Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Southern Vegetables

There's a reason Bob Wills' song "That's What I Like About the South" includes turnip greens, black eyed peas, candied yams, buttered beans, and corn bread. The basis for each of those foods grows reliably and well here. The cool-weather vegetable in that list, turnip greens, is almost a fool-proof crop. However, there are plenty of crops that are less reliable producers in Southern gardens.

In years like this one, when my broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbages all are slow to head up, I remind myself that such Northern vegetables can't be expected to do consistently well in the South. Some years the garden produces big, full heads of all of those by Thanksgiving. This year, the heads on most of those plants aren't even close to what I consider a good size. If we get a hard freeze any time soon, I probably will be bringing in a lot of ridiculously small vegetables.

Many of the carrots aren't full sized yet, either, but those will continue to grow slowly underground through all kinds of weather.  It may be March before I pull the last one, but eventually those all will be brought into the kitchen.

Luckily, this year I planted plenty of kale and collard greens and a few bok choy. Greens don't seem to be delayed the way the heading vegetables are by an early hard freeze that's followed by weeks of warmer weather.

Even better, we haven't had a hard enough freeze to turn the winter radishes to mush yet, either, so we still are enjoying those, thinly sliced then salted.

To celebrate the South and its vegetables here on the last day of the year:

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Looking Back, Looking Ahead

Really, this ought to be a thoughtful, beautifully written note to the world; it's the winter solstice, which means we have increasing light ahead, and this is (according to blogspot) my 500th post. You'd think I'd have planned better and be ready with something glorious.

Instead, I can only say that I still really love to work in my garden, to harvest what it offers, to learn from it, and to share what I've learned. I've lived here now for almost 25 years, and I started planting almost right away. There were some pretty huge errors that I probably should be embarrassed about, but at the time(s) I didn't know any better.

I wish I could say that each year my garden gets better and more productive, but it still has ups and downs. Every year, though, it engages me just as much.

In these days of least light, my plans for the new year are a bit murky. Seed catalogs are piling up by my chair, but I haven't had a chance to spend much time with them. To be honest, new varieties don't call to me the way they used to. I have developed a list of favorite varieties that I look forward to each year. I will probably add a couple of new things again, but I don't change the garden up as much as in the early days of my gardening here.  It could be that my age is showing, but if finding joy in favorite vegetables is a sign of old age, well, count me in!

One definite plan for this coming year is to release one bed back to the lawn. As it is now, getting around to all the beds in the evenings after work can be a challenge. I'll still have seven veggie beds to tend, plus berries, herbs, and flowers, so I certainly won't be bored and twiddling my thumbs in an endless expanse of free time. I am hoping, though, that cutting back by one bed will allow me to enjoy the others even more. Of course, I might just get annoyed that I don't have space for everything I want to grow.

I hope that the increasing light in the days to come brings abundance, peace, and joy to all my gardening friends!

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Last Summer's Hard Work Pays Off

This weekend, in all the holiday hoopla of gift-shopping (as little as we could get away with), visiting with friends (made yesterday great!), and cookie-making (all of this afternoon), we didn't manage the weekly run to the grocery store. When I was poking through the cupboards thinking about supper, I almost gathered up my jacket and wallet to make that run.

We are out of fresh fruit, and the drawers in the fridge contain only carrots. The rest of the fridge is pretty empty, too.

However, we have many jars of dehydrated garden-peppers and tomatoes, a big basket heaped with butternut squash, another big basket heaped with sweet potatoes, a smaller basket still half-filled with shallots, and a small freezer filled with tomatoes, berries, sweet corn, okra, zucchini, and more.

Since the cupboards pretty much always contain at least a few kinds of dried beans (some from the store, some from the little farm at which we volunteer) and popcorn from our yard, and the garden contains several kinds of greens and winter radishes (plus parsley, plus cilantro) ready to harvest, and there is homemade applesauce alongside the green salsa in jars in the garage, there is no need to make a panicked run to the store just because we are missing some of our commonly available foods (like eggs and fresh fruit).

In other words, this is a good time to relax and enjoy the results of last summer's hard work. For tonight, we made black bean soup that included some of last summer's garden produce, plus rice and sauteed butternut squash. I know that not everyone is happy with such a vegetarian meal, but it worked for us.

On Wednesday, Joe will have time to shop for additional groceries. Until then, we will use a little kitchen creativity to enjoy the fruits of our labors. I hope that all the other gardeners out there are enjoying the season!

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Who Loves Tools?

Bill next to tools with which to pound.
My Mom and Stepdad (Grammy and Grandpa Bill) made it safely to Georgia for Thanksgiving, and one day while they were here, because Bill Loves Tools, we visited a nearby museum that has a great tool room.

The collection is short on gardening tools, but there is plenty of everything else, and it's all artfully enough arranged that even non-tool-lovers can appreciate the displays.

I have some favorite, hard-working garden tools at home, but even if I were no longer using them, there aren't enough to make even one of these display boards!
Mom by the keys, because she is a Kappa Kappa Gamma.

Mom and Bill and tools.
In the last year or so, Bill has had to slow down some in his use of tools, but he did seem to enjoy the tool room at the museum.

He had been in radio communications on an aircraft carrier in WWII, and some of the artifacts in the tool room prompted him to share some episodes from his wartime experience. That was the first I'd heard from him about that part of his life. It made the museum-visit all the more worthwhile.

The two made it safely home after the holiday, and  - while the garden is in a bit of a "waiting" mode right now - the seed catalogs for next year have begun to arrive. Four already are stacked by my chair in the living room.

I would say that it is too early, like Christmas decorations showing up in stores before Halloween, but thinking about the garden is such a good thing that it's hard to complain.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Just a Quick Note

This may be the longest time I've ever gone between blog posts. So sorry to keep people waiting! I have been working on developing an e-Newsletter, using MailChimp, for my department at work, and the text-oriented part of my brain has been a little overloaded. 
Frosted sage, untroubled by e-newsletters and blog posts.
Kale getting sweeter in the cold while I sit at a computer.

Also, we've been getting ready for the Thanksgiving holiday -- my favorite holiday of the year! Making the holiday even better, my Mom and Stepdad (aka: Grammy and Grandpa Bill) are headed our way for a seven-day visit.

Mom called this morning from the Oklahoma City airport, to say that they were at the departure gate and waiting to board the plane. We are really looking forward to sharing a week of togetherness and good food with family!

Luckily, my relatives all know that coming to visit at our house isn't at all like going to a hotel; it's more like going to summer camp. There will be crafts and  outdoor activities, everyone pitching in on the cooking and clean-up, and "quiet time" for which having brought a couple of books will have been a good idea.

Local friends will be coming for Thanksgiving day, too, and we always look forward to the full house. The cheerful buzz of conversation somehow makes the aromas and flavors of the day even more wonderful. 

I hope that everyone else is set for a beautiful Thanksgiving day!
Sweet persimmons mark a transition to winter in the yard.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Onion-Family is Planted; Cold is on the Way

On the way home from work one day last week, I stopped at a garden center and picked up a little bag of onion sets -- dry, tiny bulbs -- and I was able to get about half of them into the ground last weekend.

