Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Keeping Track of the Harvest: Jan. and Feb.

I have been moderately successful in keeping track of what we've brought in from the garden so far this year. My scale is easier to read in kilograms than in pounds, so that's what I've recorded.

The weights don't include smaller harvests, like a few kale or chard leaves brought in to stir into the white bean soup or to put on pizza, and the weights of the herbs (which are also tiny) aren't recorded, but when there was enough of something that the scale read more than 0.1 kg, I wrote it down:

Cauliflower .50
Lettuce .20
Broccoli .35
Radish, winter .40
Swiss chard .20
Collard greens .50
Swiss chard .15
Radish, winter .95
Lettuce .15
Broccoli .55
Parsnips 1.50
Onions, green .45
Chicory .50
Beet greens .30
Carrots .25

Using a kilograms-to-pounds converter that's available online, I converted the weights to the more familiar pounds and ounces.

Jan. total 2.10 kg = 4 pounds, 10 ounces
Feb. total 4.85 kg = 10 pounds, 11 ounces
2012 running total: Jan. + Feb. = 15 pounds, 5 ounces

That's not a spectacular start to the gardening year, but it's hard to complain. The cool weather veggies require so little tending that counting their weight in the year's total feels almost like cheating. Getting to the summer harvest takes a lot more work - more weeding, more watering, more replenishing mulch.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Summer Begins in February

Even though it's been a warm winter, it hasn't been exactly summer-like, and even though I've been enjoying the vegetables of winter, I have been hankering after some fresh summertime veggies. The good and the bad news is that a lot of summertime veggies need to get their start long before summer. Tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants, in particular, have a long time-to-maturity, which means their seeds need to be planted indoors now, or even a week or two ago.

I had thought about starting some seeds earlier, but last week I was in Oklahoma with my Mom, who was recovering from hip-replacement surgery. I didn't want to leave just-germinated seedlings for my family to tend, since they would have plenty of other things to manage while I was away, so I waited.

Happily, not only is Mom doing very well, but yesterday afternoon I filled most of a tray of those "Jiffy" peat-pellets with seeds. Part of the tray is yet-to-be-filled, because the seeds I've ordered aren't here yet, but most of the tomato and pepper seeds for this year are in the tray, as are the eggplant, parsley, marjoram, basil, and a pink Salvia. It feels great to have made a start on the summer garden!

I also planted (in the ground) some seed-potatoes yesterday. There is a short row of Red Pontiac and a short row of White Cobbler. At the end of the potato area I planted some spinach seeds (Tyee), and along one side of the trellis I planted a row of lettuces (Capitan). The seeds were leftovers from previous years, but I found the seed potatoes at Mom's neighborhood grocery store in Choctaw, Oklahoma. The seed potatoes, which were 59 cents a pound, were in a bin in the produce department, along with several varieties of onion sets.

The weather isn't spectacularly warm, but the high temperature yesterday, and forecast again for today, is the mid-50s. That's plenty warm for doing some serious work in the yard. I expect to spend much of this afternoon outside. Hope everyone else is having a beautiful weekend!

Friday, February 17, 2012

Thinking about Soil

On Wednesday morning I gave a little talk about building soil fertility using organic gardening methods. I was pretty surprised by the large turnout, but one feature of the talk was a demonstration of converting a recommendation for inorganic fertilizers (like 10 pounds 10-10-10 per 1000 sq ft, plus 15 pounds 15-0-15 per 1000 sq ft) from a UGA Soil Test Report to organic fertilizer ingredients. It turns out that a lot of people were interested in seeing someone put this math into action.

The Georgia Extension Service offers a handout on this conversion, so the demonstration wasn't anything I had to work especially hard to put together. The hardest part is choosing the ingredients to use in the conversion, since the list of possible sources is quite large, and some of them aren't widely available.

