Brown Turkey Fig, which gives us some, but not abundant, figs, because it is in too much shade
A Concord Grape vine –a muscadine would have been smarter for the South, but my great grandfather grew Concord grapes in Claremore, Oklahoma, so this was too hard to pass up; this year it gave us a few weeks of grapes pretty steadily, though not superabundantly

Six years ago:
Three Colonnade Apple trees (from Stark Bros.) which, I think, just this year may have broken even in terms of fruit produced versus initial cost

Three years ago:
A Hardy Kiwi, which finally produced a couple of kiwis this year

Two years ago:
Two bush sour cherries that I started from seed –these are growing in pots
Two Jostaberries
One dwarf Juneberry that already died

Last year:
An Asian Persimmon that died in the late freeze
A Key Lime that is in a pot and has to over-winter in the house; it is currently bearing nine little limes

This year:
Four thornless blackberry canes
Another Asian Persimmon, because I am determined to have these
Rhubarb, which is fruity in flavor but not fruit, I know, and a gamble for a zone 7b/8 garden, but I’m a dreamer…

For a few years, long ago, I had Alpine Strawberries growing in the yard. The flavor was great, even though the yield in terms of total weight of fruit per plant was extremely low. Every time someone asks why I don’t grow strawberries, I remember that slugs and snails seem to like strawberries even more than I do. I may try regular strawberries in another year or two, but for now I am still thumbing through the catalogues and talking to my gardening friends to decide whether to add another fruit this year. Fall can be a good season for planting!

Not all of my fruit investments have paid off as well as the blueberries, and some—the dead Juneberry, the first Asian Persimmon, and a cranberry that has spread but not produced fruit, and I can’t remember when I bought it— have been a total bust, but overall, the return on my fruit investment has been good. Some people may be averse to the additional work each year of trimming out old wood and amending the soil, but wading through those annual reports for stocks and mutual funds and then worrying about a crashing economy is, in my view, much more annoying.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Beautiful Beauregard

Several weeks back, I noticed the tops of sweet potatoes erupting from the soil under their vines, but I pulled mulch up over the lava-bright tubers to shield them from the sun and left them to grow a while longer. Sweet potatoes are a crop that benefits from an extra-long growing season (They had been planted on Mothers Day weekend in May). They also dislike cool weather, and in September, we still had plenty of warm days and nights ahead.

We’ve finally had some cool nights, though, and the forecast is calling for rain (!) on Wednesday. Since sweet potatoes should be harvested in dry weather, and yesterday (Monday) was supposed to be a warm day, late in the afternoon I dug up my 3x5 foot patch of sweet potatoes. They had had almost five months of growing time.

It took a while to dig them out, but after hauling them indoors and letting them dry overnight—spread out in a single layer on the dining room table—they weighed 33.5 pounds. I sometimes get more, as much as 45 pounds from the same size area, but I don’t think I can complain. Thirty-three and a half pounds is a lot of food for just 15 square feet of planted space.

More importantly, the sweet potatoes were in a part of the garden that gets a bit less sun than some other parts; in high summer, sunlight didn’t reach the vines until after noon. You’d think I would know better than to plant a full-sun plant in less than full sun, but my yard has very little space that is actually “full-sun,” and in the interest of crop rotation, every year some crops have to make do with less. This year it was Beauregard, the variety of sweet potato that I usually plant.

Some people don’t like Beauregard all that much. At the garden in the arboretum, we usually plant the variety called Vardemon, which is a more yellow shade of orange and has shorter vines, but that some people like better. They both taste good to me, but I prefer Beauregard. It may be that curing does more for Beauregard than it does for Vardemon.

Curing, which is essentially just drying the (unwashed, to protect the delicate skin) potatoes in a warm place for several days, seems to make Beauregard sweeter. Even though this really is not a tidy way to run a household, my Beauregards are, right now, spread out on the dining room table with a small space heater stationed nearby.

For storage, after a few days, I will gather them all into a couple of big baskets, which will stay in the kitchen until we use them up. Sweet potatoes are not like regular potatoes in their storage requirements; they do not do well in cold storage. In fact, if their temperature drops below 55 degrees F for very long, their quality drops—the flavor degrades and the center stays hard even after long cooking. Ideally, they would be kept in a humid, dark, constant temperature (~60 degrees F) environment, but my kitchen floor seems to work well enough. Not only will I get to enjoy my beautiful Beauregards at Thanksgiving, but, if past years can be counted on as any kind of guide, I also will still be enjoying them in February.
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