The bed they were destined for also was planted with garlic, shallots, and multiplier onions. By the time I had all my saved bulbs in the ground, there wasn't room for all of the little onions in the space that had been set aside. I'm thinking, though, that when I pull out the last of the zombie pepper plants that still are holding onto some darkened, ragged leaves out in the garden, I will be able to plant the remainder of the little white bulbs in the newly emptied space.

An alternative is to plant them around the edges of a bed that will be covered with mulch for the winter, so that spring planting can be done without too much trouble in trying to not disturb their roots. Regardless of which option I choose, planting the rest of those little onions will have to wait for next weekend, which is expected to be quite cold.

All the more tender plants need to be either safely under cover or, if potted, indoors, because it's supposed to be pretty cold tonight, and a very cold snap is forecast for next week. This weekend we are looking at low temperatures in the mid-20s, but at least one day next week is expected to be down around 22 degrees F. For Georgia, in any month, that's cold.

I hope all the gardeners out there are keeping warm as they tend to their plants!

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Lost Varieties - Wheat, Corn

The phone call ended up being about corn, but it started with wheat. The old-timer who called the office today asked whether it was too late to plant wheat as a cover crop for his half-acre garden. He wanted to plant the wheat to keep out the henbit that would take over if he left the soil bare. The birds could have any seeds that the wheat might produce.

According to UGA's 2012-13 Wheat Production Guide, "The optimum window for wheat planting in Georgia is typically one week before the average first frost date for a given area and one week after." In other words, this week is perfect for planting, since our first frost is usually around November 1.

I asked about his seeds, and he said they were just an ordinary winter wheat, and he didn't know the variety, but it wasn't like the one his daddy had grown on the family farm many years ago. That wheat had a bluish-purple tint to it, and the grain was very hard. Apparently, the guys at the mill didn't like it because it was hard on their roller-equipment. I was told, though, by  my old-timer, that the blue wheat made great biscuits.

When I asked if he still had any seed for that variety, he said no, it had been lost, like his daddy's corn.

Then, I had to ask about the corn.

His daddy had crossed Hickory King, which has very wide kernels and is a good corn for hominy, with Tennessee Gourdseed, because he had liked the look of the tall kernels on that gourdseed corn. The resulting corn, even after carefully selecting the best ears to save, still wasn't quite perfect, so his daddy had taken the best of new corn and planted it intermixed with Hastings' Prolific (a Georgia variety). The planting was two rows of the first cross and then one row of the Hastings corn, alternated across the field.

The resulting corn had been good for both cornmeal and feed corn, and the ears had been pretty enough to win many ribbons at the fair. Seed from that corn was saved and replanted for many years.

It's unlikely that my old-timer's daddy had had formal training in horticulture when he created his own corn, and yet he was successful in breeding a variety of corn that met his own needs.

This story is a good reminder to keep working to save seeds for old family garden crops that come my way, like the Hogseds' Sweet Potatoes and my friend Becky's Joanie Beans.

Also, the next time I have a zany garden experiment in mind, I'm going to remind myself that there's always a chance that something will go exactly right!

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Colorado, and Cooler Weather on the Way

I've had several days of not thinking too much about the garden, because I've been in Colorado visiting my oldest son and his wife (and their dog).
Joe, Jake, and Kerrie, with Fox the Dog

When Jake and Kerrie were busy with work and classes, Joe and I enjoyed some amazing views while walking trails along Boulder Creek, and in Settlers Park and Chautauqua Park.

On Saturday, when we all had the whole day to spend together, we walked in the James Peak Wilderness area, mostly uphill (seemed Escher-like to me, anyway!), at an elevation above 9000 feet.

The scenery was glorious, and we had a great visit! We also got to see a train disappear into the mountain, via the Moffat Train Tunnel. Very cool.

Me, Kerrie, Jake, and Fox.
On our very first day of walking the Boulder Creek trail, Joe and I scrambled around on some rocky areas, and I learned that duct tape does a pretty good job of getting small cactus spines out of bluejeans.

When we returned home, the weather was still fairly warm for fall, but the forecast for this coming weekend includes what may be our first frost.  Sometime in the next couple of days I will need to bring in the remaining peppers and eggplants, but those are the last warm-season crops still in the yard.

All the cool-season crops will be fine, even if the temperature drops below the predicted 34 degrees F.

The geraniums will need to be brought in, the dirt shook off and the bare plants tucked into brown paper bags to store in the cool garage. Once or twice through the winter I'll soak their roots in water for a couple of hours before dropping them back into their bags, then next spring, when it warms enough to set those plants outside again, I'll trim the tops back and replant them.

Me! This is the "walk" on which I encountered a cactus.
Fox, Kerrie, and Jake, well outside the Moffat Train Tunnel.
The lemon grass will also need to be brought in, and as I look around the yard over the next couple of days I'll probably spot one or two more plants that need special care (or bringing in), but that should be just about it.

Are all the other gardens ready for winter?

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Garden's Progress

A couple of broccoli plants that had been set out in July. 
In one of my several garden-experiments this year, I set out some broccoli and cabbage transplants Very Early.  I had started the plants from seeds in June to use as "visual aids" in a class I would be teaching in July.

After the class, it seemed a shame to waste the little plants (and the time/attention it took to grow them), so I went ahead and planted them in the garden, even though we had plenty of hot weather ahead. It turns out that the broccoli that was set out to grow through the hottest months of summer  got really tall and then produced quite-small heads of florets.
Broccoli and cauliflower under netting.   
Pasilla bajio pepper plant.  

Considering that I didn't really expect them to produce at all, this is sort of a success story. However, I am hoping that the tall plants will start producing side-shoots of florets for us to harvest, so the little broccoli heads won't be all that we get from these plants.

The cabbages from that same batch of transplants are beginning to head up, and I am waiting to see whether those will stay small, like the heads of the broccoli, or put on some size.

The most-recently planted broccoli and cauliflower plants have settled in nicely, and should begin to pour on the steam (in terms of growth) pretty soon. Until we get some colder weather, the plants will stay under netting, to keep the butterflies and moths that are the parents of cabbage worms and cabbage loopers from laying eggs on them.

Meanwhile, the peppers still are coming into the kitchen. The Pasillo bajio peppers only just started to "make" a few weeks ago, but they are worth the wait for gardeners who also do a lot of cooking.  Those skinny peppers have full-sized flavor!

Some of the peanuts from our garden. 

In the kitchen, we've been enjoying the beginnings of the winter greens: kale and collards. We've also brought in plenty of radishes. We eat the radish part, and I feed the leaves to my pet bunnies.

The cilantro is flourishing; some baby parsley plants look as though they will help make great tabbouleh in spring; beets and carrots are growing well; the parsnips finally got beyond the seedling stage (it's a slow crop); the earliest-planted lettuces are nearly full-size; the spinach patch is darkly green with leaves that are about half the size I expect to see at maturity; bok choy will be ready for harvest in a few weeks; and it won't be long before I will need to plant the garlic, shallots, and multiplying onions. This is a great season for gardeners!

