Friday, February 28, 2014

Gardening Books for Georgia - Part 1

Back in 1990, when my little family first moved to Georgia, I already knew a bit about gardening. However, in spite of having gardened successfully elsewhere (and having a degree in Botany), I had trouble growing food here. Part of the problem -- very tall trees surrounding and shading the backyard -- was resolved through moving the veggies to the sunny front yard. I needed, though, to learn more about the rhythms of planting and harvesting for this area.

To help with that, we bought a copy of the go-to guide of the time, Don Hastings' book "Gardening in the South: Vegetables and Fruits." Hastings' book contains sections for each kind of vegetable grown in the area, with timing and fertilizing information, which is what I needed. It also contains what I now consider to be "the usual advice" about choosing the garden site, planting, amending the soil, and generally tending to the garden.

Most of that basic information can be found in other gardening books, but some parts of the book still stand out as being particularly memorable. One great narrative thread is about the author's working with farmers in Egypt and the Philippines. Details relating to these adventures pop up throughout much of the book. Another is about his family's variety of corn.

The Hastings family had developed a variety of sweet corn that performed well in the Southeast. In the part of the book about growing corn, Hastings tells that his neighbors were still growing Hastings sweet corn long after his family had switched to Silver Queen, which they decided was a better variety for their purposes. There's probably a little lesson in the tale, but I still haven't figured out what that might be.

Another part of the book that I especially remember is about the author's return to Georgia after a couple of years away. His prize flower bed, which had always had the very best soil of all his planting beds, had typically been amended with organic matter a couple of times each year. As a result, the soil there was usually wonderfully dark and rich with humus. In just that short time of being left on its own, the bed had reverted to solid red clay. That story provides great incentive for continuing to add organic matter to my gardens each season!

Of course, I am sitting here writing without having the Hastings book in front of me to double check my memory; it's possible that I've gotten some details wrong. This is pretty close, though.

A newer book (2007/2008) for Georgia gardeners is Walter Reeves and Felder Rushing's "Guide to Georgia Vegetable Gardening." This book contains the same basic information as the Hastings book and adds some newer weather and pest details. All the information is solid, researched, and reasonably up-to-date, and it includes names of recommended vegetable varieties that weren't available at the time Hastings wrote his book.

What the Reeves and Rushing book is missing is the thread of personal stories and asides (such as the note in Hastings' parsnip section in which he quite honestly says that he neither likes nor grows them!) that keep a reader interested. In other words, the Reeves and Rushing book is good for reference, whereas Hastings' book is good for both reference and recreation. Also, I've just checked the listings on Amazon, and it turns out that the Reeves & Rushing book is out of print, with used copies listed as selling for $99. The Hastings book is still both readily available and affordable.

Books aren't commonly addressed on this blog, but I decided to write about books for several reasons. One is that it lets me think about gardening while it is still too soon to do much planting (it's a useful distraction!). Another is that other gardeners new to the area might be looking for a resource, like I was those many years ago, that addresses the rhythms of gardening in this area. Another is that a friend has loaned me a new book for the South - Ira Wallace's "Guide to Vegetable Gardening in the Southeast" - and I'd like to have the other basic books in my mind as I read it. A review of that book will be coming soon.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Tilling, or Not

One of the most pervasive images in garden magazines and advertisements is of gardeners working their gardens with tillers of one kind or another. However, even though tilling seems, at first, to be a worthy and useful activity, it isn't always.

Tilling brings oxygen down into the soil, which sounds good, but that increased oxygen can stimulate the growth of soil micro-organisms that then get busy with their main job of breaking down organic matter, which releases nutrients. If crops are planted to absorb and use those nutrients, then that release of nutrients from tilling can be good. Here we are, though, with winter still at hand and no (or few) crops available to use those nutrients. Releasing them now would result in waste.

However, a gardener planning to plant potatoes in mid-March might want to till in a cover crop now, to get the decomposition on that foliage started.

This topic is on my mind because I actually turned one garden bed this past weekend, when we had some beautiful, warm, spring-like weather. It was a bed that had a cover crop on it (more chickweed and deadnettle than winter peas, but it held the soil well), and I want to plant some lettuces into that bed.

