Monday, March 28, 2011

Stormy Weather

This isn't the metaphorical stormy weather of the old song; I'm not pining for a man to return, but my little seedlings here in the house are surely pining for a return to sunshine.

We had a nice long stretch of it before thunder started shaking the house and the rain started falling down like the sky is one big waterfall. The crazy weather seems to mean, though, that spring is really here. The good news is that the cold and cloudy will be over soon, and my seedlings will pine no more, but we need for the cool spring to continue if we are going to have good lettuces, spinach, and other spring veggies. If it gets warm too soon, the spring crops don't do well.

When I got home from work today, the clouds were still here, along with the cool temperatures, but the rain had let up, and I had a chance to see how things are holding up out in the yard.

The peas have made a good start:

And so have the potatoes:

On the edge of the garden, the patch of horehound (perennial) is greening up as well as any fuzzy, grayish green plant can, and the grape hyacinth are blooming right alongside.

Elsewhere in the yard, the goldenseal is beginning to bloom. This loves our yard; it has spread to make a nice big patch.

And the toad trillium are beginning to bloom.

Spring is definitely here.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Bumping up the Babies

It is about time to bump my seedlings out of the tray where they were started (in seed-starting medium) and into pots with something that's more like soil. I usually fill the new pots with Miracle Grow potting soil, but a friend of mine who uses the same stuff had a problem this year.

My friend starts about a thousand plants each year. Some are for her own garden, but most are for Master Gardener projects like the Plant-a-Row-for-the-Hungry garden, where we both volunteer, and the veggie garden at the elementary school for which she is the project chair.

This year, she transplanted all her seedlings into the potting soil as usual, but this year all her seedlings died. She called the company, because she is pretty sure there was too much nitrogen and that it burned the plant babies. The company refunded the money for her three bags, but she will have to start all those seedlings again. That is a lot of work and time lost.

The big problem for me is that I bought my bag of potting soil at the same store, and at about the same time. It is probably from the same lot, but my friend doesn't have her empty bags anymore to compare.

Yesterday, because I would hate to lose my (much smaller number of) plant babies, I bought a big bag of Farmer D's Planting Mix. If I had been thinking, I would have switched last year when I first saw it, because it is locally produced and not already laced with fertilizers (I will get to manage the nutrients myself).

This afternoon, I washed the empty six-pack-style plant containers that I plan to use for the first bumping up and filled them with planting mix. The tomatoes are all settled into their new spaces, but the rest of the babies will get moved tomorrow.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Progress of Spring

My seedlings, both indoors and out, are mostly up but also still quite small.

Outdoors, where I set out a lot of seeds on homemade seed tapes right before a big rain, the last seeds to germinate have been the carrots and scallions, but when I got home from work tonight, I could see them coming up. I must have hung over that bed just grinning for about ten minutes.

The most amazing part about that planting is that the seed tapes did such a great job holding the seeds in place. There are a few that have strayed out of their lines, but the plant babies are, essentially, in their assigned spaces in spite of a couple of downpours.

The seeds I've started in a tray are almost far enough along to transplant into individual pots. The first sets of true leaves are becoming well-developed in all the tomatoes and lettuces, and they are becoming big enough to see without a hand-lens on the eggplants, peppers, beets, spinach, chard, and parsley.

The overwintered plants out in the yard are looking good (except, of course, that I pulled up the last 4.5 pounds of carrots last week when they began to grow new leaves).

The amazing patch of cilantro has been great to have all winter long, but it is beginning to bolt. Luckily, I have new cilantro coming up already in a couple of other places in the garden.

Last fall's chard has put on enough growth that we can harvest some for meals.

And elsewhere in the yard, spring is really coming along. All of the flowers pictured here today have been blooming for about a week, so they are almost done. They are all, essentially, ephemeral. Soon the blooms will drop off, any seeds that are going to be set will be set, and the leaves will begin to die back. When the hot weather of summer sets in, there won't be much left above ground to show where these live.

This is the toothwort.

This little rue anemone is among my favorites, but it is pretty obvious that I need to pull some weeds in the patch of ground it inhabits.

The bloodroot is so white it almost glows at the back of the yard. There are two patches across a little path from each other.

