Thursday, December 16, 2010

The End and the Beginning

We have reached two boundaries. One is the end of outdoor produce and beginning to grow a little of something indoors. The other is beginning to draw down what is in storage.

One example of using what is in storage is the potato-pepper-onion meal. The potatoes and peppers are from the garden. I stored the potatoes in the cellar, but noticed that they are beginning to sprout. That means that they will begin turning soft fairly soon. The peppers were blanched and frozen when we had more than we could eat. The onions would have been scallions from the garden, but with some 40 inches of snow they weren't available.

As for trying to grow something, one experiment this year is to grow some lettuce under lights in the cellar. I currently have four trays under two fluorescent fixtures. I harvested a grand total of slightly less than three ounces of little leaves last week. I expected the lettuces would grow larger (and perhaps they will) but since they have a fairly deep root and are in little pots I now think this experiment fail to produce enough to justify the time and electricity (about one kWh per day). I did later add some potting soil to the bottom of the tray so that the roots that have grown out of the bottom of the pots have a place to expand. But I think the real answer would be to plant the lettuce in much deeper containers and that means more potting soil and fewer plants in the same space.

The other source of produce from the garden in the winter is what is in the cold frames outside (kale, mache, claytonia and lettuce). I haven't seen what is happening out there for over two weeks because of the snow. But that provides an opportunity to see what happens when the cold frames remain covered with snow for a long time.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Stuff That Didn't Do So Well

I wrote about some of the vegetables that grew much better in 2010 than in 2009. A few things did not do as well.

I harvested a lot less garlic but that was intentional because we couldn't use the 18 pounds from 2009. This year's 6 1/2 pounds is more than enough. We picked no asparagus because the new bed was just planted last year. I harvested 29 pounds of potatoes compared with 41 in 2009 but they were bigger and I only planted half as many seed potatoes. I got no fava beans. I think they were shaded out by cucumbers growing all over and through them.

Sadly, we picked only 11 pounds of blueberries compared with 23 pounds in 2009. One reason is that the birds finally discovered that they like blueberries but the major reason was that the plants just didn't produce as much. It also looks like they have very little new growth which means next year will be worse. We have alkaline soil and blueberries like acidic soil. I add sulfur a couple of times a year and mulch the plants with oak leaves and pine needles, but I obviously need to buy a kit to test the pH of the soil. How to amend the soil around blueberries is a good winter research project.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Tally for the Year

It started to snow a couple of days ago and we have a lot of snow - probably 18 inches so far. Harvesting had been sparse with just some kale every four or five days. But now the regular harvesting season is over.

Last year we weighed about 360 lbs of produce and this year I had the figure up to 710 until I discovered that one day I entered 1300 ounces of kale instead of 13. The final tally for 2010 is a little over 650 lbs. Where did the 80% increase come from?

The major increase was summer squash. Last year I confidently relied on row cover material to keep squash vine borers off my two young patty pan plants (photo at left) but once I removed the row cover material so that the flowers could b
e pollinated the borers moved in and I hadn't started any back-ups. The total harvest was about 20 pounds. This year I started five plants and had two back-ups and I wrapped strips of cheese cloth around the stems of the young plants (photo below). This didn't totally work because they were eventually infected and I harvested my last squash in early October. But in the meantime we had 109 pounds of squash. I gave some away but we frequently had sauteed squash for supper.

Cucumbers were another success. Both years I grew lemon cucumbers, but in 2009 the few plants I started produced nothing edible. This year I started them indoors and planted them all in one place. They took over that area and produced 47 pounds before they succumbed in mid-September to cucumber beetles(?). I am still eating pickles from the cucumbers.

Pole beans were another big improvement. Last year groundhogs and a deer fed on the beans at various times and heights. This year I saw one groundhog, called a trapper, and never saw a groundhog for the rest of the summer. I successfully fenced the deer out by adding three feet of deer fencing to the existing five foot fence. I also started a lot more beans and we ended up with 79 pounds of beans compared with 30 pounds.

Tomatoes rebounded this year because we were not troubled by late blight. I planted four of my six plants in containers, using soil that hadn't been used for vegetables before. We collected 55 pounds compared with 21. Containers, I discovered, do have to be watered at least daily and sometimes two or three times in the very hot weather. One plant had blossom end rot which continued all summer.

We concentrated on growing more greens and harvested about 137 pounds of various greens (not including lettuce). Last year the total was 101 pounds.

A few words about what we grew less of in the next post.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

A Lovely Day in the Garden

It is October 26th and we haven't had a frost yet and the forecast in the newspaper doesn't show one for the next week either but production in the garden has slowed way down. [Our typical date for the first frost is October 10th.] There now is not much left in the garden other than greens. The beans have been pulled up, along with the ground cherries, all but one tomato plant (I just didn't get to that yet), and I finished the peppers yesterday.

