Monday, November 20, 2017

Worm Composting at Home

This past week I made a little video about the components needed for making vermicompost at home. The video is linked on the worm composting page of my new site, Small Garden News.

It took several tries to make a video that is acceptable, and my whole bin of worms got dumped and re-set several times as I worked out what to say and what to leave out. By the time the final version of the video was done, my worms were probably in shock.

The video ended up with a lot of information in it (my nerdiness shines through the whole thing). It is about the five main parts of a worm farm and why they are important, but it does not include everything you need to know to harvest a bin like mine. 

To be honest, a purchased worm composting system of stacked trays, with a spigot for draining off extra fluid, is easier to manage, but not everyone wants to spend that much money on a new activity. Also, it can be good to start with a small DIY bin to learn whether worm composting is something you are really interested in. Just like with gardening, starting small makes the learning curve a little easier to climb.

At some point in the future, more information will be added to the worm composting page. Until then, you can ask questions either by leaving them in the comments section of this blog post or using  the contact form on the Small Garden News site to email me a question.

Let me know what you think?

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Gardening Books I Have Loved - Culinary and Salad Herbs

I didn't grow up with gardening. I always loved to be out-of-doors, and I loved plants. When I went to college, still loving plants, I studied botany.

All through my adult life, I have been lucky enough to encounter wonderful books about plants and gardening that have helped me along the way. Some of these books were not strictly "how to" books. When they were, they tended to be for regions of the country (or the world) that have very different conditions than where I live, so the instructions don't 100% work in my yard.

Instead of using them as instruction manuals, as I found them and absorbed what they had to offer, these books engaged my imagination, made me laugh, and showed me new ways of viewing gardening and plants.

This is one of those books:
Culinary and Salad Herbs: Their cultivation and food values with recipes, by Eleanour Sinclair Rohde. 1972, Dover. A republication of the original 1940 book published by Country Life Ltd, London, England.
My first gardening book. PHOTO/Amygwh
My Great Uncle Balfour, a man I had met only a few times in my childhood, lived in the same town where I was in college. One day, when I had walked across town to visit and share a pot of his Darjeeling tea, he gave me this book. He was going blind from macular degeneration and could no longer read, but he loved plants, too.

When his sight had begun to fail, using information from this book, he had replanted most of his garden with herbs. He didn't need to see the herbs to find the right ones for use in the kitchen. Scent was all the guide he needed.

Folded into the book are a couple of sheets of paper, with handwritten notes about the herbs in Uncle Balfour's garden. One sheet contains a seed list. In 1974, he paid 15 cents for a packet of sweet marjoram seeds.

The handwritten notes are a family treasure, but the book itself was a revelation. At that point in my life, I had no idea that people ate dandelions and purslane, but there they were, described in the book as though their use in the kitchen was commonplace. This was news! The book includes recipes for herb teas, herb cheeses, and herb vinegars. It also includes this astonishing bit of information about making a salad:

"James II's head cook considered that there should be at least thirty-two ingredients, and a 'brave sallet' contained more than that, for it was the decorative centerpiece of the table."

For someone whose experience of salad had, up to then, consisted of iceberg lettuce combined with bits of carrot and tomato, topped with some Green Goddess dressing, this requirement strained the brain. However, the rest of the book helped me see possibilities for the other 29 ingredients.

This is the very first gardening book I ever read, and it shone a light on my path forward into both gardening and using my own herbs and vegetables in the kitchen. Anyone else, new to gardening and loving plants, could do worse than to start with a regionally-inappropriate little book like this one.

Monday, October 30, 2017

First Frost

Woke up this morning to a light frost in the yard -- the first frost of the year for my yard. My mom texted me yesterday that a freeze warning for my area had popped up on her phone, so the frost was not a huge surprise. Also, we are at the end of October, which is a usual time for a first frost in my yard.

When I visited my mom and stepdad in Oklahoma a couple of weeks ago, I carried a lot of her tender potted plants into her sunroom, knowing that cold weather would soon be there, too. Mom used to have a lot more begonias, but now at least half of the potted plants are Bromeliads. All of hers have toothed edges like saw-blades, so the sister who would have had to carry those in was really happy that I was there to help. She had someone to share the scratches and scrapes with!
Leaves coated with a light frost in my garden. PHOTO/Amygwh

In my yard, there are no potted plants for me to carry indoors, and there are few frost-tender plants in the garden to worry about.

The leaves on the bush beans look pretty rough this morning-- darkened and wilted -- but they already had finished producing beans for the season.

Cool-season crops that had been planted with winter in mind look just fine.  Frost bowed some of the leaves early, but as the day warmed, the leaves all perked back up.

I checked the radish section of the garden closely, looking for signs that the roots are beginning to expand. All the salad radish roots are looking good and will be ready to pull over the next couple of weeks. It may be awhile before the winter radishes are big enough to pull, though. Most of them still have that thickened-stem look, instead of being round roots.

This weather also signals that the time for planting garlic and shallots is at hand. If you are not prepared, with garlic and shallots ready to plant right this second, that is ok, because the window for planting these is large.

