Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Dahlias for the Bees

One of my friends grew a lot of dahlias this past year. When she dug them up to store for the winter, the ones she liked the least - all the cactus-flowered yellow ones - had produced more tubers than she was willing to keep.

However, those had nice, open centers that had made the flowers a favorite with bees, which meant she would be able to find a good home for the tubers without too much trouble. Lots of people want to help bees!

She tucked the tubers from those yellow-flowered plants into paper bags with peat moss, then put those in the car to deal with later. A month went by before she was able to pass them along. By the time the tubers made it to the office, some of them had developed problems. Luckily, a local dahlia expert -- my friend Maddie -- was in the office at exactly the right time. Of course, she was supposed to be working on her Senior DPA portfolio for 4-H!

It didn't take long for Maddie to sort through the tubers, trim away excess bits, and toss the bad ones.

Each bag held several plants'-worth of tubers, buried in the peat moss.

Some of the dahlia tubers were very obviously too far gone to keep.

She showed us the slimy innards of a tuber that had felt only a little bit soft from the outside.

This little dahlia tuber already has a nice big eye; it's a keeper!
One of the great things about my workplace is the number of plant-experts who stop by. We get to learn from all of them!

Monday, December 16, 2013

Tracking the Harvest: October and November, 2013

The big surprise is that, in spite of the monsoon-like quality of much of the year and the ravenous appetites of the local chipmunks, my yard has managed to provide more than 400 pounds of food in 2013 to this point. Harvests in the next few months will be pretty lean, but that's why we put away surpluses of crops like tomatoes, peppers, and beans when we have them in summer.

I've also been enjoying the butternut squash, which, like the sweet potatoes, keep just fine on their own without any work in "putting up" the harvest. They just sit around in baskets until I'm ready to use them. A lot of the butternut squash has been baked until squishy, then whirled in the blender (without seeds and skins) with some almond milk, black pepper, and sauteed onion and garlic -- quick and easy butternut soup! It just requires the forethought to have put the squash into the oven.

Weights below for the past two months are in kilograms:

Tomatoes, ripe 2.4
radishes 1.3
okra 1
Peppers 6.15

Persimmons, Asian 0.65
Radish, winter 2.15
Peppers 0.55
Carrots 0.4
Bok Choy 0.75
Potatoes 0.5

October 10.85 kg = 23 pounds, 14 ounces
November 5 kg = 11 pounds

Running total January through November = 181.95 kg = 401 pounds, 1 ounces

Friday, December 6, 2013

What Gardeners Think About in Winter

Just to start, two more seed catalogs arrived at my house this week: Vermont Bean and Totally Tomatoes. This means that the planning part of the gardening year is here. I will hazard a guess that I am not the only gardener who already has begun thinking forward to the next round of planting.

This means thinking about which varieties to grow for each vegetable, about how much space to give to each crop, about the best-yet-cheapest ways to add organic matter to the soil, about the crop rotation sequence, about planning for seed saving, about seed starting and whether the fluorescent fixture needs a new bulb. Really, there is just no end to the garden thinking that goes on in winter.

There also, here in the South, are vegetables still in the yard to harvest and eat. In my yard, I have carrots, winter radishes, broccoli, and cabbage that are at a good stage for eating, and there are vegetables that didn't make it to maturity before the cold set in for me to watch and keep weeded, so they can return to growing as the soil begins to warm again in March. This all takes some thinking, too.

And if, like me, you have a parallel life as a spouse, a parent and a person who has a full-time job, all that thinking has to fit in the spaces between the rest of it. In my own life, the "spaces between" have shrunk down to just cracks for the moment -- next week, my youngest son graduates from college, and in three weeks my oldest son is getting married (THREE WEEKS!!!)--- but that doesn't seem to stop my brain from turning toward the garden.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Good Food and Thankfulness

This week, my mind is more focused on "eating good food" than on "growing good food." Of course, it's hard to have the first without the second! All the gardeners fully understand that backward-sounding order, but plenty of other people forget that behind most good food there is thought, and work, and care.

I have been very fortunate in being able to grow good food in my yard. The food is fresh, and our meals are varied. All those vegetables probably contribute a lot of vitamins and minerals to our daily intake. The garden sparks conversations with my neighbors, building my local community. I am thankful for my garden, the good food it provides, and for the physical strength to manage it. Not everyone has the time or a sunny enough or large enough spot to grow their own food.

Not that long ago, much of the western part of the county was an agricultural area. The Old Guys still talk about how Cobb County and sweet potatoes used to be like Vidalia is, now, with onions -- viewed as the prime source of the sweetest and best produce. The fields were plowed using mules, and farming involved a lot of physical labor.

The sweet potatoes that grow in my yard (four varieties this year!) are also some work, and this year the chipmunks ate what I consider to be more than their share, but when we eat the sweet potatoes I was able to harvest, I know how they were grown (organic methods). I know that one variety is part of a line that stretches back more than 100 years in this county. I know that it is easy enough to grow this staple crop that other people can do it, too.

If enough other people give it a try, our whole community can benefit.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

What Survived the Dip into the mid-20s

We had a couple of especially cold (for November) nights last week, and the garden showed it. The leaves of the pepper plants all wilted, the remaining summer annual flowers (marigolds, salvias, cleome) turned to mush, and even the last of the spring-type radishes fared poorly.

In the good news category, the winter radishes are still standing, as are the carrots. The cabbages and broccoli look good, even though they looked very sad on the coldest mornings. All the leaves fell off the Ichi Ki Kei Jiro persimmon, but the big orange fruits are still there, even a couple that have been half-eaten by my aerialist chipmunks.

The very small lettuces and assorted greens that have all struggled to get beyond the "delicious to chipmunks and wild rabbits" stage, also are still vibrantly green. In my dreams, they reach mature size before we get much colder weather.

A couple of stray potato plants had come up from tubers that were missed in the early summer harvest, and the tops of those collapsed in the cold. The good news is that we dug up another pound or so of red potatoes from underneath those wilted tops.

Essentially, last week brought an end to the remaining the summer crops that had been barely hanging on.

