Thursday, October 29, 2009

Time for a Change (used to be Food Gardening NW of Atlanta)

I started this blog in July of 2008, when my family was gathered in Tulsa after Nana died. I had been thinking for a while about starting a food-gardening blog, but as a “technology challenged” person, I had no clue how to get started. My older brother, though, already had a blog for his bicycling activities in Washington state, and in one of the breaks from working to empty out Nana’s apartment he helped me get started.

I hadn’t thought as far as a title for the blog, so, as we sat together filling in the blanks (it really was easy!), I just created one that seemed reasonably descriptive of what I had in mind. The title “Food Gardening NW of Atlanta” is okay as a place-holder, but I’ve done enough writing here to know that it doesn’t fully reflect my goals for the blog.

My primary hope is that more people who are interested in growing some (or more!) of their own food will be encouraged to try, and the new title, “Grow Your Own (Food),” should help communicate that idea better. I keep meeting people who are new to gardening, or who have had a frustrating gardening year, so I know that the need for timely information exists, especially in the Atlanta area which has become home to many people from places with very different growing conditions.

The blog will continue to track what I do in my own yard, for people who are following as a way to become familiar with the planting schedule and learn about reliably productive plants for the Atlanta area, and it will continue to be a place for more general gardening information that would be useful almost anywhere (like the compost posts). It is likely to branch out a bit, too, but I will try to keep from straying too far off the topic of providing some of your own very good, very local, food.

On the Road

Tomorrow I am heading to Macon for a conference called "Caring for Creation: A Scientific and Theological Response." I am really looking forward to this because Sharon Astyk, author of the Casaubon's Book blog I have been reading for YEARS is giving two of the talks. I can't wait!

In addition, a guy named Farmer D is giving a talk. His name comes up a lot in the local gardening community, and I have never seen him in action, so I am very interested in hearing what he has to say. (Seeing pictures of him on his website left me shaking my head. What does it say about my age when the experts look young enough to be my children? Don't answer! I know...)

Of course, I will be hearing more people than just these two, which makes the trip south, through Atlanta during the morning rush hour, even more worthwhile.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009


Many herbs are useful enough to deserve some dedicated space out in the yard, and this pretty purple flower is one of the herbs I give space to; it is a saffron crocus. The saffron crocus in the picture has come up in a space other than the one I planted it in, the way bulbs do around here. It is under a blueberry bush, along with a whole lot of sheep-sorrel that I need to pull up!

One great feature of the saffron crocus is that, in my yard anyway, it appears around Halloween, reliably, when other plants are shutting down and turning into masses of dead foliage. The flowers are a welcome sight.

The parts used in cooking are the stigmas, the three, bright red, thread-like bits that are the female parts inside each flower. To harvest, I just pick the stigmas out by hand and dry them on a paper towel for a few days before storing.

The plant itself really is a type of crocus, growing from similar corms, with similar planting depth and spacing, and it does best in zones 6-8 here in the Southeast. In colder areas, the corms might not survive the winter. The White Flower Farms website shows that, in the Western U.S., the best growing zones are 6-9.

I tend to think of saffron as a Mediterranean, near-Eastern, and Asian spice, but this article from the Kitchen Gardener magazine archive made available through the Vegetable Gardener website explains that saffron has been used in Lancaster County, PA, for a very long time as an important ingredient in many foods—one familiar example is chicken potpie.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Composting Convenience

Official instructions for “How to Build a Compost Pile” (see links on this Cornell Univ. page) are readily available, but many people do not follow them exactly, including me. The problems with the official instructions usually reside in the minimum recommended size combined with the idea of having all the ingredients on hand to build the completed pile in one session.

The recommended minimum size is 3 feet x 3 feet x 3 feet, but getting enough organic matter together all at once to create this size of pile, which should be built of alternating layers of green and brown organic matter, requires advance planning, and it may require that Autumn leaf-fall has already begun. If the pile is to be started in the Spring, having enough “brown” matter on hand could be a problem.

For many of us, the brown matter, which could include dried leaves or straw, is going to be leaves because there is no straw around unless we buy it, which is unlikely to happen. The green can be grass clippings and/or kitchen scraps, but so many people use mulching mowers these days that lawn clippings are getting harder to come by, and some lawns may be contaminated by herbicides and pesticides. In addition, saving huge amounts of kitchen scraps for weeks on end to use in a big compost building session is just too stinky a proposition to seriously contemplate. When I have a milk jug full of kitchen scraps that is becoming slimier and smellier by the day, I just want to move it out of the house any way I can.

