Archive for March, 2009

Garden update 3-30

March 31, 2009

I finally got all of my cool plants out of the basement and into the garden. So all of the red onions,  lettuce, endive, mustard, broccoli and radicchio are now out in the garden and under floating row cover. Even though the evening temps have been in the mid-twenties, the plants are happy with their light blankets. Temps are supposed to warm up but the row cover will moderate the swings.

I also planted my parsnips this weekend.  One cannot give them too long to grow here in zone 5. They won’t bolt to seed in a single season (a problem in warmer climates) and will just develop enoumous roots. The only problem is that I have to plant them on the northern edge of the garden because their tops get so big they will flop over or shade out nearby beds.

I am waiting for the emergence of beets, carrots, snow peas, fava beans and fennel. I did a few seeds of chard under some glass jars and they have sprouted.

Back in the basement, since the cool weather crops are in the garden, I was now able to put a small heater under my grow-light shelves and the peppers and tomatoes are responding positively to the new high 60’s rather than the old 55.  I am thinking about putting some tomatoes out in the garden in walls of water.

The seedlings go out

March 26, 2009

Going to be rainy and moderate for a week or more and so … out go the hardy seedlings. It is only mid-50’s in my basement where the seedlings live under lights so they won’t get shocked by the cool temps. Yesterday I put out a dozen lettuces, nice little 2″ plants, and some mustard. Later today I will set out endive (frizee), radicchio, broccoli and some other lettuces. All of these will have some floating row cover protection.

My direct-seeded spring spinach is coming up as is my chard. I bet I will see snow peas soon.

Picts may follow.

Floating Row Cover

March 23, 2009

I am an admittedly late convert to floating row cover. I just started using it late last year when I set plants out in the Summer for harvest in the Fall. The floating row cover was to lessen the impact of the sun on tender seedlings and to keep pests, like cabbage whites, off of very susceptible plants. It worked like a charm and the plants under the row cover did so well that I had to wonder why it took me so long.  I later  noticed that things above ground that I tried to winter over did so much better with several thicknesses of row cover over them than they ever did with just mulch around them. Another victory for row cover.

My opposition was based on two concerns. The first is that I hate to spend on my garden. If I can’t do it on my own, I don’t like to do it. I don’t want to be accused of growing the $65 dollar tomato. The second concern is the environmental cost of another petroleum based product since I don’t think that row cover is made by Monsanto’s silk worms.

But … one can reuse row cover (if you treat it with some care), if you buy it in big rolls from commercial ag sources it is MUCH CHEAPER than buying the small little packages from the home gardening suppliers, it avoids almost all sprayings (with associated ecological and energy benefits) and, it extends your season on both ends and thus lowers the per-unit cost of what you grow. All of these are positives.

So … I bought a roll of lightweight row cover (greatest light transparency but least temperature protection) that is 10′ wide and 100 feet long for about $65 shipping included. It should last me for 5 or six years. Just google “floating row cover” and many suppliers will pop up or visit your local ag supply outlet (farmer stuff, not landscaper/gardener stuff).

Onions in the garden

March 18, 2009

Monday (3/16/09) I set out about five dozen red onion plants into the garden. I started them in the basement about 6 weeks ago. They were still pretty tiny (3-4 leaves) but I watered them in and covered them with floating row cover. Even after a few days of sun and near 60 degrees they seemed to be doing fine under the cover.  If they take, they’ll have a great start on top growth.  I have a good many more seedlings in the basement and I’ll probably transfer some to plastic cells so that I can easily transplant them into spots in the garden where onion plants failed to take.

Over-wintered spinach

March 18, 2009

Just a quick post to provide a photo of my over-wintered spinach.

As of March 15, 2009

As of March 15, 2009

As you can see, there was a bit of leaf damage on the edges but the cores of the plants are perfect and they will fill out very quickly with a bit of sun and rain. They are usually covered with floating row cover to keep the miners off of the plants and were over-wintered with three layers of row cover.

Spring maybe?

