Saturday, August 28, 2010

Feeding the Dirt

At the Plant-a-Row-for-the-Hungry (PAR) garden, productivity has generally trended downward over the last few years. There have been some extenuating circumstances (drought of historic proportions; floods of historic proportions; and what may be the hottest summer on record). However, it is possible that something else is going on, too.

One suggestion tossed out is that the soil is losing fertility. This is a garden for which soil tests are done every year, and the recommended amounts of fertilizer are applied every year. However, plants need more nutrients than just the nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium (N-P-K) that are in most commercially available fertilizers.

The garden is mulched every year, and the mulch (usually leaves) is an additional source of nutrients, but this might not be enough.

The other PAR gardeners all know that I tend to not use those standard N-P-K formulations, so I have been asked about how I feed my garden's dirt. The answer is, essentially, that it isn't 100% the same every year.

There are organic gardeners who use one specific combination, in specified amounts, every year. An example is Steve Solomon's fertilizer recipe that was featured in a 2006 issue of Mother Earth News. That first link is to the article that explains Mr. Solomon's reasoning behind the development of his recipe. This page contains the actual recipe.

In general, the LONG article that precedes the recipe makes some very good points about the benefits of the various ingredients, and it may be that any garden that uses this for the first time, after years of only N-P-K additions, will experience a drastic rise in productivity just from the addition of so many essential micronutrients that hadn't been available to the plants before, but the recipe doesn't take into account different soil types and conditions. Over time, using this recipe without regard for soil test results could become a problem.

For example, the recipe calls for a specific amount of limestone, preferably dolomitic. While this ingredient does add calcium and magnesium, both of which may be in short supply initially, repeated applications will have the effect of raising the soil's ph. Mr. Solomon recommends that gardeners not worry about soil ph, that it is not as important as we have all been led to believe, but the agricultural research seems to say otherwise.

In general, most garden crops perform best within a ph range of 6.0-6.5. As the ph rises to 7 and beyond, the plants become less able to take up other essential nutrients. This would be bad. At the PAR garden, we are already fighting a too-high ph, so switching wholesale to Mr. Solomon's fertilizer formula with the inclusion of limestone might not be such a great idea.

The essential nutrient phosphorus is supplied primarily by bone meal in Mr. Solomon's recipe. In my own garden, the phosphorus level tends to be a bit high. Too-high a phosphorus level can also interfere with plant-uptake of other nutrients, so my switching straight to Mr. Solomon's recipe could be less than helpful for my garden, too. It doesn't need additional bone meal any time soon.

However, the article that comes with Solomon's recipe is well-worth reading for the information about the possible ingredients to use in "mixing your own" and to get an idea of the general proportions and strategies for choosing ingredients.

In my own garden, to keep fertility up in spite of the incredible demands I make on my garden's dirt (two to three crops per year for much of the garden), I rely on a mix of strategies.

Like Mr. Solomon, I add quite a bit of organic matter each year. This serves as an additional source of micronutrients, but it also helps the soil in many other ways. Some of the organic matter added to my garden is compost from my own pile out back; sometimes I go get a truckload of mixed stable bedding & manure; sometimes I add bagged soil conditioners like Nature's Helper; sometimes I buy bags of composted humus and manure, or other compost, to add to my garden.

I also mix up my own fertilizer, kind of like Mr. Solomon's but taking my own soil's needs into account. So far, this always includes some kelp meal, which is a great source of many micronutrients in addition to the potassium for which it is a primary provider. For the other ingredients, though, I follow (approximately) the guidelines in this Extension Service bulletin about converting a standard fertilizer recommendation to an organic fertilizer amount.

That Extension Service bulletin includes a helpful list of potential ingredients, along with how much of what major nutrient each contains, so that it is possible to choose from among several options.

Since most of these ingredients are from plants or animals, more than one nutrient will be supplied by each, so the additive characteristic of a mix of such ingredients should be considered. For example, cottonseed meal is a source of N, but it also provides P and K. A garden that needs more N and less P & K might want to select a different source of N.

I also know that some nutrients in particular are not abundant in the local clay soils. One of these is magnesium, and one is boron. When I am mixing up my fertilizer, I add tiny amounts of Epsom Salts (magnesium) and 20 Mule Team Borax (boron). By tiny, I mean, for example, amounts of boron that would be the equivalent of one tablespoon per 100 square feet of garden.

