Saturday, July 6, 2013

Garden Mid Summer

Our garden is in full swing and I am in that blissed out state that my fellow garden junkies understand completely. Here are some updates on what is happening. Click on a picture to enlarge it.

Above is a shot from the back porch taken June 30.

An early butternut squash, about 4 inches. We have about 12 plants this year. They are spreading out all over the garden. In a few weeks, we will be stepping over them. These are wonderful squash- Waltham Butternut. They store all winter. We finished our crop from last year in March.

A patch of Bright Lights Swiss chard. We always plant this variety and harvest it from about May to November. We use it like spinach, and freeze a bunch. It handles the weather extremes well. If I can get my cold frame built in time, I will try growing some this winter.

After the spinach was harvested, we planted buckwheat for a cover crop. A cover crop is grown not for harvest, but to enrich the soil. They are also great for preventing soil erosion. The idea is to grow a cover crop when a bed is empty and chop it down before it sets seed. It will decompose into the soil. Buckwheat grows very fast and within a month is beautiful. When it flowered, we cut it off at the base and let it stay in the bed like straw. It is now being covered by the butternut squash planted at each end of the bed. After the squash is harvested in the fall, we will plant a new bed of strawberries in that bed from the daughter plants grown this summer.

The herb garden in early June, edged with yellow alpine strawberries.

Nearly every day, I get a bowl of berries from our garden! Above are the last of the blueberries and the first of the raspberries. Blackberries are next.

Our thornless blackberries (Triple Crown) are about to explode. We have a patch about 15 feet long and 8 feet tall covering the south side of our garage.

Our side garden with blackberries (along wall), sweet potatoes (center), bush beans (left), and blueberries (right). The bush beans followed a spring broccoli crop. The blueberries are wrapped in nylon mesh to keep the birds from eating every last one. It worked and we had a great harvest this year.

Our row of 9 tomato plants edged with basil. We planted 10 more tomato plants in other locations- wherever we could squeeze them in. It's hard to have too many tomatoes. We freeze and share them.

Yellow and red onions are about ready to harvest. The yellow variety are mostly Stuttgarter. The red are Red Bull variety.

Ichiban eggplant and bush zucchini grow in pots on our porch. This means more watering, but it's such a joy to have them right outside the kitchen door.

Volunteer sunflowers-we had dozens- keep the bees happy. They also attract yellow finches and give a little shade from the hot afternoon sun. They grow with no effort on my part. What could be better?

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Back Yard Garlic

Garlic is among the easiest things to grow, and your own garlic will be so fresh and juicy compared to what you get at the supermarket. In our zone 6b garden, South Central Pennsylvania, we plant garlic in October and harvest it in early July. We have been planting a hardneck variety called German White. For this year, we added a few Siberian Red plants to compare the two.

2012 Garlic, late May

Clove from last year's crop

Last fall, we had enough garlic left from the summer harvest to plant for the following year. I saved the largest cloves for seed garlic. This year, we planted about 200 cloves. Each clove is planted about an inch deep. Space them about 6-8 inches and cover with a heavy layer of straw, about 6 inches. Then forget about them until spring. They will be one of the first plants to come up. In fact, ours sent up shoots in the late fall and many of them never really died back!

Garlic in May 2013, far left and far right beds

I leave the mulch on the plants until mid May, then remove it and add some compost. By about Memorial Day, the garlic are producing long scapes which contain a flower bud at each end. We follow conventional advice, which is to remove the scapes to allow the plant to put more energy into the bulbs. We use the scapes like green beans, put them in stir fries, and make pesto from them. There are lots of great recipes out there for fresh garlic scapes. 

In about another month, the garlic leaves will be getting pretty brown. We harvested June 30 here this year. Using Ed Smith's guidelines (The Vegetable Gardener's Bible), we look for the bottom few leaves to start turning yellow. I always pull a few test plants as well to be sure the bulbs are well formed and not starting to separate. You can eat them anytime. Ours were a little early this year. It's been very warm. Our soil is loose enough that we could simply pull the bulbs gently from the bed. I brush them off with my hand and pile them up.