It turns out that the plant-a-row-for-the-hungry garden this year is going to need about 50 pounds of cottonseed meal per 1000 sq ft and 10.2 pounds of Sul-Po-Mag per 1000 sq ft to meet the requirements of "medium feeders," which describes most garden crops. "Heavy feeders" like tomatoes will need an extra (full) dose partway through the summer, and "light feeders" - mostly legumes - will need half as much as the other crops.

If building soil fertility were as easy as dumping in a few bags of amendments, though, we would all have perfect gardens! Unfortunately, to get really root-friendly soil, a little more is involved.

The biggest hurdle is working in enough organic matter that - in heavy clay soils - the clay particles are held apart so roots can grow and water can move freely through the soil, and that -in sandy soils - the big sand particles are held together enough that the water doesn't run right through and leave the roots in a desert after a few hours in the sun. The organic matter helps hold nutrients, helps maintain more even moisture levels, and it also contributes nutrients - especially the micronutrients that are missing in most bags of 10-10-10.

Getting more organic matter into heavy clay soils and into sandy soils is easy to manage in small gardens. A few bags of Nature's Helper (or similar organic amendment) and a couple of loads of compost from a pile in the backyard, with the addition of some mulch to keep the weeds down, is just about enough.

For larger gardens, getting enough organic matter into the dirt is more problematic. It is possible to buy soil amendments by the truckload, but that can be expensive. I, for one, would not like to be able to commiserate with the guy who wrote that "$64 tomato" book!

For people who can't really buy enough organic matter to dig into their soil, there are cover crops, also known as green manures. I grow one of these, hairy vetch, most winters in at least one of my garden beds. At the plant-a-row-for-the-hungry garden, we have grown Austrian Winter Peas for this purpose. And the guy who wrote The Joy of Gardening, Dick Raymond, plants his dwarf peas and bush beans in blocks, then turns the plants back into the soil after they've produced, giving them a dual purpose.

One of the great things about cover crops is that they conserve nutrients by tying them up in the actual plants. It's hard to for nutrients to wash away when they are firmly rooted to the ground! If the crop is a legume, in the bean and pea family, there is the bonus of ending up with more nitrogen in the soil than was there originally.

We found, at the plant-a-row-for-the-hungry garden, that we weren't really able to add enough organic matter as mulch (we used leaves that had been saved from the fall) to keep the soil in good condition. Over time, productivity of the garden fell, but switching to organic fertilizers and to using a cover crop made a huge difference. In my own garden, I've used mostly organic methods all along, but I haven't made as full a use of cover crops as I could have. This year, I think that will change.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Video for the Most Intense Gardeners

I saw this at Sharon Astyk's blog that's on the Science Blogs site.

This is for those of us who spend a lot of time outside, and whose minds are often fully occupied with seed and gardening information, and for anyone who's ever asked someone else for help with a "tick check."

Thursday, February 9, 2012

It Begins ...

The trout lilies are saying that it's almost time to plant peas. I don't think I've ever seen them up and so near bloom this early in February. Even though I "jumped the gun" a bit when I planted a first batch of peas (was it almost two weeks ago?) way ahead of when the trout lilies normally bloom, my very-early planting of peas is looking a little less crazy! Out in the garden, those early peas are coming up. How well they will do remains to be seen.

We also planted peas last weekend at The Garden on Dallas Hwy. where my little family puts in some volunteer time. The head gardeners, Mr. Kastner and Mr. Hankerson, had been up to Ladd's Farm Supply in Euharlee to get the seeds. They said that the seed potatoes and onion sets are in, and that even though most seeds hadn't been put out, they were told that the shipments were in.

We used an Earthway Seeder to do the planting, and I have to say that getting the seeds in the ground was a lot easier with the seeder than the "by hand" method I use in my much smaller garden. I can see that this is going to be the next tool on my "wish list."

The forecast is for some colder weather in the next few days, with lows in the low 20s. The soil is still warm, though, and I'm probably going to put out seeds for lettuces and spinach in the next week or so. It's almost time to start some seeds indoors, too, for peppers, eggplants, tomatoes, and some herbs.

