Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Hilling Potatoes in Raised Beds

While gardening in raised beds has many many advantages over the traditional wide open row garden, there are a few crops that pose logistic challenges.  One of these is potatoes.

Potatoes are traditionally planted in rows in a field and the soil between the wide rows is raked up towards the plants as they grow to form hills.  People say if you continue to hill, you will get more potatoes per plant because the plants will continue to put out higher layers of tubers as the soil deepens.  This is the theory behind most container style methods of growing potatoes

The most fantastical method of container growing potatoes in layers is the spud box.  The theory behind this is that you plant the seed potatoes in the bottom, and as the plants grow, you add layers to the box and soil to cover the potatoes.  When you are ready to harvest you open up the side and the bounty of spuds just spills out.  And because you have been able to cover your plants so much deeper than a traditional "hill" you will have exponentially more potatoes to harvest.  Well... yes and no. 

A vintage Henry Maule seed catalog gives a cutaway view of a hill of potatoes.
While I do like growing potatoes in containers, I've never found that I can get more yield by burying them deeper.  In my experience, most seed potatoes will produce six to eight new tubers and the growing conditions will determine how large these grow. It is just easier to harvest them from a container without digging with a fork risking damage to the potatoes and inevitably leaving some behind.  Maybe I'm just not doing it right?  Maybe you have to believe and I just don't have faith in the "more potatoes" concept.

There are two good reasons to hill your potatoes.  First is to support the tall plants and prevent them from laying flat on the ground contracting diseases.  The second reason is to ensure the tubers are thickly covered with soil preventing them from turning green in the sunlight.  Green potatoes have a high concentration of the gkycoalkaloid called Solanine.  This is a toxin produced by the nightshade family and it will give you a very upset tummy.  Even if you cannot see the green color on the skin, there will be a green layer just under the skin and the potatoes will taste like soap.

In a farm setting, you would need implements to hill acres and acres of potatoes

When I first started growing potatoes I had sort of a "mini field" set up.  Yes, there were space constraints but I didn't really have a depth limit so I could still add or remove material as necessary.  This isn't true in a raise bed.  Once its full its full.  You can mound it up in the center but that will just cause unwanted water run off.

The two necessary components to hilling potatoes is room between the rows (not only to supply the material needed, but to allow the inevitable widening of the row) and deeply tilled, loose soil that can be easily moved.  When you get down to hardpan you are out of material

Hilled rows of potatoes can pose a problem when watering.  The water will initially run off of the hill.  You need those wide rows and loose soil to hold the moisture long enough for it to sink in before running away.

Valleys for planting built with hilling material collected between the rows
When you plant potatoes in a raised bed you have to plan your hilling material ahead of time because you can't necessarily just add more material when you need it.  Which means you have to start with valleys and end with hills.  You are going to plant your seed potatoes as much lower than your finished bed level as you can manage, and you can store your hilling material between the rows of potatoes because with a raised bed you are not going to be walking on it and compacting it again.

With a rake I've created these valleys.  

And now I am going to dig my seed potatoes about six inches into the bottom of the valley.  I stopped there because after that point my soil is a higher concentration of clay and even if you dug the seeds down into this harder material the plant would have trouble putting roots out through it anyway.

As you dig the individual holes, you can add the additional material to your hills.  You won't need all of it because I just sort of brush the loose soil from around each side of the hole onto the seed potato just enough to block the light and let the plant know it's time to grow..

As the sprouts form, you can begin to first level your bed and then eventually form the hills.

You should let the plant keep at least three inches of growth above your soil level

These plants are ready to hill again.

I now use a rake to take about half of the ridge of soil 
in each direction towards the rows on each side.

You keep working over the same area until the plants are supported with hills, and you are now left with the valleys between your rows.

In the spring it only takes a day or two to get enough growth to hill again.

Sooner or later you will run out of material.  The wider you spaced your rows, the wider your hills can be.  At this point you need to be watchful that you are not hitting roots with your rake.

As your plants continue to grow, keep an eye on things to make sure your potatoes aren't growing too close to the surface.  Rain erosion can wash some of your hilling away exposing the potatoes.  If the potato patch is too dense to use a rake to re-cover your spuds, an good emergency fix would be to add a layer of straw. The straw can either be removed at the end of the season or tilled into your soil.

And that's how I deal with hilling potatoes.  I've grown them in a variety of locations and containers and this method in this bed gives me the best results every time.  
Within a week my plants should be blooming and I will be able to take some new potatoes away from the edges without disturbing the plants

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

The Year of the Soggy Chipmunk

That title got your attention didn't it?

It's fun and intersting to keep track of garden statistics.  I make notes of overall weather, pests and frost dates per year.  One of the most important numbers is rain.  Its a little tedious having to remember to check the rain gauge every morning, but some years you can go weeks without having to remember to do that.  