I've begun working on the next season - winter. I've had what I call the "lettuce frame" for four or five years. It is a somewhat rickety frame from old fence slats with a large piece of glass on top. I plant lettuce in it in the fall and it remains covered with snow during the winter until about March when the snow melts off and the lettuce starts growing again. This past winter I built three new cold frames, two of which were insulated and the other made again of old cedar fence slats. Yesterday I cut more fence slats and made my biggest frame. At 80 inches long it was a little difficult to get out of the cellar. We placed it over the kale that was planted earlier. Here it is. It was seventy degrees today so I haven't brought out the two pieces of glass that will cover the top.

Last year the kale survived without being covered but I am told that might not happen every year. I think it was protected by the heavy snow. In the other cold frames I have lettuce, mache - some that was started indoors and some that was sowed in the soil in the frame, claytonia, and some more kale. In whatever space is left I will plant a few arugula seedlings, seed a few rows of spinach and more mache (also known as corn salad). Mache is the one thing that is supposed to keep growing during the winter. This will be our first winter to see how the cold frames work.

This was a good year. Few pests, lots of fruits and vegetables. In terms of produce we have brought in more than 620 lbs this year. What I counted last year was 370 lbs. Later I'll report on the weight for various vegetables (and fruits). The big increase this year was from squash, tomatoes, cucumbers and beans. We will pick kale and other greens as long as we can and then it will be time to start using the fruit and vegetables that we froze, or dried, or made into jam. We do still get a few raspberries each day but they get popped into mouths before they can be weighed.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Busy, busy summer. What now?

In the last entry I was commenting on the changes in the garden from spring to summer. Now the changes to fall are already beginning. There has been a lot of activity in the meantime, most of which was not in the garden itself.

We have been freezing what we can't eat (beans, spinach, kale, squash, and tomato soup) and have already begun making jam (strawberry and currant (jelly) in June and peach and grape more recently. Except for the currants none it was from our garden.) We have also been dehydrating melons and apples.

A large portion of our meals comes from the garden. That involves quite a bit of washing produce and cooking. Eating always takes less time than the preparation.

Parts of the garden are becoming available. The potatoes, garlic, soybeans, and most of the lettuce have been harvested. I pulled out the broccoli because it was producing too little for the space required. A couple of the summer squash were done in by squash vine borers (but I know what I need to do next year). The early cucumbers have dried up and been removed and I have to admit I don't know what causes that. But they were incredibly productive for many weeks.

A couple of weeks ago I sowed some spinach, lettuce and kale in the empty spaces, along with transplanting some Chinese cabbages, Brussels sprouts and collards. But the very warm weather of this summer continued and the lettuce and spinach pretty much died out. Yesterday I transplanted a bunch of kale and some Chinese cabbages and expect the cooler weather will be good for them.

When truly empty spaces begin to appear it is time to start a cover crop. I have also seen the suggestion that cover crops can be started around existing plants like tomatoes and peppers and the cover crop will be started when those crops are done.

I will be planting mostly winter rye and perhaps a little bit of clover. Clover should be planted at least four weeks before the first frost but winter rye can be planted up to the time of the first frost. Where I am adding compost I need to dig that in before scattering the cover crop seed. For areas that only become empty after a frost I will just cover them with a layer of compost (or straw) and leave that until spring.

Since I now have four cold frames I need to identify soon where those will go and begin starting the plants that will go in them. This will be my first year to try and have some greens that I can go out and harvest during the winter. Since those plants will stop growing (except mache) when it gets really cold inside the frames I will want to have them started soon enough to reach full growth by early December. So there is still a lot of work to be done.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Transition From Cool to Hot Weather

Each year brings a different set of creatures wanting to share in the harvest of the garden. Last year our major pests were a deer, several groundhogs, and innumerable snails and slugs. This year both the deer and the groundhog made one appearance, did no damage, and neither has been seen since. The snails and slugs will always be here but they limit themselves to certain vegetables - mostly Asian greens - and while they can destroy large sections of leaves they can't keep up with the growth of the plants. I do try to limit their efforts and one method is to spread crushed egg shells around the plants. A recent planting of Chinese cabbage and pak choi looked like this. I don't yet have sufficient observations to say whether the egg shells work. The plants when transplanted didn't look so great because something was chewing on them while they were outside hardening off.

This year the birds - especially catbirds and robins - have taken a clear liking to our blueberries. They simply fly in, eat or peck a few, and fly away. We really like our blueberries and believe we offer enough other food for the birds - service berries (pretty much gone now), bayberries, and Pagoda dogwood berries (not quite ripe yet) - that they should leave the blueberries for us. Since telling them that seemed unlikely to be effective I built a frame of 7 foot PCV pipes set over 2 foot rebar and tied deer netting to it. It isn't elegant and there are some gaps in it but it has been fairly effective. Two young robins - or one young robin twice - have had to be released but they seem to have learned to not wander in. Same with one cardinal. The catbird just walked under the bottom edge of the netting and took what he wanted and then walked back out again. I pushed the piping down into the soil a few inches and added some more tent pegs to hold down the bottom and that may have worked.

