Friday, January 29, 2010

Is Plastic a Gardener's Best Friend?

There was an email announcement in my inbox a couple of days ago for an upcoming talk (Feb. 23) on vegetable gardening in Fayette county, south of Atlanta. The announcement claimed that the guy who is giving the talk is a big proponent of plasticulture.

I hadn’t heard that word before, so it’s probably no surprise that my brain started wondering what our credit card-based society had to do with gardening. However, I looked up the word plasticulture and found that the word just refers to the use of plastics in gardening, mostly to cover the soil (as mulch) or plants (as row covers and hoop houses).

This article on Plasticulture from the University of Washington explains the uses of plastics in the garden. And these uses are mostly familiar.

For several years, various seed catalogues have offered red plastic sheeting to be used as mulch under tomatoes. The red plastic is supposed to be very beneficial to tomatoes, boosting their production. This year I noticed that one catalogue is also offering green plastic sheeting to use as mulch, with the claim that melons, especially, show improved production when grown on green plastic mulch.

I do use plastic in my yard for covering a frame over plants as a season extender, and buying more when the old has worn through always gives me a bit of a twinge, but somehow, knowing the actual word makes this practice seem worse. Even without these uses, there is a lot of plastic in gardening. Nursery pots are plastic, and lots of soil amendments and other useful products come in large plastic bags.

It would be great if gardening could be a truly “green” activity, but that dream seems unlikely to be fulfilled any time soon. I do hope that my own bits of plastic aren’t heading out to the Pacific Ocean to join the continent-sized gyre of plastic swirling around out there, but I have no good way to know. Even if it doesn’t, my “demand” for plastic encourages the production of more, and some of that will undoubtedly be going for a swim with the fishes, eventually.

A long time ago, Joe made a little wood shelter with an old window on the top to use to protect my plants, but it is not as easy to use as the plastic that I use now. It was small, so only a few plants fit inside, and it took more time and attention to not cook the plants on sunny days (it was a good lesson in the “greenhouse effect”). In addition, it was heavy enough that I couldn’t move it on my own. Obviously, though, I need to be rethinking my season-extending tools.

I do re-use plastic pots over and over again, until they wear out, and some of my soil amendments are bag-less, hauled in the back of my little truck, but that really isn’t enough. It’s a problem.

31 Jan. edit: This Good Morning America segment contains more information about the Pacific Garbage Patch:

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Tools Inventory: A Wee Widger

The slender metal tool on the rim of the flat is a widger, a tool for transplanting seedlings from their starter medium (which is usually a very low nutrient, sterile, finely textured mix) into a more nutritious medium for their next stage of growth.

My father-in-law, an engineer, used to remind us that it was important to use a tool designed expressly for whatever task was at hand ("the right tool for the right job"). On Friday, I used my widger to lift the delicate little potato seedlings from their very small starter flat, and to open up planting-holes in the potting mix that fills the larger flat that will be their home for the next few weeks. It was the right tool for the job.

However, before I had my widger, I used a table knife for the same purpose, and a good friend uses an old paring knife. My father-in-law might not have approved (he has been gone for ten or so years), but it is unlikely that I would have harmed the table knife by using it in this way, and it worked just fine.

He would have been glad that I finally used the appropriate tool, though. Happily, a widger is not an expensive item. Mine is from Bountiful Gardens, and it cost $5 plus S/H.

Joe (husband) made the wooden flat to fit in the baker's rack that stands by the back door. While the seedlings are small, two fluorescent bulbs lie across the top of the flat. As the seedlings grow, those lights will be raised slowly (suspended by strings) to stay just an inch or two above the tops of the plants.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Fall Carrots

My sister in Louisiana called a couple of weeks or so ago, laughing about her carrots. She had planted the seeds back in September when she was supposed to. Then, she had pulled a couple up in early December, and at the time the roots were still spindly and pale. After Christmas, she still couldn't see anything but green above-ground, but she pulled another one up, just to check.

