Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Waiting Game and Quirky Mass Marketing

As I wait the allotted 10-14 days for the most adventurous of my eggplant seeds to sprout, I reflect on the fact that gardening is often an exercise in watering dirt.  Each day I go to my flat of dirt filled pots, inspect them carefully, and add water.  Tim asks if everything is alright with my plants?  What plants?  Everything is just fine with my dirt...  In the larger scheme of things, gardening is a lot more about dirt than it is about plants.  And dirt is a lot more about compost...

The pride of any successful garden is a good compost pile

The one thing that always consoles me when I have a gardening failure is that if I am not growing food, then at least I am growing future compost.

Our green waste is composted in a large black drain pipe prior to being integrated into the larger pile.

 Another thing that consoles me as a horse owner... if I am not riding, at least I'm maintaining a source of horse manure.  A well tended manure pile is an excellent source of mass quantities of compost.  No matter what farm animal it comes from, chicken, goat, horse, or cow, and no matter what sort of bedding is mixed in, the important part is that the farmer turns and tends the manure pile.  This breaks everything down evenly so that when it is ready to be loaded up for the garden, it is barely distinguishable from potting soil.

One aspect of gardening that Tim is always involved in is the fetching of compost.  We load it into a tarped trailer, haul it home and shovel it into a pile where we continue to turn and "fluff" it into "black gold".  This is the time when it is necessary to have some large equipment both at the loading end and the unloading end.

Once I get it home, I deal with it in smaller quantities, sifting the larger uncomposted parts out and adding them back into the pile.  If you truly think that you have nothing left to do in the garden on any given day, go out and get some well sifted compost to side dress your plants.

There are few things prettier than a bed of healthy plants wearing a fresh layer of compost.

But even being a no nonsense dirt farmer who buys her beans in bulk and takes great pride in her very large manure pile, I am always intrigued by the 21st Century mass marketing which makes gardening look so easy and colorful.  The goal of a good marketing plan is not merely to sell to a large portion of the existing market, you must also sucker in new buyers who have never gardened before.

Click here for the YouTube demonstration of Gro-ables Gardening.
This is like Lunchables or Pudding Snack Packs for gardening.  Who needs tractors or trowels?  Or cow poop? Just buy a kit at the store, stick it in your cart, and cart it home to your patio.

It almost appears as if no hard work or dirt are involved!

Everything comes with a bar code and instructions!
I have to admit it's a clever idea and rather appealing.  And actually, that might not be a bad way to start a single zucchini plant which will take over the garden and produce dozens of pounds of food.  But at the same time, that is the long way to go about planting a row of beans or peas.  Can you even imagine?

In another two weeks it will be Good Friday and I will be chomping at the bit to get my garden peas in the ground.  With any luck the snow will have melted by then.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

The Return of Spring - the Ides of March

It was a foggy, cold, dank March morning that smelled of Spring.  That is to say, it smelled of frog bellies, earth worms and skunk.  The Robins have made their first appearance, mingling with larger flocks of Starlings and riling up the Cardinals to defend their territories and scarce food supply.  They appeared as flashes of brilliant color against the shabbiness of the wet brush.  Tim and I (and many other locals) had gotten out of bed early to nurse our Spring Fever at the local junque auction.  We have been looking for a potato fork to replace the one I broke off under a frozen clump of horseradish last December.  But as with most things, you see them everywhere until you need one and then they are as scarce as hen's teeth.

Tim and I wandered the tables of the auction house, surveying the loads of junk.  We love auctions like this, and if you ask me "are you a junk buyer?" I guess I would have to say "yes, I am" because the tables of junk hold a lot of things that look just like the selection at home.  We often wonder how many times these items make the auction circuit.  They are left behind in old houses, the flotsam and jetsam of past lives.  If you are a Hobbit fan, you will know that the term for this is Mathom :anything which they had no use for but were unwilling to throw away. 

My Empeco kitchen tin collection is based on the Sugar Coffee and Tea tins on the right which belonged to my great grandmother.  The flour tin had been lost and is replaced by one with a slightly different patina.   I use the bread and cake tin on my counter to hide bags of chips and boxes of crackers, but the child's toy version in the center is the real prize.