The garden has gotten to the point where the excess of greens - spinach, zen and lettuce - is under control. What that really means is that they started to bolt and are in the process of being replaced. The spinach was finished about ten days ago but we now have some New Zealand spinach available. But we ended up with a fair amount of frozen spinach. Lots of zen has been also been frozen for eating during the winter. The Chinese cabbages have been used or frozen and replaced with the new bed in the top photo. I planted quite a bit of lettuce and am now pulling that out as I pick it for lunch and have started more. We had our first patty pan squash yesterday and more are on the way. The pole beans are just beginning to flower so it will still be a while before we can eat beans. I do have them planted in five different areas, so we will have enough to freeze - I hope. I didn't grow bush beans, but I will next year. The tomatoes, which are a little behind, do have small tomatoes on them but they won't be ready for another three weeks. The ground cherries are forming but they all will be frozen and then used to make our favorite jam when we have enough.

Between the abundant lettuce and the kale and other greens we have enough to have a salad for lunch and cooked greens for supper. I am still waiting for broccoli to form heads as a partial replacement for lettuce at lunchtime. But most of all I wait for tomatoes for my daily in-season tomato sandwich.

Hopefully I can keep up with the very hot days we are having and keep the plants watered. Whoever told me earlier that container plants have to be watered two or three times a day in this heat was right.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Garden is Shaping Up Nicely

The garden is going quite well. Almost everything that has been taken from the garden so far consists of lettuce and greens - the spring crops. [We did have a few scallions left over from last year, some rhubarb, and a few early garlic scapes.]

But, there are buds on the tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, squash (see above) and ground cherries. The blueberries are beginning to show some blue color. There are a few peas and I need to remember to pick them tomorrow. The beans are climbing up the trellises and I think I saw flowers on the cucumbers.

This is the first year spin
ach has really been productive. Actually too productive. One lesson I learned is to not plant all the spinach at the same time. I have always found it difficult to plant something like lettuce or spinach a little every few weeks. The result, though, is a large patch of spinach ready to harvest at the same time. I have frozen a fair amount but I did throw away a lot of the last spinach because preparing it for freezing was too time consuming. And, in the meantime, stuff like zen is getting overgrown, and that, being a large leafed green, it much easier to prepare in quantity for freezing. [Zen is the larger leafed green in the upper part of the photo below. The other is Italian dandelion.]

I was happy to cl
ear the spinach out and next year I will probably not have it regrow after the first cutting - unless I start it earlier under a row cover or cold frame. The regrowing this relatively warm spring resulted in most of it bolting. I need the space for more scallions, beets, zen and the various Chinese cabbages that I have started indoors.

I experimented with several new greens this year. Our favorite green is still zen (a Burpee seed) which I assume is a kind of Asian green. It is very mild, grows well and cleans easily. Among the new items was tatsoi, which is
very much like the zen in taste. I also grew mustard greens - not too bad - and mispoona. The latter has a rather thick central vein and so it takes more preparation for cooking that I would like. So that may be my last mispoona.

I say the following with the hope that it doesn't turn out to be a curse: pests have been at a minimum so far. We had only one sighting of a groundhog and that was probably six weeks ago. We had one sighting of a deer. With the plastic deer fencing on one side of the yard that deer left the yard by leaping over the back gate on the other side. I then attached metal 3 foot fencing to the top of the fence and gate in that area and have not seen any deer hoofprints or damage since. Slugs and snails are present but haven't devastated anything. The first Japanese beetles are showing up.

I have found row cover material to be very useful. I first used it to try to keep flea beetles off of those crops that flea beetles like - Asian greens mostly. But I have now been covering the two beds of lettuce with it. One bed is under the pear tree which is a favorite spot for the birds that visit our yard. The row cover material intercepts the bird dropping and the lettuce remains clean. In the other lettuce bed the row cover material has kept potential lettuce loving creatures from eating the lettuce and I suspect that it may slow the falling rain enough to keep the lettuce cleaner. It doesn't harm the plants and lifts off easily.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Toadly Successful

The dark speck to the left of the penny is a toad.

Soon after we created our first pond in the back yard toads began to appear in the spring and inhabit the pond. The males would sing to attract females and those who were compatible would mate and lay eggs in the pond. Then they would go back to their regular jobs. It was a delight to watch the eggs become tadpoles and the tadpoles grow, develop legs, and then, one rainy day, hop off into the rest of the yard.

Then we had three years when the toads would lay eggs, the tadpoles would develop, but, before they were around long enough to grow legs they would disappear. And not out into the yard - they just couldn't be found in the pond anymore. No little bodies either. This was a mystery. The first year we did see grackles around the pond frequently. They would go down to the edge of the pond and then come back up. Was it grackles? The next year we put a hardware cloth covering over part of the pond so that grackles couldn't reach everywhere. The toads disappeared anyway. Then we thought perhaps the chlorine in the water was killing them. So we started using only water from the rain barrel. The toads still disappeared. Until this year.

