Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Poem in Your Pocket Day

Thursday, 30 April, is National Poem in Your Pocket day. The idea is to share a favorite poem, so I am posting one of my gazillion favorite poems here:

Vespers, by Louise Gluck

In your extended absence, you permit me
use of earth, anticipating
some return on investment. I must report
failure in my assignment, principally
regarding the tomato plants.
I think I should not be encouraged to grow
tomatoes. Or, if I am, you should withhold
the heavy rains, the cold nights that come
so often here, while other regions get
twelve weeks of summer. All this
belongs to you: on the other hand,
I planted the seeds, I watched the first shoots
like wings tearing the soil, and it was my heart
broken by the blight, the black spot so quickly
multiplying in the rows. I doubt
you have a heart, in our understanding of
that term. You who do not discriminate
between the dead and the living, who are, in consequence,
immune to foreshadowing, you may not know
how much terror we bear, the spotted leaf,
the red leaves of the maple falling
even in August, in early darkness: I am responsible
for these vines.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Cucurbitaceae Fun Facts

The plant family Cucurbitaceae has the same root name as the squash genus, Cucurbita, so it is often refered to as the Squash family, even though it includes cucumbers, melons, and watermelons. The melons that most of us plant—canary melons, cantaloupes, and honeydews--are the species Cucumis melo. Cucumbers are the same genus as the melons, but a different species—Cucumis sativa. Watermelons, that I don’t plant because I can’t plant just every sprawling plant that I want to due to lack of space, are in the genus Citrullus.

All of these garden plants grow as vines with coiling tendrils that help them climb, unless a variety is specially bred (and labeled) to not have long vines. These “bush” types are essentially vines with very short internodes (spaces between the leaves ). They (mostly) still have tendrils, but they sprawl in miniature.

Plants in this family also have both male and female flowers—only the female flowers produce fruit, but they need the male flowers to accomplish this task.

All the garden-plants in this family are warm weather lovers, needing full sun, warm days, and plenty of water as the fruits begin to develop, for best production. Also, they do best with a soil pH between 6 and 6.5. (Click on the plant name for more growing information from UGA: cucumbers, melons , watermelons)

It turns out that a couple of native members of the Cucurbitaceae grow in the western U. S., and they are both in the genus Marah. The common name for each includes the word Manroot. These plants are vining and have both male and female flowers, just like the garden members of this family, but these plants include an unusual “extra.” According to this website about the Native Plants of Montara Mountain in California,

“The name "Manroot" comes from the surprisingly large tubers (4 - 8 ft long!) of these plants, which can appear to be a dead body when dug up.”

According to this webpage from a website about the Natural History of Orange County that is sponsored by the University of California at Irvine, one tuber “of unknown age dug at Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden stood for many years at the entrance to the Administration Building. It had been transported on a flatbed truck, was several feet in diameter, and weighed 467 pounds.”

Tubers of the Manroot have been used medicinally as a purgative, so they aren't exactly something that you'd want to serve at the supper table. Can you imagine trying to dig giant inedible tubers out of the garden at the end of each season? I am thankful that the garden members of this family are less exuberant than the natives in their production of underground parts.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Earth Day

I don't have anything special planned for Earth Day, but I am pretty sure that every little bit of work done towards growing food locally, like in my yard or any garden nearby, counts as a mini-celebration. If it does, then I have been to a nice little party already, because I worked two hours this morning at the Plant-a-Row-for-the-Hungry garden that's just about a mile from my house.

I also planted a Yellow Marble tomato (grown from free seed) in a big pot that I've moved out to the flower part of the veggie garden in front. One of my gardening friends found the pot, one of eight, by the curb, waiting for the garbage truck, on her way to work yesterday. She split the stack with me, so I have three more pots to fill (note: this will not be a hardship). It does mean that I will have to find some more potting soil.

Recycling large plastic pots that were meant for the garbage might also count as celebrating Earth Day. However, this kind of recycling goes on all the time with gardeners. Pots are always in short supply, and we are always scrounging them from other people's trash. These just happen to be especially nice pots.

Monday, April 20, 2009

The Great Spring Planting Has Begun

Saturday was sunny and warm, and I am pretty sure that everybody in the area who had planned a garden this year was outside planting. Even better, it seems that more people than usual have garden plans and have been out getting plants and seeds.