I print a chart each year for the months April through September since those are my gardening months.  I clip it to a clipboard and hang it on a nail in the garden shed.  Every time I empty the rain gauge I write the measurement down on the date.  That way I can keep track of whether my garden is getting the minimal one inch per week.

We're basically half way through the gardening year. Two and a half months down.  Two and a half to go.  May rainfall was only slightly above average (my husband will argue against that but I have facts).  It didn't even come close to May 2014. So far this month (halfway thru) we have had all the rain we should be getting in June.  I hope we don't break the record.  It's wet out.  Really wet.  Several days out of each week we have standing water in the lawns.  This morning was pretty squishy.

 I also make note of the approximate date of arrival of the Japanese beetles.  Severity of cucumber and flea beetle damage.  Approximate date the powdery mildew shows up.  Stuff like that.  Number of chipmunks removed from the population.  We've already exceeded our average and tied our record on that score.  So I officially dub this 
The Year of the Soggy Chipmunk.

Saturday, June 15, 2019

Simple Project

These are the kinds of fun weekend projects we like.  
A wheelbarrow load of gravel to replace the soggy mulch where it pools between the sloping raised bed and the railroad tie.
Two wheelbarrows of mulch to freshen up.

Some little square pavers you can hold in one hand to edge between 
the gravel and mulch.
Not the usual three foot square heavy duty pavers

That dresses it up nicely.  Which is important since we walk past it  at least a dozen times a day when were are working around the garden.  Maybe a hundred times a day on a busy day, or that's what it seems like.

Here is my little bitty broccoli bud

And the Paul Robeson tomato in the container is the first to set a tomato.  I think the one in the raised beds has a fruit set too in the first cluster of flowers.

Friday, June 14, 2019

Mid-June: Weed, Water and Wait

Highlights of this week

I planted my three spare tomato plants into containers.  Because there are water reservoirs in the pots, I cannot sink the ladders in very deep so I've bungeed them to the posts

Flea beetles showed up to devour the eggplants so I covered the plants that seemed most delectable.  I need to sew a few more covers.  These are holding up very well.  On a nice sunny day I can just remove the covers and let the plants get as much sun as possible

Tomato plants look nice.  The round leafed plants are my Nasturtium which I use as living mulch.

The direct seeded cucumbers are finally participating.  Next week I will fill in with the plants I started in the cold frame.  This will leave me with enough spares to plant a second row.  I will rake in the buckwheat in the bed I planned for the second planting a bit early.  I am still planning a later planting in July which will go into one of the beds vacated by the peas.  Which means I will be planting 50% more plants than planned

All of the pea varieties are forming pods but they are not filling out yet.

A few of the Garden Sweet variety plants are putting out purple blossoms.  I always enjoy these.   It saves me planting sweet peas.

The first planting of lettuce is in its prime.  I am thinning it out as I pick. We have more lettuce than a small village could eat.  I have three more rows growing behind these and two more rows worth in pots to be transplanted

My Gotta Have It sweet corn is doing well and pumpkins have been seeded around it.  The pumpkins have gone in a week to ten days later than planned.  I hope that since our spring is about three weeks late that fall frost will come late as well.  

Cauliflower and broccoli.  I don't think we could have asked for better temperatures for these (today was sunny, breezy with a high of 68 degrees), but the maturity dates have come and gone and there is only one broccoli plant that is showing signs of producing  (Dinner Plate Dahlias in the background)

Potatoes are growing like wild.  They haven't been in this bed for several years, and it has always proved to be their favorite spot.  Planting and hilling potatoes in a raised bed can be a challenge but I will give you step by step photos of how I deal with it in another blog soon.

Bed #1:  Buckwheat making way for 2nd row of cukes planted earlier than expected
Bed #2: Lettuce in its prime being thinned and cucumbers growing
Bed #3: Peas forming pods - bush beans later
Bed #4: Peas forming pods - Cucumbers later (revised plan)
Bed #5: Sweet corn growing and pumpkins seeded
Bed #6: Sweet corn growing and pumpkins seeded
Bed #7: Cantaloupes growing
Bed #8: Tomatoes and eggplants growing
Bed #9: Peas forming pods - lettuce growing - buckwheat later
Bed #10: Peas forming pods - lettuce growing - bush beans later (revised plan)
Bed #11:Buckwheat and zucchini growing
Bed #12:Vacant - buckwheat later - this is my nursery bed
Bed #13: Cauliflower and Broccoli
Bed #14: Potatoes growing fast
Containers: Carrots growing
Containers: Spare Tomato plants growing

Of course there is always a little something that needs to be done outside this time of year, but the main gardening chores have been checked off of the list.  Now all I have to do is wander around and fix anything that isn't as it should be.  This includes washing lawn furniture, cutting back daffodil leaves as they start getting messy, fertilizing, weeding, raking gravel, deadheading and pruning.