 Or this junk just belongs there, on that shelf where its been for fifty years.  Why disturb it now?  Then someone gets tired of moving them one too many times and off they go to the sale only to be bought up by someone else and put back on a shelf.  I idly wonder about the people who buy thread bare Persian rugs and vintage Red Cross uniforms and then realize they probably buy those for the same reason I buy old tins and enamelware - just to have.   As I walk through our home, I look at pieces such as the ladies spittoon and the old crock and realize that we have them simply because they were here when we got here, many with their origins or importance lost to time.

But today I spy something I've actually been looking for.  Not a potato fork, something much less useful.  Something just to have,  A 1930s advertising tin that used to contain Campfire Marshmallows.  Yes, I was actually searching for a eighty year old marshmallow tin.  Specifically.  Because that's the kind of gal I am.  Our home is full of things from a different era.  Our porch contains every item needed to wash, dry and iron a day's worth of laundry the old fashioned way, but as yet I've managed to resist the urge to try.  Our dining room hales from the turn of the last century.  I've overheard our nephews, twenty-something professionals, talking amongst themselves saying that our house looks like something out of a magazine, and I hope they mean something good like Country Living or Flea Market Decor and not something like Hoarders and Junkmen.

Besides the large items, I also have a full collection of washboards, rug beaters, line winders and pulleys, irons, sprinklers and other various and sundry laundry paraphernalia.

So anyway, I had been looking for a Campfire Marshmallows tin to use as a base for a Christmas centerpiece (next year) and there it was holding a selection of baseball bats from rolling off a table.  I already collect tin containers, but usually they are green flour and sugar tins made specifically by Empeco Metal Packaging Corp.   When I saw a Christmas arrangement on Pinterest with a Campfire Marshmallow tin as a base I thought "now that is right up my alley".  But of course, I couldn't use one of my existing tins.  No, the true charm of this arrangement is the winteriness of the marshmallows, and the little marshmallow snowman faces in the arrangement.  The fun of this arrangement is that it gives me a reason to add a piece to my 1920s/30s tin collection!  The search was on!

There are always five pound Campfire Marshmallow tins available on Ebay in a variety of ages and conditions at a variety of prices,  I was shopping for tins in the $20-30 range and expected to pay $10-15 shipping on top of that.  With that in mind, I would bid up to $25 and with the 20% buyer's premium and sales tax I would be paying full Ebay retail but have the tin in hand.  We waited a couple of hours.  Tim bought a couple of items.  We watched weighed silver sell beside tin toys and old tools.  It was a good place to pass the morning while the fog and drizzle outside masked the progression of the sun.  It seemed that their random picking from this table and that to keep every one's interest would go on forever, but finally, the auctioneer picked up my marshmallow tin.  

There are a lot of buyers there that pick for their shops and antique mall booths.  The other half seem to be older retired men who stop by for some coffee and gossip, but bidding on the tin was brisk.  I started at $5, and three others jumped in by the end, but in a short minute it was mine for $25 on the dot.  Seems that everyone else had been doing their homework as well.

So back to gardening.  You can only buy so much junk before you have to go home and get back to the business of growing food.  Last year I put my eggplants in damp paper towels on March 22nd.  This was because I was working with old seed.  This year I have fresh seed and I am looking forward to some beautiful eggplants this season.  This past week, on a warm sunny day (yes there actually was one), I got some potting soil out of the bin in the cold frame and put it in my potting bench so I could fill my pots in the comparative comfort of the garden shed this year instead of like last year, bent over the cold frame in a March snowstorm.
Johnny's Seeds Eggplant Clara
Today I happily filled pots, standing upright, under lights, in the "potting shed".  I left about a third of the pot empty, and put a layer of seed starting mix, a light weight, sterile medium, on the top to hold the new seeds.  Then I wet them down with a watering can and brought it into the house.

This year I'm simplifying things by using the Italian Trio of eggplants from Renee's Garden.  The clever thing about buying a mix from Renee is that she makes sure the seeds are color coded.  If you want two plants of each, you make sure you plant two of each color.  Simple as that.