Garlic, harvest day

The Siberian Red bulbs are smaller, but look great. We will do a taste test of our two varieties once they are cured.

To prepare them for long-term storage, I hang them in bunches of 6 or 7 in the garage. The greens and roots should be left on until they are dried. This year, I ran out of space so made a drying rack out of a trellis. They dry for 2 or 3 weeks, or until the skins are paper-like. Then, I cut the tops off and store them in our basement in baskets. Last year, they lasted until we ate them all, about January.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Bamboo Shooting Season

We planted bamboo for the quick cover it provides, but soon learned to appreciate this amazing plant. Bamboo lovers can't wait until the plants put up shoots in the spring. April and May reveal the bounty that is just the beginning of the spectacular show these plants put on. We started with a few plants (see the Bamboo page on this blog), and now have almost full cover.

Initial planting, spring 2011
Spring, 2013 before shooting

June, 2013, after shooting

Side fence, 2011- no bamboo yet
June 2013, after shooting

Bamboo sometimes bends, then straightens out, leaving a "crooked" culm. I have not been able to find a solid explanation for this. Some suggestions are that it allows them to move toward sun or that they bend when they are top heavy. My husband thinks it might allow them to adapt to windy conditions. We lost several culms to high winds in this volatile spring.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Albion Strawberries

Strawberry season is here and I am so delighted with our Albion variety. Last year, I decided to plant strawberries. The taste of store bought strawberries can't compare to berries from your garden, and strawberries are one of the dirty dozen  crops regarding pesticide use.  It was my first year, so I did the research and settled on a day neutral variety. Albion is a variety developed at UC Davis and has good disease resistance and excellent flavor. Strawberries are divided into these major categories: 1) day neutral, which produce on a relatively consistent basis over the growing season (May-September for us); 2) ever bearing, which are similar to day neutral except they produce a few crops in bursts over the season,  3) June-bearing, the most popular type, producing over a 3-week period in the spring, and 4) Alpines, bushy little plants that yield tiny, tasty berries. Our strawberry experiment has been so delicious, and I have learned a lot in the process.

June-bearing strawberries are planted in 3 or 4 year rotations. The first year, berries are not allowed to form (the flowers should be picked off) , and by year 4, the plants slow down production and should be rotated to a new bed using new plants (purchased or rooted from the older plants' runners). Day neutral varieties are often planted as annuals. They produce the first year. For this reason, day-neutral varieties are favorites for container planting. I purchased 20 Albion bare root plants last year at a big box store and only about half grew after planting. They are sensitive to planting depth, and many were really dried out when I bought them. I imagine more would have survived if I would have purchased them from a good nursery. I spaced them about 8 inches apart in the two beds along the house. The Cornell website has excellent advice for planting. It's very thorough though a bit outdated as it does not mention Albion.  I watered well- almost daily- since they are in raised beds, and mulched with pine needles. We did not pick any of the flowers off of our Albions. Some sources recommend taking flowers off in the first month for day neutrals.

The first year they produced reasonably well; we got about 2 quarts over an 8-week period, with a few here and there in late summer. They sent out many runners, which surprised me because I had read that day-neutral varieties don't have many runners. Maybe that's just in contrast to June bearers. I pruned some, but left many to root new plants because I love getting plants for free! My Albion plants seem to runner prolifically, and already each plant this year has put out a few. They escaped the bed last year and new plants- called daughters- sprouted a few feet away in my herb garden, as well as in the cracks of the bricks between beds, and even in an area next to the beds that just had gravel for a downspout to drain in to. When the runners set leaves on the end, simply bury the stem in a little soil right around the leaves, and pin them with a bobby pin so they stay in place. Be careful not to let too many runners root. This will crowd your bed and drain energy from the parent plant. Ideal spacing seems to be 4-6 inches between plants. I have violated this rule and some of the plants are not producing well. Some thinning of the small and weak plants is in order soon.

I left the daughters in till the next spring, but they can be cut in 5 or 6 weeks after rooting begins. In November, when the plants drooped to the ground and the leaves started to turn red, I mulched them with several inches of straw for winter protection. Just cover the whole plant with straw or some other light mulch (leaves or grass clippings will work). I did not trim the leaves, as is recommended for June bearing varieties.