The lists of acceptable ingredients are longer than just leaves, straw, grass clippings, and kitchen veggie/fruit scraps, but these are the primary bulk ingredients that many people (the lazy ones, like me), especially town and suburban dwellers, are going to have easy access to. As a result, I build my compost pile a little at a time, day by day, and it only exceeds 3 x 3 x 3 ft. in the Autumn, when I have picked up bags of my neighbors’ leaves off the side of the road before the city trash-truck can get to them.

Other people have created other work-arounds for their composting activities, with varying levels of success. Someone asked Saturday, at the Extension office open house, whether a compost pile could be smaller than 3 x 3 x 3 ft. and still work. The answer, of course, is yes; however, it won’t work the same way as a larger pile. A pile built gradually, the way mine is, never heats up to the weed-seed-killing, pathogen-killing temperatures a properly built pile does, so what goes in it should be modified. No weed seeds and no sick plants should be included. Also, a smaller pile is unlikely to work as fast.

One of my friends has been composting her kitchen scraps in five gallon buckets. These freeze at various times in the winter, so it is a safe bet that not much decomposition is going on at those times, and even in other cold-but-non-freezing times, the decomposition is going to be at a lower rate. A bigger problem with the buckets is that they are plastic and therefore not rodent-proof. One day my friend opened one of her buckets and discovered a very large Norway rat enjoying her apple cores and carrot tops! This was not a pleasant discovery. As a result, she is switching to rodent-resistant metal buckets, even though she has to pay actual money for these (plastic buckets can be had for free).

Someone else mentioned at Saturday’s open house that she had been sheet-composting by spreading her kitchen scraps on top of the garden. In the best of all possible worlds, this would work, eventually, but we live in a world inhabited by, as we now know, rodents, and possums, and coons, all of which really like those scraps. At some point, her neighbors are likely to wonder where all the wildlife is coming from.

One way to avoid pile-building while still getting some nutrients into the garden would be to dig little trenches right in the garden to dump those scraps into, then cover them up with dirt so that the scraps don’t make such a tempting salad bar for all the critters in the neighborhood. The scraps would decompose underground.

Another possibility for someone who is only composting as a way to transform kitchen scraps into fertilizer is to make a worm-composting bin to keep indoors. The City Farmer organization in Vancouver has posted online step-by-step, illustrated instructions for worm composting. I have kept a worm bin before, and it isn’t at all complicated.

Now, I have two compost systems. One is a regular, two-compartment pile that is bounded by chicken wire except across the front. We pile stuff in one side, then turn it every now and then by forking it all over to the other side. This moves the fresher organic matter from the top of the old pile to the bottom of the new pile. This wire bin system is at least 15 years old and mostly works just fine. One problem with this system is that, in winter, when decomposition is slower and the scraps remain intact longer, critters are attracted to the pile.

We have (so far!) overcome this problem by creating a “winter composter” out of a large metal garbage can that has holes knocked in it for air flow. We put a layer of leaves and dirt on the bottom, dump our kitchen scraps into the can, cover with more leaves and dirt, then repeat when we have more scraps, taking care to keep the can’s contents damp. The lid keeps the critters from crawling in through the top, and the metal can seems to be resistant to chewing.

When the metal can is full, we haul it (it is heavy!) to the wire compost bins and dump it out. Again, the fresher bits end up on bottom, and the oldest bits, which are usually pretty well composted so they are not especially attractive to critters, end up on top of the pile. We usually need to dump the full can two or three times before warmer weather comes back around and we go back to using the wire bins.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Saving Lettuces

I will be participating in a seed swap in November, and, since today is rainy (surprise!) and I can't be outside planting the garlic, I decided to finally try to separate seeds from the Tom Thumb lettuce flowers I saved this summer.

According to Suzanne Ashworth's book Seed to Seed, it is possible to "use a fine mesh screen that will allow the seeds to pass through and restrict the feathers." Now, we all know that flowers do not contain feathers, but that is the word used in the book to describe the downy fluff that lettuce seeds are attached to. Lettuce is in the same plant family as asters and dandelions, the Asteraceae, and anyone familiar with the feathery fluff that those flowers turn into as they mature will have a pretty good idea what the word "feathers" implies: 1. the seeds will drift away on any slight breeze that happens along, and 2. getting the fluff off the seeds might not be as easy as described in Ashworth's book.