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Sweet Work

Do you remember the commercial in which a nicely dressed woman sips a cup of tea while chatting with friends and says, "I'm cleaning my oven!" I feel a little like that when I say, "I'm curing my sweet potatoes!"

For the past few days, they have been kept in the back of my car, first out in the sunny parking lot at work, and now on the driveway, taking advantage of the greenhouse-effect to provide the warmth that will help them convert starch to sugar and toughen that thin skin. In a week or two, they will be fully cured and ready to fill a basket on the kitchen floor, where they will be easily accessible for meals.
Chipmunks like sweet potatoes.

I dug up the sweet potato patch on Wednesday evening, and in spite of "sharing" with the chipmunks I ended up with 41.5 pounds of tubers. That isn't as much as it should have been, but the chipmunks were hungry.

The weight doesn't include the ABC (Already Been Chewed) tubers, and there may still be a few good tubers left in the ground that will turn up in the next couple of weeks as I prepare that space for garlic, shallots, and onions.

Meanwhile, we are beginning to bring radishes and little bits of kale and lettuce into the kitchen. As the seasons change, our meals change, too, to reflect the different harvests that our garden provides. It's always a little sad to have to let go of the fresh tomatoes and peppers, but we have plenty of those dehydrated, stored in jars, and more in the freezer, for when we need them.

I hope that other gardeners are enjoying the change to cooler-season crops!

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

My Family Wants More Broccoli

I never manage to grow anything like the amount of broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflower that my family would like for me to, because our garden really isn't very big. Allowing for things like crop rotation, succession planting, and cover crops can mean that, some years, there is room for even less.

In theory, this was going to be one of those "less" years, but somehow, while we were out on our errand-run over the weekend, we ended up with two additional packs of transplants -- nine broccoli and nine cauliflower -- to add to what's already in the garden. As a result, for the past couple of evenings I've been working on making space for those 18 plants in the garden.

Luckily, I've collected enough mature Joanie Beans for next year's seed and harvested enough Pigott Family Cowpeas to make me happy. That meant I could pull all the bush bean and cowpea plants, creating a space large enough for about two-thirds of those transplants. Where the rest will go, I do not yet know, but I will think of something.

If the pH of the soil in my lawn were higher, I'd follow the example of UGA's Center for Urban Agriculture and just plunk those plants into the lawn. I saw the experiment that showed this was possible at a Turfgrass Field Day down in Griffin, GA, and it was just wonderful.

Cool-season garden vegetables had been planted in strips cut into a Bermudagrass lawn. In the experiment, strip width and plot sizes varied, to check the effect on both the veggies and the recovery in spring of the lawn. While the lettuce, cabbage, and collards did not produce well in the narrower (13 cm) strips or when direct-planted in the lawn, broccoli produced a crop (though some were small) in every treatment.

Most of the strips were somewhat weedy in spring (crabgrass liked that bare soil), and in some strips the ground had become uneven, but there was broccoli, making a crop in the Bermudagrass. Even just thinking about it makes me smile.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

So Close, and Yet So Far

I keep saying that the fall garden is nearly all planted, and that gets closer to the truth every time I say it, but summer peanuts are still maturing in the garden, and a patch of oats (part cover crop, part bunny food) is scheduled to go in their place; the sweet potatoes are yet to be harvested, and the garlic and shallots will be planted in that space.
Almost time to start eating kale and radishes.

Also, there are some bare stretches to fill in along the rows of carrots and in patches of other crops. A gardener's excuses to be outside are nearly endless! More good news: the weather is cooling enough that spending time outside is even easier.

Rain has been mostly nonexistent lately, so all the cool-season crops have needed to be watered to help the seeds and seedlings make a good start and to encourage transplants to mingle their roots with the garden soil. Otherwise, the cool season weeds are growing slowly enough to keep them from taking over, and
we are still bringing in little bunches of green beans, cowpeas, and small tomatoes. The peppers continue their steady stream into the kitchen, as well, and it looks as though we will finally get some eggplants.
Glacial vines from the sweet potato patch, slowly consuming the yard.

I had planted the eggplants too close to the tomatoes, and they were so overshadowed that it was all they could do to hang on through the summer. The tomato plants are gone, and the eggplants look very happy! If we are lucky, the first frost will hold off long enough for all the flowers and little fruits now on the plants to reach maturity.

I'm expecting to harvest the sweet potatoes this weekend, and that is always fun, assuming the chipmunks have left something for me to harvest.

I hope that everyone else is out enjoying their gardens, too, and that all is growing well.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Growing (and Eating) What's Good for the Garden

I tell new gardeners who are looking for information and advice that they should grow foods that they and their families like to eat. If no one in the family likes tomatoes, then their garden doesn't need to give any space to tomatoes, regardless of how much other gardeners rave about the amazing flavor of homegrown tomatoes. I don't, though, practice what I preach in choosing crops for my own garden.

One reason for straying from this really good advice is to improve my crop rotations. Several years ago, I decided that expanding my spinach/amaranth family plantings could help the garden, and one way to do that was to start growing beets, even though I didn't like them.

I could just have grown more spinach, but the phosphorus levels tend to be a little high in my garden-soil, and root-crops can use up some of that extra phosphorus. Over time, as a result of this decision, I've learned to prepare beets in ways that we like, and beets have become just one more good food that we look forward to bringing in from the garden.

I've been working on collard greens in about the same way. Collards are grown and eaten in my home-state of Oklahoma, too, but my Mom didn't serve them (she still doesn't like them), so I've had to work on this vegetable. It's taken a lot longer than the beets.

A good reason to grow collards, though, is that the whole Brassica family -- which includes collard greens -- helps suppress the root-knot nematodes that are a huge problem here in the South. The guys on whose garden/farm I volunteer on the weekends call the winter, mixed-greens crop (collards, kale, mustards, radishes) a "fumigant" crop for the good work it does in cleaning up pests in the soil.

We could all be growing broccoli and cabbage (also Brassicas) instead, but those crops tend to not stay as long in the ground. After the flowering head has been harvested, or a hard freeze come along and turned the plant to mush, it's all over -- but collards and other greens in the family can be harvested leaf-by-leaf, and it takes a heck of a freeze to take them out of the garden. The greens keep working on the soil all winter long, and tilling in the roots and any remaining leaves at the end of the season just frosts that cake of beneficial effects.

I'm writing about this today because last week, I came across a Yale Environment 360 interview with Dan Barber, a chef who has written about the importance of eating all that the farm offers as a way to support sustainable agriculture. The central example discussed in the interview was a farm that was growing emmer wheat, an ancient variety that Barber was excited about using in recipes.