I'm pretty good at math, but I'm also lazy, so my amounts are always approximations, but it all seems to work.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Still Food in the Yard, but Less

These veggies are in my smaller dough bowl; if they were in the big one, they would look a little lost, but there is still enough here to really enjoy. We will be eating the okra tonight with supper, along with the tomatoes and some of the peppers.

I had thought that there were no cucumbers left in the yard, but I was mistaken. The little, slightly misshapen cucumber shown here, found in a tangle of vines I was working to untangle earlier today (most of the tangle was headed for the compost heap), will go into someone's lunchbox tomorrow as part of a Greek salad. We have some really great feta cheese from Harry's/Whole Foods!

A little more progress toward the fall garden was made today, too. More seeds are in the ground: lettuces, spinach, some beets. The turnips will have to wait for the weekend.

I was talking with a gardening friend this morning on the phone about fall planting, and he had a plan to drive up to Ladd's Farm Supply in Euharlee/Cartersville to get some plants. He is thinking that they will have collards, broccoli, etc. already.

If they do, that will be great! The usual plant outlets (Home Depot, Lowe's) don't get the fall veggies in stock this early, but the plants need to be in the ground this early. The odd timing is one of the great mysteries for our time.

Found Food: Cauliflower Mushroom

We found a really great fungus over the weekend, a cauliflower mushroom (Sparassis sp.). My copy of the book Mushrooms Demystified calls it both "edible and exceptional."

The mushroom, which doesn't look much like either a mushroom or a cauliflower, was growing at the base of a tree.

Up close, it was beautiful.

Of course, as members in good standing of the Mushroom Club of Georgia, we harvested the mushroom and brought it home to cook. My books all mention that

1. cleaning this particular fungus is not easy, and
2. cooking it so that it eventually becomes tender takes a while.

The books are right. I finally decided that a few little bark bits and dirt specks wouldn't hurt us, and that, even tough, this fungus was indeed exceptional. The texture was, as Joe pointed out, a little like "mushroom jerky," but the flavor was outstanding. I will definitely be looking for more of these!

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Stinging Saddleback

Who would guess that something so small and squishy could pack such a wallop? My poor friend Cheryl sure didn't, and she ended up with a painful welt from a little guy a lot like this one:

The one she encountered was in her blueberry bush, and in my yard that's where I usually find them, too. She felt it before she saw it, which is also what happens with me. The one I found today, though, was on the popcorn.

I was cutting the old stalks and leaves up for the compost pile, and happily, I was wearing gloves, AND I saw it in time to avoid the stinging hairs.

The saddleback page from the bugguide website shows the adult moth stage of this caterpillar's lifecycle.

The University of Kentucky's stinging caterpillars page includes other caterpillars to watch out for.

Interestingly, both pages mention that the saddleback is sometimes found on corn. I hadn't seen it there before, but my own yard's corn definitely was home to a saddleback caterpillar this morning!

The University of Kentucky site mentions that the sting can cause "severe irritation," which seems like a huge understatement to me. The bugguide site's description of the sting seems a little closer to the truth, calling it "lasting and painful." Those two words are in line with my own experience.

My friend had never encountered one of these before, even though she is a Georgia-girl from birth. It took a dose of benadryl to reduce the size of the welt she got from the sting, so I hope she isn't ambushed by another one of these ever again!

Friday, August 20, 2010

World Kitchen Garden Day

The group Kitchen Gardeners International is trying to arrange for gardeners within smaller geographic areas to find each other and get together for actual conversation on World Kitchen Garden Day, which is this Sunday, the 22nd of August.

I've signed up for a "meet-up" in my town, Kennesaw, GA. If anyone out there is local and wants to visit about food gardening, let me know. The meet-up (time and place) is announced on KGI's meet-up page.

Friday, August 13, 2010

The Garden of Mr. Hankerson and Mr. Kastner

Last night, the local Master Gardener group met at The Garden, as the sign above the entrance proclaims it, of Mr. Hankerson and Mr. Kastner. The word "garden" seemed like a massive understatement, though.

The first little building I saw driving in was a very cute chicken house.

The Garden is also home to some burros. These compete in shows, dressed up in "outfits," but the ones we saw were just out standing in their field.