Anyone to whom either of those implications had occurred would be correct. On poking around in the garage, I have been unable to locate any bit of screen that meets the criterion of allowing seeds to pass through while restricting the feathers, so I have been separating the seeds from the fluff by hand, one flower-puff at a time.

The good news/bad news is that I didn't save so many flowers that this has been an impossible task, but looking at the little pile of seeds makes me think that I might not have enough to share. Luckily, I have saved plenty of other seeds...

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Climate Change Day of Action

This Saturday, 24 Oct., is an international Climate Change Day of Action. I didn't realize this when I signed up as a volunteer, but I will be helping out at a greener living Open House at the Cobb County Extension office (to view the page for the open house, select "news and events" in the left-hand sidebar, then select "click here" under Extensions Open House).

It does seem a bit ironic to be driving clear across the county in an effort to reduce emissions that contribute to climate change, but I love to talk about garden-related activities like composting, which is the topic of one of the displays, so I am happy to be involved!

Saturday, October 17, 2009

In from the Cold

I brought peppers inside today, pretty much all that I could find out in the yard, since they don't like cold weather. In the basket, one bell pepper is off to the left. The large oblong peppers are the variety Spanish Spice. Those plants produced really well this year, and the peppers were delicious stuffed with cheese and then grilled. The longer, skinny peppers are Jimmy Nardellos that haven't fully matured. They aren't especially wonderful when green, but they turn astonishingly sweet when they ripen fully to what is, essentially, fire-engine red. However, even green they are plenty good enough to eat. The yellow peppers are banana peppers. I only planted one of these plants, but it was a prolific producer, and the peppers are great on sandwiches and pizza. The rest of the peppers in the basket are jalepenos. We are going to rig our little grill to act like a smoker, and put these in it for a day or two to give them a smokey flavor and to dry them for later use.

The other peppers that I grew this year are Minibelles. I grew two of these plants in pots, and quite a lot of little peppers are still on the plants, so I brought those into the house with the hope that the remaining peppers would ripen.

I have never before brought pepper plants into the house for the winter, but a few weeks ago I talked with someone who does routinely. Really, I started out talking with someone else, because I had been given a huge stack of 3-gallon pots that a friend had picked up off the side of the road where a major landscaping project had just been completed. I was offering to share this treasure trove of pots (since the person I was talking with is also a gardener), when I heard someone nearby say, "I could use some 3-gallon pots!"

It turns out that she digs up a couple of pepper plants every Fall to bring inside so she can have fresh peppers all winter, and she was out of big pots. We finally worked out a way to meet up and share the pots, and I am assuming that her pepper plants are now safely indoors. Because of this conversation, however, I brought the two Minibelles inside. I don't know whether my window will provide enough light for more growth, but I am hoping that the peppers that are on the plants now will have a chance to ripen.

I don't plan to grow Minibelles next year, because the other peppers I grew are so much tastier, but I am interested in finding out how the indoor peppers will do.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Sweet Potato Weather Alert!

This message came to my email this morning:

Issued by The National Weather Service
Atlanta, GA
5:42 am EDT, Fri., Oct. 16, 2009




I know, I hate the all-caps presentation, too, but in this case the alarm might be justified. Sweet potatoes need to stay at well-above freezing temperatures, and what is coming this weekend misses that ideal by a huge margin.

Anyone whose sweet potatoes are poking above the ground, the way they do as harvest time approaches, should either dig those sweet potatoes up today or tomorrow, or mulch them heavily to protect them until a warmer day comes again. The picture below illustrates what I mean:

Around here, Fall temperatures can swing pretty wildly, so I don't expect the cold weather to last until April. Warmer days will be here in a week or so, but I am not going to wait, even though the ground is still very wet. Cold is even worse than wet, where sweet potatoes are concerned.

I had been hoping for great weather for harvesting the sweets, especially since this year I am growing two kinds. I wanted a bit of leisure so it would be easier to compare. However, this weather is what I have.

In the picture below, the differences in the leaves of the two kinds of sweet potatoes are easy to see. The heart shaped leaves are on the Beauregard plants and the deeply lobed leaves are on the Puerto Rican plants that were given to me by a friend.