Renee's Seed Italian Eggplant Trio
My eggplants are now started, on a heat mat and under grow lights in the basement.  This takes up half of one flat.  April 1st I will fill out that flat with bell peppers.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Is It March Yet?

Yesterday the temperatures were in the mid-twenties and the sun was out.  Dressed for sitting in my office, in layers and wool, I had to roll down my car window as I drove around mid-day doing errands.  I saw a person wearing short sleeves.  Out of doors.  I didn't button my coat.  Having survived the coldest February on record, we are emerging from the depths of winter with our eye on spring and as the temperatures climb out of the single digits, we are shedding our layers.

Since I first owned a car with a thermometer, in the winter of 2002/2003, my lowest noted temperature has been -16.  Considering that I am generally out driving around every day of the week before 9am, that is a pretty thoroughly researched benchmark. Our hill, sheltered as it is by woods, is usually on the warmer end of the spectrum, but on my drive to work in the mornings, as I descend down the back side towards the lowland the coldest air would sink and I would watch the thermometer drop from -12*F, then -16....  I would sit at the first stoplight next to the large neighborhood produce stand, which is bustling all summer, and watch the thermometer hit -23.  A few miles later past my friend Mickey's little commercial greenhouse I would get the lowest reading.  Three days it was below -25 with my seasonal record being -30.

Last week Fed Ex delivered some expanding pea fence I had ordered from  Rather than leave the large boxes on the porch, or cheat and store them in the garage, I slung 40+ pounds up on one shoulder and headed across the lawn to the garden shed.  We've have foot after foot of snow that has not melted.  Tim has shoveled our roof twice.  The snow in the lawn is way over my knees and the bottom layers are so dense that they trap your foot, render your natural balance mechanisms ineffective, and threaten to throw you down.  I trudged fifty or so feet through this impossible, impassable terrain to the garden deck, misjudged the edge, and floundered until I was waist deep and sinking.  I threw the boxes in the general direction of the door and finished the last ten feet on all fours, wading towards the surface.

When the new boxes were stowed in the shed I considered staying to shovel off the cold frame again so it is not crushed under the weight of the snow, but there was nowhere to shovel too.  The last time I shoveled two feet of snow off it I brought the surrounding snow levels up over the cold frame level.  I would literally be digging down to the lid.  I left it for another day.

That lump you might think is the cold frame is not the cold frame.  It is a Rubbermaid deck box full of chair cushions.  The cold frame is that slope in front of the lump.  The snow is deeper than and completely covers our garden bench.

Last year I started my Egg Plant seeds on March 22.  When I planted them on Memorial Day, the most vigorous were still only about 4" to 6".  I think this year I will start them on the Ides of March.  Peppers on April Fools Day.  Tomatoes a couple of weeks later.  I have sorted through my seeds, old and new and made a list of varieties I am going to plant this year.  A pictorial version can be found on Pinterest.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

February Report

I have ordered and received my seeds for this year, and am anxiously awaiting seed starting time.  

I ordered Squash... but no corn
I am going to try some Jalapeno Peppers since some of my favorite soup/chili recipes call for them.
I have resolved not to bother planting onions this year since I use so few of them
I am not sure my resolve will hold ...
I always say I'm not going to plant any radishes or carrots.  But so many of those teeny tiny seeds come in a packet that I always have some leftover.  And leftover seeds just beg to be planted.
A new variety this year is Islander Bell Peppers which are supposed to go through the entire rainbow of pepper colors, including violet before ripening a deep red.  This will be a compliment to my Purple Beauty peppers that are born purple but ripen deep red.
Before we know it it will be time to plant Peas.  This year my structural investment is going to be the extra tall Pea Fence from so my taller variety won't fold over on me and make a jumble.

We are looking forward to another year of home grown cantaloupes.  This year I'm going to try them in large tubs.  I'll try one in the cold frame to see if the additional heat helps, and one in the chicken yard where they can sprawl all over the sand.
Of course we are first looking forward to spring lettuce.  I always get my lettuces from Renee's Garden and she has a new blend for 2015 that I'm anxious to try.