Apparently, Mr. Hankerson and Mr. Kastner have been friends for many years. They used to talk about working a garden together, then one day Mr. Kastner's wife heard them talking about it and started laughing. She didn't take them seriously at all, so they got serious about it, and started. Now they have a huge garden, and they give the produce away---to fire stations, children's homes, senior homes, church pantries, etc.

The primary presentation for the evening was by Mr. Hankerson, who is County Manager for my county. He grew up on a farm in Tennessee, and he earned his undergraduate degree in Agronomy, so he had a lot to share with the rest of us gardeners.

One of the great things that he said was that "the soil test is the best fertilizer there is." This is so true. Knowledge about the soil's pH and fertility levels is what the gardener needs most in order to be successful.

The garden's soil looks like the same red clay that is in my yard, but it has been amended almost yearly with mixed stable-bedding and manure (horse). One year the soil test showed that the pH had gone up over 7, an effect of the horse manure, so they had to skip the manure for a couple of years, but the gardeners are sure that the bedding and manure has made a big improvement in the texture of the soil.

The Garden is large enough that tractors provide a lot of the "muscle" on the property, but not all of it. Most of the weeding is by hand (hoe or rake, actually), in spite of the size of the garden, so some areas had some weeds, but others were pretty much weed free.

Among the many crops in the garden is a big patch of straightneck squash. Some have been felled by the squash vine borers, but plenty of plants here are still alive. This (above) is the second planting of summer squash this season.

I took a picture of a tomato plant, in spite of the weeds, because I am so impressed by the sturdy staking of the cages. I've seen the cages of heavy wire (concrete reinforcing wire?) before--that's what Grandpa Bill uses back in Choctaw, Okla., and we have some cages like that at the Plant-a-Row garden, but these were staked with those steel T-bar fence posts. No matter how top-heavy the plants get, or what kind of storm blows through, those cages are staying upright!

The trick is getting those posts back out of the ground at the end of the season. These guys have a machine to do that, but if I used these at home, they might be in place permanently.

These two gardeners are great at succession planting, too. In the picture below, some kind of Southern peas is nearing maturity on the right, but the just-planted soybeans have a long way to go. The gardeners planted these for edamame, which is pretty popular and high in protein.

I have no idea how many pounds of sweet potatoes this wide row (below) is going to produce, but it's going to be a lot. Looking down these rows made my garden at home seem pretty puny. Keeping this up has to be a lot of work, and the two men admitted to working hard, but they also said it's their relaxation after a day at work, or on the weekend.

They've planted lots of different kinds of peppers, and they were all beautiful.

The peppers, though, are all in raised beds. The two men said that they were going to be planting more in raised beds to help drainage. Some parts of the property stay wet too long after a rain, and they are thinking that raised beds are the way to go, to eliminate this problem. For irrigation now, the garden uses well water that flows through pipes the men laid themselves, to overhead sprinklers they set up themselves.

My pictures of the okra didn't turn out well enough to post (it was getting dark...), but the okra was amazing. The variety was Clemson spineless, the same variety we use at the Plant-a-Row garden, but theirs was bushy and less than four feet tall, even though it was obvious from the thickness of the stems that the plants were very mature.

At the Plant-a-Row garden, our big problem with Clemson spineless is that it gets way up over eight feet tall and is hard to harvest, as a result.

I asked about the short okra, and Mr. Hankerson said they prune it early in the season. This makes it short and bushy. The bushiness makes it even more productive, because pods form on every branch. It really was amazing.

Corn was growing in a big raised bed, and the men said that cucumbers had already finished and been pulled out. I don't remember right now what else I saw, but there was a lot.

The book that the two men have relied on over the years for gardening advice is Garden Way's Joy of Gardening by Dick Raymond. It seems to have worked well for them.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Report from Hotlanta

When we first moved here (back in 1990), a lot of Atlanta's advertising included the word Hotlanta as a substitute for the city name. I never really understood why they would advertise that sometimes it gets uncomfortably hot here, but I am not in marketing.

This summer has been particularly hot, so it should be no surprise that some of my garden crops aren't doing as well as I would prefer. The cucumbers, in particular, are pretty much dead:

One of my friends asked today whether any of the flowers on her plants would actually set fruit in this heat (we've had a lot of days in a row with highs in the mid-to-high-90s). The answer is, "it depends." Tomatoes don't usually set new fruit in this kind of heat, but they will keep on maturing fruits that have already formed (if they don't cook right on the plant).