Some years, I don't get the garlic planted until January, and the crop still comes out fine.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Seed Saving -- Heirloom Bush Beans

After eating beans for a few weeks from my early August planting of Aunt Joanie beans, I have let the rest of the bean pods mature on the plants. The ripe (old, pale, tough) pods are not good to eat, but the beans are good to save for planting next year.
Mature bean pods for seed-saving. PHOTO/Amygwh

Mature seeds set aside for drying. PHOTO/Amygwh

Beans for seed-saving need to be fully developed, which means they are at the stage when you might use them as dry beans in the kitchen. 

In drier climates, mature bean pods can be left on the plants until they are "rattle dry". The pods will be brown and brittle and easy to shell out.

Here in the Southeastern US, we are not having the kind of dry weather that allows for bean pods to dry to brittleness. Instead, we are having the kind of humidity and rain that encourages mildews and fungi.

That means I am shelling out leathery pods, not brittle ones, and the beans still are plump with moisture.

Also, some of the pods are mildewed.

When I shell out the mildewed pods and find  unblemished bean seeds, then those beans can be saved for seeds. I don't save seeds that look infected or damaged, because I don't want to have my whole next crop be ruined by a fungus.

I also don't save seeds from pods that contain fewer than three seeds inside. I don't want to encourage plants that produce puny bean pods, and I am pretty sure that if I saved seeds from a lot of short pods, soon enough my entire crop would mostly have short pods.

Diseased seeds will not be saved. See the spots? PHOTO/Amygwh
Before storing the bean seeds for planting in another season, they need to be very dry. I leave the seed beans out on the counter to dry for several days (or more) until they are so dry that one hit by a hammer shatters instead of smashes.

As they dry, these beans will get smaller, and they also will turn to a gentle tan color. They really are beautiful beans!

When the seed-beans are very dry, I will make an envelope for them, label with the season they were grown in (Joanie Beans, Aug-Oct 2017), then store them in one of my airtight containers in the fridge. Next year, or even five or six or more years from now, these seeds will still be good for planting.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Baker Creek Relief for Hurricane Damaged Gardens

Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds has set up two ways to help people whose lives have been up-ended by the recent hurricanes. This is the information that came to my email today:
"Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company may be located on a small farm near a small town in rural Missouri, but we are neither uninformed nor complacent about the devastation caused by the recent hurricanes in other parts of the world.  Our hearts go out to those who have lost everything except their lives, and our hearts go out to the families of those who actually did lose their lives.

We want to do more and we want you to help us do more.  Many of these people need IMMEDIATE assistance of food, water, and medicine.  It takes MONEY to get those things to them.  In an effort to get that immediate aid to those who need it, Baker Creek is running a special for an entire week in which we will donate 100% of the seed sales to World Help, who will distribute supplies to Puerto Rico and other areas damaged by these horrific hurricanes.  All sales proceeds from all orders placed today, September 29, through next Friday, October 6, will be donated to World Help to help them move in food, water, medicine, and other needed supplies.   

We also are donating home garden restart kits to any individual or family who has lost their gardens to these horrific storms.  If you or someone you know has lost a garden in the hurricane and could use a start up seed kit, please send your story and contact information to and to the attention of “donation” so that we can send you a starter kit."

I keep a close watch on hurricanes. I have a son in south Georgia, a niece and her family in Florida, a sister and her family in Louisiana, and two brothers and their families south of Houston, TX.  The brothers were part of the mandatory evacuations, but my people all made it through the recent storms without serious mishaps.

As we all know, and the Gettle family of Baker Creek Seeds is also aware, lots of people were less fortunate. If you need seeds and are able to purchase some through Baker Creek in the coming week, 100% of the proceeds will go toward hurricane relief efforts.

If you know people whose gardens may have been damaged or destroyed in this year's hurricanes, or whose stored seeds have likely been damaged or destroyed by heat or water, please tell them about this very kind offer from Baker Creek.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Bush Beans - A Quick Crop

I planted a little patch (about 2 x 3 feet) of heirloom Aunt Joanie Beans in the first week of August, and today I harvested the first beans from that patch. That puts the days-to-maturity (or days-to-harvest) at about 50 days for this variety of beans. There are not many vegetable crops that can be brought to the kitchen so quickly!
First harvest of Joanie Beans from an early August planting.

This first day's harvest is not enormous, I know, but after I washed and snapped the beans you can see in the picture, they measured a little more than a cup and a half. That is enough for two people to enjoy at suppertime.

If there were more of us here to split the harvest with, I would tuck these into the fridge and keep adding more each day until there were enough saved up.

The little plants have many more beans and flowers on them, at various stages of development, so more beans are definitely on the way! By tomorrow, an amount of beans similar to what I brought in today should be ready to pick.

The first frost for my yard does not usually arrive until the beginning of November, so we will be able to harvest beans from this patch for several weeks.

What are you harvesting this week?

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Pollinator Symposium, September 23

Most gardeners have a pretty good idea of how much their gardening success depends on insect-visitors to the garden that pollinate our garden crops. Without those pollinators, we would have less good food to eat!
Monarch Butterfly laying eggs on Swamp Milkweed. PHOTO/Amygwh

Learning more about the many kinds of pollinators, how to attract them, and how to protect them, can help us all keep that good food coming into the kitchen.