This is the relevant bit of the interview:

"...I was standing in the middle of a field and all of a sudden discovered that he was growing very little wheat, and that instead he was growing a whole suite of lowly grains like millet and buckwheat and barley, and leguminous crops like Austrian winter peas and kidney beans. He was growing a lot of cover crops like vetch and clover. And they were all very meticulously timed and spread out among the 2,000 acres that I was standing in the middle of. And that’s when I sort if had this agricultural epiphany. But it led to this gastronomic epiphany, which was that here I was as a farm-to-table chef waving the flag of sustainability and realizing that I wasn’t supporting most of the farm. In the case of Klaas, he needed these lowly crops and cover crops and leguminous crops because his soil health needed it to grow wheat. You couldn’t get the wheat unless you grew all these other crops. And you had to time it in this way that brought the fertility to the soil to give you this incredible tasting wheat."

Most of us are not going to develop elaborate rotations for the production of emmer wheat, but reading the interview made me feel like less of a loon for growing -- and learning to prepare and eat -- crops that are not my favorites, all because I thought they'd be good for the garden.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Seeds are for Sharing

A gardening friend stopped by the office not too long ago, bringing with him a plastic "sandwich bag" full of pawpaw seeds. I've washed the big, brown seeds, stashed them in a little plastic tub to keep them damp, and they now are in a little fridge at work. If anyone wants a few, please feel welcome to call and/or stop by to pick some up (UGA Extension, Cobb County, 770-528-4070). I'd like for them to not go to waste.

I already have pawpaws growing in my yard, and there are several pots of seedling pawpaws on my back deck, from a drop-off of a dozen seeds earlier this year, and most of those also need good homes. To make fruit, cross-pollination is required, so two or more plants/seeds will be needed for each planting.

For me, pawpaws are a connection to home, because when I was growing up, my great grandfather had pawpaws growing in his yard in Claremore, Oklahoma. For anyone who is less familiar with these native fruits, Kentucky State U. has a helpful page about pawpaws.

I've said it before, but one of the best parts of my current job is that it places me in the hub of a wheel of garden generosity. Gardeners drop off extra seeds, sometimes even plants, and I get to move them along to other gardeners who can use them. It's a great place to be!

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Mid-September in the Garden

It's almost as though the garden has taken a deep breath, and is yet to exhale. It will be a few weeks before the cool-season vegetables will begin coming into the kitchen, but much has been planted; of that, much has germinated and pushed out some true leaves. We are waiting.

Okra, peppers, and the late-planted bush beans and cowpeas are still ripening in the garden, and there will be another week or two (or three) of tomatoes. In October, I'll be digging up the sweet potatoes and peanuts, but the warm season crops are almost finished for the year.

Already I am looking forward to the winter radishes, to slice thinly and salt as an easy snack. I am ready, too, to leave behind the hectic pace of the summer garden. There is so much to harvest, and the weeds grow so quickly! There is a lot to do, every week. In the cooler seasons, it is much easier to keep up with the garden.

Besides the winter radishes, I've planted regular salad-type radishes, spinach, lettuces, chicory, cilantro, peas (that the yard-rabbits have mostly eaten down to nubs), beets, two kinds of kale, cabbage, broccoli, bok choy, carrots, collard greens, and a little more parsley.

The short row of parsnip seeds that I put in late has not germinated, but those seeds often are slow, so I'm not giving up on them yet. If I can find some cauliflower transplants this week, I'll add those to the garden, too.

Pulling the finished summer crops, amending the soil, and replanting has been some work, but the upcoming harvests will be worth the effort. Hope everyone else's gardens are growing well!

Friday, September 5, 2014

Saving Seeds for Beans

Part of my gardening includes saving seeds from some crops to plant next year. Beans are among the easiest crops for gardeners to save. The risk of cross-pollination is low, and cleaning the seeds is mostly a matter of shelling them out, sorting through to remove any that look "off," and waiting for them to dry before storing them in the fridge.

I usually place my seeds in the chest freezer for a few days after they seem very dry, before moving them into the fridge with the rest of the seeds, just in case there are any hitch-hiking critters in the seeds that might cause trouble in storage. These in the picture are almost dry enough to store.
Bush bean seeds to plant next year.
This is not the only variety of beans that I am growing and saving. The beans in the picture above are from some "Provider" bush bean plants, and the others, that only recently reached maturity, are my friend Becky's "Joanie beans."

Even though the risk of cross-pollination with beans is fairly low, I planted the Joanie Beans much later than the Provider beans, so there would be no chance of crossing between the varieties.

For all kinds of beans, it's best to leave the pods hanging on the plants until they are brown and dry before bringing them in to shell out for sorting and saving the seeds. As the Providers were reaching that stage, there was a lot of rain in the forecast, and I had to bring them in a little sooner than I would have preferred; if they had been left out in the rain, the risk of mold on the beans would have gone way up.

Most of the beans look good, though. For my little garden, the amount in the basket above is enough for two or three years of planting. That is very good news for my seed-budget! 

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The Garden Keeps Rolling Along

The three-day weekend was reasonably busy in the garden. Joe helped with the biggest job, using the grub hoe to churn up the cleaned-up squash/melon bed, so I could spread on a layer of compost and then set in the little plants I've been growing in a flat. The plants include a couple of kinds of kale, cabbages, cauliflower, beets, more cilantro, and a couple of broccoli.

I also worked more on clearing the last of the older tomato plants. I'd like to be able to plant that bed soon with spinach, bok choy, and winter radishes.

The bed I've saved for carrots still needs to have the buckwheat cut down, and there is a little space where the tomatillos were that will be available for re-planting after I've dumped some compost on it. Otherwise, though, the planting for fall is nearly done.

The first lettuces have developed some true leaves; the first cilantro looks less frail; the peas are a couple of inches high; and the cilantro, collards, and kale that I planted in the garden as seed a couple of weeks ago are all looking like actual little plants.

Meanwhile, we are still bringing in peppers, okra, and tomatoes (the Principe Borghese that were planted last have just recently begun to ripen), and the late-planted green beans and cowpeas will begin contributing to our meals later this week.

I had planted seeds for pickling cucumbers several weeks ago, to find out whether a late-planted crop was a possibility, and those are beginning to make cucumbers; however, the leaves already are very damaged by mildew, so I'm thinking that the late cucumber crop is going to be tiny. The plants won't last long in the garden at the rate they are going downhill.

I also sprinkled some critter repellent around the perimeter of the sweet potato bed. The chipmunks have already been in there, eating my little crop. I'd like for the little rascals to leave me some this year, and I'm hoping the repellent works.
I totally forgot that this year's watermelons would be yellow inside.  PHOTO/Amy W.
A highlight of the weekend was eating watermelon from the garden. This year's melons stayed smaller than they should have, but they were sweet, with good flavor and texture. I had completely forgotten that they would be yellow inside, so I had a very brief "uh oh" moment as I sliced into the first one. It is great that the garden offers so many surprises! I am never bored.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Pollination Station at a Hummingbird Banding Event

On Saturday morning, I helped at the "Pollination Station" at the Hummingbird Banding event at Smith Gilbert Gardens in Kennesaw. Earlier in the week, an email plea for additional help had landed in my inbox, and I jumped right in. This was an upbeat way to close what had seemed like an unusually hard week at work.

Alan, Master Gardener volunteer, is in the green shirt.
Alan, one of our Master Gardener Extension Volunteers, had put together the display, and another volunteer had helped him with the laminated photos. I brought Extension information to give away.