One of my friends went out to Lost Mountain Nursery to buy herb plants on Saturday, and the employee he spoke with told him that that day was their busiest day ever. I’ve been out there on busy days before, and I have seen some pretty crazy parking and long lines to check out, so it must have been spectacular.

However, I spent time on Saturday planting some of the tomato plants that I grew from seed and some Raven zucchini seeds (yes, zucchini, even though I know that I will get only a few squash per plant before they keel over). I repotted some plant babies that I’ve raised up from seeds, and I worked to prepare another garden area for bush beans. I planted one area with Burpee Tenderpod bush beans on the 14th , and this second area will be for Roma bush beans. I will plant half of them sometime this week, and the rest a few weeks later. The Roma beans take longer to produce than the Tenderpod, so the staggered planting will (if all goes as planned…) help spread the bean harvest over many weeks.

Also, I planted some Hestia dwarf runner beans in a large pot, and set that near the pots of potatoes that were started in March. Runner beans take much longer to produce than the bush beans, so this strategy, if the runner beans work for me, will also help ensure that the bean harvest extends through the whole summer (is it obvious yet that I like green beans?).

I will be planting more of those dwarf runner beans in a couple of places in the garden, as well. I usually plant flowers in spots all through the garden, to attract pollinators and to make the garden look nicer---it is in the front yard, after all. These beans have pretty red and white flowers that should allow the plants to do double duty: beautifying the yard and producing good food. These Hestia dwarf runner beans are one of my experimental crops for this year.

This was enough work for me, for that one day. Even though some veggies have fairly short ideal planting-time-frames (squash need to go out early to beat the bugs), one great aspect of food gardening is that it isn’t a disaster if it isn’t all planted on the first weekend after the last frost date. In fact, spacing out some plantings, such as for bush beans, ensures that food comes out of the garden fairly continuously over the summer, rather than in one big burst that leaves my kitchen counters heaped with food that has to be “dealt with.”

Of course, it is great to can and freeze and dehydrate some of what the garden provides, but canning, in particular, is hot work. I am happier if I can spread that work out a bit, and not absolutely have to process ALL the beans or ALL the tomatoes all at once. Even with my harvests spread out a bit through the summer, I still usually end up with some veggies for winter.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Getting Started: Rows vs. Beds

Years and years ago, my Great Aunt Mickey and Uncle Leonard, who lived outside Claremore, Oklahoma, grew vegetables. They had a tombstone in front of their house that said, “God’s Little Acre.”

Their garden looked huge to me (I was pretty young last time I saw it), but my mother thinks it wasn’t anywhere close to an acre—that it was more like 50 by 70 feet. They did get enough food out of it to can; what didn’t fit in the kitchen was stored in the root cellar that also served as a tornado shelter. The garden was laid out in long rows, like on a commercial farm.

Traditional row gardening worked really well for them, and I think it would work well for most people who are working on big gardens in flat, sunny spaces. When done correctly, the rows would be spaced widely enough apart for people to work comfortably with hoes, fertilizer spreaders, and other useful tools. In addition, plant roots could spread out into those aisle spaces to gain access to more water than is just in the planting rows. Also, the spacing would allow for good air circulation, so plants would be (in theory) less likely to be affected by some kinds of fungal diseases that thrive in moist, shady areas.

Unfortunately, in many neighborhoods in and around Atlanta, big, flat, sunny areas for gardening are non-existent. The lot my house is on, for example, has many very tall trees. Most of them, but not all, are in the backyard. My veggies are grown out front, because that's where the most sunlight is, even though the front yard isn’t especially large and it has a definite slope. The size and slope are why my veggies are grown in slightly curved, terraced beds rather than long, beautiful rows.

Many people in this area who are growing food for the first time are going to have similar problems finding a sunny spot. Luckily, plenty of books about gardening in small planting-beds are available. One of the best known is the book Square Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew. Another is How to Grow More Vegetables (and fruit, nuts, berries, grains, and other crops) than You Ever Thought Possible on Less Land than You Can Imagine, by John Jeavons.