At the County Extension Office, we are still getting calls from people who want to know what vegetables they can plant now (gardeners rarely give up, and they aren't deterred by a little frost!). There is still time to put in some garlic and onions, but that's about it. However, this is a good time to start thinking about some winter-sown vegetables.

UGA Cooperative Extension's Vegetable Planting Chart (planting dates for middle Georgia need to be adjusted for Cobb County by 10-14 days) shows traditional planting dates for the most commonly planted garden crops. Alabama Cooperative Extension's Planting Guide for Home Gardening in Alabama offers dates that are similar to those in UGA's publication.

Other than the onion group, neither of these publications lists any crop that can be planted (with the hope of successful harvest) this late in Cobb County. Even the most cold-hardy vegetables are fairly tender when they are very young, and,  at this point, the odds are pretty small of any vegetable growing to a tougher stage before another killing frost occurs.

However, Colorado State's Extension publication Winter Gardening: Planting Vegetables in Early Winter for an Early Spring Crop tells about planting seeds in the ground in late winter, much sooner after the New Year  than many people might usually consider planting. In this publication, author Curtis Swift offers, along with some basic instructions, this list of cool season vegetables that can be winter-sown:
  • lettuce
  • peas
  • spinach
  • broccoli
  • Brussel sprouts
  • carrots
  • radish
  • cauliflower
A website called (not too surprisingly) Wintersown offers a step-by-step guide to an outdoor container-option for sowing seeds in winter.

For the many gardeners who like to keep things moving in the garden, winter-sown crops might provide a nice outlet for that pent-up planting energy.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Baker Creek's Whole Seed Catalog for 2014: IT'S HERE!

Yesterday when I got home from work, I found this really great surprise in my mailbox:

First Seed Catalog of the Year!
It may seem early, but the timing is actually excellent. I've started putting together a presentation on planning the garden for seed saving, to be given in January, and Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds' big catalog full of open-pollinated varieties (no hybrids included!) is going to be helpful.

The catalog includes a basic guide to seed saving -- on pages 352-3 -- which I may be able to reference in my talk, but so far I've mostly used Suzanne Ashworth's Seed to Seed in putting together a chart of some important features and seed-saving guidelines of common garden crops. It probably helps that I save seeds from my own garden for some crops.

Anyone going organic and trying to exclude GM foods from the garden is also going to find useful information in The Whole Seed Catalog. For example, on page 61, in the corn section, there's a somewhat astonishing note:
"Each year we have a harder time getting seeds that test GMO-free. It is getting to the point where most heirloom corn varieties test positive for GMO's; even growers in remote areas are having problems with Monsanto's GMO corn."
And on page 11:
"Our company used to carry up to two dozen varieties of heirloom corn, until we began testing for GMO contamination in 2006. Now, we are barely able to offer half that number, since the remainder have tested positive. That's half these fine old historic varieties -- gone, until or unless we can find clean seed for them!"
It doesn't help that corn is wind pollinated. That pollen can probably travel for miles on a strong enough breeze.

There's an old joke about leaving a tip that ends "plant your corn early." That closing line may need to shift to a more serious version: "order your corn early," for people who want guaranteed GMO-free seeds for their corn patch.

Meanwhile, I will keep working on handouts for my talk, enjoying the great catalog, and planning my garden to allow for saving a few more kinds of seeds.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Where the Pollinators and Predators Hang Out

The picture below isn't from my yard. Joe and I walked around our local park last Saturday, and there were butterflies, bees, wasps, and other great insects on all the flowering weeds.

Not my yard, but great to see a Monarch butterfly near home
It made me wonder how much my own garden's success depends on the city's not mowing edge-to-edge in my local parks.

When food gardens have a problem with low productivity, it sometimes can be traced to a scarcity of pollinators. A lot of newer neighborhoods are border-to-border monoculture lawns. These yards are pretty low on habitat that would support useful populations of pollinators and other beneficial insects.

Most gardeners understand that this is a problem, and they follow guidelines like those in  UGA's publication Beyond Butterflies: Gardening for Native Pollinators to plant small-flowered herbs and other pollen-and nectar-rich flowers that attract pollinators and useful predators, but if the insects don't have a good place to reproduce and to survive the winter, there might never be an abundance of these useful critters.

My garden crops typically don't have a problem with lack of pollination, and there seem to be plenty of great predatory insects, too, but, like all those other gardeners, I do what I can to attract a diverse community of insects and other small creatures to my own yard. Also, I am lucky in that my yard backs up to a small patch of woods and that it has a creek -- with associated native vegetation -- running along one side. I am sure that all helps.

According to a recent article posted at Southern Region IPM News, The Right Habitat and Food Source Key for Beneficial Insects, that describes findings of entomologists at North Carolina State University, the parasitic wasp Telemonus podisi (it kills stink bug embryos) overwinters more often in leaf litter than in cracks of tree bark:
“The number of parasitic wasps, for example, was four times greater in leaf litter than those overwintering in tree bark,” said Lahiri. “This data, combined with lab studies, suggest the importance of woodland field borders with leaf litter from hardwood trees as a refuge area during winter for the parasitoids.”
I do have some woodland edge, but -- even combined with the right garden flowers -- the wild spaces in my one yard may not be enough to support all the beneficial insects that help out in my garden.

Wouldn't it be something if the unmowed and uncleared edges of city and county parks were the best refuges for our beneficial insect populations?

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

About Those Falling Leaves

It's really autumn now. Days are shorter and cooler, and leaves on the trees are changing from green to various shades of yellow, orange, red, and brown. In my neighborhood, leaf blowers and rakes have already been pressed into service to remove the first round of dropped leaves.

I am pretty sure that most gardeners can figure out, without any trouble or help from me, that all those falling  leaves blanketing their lawns would make great mulch and/or compost, but awhile back (ten years?) I wrote a poem about those leaves. I do not have any delusions about being a good enough poet that great hoards of people would want to read what I have written, but I'm going to post it here anyway.