Hummingbird banding was going on under the tent near the flags.
UGA has a lot of great publications about pollinators, both native and imported (honeybees); it also has a nice publication about attracting birds. These were all big hits with people who stopped by our area to learn more about pollinators.

Clemson Univ. Extension has a publication about creating an inviting environment for hummingbirds, and I was able to bring copies of that, too.
Many of the younger crowd went away with colorful hummingbird "tattoos."

Kids also made these cute little hummingbirds to take home. The body is a peanut.
Based on comments from people who stopped by with questions about pollinators, plenty of people are ready to do what they can to support pollinators. It was great to visit with so many people about bees, wasps, butterflies, bats, birds, flies, beetles, flowers, and more!

The event had plenty of activities for the younger crowd, including hummingbird "tattoos," a learning table, and a couple of "make your own" hummingbird crafts.

The craft that I hadn't seen before involved making little hummingbirds out of peanuts. They were super-cute! I was told that a lot of adults wanted to make these, too, but there weren't enough prepared peanut bodies for more than just the kids to make these.

The peanuts had been pre-painted with white paint, a toothpick had been stuck into a hole to be the beak, and little tulle wings had been tied with twine and hot-glued on. The kids needed to determine whether their bird would be male or female, and paint the peanut accordingly.

The very last picture in the set is included for my Mom, who needs to use her walker more. She has a hairline fracture in her lower leg that resulted from a fall a couple of weeks ago.

Several people made use of walkers at the event. They were well-prepared for the uneven ground and a morning outside in the August heat.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Harvesting Summer to Make Room for Fall

About 2/3 of my butternut squash harvest.    PHOTO/Amy W.
It's been a busy weekend in the garden. To start, I harvested most of the remaining butternut squash. Six had already been brought inside, because the vine they were on looked "done."

These in the photo to the right were also on some pretty dead-looking vines, but there are three more immature butternut squash out in the garden. After tracing their vines so I could determine whether they had a chance of further ripening, I left their vines behind when I removed the other, browned-out plants. So far, I have brought in about 25 pounds of butternut squash. That has opened up some space in the garden.

Browned vascular tissue caused by a tomato wilt disease.  PHOTO/ Amy W.
I also harvested all the remaining Amish tomatoes, even the green ones. In last week's post I had mentioned that the plant had a lot of yellowed, drooping foliage, and it was time to pull up that plant.

After slicing through the stem to check on what had caused the trouble, it was easy to see the gunked-up vascular system, which often is caused by Fusarium wilt. A healthy stem would have been white or whitish-green all the way through, rather than being ringed inside with brown!

As space has opened up in the garden, I've planted some more seeds. Today I planted some kale, collards, lettuces, nasturtiums, and English peas. If they don't do well from seed at this time, it won't be a disaster, because I have started some of those in a flat already.

Caterpillar of the Gulf fritillary butterfly.  PHOTO/Amy W.
The English peas are part of yet another experiment. I harvested most of the popcorn, and as I was cutting the stalks down to chop up for the compost pile, I decided to leave them cut at about 3.5-4 feet high, for peas to climb up. The peas are planted in the rows between the cornstalks. It will be interesting to see how that space goes as the summer/fall progresses.

Elsewhere in the garden, we have some surprisingly unattractive caterpillars. They are dark orange with black spines, and they are busy defoliating the passionflower vine.

Bees loving a passionflower to smithereens. PHOTO/Amy W.
The caterpillars are the babies of the Gulf fritillary butterfly which also is orange, but it seems a lot prettier.

The passionflower vine is getting a lot of insect activity. In addition to being host to the spiky caterpillars, it also is host to some big, shiny carpenter bees that spend most of their days, it seems, loving on the purple flowers.

All that bee-loving action has resulted in the formation of a lot of "may-pops" on the passionflower vines. I am looking forward to trying those fruits!

Monday, August 11, 2014

Not Fall Yet, But Getting There

This weekend I made more progress on switching over to "the fall garden." Some of the summer plants are still doing really well, some are just now reaching their peak of production (peppers, okra), and some are nearly done.
Rutgers tomato plant, still green and productive.      PHOTO/Amy W.

Based on the percentage of browned leaves, I'd say that the Better Boy tomato plant is going to keel over soon, but the Rutgers plant is still covered up in green leaves and plenty of fruit.

This weekend, I pulled out one of the smaller-fruited tomato plants that looked pretty bad, and that should help the airflow around the Rutgers and Better Boy, hopefully helping to keep them alive and productive a little longer.

The Cherokee Purple is definitely done, the Pink Brandywine still has a few fruits, and the Amish tomato plant is somewhere in between. It has several green fruits that are nearing ripeness along with some smaller, newer fruits, but the foliage is yellowing and droopy. I think it has fusarium wilt, but I haven't sliced into a stem yet to check.

Fruits of a passionflower vine. This vine has at least 10 so far. PHOTO/Amy W.
Among my other experiments for the summer is a passionflower vine. The flowers are beautiful (I'll try to get a good picture up, soon), and I'm hoping that the fruits have enough pulp inside that I can make a little juice or jam.

Another crop that I haven't really mentioned yet this year is the greasy beans. Six slender vines (they are pole beans) are climbing up a little trellis, and they have been making small numbers of beans, but the production has been steady. When I bring in a handful, I pull off the strings then toss them up into a hanging basket to dry for leather britches. If I had lots of them, I'd do the traditional hanging-up-on-a-line-to-dry thing, but I don't.

Flat of seeds for cool-season crops.      PHOTO/Amy W.
I've started some more plants for the fall garden, too. While waiting for more of the summer crops to finish, it can help to have some of the cool-weather crops already started, for transplanting to the garden when the space is available.

Just behind the flat in the photo to the left is a box with some cabbage seedlings in it that I started a few weeks ago in peat pellets. Those were bumped up into a couple of old "6-packs" last week, and I'll be setting those plants out into the garden in the next week or so.
Butternut squash nearing maturity.          PHOTO/Amy W.

The husks on the popcorn have been turning brown and dry, and as I've noticed that change I've brought them in. If I leave them outside too long in damp weather, they tend to mold (it's happened before), so bringing them in on time can be important.

I finally brought in some dried Provider Bush Beans that I had left on the plants to mature, to replenish my seed supply for planting next year.

The wrinkled, tan pods were definitely ready to be pulled! The beans have been removed from the pods, and I've set them out to dry in a wide, flat basket.

I have some Joanie Beans growing in the yard, too. These bush beans from my friend Becky are part of her family history, and I plan to save seeds from those, too.

When the weather returns to being a little bit more dry (we've had a lot of cloudy and cool, with light rains mixed in), I'll start bringing in the butternut squash that began to turn to the mature tan color a few weeks ago.

This is a busy time in the garden, but so rewarding. I hope that all the other gardeners out there are enjoying this time in the gardening year as much as I am!

Sunday, August 3, 2014

When the Garden Pelts You with Food...

This weekend has been all about managing great piles of vegetables. Most of the veggies have been from our own yard, and some are from the little farm where we volunteer on Saturday mornings.