So what is new this year? No frogs. A friend brought us some frogs four years ago and we had a good population of frogs for two years but it dwindled to four frogs last year (the pond seems not to be quite deep enough for them to overwinter) but there was only one frog by the end of the summer. That frog did not survive the winter. Thus our theory is that the frogs were eating the toad tadpoles and now that there are no frogs we have little toads again.

They really are as small as the one in the photograph. They began leaving the ponds (we actually have two now) during the recent rains. We also noted an influx of birds - catbirds, cowbirds and grackles - near the ponds probably just waiting to gobble them up. But some of them make it. When they jump they jump about five times their body length and when I am in the garden weeding I only see them if they jump. Otherwise they look like a small piece of mulch. I saw 10 or 12 yesterday.

It still amazes me that these creatures develop in water eating vegetation and then hop out of the pond to breathe air and eat bugs. There have to be some really small bugs for them to eat.

What does this have to do with vegetable gardening? Slug control. Toads supposedly eat slugs and snails. We have lots of those. I have one older toad who spends the day time between two boards in the garden. I have been dropping snails down next to him hoping that he will eat them. The next day the snails are gone, but I don't know whether they have crawled away or been eaten. Next time I will watch to see which it is.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Rain, please!

We have had a lengthy period of insufficient rain and some record breaking heat. And this is only May, albeit late May.

But, the garden is doing fairly well. There is far less snail and slug damage than last year. We have only seen a woodchuck once - but I have seen a couple of broccoli eaten totally off in the last two days so it probably has returned. As soon as we saw the groundhog we had the trapper set out two traps, but all we caught was a skunk and two raccoons (or the same raccoon on consecutive nights). I released them, making sure I had a large plastic sheet between me and the skunk (which was very timid and calm) and that I had gloves on when releasing the raccoon(s) (which was/were aggressive). Now the traps have been empty for over a week and therefore not attracting anything. We had a deer in the yard on at least two occasions - one evidenced by hoof prints and the other by an actual sighting.

As to my efforts at deer control, we have a four to five foot fence around the back yard but this clearly does not keep deer out. The question has been where the deer (I have never seen evidence of more than one) comes in. Our neighbor has seen the deer go into their yard and jump the fence into our yard. Several weeks ago I added a three foot post to each fence post on that side and then stapled deer fencing to those posts to make a seven foot barrier. That has remained intact. When the deer was chased out of the yard it went over the gate in the back corner of the property. I have now put up two pieces of metal 3 foot fencing there. One piece was pushed over several days ago, perhaps meaning that the deer tried to enter there (or maybe meaning that it just fell since I didn't actually attach that piece to the fence. I now have.) Without rain the ground is so dry that it would be difficult to see hoof prints.

The photo is of part of this year's spinach crop. I have never been particularly successful with spinach but this year both beds did very well. This bed is a variety called Space which I believe I bought as being particularly good for growing through the winter. We have so much spinach that I have been cutting it and freezing it. I have always pulled out spinach plants before as my method of harvesting them - and creating room for warm weather plants - but I want to see how well it will regrow.

June is just a few days away and we will be taking a short trip to a conference so I am working on planting all the seedlings that I can. It would be a lot easier if the forecasts for rain were accurate for where we live. I spend a lot of time hauling water to the little seedlings. I also planted some ground cherries, tomatoes and potatoes in containers and they need watering a couple of times a day. Hopefully it rains while we are gone. We also have to figure out what to do with the toad tadpoles in the aquarium in the kitchen, but that is another topic.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Mid-May Garden

The potatoes began emerging four days ago.

Because of the slow growth of my seedlings I bought some lettuce, broccoli, basil, and pepper seedlings at the Regional Market. Lettuce because we have eaten all the winter lettuce and all the lettuce that I put out in cold frames early in the year. My later seedlings just won't be producing lettuce to eat for a while yet - they are the ones that I started in inappropriate potting soil. Basil because I started seeds late - I don't know why I scheduled them so late. Broccoli and peppers because my seedlings are not growing. I may put them (and the tomatoes) out in the garden in a covered cold frame to see if the warmth will encourage them.

A new item this year is minutina. The seeds are extremely tiny and since it is hard to dole them out I have at least 30 little plants in each little pot. Today I decided to plant some out since they are a spring green. Supposedly they should be planted eight inches apart. It will be amazing if these little things that look like small grass stems will grow big enough to be that far apart. Or, considering how they were all growing together in the little pot, if they will grow at all. They will need the tenacity of lettuce to survive. This is one of this year's experiments.

We have grown very fond of ground cherry jam and it takes a lot of ground cherries to make the jam. The ones I started from seed were also in the potting soil that didn't work well. But it is said that if you once have ground cherries you will always have ground cherries. They are coming up all over the area where they were grown last year so I transplanted some of them to containers. This is one thing we decided to try in order to be able to harvest them more easily. I also am transplanting some of them in the area where they are already growing. I will also plant some of the ones that I started from seed.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Snow peas or snow spinach?

I was sure last week that the danger of a May frost was over. Sure, it wasn't May 10th yet but the warm April and the effects of global warming made it seem that we weren't going to have a late frost. And I don't think we actually did here in our yard notwithstanding the obvious snow. Here it is sitting on the spinach.