Unlike the others above, these bleeding hearts aren't native. They are amazing, though. There have been times when I have just sat near them on the ground and admired the pink.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Planting with PAR

At the Plant-a-Row-for-the-Hungry (PAR) garden for which I am a volunteer, we continued this week with the early spring planting. Only one other person in the whole group had ever made seed tapes before, so we started our Wednesday session in the Carriage House, making seed tapes out of toilet paper, Elmer's glue, and carrot seeds. We haven't planted carrots before at PAR, so this is a double experiment for us.

Some of these gardeners work with children at other projects, and they were particularly happy to discover how easy making seed tapes is. The hardest part (especially for the people who didn't bring their reading glasses to the garden) was getting the seeds onto the glue without dropping huge numbers of them in a pile all at once.

Fred, our other gardener who has made seed tapes, gets around the "tiny seed" problem by using pelletized seeds. He drops one at a time, with tweezers, at the correct spacing onto his homemade seed tape. I am less precise in placing seeds onto my seed tapes, but I usually have to do a little thinning as a result.

There were enough of us present that it didn't take long before we had a lot of seed tape ready to go.

After we had plenty, we tidied up (put the newspaper back into the recycling bin where we found it) and moved to the garden to work. Planting the seed tapes didn't take long, either, but we had plenty of other tasks to keep us occupied. Broccoli was planted along the edges of the bed in which the carrots are now planted.

We also planted more potatoes and onions. We didn't finish getting these in the ground, because parts of their bed were still too wet from the previous day's rain. We made a lot of progress, though.

We are really fortunate that the city had someone weed-whack our cover crop (the garden is on city property), the Austrian winter peas. The greenery was becoming startlingly thick, and it was going to be heck to turn under, even with a heavy duty rototiller. The potato/onion/carrot/broccoli areas had already been tilled by Doug (thank you!). If we are lucky, he will be able to till the rest of the garden in a couple of weeks, shifting the good organic residue of the peas down into the soil, where we need it.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Making the Most of Small Gardens

Over at the blog called Our Engineered Garden, EG has a post up about setting up his trellises. Growing big, climbing plants up trellises is one way to get more food from a small garden space.

His post made me think a bit about why I don't use more trellises in my own small garden, and what it mostly comes down to is height. I am not at all tall. Growing things up trellises, where I can't reach them to take care of the plants and harvest the produce, just isn't practical for me. For taller people, trellises make a lot more sense. It turns out that EG is well over six feet tall.

My strategies for maximizing production have relied more on using the gaps between plants on the ground. As I plan where in the garden to plant each crop, I consider each plant's eventual height and sprawl. Plants that will spread across the ground, like sweet potato vines, can be planted next to a crop that uses less ground space and more air space, like okra, corn, or peppers. The vines can then be aimed toward the bare ground under the other taller crop, where they act like a mulch over that ground, shading out weeds. This kind of planning lets me have sweet potatoes in a small garden.

When the sprawling crop is one that uses tendrils to climb, like in cucumbers, squashes, and melons, some extra effort is needed to keep these from climbing up the taller plants (and possibly pulling them over), but that doesn't take much time.

Another strategy is using the close, grid-like spacing described in books like Mel Bartholemew's "Square Foot Gardening" and John Jeavon's "How to Grow More Vegetables and Fruits, Nuts, Berries, Grains, and Other Crops Than You Ever Thought Possible On Less Land Than You Can Imagine." I do a lot of this. When bush beans are well-grown and spaced as in this strategy, they are a beautiful sight.

Yet another strategy I use is intercropping, which means pretty much what it looks like it means: crops "in between." One way to intercrop is to plant root crops in spaces between leafy crops. An example would be carrots interplanted with lettuces. When intercropping, the standard planting distances can be reduced in ways that allow the garden to produce a little more food from one patch of soil. The lettuces could be planted at the usual distances (6-8 inches apart) but in the open spaces, carrots could be sown.

When one crop produces mostly above ground and the other mostly below ground, competition for space is greatly reduced.

The two crops should be genetically different enough that disease and pest problems are also reduced. For example, even though chard and beets don't compete for exactly the same space (one produces a big bit of its harvest-able food below-ground, one produces all the food above-ground) they are too similar genetically for intercropping to be a good idea.