Our one cherry tomato plant, a Super Sweet 100, has been pouring on the steam, and we've been having trouble keeping up with the ripe, sweet little fruits, so one of the jobs for today was picking a bunch of tiny green tomatoes for pickling. Just minutes ago, I pulled four pint jars of pickled cherry tomatoes out of the water-bath canner.

Yesterday, I made and preserved in jars a batch of tomatillo sauce. Four half-pint jars of the tart green sauce have been added to our cupboards as a result.

Joe started a gallon-sized batch of brined pickles that is mixed cucumbers and green tomatoes. He also started a pint of fermented hot sauce with a beautiful pile of ripe, red, cowhorn peppers.

The dehydrator has been filled, emptied, and refilled with slices of tomato and with chopped peppers (a mix of both hot and sweet).

I skinned and seeded a big bowl of ripe tomatoes, roasted them in the oven until I could smell them turning sweeter, and then let them cool. Those are in the freezer now. They mostly filled a quart freezer bag. I strained the juice out of the skins and seeds and froze the juice, too.

Out at the garden-farm, we found a couple of hilariously large zucchini, and I brought those home to seed, peel, and shred. I made a couple of loaves of zucchini bread using 2 cups of the shredded zucchini. I froze the rest, measuring out two cups to each freezer bag, so those will be ready for making more zucchini bread later in the year.

The four bags (8 cups) of shredded zucchini joined four bags from a couple of weeks ago, from other over-large zucchinis that we had uncovered out at the garden farm then.

Also today, Joe cooked crowder peas that had been harvested last summer, using the solar oven that he placed out in the front yard. The owner of the garden farm has planted what we are sure will be a superabundance of crowder peas, so we are trying to use up the last of the previous harvest.

Our younger son, who recently moved back home, has cut up some okra and is frying it to add to our supper.

We are incredibly fortunate to have this abundance of good food! The garden is some work, but the rewards are great.

Hope all the other gardeners out there are enjoying the harvest!

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

I Needed a Bigger Basket

For weeks, the little basket was plenty big enough for the 1-3 pounds of produce that I brought in from the garden each day, but last week we finally reached the point of needing a larger basket.

That "I needed a bigger basket" time of year has arrived.        PHOTO/Amy W.
The zucchini are almost done, because the pickleworms have found my zucchini patch, and I pulled up the last of the raggedy cucumber vines over the weekend, but tomatoes and peppers are just now hitting their stride, okra is flowering, and the earliest butternut squashes are beginning to change color from pale green to that buff/tan that indicates ripeness. The tomatillos are producing, but in little waves, so that some days I bring in several of the green fruits and other days none are ready.

Meanwhile, I've dug up the last of the white potatoes, planted buckwheat in the empty cucumber patch, sowed some cilantro seeds, another bush-bean patch, and a few late cucumbers (an experiment...). I also planted some basil seedlings into the space where the last potatoes had been.

The popcorn has produced a few small ears on each stalk, and I noticed that something had climbed up one of the stalks and nibbled at the base of the lowest ear of corn. Luckily, the kernels had already begun to harden and be less easy to eat, so the critter gave up without doing too much damage.

I've had to put netting over the peanuts, because the neighborhood rabbits thought the plants were delicious. The daily damage was going to drastically reduce my peanut crop, but the bird netting propped over the bed seems to have stopped the ongoing damage (for now, at least).

The biggest task for August will be transitioning to fall crops. Three of the tomato plants will be done soon -- they are some of the more disease-prone of the heirlooms -- which means that space will be open, and other crops will be coming out, too. I like to have some of the fall crops in the garden beginning around August 10, so I have plenty of gardening to look forward to in the next couple of weeks.

Hope everyone else's gardens are growing well!

Friday, July 18, 2014

Community Gardening for Food and for People

At last night's meeting of the not-yet-one-year-old Cobb Community Gardens group, Bobby Wilson was the guest speaker. Mr. Wilson is past-president of the American Community Gardening Association (ACGA),current CEO of Metro Atlanta Urban Farms, and all-around long-time expert on community gardens. It was an interesting meeting, but a few things from his presentation stand out as being particularly useful.

One is that community gardens should have a two-part goal: growing food and building stronger communities. Mr. Wilson actually addressed that more specifically when he said that 10% of the effort should be about growing food and 90% of the effort about building community.

In the community garden attached to his urban farm, the community-building is partly through monthly meetings at which there are lessons in both gardening and leadership. The meetings offer an opportunity for fellowship and networking, and the meetings also are used to reach out to homeless people each month. Basically, the gardeners need a reason to come together on a consistent basis, and the monthly meetings provide that for this particular community garden.

The Atlanta Regional Commission has put together a Community Gardening Manual that explains the basics of setting up and running a community garden, and it probably is not a coincidence that the first "organizational consideration" listed on page 4 in the manual is "What is your purpose?" The purpose, to an extent, defines the group and is one motivation for the gardeners to be actively involved.

Mr. Wilson spoke briefly about food deserts, and it sounded as though providing good, nutritious food to people in food desert areas is a major motivator for many community gardens in Atlanta.

Another idea that really stood out was of the usefulness of attaching community gardens to small farms. Of course, Mr. Wilson didn't phrase it quite that way, but urban farms, unlike community gardens, are eligible for Federal funding through NRCS and the USDA for some property improvements, like water wells and high tunnels. For small, urban farms, it also was suggested that certification as Naturally Grown, a process that costs a lot less than organic certification, could be helpful in selling produce and gaining funding.

A third idea that is a project of the community garden at Mr. Wilson's urban farm was the publication each year of  a garden calendar that celebrates the group's achievements. He passed a copy of one of these calendars around, and inside there were pictures of the garden, including the year's garden King and Queen, along with a listing of milestones and accomplishments, and in the back there was a member directory/phonebook.

This was a wonderful document for the group that probably also helped promote active participation. The discussion about the calendar was part of a larger point about marketing the garden. My notes from the meeting include, in large print: "Marketing Your Program is Important!" The giant exclamation mark on my notepaper reflects the tone of voice in which this bit of advice was delivered.

Mr. Wilson brought a banner on which a pledge to work toward sustainable food production was written. He asked us all to sign it before we left. The pledge was this:
I pledge allegiance
to our environment
through sustainable
agriculture and practicing
good stewardship.
One very big announcement that Mr. Wilson made at last night's meeting is that the ACGA is planning to move headquarters from Ohio to Atlanta. We are all hoping that the move will provide access to some great training and other resources to keep our communities strong and well-fed!

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Thinking Forward to Fall

Has everyone else already started seeds for fall crops? Here in Cobb County, it's time! The cool-weather crops we usually set out as transplants - broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts - mostly have a long enough time-to-maturity that they are planted out to the garden in the second half of August, which means the seedlings need to be started now.

Exceptions would be for faster-maturing varieties, like Early Snowball cauliflower that is such a speed-crop (just 50 days!) that gardeners have an extra 3 or 4 weeks to get that one started.