So the real fun started this year. The first great surprise was the number of new plants we had. When I pulled the mulch off in April and checked my beds, there were over 30 new plants. I cut the runners, gently dug them out, and planted them in a new bed. When I ran out of space, I gave a bunch to my neighbor.Those new plants are already producing. I plan to use this method to start a new bed every year. If all goes well, I'll never have to buy strawberry plants again!

The second surprise was that the plants I started last year are extremely productive. I'm glad I left them in. Some sources claim that day neutral varieties don't produce well the second year. This has not been the case for our Albions, which are much more productive this year than last. Another surprise: the berries are much larger than I expected. Most are between 1 and 2 inches in length.

Strawberries are relatively easy to grow, with this exception: humans aren't the only critters who love to eat them. Our first beautiful berries were chomped on (it's so disappointing when that happens). After reading a very helpful post about slugs, I decided this was the problem. I set out traps using a yeast, flour, sugar, and water mixture poured into tuna cans buried into the soil. Most sources recommend beer for trapping them, but apparently it's the yeast they go for. Why waste beer on slugs?  I caught a few, but the damage continued. One evening, I was looking out the kitchen window and noticed a stunning red cardinal making it's way to the strawberry beds. Turns out, the birds were doing most of the damage. After I did some more checking on line, it's fairly easy to distinguish the damage. Slugs put a neat little hole in the berry, like someone dug out a chunk with a miniature melon baller. Birds leave an irregular gash. I bought some nylon tulle and covered them, although I have to leave the ends opened so the bees can get in to do their pollination magic. So far, that has kept our strawberries intact and gorgeous. I also added some nontoxic slug bait (Sluggo) to the beds for good measure.

A few other notes: Standard advice is to pick strawberries at their peak of ripeness because they don't ripen further after picking. I have experimented with various picking times and find it optimal to pick them just before they turn dark red. Left in a bowl on my kitchen counter, they do continue to darken over the next day or two. However, they don't sweeten much after picking. If I wait too long to pick them, they sometimes start to rot. Timing is tricky. In addition, they can be refrigerated to prolong freshness but I think they taste better at room temperature. That's just my preference. Don't wash them until you are ready to eat them, and don't let them soak in water. They get spongy. Our plants began producing in the third week of May and have really hit their stride. As of today (June 2) I have already picked about 4 quarts. I'll update this post as the season progresses. I expect things to slow down when the days get really hot.

We started 25 June bearers this year (Earliglow). We are picking off the flowers and letting the runners root (4 runners per plant). This will give us a bounty of spring berries for freezing and preserving, as well as enough extra daughters to start a new bed. In combination with our Albions, we hope to have a long season of strawberry joy.

First year strawberries (Earliglow) with volunteer sunflower

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Home Grown Sweet Potatoes

If you love sweet potatoes like we do, try growing some in your garden and you'll love them even more! They are a superfood, full of vitamins and fiber, and delicious. We slice and bake them like fries, or cube them for use in tagines and other stews.

Sweet potatoes are grown from rooted slips that grow from the parent sweet potato. If you have ever found an old sweet potato in your pantry with some long white roots coming from it, those are slips- or the first stage of slips. They are then placed in water to develop roots before planting. Last year, we bought two types: Carolina Rose (a long vining type) and Puerto Rico (a bush type). I waited too long getting the Carolina Rose in, and many slips died. I think I failed to keep the slips moist enough. The Puerto Ricos were purchased later and went in the ground right away. They all lived. I wouldn't exactly call them "nonvining" as the vines were about 4 or 5 feet long. By the end of the season, the vines took over the paths all around the bed. Oh well- it was worth it! We planted late May and harvested mid October. Here is what we learned so far. We are about to put this year's slips in, so I have sweet potatoes on my mind...

1) Plant on the later side.