Out in the berry patches, some of the leaf-buds have started to break open. It is, of course, a little early for that to happen, but I have been busy pruning the newer canes and making sure I've removed the second-year canes. It's turned out to be a bigger job than I first thought, because some plants have "escaped" from their original locations, and I had decided to let them take over a larger space. This means I'll have more berries, but it also means I have more work to do.

Other fruiting plants are also further along than they usually would be at this point in the winter, and I am a little concerned to see the flowering buds breaking open on the blueberries and the plums. I hope they don't run into a hard freeze after opening more fully!

I plan to take advantage of the upcoming colder weather to prune my grapevine. If it warms up substantially very soon after the freeze, the sap is going to be running, and pruning will stress the plant more than I would prefer.

There is a lot to do, but also a lot to look forward to!

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Why Garden?

When I was at the county Extension Office earlier this week, putting in some volunteer hours answering questions on the “horticulture hotline,” I spoke with a staff member about the number of veggie questions that come to the office.

She has been at the Extension Office for six years, and she said that, when she first started, the vegetable gardening questions were the main focus of about 5 percent of the total calls. Now, they constitute closer to 50 percent of the calls. That’s a huge increase, but it matches my own impression of the increased interest in home vegetable gardening.

This is the part I hadn’t thought about: Most of the callers who were new to veggie gardening cited safety concerns as their main reason for wanting to grow some of their own food. “Safety” encompasses a fairly wide range of more specific concerns, from e. coli outbreaks, to GM foods, to the widespread use of systemic pesticides that can’t be washed off.

The second most-frequently cited reason to take up veggie gardening has been saving money, and a distant third has been related to lowering the carbon footprint of the household.

Saving money through growing your own food is totally possible, but it takes more advance planning than when the gardener is more concerned with safety than with costs. The same strategies a gardener might use to save money would probably also help lower the carbon footprint of the resulting food.

For some people, though, I would guess that the real reasons for taking up food-gardening are more complex than a single, simple word or phrase can encompass. The short answer probably is just easier than the long explanation (like when someone asks, "How are you doing today?" and we all answer "Fine, and you?" - regardless of reality).

A couple of Saturdays back, after our usual volunteer work on a nearby garden-farm, my family went to our local museum’s “Trains, trains, trains!” event. We stood out because we were the only family there without small children. Our earlier morning activities came up in a conversation with the woman at the Railroad Crossing Safety table, and she told us about her garden.

She had grown up on what she called a self-sustaining farm. All of her family’s food was raised on site, from the dairy and meat cows, to pigs, chickens, turkeys, ducks, rabbits, pheasants, corn and other grains, beans, fruits, and veggies. She had helped with the chores related to raising all of this food throughout her childhood. A year or so back, she had been feeling a little nostalgic about the farm and its abundant good food when she overheard a young man at another event mention that he would love to have access to a big yard where he could plant a vegetable garden.

The two started talking, and it turned out that she had a big sunny yard and that he had grown up helping his parents in their big vegetable garden, and they decided to put in and tend a garden together in her backyard.

She had thought that they would start small, with a few different kinds of plants, but when they went to the garden center to select seeds and plants, the young man wanted to try everything! In the end, enthusiasm triumphed over prudence (and isn’t that a common story for gardeners!), and they ended up with enough plants for quite a large garden.

Unfortunately, neither of the two remembered all that they really needed to know, including how much work would be involved. It turned out that the woman with the yard ended up renting and running the roto-tiller and doing a much larger portion of the work than she had imagined, including most of the weeding. And when the plants began to mature, she learned the hard way that a lot of the pepper plants were habaneros - an exceptionally hot variety.

She had thought they were miniature bell peppers, and she cut one up for a salad one day after work. The first bite was a big surprise! She said that the taste didn’t go away for at least a week.

The main motivation for this pair didn’t seem to be about food safety, about saving money, or about lowering anyone’s carbon footprint. I think it might have been more about connecting with the past, about building community, about getting access to some really good food, and about being outside. I could be wrong, of course, but the two are already making plans for this year’s garden - this time with fewer habaneros.
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