In my garden, the space for most of those Brassica-family crops (aka: cabbage family; cole crops, Cruciferae) is still taken up by the April-planted tomatoes, but the space where I'm planning to plant carrots this year has some cucumber vines that are looking pretty ragged. I may pull those up this weekend and strew some buckwheat seeds in that space for now, to help get the soil in shape for the next crop.

When the buckwheat starts to flower (it happens fast!), that would get turned back under to add organic matter to the soil. In the meantime, the plants would have helped hold onto nutrients and encouraged some good microbial activity underground.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Cupped, Twisty, Weird Tomato Leaves: Herbicide Damage

I have seen, in the past couple of weeks, several examples of tomato and pepper plants that show signs of damage from weed killers. The leaves are variously cupped, twisty, fanned, excessively pointy, and otherwise just plain weird. The gardeners whose plants these are have not been using weed killer in their gardens, nor have they applied any manures (another source of herbicides), but they have used weed killers (or employed a lawn care company that used them) on their lawns.

K-State has a great little "Problem" page about accidental herbicide damage, and this sentence is especially eye-opening: "Some broadleaf herbicides such as 2,4-D are volatile, especially during hot weather, and may drift across the yard or even adjacent yards in concentrations sufficient to cause injury."

Twisty, weird tomato leaves with unusual vein pattern.
This means that even carefully applied lawn herbicides can cause unintended damage in the vegetable garden.

Those of us who have "freedom lawns" (random-weed-and-turf-grass mixes) rather than monoculture lawns typically don't suffer from herbicide damage, because we never use any, but there are plenty of gardeners in urban/suburban areas who live in neighborhoods that demand botanical uniformity in lawns. Vegetable gardeners in these neighborhoods may be stuck "between a rock and a hard place."

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Beans, Berries, and Cukes

Sunday's harvest.
Daily harvests for the past several days haven't been wildly varied, but it's pretty hard to complain when what's in the basket is so very delicious.

Saturday it was beans, berries and cukes. Sunday it was beans, berries and cukes. Yesterday it was beans, berries, and cukes, and I am guessing that the pattern will hold for several more days.

On Sunday, I did pull the onions and lay them out on the porch to dry, along with most of the garlic. The potatoes are nearly ready, but not quite yet. Leaves are turning yellow and falling over, but I like to see a higher percentage of them looking absolutely done before digging up the spuds.
140 pots of basil seedlings.

Monday's harvest.
The cucumbers in the basket are Chicago Picklers and Beit Alpha. Most of the berries are Heritage, with some Wineberries and an unknown variety of strawberry mixed in. The green beans are Provider, and the Wax Beans are a new-to-me variety that I will have to look up again (the name has slipped my mind).

It's been several years since I've planted wax beans, and I had forgotten how great it is to actually be able to find the beans in all the foliage. The bright yellow beans almost glow against the background of green leaves.

The other photo is of a whole lot of basil seedlings. My workplace will be celebrating Horticulture week, July 7-11, and part of the celebration will include giving away basil seedlings to people who stop by the office that week. If anyone is worried about the crowded condition of the little plants - it may help to know that I plan to thin them to ~2 seedlings per pot sometime in the next few days.

Hope the harvests in other gardens are going well!

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

How the Garden Grows...

Multiplying onions approaching harvest time.
In spite of running a bit behind, the garden is doing well enough. The onion family bed will be ready to harvest soon. The necks of the multiplying onions are getting soft, making the leaves fall over. The leaves of the garlic and shallots are beginning to show a little more brown, too, which is a good sign at this point in the season.

We are bringing in a few strawberries most days, and I have been grazing on raspberries, which means I haven't been bringing them in to weigh. I don't think they would add much to the yearly total, but I just am not ever going to know; it's too hard to see them and NOT eat them right away!

The green beans have been making it to the kitchen, which makes me pretty happy. Many other local gardeners have been begun to harvest zucchini and yellow squash, cucumbers, and peppers. We've been getting those out at the farm where we volunteer on the weekends, but in my own yard those are not yet ready. I was late getting them planted. When it got right down to priorities, planting at the farm, which feeds lots of people, was a more valuable use of time.
Still getting strawberries!
Popcorn crop making progress.
Tomatoes looking good.

Another use of my time in the past week or so was writing a blog post about growing peanuts in the home garden for the National Peanut Board. I am happy to be able to say that the post is up! It is called (not too surprisingly) "How to grow peanuts in your own garden."

You can see my seedling peanuts in the nearly-bare ground in front of my popcorn. The two rows have come up, and the little plants look great!

I really should have thinned the Asiatic lilies...
Elsewhere in the garden, tomatoes, peppers, and tomatillos are making their fruits, the potato foliage is turning yellow and falling over (a signal that harvest time is approaching!), the sweet potatoes finally are planted (hooray!), little okra seedlings are popping up, squash plants of various kinds are making some big leaves, and flowers of several types are adding to the chaos of luxuriant growth.

Hope all the other gardens out there are growing well!

Monday, June 2, 2014

What I Didn't Know About Tomatillos

One of three tomatillo plants in this year's garden.    PHOTO/Amy W.
A local gardener mentioned a past problem with a tomatillo plant that had developed very little fruit in spite of an abundance of flowers. She had learned later that ... surprise!... in order to actually get tomatillos, it helps to be growing more than one plant in the garden.

Until I spoke with her, the possibility of needing more than one plant hadn't occurred to me, since tomatillos are tomato-family plants with perfect flowers, but it turns out that tomatillo flowers are self-infertile.

They need to be cross-pollinated, and best fruit-set will occur when that pollen comes from an entirely different individual plant.

Most of the University-produced information that I found did not mention this potential problem; they all just said to grow tomatillos like tomatoes. For all the small-garden people who grow just one tomato plant, and likewise decide to plant just one tomatillo, well, there will be some disappointed gardeners. The tomatoes will set fruit just fine, but there will be no source of fruit for the best salsa verde; green tomatoes will have to suffice (they work, but tomatillas work better).

Luckily, for those who are looking for more complete information about growing tomatillos, University of California's Sonoma County Master Gardeners Tomatillo page includes the essential bit about needing more than one plant for best fruit-set.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Not Finished with Planting, and Still Harvesting Lettuce

There has been a lot of Life in my life lately, which means that my planting isn't exactly following my plan. I think that happens pretty much every year, so I am not surprised. Really, the year that everything else is so calm that I get the gardening done on a good schedule is probably going to be a boring year (except for the really great garden!).

In the "going right" column, I can list the continued harvest of peas, lettuces, and strawberries, along with a few increasingly spicy radishes. Some day soon, the beets will be ready to harvest. The tomatoes are planted, as are some of the peppers. The corn is up and growing, and so are the bush and pole beans. Germination of cucumbers was slow, but the little plants now are beginning to run.

The garlic, shallots, and multiplying onions still look great. The two tomatilla plants each have a couple of flowers. Cosmos are up about 6 inches in a couple of places in the garden, and several borage plants have been blooming well for a while.