The outside temperature actually read 36 degrees while I was watching the snow fall and there was enough to require clearing off the car windows before driving.

At least I didn't plant out any warm weather crops in anticipation of continued warm temperatures. But that may be more the result of not having seedlings that are large enough (see prior posts) not that I have learned from experience.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

What Have We Eaten So Far?

We have been eating from the garden since April 6th when we picked some of the lettuce that was started last October along with some of the mache and claytonia that we started in the winter and put out in the first cold frame around the beginning of February.

We have also been eating crops that we had assumed would be killed by the winter cold - namely scallions and kale. We have also had some zen (an Asian green), spinach, and lettuce that we started indoors and put out into the second cold frame.

All of the scallions and kale that survived the winter have now been eaten (they were sending up flower stalks), along with the lettuce that overwintered in the "lettuce frame".

Lately we have been eating claytonia, lettuce and Chinese cabbage (including pak choi and komatsuna) all of which were transplanted into the spring garden. We did pick a small amount of rhubarb also.

My tally, which is fairly accurate although some produce comes in and forgets to weigh itself, is about 23 pounds. Timing to keep enough, but not too much, ready for eating is not yet something that I have mastered. Perhaps because of the very warm (and dry) spring some crops have already "bolted". That happened with the pak choi and so I picked it all (only eight plants) and froze it for later use.

Is it the potting soil?

What am I doing differently this year such that my seedlings are not growing well? The tomatoes (left) and peppers (right) that I started on April 3rd have germinated but have not developed as they should. Admittedly I started them later than I wanted to but these little plants represent seedlings that emerged four weeks ago. The same is true of most of my other seedlings. The lettuce I transplanted this week are the smallest little lettuces I have ever planted out. That is also true of the broccoli, zen and kale that I have now transplanted.

My suspicion is that the potting soil I used after I finished up last year's bag is the cause. I know that a lot of sources on starting seedlings say to not use commercial potting soil but I have never had a problem. What I have been using the last several years is Miracle-Gro potting soil (the bag also says that it feeds plants up to six months). When that ran out this year I bought what I thought was the same - well, the color of the bag was the same - but I think it was Scotts Premium Potting Soil, which, according to their website, is intended for container gardening. I knew that it was different when I opened it because it was fairly coarse and full of little chips of mulch and woody stems.

The seedlings I grew thorough the winter to try out in the cold frames did not have any problem but they would have been grown in last year's potting soil. The most recently planted seeds also seem to be doing well and would have been planted in potting soil from a new bag of Miracle Grow. It is what I started in between - that is, using the coarse potting soil - that has not done well.

Since the soil around these seedlings, when I knock them out to plant, is very wet I suspect that this potting soil is a type created to retain moisture. On the other hand I have also changed the way I water the seedlings, using a little watering can and watering from the top as opposed to my prior method of pouring water into the bottom of the tray in which the pots are sitting and then draining it out a short time later. But I don't really think this would change the amount of moisture retained by the soil in the pots.

As a result of the slow growth, I have been planting seedlings into the garden that are much smaller than what I would normally plant. Time will tell if they will thrive. They may have been in too much water too long and can't recover in the garden soil. [The tiny lettuce plants seem to be doing okay, however.]

Also today I transplanted the tomatoes and peppers into larger containers using the newer potting soil. Hopefully they will soon be smiling back at me - and growing.

Monday, May 3, 2010

I'm Getting a Slow Start

Maybe I am misled by the warm spring we have had so far, but I seem to be behind in my "regular" gardening. Working on building cold frames and trying to get some greens started early in cold frames I have been late in starting seeds for the garden. As a result I have peppers that are just beginning to form their first true leaves and tomatoes that certainly don't look like they will be big enough to set out later this month.

I am concerned about the potting soil I used. It retains a lot of moisture so that some of the seedlings that I set out were sitting in dripping potting soil. But they certainly have roots. I am mostly concerned about the growth of the seedlings. Several days ago I planted out the smallest lettuce seedlings ever. But, knowing that lettuce is pretty hardy (and that I have bunches more still in their little containers), I set out about 60 tiny seedlings. I put them in the frame that I used for the winter lettuce and, later, the early Asian greens and covered the frame with row cover material to protect them from too much sunlight. Hopefully the slugs won't find them immediately.

I have also set out celeriac - although this may be too early as I have read that they will bolt in the warm weather. Anyone with experience with celeriac, let me know. The parsley is in - now that it is large enough so that I can distinguish it from the cutting celery. [I didn't label the containers.] I have planted potatoes and set out more leeks yesterday. I planted the leeks by dropping them into holes made with a dowel. Usually I dig trenches and plant them in the bottom and then pull the extra soil over them as they grow. I'll see how this method works because it is certainly easier and allows more leeks in the same space since there isn't soil piled up along the sides.