When I have all the sweet potatoes safely out of the ground and in the house, I will spread them out in a single layer on newspapers to dry, with a small space-heater aimed at them to keep them warm. They need to dry and cure in a warm place for at least a week before being gathered back up for longer term storage.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

When It Rains, It Pours

Actually, this morning it was only drizzling, but it is definitely pouring now. The garden gets more and more neglected as the rain continues, but yesterday I squished my way across the yard to get basil and cilantro to go in last night's supper (Joe made vegetarian Pho, a kind of Asian noodle soup). The day before, I brought in some chard and a couple of peppers.

In addition, I finally went out to collect the green tomatoes that looked as though they had a chance of ripening in the house. I have been concerned that the remaining tomatoes would be ruined in the recent, copious rain, and I just couldn't leave them out in the garden one more day.

When these are gone, there will be, essentially, no more fresh tomatoes for us until next summer. We did manage to put some up in jars, and some have been sliced and dehydrated, but, as good as those are, they are not the same as fresh tomatoes.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

When a Gardener Can't Manage the Veggies

Someone asked me today about growing blueberries. She plants a veggie garden every Spring, enjoys it for a while, and then leaves for a summer vacation. By the time she gets back, the garden is a mass of weeds and dead veggies. Her new plan is to skip the veggies and just grow some fruit. This is a great idea for her situation.

The good news is that the garden sections of places like Lowe's and Home Depot have pots of blueberries for sale right now, and this is a good time to plant (after the ground is less soggy, of course). UGA recommends that home gardeners choose the rabbiteye types of blueberries, and several varieties are listed, along with planting and other growing information, in the UGA publication Home Garden Blueberries.

Blueberries are among the lowest maintenance fruits available for the home gardener in this area, so anyone who can't manage a vegetable garden but still wants food from the yard should consider growing them. They have few pests, and of those birds are the worst. Most people aren't squeamish about birds the way they might be about some insects, so this problem isn't too horrible. People who don't want birds to eat the berries can use netting to cover the plants.

Another low-maintenance, high-reward fruit for this area is figs. UGA's publication Home Garden Figs includes recommended varieties along with planting and growing information.

Figs are supposed to be much easier to propagate than blueberries, and I am hoping to make new plants from my brown turkey fig this year. Cuttings are supposed to be made after the leaves have dropped in early Fall. My fig bush still has all of its leaves, so the time is not yet right. I have noticed though, around town, that trees are beginning to turn yellow and red, so fig leaf drop should be soon, maybe just a couple of weeks away.

Monday, October 12, 2009

More Rain! (And the Schedule)

My yard has had nearly four inches of rain since The Big Rain, and it is raining now. In addition, the National Weather Service is forecasting rain for this area for pretty much the entire week. After the years of drought, I know I shouldn't complain, but all this water is messing with my garden schedule.

I didn't plant the garlic and Fall onions over the weekend because the garden is still soggy. I didn't work much on garden clean-up, either. Same reason. The asparagus plants are turning brown, so it is time to chop those up for the compost, and the melon vines need to be removed (they will go in the garbage, though). The tomato plants are dripping with brown leaves that need to be pulled off for the trash, but working among wet plants is not a good idea---many diseases are much more likely to be spread in wet conditions than in dry. One of the pepper plants is all wilted (I don't know why, yet), and it needs to be pulled out. The eggplants are done, too. All of this activity needs to wait for a drier time.

Another activity that needs to wait for a drier time is digging up the sweet potatoes. If the coming week was drier, those could be dug up next weekend.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Garlic and Fall-Planted Onions

I plan to get my garlic and multiplier onions into the ground in the next week or so, but other people may want to plant sooner. That would be fine. Here in my yard, I would feel comfortable planting garlic and multiplier onions anytime from early October to mid-November.

A UGA publication called “Garlic Production for the Gardener” points out that garlic prefers, like every other garden plant, a soil that is “well-drained … with organic matter worked into it.” Of course, we all know how close my yard’s soil comes to that well-drained ideal….not even close!

Luckily I have been adding organic matter to the garden for years, but even with those additions, before planting the little cloves, I will add more organic matter in the form of compost from the pile out back and a purchased bag of soil conditioner (the brand I picked up at the local Home Depot is called Nature’s Helper). I will also add a little fertilizer, but more will be put on in Spring when the plants really begin to grow.