Before the recent big rains started, I planted some seeds outside, and I set them out as intercropped rows in the bed nearest the road. The rows alternate leafy veggies (lettuces, mustard, chard) with root veggies (carrots, beets, radishes).

If I am lucky, the seeds are all still there, rather than having been washed away. In another week or so, I will know. I did set them out as homemade seed tapes, which should have helped keep the seeds in place. Amazingly, I have a contingency plan in place! (Some years I am more organized than in other years.) If not all the seeds come up, I can replace some with plants I've started in a seed-tray in the house. Those, mostly, have begun to emerge.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Hanging Out with the Old Guys

Insanely early on Wednesday morning, I was at the dermatology office to have a thingy removed (a hazard of a life lived largely out-of-doors). The other people waiting outside for the office to open were older guys, who all turned out to be in their early eighties. We spent time visiting while we waited.

One of my new dermatology friends had grown up in north Georgia but had lived on Lacy Street in Marietta for a little more than fifty years. All that time, he'd had a garden in the backyard. He and his wife now live in a smaller townhouse, but he still gardens. He just asks people he knows, who have sunny spaces in their yards, if he can grow a few (fill in the blank) at their homes. So far, he hasn't been turned down.

He told about a friend who had moved here from Louisiana (this was one of those "way back when" stories), who had always gardened in the black dirt there but who was skeptical about the ability of the red dirt here to support crops. My new dermatology friend went over to his yard one spring, dug out three spaces, mixed in rotted leaves, a little lime and fertilizer, and planted three tomato plants. By the end of the summer, his friend was totally surprised at how well this worked out in terms of total harvest -- "he'd never got so many tomatoes before in his life!"

This year, my dermatology friend and a grand-son-in-law, a young man who has never gardened before, are going to start a veggie garden in the young man's backyard. It sounded as though they are both really looking forward to working together on the project. The older man plans to set up raised beds using old railroad ties to contain the amended soil, because that's what he's always done. He likes for his beds to be three feet wide.

As the conversation continued, he offered some advice. He said that he waits until the end of April to plant his summer garden, claiming that plants set out earlier are slowed down by the cold soil. He thinks his late-planted garden does better than if he had planted on the last frost date, when many people plant. As another gardener who waits an extra week or so, this was very satisfying confirmation of what I've thought/experienced about planting on that last-frost date!

Later in the morning, I was at the Plant-a-Row-for-the-Hungry garden, where we planted onions and potatoes. We are going to plant more next week, when we also plan to make seed-tapes for carrots and plant those, and probably also put in some broccoli transplants. One of our gardeners, Lee, has been growing a lot of her food for a very Long Time, and she said something that I tend to forget, but that's important.

The conversation was about which pole beans to grow. We had looked for mountain half-runner beans at Ladd's Farm Supply, but they weren't in yet when we went. Lee also grows mountain half-runners, but only from the company she called Morse (now it's Ferry Morse). She's grown the same variety from other companies, but she has found that they just aren't as good.

After years and years of seed production by one grower, a variety can develop slight genetic differences that affect its growing and food qualities. Lee thinks the beans from Morse both taste and perform better. Another gardener in another place might prefer beans from a different source, but when ordering/buying seeds, keeping track of where a favorite comes from can really help the success of a garden.

Update on my own planting: onions, potatoes, and peas are in the ground. The potatoes are Red Pontiac; the peas are both Wando (a dwarf English-type pea) and Sugar Snap (an edible-pod pea).

I've also finally started seeds indoors: Tomatoes (Rutgers, Wuhib, Cherokee Purple, Olivette Jaune), peppers (Jimmy Nardello, Czeck black, Ancho, Feherezon, Spanish Spice, Golden Greek, Sweet Chocolate), eggplants (Casper White, Black King), curly parsley, spinach (Bloomsdale), chard (Perpetual Spinach), Collards (Georgia), lettuces (Marvel of Four Seasons, Capitan, Bronze Arrow), chicory (Pan di Zucchero), and some Golden Beets. Some of these are "old reliables" and some are new this year.

Based on the number of varieties, it seems like there wouldn't be enough room in my little garden for everything, but I tend to plant just a few of each kind. This is a way to hedge my bets in the gambling world of gardening. If one crop doesn't pay off, another one surely will.
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