My Honeoye Strawberry Plants are ordered and will be here in April.  I am looking forward to their performance instead of he hodge podge of plants I'd collected before.  They won't produce the first year,

And what would a garden blog be without mention of bugs?  Perhaps I'll order
Praying Mantis again.  I love finding these in and among my leaves.  They are like garden mascots.

Have a Happy Valentine Day and THINK SPRING!

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Raised Bed Planning

To Raise or Not to Raise:  That is the question

Recently one of my gardening/blogging friends asked me “is there anything about gardening in raised beds that sucks relative to growing in rows in much larger plots?”  My first response was “Potatoes”.  But it’s a valid question and one I’ve given thought to over the years.  If I had a Do-Over, what would I do differently?  Today is New Years and with that (and this stack of mail order seed catalogs) the 2015 garden planning begins.

Every action has an equal and opposite reaction.  It’s Newton’s Third Law of Physics.  There is no such thing as a completely positive experience.  There is always downside.  Always.  I love gardening in raised beds.  I hate trying to put potatoes in them.  There.  That’s my equal and opposite reaction.  Not that it’s a deal breaker.  It just has its limitations.  Honestly, the best way to grow potatoes is in pots.  Or a stack of old tires.  But even that has drawbacks.  So first, let’s revisit the positives of gardening in raised beds.

A tidy bed edged with 4"x 4" ties with gravel paths will cut down on
work and expense and be aesthetically pleasing

First and foremost, raised beds offer a longer growing season.  In the spring the improved drainage will ensure that your soil is warm and dry weeks if not months before everyone else’s.  And, you don’t have to wait for those windows of opportunity to haul out the tiller and/or tractor to prepare your soil.  When you clear your beds in the fall, you are preparing them for spring.  All you have to do is tip toe out there on some warm, sunny day and poke a few seeds in the ground.  It’s as easy as that!  And because you don’t have to get the tractor onto the sodden, muddy, frozen ground you also don’t have to worry about taking down or putting up any fencing like we used to do when we used the tractor to till.  The beds and their protection are permanent fixtures.

Tim brings the tiller out to the potato patch each spring and wonders
why it is not working as well as when we stored it away.  It never fails.

A very close second to the longer growing season is no paths to maintain.  Let’s face it.  In a traditional row style garden there is about 3 times as much space devoted to path than to row.  This means you are spending most of your time defending soil which is not working for you.  You plant two rows, and in between is 3 or 4 feet of trodden down, compacted, weedy, likely muddy, soil which has to be weeded all season, and then uncompacted for next year. 

Not only are my seedlings getting a good start, the weeds in the paths are flourishing

And why are all these weeds flourishing in the paths?  Because you are watering and fertilizing them.  That’s right, you are wasting time, effort, and money feeding your weeds and then pulling them back out!  Duh!  Having your plants rounded up into neat beds, and planted close together means you only have to maintain the soil right in and around your plants.  And that is where your water and fertilizers or soil amendments will be concentrated.  There is quite simply a fraction of the manual labor, cost and time spent on raised beds as opposed to traditional row cropping.

In the fall, a layer of chopped leaves is weighed down by a layer of composted horse manure.
New growth of garlic pokes through.

Another benefit of raised beds is the ease of lasagna gardening.  Because you are not walking on your soil, and fertilizing weeds growing in it, you never have to fluff the soil or grind up the weeds and turn them under.  This means that over time you will have fewer and fewer weeds.  And more and more earth worms (because you aren’t destroying their tunnels).  Because you never really have to turn your soil, you just keep adding layers of organic soil amendments, feeding your worms, blocking your weeds, and going on your merry way.  And because you are not continually tilling your soil, and you are rounding it up into structured beds, you get less erosion.  If you have to garden on a slope, you can lay out and construct tiers or terraces to work with the lay of the land and even turn a useless piece into a productive garden.

So those are the benefits.  What are the challenges?  Well. Permanence is your challenge.  Along with space limitations.  Plan poorly, and you have to live with it for awhile.  So it is very important to plan well.

