Sunday, February 28, 2010

Fertilizer News

Last week a link to Tom Philpott’s article “New research: synthetic nitrogen destroys soil carbon, undermines soil health” showed up on Energy Bulletin, one of my favorite news sites. The article was originally published in Grist.

The article’s title pretty much says it all: a couple of recent (2007, 2009) studies by soil scientists working in Illinois (and a 2009 study by soil scientists in Iowa) support what some very old sources — published before WWII— had claimed, that use of synthetic fertilizers is bad for soil. What’s bad is that the readily available nitrogen speeds up growth of soil bacteria and fungi; as they grow, they do their usual job of decomposing organic matter more quickly, which results in soil with lower organic matter content.

It has been thought that agricultural soils on which plant debris had been left and then turned under would serve as storage for carbon, which could help mitigate climate change, but the new studies suggest that the industrial farms that rely on synthetic fertilizers are not going to be useful as carbon sinks.

In addition, soils that are lower in organic matter drain less well, hold less moisture, hold nutrients less well, and have lowered numbers of nitrogen-fixing bacteria. As the spaces normally held open by organic matter in the soil close because of the loss of that organic matter, the soil compacts and air is squeezed out. Roots need those air pockets, and so do many members of the community of micro- (and not so micro-) organisms that live in the soil.

I’m writing about this for a couple of reasons. The first is that not everyone who reads my blog reads the same websites that I do, so they might have missed this news. The other is that I had just about decided to save some money this year by using some synthetic fertilizer on my veggies. Obviously, I am going to have to change that plan (back to the cotton-seed meal, kelp meal, etc).

I would say that “Ignorance [was] bliss,” but I am glad to be able to avoid harming my garden’s soil. I may have to drive back out to that horse farm for another load of manure, though.

NOTE: The article discussed here is one in a series posted on Grist about soil nitrogen. Tom Philpott has written them all.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Sweet Potatoes

“Without the sweet potato,” said Robert Odeu, “there would be terrible hunger.” Odeu is a farmer in Uganda, and he is quoted in the first sentence of chapter 27 of James Lang’s book Notes of a Potato Watcher.

Most of the book is about “regular” potatoes, but the one section is about sweet potatoes. As a result, since I am reading the book, even though it is way too soon to be thinking about sweet potatoes, here I am, thinking about them.

The hunger-stopping capabilities of the sweet potato that Odeu was referring to are partly due to its hardiness and productivity, and partly to its keeping qualities.

In my yard, sweets also are productive and not prone to die from diseases, and they also keep through the winter just in a basket on my kitchen floor, so I am aware of those particular benefits.

What comes out in the book, though, is that in other, non-U.S. parts of the world, people prefer differently qualities in their sweets than we do. Varieties like Beauregard that are popular here are orange-fleshed, fairly moist, and very sweet. In other countries, sweets that are more dry, less orange, and less sweet are more popular.

Part of this is a problem, because people in some of those places would benefit from the beta-carotene in orange sweets, but the dryness is attractive because that helps in storage; in some places, sweets are dehydrated for extended storage. The sweets are pounded thin for drying, then ground into a flour that is used (in many ways) in cooking. It would take a lot longer to dehydrate a Beauregard than it would a drier Ugandan variety!

This is relevant to my garden because I grow not only Beauregard, but also a Puerto Rican sweet. I got slips for these Puerto Ricans last year from my friends Jack and Becky. Becky’s family has been growing this particular strain in this county for 103 years. They were a cash-crop for Becky’s father.

However, when I have spoken with Jack and Becky about cooking these sweets, they’ve both emphasized that these are not like standard grocery-store sweets. I had already noticed that they benefited from added liquid after cooking, but Becky also said that putting them in the microwave to cook, like some people do with other sweets, just turns them into hockey pucks. I believe her.