Last year, a week after my house was smashed by an oak tree, my father died. He had been suffering from pancreatic cancer, so his passing was not a huge surprise. However, I remember his telling me once that he really liked this particular poem. That may have something to do with the return of the poem to my mind this year, even though he died in summer.


They fall -- yellow stars
and tulips of sweetgum and poplar,
the red and orange of maple,
dogwood's burgundy.
My neighbor looks out
across the bright mosaic
of her yard and goes
to fetch the rake.
She shifts the luminous host
into plastic, scowls
as rags of color twirl
away, across her tidy lawn.
At night, I remove
the black bags from the curb,
take them to my yard,
set autumn free.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

A Walk Around the Yard

Right now, the garden says that we have not yet had a hard frost, but that it's been too cool for most of the warm-weather plants. A few Zinnias and my friend Electa's Heirloom Pink Salvia are still blooming. The salvia re-seed all over the place, which mostly is fine because they attract lots of little pollinators.

This year's carrot and radish bed.
The carrots and winter radishes (to the right of the carrots) won't be too fussed about cold weather when it finally gets here, but both crops (and the rogue bok choy that somehow ended up in the same bed) have flourished in the warmth we've had so far.

I had hoped that last year's carrot success wasn't a once-in-a-lifetime event, and it looks as though the hope was not in vain. The carrot tops all look good, and the one carrot I pulled a few days ago (just to check on how things were going underground) was big enough that I think homegrown carrots will be part of our Thanksgiving dinner.

Winter radishes are getting big, a few at a time, and we have already been enjoying them as before-dinner snacks, sliced thin and lightly salted. They are our "healthy alternative" to the kinds of fried salty chips that come in bags at the store.
Ichi ki ke jiro persimmons

Broccoli patch

The broccoli is coming along, too. If I look straight down the center of each plant, I can see tiny heads beginning to form. At this point, it's too soon to guess when they will be ready to bring in for dinner, but it may be before the end of the month.

Ichi ki ke jiro persimmons will start coming in soon, too. In theory, they are edible while still as hard as apples (like now), but we learned last year that the flavor improves if they have more time on the tree to get a little bit soft.

Marigolds are still in bloom, and I've been bringing in some of the old, dried flowers to save the seed. This is one of the French marigolds that is supposed to be good for reducing nematode populations in the soil, when planted in a solid block to grow for several weeks (at least). I never grow them that way because the nematode problem hasn't been severe enough to warrant giving up a planting bed for so long in summer, but I like to be ready, just in case.
Still some peppers, in November

When we had our big "freeze forecast" scare more than a week ago, I harvested all of the larger peppers. There were still some smaller peppers out on the plants, and the tinies are beginning to get bigger. If we have another week or so of sunny afternoons in the high 60s-to-low-70s (degrees Fahrenheit), I may be able to fill the dehydrator one last time.

The garden is saying, essentially, that all is as it should be.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

What is Organic Gardening?

In my not-vast-but-not-tiny experience of talking with other gardeners, I have found that the word "organic," as applied to gardening, seems to be not well understood. There's a good reason for that; the definition isn't easy or brief, but I am offering here a simplified explanation.

When we refer to organic gardening or farming, we mean growing food using a specific set of principles and inputs that are as close to the natural state as possible in a way that maintains a living soil with a diverse population of micro and macro-organisms. Spraying anything for pests and diseases is the LAST option for resolving garden problems, even if an organic-approved spray is available.

There's some significant overlap between organic and conventional gardening. Plants need nutrients, soil/support, water, sunlight, air in the root zone, and good air circulation around the leaves and stems, and those are the basics that good gardeners using both systems provide.

There are huge differences, too. In conventional gardening, soil is viewed as a substrate with important physical and chemical properties that affect how nutrients and water move through the soil. Fertilizers tend to consist of salts of various essential nutrients, which are available for uptake by plants as soon as they are dissolved in water. Many chemical options are available for diseases and pest control, and correct use of inputs (fertilizers, for example) depends on some simple math and basic guidelines.

In organic gardening, soil is viewed as home to an abundant and diverse community of tiny life forms. The physical and chemical properties are important, too, but more important is that nutrients are made available when released through the action of those microbes, fungi, and other tiny lifeforms that live in the soil. This action is, essentially, the decomposition of organic matter and other soil amendments. Maintaining the health, abundance, and diversity of this community underground is essential to having a productive organic garden. There are very few spray-on options available for pest and disease control, and those that are available don't work all that well (in general). Choosing inputs -- manures, composts, and rock powders, for example -- to maintain the abundant liveliness of the soil, takes careful thought and planning.

Looking at the differences between the two systems, and the absence of absolutes -- or simple prescriptions for what to do next -- in going organic, the big question is "why would any sane person choose organic gardening?"

Well, I can think of plenty of reasons. To start:

1. living near an ecologically sensitive area (like a stream) and not wanting to mess that up
2. wanting to provide as little support as possible for "big agriculture," for one reason or another
3. being majorly into DIY (doing it yourself), because with organic, you can
4. having small children or pets, and as a result not wanting to risk storing hazardous chemicals 
5. having a serious sensitivity to a wide variety of chemicals, and wanting to be free of rashes, fatigue, etc.
6. being concerned about losses in populations of bees and other pollinators
7. having a tendency to put food in your mouth - unthinking and without washing - while in the garden, or having a child with the same tendency
8. wanting to eat organically grown food, while at the same time having a tight food budget
9. being concerned over some of the newer, systemic pesticides used on commercial crops that can't be washed off, because they are taken up inside the cells of the plants

It is difficult to just go partway organic. Using composts and manures can be a big help in conventional gardening, improving water retention/drainage and nutrient flow/abundance, but using conventional fertilizers in an organic system is more likely to have negative effects. Some members of the below-ground community of micro and macro-organisms are very sensitive to the fertilizer salts; they will do less well if conventional fertilizers are added. If the action of those lifeforms is the major source of nutrients for your garden, their doing less well will be a problem, because your crops will also do less well.

Going organic also means that most pest and disease control is done through prevention, involving crop rotations, disease-resistant plants, avoidance strategies, cover crops, promotion of beneficial insects, and other strategies that require advance planning.