It had definitely grown; in cross section, it was shaped just about like a wedge of pie. The carrot was three inches at its widest diameter and only seven inches in length. The shape is what made her laugh, but, as a bonus, the carrot was sweet, with good carrot flavor. The leaves smelled carrot-y, too, making the plant a complete carrot experience.

The other carrots she has harvested from her garden since then have all been similar.

When choosing the seeds, she bought whatever was available in bulk at a local store. The stores that carry bulk seed, for gardeners to measure out themselves, (usually a "feed & seed" store) typically carry seeds that will work well in their area, making it hard for a beginner to choose poorly.

The variety my sister's store happened to have was Danvers, which, according to Wikipedia

"has a conical shape, having well-defined shoulders and tapering to a point at the tip. They are somewhat shorter than Imperator cultivars, but more tolerant of heavy soil. Danvers cultivars are often puréed as baby food. They were developed in 1871 in Danvers, Ma."

My sister's yard definitely has heavy soil, but she built some raised beds to keep her plants up out of the worst of it.

She has been pulling the carrots "as needed" for meals, and they have all been tasty and not tough (the way root vegetables can get as they age).

She will plant them further apart next year, maybe six inches apart; she planted these about 4 inches apart which, for most carrots, would have been a fine spacing, but these carrots needed more room.

The carrots I grew in 2009, Little Finger and Jaune du Doubs, both did very well in spring, but fizzled in the fall, so I have ordered different fall carrots for 2010. If I were very smart, I would just buy a packet of Danvers, since they did so well for my sister, but I do not always do the smart thing.

Instead, I have ordered a packet of Oxheart, which should be shaped a lot like my sister's carrots and are advertised as doing well in the fall garden, and a packet of Nantes, which I have grown before with good success.

One potential problem with the Nantes variety is that some strains do better in spring and some in fall. I am not sure which category my packet belongs in, so they will be a bit of a gamble. However, I would likely lose more money gambling with actual cash in Vegas than in my yard with a packet of carrot seeds.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Seed Orders for 2010

I've made the major decisions about what to grow this year and am posting the list here. I also have seeds from last year (and the year before that) to plant this year, including Pigott Family Heirloom crowder peas, Dakota Black popcorn, Wuhib paste tomato, SloBolt lettuce, and MANY more.

This is a lot of seeds, and the garden space isn't exactly huge. However, the seeds - and transplants grown from the seeds - won't all go into the garden at the same time; some of these are for spring, some for fall, and some for summer.

From Fedco Seeds, in Maine:

Little Leaf H-19 cucumber
Rocky Ford green flesh melon
Raven zucchini
Cherokee Purple tomato
Scarlet Nantes carrot
French Breakfast radish
Evergreen Hardy White scallions
Jimmy Nardello pepper
Black Czech pepper
Rutgers tomato
Golden Detroit beet

Total $14.00 (no S/H charges since I ordered with a friend; together, we got above the no S/H minimum)

From The Cook’s Garden, in Pennsylvania, but owned by the CEO of Burpee:

Sugar Nut hybrid melon (2 packets)
Costoluto Genovese tomato

Total $13.35 (plus $5.95 S/H)

From Sandhill Preservation Center, in Iowa:

Blue Marbut pole beans
Ukranian Beauty eggplant
Red Russian kale
Vegetable mallow
Aunt Molly’s ground cherry
Pollock Rocky Ford melon (orange flesh variety)
Detroit Dark Red beet
Marvel of Four Seasons lettuce
Winter radishes mix
Straight Nine cucumber
Yellow Out Red In tomato
Sweet Genovese basil

Total 20.25 (no S/H)

From Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, in Virginia:

Oxheart carrots
Hanover Salad kale
Forest Green parsley
Capitan lettuce
Cajun Jewel okra
Napolean Sweet pepper
Ice Bred White turnip

Total $17.24 (plus 3.50 S/H)

The grand total cost for seeds (so far) is $64.84. With S/H charges included, it's $74.29. When onion sets become available, I will be buying a bundle of those. Last year, one bundle cost $1.50, and I am expecting this year's bundle to be a similar price.