An upcoming Pollinator Symposium, set for September 23 at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, GA, will provide an opportunity for us to learn more. I am on the Monarchs Across Georgia committee that is organizing the symposium, so I will be there, of course.

Even though this will not be a veggie-focused event, I am looking forward to learning more and figuring out how to apply the information in my own yard.

Speakers include Sonia Altizer, from UGA, on Monarch Butterflies; Nancy Lee Adamson, from the Xerces Society and USDA, on native bees; Kim Bailey, from Milkweed Meadows Farm, on hummingbirds; and Keren Giovengo, UGA Marine Extension, on gardening for pollinators.

After the talks, there are additional activities for participants to engage in. Options include butterfly walks on the grounds of the Monastery, led by Phil Delestrez of Georgia Parks and by Father Francis Michael Stiteler of the Monastery; a nature walk led by Robby Astrove, Park Ranger at Davidson-Arabia Mountain Nature Preserve; Monarch butterfly tagging with Monarch Watch; and learning to participate in a citizen science project with Project Monarch Health.

Registration is $75 (a lot, I know), and the registration deadline is September 16. The Monastery conference center is not huge, so space is limited. If you are interested in attending, registering soon, through the Monarchs Across Georgia Events page online, would be a good idea.

The registration fee includes a box lunch and one-year of membership to the Environmental Education Alliance.

The Monastery will have milkweed and other plants-for-pollinators for sale at its Abbey Garden Store.

I am looking forward to spending the day learning from experts and hanging out with gardeners and others (foodies, maybe?) who want to do more to support our pollination helpers!

See you there?

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Starting Again in August

New little patch of Joanie Beans, for a late crop. PHOTO/Amygwh
My little patch of the heirloom Joanie Beans, planted a couple of weeks ago, has come up. If all goes well, the plants should start providing beans for our meals before the end of September.

It is very strange to have spent so long away from the garden and to not have summer crops coming in from the yard. We are visiting the local farmers market for many of our veggies instead, and that is a very good substitute, but I do like to grow some our our own food.

In the good-news category, my friend Cheryl has been helping a local farmer, Lynn, at her weekend market booth, for several years, and she gets to take home a box of leftover veggies after the market closes on Sunday.

This past Sunday, my friend shared some of those veggies with us, so my dehydrator is full of chopped peppers and sliced tomatoes. Thank you Friend Cheryl and Farmer Lynn!

Caterpillar of a Monarch Butterfly on swamp milkweed. PHOTO/Amygwh
To make sure that at least some of my veggies this fall come from the yard, I already have started a batch of seeds in a tray. I will be starting more this weekend, since seedlings are often eaten by pests, burned up in the hot sun, or pounded to smithereens in summer storms, which makes growing some extra a good idea, but I am happy to have made the start.

In the first tray, there are a few each of kale, winter radishes, mini bok choy, beets, and collards, and a short row of green bunching onions. The next tray will have more of the above, plus lettuces. I won't start the spinach until in September, because it is so finicky about hot weather.

More good news - my milkweed is doing exactly what I hoped it would do: host some monarch butterfly caterpillars. Of course, there are also a bunch of weird orange aphids and milkweed bugs, but the caterpillars were the goal, and they are there.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Ready to Plant a Fall Garden?

It may be hard to believe but, within the next couple of weeks, seeds for your fall crops can start going into the garden.

If you are like me, you may actually want to start some seeds in a flat or in pots, to transplant into the garden later, but those need to be started soon. My earliest-to-plant seeds (between now and August 20) are beets and winter radishes. Before the end of August, though, I like to have seeds for other crops started, too: carrots, kale, collards, and Swiss chard are in that group. Lettuces and spinach, the least heat-tolerant of the cool-season veggies (in my garden, at least) get planted in September. Regular salad radish seeds can go in then, too, mixed in among the lettuces and spinach.

Of those crops listed above, the only ones that are hard to move out of a flat or pot and into the garden as seedlings are carrots. Those do best for me if I put the seeds straight into the garden. Transplanting them as seedlings, started in a flat, results in such oddly bent and twisted carrots that they are hard clean and cut up without too much waste. Of course, you may be more skillful at transplanting the carrot babies than me, but I expect that many people will have an experience like mine.

If you had planned to start your own broccoli and cabbages from seed, in flats or pots, getting them started now is almost too late. If you have chosen short time-to-maturity varieties, though, starting TODAY may be fine. Otherwise, for a small garden, buying little plants of those crops at a garden center might be a good plan. If you are looking for cauliflower transplants, but don't see them at the garden centers in August, just be patient. They are more finicky about heat than cabbages and broccoli and are not usually in stores until sometime in September.

Since I missed out on summer crops this year -- my own fault for going on a crazy adventure! - I also have just put in a little patch of bush beans. I didn't buy any seeds this year, which has seemed very strange, but I have plenty of heirloom Joanie-beans saved from previous years' plants for both this year and the next.