This sounds supremely complicated, but plenty of gardeners seem to be managing organic food production quite well, and we are fortunate in having a lot of information and other resources to help us along the way.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Busy Weekend: Harvesting, Processing, then Planting Some More

Late last week, the weather forecast was predicting a drop to 28 degrees Fahrenheit for Saturday morning, so I worked in the yard Friday evening to prepare for that drop, harvesting the rest of the tomatoes and most of the peppers. I left the smaller peppers -- any that would have been too fiddly to chop up -- on the plants. When we woke up the next morning, our porch thermometer was reading 36 degrees. It was cold enough that the coleus all wilted, but the pepper plants look fine, which is good news for our pepper production. There will be more!

All the peppers I brought in needed to be chopped for the dehydrator and freezer, and that took some time.

I also finally worked on getting the kernels off of the cobs of parching corn that I had brought in to finish drying way back in August. This was not, probably, the best year to grow a Southwestern variety of corn. The cool, rainy summer caused some of the cobs to get moldy before they fully matured on the plants. In the end, I had only two-and-a-half cups of kernels, but I tried parching some, and I am very happy with how the corn turned out. I will probably grow this Supai Red parching corn again next summer, instead of popcorn.

Also, the grain sorghum that I had grown and harvested was dry enough to "thresh," so I used the "no special equipment needed" method of rubbing the heads of grain between my hands to get the grains to drop out. It's been awhile since I've grown any small grains, and I had forgotten that there is so much work involved in separating the grains from the plants. I'm going to need a windy day to winnow out the chaff, but after the grain is cleaned, I should be able to pop it like tiny popcorn.

The variety that I planted is Tarahumara Popping Sorghum. I had planted it much later in the summer than I should have, and I ended up with about three cups of the grain. Next year I will try to get it into the ground sooner, to see if that improves the yield.

On Sunday afternoon, I finally planted the garlic, shallots, and multiplier onions. They went into one of the long beds in the side yard. If all goes well, the little bulbs will be sending up green shoots in just a few weeks.

Here in the metro area, temperatures can vary widely over a fairly short distance. A friend who lives in Canton, not too far north of here, had a very definite frost that put an end to her summer crops. I am guessing that other gardens in the area had the same experience. The good news is that the cool season crops get better and better, in terms of flavor, as the fall weather continues. I'm looking forward to sweet carrots and greens in the coming weeks.

Hope other gardens out there are doing well!

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Great Things about Late October

Fried okra
Cubed butternut squash, sauteed in olive oil with garlic and black pepper
Tomato chips, made crispy in the dehydrator
Thinking forward to next year's seeds
Planting garlic
Thinly sliced radishes, lightly salted
A heaping basket of sweet potatoes on the kitchen floor
Falling leaves
Firing up the wood stove
Pansies, all happy-faced in bloom
Trains getting louder 
Peppery nasturtium seeds
Knowing that carrots are growing underneath those feathery leaves
Bok choy
Return of the barred owls to the woods behind the house

It seems like a short list, considering that I am thankful for so very much, but these are specific to this time of year.

I'm sure there are great things going on in the lives of other gardeners, too!

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Tracking the Harvest on World Food Day: September 2013

Today is World Food Day, part of the effort to end hunger around the world. My contribution to today's effort is the loan of my broadfork to the Plant-A-Row-For-the-Hungry project (for which I was a volunteer, before I got the new job) in Kennesaw; the group is going to use it in harvesting sweet potatoes that will be donated to The Center for Family Resources in Marietta.

Vegetables -- foods full of essential vitamins and minerals -- are especially important foods to provide to low-income families. When a food budget is tight, fresh veggies usually don't make it onto the family menu, but they can contribute a lot to good health.

In my own yard, this month's harvest has been a little skimpy. The saddest part is the sweet potato total, since the bed those were in was so totally chipmunked. If we were depending on my garden for all of our fresh produce, we would be in trouble, because we like to eat a lot of veggies every day.

The following harvest weights for September are in kilograms:

Tomatoes, ripe
Bush beans, green
Potatoes, sweet

September 21.85 kg =  48 pounds, 2 ounces
Running total January through September = 166.1 kg =  366 pounds,  3 ounces

I don't know whether the total is going to make it above 400 pounds this year. It will be interesting to see how the fall vegetables do. Right now, many of them are being nibbled fairly persistently by chipmunks and/or rabbits. The carrots and radishes are doing well enough, but the beets and assorted greens seem to be losing the battle.

Wish me luck?

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Mostly Ready for Fall/Winter

Most of the garden is ready for fall and winter (finally!). You'd think that by now I would know exactly what it's going to take to get that all done, but I'm still a little surprised that there is so much work in clearing away the summer and making the start on fall and winter.

I cut down the buckwheat cover crop that has been growing in the top half of the beet and spinach bed to let it wilt down before turning it under, and I've planted a mixed cover crop of winter rye and Austrian winter peas in a couple of beds. Before those cover crops could go in, there was a general clearing-away of summer crops, then I brought compost out from the backyard compost pile, spread that on the beds, mixed it into the top few inches of soil, leveled the beds, then broadcast the seeds and "pounced" them in with a rake. The bed where the garlic and shallots will go in a couple of weeks has also been made ready.

Over the past ten-or-so days, I also replanted seeds for some of the lettuces, carrots, beets, spinach, and radishes, because the sweet potato bed isn't the only one that has been chipmunked. The rascally rodents have been having way too much fun in my garden this year; somehow, they've gotten the impression that it's their own little party place.

My neighbor across the creek has two outdoor cats, and I had thought that, between them, Lily and Johnny would have put a big dent in the chipmunk population, but they don't seem to have been keeping up with the rate of reproduction. We don't have as many hawks as usual, and that may be part of the problem. I think the crows (another nuisance) have been chasing them away. Next year, I may have to work at thinning some vegetation (daylilies, azaleas, and more) that has served as protective cover for the little, striped "party animals."