Specifically, though, she wanted to know about cucumbers. My experience with cucumbers, ones that are actually still alive and flowering in high heat, is that they might set a few fruits, but that the cukes that form will be oddly shaped from the uneven pollination that will occur. Pepper plants, though, and maybe the eggplants, which are much more heat loving than other crops, are more likely to keep on fruiting through the heat.

I say that, of course, while my own eggplants look like heck. They do have fruits on them, though!

And while the cucumber vines are definitely "done" in my yard, other plants seem to be just fine, even in the heat. I have created a planting calendar for my fall garden, based on times to maturity and counting back from the first frost day, that has Swiss chard as being planted in July and August. However, I had a space back in June and decided to plant some chard seeds then, and the little plants look just fine.

By the time the weather starts to moderate in mid-September, these will be eating size. Apparently, chard can be planted all summer long, and I need to revise my planting calendar.

The Malabar spinach, which shares a trellis with the dead cucumbers, is doing well in the heat, too. I haven't eaten any, yet, but we have a stir-fry planned for later this week, and some leaves will be going into that meal.

Elsewhere in the garden, peppers are green and growing, just like they are supposed to be in the heat.

And the Heritage red raspberries are putting out their second flush of fruits.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Back from Colorado

We've been to Boulder, CO, to visit our oldest son who is in graduate school at CU. The trip included lots of hiking, and some pretty funny moments involving one slightly chubby mom (me!) and some very steep hiking trails. Here I am with my oldest son:

Getting up onto the ledge was easier than getting back down.

While I was gone, a Very Good Friend came by to water my plants and check on the garden (Thank you, Cheryl!). The weather here while I was gone was HOT, so she came by every day to make sure that the plants growing in containers hadn't all cooked right in their pots. I was happy to see that she had kept things harvested. Steady harvesting leads to more production, for many crops!

One of the crops she checked on (and watered) was my laundry basket of straw that had been inoculated with oyster mushroom spawn. I have a shiitake log out in the back yard that is a year and a half old and has yet to produce mushrooms, but I started this laundry basket just about 10 days before heading out for our trip. Look at it now!:

I put the basket together at a cultivation workshop with the Mushroom Club of Georgia. The workshop was a lot of fun, and these mushrooms are very good to eat. Joe thinks they are more tasty than chanterelles!

Also while we were gone, the limes matured enough for eating. When we got back, there were 28 limes on my tree. There are fewer now, because we've brought some in to the kitchen (for cucumber/tomato/sweet pepper salad, all chopped up small, with lime juice and olive oil; on the oyster mushrooms; in iced tea). This pretty good level of production may be enough that the rest of my family will tolerate the little tree's living in the dining room, by the back door, all winter long, in spite of its thorns.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Squash Tales

This is a picture of my sister-in-Louisiana's garden. The last time I actually saw the space it currently occupies, I was helping my sister mark out the garden with stakes and string and then spraying the spiky weeds that lived there with RoundUp. I am so glad she sent me a picture! It looks a lot like I imagined it, and the plants look great.

My sister has bought most of her seeds at the local "feed & seed" store, but some plants were given to her by a friend who is a Very Long Time Gardener (decades). One plant that he gave my sister to grow was supposed to be a cucumber, but the plant is producing zucchini.

This would normally be fine, except that my sister's husband really does not like zucchini. This particular plant is growing and producing like crazy. When my sister was telling me about it, I was reminded of a cat we used to know. This cat wasn't especially social, but it seemed to know when someone was around who didn't like cats. He would hone in on the cat-disliker and hop into the person's lap and just purr away.

The cat pretty much ignored all the rest of the people, who all liked cats, who might be nearby.

This squash plant is like that cat. It is producing abundantly, copiously, for a family in which the man of the house has to actually leave the house when squash is on the stove, because the aroma of its cooking is so overwhelming for him.

Of course, the zucchini in my yard, longed-for as the plants matured and treasured when the squash were finally produced, have all keeled over (weeks ago!) from the squash vine borers.

However, at the Plant-a-Row-for-the-Hungry garden where I volunteer, one of our gardeners went through the squash patch and carefully sliced open infested stems, pulled out the larvae of the squash vine borers, then covered the wounded stems with dirt. Many of these plants have continued to produce squash for weeks beyond what we would normally expect, so squash-stem surgery is going to be a standard treatment in the upcoming years!
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