In the "running behind" column, I can list the planting of zucchini, melons, winter squashes, okra, sunflowers, other flowers, the rest of the peppers, and some herbs (basil! parsley!). Sweet potatoes and peanuts aren't planted yet, but they aren't late. It is just about time now for those to go into the ground.

In a "looks like trouble ahead" column, I can list the lagging eggplants that are covered up in flea beetles and a possible problem already on some of the cucumber leaves.

More Life is expected for this weekend, which means the planting might still be behind next Tuesday, even after having a three-day weekend in which to catch up!

Meanwhile, in one of those moments of craziness that seem to strike all gardeners, I ordered seeds for pink bananas, American licorice, Siberian pea shrub, goji berry, and a wild black cap raspberry. Those have all arrived arrived in the mail, and most of them have stratification requirements that will keep them from germinating anytime soon. I'm looking forward to figuring them all out.

Hope all the other gardeners out there are having fun!

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Compost Contemplations

Last week was "International Compost Awareness Week," so compost was uppermost in my mind for much of the time. One major aspect that's been on my mind is that, even though my six pet bunnies add a lot of old hay and bunny manure to my compost pile every week, there still isn't enough compost for my whole garden, and my garden is not large.

I read once that the average WWII Victory Garden encompassed ~600 square feet. My vegetable growing space is just a little over half that. Remember -- Victory Gardens during WWII provided about 40% of this nation's produce at a time when that production was sorely needed. That is a huge amount of productivity!

The U.S. could do that again, if needed, but it would take a lot of compost.  Maintaining a warren of rabbits in my garage is, apparently, not the answer to the question of where all the needed compost is going to come from. You may be asking -- "why is compost needed in such large amounts?"

Part of the answer would lie in the brick-like consistency of Georgia clay in summer, or the non-absorptive properties of soils that are mostly sand.  Even for conventional/chemical gardeners, compost can improve the physical properties of very poor soils.

Gardeners working in the kinds of subdivisions in which all the soil was rearranged by giant machines before construction even began, removing the topsoil and putting it who-knows-where, will totally understand what I mean by "very poor soils." Many of us begin without any real topsoil at all!  Compost improves moisture retention, nutrient availability, and biological activity in these soils.

For organic growers, abundant compost is basic to the whole process, with the "biological activity" part being of utmost importance, since without the underground microbes and their slightly larger associates, there would be no nutrients available for plant growth.

Even beyond the productivity gains that can come from nourishing the teeming billions of lifeforms underground, yet another reason to compost may lie in the ability of that compost to help move carbon underground. In my scanning of the morning news this past week, I read a surprising headline: "First time in 800,00 years: April's CO2 levels above 400 ppm". We all knew that was coming, but it does seem a little soon.

Couple that headline with an article that I had seen through, originally published at Yale Environment 360 -- "Soil as Carbon Storehouse: New Weapon in Climate Fight?" -- and compost is looking even more like the "black gold" that some gardeners call it, even though compost isn't specifically mentioned in the article. Instead, it mentions other practices that could help store carbon in the soil:

"...replanting degraded areas, increased mulching of biomass instead of burning, large-scale use of biochar, improved pasture management, effective erosion control, and restoration of mangroves, salt marshes, and sea grasses"

Much further along, the article mentions the important role of fungi in storing carbon in the soil:

"...scientists from the University of Texas at Austin, the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, and Boston University assessed the carbon and nitrogen cycles under different mycorrhizal regimens and found that plants linked with fruiting, or mushroom-type, fungi stored 70 percent more carbon per unit of nitrogen in soil."

Using composts and degradable mulches can do a lot toward welcoming the right kinds of fungi to a garden.

The article was aimed more at larger scale agricultural activities, but that doesn't mean that gardeners can't do their part to help out.  If more of us are more intentional about what happens to the carbon that flows through our lives, it certainly can't hurt.

This is my birthday month, and one of my best buddies, as an early birthday gift, took me to a book signing for Farmer D's new book, Citizen Farmers (and she bought me a copy of the book, for Farmer D to sign!). One great aspect of the book is its focus on compost. Really, all gardening should start with compost, but most garden book don't make that point so emphatically.  Farmer D lists, right in the introduction, his citizen farmer basics, and number one on the list is "Make composting a way of life." That sounds like a very good idea.

Monday, May 5, 2014

The Future of Supper

Spring is finally warming up, and in a big way. I've brought in a lot of the lettuce to store in the fridge, because the upcoming several-days-in-a-row of above 85 degrees F weather is likely to make what's left in the garden turn bitter.
Peas beginning to form.

Some of the other crops, though, are approaching their most shining time in the garden. One of those crops is the peas, which are beginning to make actual peas in the several areas where they are planted.

Two of those patches will be left to make food for humans, the rest will be cut down -- some to feed to my pet bunnies (who love pea shoots), and some to turn into the soil to feed the microscopic critters underground.
Potato foliage in the foreground, Allium family crops in the back.

The foliage on the potatoes is looking good, too. The little flowers indicate that potatoes are beginning to form underground.

Over the weekend, I added more compost around the leafy stems, partly to keep the soil as cool as possible for as long as possible, and partly to add a little more depth around the stems.

In general, potatoes are more productive when soil is "hilled" around the stems of the plants. The close spacing in these beds doesn't leave much room for hilling up the nearby soil, but adding more to the top of the bed should have the same effect. At least, that's the dream!
Big basket of spinach, that cooked down to about three cups.

Strawberries under netting.
I brought in the spinach over the weekend, too. It looked like a lot of food when I packed it all into the basket to bring inside, but that whole load of leaves cooked down to only about three cups.

We divided the cooked leaves into three portions and put them in the freezer for future meals.

Joe and I had been talking last week about our version of Shepherd's Pie; when the potatoes are ready to harvest, we are going to want this spinach to make some.
Cilantro bolting to flower in the warmer days of May.

The strawberries are starting to add their bright color and flavor to meals (we had some last night). Straight from the garden, they taste like spring!

Other berries in the yard are in flower, but it will be a few more weeks before any of the brambleberries are ready for eating.
As the days have begun to warm, the cilantro has decided that it's time to finish its life cycle and put out flowers and seeds. No one is especially happy about this development (it seems early), but I will be planting seeds for more, soon.

Meanwhile, we will all just enjoy what we have. Joe and I will be using some of the larger leaves from closer to the base of each plant in some guacamole tonight, and our bunnies will be eating some of the taller flowering stems that have bolted up from the base.

There is a little trellis behind the cilantro patch that I've planted a few "Greasy Beans" underneath. When the cilantro is finally in sad enough shape that I pull it up, there will be beans twining up from behind to fill that space. In my mind, it is already beautiful.

And this last picture isn't of plants (or supper), it is of two Best Friends, Holstein and Darwin -- two of my pet bunnies. Holstein is less symmetrical than she used to be. Her face is a little lopsided, and she lists to the right when she walks. The vet said she'd had a "neurological event," which I'm interpreting to mean that she'd had a stroke. She and Darwin are usually pressed right up together, even when they are eating their bunny salad. They are happy to eat the good food that is growing in our garden!
Holstein and Darwin think everything grown in the garden is for them.

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