Yesterday while running errands with my younger son (visiting from Statesboro), I stopped by TruPrep, which carries Baker Creek seeds, and I saw that it still has a decent selection in stock.  Not all stores/garden centers still have seeds available. If you need seeds for cool-season crops, it might be a good idea to call ahead before driving across town to shop.

Hope that all is going well in your gardens!

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Small Home Gardens I've Seen Recently

I have been traveling around Italy this past month, and in spite of all the great museums, artwork, and historic structures that are pretty much everywhere I look, the little gardening efforts of regular folks are what draws my attention the most.
Looking WAY down on a small veggie garden in Chianciano.
When we have been zooming along in buses, I see a lot of larger gardens that are absolutely amazing, but I have not had a good way to take pictures. In smaller towns, though, especially in non-tourist areas, little food gardens are fairly easy to spot.

Hilltop towns like Chianciano are steep-sided, so I have had to lean out over walls to take pictures of the gardens (Joe makes sure that I am leaning safely!).  They almost all include a few grape vines and an olive tree or two!

Other residents don't have any bare ground for growing anything. One way they make up for that lack is by hanging planters on the walls and then filling them with flowers and herbs. I've seen a few hanging containers with strawberries trailing out of them.

Another hilltop town called Sinalunga has a suburban area on flatter ground outside the walls of the city, and Joe & I saw MANY little food gardens there. It was interesting to see that even small gardens here are planted in rows, while many small gardens in Georgia are planted in blocks, using intensive spacing.

I do not yet know whether the large number of gardens represents tradition or if it reflects on the local tax structure. One Italian guy we met, who had lived in Louisiana for many years, said that taxes here are nearly 60%. Even though that high taxation covers social programs like healthcare, that tax rate could encourage food-growing, since food you grow is not taxed. Every vegetable and bit of olive oil and wine that is produced at home could be seen as un-taxable income. That particular motivation is referred to by some gardeners I've known as "sticking it to the man".

Regardless of the reasons for their existence, all those little food gardens make me smile. Hope that all the gardens back home are doing well, in spite of the super-abundant rainfall of the past several weeks!

Monday, May 22, 2017

Summertime Adventure

Anyone who has been reading this blog for very long may have been wondering when I would get around to telling what I've planted in my garden this year. Usually, I spend most of January and February all in a tizzy over seed catalogs, trying to decide what new crops will go into the garden in spring.

This year, I tried not to look too closely at the seed catalogs that arrived in my mailbox, because I knew that I would be away from home for much of the summer. Reading them could have caused a bit of mental conflict!

My food-garden right now has a lot of herbs in it, the big strawberry patch, garlic and shallots planted in early winter, a few lettuces (unless a neighbor has eaten them)
Plenty of strawberries in the yard this year!

View from where I am writing today.

Container gardens: Not many veggies, mostly herbs and flowers.

Wonderful place not far outside of town!
and flowers for the local pollinators. There are no summer crops in the garden because I am in Italy!

I left an assortment of college students in charge of the house and the lawn-mowing, and the only plants they are tending are two houseplants and the big container/planter by the front door.

When I get home, I can start thinking about the fall garden (and a whole lot of weeding, I expect). It has been weird, though, to not plant any vegetables. I have grown vegetables in my yard in NW Georgia every summer since 1991.

I am looking forward, while I am in Italy, to learning more about gardening here. On a walk outside the city walls this weekend I found a large garden center, and even though my Italian language skills are sketchy and the English language skills of the people at the garden center are only a little better, we managed to communicate well enough.

The garden center features many annual and perennial flowers, but I also saw trays of vegetable transplants and pots of herbs. I will be going back again in the next few weeks to see/learn more.

Already I have seen that anyone with even as little open ground as a 5x10 foot patch is growing at least an olive tree. Larger spaces often include other fruits. I've seen quite a few cherry trees (sweet cherries, that don't do well in the humid Southeastern US), a few other fruit trees, and outside the walls of the town and in parks, there are umbrella pines that produce big pine nuts that are good to eat. It is great to find that so many people grow at least a little food!

The center of the hilltop town I am in, Montepulciano, is very paved, which accounts for the large number of container gardens, but farther down the sloped sides of the town there is more unpaved space, and some homes that have little yards. One yard that I saw on Friday includes a chicken coop, some fencing around a planting of tomatoes, a couple of olive trees, and a peach or apricot.

On another walk, I found the local biodynamic farm, Fattoria San Martino. I am hoping to make an official visit soon, complete with lunch reservation, and I will be reporting back on what I learn there.

Hope that all your gardens are doing well! If garden problems crop up, though, please feel welcome to ask about them through the comments link of this blog.


Thursday, May 4, 2017

Supporting Pollinators

Without pollinators, our meals would be a lot less interesting. Fruit and vegetable options, in particular, would be much more limited, and some of those that provide flavor to almost every dinner would be gone from the table. (Unless I am the only one who cooks with carrots and onions pretty much every day?)

One way I have chosen to support pollinators, besides gardening organically and avoiding the use of even organic pesticides, is to participate in a group called Monarchs Across Georgia. Even though the group focuses on one special insect, the practices it advocates help a whole lot more pollinators than just Monarch Butterflies.