The Puerto Rican sweets have good flavor, but they are definitely dry. They would probably dehydrate well. What this means is that I will be spending some time next fall, looking into dehydrating sweets. I don’t think I’ll be pounding them thin with rocks, Uganda-style, but the general concept is worth considering. Right now, though, I don’t have enough left to experiment on—only enough for another meal or two and to start slips for this summer.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Around the Yard, and Planting Peas

We had the first warm days of late winter over the weekend; afternoon temperatures were in the low 60s (degrees F), and that was enough to induce the first crocus to bloom.

Some of the purple crocus have sent fat buds up above ground, but they haven't opened yet. The trout lilies are also very close to blooming. In the picture below, a flower bud can be seen pushing up through the leaves on the right side of the leaf clump. I usually use the blooming of the trout lilies as a sign that it is time to plant peas, and since the weather was so nice, I decided that this was close enough. I planted a couple of rows of Wando (dwarf) peas on Sunday afternoon.

We had rain last night, so the seeds should be swelling as I type. Of course, we are in for more cold days ahead, but the peas can take the cold, even when they have just emerged from the ground. Now that we have had our first "warm snap," more warm days will be coming, interspersed with the cold. I am looking forward to watching the peas grow.

The garlic that I planted in October seems to have made it through the coldest part of winter just fine. It always does, but that doesn't make me any less hopeful to see the stems looking fat and green as spring approaches.

Some of the winter weeds are looking healthy, too. I spent some time pulling up chickweed, hairy bitter cress, and purple dead nettle. I have read that it is especially important to keep the onions well weeded. I assume this is because they are so shallow-rooted; they can't reach down deeper than the weeds to get what they need from the soil. I haven't planted out any onions yet, but I did clear weeds from among the garlic and from the space that will hold onions in just a few more weeks.

Saturday, February 20, 2010


I was out walking one of the dogs this afternoon when a small flock of sandhill cranes flew by, heading north. It seems a bit early, but I was glad to see them. They flew in a classic, sharply-pointed V formation, calling out that amazing stuttering trill (our battered copy of Peterson's field guide to Eastern Birds says it's "a shrill rolling garooo-a-a-a repeated").

One more sign that spring is on its way.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Plant a Row for the Hungry

One of my volunteer activities is working at a Plant a Row for the Hungry garden (PAR). We take our produce to a local food pantry, where it can be distributed to people who need food. This morning, the PAR gardeners had a planning meeting.

This was the meeting at which we catch up on everybody's news, drink coffee, and try to figure out what we should probably try to do differently in the garden.

One topic of discussion was the condition of our tomato cages. They are old enough that they have lost some of the legs that are supposed to poke into the ground; as a result, when the plants get big, the cages fall over. A couple of people are going to look into alternatives.

Another topic was that a couple of our trellises need repair. We think this won't be hard to take care of, but we are sometimes mistaken about how long/hard such work is going to be. We will see how that goes.

Our Fearless Leader also told us the soil test results for this year. Apparently, the soil is very depleted and needs more 10-10-10 than it has in the past. After two seasons of Big Rains, this should not be a surprise, but it kind of was. We do try to maintain soil fertility, but we didn't manage it as well as usual last year.

Another topic was weeds. Last year, someone tilled the garden for us in early spring, which was very kind (it is not a fun or easy job) but then it rained and rained and rained, so we didn't get the garden planted and mulched in time to stay ahead of the weeds. It felt as though we spent half our time trying to slice/chop/pull out the weeds. This year, we are thinking about not tilling.

We already have spread a thick layer of leaves over about half of the garden and will spread leaves on the other half soon. We are thinking that we might just pull back leaves from the spaces we intend to plant, on the actual planting day, and loosen, fertilize, and plant at that time, working on one section of garden at a time.

The garden is fairly large, maybe 4,500 square feet, and is a traditional row-type garden rather than raised beds, so we are not sure how this will work, but we really do not want to spend another whole summer weeding. We think this strategy of keeping the garden thickly mulched might help.