If I were more strapped for cash, I would have ordered from just Fedco and/or Sandhill preservation. They have more varieties for lower prices than other sources I've seen, and they have no S/H charge on orders above a minimum ($30 for Fedco, $10 for Sandhill Preservation). If my seed-ordering friend and I could find a few more people to order with us, we could get a "volume discount" from Fedco (10% off orders above $100).

Thursday, January 14, 2010

A Good Book

When I stopped by the local library today, I looked in the gardening section and found a book I’d never seen before, Gardening in the Humid South by Edmond O’Rourke Jr. and Leon Standifer. The book was published in 2002 by the University of Louisiana Press.

Although the opening lines of the first chapter made clear that this is not really a book for my yard, they made me want to read more:

“It seems to us that the popular gardening books begin by saying you should ‘choose a sunny spot with fertile, well-drained, loamy soil. If the organic matter level is less than 12 percent, add some compost.’

“Now, look in your backyard. There is no topsoil. The subsoil is almost white and has an organic matter content of about 0.5 percent, and it is packed so tightly that you can only dig it after a rain –but, being in the humid South, you can expect frequent rains. The gardening book may say that if your soil is not very good, you should add some leaf mold and some earthworms. Folks, get realistic. If you add leaf mold and earthworms to that soil, the worms will starve to death.”

I laughed out loud, then called my sister in Louisiana whose soil is just like the authors described. It turns out that the book doesn’t include a whole lot of information about food gardens, but it does have a chapter on fruit for such a yard, and the chapter on choosing the garden site and getting started is worth reading by almost anyone, especially since it is written in a way that emphasizes the disagreements of the authors, who are “crotchety old horticulture professors who retired several years ago.”

In Chapter 1, after some gentle bickering and an explanation of how to choose the garden site, Leon tells how to prepare a new garden. Then, Ed tells why Leon is wrong and what you should really do. Then, Leon gets in a rebuttal. It’s great.

I haven’t finished reading the book, but the chapters on more general garden topics (appropriate tools, fertilizers, and insects and diseases, for example) look as though they will apply to parts of the South that aren’t exactly like the sub-tropical Deep South that the book was written for.

As a bonus, the preface, which explains the scope and intention of the book, includes a passage I particularly enjoyed:

“Regardless of what you grow—annuals or perennials, ornamentals or vegetables—we think you should be able to walk through the garden and admire your work almost every day. This is recreational and relaxing; it is contemplative in that you can enjoy the wonders of growing plants. It is challenging in that you may see something abnormal and wonder what is happening. There may be the beginnings of insect damage or of a disease, or you may notice that some of the plants are wilting when others are not. These signs should not be cause for alarm or for a massive rescue effort; they are simply part of your hobby. Little things will go wrong, and you will have the time to plan on an approach for correction.”

My husband has a book on brewing beer that includes a briefer, but similar, idea that is expressed something like this: “Relax. Don’t worry. Have a homebrew.” That laid-back attitude pervades O'Rourke's and Standifer's book.

A Reason for Growing Your Own

An editor’s note that appeared in the August 2009 issue of Scientific American pointed out that agritech companies (like Monsanto and Pioneer) control access to the Genetically Modified (GM) seeds that they produce, and that independent research on these seeds is carefully controlled by the agritech companies. The editor’s note said,

“For a decade their user agreements have explicitly forbidden the use of the seeds for any independent research. Under the threat of litigation, scientists cannot test a seed to explore the different conditions under which it thrives or fails. They cannot compare seeds from one company against those from another company. And perhaps most important, they cannot examine whether the genetically modified crops lead to unintended environmental side effects.”