On Saturday, May 13, the group will be selling native plants that support pollinators at the Wildlife and Rain Garden in Marietta. Naturally, native milkweeds, food of Monarch caterpillars, will be featured. The sale is in conjunction with the Annual Garden Tour of the Master Gardener Volunteers of Cobb County. Buying tickets for the tour is not a requirement for stopping by the Wildlife and Rain Garden to buy some milkweed, but the tour is always great. For information about the tour, see the website of the Cobb Master Gardeners.

Plant sale details:

Cobb County Rain and Wildlife Garden
Saturday, May 13, 2017
10am - 5pm
Cobb County Water System's Wildlife & Rain Garden
662 S Cobb Dr, Marietta, GA 30060

Also, be sure to save the date for a screening of "Flight of the Butterflies". This film shows the annual journey of the millions of Monarch Butterflies, telling how the mystery of where these butterflies go each fall was solved. Reservations for the movie can be made through the Events page of Monarchs Across Georgia.  If you missed the chance to buy native milkweeds in May, there is another chance at this event, in the theater foyer after the showing. 

Details here:

Saturday, June 17, 2017
11am to 12:15pm
Midtown Art Cinema
931 Monroe Drive NE, Atlanta, GA 30808

The movie will be shown  in celebration of National Pollinator Week. Your price of admission is a donation to the Environmental Education Alliance of Georgia. Seating is limited.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Planting with Drought in Mind

When I plant my vegetable garden, I follow a modified version of what is often called Intensive Spacing. Square Foot Gardening is one example of a garden method that relies on intensive garden spacing.  It does not use farm-style rows; instead, plants are set into the garden in a grid-pattern, and they often are placed very near to each other. (Note: The Square Foot Garden book has helped a lot of new-gardeners find success in growing food, and in many ways it is pretty awesome.)

My version is modified in that the spacing I use is a bit roomier than in some of the grid-style intensive planting schemes I have seen. There is more than one reason for my spacing plants a bit farther apart than is sometimes recommended.

The intensive planting guide that I started out with, John Jeavons' How to Grow More Vegetables , suggests starting bush beans at a 6-inch spacing, and that is what I tend to use, but for big varieties like 'Provider' bush beans I make the spacing bigger.  The Square Foot Gardening book I read (early edition, so it may be changed now) suggests a shorter distance - fitting as many as 9 bean plants into a square foot of garden. My version fits 4 (or fewer) plants into one square foot of space.

The theory supporting tighter spacing is that even though there may be fewer beans per plant, the overall productivity of the square foot of space will be higher. That makes total sense.

However, when the tops grow to maturity and are making beans galore, the dense tangle of leaves and stems make the beans hard to find. For me, the convenience vs. exasperation factor is a consideration.

This tangle of growth can be a problem for more plants than just the bush beans. Following the suggested spacing for many crops in intensive planting systems can result in a mess.

The second reason for wider spacing is related to drought and the time required to water a garden. When plants are spaced more closely together, their roots cross into each others' soil-space. The roots of several plants will all be pulling nutrients and water from the same chunk of soil.

In a drought, in hot weather, a mature garden with big plants will need a lot of water. If those plants are very close together, all trying to get moisture from the same little bit of soil, they may need to be watered every day. Plants in raised bed gardens (which dry out faster than in-ground gardens) may need to be watered twice a day. Do I have time for that? No.

Steven Solomon, whose book Gardening When it Counts: Growing Food in Hard Times, has a tip for growing food in drought conditions. The tip is to make the plant spacing even wider when rain is scarce.

If the original spacing was fairly close, and the rains have stopped indefinitely, he suggests pulling some of the plants out of the garden. The remaining plants will have less competition for water, and the gardener will need to water a little less often.

My sister in Louisiana plants her bush beans 9 inches apart. Since her area is hotter and drier than mine,  NW of Atlanta, this spacing makes sense for her garden. She doesn't have time to water every day, either.

For gardeners who need high productivity and who can get plenty of water out to the garden in a long, hot, dry spell, the closer spacing patterns will be a better choice.

For the rest of us, if our upcoming summer gets as hot and dry as the last one, and if watering the garden becomes a seemingly endless chore, you might consider pulling up a few plants to see if Steve Solomon is right.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Fruit for Thought

I read today that some parts of Georgia did not acquire enough "chilling hours" over this past winter to make a good peach crop. The temperature needs to be at or below 45 degrees F to count as being cold enough to provide the kind of rest that many plants, such as peach trees, need for good productivity in spring.

Different fruits, and different varieties of fruits, have different chilling hour requirements, but if the main crop didn't get enough cold weather, we may not get our fill of those smaller, super-flavorful Georgia peaches that make such good preserves.
"Toothpick" evidence of boring ambrosia beetles. PHOTO/AmyGWh

Could be a good year for strawberries. PHOTO/AmyGWh
The after-effects of our warm winter are probably going to cause trouble for more than just the peach growers.

In the orchard of one local community garden, I've already seen a different problem. Some of the trees have become infested by ambrosia beetles.