What we expect to grow:
Marketmore 76 cucumbers
White Mountain half runner beans
Sugar Nut hybrid melon
Clemson Spineless okra
Assorted tomatoes, as disease resistant as possible (these are started from seed by the same gardener who starts our peppers)
Assorted peppers (the gardener who starts these for us chooses, and she does a great job of providing a wide selection of delicious peppers.)
Beauregard sweet potatoes
Kennebec potatoes
Bush beans (I don't remember the variety name)
Seminole pumpkin squash
Trombocino squash
Yellow straight-neck squash
Carrots, variety unknown right now because we haven't grown them before in this garden

Our goal is to produce as much usable food as we can from our space. We don't plant a fall, winter, or spring (other than the potatoes) garden, so everything we grow needs to work in a traditional summer garden. The food we grow has to be familiar enough that the people who receive it can easily use it in meals, and the food pantry can't accept greens, because it doesn't have enough cool storage space to keep leafy veggies in good condition. These factors limit our choices of what to grow, but also help us choose wisely.

Saturday, February 13, 2010


We were starting to feel a little left out, but we finally got enough snow to feel as though we actually have snow. Anyone from further north, or even Dallas-Ft. Worth (my sister there got 14 inches from this same weather system), isn't going to agree that 2 inches counts as snow, but I spent the morning sledding down the road in front of our house, and that is good enough for me.

The snow also provided evidence that I can't relax my vigilance this spring in protecting my garden from the bunnies. Not having seen them recently doesn't mean they've gone away. The woods behind the house are full of their very visible tracks.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Potato Thoughts

I have been thinking a lot about potatoes lately, partly because I am growing some from seeds I saved (back in 2007) when a couple of potato plants in my yard flowered and actually set seed.

So far, my potato plants from seeds look just fine; they appear to be a lot less sturdy than the shoots that come up from seed-potatoes, but that is to be expected. The tiny true seeds contain a lot less in reserves.

I have no idea how this potato experiment is going to work out, but Carol Deppe, in her book Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties, tells about a guy who breeds potatoes by growing the seeds. It really is the only way (besides random mutations) to get new varieties. The seeds grow for him, and the resulting plants produce potatoes. When he digs up the potatoes and discovers a new kind that he likes, he saves the actual potatoes to replant (the usual way) to increase the numbers of potatoes in that line, until he has enough to sell or share.

James Lang, in his book Notes of a Potato Watcher, tells about a different potato breeding effort, this one by the CIP (International Potato Council), to produce disease free starts, both cleaner seed potatoes and actual seeds, for farmers in developing countries.

CIP was working on this because plants that are infected by many diseases are less productive than uninfected plants. It turns out that the true seeds are much more free of disease than seed potatoes saved from an infected field. (Not a huge surprise.)

One way farmers in the Andes traditionally addressed this disease problem was that seed potatoes were typically produced at higher altitudes, where it was colder and the disease pressure was less. Farmers at lower (warmer) altitudes bought fresh seed potatoes every few years to get cleaner stock, when their potato production dropped.

CIP’s initial effort to grow potatoes from true seeds (as a way to cut back on the disease problems) was somewhat successful, but when the little plants were set directly into the field they did not produce well. What worked better was to let the little plants develop a tiny potato each while they were in the seedbed, then to plant the tiny potatoes in the field.

In the end, the CIP did finally develop a hybrid seed that worked well without having to wait long enough that a tiny potato had formed and could be transplanted to the field.

When I saw that bit in the book about diseases in warmer areas, I thought right away about my yard here in Georgia. Saving seed potatoes would probably not be a good idea for me, even if I could manage to actually save some from each year’s crop (we eat them all). The disease pressure here is intense for many kinds of vegetables. If my growing-potato-plants-from-true-seeds experiment actually works, I will be able to avoid the expense of buying seed potatoes every year AND avoid having to worry about whether what I’ve saved from last year is ok to replant.

Saturday, February 6, 2010


The good people at Sand Hill Preservation sent a couple of free packets of seeds with my order. Even though they have included a freebie every time I've ordered from them so far, I still was surprised. Then I read what the seeds were, and I laughed. More tomatoes!

The people up there in the office must know me pretty well and be chuckling mightily (is that possible?) over my imagined reaction, because I had my tomato areas planned out very carefully. Nothing more is going to fit. And yet, as a true gardener, I cannot just not try these seeds.