One fill-in job is bagging the apples.  We have fewer apples set this year than last.  Probably because the weather was rainy and gloomy while they bloomed which does not encourage pollinators. But I bagged 11 apples on the lazy tree which has never produced a single full-term apple, and I bagged 15 on the over-achieving tree.  Last year I bag a few dozen on this tree.  I have a few still to bag now that I bought another box of sandwich bags.

I have several clumps of daylilies and daffodils that have gotten too crowded.  Hopefully this fall our new landscape area will be hardscaped and I will have lots of spots to put them in.

Friday, June 7, 2019

A "Top Five" Weekend

I know almost all of America has been dealing with unpleasant, tumultuous or dangerous weather this year.  Here in western New York we have had a lot of Blah weather.  Cool.  Overcast. Rain.  Rain. High winds.  Did I mention rain?  Every weekend this spring, we might get one (or half of one) sunny day but we will also get at least one rainy or stormy day. 

My rainfall total for May is just over six inches.  Four to five is a much more reasonable number.  This weekend is supposed to be mid seventies to eighty degrees and sunshine and everyone in the area is collectively excited and looking forward to some nice weather.  The weather forecasters have been promoting this as a "Top Five" weekend.  I sure hope we get more than five.

Last night I was touring the landscaping, spraying deer repellent on all of the iris and lily buds, squishing through the lawn in water deeper than my flip flops, when I noticed that in the "wilderness" strip of brush and trees between the large garage and the vegetable garden, there was several inches of standing water.  Can you say M-o-s-q-u-i-t-o?  And here I was worried that we no longer had enough habitat to keep our dragonflies fed...

Pests report for this year so far.  Obviously, mosquitoes and biting flies will be abundant.  Coons are scarce.  I have only seen signs of them feeling around once.  Something has been digging for grubs a just a little bit in the lawn as opposed to some summers when all of the sod has been torn up, but I believe it is a skunk that has been through the garden walkways regularly and not multiple coons like some years.  We regularly treat the lawn with Milky Spore to keep the grubs down.  I'm sort of hoping the grubs have all drowned, however U of K says that Japanese beetle grubs can withstand high soil moisture, so excessive rainfall or heavy watering of lawns does not bother them (source)   Bummer.

When will we ever get on top of the chipmunk population?  For several many years in a row we have killed at least a dozen.  We don't bait traps, we just place traps where the chipmunks are not supposed to be to keep them out from under the house and out of the drainpipes.  Our count is up to eight.  We started in February.  Its ridiculous.  And I have one red squirrel that almost every day I see him run out of the woods and smack into the garden fence.  He isn't trying to get into the garden because he doesn't climb the fence and he goes on his way to the other wooded area, but he is obviously a bit dumb or near sighted because he always hits the fence in the same spot behind the daylilies.  I've named him Crash.

Back in mid-March when the weather warmed up enough that I could get out to the cold frame on a regular basis, I seeded some lettuce in containers.  It didn't give them any sort of head start.  Here they are next to one of my mid-April plantings.  And the potted one is what is left after the three larger batches have been planted.

Obviously the planters weren't doing well and didn't deserve any more attention or worry with all of the other lettuce available but I'm not the sort to throw out a plant, so I dug them out and planted the better ones along the Easy Peasy  peas interspersed with some of the potted lettuce because most of what came up in the containers was red romaine and I wanted more variety.  I probably should have done this earlier in the week when we didn't have three days of sun forecast, but they'll be fine.  
Its hard to kill lettuce

The tomatoes have tripled in size and the Paul Robeson is already blooming.  The eggplants are established and the Nasturtium seedlings are growing fast.  This year I only saw one flat of Nasturtium in the greenhouses and it wasn't Alaska, so I'm glad I got two packets of seeds.

My spare tomatoes are doing awesome.  Two of them are blooming and I had to stake them.  If my Dad doesn't take any, these will have to go into containers because they are way too good to waste.

The Garden Sweet peas are actually growing better than the Wando which usually reach six feet tall.  Something tells me this variety will need extra tall trellis in the future.

These are the Penelope Peas.  You can see that the left end of this raised bed must be a little "hot" with nitrogen.  That is the spot where the one cucumber vine produced July through September.

This is my non-existent row of cucumbers  In addition to the cool soil and cloudy weather, each time I seed them we get a torrential downpour which buries them too deeply.  Yesterday two seeds popped up, and today two new ones add those to the one plant from last weekend that hasn't done a darn thing and I now have five teeny tiny cucumber plants.  Yesterday I also put one packet of seeds into pots in the cold frame as a backup plan.

All of the perennial plantings around the landscape are doing well, but this snow on the mountain cracks me up every time I walk by it.  It is so dense that the Creeping Charlie has turned around and is trying to get back out.

Anyone who has dealt with Creeping Charlie ought to appreciate that.