We may now be where we are producing enough of our own greens that we don't need to buy them at the grocery store. The Asian greens (Chinese cabbages, komatsuna, and pak choi) have grown well and are ready to eat. We have been working on the lettuces that I planted out in the cold frames earlier. [The winter lettuce have been gone for some time - how long will 22 lettuce plants last?] We have been eating last year's kale and scallions and have started on this year's zen and spinach.

Now, since I am already late, I need to start some basil, more kale and squash inside, and fava beans and scallions outside. From the limited way in which scallions have germinated inside this year I suspect that the seeds have lost much of their viability.

And, just as I finish this my wife spotted a nice fat groundhog in the back yard with something nice and green in its mouth. Guess we didn't get them all last year.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Last Fall's Cover Crops

Cover crops are recommended for garden beds that have finished growing vegetables for the year.
Last fall I planted three different cover crops - winter rye, oats and clover. They have different characteristics. Winter rye - shown here - survives the winter and grows quite thickly. The patch shown here was something of a disappointment because the winter rye did not germinate in most of the places where I planted it. In fact, I went out and bought more seed because I thought the seed from the previous year was not viable. Last year it had grown very well. Rye does not fix nitrogen but it obviously holds the soil in place. It needs to be dug under in the spring and allowed to break down before planting in those areas.

One of the other cover crops I tried was oats. Oats are not winter hardy as can be seen from the thin dry layer of oat remains in this photo. The soil surface is protected and the dried up oats can be lifted off and added to the compost pile, leaving a nice surface for planting this year's crops. Oats don't add organic matter or nitrogen to the soil.

The third cover crop I tried was clover. I don't recall whether it was red clover or white clover - I had only written "clover" on the bag. I had used clover during the growing season last year in among the kale to reduce weeds. I suppose that is like choosing clover as your weed and using it to block out other weeds.

I thought I had read that clover did not survive the winter but clearly that wasn't true for what I planted. Now it needs to be dug under so that what grows in this bed during this year is what I want to eat and not more clover. Time will tell if I have introduced a new weed to my garden. I assume that since the clover has not been allowed to go to seed that it will not be a problem.

Using and learning about cover crops is one of the items I had put off until I retired.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

The Early Spring Garden

Global warming brought us some very warm early April days. The high was 87 degrees yesterday. Today was a little cooler but very sunny and comfortable. In short, great weather to be in the garden.
Typically there wouldn't be much in the garden at this time of the year. But
with the new cold frames we are nearly ready to begin eating. The lettuces in this photo are the ones that I started last October and which were in my old glass covered frame during the winter. The frame is now behind the lettuce and is covered with row cover material. The frame contains Chinese cabbage, pak choi and komatsuna (another Asian green) that I had started indoors on February 11th and that I transplanted out five or six days ago. Initially the row cover material was to protect the transplants from the sun since they were hardened off only for a couple of days. But my Asian greens have often been a food source for flea beetles and so the row cover now keeps off any flea beetles. [I don't know if they would be around this early in the year.]

In one of the new cold frames I transplanted lettuce, spinach, and zen around four weeks ago. This frame is not insulated and doesn't retain as much heat as my other two new ones. One of them is pictured below.

This frame, which is insulated (the insulation is covered with black plastic to protect it and presumably absorb more heat), contains some red lettuce in the lower corner, then a group of mache (corn salad), some spinach at the top which is mostly overgrown with zen (the larger leafed plants). If you could see closer up you would see from the holes that zen is a favorite of the slugs. So far it seems that the slugs concentrate on the zen and the Chinese cabbage and pretty much leave alone the Claytonia (which is in the one cold frame not shown here), the mache, spinach and lettuce.
The red object in this photo and the black object in the photo above it are the plastic covered pieces of board that I use to attract slugs. My wife suggests that if I got up earlier in the morning I could go out and pick the slugs off the plants before they scatter to avoid the sun. She got about a dozen this morning which is more than I typically find under the boards. Where do they all come from? Since I am more of a night person maybe I should go out at night with a flashlight and pick off the slugs before they can start eating.

Having the claytonia, mache, lettuce, spinach, and Asian greens available is a result of using the cold frames. But this year we had another surprise. In the fall I planted a lot of Red Russian kale. It had been so productive for us during the year that I started some late in the season and planted them in a number of places. Then winter came before they were big enough to provide anything for us to eat. I have read that Red Russian kale is not the best variety to try and maintain through the winter and so I assumed that they would end up as a cover crop. When the heavy snow that we had in late February/early March finally melted away there were the kale plants. And here is what they look like now. They are definitely growing and I would not be surprised, depending on the weather, if we have some to eat very soon.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Beginning of Spring

I took a quick trip to Durham, N.C., a week ago Friday and by the time I had returned nine days later Spring had come. I had been waiting impatiently for spring and it was a surprise to me to learn that in my absence the official first day of spring arrived. I spent it driving.

Today we ate this year's first produce from the garden. While Janet went to the store to buy some lettuce I went out and cut a very small amount of mache and claytonia to add to the salad she would make. It wasn't enough to bother to weigh. We were happy with the taste and texture.