In other words, we have to trust the word of these companies that their GM seeds are safe and better than other, non-GM seeds, because they have control over the research. Based on the word (and approved research) of these companies, quite a few GM crops have been released for use in the fields of regular farmers both in the U.S. and elsewhere.

However, the article “A Comparison of the Effects of Three GM Corn Varieties on Mammalian Health” (Int J Biol Sci 2009; 5:706-726 ©Ivyspring International Publisher) by Vendômois, Roullier, Cellier, and Séralini, suggests that at least some of the already commercially available GM corn (approved as being safe) could cause negative effects on the health of mammals. Vendômois et al used data that was originally produced in industry research, some of which was obtained from Monsanto through a court order.

The study essentially re-evaluated the original data (that had been used to show that the three varieties of GM corn were safe), through different statistical tests and by separating the data into results by gender. The re-evaluation by Vendômois et al showed that male and female rats (the study animal used) were affected differently by the different corns tested, but that

“Our analysis highlights the kidneys and liver as particularly important on which to focus such research as there was a clear negative impact on the function of these organs in rats consuming GM maize varieties for just 90 days.”

I would not, of course, make a major lifestyle change on the basis of just one study. Also, the Vendômois et al study does conclude that the adverse health effects of the GM corn were seen to be dose-dependent. In other words, rats fed a higher percentage of GM corn had more and worse problems than rats fed a lower percentage of GM corn.

It is good to know that, if these health effects are shown in future research to be real, reducing the amount of corn in the diet would likely reduce the health risks, but anyone who becomes concerned about possible problems with GM corn and who has enough garden space could consider growing a little of his or her own non-GM corn.

Note: I first saw a reference to the Vendômois et al article in a discussion thread on The Oil Drum, but I did not mark the original and can’t say for sure exactly where that comment is; then I found, in my email, a link to an article in the Huffington Post about this study.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Front Yard Gardening

My vegetable garden is in the front yard—long story, but basically that’s where the sunlight is. The garden’s being right where I see it every day gives me extra motivation to keep it well-tended, but its location also adds more elements to garden planning, going beyond “what would I like to grow this year,” in terms of what is actually planted and where in the garden those plants will be grown.

For example, I grow Sunspot sunflowers; each plant makes one big flower, usually ten or more inches across, with big sunflower seeds that we can eat or feed to the birds, and each plant is only two and a half to three feet high. Really, they are wonderful, and I am not the only person who thinks this.

The year I planted them in the position nearest the road, I woke up one morning to discover that someone had cut (low to the ground) and walked off with a couple of the plants. I hope they looked nice in a vase in that person’s home, but ever since learning the hard way that these are Desirable Flowers I have taken care to plant them in a protected position. Last year they were hidden from the road by the okra. The year before, a row of hot peppers was nearer the edge of the garden bed than they were, making them harder to reach.

Of course, I could just stop growing them, but so far this placement strategy has worked for me.

I haven’t lost much else to passers-by, but my friend who gardens in containers on half of her driveway in her front yard (again, that’s where the sunlight is) came home from work one day last summer to discover that someone had taken her ripe tomatoes. Her purple eggplants also disappeared last year, and she has lost Sunspot sunflowers, too.

The good news is that the non-purple eggplants, the Casper White, Apple Green, and Rosa Bianca, were not taken. We think that, possibly, they didn’t look familiar enough to be recognized as eggplants, or that maybe they just didn’t look ripe.

This means that another strategy for protecting front yard crops, if needed, is growing plants that are enough different from the standard grocery store versions that they are left alone.

Choosing unusual varieties and planting in ways that deflect interest from desirable plants can be important parts of planning the front yard garden. Another part is maximizing the attractiveness (and minimizing the weirdness, when possible) of the garden for neighbors.

I have been very lucky in that no one in my neighborhood seems to really mind that I grow vegetables in the front yard (and if anyone does, he or she has yet to complain out loud where I can hear), but I do grow flowers along with the food, which might help.