#1.  How much space do you need?  This is where square foot gardening concepts come into play.  A tomato plant requires at least one square foot of space.  However, if you plant indeterminate varieties one foot apart, you may find you have over crowded them.  A pepper plant requires one square foot of space.  Intersperse your tomatoes and peppers and the relative height of the plants reduces your crowding.  If you generally plant a 10 foot row of bush beans, remember that you can plant two or three "rows" 6 to 8 inches apart and get twice as many beans into the same length.

#2. What will your bed dimensions be?  Don’t make the beds any wider than twice the length of your reach.  This means about 4 feet.  But if you use 6” x 6” material, and you make your bed 4 feet wide, you will only get a 3 foot width of growing space.  Consider for a moment trying to hill potatoes in a 3 foot wide space.  Adding soil and then having to remove it again at harvest... Ahh!  See?  It sucks.

Careful mapping out of crop requirements allows you to maximize planting.
Here bean and cucumbers coexist peacefully
and later in the summer, the sunflowers in the center
have grown tall enough to support the climbing vines.

#3.  What will your rotation be?  To make crop rotation planning easier for the rest of your life, figure out how many crop types you will plant and then build beds in multiples of that number.  Vegetables are divided into 6 main families.  By avoiding planting the same family in the same spot two years in a row, you limit the establishment of diseases that destroy those crops, as well as avoid stripping your soil of whatever nutrients that crop uses most of.  I grow mainly Solanaceous (Eggplant, peppers, potatoes, tomatoes), Legumes (Beans and Peas) and Cucurbits (Cucumbers,melons, squash, pumpkins, watermelons).  So I need at least 3 beds, or 6 or 9. I grow two beds of each type, so my minimum is 6 beds. Additionally you should allow at least 4 years between repeating crops, not 3 like I usually get.  Ideally, I would have at least 8 beds allowing me to rest one bed a year, and keep up my rotation. 

Cucumbers,melons, squash, pumpkins, watermelons
Beans, peas
Eggplant, peppers, potatoes, tomatoes
Chive, garlic, leek, onion, shallot
Carrots, parsley, dill, fennel,coriander, parsnip
Broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage,cauliflower, kale, radishes, turnips

#4.  Are all of your beds really going to be equal?  To further complicate my rotation, not all of my beds get the same amount of sun.  Because of the placement of the garden shed on the east, and a partial tree line on the west, the southern row of beds gets about 2 hours a day less sun than the northern row of beds.  Hhhmmmmpppfff… 

Foliage color shows me that the blood meal added to the right side of the bed
should have been added to the left side as well.
And you will find “dead zones” in your soil.  No matter how carefully you amend, you will periodically find an area in your beds that isn’t producing as well as it should.  Or you might get a pest issue in one bed and need to spend a season solarizing it or resting it.  Plan more beds than you think you need!

Remember, not all of your beds have to be identical.  If I had a do-over I would build three different sizes of beds.  I would have a few half sized beds for herbs, or onions or cut flowers or just experiments.  Sure, you can plant half a bed, but having half sized beds appeals more to my planning and asthetics.  I would have double size beds for crops that require more space like potatoes or melons.  We have added two double size beds after the fact and they are outside of the garden fence.  This means we have to have alternate methods of deer/rabbit defense.  That is usually in the form of a crop cover.  Easy enough for low uniform height crops like beans or even potatoes, but not feasible for tall items like tomatoes or pole beans.  Which means the unprotected beds have their own rotation.

Tall hog panel fencing can be reinforced at the bottom with hardware cloth
which will keep out smaller pests like woodchucks and rabbits.
Speaking of fencing.  Fence the whole thing.  The bigger the better! Our garden shed is outside our fence.  Which isn’t a big deal, but when you leave the garden shed on the way back to the house, it would be easier to know you have just shut the garden gate behind you rather than remember if you shut the garden gate 10 minutes ago when you left the garden on the way to the shed.  And those nice pots of petunias by the shed door?  Not protected.  Cold frame?  Not protected.  You can’t leave the lid open during the heat of the day and be sure that Bambi isn’t going to wander by and stop for a snack.   Patio?  Not protected. I can’t leave a bunch of flats of seedlings in the partial shade of the patio because there could be hoof prints through them by tomorrow.  Apple trees?  Not protected.  You catch my drift.  Put a large perimeter fence around your entire gardening world.  You won’t regret it.