An important point to remember when creating new planting beds is to make sure they aren’t too wide for the gardener to reach into the middle fairly easily. I am short, and I have a couple of wider beds that I have to place stepping stones in when I plant them, so I will be able to reach all the plants without stepping onto the carefully prepared dirt. This wastes planting space, but it is the only way to reach into the middle for weeding and harvesting.

A point to remember when planting is to make sure that the spacing really is adequate. The tendency, even for me, is to plant some veggies too close together. I always want more than my small garden beds can reasonably support, and the desire to “make room” for just a few more plants is strong.

Tomatoes, for example, really do need to be at least 24 inches apart, and 30 inches would be better, to make sure each plant has good access to nutrients and water and that the upper plant parts get good air circulation, to help prevent disease. Let’s all hope that this year I resist the urge to cram too many tomatoes into their designated planting bed.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Tomato Recommendation

I spoke with a gentleman today who lives in this area and has been a Master Gardener for thirty years. He specializes in edible landscaping. The conversation came around to tomatoes, and he said that he has tried many different varieties, but that he has found that the variety Better Boy has good flavor, produces well, and doesn't keel over from disease. It's the variety that he now plants almost exclusively.

Anyone out there gardening in N GA who still doesn't have enough tomato plants might want to consider looking for some Better Boys.

Friday, April 3, 2009

A Few More Seedlings

Last weekend, I transplanted little tomato plants into bigger pots, and I started seeds of marigolds, zinnias, China asters, basil, marjoram, a little more of the Slobolt lettuce that is supposed to tolerate heat, a little more perpetual spinach chard to replace regular lettuces when they come out, Rutgers tomatoes to replace the onions and garlic when they come out, and a few more peppers and eggplants. The first round of those didn’t germinate as well as usual, and I want a few more, even though they will be a bit behind in setting fruit.

The last frost date is approaching (15 April!), so the end of indoor starts for the Spring is almost here, but I will be planting a few more seeds in a tray this weekend: sunspot sunflower, cosmos, and dill, for sure. This weekend I'll also be bumping up the original set of eggplants and peppers into bigger pots. Not sure where I'll put them; already the dining room is pretty well filled with small plants.

Around 15 April, I will start melons, cucumbers, and sweet potato slips. The melons and cucumbers will get transplanted out to the yard after only two or three weeks. The sweet potatoes won’t get transplanted to the yard until later, in mid- or late-May.

The beet and radish seeds are still in their packets, and they should have been planted out already. I am a bit behind in planting out these seeds because it is not good to work with soggy soil. The good news and bad news is that we’ve been getting rain —three and a half inches last week and an inch and a half this week. The soil is too wet for planting, but we’ve been in drought for so long that I can’t really complain. The deep soil layers need to be recharged, and it will take a lot of rain to accomplish that.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

A $25 Veggie Garden

Joe Lamp'l (aka Joe Gardener) has a series of posts over on his blog on creating a vegetable garden for his family on a budget of $25. He wants the garden he creates to be realistically reproducible by someone who is new to gardening, so he is not using all the specialized equipment and supplies that he has amassed over the years. This includes not using the compost he has created over the last year, since a new gardener would not have had time to create this free and wonderful soil amendment.

So far, his main expense is for seed-starting and transplant soil. One money-saving idea is to use cardboard pizza boxes as "flats" for starting seeds and grocery-store cake boxes, the kind with black plastic trays and clear domed lids, for mini-greenhouses to start seeds under. This will keep new gardeners from spending too much on little seed-starting "greenhouses" available at stores.

Another major money-saving idea is to request tools, transplants, and seeds through Freecycle. I've seen people do this in my local Freecycle group, and I think they have had some luck in getting at least part of what they need.

It seems to me that the biggest problem in staying within the budget is going to be in the area of soil amendments. Manure can be had for free, and it can also be used to speed up compost-making if anyone happens to have a nice pile of autumn leaves sitting around, but clay soils -- like those around here and I think also where he lives -- are going to need a lot more organic matter. Some counties offer free compost, but I am not sure what it is made from, or whether it is safe to use on food gardens. Then there are other amendments, like lime, that will be needed. It will be interesting to see how his experiment goes. I hope that it is successful!
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