Things have been busy at work. Last week, on Thursday, I was the guest on the Master Gardener Hour on America's Web Radio. The show is scheduled to be posted on the 19th of October. On Friday, I talked about "Moving Toward Organics in the Vegetable Garden" for the Master Gardener Lunch & Learn series. Have I mentioned lately that I love my job?

Hope all the other gardens out there are just about ready for fall and winter!

Monday, September 30, 2013

Chipmunks in the Sweet Potatoes

One night last week when I headed out to check the garden, I saw two chipmunks racing out of the sweet potato patch, with their tails at an unusually saucy, jaunty angle. The little critters looked way too happy to me, so I pulled back some vines in the area they seemed to have come from.

Chipmunk excavation in the sweet potato patch.
The rascals had been mining the garden! I found numerous excavations, all right at the bases of plants, so I decided to dig up all the sweet potatoes at my first opportunity.

That chance came on Sunday, and it turned out that the chipmunks had eaten pretty nearly all the sweet potatoes from the end of the garden nearest the creek.

There were a few, very small Porto Rican Golds and a few small sweets from the Annie Hall area. There won't be enough of the Porto Rican for me to eat any, but I might get to eat one of the Annie Hall.

Another chipmunk entrance to the sweet potato mine.
In better news, there seem to be plenty of the Purple Delight and plenty of Beauregard at the far end of the sweet potato bed. I haven't weighed the harvest yet; I know there will be less total weight than I had hoped for, but at least I didn't get totally "skunked" (or, in this case, "chipmunked").

The chipmunk discovery meant that I harvested my sweet potato patch a couple of weeks sooner than usual; typically, I don't dig the sweets up until sometime in October. If anyone out there is worried about running behind schedule in harvesting sweet potatoes -- don't worry -- you aren't! I am just early.

Hope all the other sweet potato patches have managed to escape the notice of the chipmunks!

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Garden Update

September peppers.
There haven't been many photos in the blog lately, because I've had camera "issues." At this point, those issues are mostly resolved, so I finally went outside in daylight to take some pictures for a simple garden update.

The summer crop that is still coming in strong is the peppers. All varieties across the whole bed are doing well. The tomatoes, even the ones planted latest, are mostly limping along. I'm bringing in a few tomatoes each week, but not great piles of them like I would normally be harvesting in September.
Buckwheat cover crop, ready to be mowed down.

The buckwheat that was planted across the top of the spinach-beet bed is doing great. Soon, I will be mowing that down (or Joe will, with the weed-whacker), then turning it under to get the space ready for a winter cover crop.

Some animal(s) out in the yard have been treating the rows of spinach and beet seedlings like a personal snack bar, and I may, as a result, end up reseeding all those rows. This is an annoying turn of events, but not a total surprise. A creek borders our yard on one side, which means we have plenty of drop-in "guests" of the four-legged, furry persuasion. The creek is like a natural highway that connects parks and fields in the area. My yard is just a scenic-turnout that happens to also include a couple of fast-food establishments.

Cabbage-family snacks for rabbits.
 The cabbage and broccoli plants have established nicely and have begun to really grow, but the little green stick front-and-center of the photo to the left is the remains of another animal snack -- kind of like a broccoli-sicle stick instead of a popsicle stick.

However, I have another nine-pack of broccoli to plant, and it is enough to replace all of the most severely munched plants, with some left to plant further down the bed.

Healthy horseradish.
The horseradish, that we don't even really like to eat, is looking pretty amazing. The friend who gave me the chunk of root with which to start my plant said that the flowers would be lovely, but I haven't seen any flowers yet. I've had the plant for at least three years, so I'm thinking that I might not get to see flowers.

The plant is getting too big for its pot, and I'm expecting to re-pot it this coming spring, dividing the root to share and to make some horseradish sauce. Maybe I'll find a recipe for sauce that we like!

This year, most of my plants were in the ground, but I have seen horseradish so healthy that it threatened to take over whole yards. Mine is going to stay in a pot.

Over in the side yard, the sweet potato vines seem to be contemplating some kind of take-over. They have flowed into the next bed and across the newly-laid centipede-&-nutsedge sod that the water department put down after replacing the neighborhood water mains.
This year's sweet-potato glacier, slowly creeping across the yard.

In the picture to the right, a few okra plants can be seen along the left of the photo; they are holding their own among the vines and producing just enough okra for us to include some in a meal every few days.

It will be time to dig up those sweet potatoes very soon. I'm planning to manage that sometime in the first week of October. The slips were planted back in May, which means the plants have had PLENTY of time to make sweets for me by now.

Carrots to the left, winter radishes to the right.
The carrot and winter radish bed looks pretty good. There are still some places in the rows where carrots didn't come up, and it isn't too late to drop in a few seeds in those gaps. We are getting rain today, so it will have to be on another day, but I am thinking that there is still time for a few very late carrots.

The last seeds in won't yield mature carrots until sometime in the spring, but that's okay. I will have harvested plenty of other carrots by then, from the earlier-planted seeds.

Hope everyone else's gardens are doing well!

Monday, September 16, 2013

Growing Your Own: When Memories Collide

When I was at a gardening event in late spring, I was given a packet of Mississippi Silver Cowpeas by one of the exhibitors. I already grow two varieties of cowpeas, so I passed this packet along to another gardener. I spoke last week with the gardener, and it was easy to see that, for him, the peas brought up both good and bad memories.

He told about looking out over his father's field when he was a boy, seeing the stems of the cowpeas standing straight up with the pods sticking out at right angles, and knowing that he would soon be out in the field, under the hot summer sun, picking those pods. It was backbreaking work. Then he would spend HOURS shelling out the peas. Watching those Mississippi Silver peas grow and mature in the garden this year reminded him of that set of chores that he had dreaded as a boy.

However, after he'd shelled out the mature peas, he knew that they would have the flavor that was missing from the black-eye peas available in stores. The Mississippi Silvers were the "real thing." He had missed that flavor, and it turns out that a good way to get it is to grow your own.

I didn't have that particular childhood experience, but the first time I grew and prepared Pigott Family cowpeas, I knew that I wouldn't be going back to the bagged black-eye peas from the grocery store anytime soon. Luckily, even though I can grow only a couple of quarts of (dried) peas in my little garden, the farm where Joe and I volunteer on Saturdays grows plenty (this year it was Colossus, but that variety is still pretty good).