Luckily, I have time to rework the plan before 20 April (or there-abouts) when the tomatoes go into the ground in my yard.

The seeds are for Olivette Jaune cherry tomato and a red Chinese tomato. According to the catalogue description, Olivette Jaune is an indeterminate midseason producer of "large olive shaped yellow cherry tomatoes. From France." The Chinese is a midseason producer of "4 to 6 oz. red fruits, huge yields." We will learn, soon enough, how disease resistant the two varieties are.

The Wuhib paste tomatoes that were such great producers for me last year came from Sand Hill Preservation (purchased), as did the Yellow Marble cherry tomato (freebie)that produced so much earlier than all the other tomatoes in my yard.

Last year, the Yellow Marble tomatoes were very tart, but I was growing the plant in a container and I have since learned that sometimes the container can affect flavor, so I will be starting a couple of those to plant in the ground, to see if that makes a difference. If they survive (my yard is ground zero for Verticillium and Fusarium tomato wilts), even that will be something to celebrate.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Calendar of Events

Having a plan in place in advance of the actual beginning of the growing season helps keep me on track. Just so I’ll have it in a place where I can’t possibly lose it under a pile of papers, I’m posting the plan for the next month or so here.

Just about now (early to mid-Feb.): start seedlings indoors for the brassicas and the earliest spring greens (the spring kale, the coolest-weather lettuces, spinach, any biennial and perennial herbs - parsley is one - that haven’t been started yet); plant the scallions outside (I know, that sounds so wrong, but “as soon as the ground can be worked” is already here!).

20-27 Feb.: on the nicest day in that week, plant the English peas.

As near to March 1st as I can manage: plant potatoes and onions outside; start peppers, eggplants, tomatoes inside; if any seedlings from mid-Feb. are ready to bump up into bigger pots and more nutritious soil, take care of that.

8-15 March: plant seeds outside for carrots, beets; if the greens and/or brassicas are far enough along, transplant some outside after hardening them off; start some of the more heat-tolerant lettuces inside.

20-30 March: transplant outside any little plants that look ready; plant some spinach and radish seeds outside; inside, plant some of the smaller sweet potatoes to get slips started; inside, start from seed assorted flowers, squashes, cukes, any/all remaining greens, ground cherries, tender herbs (e.g., cilantro, basil), the Slobolt lettuce (the most heat tolerant).

If tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants are ready, bump up to bigger pots and more nutritious soil.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Daffodils Don’t Lie

…but they have been known to exaggerate. The past couple of mornings, temperatures here have been in the mid-20s (degrees F). For those who live north of here, that might not sound cold, but for Georgia, it is. However, the daffodils are undaunted. Mine are saying that spring is on its way:

As forecasters, the daffodils have been right year after year, so I’m not going to start doubting them now ;-)

The Old Farmer’s also expects spring to arrive, essentially on time, and that it won’t be all that unusual. The Annual Weather Summary: November 2009 to October 2010 for the Atlanta area, published on the almanac site, expects that

“Winter will be colder than normal, on average, primarily due to a cool March. The coldest periods will occur in early to mid-December, early to mid-January, and early to mid-February. Precipitation will be above normal near the South Carolina coast, below normal west of Raleigh, and near normal elsewhere. Expect above-normal snowfall in much of the region, with the greatest threats for snow in mid-January and mid-February.

April and May will be much warmer and drier than normal.
Summer will be cooler and slightly rainier than normal, with the hottest temperatures in early to mid-August and other hot periods in mid-July and late August.
September and October will be slightly cooler and drier than normal.”

We’ve already had a few weeks of consistently cold weather, so I believe the “cold winter” part even though we’ve been disappointed in the “snow” category. I am hoping that the “cool March” part is wrong, though, because our firewood pile is looking a little thin.

However, if the April/May part of the forecast turns out to be correct, then this will not be a great year for spring greens unless I plant them now. To be honest, I’ve never used the almanac as a guide before, but I think I am going to gamble that it could be correct and start some spring greens next weekend.
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