I also try to find shorter/smaller varieties that will fit the garden, but this isn’t always possible. Winter squash vines would run all over the yard if left alone, but I try to keep them in the garden by picking up the growing tips of the vines and aiming them back toward the center of their planting bed. Ditto for the sweet potatoes.

However, this year I will go back to growing the shorter okra, Cajun Jewel, that I have grown before, after last year’s Louisiana Short (which I had not grown before) got way too tall for a front yard, and I will stick with the Dakota Black popcorn, which was not too tall considering that it is corn, and which really does have kernels that are almost black (making it look less like grocery store corn).

Someday I may find a winter squash that is sweet, productive, and resistant to the vine borers, and that has a less sprawling growth habit. If I am lucky, it will also be ugly enough that everyone who sees it thinks it is diseased. This squash of my dreams is only one of the many front-yard-appropriate plants I am looking for as I make my seed orders for the year.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

It Begins (or, Goofing Around with Seeds)

The thermometer on the front porch is reading 30 degrees F. The ground is frozen because our nighttime temperatures have been in the teens and low twenties for a week or two. It is definitely not ideal weather for doing much gardening outside. The good news is that it is warm enough in the house to start some seeds by the back window.

Around here, onions and potatoes get planted in early to mid-March. These are usually set out as egg-sized chunks of tubers (potatoes) and skinny little plants (onion sets). Seeds for both of these are available to purchase, though, to be started six-to-eight weeks before planting outside, and I have some. However, I didn't exactly buy my seeds.

Last year I planted out a little bunch of red onions WAY too late; the sets made seeds without making bulbs. I saved some of the seeds to plant this year. I do plan to also purchase onion sets at the end of February to add to these, just in case the red onions don't work this year, either, but I am hopeful that these will work.

In 2007, I saved seeds from a couple of potato fruits that had formed on a potato plant in the garden. I didn't have a plan at the time; it just seemed like the thing to do. I'm planting these, too, to see what happens.

This goofing around with seeds could also be called experimenting, which makes my activities sound important and useful, especially since I've thought about what I'm doing; this is not at all like the fuzzy, green, accidental "experiments" that sometimes form in a container at the back of the fridge as a result of forgetfulness.

I think that using seeds can help limit the spread of diseases in the yard that might come to the garden on purchased tubers and sets. In addition, if my plans work, I will not have wasted the money spent on those red onion sets last year, and I will need to buy fewer potato tubers this year.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

New Year, New Garden

Every year my vision of my garden changes. The garden always includes edible plants, but my goals shift, my tastes change, and curiosity moves my choices in new directions, so that each year the garden is new, even though it always has, for example, tomatoes, peppers, and okra. This year the plants will be essentially the same (even though there will be some new varieties and some different kinds of greens), but this is the year that I will be working on seed saving in a more systematic way.

I've had a copy of Suzanne Ashworth's book Seed to Seed for long enough that the text is making a home in my brain, and one of my new books for Christmas this year was Carol Deppe's Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties. Between these two sources, information I've gleaned from various blogs and websites, and the successes I've had with saving the easiest kinds of seeds, I'm making plans to work on my melon problem (my favorite melon is a hybrid with limited availability) and to segregate flowers of several kinds of vegetables to insure that the varieties don't get crossed with others nearby.

Of course, the main goal is to get as much good food as possible out of the space that I have, and many seed catalogs arriving in my mailbox promise abundant harvests of beautiful and delicious crops, but none of the catalogs I receive are from Georgia; the two nearest are Park and Southern Exposure Seed Exchange.

This means that many of the seeds I buy from more distant (Pacific Northwest!) sources might not do as well as I would hope; they aren't bred for this yard's weather and soil. By saving more of my own seeds, from plants that do well in my yard, I'm hoping to improve the odds of having a successfully productive garden each year.
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