For a lot of people, beginning to grow some of their own food is a response to economic difficulties (either present or anticipated) or to concern over environmental problems related to large-scale agriculture, but there are some good, positive reasons for growing your own, too. One of those is the reward of exceptional flavor. Another, for some, is a childhood memory brought to life.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Fall Planting, Continued

I've made more progress in getting the fall crops planted, but I am beginning to fall behind. It's almost mid-September!

Last Saturday morning, I planted 102 cabbage-family plants out at the little farm on Dallas Highway where I volunteer. Joe was out of town, and most of the rest of the volunteers had been busy on the tractors the day before. That left just me to prepare the beds, space the transplants, make the holes, set in the little plants, water, then give each plant a shot of fish-emulsion as starter fertilizer. Can I just mention here that I was pretty tired after that long morning? 

In my own yard, I worked on clearing away the parching corn and preparing that space for planting. Then yesterday after work I managed to get my cabbages and broccoli in the ground.  Rabbits had eaten the tops off of most of the little plants that I had started from seed  -- I had set the tray of plants out in the yard, where the seedlings would get plenty of sunshine -- which means that about 3/4 of those plants in my garden now are from a garden center. This morning, though, they all still look good.

The carrots, winter radishes, beets, spinach, and patch of buckwheat (as a cover crop) that were planted earlier are up and growing. There are a few gaps here and there in the rows of vegetables where I will need to put in a little more seed, but not many.  The long stretch of rain that we had this year has made it seem weird to have to water the seedlings, but that's what I've had to do -- stand out in the yard with a hose to make sure the little seedlings don't dry up and blow away.

I still need to get the lettuce (and other various) seedlings into the ground, and I have some other seeds to plant. If all goes well, I'll manage to finish it all sometime this coming weekend.

Meanwhile, the patch of green beans that I planted in early July is providing plenty of beans, there are still peppers and tomatoes coming in, the eggplants look as though they are putting on a new flush of flowers, the sweet potato vines are sprawled all over the place, and just looking at all that exuberant growth makes me smile.

Hope everyone else's fall planting is on track!

Friday, September 6, 2013

Managing the Harvest

There's a post up at one of my frequently-visited news sites, Resilience.Org, about the frustrations of a gardener who can find plenty of information about sustainable (and small/urban) farming, but not all that much to help him in sustainable gardening.

The article by Erik Curran, "Sustainable Farming Mania is Frustrating Me," was originally published at Transition Voice.

He points out that there is a lot of information available right now (for example) about  the usefulness on small farms of including animals in the loop, which, as a suburban gardener, he just can't manage. As for many of the rest of us, keeping chickens and other livestock is not legal where he lives. This isn't the only sustainable-farming method/tool that doesn't apply to his little garden, but it's one he mentions.

A second, huge issue seems to be about handling the super-abundance of tomatoes (and other vegetables) that won't wait until he actually has the time to process them into a storage-able form. As someone who has spent time canning innumerable tomatoes in years past, I can sympathize. When we lived on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, we brought in tomatoes by the 5-gallon-bucketful (Every day! Day after day...). Over time, I've learned to plant fewer tomato plants.

Besides learning to "just say no" to too many tomato plants, part of the answer to managing the harvest at our house has been the use of a dehydrator. Canning take a lot of time and our full attention, but we can slice tomatoes, dice peppers, and cut up other fruits and veggies while watching something on Netflix ("Star Trek" episodes, Ken Burns' "The Dust Bowl," BBC's "Rosemary & Thyme"), let it dry in the dehydrator overnight, then store the dried produce in canning jars until we need it. This time of year, the dehydrator is "on" several nights each week.

Another part of the answer has been to plant some crops that don't need a lot of special processing for storage. This strategy saves a lot of time. Winter squash, onions, potatoes, garlic, shallots, sweet potatoes, and the kinds of corn that are stored dry -- the ones that are for popping, parching, or grinding into flour -- are stored pretty much "as is." No chopping or blanching is required. Cowpeas and other beans need minimal processing; they can be shelled when dry, left for a few days in a thin layer on something like cookie sheets to make sure they are Really Dry, then stored in canning jars like the other dried veggies.

Another part of the answer at our house has been to stagger the planting of big producers like tomatoes so that we are not overwhelmed. The former mountains of ripe tomatoes have become more manageable hills that appear sporadically all the way to the first frost. Right now in my yard, we are in a bit of a lull with regard to tomatoes, but there are two plants of paste-type tomatoes (Wuhib), planted in June, that currently are loaded with green fruits that will begin ripening soon. I've pulled up most of the earliest-planted tomatoes that had slowed in production due to disease issues (the Amish tomatoes are still in the ground and producing, and a late-planted cherry tomato is just now kicking in).

Managing the planting with the end in mind is hardest for new gardeners who haven't yet experienced how much food a tomato plant or a short row of pole beans can produce. Hopefully, the demanding piles of fresh food won't deter new gardeners from trying again in following years, with slight alterations in the mix and timing of the planting.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Tracking the Harvest: July and August, 2013

The rainy weather has definitely affected my garden crops, in some ways good and some bad. We had a great summer for cucumbers and zucchini, but the tomatoes have been miserable.

Usually, we get blueberries for two or three (sometimes four!) weeks before the birds find them and our picking is over for the summer. This year the blueberries were late but the birds were right on time, so we got very few of the blueberries. None made it into the freezer.

We've had some figs, but the bush is one of the several plants that were smashed when our neighbor's oak tree fell on our house last summer, so the bush is busier with getting new stems and leaves than with making fruit, and then, of course, there are the birds...

However, the numbers don't look too bad:
July 49.85 kg = 109 pounds, 14 ounces
August 34.65 kg = 76 pounds, 6 ounces

Running total January through August = 144.25 kg =  318 pounds,  3 ounces

The breakdown by crop, measured in kilograms, is pasted below.

Berries, misc.
Bush beans, green
Swiss chard
Butternut squash, dwarf
Bush beans, green

Hope everyone else's gardens are going well!

