Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Spring Gardening "Crunch Time" Approaches

First, let me say that, if this page looks unfamiliar, it's because I have been goofing around with the blog templates. For those who aren't currently using blogger, it might help to know that a whole lot of new options have been added sort-of-recently, and I am finally getting around to looking at them. Right now, this page looks too plain to me, but in a few days I will probably have made more changes.

Back to the blog ...

In my own yard, I have begun to work my way through the usual springtime planting; it's just all been moved up a few weeks. A patch of bush beans (Provider) is in, as is a patch of zucchini (Raven). I've also planted a few nasturtium seeds and the salad cucumbers (Straight Nine) but everything else is still in the queue.

The spring crops are coming along fairly well, but I am a little anxious about the warm weather. Will I have any lettuce worth eating? We'll see. Right now, the earliest lettuces and spinach are a few inches high, the peas are developing flower-buds, the winter-planted onions are far enough along that I've pulled a few to use as green onions, the actual green onions that I planted a few weeks back for use later in the summer are seedling-threads that don't look sturdy enough to stand on their own (and yet, they do!), and the dwarf runner beans that I plant a few of for their pretty red flowers, rather than their food value -- they don't set many beans in the Georgia heat -- have poked their first couple of leaves out of the ground.

So far, so good.

Out at the garden/farm where I volunteer on Saturdays, my little family has planted a bed of beans (white mountain half runners) and a bed of squash (yellow straight neck). This represents a very small amount of the planting that needs to get done there, though, and the pace of planting is about to accelerate. The two main gardeners there are planning a big three-to-four day planting bonanza just before Easter. They've been checking the forecast for temperature and rain, and have decided to just get everything into the ground then, pretty much all at once. It is likely that my family will plant another bed or two in advance of the planting bonanza, but the big fields that represent most of the planting space will be planted using bigger equipment (assorted tractors) than will work in the raised beds.

Out at the space where the Plant-a-Row-for-the-Hungry (PAR) project is moving to, things are moving more slowly:

The field isn't really in black and white, that's just the way the camera was set and I couldn't figure out how to change it back to color, but the space is still a grassy field.

To be honest, even though in some ways it would be nice to get started now on this garden, too, I'm a little bit glad that it is running behind. Working on the other two gardens - my own plus the one out on Dallas Highway - is getting my gardening muscles back in shape for all the work that will need to be done at the PAR garden!

The people who are planning the site (there is more to it than just our own little garden) are making a great deal of progress on sorting out the order-of-events and how it's all going to be funded, so I am not especially concerned that the site isn't ready for us yet.

Our group of PAR gardeners has made progress, too, on pulling together the things that we'll need. I've ordered our sweet potato slips (200!) from a guy in Alabama, and we have the seeds and bean inoculant that we'll need, and I've bought the cottonseed meal and Sul-Po-Mag that we'll use as our organic fertilizer.

A couple of people have been working on finding a whole lot of compost, and they've identified a source of mushroom compost that's not too expensive.

In addition, the Junior Master Gardener group at a local elementary school is helping to start our tomatoes and peppers! Their leader is a member of our PAR group, and she grows those transplants for us each year. When we finally are able to start delivering food to the pantry, it will truly have been a community-wide effort.

When we do get started, we will have a lot to do in a very short time. As one of our gardeners put it, it will be "crunch time!"

We expect to measure out the beds (we plan to use wide rows), dump compost on each bed, spread the fertilizer for each bed, and mix that all together with a tiller in one day, which is why I'm hoping my gardening muscles are in good shape by then.

We meet just once each week, so the next week will involve a lot of planting, and we'll also need to get mulch onto the paths pretty quickly. After everything is in, there will be less hard, physical work each week, but the first few weeks will be doozies.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Uneasy Spring

Dogwoods, azaleas, all sorts of little ephemeral spring things that grow on the forest floor - it's all in bloom, or even past bloom. The ground is warm enough that morels have been popping up, and at my friend's garden/farm out on Dallas Highway, the Colorado potato beetles are already out. Last year, the potato beetles didn't make their appearance until late April.

All of the unusually early activity is enough to make any gardener or farmer uneasy. If this is the end of winter, what will summer look like? And of course, there is the problem that a reversion to normal weather, with the chance of temperatures back into the mid- to low 20s, could damage the fruit that's beginning to form on trees and bushes in yards and orchards all around. Losing the early crop of figs wouldn't be too horrible - our fig tree sets another crop later in the spring - but most of the other fruits in my yard bloom and set one crop of fruit each year (Heritage raspberries, an exception, make an additional small crop in late summer). I'd rather not lose the blueberries, blackberries, black raspberries, and plums.

As the weather continues to be strange, I find myself making contingency plans for a "bad" gardening year. Grandpa Bill, gardening last year in Oklahoma's 60-plus days of above-100-degree weather, didn't really get a tomato crop. He got peppers, but he had rigged a shade over each plant to help protect the fruits from sun-scald. I am going to keep that strategy in mind - I have some tulle that I use over plants as a barrier to insect pests, but the same fabric could be used as a shade-cloth to lessen the sun's intensity over sensitive plants.

I usually start a few tomato plants in early April to plant out at the end of June, and I will definitely do that again this year, as insurance against a horrible July and August, and if we get a freeze that damages our main fruits, I'll make a big space in the garden for ground cherries, a tomato-relative that I usually grow just a few plants of. That would ease the pain of losing most of the fruit.

I'm thinking about putting in a patch of bush beans soon, too, and I wouldn't normally plant those for four more weeks. If a freeze kills the whole patch, I won't have lost much in the way of resources and time. I can just replant the 20-or-so square feet at the end of April, like usual. If we are past the last freeze, though, it will be good to have already made a start. Since the potato beetles are out and on the prowl, it's likely that other pests - and diseases - also will have made an early start. I'd like to stay ahead of them, as much as possible.