This was a case of turning under a cover crop to get a bed ready for planting. (I don't actually "till," since I don't own a tiller, but I do an equivalent activity with my grub hoe and spading fork.)

In my own garden, I try to not turn the soil in each of my garden beds more than once per year. The big turning is usually in spring, and when it's time to pull out an old crop and plant a new one, I tend to just use a tined cultivator to loosen the top few inches for planting any seeds.

One reason for minimal tilling is that breaking up the soil also breaks up the underground communities of bacteria, fungi, and other little life-forms that help keep crops healthy. Here in Cobb County, I talk with plenty of gardeners who think that the soil isn't in good shape if they haven't pulverized it to a fine powder, when the truth is that their powdered soil has had the life pretty much beat out of it.

Potentially good reasons to till or turn the soil include mixing in amendments and turning under a cover crop. Some gardeners  use a tiller to weed the paths between rows in row-cropped gardens, and some till to break a crusted soil for planting seeds. Those are probably ok reasons, as long as the gardener understands the risks.

Reasons to avoid frequent tilling include maintaining the biological community and avoiding release of nutrients at the wrong time, plus that pulverizing the soil can - paradoxically - lead to compaction of the soil as the powdered bits settle, plus that using an actual tiller for tilling can cause the garden to develop a "hard pan" below the tilled layer of soil. Also, tilling when the soil is too wet, which is a danger for all of us impatient gardeners, can cause the soil to form rock-hard clods that are difficult to break up later in the season.

As always with gardening, there is a lot to think about!

Thursday, February 13, 2014

It's Magical Outside

The title words for this post are the words I woke up to this morning. It was insanely early in the morning, but Joe was right. Snow was everywhere, covering the ice that had coated everything yesterday. Magical. We don't get to see the landscape so transformed very often here in Kennesaw.
After Joe took our old coonhound out for a brief slide around in the yard (her back legs aren't very stable these days), we took our younger dog for a long, pre-dawn walk. Snowflakes were still falling, and no one else was out.

We've spent a couple of days at home since Georgia declared a state of emergency over the winter weather, and I've been contemplating the coming spring for much of that time. I've plotted the crop rotations for the year, put in my last seed order, and hovered over a flat of seeds so recently planted that only the lettuces are visible above ground. The tomatoes should appear in a few days, but the peppers and eggplants could be much slower.

I've also done a bit of small-farm research for a new farmer who came to the office on Tuesday, and I've been reading more about community gardens, permaculture, and agro-ecology. If it sounds like I've had a great couple of days, well, it's all true!

In the news, there was talk of widespread power outages, so we have kept the woodstove going. Yesterday we had a pot of crowder peas (harvested and shelled out late last summer) on that stove most of the day; today we have vegetable soup on the woodstove, and I've made bread. Power at our house has stayed on, but a transformer "blew" up the street, leaving some of our neighbors without electricity for a while. Luckily, repairs already seem to have been completed.

For me, it's been a pleasant  couple of days, complete with garden thinking-and-reading, phone calls from concerned relatives (in Oklahoma, Texas, and Louisiana), text updates from local friends, cozy moments with my pet bunnies, magical moments with Joe, and comfort-foods hot off the woodstove. I hope that other gardeners have also found ways to enjoy the break from their usual routine!

Monday, February 10, 2014

DIY Potting Mixes and Seed Starting

Many of my gardening friends have complained in the past few years about the quality of the standard potting mixes that are available in most garden-stores. One friend in particular, who starts a thousand or more plants each spring for school gardens, community gardens, and a Plant-a-Row-for-the-Hungry garden, has lost many hundreds of plants as a result of "burning" from a bad potting mix.

Last year, my friend used a bag of a professional potting mix, Faford brand, that she bought from a greenhouse supply store up in Ballground. The mix did not include fertilizer, so she was able to regulate the amount of nutrients that were available to the plants and to avoid burning her seedlings, which are so very sensitive to the salts in conventional fertilizers.

In my own shopping for potting mixes, I've also noticed the variable quality issue, even in seed starting mixes that are no-fertilizer-added products. Some are just very finely textured peat, and some are the finely textured peat plus perlite and possibly something else. For seed starting, the finely-textured aspect plays an important role in keeping very small seeds from washing too deeply into the soil to push their seed-leaves up into the light.