I removed the glass covers from the cold frames the day I left (March 19th) and they have been off ever since. The temperature remained above freezing and some days were really pleasant. The only covering that was used was row cover material over one of the frames to keep bird droppings from the pear tree above it from reaching the plants.

Surprisingly, when the snow finally disappeared Janet found that many of the small Red Russian kale plants that I started last year looked like they survived and were beginning to grow. That would be surprising since that variety is not recommended for keeping during the winter under protection. We will see.

As soon as the rain stops I will be out in the garden to clean up, dig under the few areas of winter rye, check out the compost pile, set up the rain barrels, and get the pond going (but that has nothing to do with the vegetable garden). Inside, it is time to start seeds and prepare that last cold frame.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Extending the Season

It should be obvious that one of my main projects this winter has been preparing to grow vegetables for a longer part of the year. That is the reason for the various cold frames that I have been making.
It is becoming clear to me that these frames should have been in place last fall and that the way to extend the season for greens (and carrots and whatever other vegetables we can nurse through the winter) is to have them set out and planted before the cold weather begins. I have read that mache will continue to grow through the winter. But most other vegetables would either need to be fully grown before the winter comes full force and picked as needed through the cold weather or at least established and allowed to just sit in the cold frame under the snow ready to start growing as soon as the weathe
r warms.
One thing I did was to sow some spinach seeds in November and
I believe they have germinated and are waiting to begin growing. They were in the "lettuce frame" from which I just cleared off the snow today. (There is the photo of the beginning of the process.) In a day or two I will see if they are growing or not.

There are two upcoming presentations about extending the season. On Saturday, April 24th, the Edible Gardening CNY group will hear Jennifer Cleary talk about that subject at the Liverpool Library (Liverpool, NY) at 2:00 P.M. That is free and open to the public. If you need more information contact me at Then, on April 27th the Finger Lakes Permaculture group will present their Community Food Growing Series: Season Extension from 4:30 to 6:00 P.M. at the Ithaca Children's Garden at Cass Park, Route 89, Ithaca, NY. Pre-registration is required. Contact Josh Dolan at or call 607-272-2292. Cost $5.

If you are interested in extending the vegetable growing season I would be very pleased to hear from you.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Out In the Snow

Spring is not coming fast enough. I have more seedlings in my cellar than I have places to plant them.
Right now the garden has four glass covered frames in it. The oldest is what I call the "lettuce frame" and I have used it for a number of years to overwinter lettuce seedlings so that they are ready to take off as soon as the weather warms enough to melt off any snow and then provide light fo
r the lettuce plants to start growing again. With the recent 18-24 inches of snow that hasn't happened yet. I did brush the snow off before that downfall and found that the soil was still frozen.
Then there is the green cold frame that was the subject of an earlier post. That one is filled with mostly mache and claytonia. The plants have survived and I expect will soon start growing visibly. I have begun removing the insulation cover from 8 A.M. until 6 P.M. so that the plants get at least ten hours of light. The air temperature inside the frame yesterday afternoon was about 76 degrees an
d the soil temperature about 56 degrees. Today I propped the glass open a little so that it wouldn't get too hot.

The third frame, pictured here, is a clay colored cold frame that is much larger than the green one. It is currently filled with spinach, lettuce, mache and zen (a mild green).
In this photo it is propped open so that it doesn't overheat on this 42 degree sunny day.

The fourth frame is my simplest one. I made it from cedar fence slats from the 20 year old fencing around the yard that was replaced several years ago. [I kept a lot of them.] Although the surface of the boards look as if they are rotting, when I cut them I found a lot of solid wood inside. Because this was made from cedar I didn't have to prime or paint. I also did not insulate this one at all and do not plan to make an insulated cover for the glass. So this will be used somewhat differently than the other two. It does have the advantage that I have two screens from the same window that the glass came from and I will be able to remove the glass and use the screens in early spring to protect seedlings from insects such as flea beetles. This frame was set down on about a foot of heavy snow two days ago. Today I took off the glass covers and removed as much snow as I could and pushed the frame down onto the garden surface. The forecast is for sun during the next five days and by the end of that time the snow will be gone and the soil warm enough for planting. Or so I hope because I have those seedlings to plant out. I think I have far more than will fit into that frame. It may be time to start the next cold frame. I do have a lot of fence slats that I have been saving for something.
This photo was taken a couple days after writing this. I am digging as much of the soil in the frame as is diggable. Around the edges the soil is still frozen and comes up in cold lumps, if at all.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

First Produce of the Year

It is a very small start, but yesterday we ate our first produce of the new year. It consisted of a little spinach, a few cutting celery leaves, and a little claytonia. It wasn't enough to justify weighing and none of this came from the outside garden. This is Syracuse in February.

The spinach came from seeds that I started indoors in late December to plant into the outside cold frames. The cutting celery and claytonia were started earlier in December as an experiment to see if they would grow. I had tried both of those and mache (corn salad) seeded directly to the garden last year with no success. But they germinated quite well and some were planted into the cold frame on January 22nd and are still sitting there looking a little worse than when planted.