We are waiting to plant our Vardaman slips this year due to a frost (!) warning for next week (May 15, in zone 6b). This is a very late frost but sweet potatoes are not at all cold hardy. I considered planting and covering them with sheets, but decided not to risk it and keep them in water inside for an extra week. I have heard the slips should be planted right away, and I don't know how long they can stay healthy in water. But I think the risk of putting sweet potatoes out in the cold is higher than keeping them in for an extra week. Next year, to avoid this problem, I plan to grow my own slips so they will be ready early June. Although growing your own sweet potatoes is certainly cheaper than purchasing them (especially organic ones) , it is a relatively expensive plant to grow. I got a good deal on local slips- $10 for 25. But we plant about 50 slips, so it adds up. This will be an experiment so if anyone has advice on growing slips, I'd love to hear from you.

2) Sweet potatoes are not demanding.

Water deeply for the first two weeks, and they will establish quickly. Don't worry too much if the plants look dead when you plant them. They are hardy, as long as it's warm and you keep the bed moist. After several days, you will see new growth and they will be filling out nicely in a few weeks. After that, they don't need much care and can handle periods of dryness. As an example, we had 5 extra slips last year so I stuck them in my front yard in an unused space. This is always risky because I can't easily get water to this spot and don't check on it much; in short, I neglect it. In any case, the sweet potatoes thrived out there and did as well as the ones that got prime space in the kitchen garden and were looked after daily. Sweet potatoes don't need a lot of soil fertility and do better without too much nitrogen, which can cause lush vine growth and small roots (the part we eat). The neglected plants produced at least as well as the ones that got lots of attention and the resulting harvest held up until we ate them in March. Another benefit of growing sweets: they are beautiful up until you take them out of the ground. The vines are so decorative and healthy looking and were the bright spot in our front yard. You can clip a few vines and root them in your containers (just stick them in the soil and water them) and they will look lovely.

Puerto Ricos, about mid July

3) Voles love sweet potatoes.

I have never seen voles until we moved into this house two years ago. They are cute little rodents that live under ground and eat roots, especially our bamboo and sweet potatoes. When I harvested our sweets last fall, I was shocked to see that a good third of them had vole damage. This year, we are going to try an organic vole repellent made from castor oil, but I don't have high hopes. If you have any ideas for dealing with voles, PLEASE share them.

4) Curing sweet potatoes is necessary for storage.

I have skipped curing in past years and they were fine for up to three months. However, they aren't very sweet until a month or two after harvest. Last year, we grew enough to store. We got about 80 sweet potatoes from 30 plants. If you check the web, you will find complicated curing procedures that are difficult for home growers to replicate (some variation of keeping the roots in 90% humidity and 85 degrees F for 10 days). Not so easy in the fall. Maybe we got lucky, but here is what we did and our sweets were still firm and delicious until we finished the last one in late March.

Wait until right around the first frost to harvest, preferably on a sunny day and when the soil is relatively dry. Cut the vines first. Dig carefully as the roots can be damaged easily with your garden fork or shovel. After digging, we let them bask in the sun for the day. We did not wash them but when we brought them inside, we did gently brush off any clumps of soil. Using a large kitchen knife- any knife will do- we sliced several holes in large black trash bags (so the roots don't get too moist), and put the roots into the bags. We then put the bags into cardboard boxes and folded the tops over to close them. We placed them right next to the furnace for a month. After a month, we opened the bags at the top and kept them in the basement at about 58 degrees.

If anyone has tips for good sweet potatoes, I'd love to hear from you!

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Lessons from Gardens Past

When I was 16, I decided I wanted  a garden. My mother had just purchased her first home and she was kind enough to allow me to dig in her new yard. With the blind enthusiasm of an adolescent, I dug an ambitious first plot (about 10 by 10 feet) and planted corn, peppers, and tomatoes. The older couple who were our neighbors came over to check out my work, and the husband told me assuredly, "Ain't nothing gonna grow in there." My heart didn't exactly sink, because I was quite confident that I would prove him wrong. But he was right. In retrospect, my plan was doomed from the start. The plot I dug was situated between a tall blue spruce and the neighbor's hedges, so it was shaded for most of the day. And it was so far from the house that I had to water by filling watering cans. It was overwhelmed with weeds and nothing grew except one tiny green pepper. Somehow, I didn't lose my zeal for gardening, but I have made plenty of mistakes along the way. Here's some of what I have learned, and am still learning.