Gardeners have to be flexible - the weather is never exactly normal, but this spring is further from normal than any I've yet seen.  It will be interesting to see how this all turns out.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

First Morel of the Season!

Zack found this 5-inch high morel while he was out walking the coonhound. It was near the east side of the house, by the azaleas:

It was delicious!

I am sure I am not the only one to notice that this is unusually early for morels, but, in most of the US, it's early for just about everything. When I was out walking the other dog this evening, I could smell the sweet shrub, like freshly sliced apples, already in bloom. The trilliums are up and opening their flowers; the May apples are up; it's all just very strange.

In the good news category, though, are my happy seedlings. I transferred the tomato babies into a divided tray, and they seem to be adjusting well.

Out in the garden, the lettuce babies (variety Capitan) have come up and are making their first true leaves. This section, pretty obviously, will need to be thinned soon.

I planted another section this morning, to mature a little later than these. Today's planting was of a variety that's new to me, called Kagran Sommer. It's supposed to hold up well in warm weather. I think this year might be a tough test for it!

I planted some radishes (variety Hailstone, also new to me) near the new lettuces. Other outside chores were done, including potting up some herbs for the Master Gardener plant sale in May. It was a busy day!

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Planning for Salad

While I mostly think of lettuces when I think of salad, there is a salad that we eat in the summer that uses no lettuce at all. It contains either tomatoes, a lot of parsley, a little mint, bulgur wheat, lemon juice and olive oil (it's a simple version of tabouleh), or it leaves out the mint and bulgur wheat and adds in a lot of finely diced cucumber and some finely diced onion.

I grow the primary ingredients (except for the bulgur wheat) for both salads. In the seed tray right now, the tomato and parsley seedlings are up and looking great. The mint overwinters in the yard, and the onions have been growing for awhile already and will be harvested over many weeks - starting with slender green onions in April and ending with "keepers" that will last, I hope, through much of the summer salad season. I'll plant the cucumbers directly into the garden in mid-April.

Both versions of the salad rely on the lemon juice and olive oil for a lot of their flavor. I'm pretty sure that growing our own olives to press for oil would be more trouble than it's worth, especially since I'd probably have to put up a greenhouse to keep the little trees alive, but lemons are a different story.

I don't have a lemon tree, but my Louisiana sister does, and she just sent me four lemons that weigh about one pound apiece. They contained a lot of lemon juice that is in my freezer right now, setting up in ice cube trays. When the lemon cubes are completely frozen, they'll be dumped into a freezer bag, to await their use in summer salads.

Some years, I have bought organic lemons at this time of year (when they are cheapest!) to squeeze and freeze, but it is exponentially nicer to have lemons from a sister. I hope other gardeners' summer salads are coming along as nicely!

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Busy Times

Even though it isn't quite spring, there has been plenty of garden-related activity in my life recently. Last Saturday, my friend Susan and I gave an "intro to veggie gardening" talk at Smith Gilbert Garden, and the Wednesday before that, my Plant-a-Row-for-the-Hungry (PAR) garden group had a planning meeting. Here at home, a tray of plant babies is looking happily green under some fluorescent lights; out in the garden the peas are poking up through the soil, and the little pale green cotyledons of some lettuces and the strappy, darker cotyledons of the spinach also are visible.

Saturday's talk seemed to go well. A wonderfully large group of gardeners, both new and experienced, showed up, and they had great questions and comments. I know I say this a lot, but it is soooo great to be in a room full of people who are interested in growing food!

One gardener (thank you Cathy!) shared her method of keeping track of varieties that do well in her yard: In the garden, she marks the varieties with the little plastic labels that come with them at the store, and if the variety does well, she stores the label in a plastic bin that she can refer to the next spring. It turns out that she hasn't ever been able to manage the pencil and paper kind of record keeping for her garden, and this has worked for her. She also stores photos of the garden, labeled with the date on the back, in the same bin as a way of keeping track of what was planted where, to help in planning the crop rotation for following years. For other gardeners with the same pencil-and-paper problem, and whose gardens are small, this could be a useful idea.

At the PAR meeting, we talked some about design and management of our new space. Our old space at Smith Gilbert Garden had been shaped like a short, squat ice-cream cone, with a big circular dome on two straight sides that met at right angles. We let that dome/circle design guide the layout of the crops - dividing the space into wedges like a pie. Sounds weird, possibly, but the garden was beautiful. However, we occasionally ended up with some very short rows that seemed a little inefficient. Looking at the garden, the trade-off was totally worthwhile, but the new garden at the Fountain Gate Counseling Center is a different shape.

Our new space is a giant rectangle, so we are going to return to the wide rows (link downloads a 2.8 mb pdf) that were used when the PAR garden was at its first space, on county property in Marietta. The wide rows have their own limitations and benefits, but they are a good choice for the size and shape of the available space. We also are going to use companion planting (eg: marigolds with the tomatoes) and cover crops more consistently. I'm looking forward to getting started!

I'm also working on some short talks/demonstrations to give at the new community gardens that are sprouting up in Cobb County. I have one for working with transplants (handling the plant babies, depth of planting, spacing, use of a "starter" fertilizer solution) and one about succession planting for the year-round raised-bed garden, but I want to develop a whole series. If anyone has suggestions for useful topics, let me know?

Today, it is supposed to be 70 degrees and mostly sunny here in Kennesaw. I expect to do some work in the yard. Hope everyone else has beautiful weather to enjoy!

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