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Benefits of Crop Rotation

I have understood for a pretty long time that crop rotation, which involves the practice of NOT planting the same crop (or crops in one plant family) in the same location year after year, is important for a variety of reasons.

One reason is that plants in one family often are attacked by the same pests and diseases. Rotating out of a particular space, and planting crops from a different family there instead, can help reduce the buildup of diseases and pests that attack crops in one plant family.

Another reason is that plants in one family often make similar nutrient demands on the soil. Jessica Strickland of North Carolina Cooperative Extension, in a May 2013 article, wrote:
"Vegetables in the same family are similar in the amount of nutrients they extract from the soil, so over time planting the same vegetables in the same spot can reduce certain nutrients in the soil. If the same family of vegetables is planted every year in the same location, insect and disease problems continue to increase and soil fertility drops. Using pesticides and fertilizer could provide little help but over time they would not be able to keep up with the increasing problems."
Also, rotating to some particular crops can help reduce a pest problem that already has built up to damaging levels. An example pest is root knot nematodes, which can lower productivity of a crop pretty dramatically - if they don't actually kill the plants outright. A population of these soil-dwelling pests can be lowered by planting a bed solidly in one of the nematode-repelling marigolds or in a grass-family crop like rye, wheat, or oats.

What I didn't know until recently is the effect of crop rotation on the diversity of soil microbial life, the maintenance of which is so integral to successful organic gardens. In the Science Daily article "Why crop rotation works: Change in crop species causes shift in soil microbes", Professor Philip Poole of the John Innes Centre in England is quoted as saying,
"Changing the crop species massively changes the content of microbes in the soil, which in turn helps the plant to acquire nutrients, regulate growth and protect itself against pests and diseases, boosting yield."
Professor Poole added: "While continued planting of one species in monoculture pulls the soil in one direction, rotating to a different one benefits soil health."

Yet another good reason to plan a careful rotation in the veggie patch.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Planting the Fall Garden Continues

After getting the last few weeds out of the former squash/melon bed, I dumped a wheelbarrow-load of compost on top of the bed, spread it across the entire surface, worked the whole bed over with my grub hoe, tossed on some kelp and cottonseed meal, raked/pounced the amendments into the top couple of inches, used my widest short-tine rake to smooth the top, then got busy planting.

The above set of tasks is why gardening isn't for those who require instant gratification; very little about gardening is instant! Getting the bed prepared (not including pulling out the old crops, which I had already done) took awhile. Getting it planted took about five minutes.

I used my seeder to plant two rows of spinach (mixed with some regular radish seeds) and two rows of beets. Those four rows went along the edge nearest the house. This particular bed is fairly wide, so the farther half was broadcast with buckwheat, for a fast cover crop while I am waiting for time to plant a longer-term, winter cover in that space.

My seedlings (currently in little pots) for the cabbage family plants and the lettuces (and etc.) are coming along nicely, but their spaces won't be vacant for another week or two. I think they will be fine, but I will be happier when they are safely in the ground.

The carrots and winter-radishes came up just fine on their own, but no rain is in the forecast for the next several days, so I might actually need to water the spinach, beet, and buckwheat seeds to keep them damp enough to germinate.

Hope that everyone else's fall planting is on track!

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Squash, Melon Update

The melons have pretty much been a bust this year. I have brought one into the kitchen, but the rest of what I would normally expect to harvest from the plants in the garden either never formed, were bored/gnawed into by bugs/caterpillars, or are just beginning to form now, when the vines are far enough gone with Downy Mildew that the fruits are not going to reach maturity before the vines die.

This will add another year to my de-hybridization project for the canary melons,  but at least I got to enjoy one of my favorite melons this year. I am saving seed from my lone melon, with a note that it was produced in a horrifically wet, cool summer. These seeds may be useful someday.

Considering how rough the summer has been on the melons, I am happy to be able to report that the butternut squash seem to be doing well enough. From the three vines, I've brought in six squash, lost a few to pickleworms, and there are a few more on the way.

Butternut changes from green, to whitish, and then to tan when mature.
Butternut is one of the confusing category of squashes called "Winter squash." It isn't grown in the winter; it is planted in spring, pretty much when the zucchini go in the ground. The name comes from the way the squash keep through the winter without much special help. They just need a cool, out of the way spot to hang out, and they will be in good shape well into February and beyond.

In truth, they won't even be that great to eat until they've done some of that "hanging out" for awhile. The sugars develop over time, and it can take a month or so for them to reach their flavor peak.

Soon, I will be clearing the bed that currently holds the melon and butternut squash plants, regardless of whether all the squash have matured. It's time to get more of my cool-season seeds into the ground!

Sunday, August 11, 2013

I Planted Carrots

This was a busy weekend of tidying up, amending, and planting. The bed that got "tidied" (everything pulled out) was the one that had held the zucchini and most of the cucumbers. After pulling up the old plants, I spread a wheelbarrow load of compost over the bed and then used my grub hoe to "till" the bed. If the bed hadn't been for carrots, I probably wouldn't have worked it so deeply, but I wanted the roots to have no trouble growing long and straight.

After raking the bed smooth, I added a little of my own mix of organic amendments, then sifted those into the top few inches of soil before planting.

One of the great things about planting the carrots is that I get to use my seeder. Most of my crops aren't planted directly into the garden as seeds so solidly in the beds, but carrots are. It's always fun to roll that seeder down the row, and great to know that the seeds are planted with pretty good spacing at the depth that I want, covered up and tamped down, all in one pass!

Grub hoe and seeder help make short work of planting the carrots. PHOTO/atlantaveggies@blogspot.com
I planted five rows of carrots and then one row of winter radishes.

The day wasn't super hot -- only in the 80s -- but it was humid and still, so in the mid-afteroon -- rather than working out in the blazing hot sun -- I worked on the shady front porch on transplants for the beds that aren't far enough along to clear for fall planting.  I started a tray of fall greens and bumped up my cabbage, broccoli, and cauliflower seedlings into larger pots.