These beetles bore into the wood of the tree, and they can carry disease-causing organisms on their bodies right into the wood! If the boring activity of the beetles doesn't kill the trees, the other bits might.

The evidence that tells an observant gardener about the presence of ambrosia beetles is the odd protrusions, like toothpicks, sticking out from the trunk of the tree. 

To be honest, before about 2015 I hadn't seen much of this pest at all, but for the past couple of springs it has been abundantly present, attacking all kinds of thin-barked trees. Hint: check your crape myrtles!

The good fruit-news in my yard is that the strawberry patch is producing great masses of flowers. If all goes well, most of the flowers will turn into delicious fruits.

The patch has been fertilized and mulched, and the supports for the bird-netting (that also keeps out the chipmunks) are in place.

When the fruits are further along, I will set that netting out, but for now, it is great to have an unimpeded view of the flowers.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Time for a Quick Crop of Radishes

Plenty of gardeners in North Georgia wait until after mid-April to begin planting vegetable crops, but anyone who is a bit impatient can plant some radish seeds now.
Radishes from last spring's gardening.   PHOTO/AmyGWh

Radishes grow best in the cooler weather of early spring, and they are ready to harvest just 4-5 weeks after they are planted. This makes radishes a great little crop to start the gardening year. Success comes so soon!

It used to be that most radish seeds in the garden centers and catalogues produced radishes that were just round and red.

Now, though, a whole range of colors and shapes are available, which makes pulling the little roots up at harvest time a great adventure. The same patch of garden that grew the pink and white (almost hidden under the pink) radishes in the picture also gave us purple, red, and yellow (!) radishes. All were delicious.

People who are Not From Around Here sometimes refer to radishes as a foolproof crop. I remember, when I first moved to Georgia, reading in more than one book/document, that "anyone can grow radishes." That statement may be true in a sense, but the red-clay soil that is the base of my garden did not make a radish crop for the first couple of years, no matter how many seeds I set into the ground.

If your garden has been thwarting your radish-dreams, do not despair. The yearly addition of composts and other amendments, and having the soil tested to find out exactly what is needed to balance the nutrients for vegetable production, will soon enough bring plenty of these little beauties to your springtime table.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

'There Never Was a Spring Like This'

Peach flowers opened in February. PHOTO/AmyGWh
The flowers pictured to the right were on a peach tree at the community garden on the grounds of a church in Marietta. I took the picture a couple of weeks ago, at the very end of February.

On warm-enough days, I sometimes take my lunch to eat at a picnic table by that garden. It isn't too far from the office, and it is a beautiful place.

These flowers are beautiful, too, but I was not as happy to see them as I might have been in another spring.

The problem is that the flowers opened too soon, triggered, I would guess, by a February that felt a lot like April. Unfortunately, we are about to have two nights in a row of temperatures around 25 degrees F.

Even though bees and other tiny insects buzzed all around the open flowers, working their pollinator magic, the little fruits forming as a result of that work are at a high risk of damage from the impending cold. Apple and plum trees in my neighborhood have done the same thing, blooming too soon.

This is one of those times when I think of the poet Countee Cullen, and the poem that starts "I cannot hold my peace, John Keats; There never was a spring like this." Of course, he meant it differently, but this is definitely a spring that I have not seen before.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Georgia Organics Conference, Part 2

Really, the very best parts of attending something like the Georgia Organics conference are meeting new people and hearing those peoples' thoughts about food and our food system. This is probably an example of what is called "confirmation bias," where we seek out and bend information in ways that support our own world view, but I did leave the conference with an upbeat feeling about local food production in Georgia.
Cover of our conference schedule. It is actually green. PHOTO/amygwh

After my friend Electa and I arrived on Saturday morning, we signed in, then went through the breakfast line and looked for a place at a table.

We wound our way through the big breakfast area to a table that had only one woman and her young son seated there. Over breakfast we learned that they both had completed a growers bootcamp put on by Habesha Atlanta (but held in Augusta), and they were starting their own small food-growing operation.

While we ate and talked, more people who had participated in the same bootcamp, and who had begun working to grow some good food, joined us. This was a GREAT way to start the conference!

Throughout the day, we met and spoke with other people who had established small (1/2 acre or less) orchards and veggie farms and small chicken production operations in urban and suburban areas throughout Georgia.

Then one speaker (could have been GA's Ag commissioner Gary Black; my notes are sketchy here), in talking about Georgia's food system, listed big farms, medium farms, small farms, and home gardens as all contributing to our food system.

Home gardens! It was so great to hear these recognized as an important element of food production in the state.

My dream, of course, is that everyone finds a way to grow at least a little food. Our individual production may be small, but it all adds together.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Georgia Organics Conference, Part 1

Yesterday, early in the morning, I drove across Atlanta with my friend Electa to the Georgia Organics Conference, which was being held at a convention center near the airport. We had a fun day, met people who grow and love good food, and learned lots.
Cover of the Conference Schedule. In real life, it is green.

Eight different topics were presented in each time slot during the day, and they pretty much all looked interesting and potentially useful. However, picking the topic to see for our first session easy, because my friend Terri Carter was presenting about Food History in the South.