This year, I've started some seeds in Jiffy Pellets, but yesterday I also mixed up a batch of my own mix, filled a flat, and planted some seeds. The recipe I used is based on one from ATTRA, from its publication "Potting mixes for certified organic production." If you go the webpage to view (or download!) the publication, the recipes are way down toward the end, in appendix 3.

My mix is equal parts compost and peat moss and a quarter-part of perlite. This mix filled a 5-gallon bucket about 2/3 full. To these main components, I added a couple of Tablespoons of an organic fertilizer mix. If my compost had been "heavier," I would have used more perlite. Also, if I'd had vermiculite in my supply area rather than perlite, I might have used that, instead. Basically, I used what I had on hand.

For those who might not want to sort through the numerous mixes in the ATTRA publication, Organic Gardening offers a pared-down list that was gleaned from the ATTRA set.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

What Can I Plant Now?

Gardeners have been calling the Extension office, from the beginning of January, wanting to know what they can plant NOW. Even when the ground was frozen and the forecast was for a drop down around 10 degrees F, the lengthening days, like a siren song that they couldn't tune out, made them pick up the phone, call, and ask. Luckily, they ended up speaking with me, another gardener gone deaf to nearly all except the need to begin the new year of planting.

For those who can't wait, I've assembled a couple of timetables. The first one is pulled from UGA's Vegetable Planting Chart. The dates on the original chart are for "middle Georgia" (somewhere around Macon); I've shifted the dates by a couple of weeks to reflect our later warming here in Cobb County.

UGA planting dates
Feb 1- April 1
Mar 1 – Apr 15
Mar 1 – Apr 1
Mar 1 – Apr 1
Feb 1 – Apr 5
Mar 15 - Apr 15
Feb 15 – Apr 1
Feb 15 – Mar 25
Feb 1 – Mar 15
Onions, green
Jan 15 – Apr 1
Onions, dry bulb
Jan 15 – Apr 1
Peas, garden
Feb 1 – Mar 1
Peas, edible pod
Feb 1 – Mar 1
Potatoes, Irish
Feb 1 – Mar 15
Feb 1 – Apr 15
Feb 1- April 1
Feb 1 – Apr 15

The second timetable, though not actually in table form, is from John Jeavons' book "How to Grow MoreVegetables ..."

6-8 weeks before last frost ( Feb 15 - March 1), start in flats:
broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, lettuce, parsley, tomatoes
5 weeks before last frost (Mar 1- 15), start in flats:
carrot, beets
bump up the lettuce seedlings to larger containers
4 weeks before last frost (5-20 March):
sprout/chit potatoes
bump up the parsley
3 weeks before last frost (15-30 March), start in flats:
peas, spinach
bump up seedlings for broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower
2 weeks before last frost (25 Mar – 1 Apr), start in flats:
dill, eggplants, peppers
transplant to garden:
broccoli, Brussels sprouts, peas, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, beets, lettuce, spinach
plant garlic, onions, radishes

A careful reader might notice that the two timetables don't exactly match. This means that a gardener will need to experiment a little and choose for him or herself the best planting times.

One of the helpful features of the Jeavons' timetable is that it includes times for bumping up and transplanting seedlings, very useful information for those of us who DIY our garden transplants. One of the hilarious features is the inclusion of carrots as a crop to transplant. I've tried it --- it's possible -- but the carrots come out all bent and mangled.

Also, I usually bump up my tomatoes - and start my peppers - much earlier than indicated in his timetable. (He bumps up tomatoes - from the flat to pots - on the last frost date, which I count as about April 12-15.)

For my yard, parts of the UGA timetable seem a little early, but my yard is in a hole and stays cooler longer than much of the rest of the county. Other parts of the UGA schedule seem late. For example,  I can't imagine planting collard greens as late as April 1!

For peas, I use an indicator plant; I plant peas when the trout lilies are blooming in my yard. The leaves of those native wildflowers aren't even poking up above the soil yet, so this year the peas may get planted a little later than normal. Irish potatoes usually get planted in my yard in mid-March, and my onions and garlic get planted in late October or early November.

Based on both timetables, and all the possible timetables gleaned from other, local gardeners, there is plenty to start working with in terms of spring planting, beginning now. I hope the information is helpful!

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