Meanwhile, the summer crops are coming in at a good pace. I'm especially happy about the success of the peppers. We've been putting a couple of pounds of them, chopped, into the dehydrator each week for awhile now, and they will make our winter meals very tasty.

A day's August harvest in a rainy garden year.  PHOTO/atlantaveggies.blogspot.com

Hope everyone else's gardens are doing well!

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Zucchini in August? It's a Miracle!

Tattered squash stem from Vine Borer activity.
The state of the main stems of these plants makes the late summer zucchini harvest even more of a miracle. 

Squash vine borers have made a mess out of each of the stems, which are looking all tattered and worn out. The borers are very thorough in their work!

Apparently. though, the plants still have enough life in them to support a little more zucchini.

I'm pretty sure that these few squash (pictures below) really are the last efforts at producing fruits for these plants, but I have never had zucchini planted in April still productive this late in the summer.

I'd like to think that it's because I'm such a great gardener, but it's probably just dumb luck.

When I saw the very first evidence, back in June, of borer activity on the stems (little piles of frass), I slit the stems open with a sharp knife and sprayed the insides of each stem, soaked them, really, with Bt for caterpillars.

A great looking late-summer zucchini.
Then I sprayed the stems thoroughly, up to the point where new flowers were opening; then I piled compost onto the lower parts of the stems where I had done my little bit of surgery.

Regardless of whether my little effort made any difference, we are enjoying our zucchini, and will continue to enjoy it every day until it's gone.

Hope there are some nice surprises in all the other gardens out there, too!

More zucchini in August. Amazing!

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Rain and More Rain

If you are gardening in the South and have yet to bring in a perfect, red tomato, take heart! I have heard from more than one gardener who said that the past couple of days of sunshine helped the green tomatoes on their plants make it to the blushing stage, and they are hoping to harvest one or more actual, ripe tomatoes soon.

Of course, yesterday morning the thermometer on my front porch was showing a temperature of 59 degrees F, and this morning it is raining, yet again. The unusual weather, both cool and wet, that has been ongoing for months, delayed planting in the spring and has caused a lot of trouble in our summer gardens.

As bad as things are for the gardeners, though, they are much worse for the farmers whose livelihoods depend on the success of their crops. Our grocery store shelves depend on them, too!

An article in the New York Times, "With Too Much Rain in the South, Too Little Produce on the Shelves," points out that much of the Southern U.S. has received WAY more rain than usual. Georgia is up by about 34%, and other states aren't far behind.

The vegetables that aren't doing well in gardens are also not doing well on farms. Fruits either explode in the rain or ripen with a bland flavor. Fields are a muddy mess that can't be accessed with the usual heavy equipment. Fertilizers and pesticides can't be deployed because they are spread by some of that heavy equipment. When those are successfully applied to the fields, it rains again.

One of my friends subscribes to a CSA -- she gets a box of vegetables each week from her local farmers, a husband and wife team up in Rockmart, GA, who have been hit hard by the weather. They had to replant some crops more than once in spring (seeds washed away in heavy rains), and the wet weather has brought enough other problems (disease, ripening issues) that they have really struggled to provide vegetables to their share subscribers. My friend says that the farm had to let go more than half of its subscribers, and the website carries a note that the farm won't be offering a fall CSA due to the excessive rain. It seems unlikely that the farmers will be making anything like "a living" this year from the little farm.

Meanwhile, Eastern Australia probably has just had its hottest July ever, and people in Shanghai are dying of heatstroke from "unprecedented summer heat."  Closer to home, "Anchorage has set a record for the most consecutive days over 70 degrees during this unusually warm summer."

People around here like to say, "if you don't like the weather, just wait a minute..." but the weather doesn't seem to be turning on a dime these days. According to Jeff Crouch, a climatologist at the National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, N.C. who was quoted in the top-linked New York Times article, “Whenever we get in a pattern like this, we kind of stay in the status quo,” he said. “When we’re hot and dry, we stay hot and dry. When we’re wet, we stay wet.” 

I'm just about resigned to more of the same - rain and more rain. Let's hope my garden is up to it, too!

Monday, July 29, 2013

When to Harvest Vegetables in a Tough Gardening Year

One of the most wonderful aspects of growing food in your own yard is that you and your family get to eat vegetables (and fruits!) at the peak of their flavor.

UGA has a publication about when that flavor peak occurs for many of the garden crops; it's called (not too surprisingly) When to Harvest Vegetables.For those who are new to gardening, the information about how to tell by look, feel, and smell that it's time to harvest the veggies is very useful. Over time, though, most gardeners begin to develop their own ideas about when the Absolute Peak of flavor is.

One of my most favorite gardeners, Gene Logsden, a.k.a "The Contrary Farmer," has his own ideas about when to harvest. In his recent blog post "Defining Freshness," he wrote:
"With both corn and peas, freshness has another connotation. There is a peak time for flavor, at least for me, depending on how far along in development the vegetable is when picked. If allowed to mature too much, goodbye subtle nuances. Peas have to be picked when they have not yet filled the pod tightly, corn when the kernels are still just a tad on the green “pimply” side as we say."
When all goes well, we go with our own, inner taste guides. When all does not go well, we may be lucky to have a harvest to bring in at all!

For example, many gardeners grow tomatoes so they can experience the amazing flavor of truly vine-ripened tomatoes. This year, I am unlikely to have that experience. If the plant hasn't been attacked by roving bands of fungal spores, then a rogue chipmunk has swarmed up the stems and bitten each fruit before it can ripen fully, or an impatient bird has decided to puncture the side of each one for a taste of the (not fully ripened) insides.

This one should have been picked sooner, before the chipmunk found it. PHOTO.atlantaveggies.blogspot.com
I have taken to bringing in the fruits as they just begin to blush, not waiting for the approach of ripeness. In some cases, this drastic measure is meant to save the tomatoes from critter damage; in others, it was because the plant looked unhealthy enough that it needed to be pulled up.

Right now, there are almost ten pounds of tomatoes in various stages of ripening in my kitchen. None of these will have "vine-ripened" flavor, but they still will be home grown!
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