I was especially interested in the maps of trade routes she showed us and in the role of failing economies in influencing which foods were adopted into the "mainstream" diet. 

At other presentations during the day, I wrote down ideas/thoughts that could help home gardeners. This is a not-so-short list:
  • Sustainability starts with the seed. Choose varieties that are disease resistant and that don't need pesticides.
  • In a small farm or garden, "diversification hedges your bets." Grow more than one variety of each vegetable.
  • In a small space, 'Georgia Rattlesnake' watermelon, which produces Very Large Fruits, might not be the best choice, even though its flavor is spectacular. The plant covers a lot of ground to make those enormous fruits.'Ice Box' and 'Moon and Stars' have a much lower brix reading than 'Georgia Rattlesnake'. You might want to try different smaller varieties than those two.
  • Look for open pollinated varieties when you can, since these tend to have a diverse genetic background. Even in bad years, some of these may survive and produce food.
  • Trellising saves a lot of space and can reduce fungal diseases on leaves and fruits by getting them up off the ground.
  • In trials looking at yields of tomatoes on different trellising systems, cages gave the most pounds of tomatoes per plant. 
  • For blackberries, our farmer-presenter got higher yields on North-South trellis rows than on East-West trellis rows.
  • The same guy shears off the tops of his tomato plants about a foot above his trellis system (he uses a fence system, of wire fencing on T-posts, for his tomatoes).
  • There are no effective sprays to stop diseases in organic systems. Serenade and Sonata sprays may slow down the mildews, but getting good coverage of the leaves is not easy, and these products need to be re-applied every 7-10 days.
  • Neem is not helpful for squash bugs.
  • Avoid composting plants that have root diseases, but composting plants that have leaf diseases is okay. 
More thoughts prompted by the conference will be in my next post. Meanwhile, I have completely ignored my own good advice and planted out some lettuce seeds. The weather is seductively warm, and I am ready for spring!


Sunday, February 12, 2017

Aphids on the Arugula?

One of my friends brought some arugula leaves to the office last week, to show me the many hundreds of aphids that were on them. The arugula is growing at a community garden that she had visited, and she had permission from the gardener to pick a few leaves.
Aphids on arugula from local community garden. PHOTO/Amygwh

We slid the leaves under the microscope and could see that, while a whole lot of the aphids are alive and active (the green ones in the picture), some had been "parasitized" by a wasp.

That means that a little wasp had laid an egg inside the aphid, and the egg was developing into a new wasp.

The aphids that have a baby wasp inside are the puffed-up golden ones in the picture.

When each wasp-baby is mature, it will bust out of the aphid body, leaving behind an empty aphid shell.

Are images from "The Alien" movie flashing through your mind yet? Sometimes, real life is just as weird as science-fiction movies. This is part of what keeps gardening so engaging.

In organic gardening, knowing that there are predators and parasitic wasps around, waiting to take care of a pest problem, provides an odd kind of comfort. Unfortunately, though, even if a swarm of ladybugs (surprisingly effective predators on aphids) moves in to help the wasps clear up the aphid problem, this arugula is going to need a lot of washing before it is added to a salad.

My venerable copy of Rodale's "The Organic Handbook of Natural Insect and Disease Control" (my copy is from 1996) offers some help for aphid infestations. The first suggestion is to wait for the predators to take care of the problem. Usually, in my garden, "waiting" is enough.

This is an odd year weatherwise, though, so it looks as though more active steps will be needed in some gardens. The next suggestion is to blast the little plants with strong spray from a hose to knock the aphids off. The next after that is to try an insecticidal soap spray. In a dire emergency, try a veg-garden-pest spray that contains neem.

Of course, the very first thing to have done, if anyone could have foreseen the aphid disaster looming from back in the fall, would have been to cover the little crop with a spun rowcover to keep the aphids out completely.

Hoping that other gardens are relatively aphid-free!

Monday, February 6, 2017

Now You See Them, Now You Don't: Perennials in the Garden

Do you remember when you first figured out that some plants look great for only part of the year before looking as though they had died, but then they popped back up the very next year looking like nothing unusual had happened?
Daffodils in my yard.   PHOTO/Amygwh

When I see daffodils, which do exactly that magic act, I remember talking (maybe 15 years ago) with a young guy about his new home and its great yard. He was very concerned that he had already killed some of his beautiful flowers.

We eventually figured out that his flowers were daffodils.  The guy just had not yet learned that some flowers (like daffodils) come up early, bloom for a couple of weeks, and then begin to die back for the year.

It was a moment of revelation! I do not remember the exact moment when I learned about the "hibernation stage" of bulbs and the plants known as "herbaceous perennials", but I certainly remember when that guy learned. We talked some more about the strange ways of plants, and he was relieved to know that he had not killed his beautiful flowers.

Plenty of other flowers follow a similar life pattern. All of the spring bulbs (tulip, hyacinth, crocus, for example), Bee Balm, Anise Hyssop, Phlox, Bleeding Hearts, Trout Lily, Blood Root, and many more beautiful flowering plants do the same disappearing act for at least part of the year.