To get started with the planting, I will need to pull apart some heads of garlic. The cloves get planted individually, still in their papery wrappers, three to four inches apart. They go in the ground pointy end up, the tip about one inch below the surface. Only the fat cloves from the outer layers get planted, since they seem to result in the biggest bulbs. The littler ones go into a dish on the kitchen counter, to be used in cooking.

The soil requirements of multiplier onions are basically the same as those for garlic, so getting the garden ready for them is essentially the same task. This saves the gardener a load of trouble.

The multiplier onions are much easier to separate than the garlic, so pulling the clumps apart doesn’t seem like such a chore. The individual onions get planted just below the soil surface and ten to twelve inches apart, because they will make big (if all goes well) clumps of onions as they grow.

I also bought, at a grocery store, a couple of organically grown shallots to plant. I chose “organic” so I could be sure that they hadn’t been treated with any anti-sprouting chemicals. Their requirements are similar to those for garlic and multiplier onions, so they should be fine in the same bed. Since they make clumps the way multiplier onions do, they get planted the same way.

In addition, I saved seed from some red onions this summer. The only UGA publication specifically on growing onions that I found is one called “Organic Vidalia Onion Production.” Even though my seeds are not for Vidalia onions, the growing requirements should be the same. The publication mentions that seed for Vidalia onions should be planted in September. The Vidalia area is enough south of here that I know I am very late with my onion seeds, but I am going to put some of these into the ground with the other onion-family plants, anyway. I am hopeful that I will get, at least, some little onions. If I am lucky and we have a warmish Fall, the plants might get far enough along that I get some medium sized onions. That would be great!

Saturday, October 3, 2009

North Georgia State Fair

One of my volunteer commitments is with the Flower Show at the North Georgia State Fair. I get to help check entries to make sure they meet the requirements (right kind of container, right length of stem or number of blooms, etc.) and to check the entry tags to be sure they are filled out correctly.

One rewarding part of this work is meeting the people who bring in their flowers, leaves, or potted plants. The people have different motivations, but they all, like me, love plants. Some people are very competitive and are aiming for big prizes. Others bring plants that were given to them long ago by a mother-in-law or a favorite neighbor who has moved away, and I get to hear the stories behind why a plant is so valued by its grower. However, no matter what the motivation is behind their entry to the show, the entries are all great to see!

This year, considering the damage done by the Big Rain of '09, it is a miracle that we had a show at all.

The Fair actually runs two different flower shows, one each in the two consecutive weeks of the Fair. The first week, the entries were very sparse, but it became obvious within a couple of hours of collecting entries that this was a great year for peppers in the Atlanta area! Two entire tables were filled with vegetable entries, and most of those were peppers. It was a glorious sight.

The first check-in time for the second week was Tuesday evening, and we had alarmingly few entries, so all the volunteers went home trying to think of something to bring in to the next check-in, on Wednesday morning. Much of my yard was pretty well hammered by the prior week's rains, but my Anise Hyssop looked okay, so on Wednesday very early in the morning, in the dark, I went out and clipped a stem to stick in a clear vase to take to the Fair.

My little sprig won a blue ribbon! This still makes me smile. The sprig was entered in the herb section, because that is how it is perceived and sometime used. I mostly grow it to feed pollinators, because all kinds of bees and other insects love those purple flower spikes. A couple of the kids in my neighborhood like the flavor enough that they come over to pick a leaf or two every now and then to nibble on.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Early October Harvest

Harvests of summer veggies are slowing way down, but I am happy to report that the cowpea production is exceeding expectations by A Lot. The cowpeas in the bowl were picked several days ago and are all from a 3-by-5 foot planting. That isn't much space! The bowl is holding a heaping four cups of nearly dried cowpeas. They will shrink a bit more over the next few days, but not much, and more cowpeas are still out on the plants.

I was going to dig the plants up today to start getting that space ready for the garlic and multiplier onions, but that activity will have to wait another week. Instead, I took down the okra, which is falling over into the road (the plants were nearly 8 feet tall), and I pulled out the sunflower plants, which had turned brown and looked bad. The birds ate all the sunflower seeds, so there weren't any to harvest.

The tomatoes that are left are either small, with a long way to go before ripening, or larger and extensively cracked from all the rain. The plants look pretty bad, but I plan to leave them in the garden until the last possible second, in hopes of those smaller tomatoes getting larger. If they are mature enough when the first frost arrives, they will ripen inside.
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