I have finished and set out a second (and larger) cold frame. The soil inside is mostly unfrozen although around the edges it is still pretty solid. I am planning to plant some spinach, leek, and Asian greens tomorrow, if it is sunny. The temperatures are not forecast to go above freezing for the next week and it will be interesting to see how quickly the seeds germinate or if they do. I have been recording the soil and air temperatures inside the first cold frame. The soil temperature, at about three inches deep, has remained above freezing although the outside temperature has been as low as -8 degrees Fahrenheit. In the late afternoon the soil temperature has been in the 40s and the high temperature inside the frame has reached over 80 degrees on two sunny days.

I hadn't planned to extend the season at this end of the season this year but since two cold frames are done there is no point having them just sit around waiting for October. I should learn something that will help next winter.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Heating Up the Cold Frame

The cold frame has been outside for about a week now and we have had two sunny days recently. I use a maximum-minimum thermometer and a soil thermometer to record the effect of the cold frame. Most interesting is that the soil inside the frame, except near the front edge where the sunshine doesn't reach, is no longer frozen.

There is no doubt that the sun warms up the air and the soil inside the cold frame. On January 21st, when the high daytime temperature (according to the newspaper) was 32 degrees, the temperature inside reached 64 degrees. It was a bright sunny day. The next day was another mostly clear sunny day and the temperature got up to 61 degrees and the soil temperature (taken in the area that the sun reached) was 46 degrees, although the outside temperature high was 36 degrees.

After I put the cold frame outside I added insulation that I bungee cord over the glass in the afternoon when the sun no longer reaches the cold frame.
Two nights ago the outside temperature dropped to 14 degrees but the lowest temperature inside the cold frame was 30 degrees. Last night the outside temperature was 12 degrees but the lowest temperature inside the cold frame was 29 degrees and the soil temperature in the morning before the sun struck the cold frame glass was 36 degrees.

What these mean is that, on those two clear sunny days, the temperature inside the cold frame got up to 25 to 30 degrees higher than the outside air temperature. At night the temperature dropped below freezing but was about 16 degrees above the outside air temperature. The soil temperature remained above freezing although it dropped about 10 degrees.

We have three more warm (but not necessarily sunny) days coming up (projected highs in the mid 30s to low 40s) followed by a return to much colder weather (highs in the low twenties and lows around 10 degrees). I may move a few of the mache and claytonia seedlings that I grew as an experiment into the cold frame tomorrow to see if they can survive the colder weather. Do I leave the insulation on all day if it is going to be cloudy? Do they need sunlight or warmth more?

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Keeping Busy in the Winter

What is that object sitting in the midst of the snow in garden bed #4?
Today is January 14th. Snow covers the garden. After all, this is Syracuse. I can't prepare the soil, plant vegetables, fertilize plants, or harvest produce.
The seed catalogs have been here for over a month and the seed orders have already been placed and some have arrived.
The plan for this year's garden is made. What will be grown and where things will be planted has been decided.
Is it time to relax and read? Some.
But when it is impossible to work in the garden it may be time to work in the cellar. The object is my first attempt at a cold frame. I just put it out in the snow today because we are supposed to have sunny weather and temperatures above freezing for the next four or five days. My hope is that this weather will warm up the soil inside the cold frame so that soon after the beginning of February I can plant the little spinach and corn mache seedlings that are growing in the cellar. The magic date is supposed to be around February 8th when the daylight will have increased to ten hours.
Here is the cold frame up close.
Except for the screws that hold it together, the insulation hidden inside and the insulation strip that lies under the edge of the glass, it is made from materials that I (or my son, Greg) collected or that have been in the cellar for some time. When I see large storm door windows by the side of the road I grab them. This one is somewhat small, about 26" by 29". The frame is made from 3/4" pine some of which was a neighbor's shelving unit that found itself at the curb. The sides are screwed into halves of pieces of 2" by 4" at the corners. I cut up pieces of our old cedar fence about 1 1/2" wide and nailed them to the bottom of the sides so that the initial rot over time will be of the replaceable cedar pieces and not the pine sides and to hold the insulation. I cut one inch foam insulation and added it to each side covered with black plastic stapled to hold the insulation in place and absorb more sunlight. Right now the cold frame sits on a piece of black plastic that hopefully will absorb heat from the sun and melt the thin layer of snow under the cold frame and warm the soil that is below that. I was planning to remove the black plastic but I could just make slits and plant through it. Since the glass sits on 3/4" pieces of wood screwed about half an inch below the top of the cold frame I placed a metal corner brace under the glass when I put the glass in so that I have a way to lift the glass when I need to get inside to plant, water, etc. The string was added as a back-up means of lifting the glass when I forget to put the corner brace back in place.
The last step will be to cut a piece of foam insulation the size of the glass to bungee cord on top of the glass when it is supposed to get really cold. I may also add a piece of row cover over the plants inside to provide additional protection. I have to purchase a maximum-minimum thermometer to put inside in order to see what the range of temperature is.