However, not many of our commonly grown food plants are herbaceous perennials, disappearing for awhile before returning. Asparagus is one. Horseradish is another. Fennel does that same magic act, too. A few weeks ago, all you could see of my fennel plants was some bare, brown sticks poking out of the ground. Right now, in the garden, the fennel is starting to show some dense feathery growth around the base of those sticks. They are reborn! Magic.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

When Can I Start Seeds for My Spring Garden?

The answer to “when can I start seeds for my spring garden” depends a lot on how much of a gambler you are. If you have seeds, seed-starting materials, and space with lighting galore, then anytime is probably a good time.

Basil seedling started at end of March, 2016, for sharing in May. PHOTO/Amygwh
If, like me, you have limited space, lighting, and materials, following a more conservative schedule may be a better choice.

For spring veggies and early flowers, my first planting usually begins in mid-to late February. That is when I plant seeds for English peas (and sugar-snaps), spinach, dill, and early flowers like larkspur outdoors in the garden. That is also usually when I set some seed potatoes in a single layer in a lighted space  indoors (sunny window can work) so they begin to sprout for mid-March planting.

The problem with planting earlier is that some seeds, peas especially, will rot in the ground if they are too cold and damp for too long. When they do come up, though, they can survive some very cold weather. So can little spinach seedlings. The dill and larkspur won’t come up until later, but they do better when planted early outdoors. That is just their way.

Seeds for other spring crops may come up in a stretch of warmish weather if planted outside very early, but if we get a return to actual winter, with temperatures dropping below 20 degrees F for more than a couple of hours, the little seedlings are not likely to survive. Spinach seedlings can take the cold, and it is possible that kale and collards can, too, but lettuces are sometimes less happy with such very cold nights, and new carrot seedlings might not make it, either.

Since the weather can still turn very cold in February, I keep an eye on the forecasts before planting even the most cold-hardy of veggies outside.

For most of my spring veggies, I wait until the first of March to start seeds indoors. That list usually includes lettuces, parsley, and beets. When these little plants are big enough, I move them outside for a few hours each day to help them adjust to life out-of-doors before transplanting them into the garden. By the end of March, they should be ready for that move.

Seeds for peppers often are slow to come up, and I tend to start some peppers, for summer, in the first or second week of March, too. Carrots can be planted outside at around the same time.

Tomatoes are a lot speedier to develop than peppers, so I wait an extra week or two before starting any of those.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Planning for the Community Gardening Year

Garden planning, for all kinds of gardens, needs to take into account a long list of factors for best success. The sun/shade conditions available, common disease and pest issues in the area, and the local climate zone are examples of what we gardeners might want to consider.
Community Garden in Mableton, GA PHOTO/Amygwh

The garden's multiple purposes are also important. Is it going to provide cut flowers to bring inside? Is it providing herbs or vegetables? Is it all about supporting pollinators? Is it a "beauty spot" in a green swath of lawn?

Another consideration is whether we are going to save seeds produced in this year's garden to use in growing plants for next year's garden. Planning for seed saving will help a gardener choose good varieties for that purpose, and also help the gardener know how many plants to grow.

Seed Savers Exchange keeps information about seed saving online, to help gardeners get started. I also, though, will be giving a presentation about Planning for Seed Saving next week, on Wednesday, January 28 25, at the first 2017 meeting of Cobb County's Community Gardens group.

The group is a kind of "advisory committee," that meets four times each year. Its members are community garden leaders, members, and supporters who work together to keep Cobb County's community gardens vibrant, productive, and fun.

At the meetings, we (I am a member; can you tell?) share notes about what is going well in our gardens and gardening communities, and we help each other with problems that may have arisen. It is a great group!

The meeting will begin at 6:30 p.m., at the Cobb Water System Training Lab classroom, at 662 South Cobb Drive, Marietta. You don't have to be a member to come to the presentation, and it is always educational to hear what is going on in other people's gardens.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Choosing Varieties for the Small Veggie Garden

Choosing what to grow in a small veggie plot is a fun part of gardening. Right now, seed companies are sending out catalogs, and garden centers are setting up their seed displays. Pictures in the catalogs and on the seed packets all look so good!
Seeds from Irish Eyes for a small garden.  PHOTO/Amygwh

With so many wonderful seed options, how can we make choices that will be good for our own gardens?

Besides choosing crops that our families will actually enjoy eating, it helps to find out which varieties do well in our region, and it also helps to choose varieties that have been developed to stay smaller than the full-size versions.

Smaller crops can be easier to tend, since they stay “in bounds”, and a lot of the smaller varieties have a shorter time to maturity. ‘Little Gem’ Romaine lettuce is just 6 inches tall (super cute!) and should be ready to harvest as a full head in just 46 days. ‘Tom Thumb’ Butterhead lettuce is another small variety, taking 60-65 days to reach full size, and it has done very well in my own garden.

Clues to mature size are often right in the name of the variety. Look for words like spacemaster, bush, gem, little, baby, and jewel.

Of course, some veggies are naturally space-saving, all on their own. Carrots, radishes, and beets, for example, which only need a square of space 3-to-5 inches across per plant to grow well, can all be good choices for gardeners working with smaller spaces.
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