This 8' x 8' bed gives me the space and flexibility to more easily maintain crops
such as potatoes and melons, but since it is outside the fence it forces me to be creative protecting my
crops from deer and rabbits

So this is my Do-Over Raised Bed Planning list:
1.       Build a couple more beds than you think you will need.
2.       Don’t lock into one dimension, or even shape.  Give yourself some flexibility.
3.       Fence in as large an area as you can afford.

4.       Study you sun patterns very carefully and remember that any structures or plantings you add in the future may affect them.

      There are a few things I would do differently, now that I've lived with it for awhile, but one thing I will never do is go back to rottotilling and rows style gardening.  I'm a raised bed convert through and through.

Footnote: One thing I failed to mention is the material chosen for the walkways.  It probably deserves it's own blog.  We have landscape fabric covered in gravel.  It is clean and easy to maintain.  Weeds (and tomatoes... and cat nip... and pansies) do grow in it but they are easily removed one by one or en masse with a metal rake.  The gravel collects and holds heat which is great in a cooler climate like western NY, but may be too much in the deep south where added heat is not a benefit.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Merry Christmas, Good Yule and a Happy New Year

I have been a lazy blogger of late.  But I hope you have all noticed that the solstice has come and gone and we are on the upswing towards spring, with plenty of seed catalogs in the mail to prove it.

Last year I celebrated Winter Solstice by digging horse radish roots.  I need to do that this week.  We enjoyed lettuce from the garden until the end of November this year.  I had it covered under hoops, and it survived just fine until single digit nights did it in.  I had cut a 2 gallon container and we had fresh salads for another couple of weeks.

We planted four new trees from Big Horse Creek Farm in the apple orchard.  The varieties are Yellow Transparent, Chenango Strawberry, Esopus Spitzenberger and Golden Delicious.  Next year I plan to add Honey Crisp, Red Astrachan (neither of which survived to shipping time this year) and another Stark King David.

I added a nice selection of spring bulbs that I am looking forward to, and the first order of business this spring will be to replace my strawberry plants.  This time I've chosen Honeoye instead of a mish mash of freebies and clearance pots.  

Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, and enjoy the Peace of Winter.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Labor Day Weekend

I had lost interest in tomatoes.  I had particularly lost interest in canning tomatoes.  I just don't use that many of them and its a whole lot of work and mess.  So what was I going to do with all the rag tag odds and ends of tomatoes?  You can only eat so many BLTs.  And then, on a horse chat site, of all things, someone suggested Bloody Mary Mix.  Well why didn't I think of that.  Despite the fact that Tim doesn't like raw tomatoes, and things made with tomato sauce bother his stomach, he still manages to choke down a Bloody Mary most Sundays.  His favorite is a sweet, (pricey) gourmet variety marketed by long time friends of ours.  I prefer a spicier, less sweet version.  Now I can adjust it to suit us both.

I had all the ingredients except for the Banana Peppers and Ginger Root lurking around the house.  I got the peppers at the farm stand and skipped the ginger.  This recipe is a visual feast from the assembling of the ingredients right down to the part you put it in the blender and turn in into pulp.  This was fun and easy to make, and even more fun to consume.

Bloody Mary Recipe

Thus armed with a Bloody Mary, I embarked on a pickle adventure.  I have been getting the nicest cucumbers in years.  I credit the blood meal and the hard work of my bumble bees.  My pickle planning is improving with experience.  I figured out how to keep the jars hot from beginning to end (have an empty stock pot handy and bail the boiling water from the jar sterilization pot as you fill.  Set them right back into the hot water in the second pot) and I ended up with one extra jar and two cuke slices that just wouldn't fit in that last jar no way,  no how.

This row is producing unusually nice cucumbers.

So after it was all said and done, I have quite a nice little pile of produce put away.  It felt like an accomplishment.  Then tonight I went out to the garden and picked a dozen more large cucumbers and half a dozen tomatoes and I'm right back where I started.  And as soon as the second bed of black beans shakes off all this rain I'll be shelling another 2 quarts of those.