Lesson 1: Site the garden carefully 

We all have heard that location is everything in real estate. The same holds for gardens. Site your garden where the plants get as much sun as possible (6-8 hours per day). But that's not enough. Keep your garden close to the house and to an easy water source. The more you see the garden, the more likely you will be to attend to it, and to enjoy the daily happenings you might otherwise miss. And water location is critical. If you site your garden where you can't easily water and have to drag a 100 foot hose- or worse, buckets of water-  it's more likely the garden will be neglected. Finally, if you have a choice, surround the garden with some kind of enclosure to protect your plants and provide a microclimate. Below, my second garden was sited next to the garage and surrounded on the other two sides by a fence and a hedge. This kept wind damage down and really warmed up the soil near the garage.

 Lesson 2: Mulch

This one I learned from my first garden as well. I didn't mulch my plants, so it meant lots more watering and weeding. Since then, I have dutifully kept a thick layer of mulch over my plants, even those in containers. For a while, I paid for mulch by purchasing bags of cocoa hulls each year. But we have a dog now, and apparently cocoa hulls can be toxic to dogs. I recently figured out that I don't have to pay for mulch. We use composed rabbit manure (see my Compost page on this blog) as a mulch and it does a fabulous job of keeping weeds down, holding in moisture, and adding nutrients and organic matter to our soil. I also use pine straw from needles collected in the fall to mulch our strawberries and blueberries. That's a great, free mulch for acid loving plants. And several times over the summer, I toss a few large trash bags of fall leaves onto my lawn before I mow. I rake them to a thin layer and shred the leaves while mowing;  the leaf/grass mixture is collected by the bag on my mower. I use that fluffy mixture as mulch. We also use layered newspaper covered with a more attractive mulch (usually rabbit compost) around many of our beds. The newspaper is good for keeping weeds controlled and eventually breaks down and adds organic material to the soil.  I do buy a bale or two of straw each year, mostly because it works so well for garlic, but the rest is free.

Lesson 3: Build raised beds

Another lesson from the first garden was that having the garden flush with the ground created much more work. Weeds creep in more easily as the lawn tries to re-establish itself. And raised beds define paths clearly so it is easier to move around without disturbing the beds. After my first garden, it was another 20 years until I had a property and time to garden seriously. In the meantime, I moved around a lot and gardened out of containers. When I finally got to plan my second garden, I made raised beds a priority and will never do anything else. Although I prefer to enclose my beds with 6 inch tall wood frames, several of my beds are simply raised by piling the soil 6 or more inches. That's less tidy looking but gives me more flexibility in case I want to move the bed. When making raised beds, be sure your paths are not too narrow. One mistake I made in my second garden was using only 1 foot wide paths. This made getting around with the wheelbarrow difficult, so our new garden has mostly 2 foot wide paths, although we made the area in front of the compost bins 3 feet since the wheelbarrow spends a lot of time there.  Below, 7 raised  framed beds are down the center of the garden.

Lesson 4: Feed your soil

In the above picture, the bed in the foreground was topped with a few inches of composted rabbit manure in preparation for planting. This will break down over the season and provide lots of nutrition for the soil, which will feed our plants. We use mainly compost to fortify our soil, but also use small doses of organic fertilizer and rock phosphate. Good soil makes a profound difference in the health of the plants, allowing them to be grown intensively and to defend themselves better against pests and diseases.

Lesson 5: Be patient

This is the latest lesson and a good reminder that there is still a lot to learn. This year, I grew onions from seeds for the first time. I have planted onion sets with success around St. Patrick's Day for many years, so thought I would be safe planting my seedlings out March 29. But I ignored the weather forecast, and we had two nights in the 20's the week after I planted them. Most withered away and died. The plants were hardened off, but another week of patience on my part would likely have saved them. On the other hand, the parsley and lettuce that were planted at the same time seemed to die but bounced back and are now fine. Next year, I'll pay more attention to temperatures and not just the planting dates in the gardening books. In addition, I try to get as much information as I can from local growers, who have a better sense than the garden books of the conditions and timing for planting.