March 16, 2009

Saturday and Sunday, March 14 and 15 (2009) were glorious in NE Ohio. Temps were in the high 50s and there was plenty of sun. It was a weekend just made for transitioning the garden. I got all of my beds cleaned out and everything old and organic put into the compost.  I even collected a small bag of old plastic markers that seem to multiply when left in the garden. I put some finished compost on my side bed and planted about 20′ (double row) of fava beans. I put in some Oregon Giant snow peas in one of my back beds and I set out some Chard (Bright Lights) seeds with glass jars over them. I even ran the bagging mower over my wife’s perennial beds, taking up all of the old growth and the trapped leaves … straight into the compost.

Cleaned up and ready to go

Cleaned up and ready to go

Compost's "red wigglers"

Compost's "red wigglers"

Great soil full of organic matter

Great soil full of organic matter

Several of the veggie beds had gobs of mower-bag mulch that had been protecting things like carrots, parsnips, leeks and fennel.  I took off about half of it from the top and turned the bottom, the more decayed half (and thousands of worms), into the soil. I have to say that my soil is terrific. It is very dark, loamy and alive. Usually I only work my beds with a traditional Japanese hand hoe or a claw weeder … shown below although mine are now shop-worn:

Nijiri hand hoe

Nijiri hand hoe

Claw weeder

Claw weeder

When I need to do any heavy work like turning all of that mulch into the soil of the beds, I get out my old Smith and Hawken English fork. I don’t use a shovel on my beds because shovels make the soil too compacted and, when the sun and air hit it, hard.

Now that I have turned the mulch into several of my beds I have to think about what goes where.  The beds that have the mulch turned into them will do better for setting out seedlings rather than direct seeding although I do have a technique for direct seeding into soil full of course organic matter… press the corner of a board into the soil to form a vee, set the seeds into the vee and then cover the seeds with potting soil. Works like a charm and is especially good in damp soil where you can’t get a fine covering of soil over the seeds.

I will probably keep the new seeds covered with floating row cover or even plastic until the weather is more reliable. Last year we got down into single digits in early April.

It is good to get dirty again.

First direct seeding 2009

March 10, 2009

Despite “flood warning” rains over the past few days and thanks to the wonders of the natural drainage in raised beds, I was able to put in some Arugula and some radish seeds today. You can see that i just scratched up the soil lightly, sprinkled the seeds on t wide rows and then pressed them in with the back of my “claw” tool.

Wide rows planted on March 8, 2009

Wide rows planted on March 8, 2009

I’ll cover the bed in plastic for a while and then switch to floating row cover to thwart the local rabbit in my yard. Spring has officially begun!

Policy moment #2 – “victory gardens”

March 9, 2009

Yesterday I was reading the Sunday paper (in my case the Cleveland Plain Dealer ) and their opinion section had a full page devoted to issues of food. It was, as is most writing about food these days, vacuous. There are really serious issues developing about our ability to feed the world’s population and what we get are cute little feel-good, “we just have to …” articles that smack of essays written by undergraduate journalism students … “I really don’t know anything but I have this assignment…”. Or … “I just read Michael Pollan and now here is how I will parrot back his thoughts”.

One piece  (“One Way to Cope? Grow Your Own” by Rod Dreher, Dallas Morning News) was about the wisdom of addressing our food, and economic, challenges by turning to backyard gardens.  The author made the point (my paraphrase) that during the Great Depression most people got a portion of their food from their own gardens and that replicating this would be a good thing in these troubled times. Now I think that everyone ought to have a backyard, or a community plot garden. I wish gardening was a strong part of our national character. And, I do think that raising even a bit of one’s own food will raise consciousness about food quality, food costs, nutrition, safety and all sorts of consumer agriculture issues. Raising a bit of one’s own food also gets people back to issues of food preparation and food preservation … important issues indeed. There is just one small problem. This is not the 1930’s.

In the 1930’s most of our citizens fell into one of three important camps. Many were agrarian or had recently moved from the country to the city. Others were just a generation removed from agrarian life and they had relatives who knew about raising crops and livestock as well as preparing and preserving food. Finally, many more of us were immigrants from countries and cultures where gardening and small animal rearing were a strong part of their culture. In fact, in the 1930’s it would have been rare to find individuals who had no knowledge of how to raise, prepare and preserve food. They may have wanted to move to a more “advanced” lifestyle where someone else did this for them but they had the knowledge or ready access to it. Jump forward to 2009.

I live in a classic suburb of a post-industrial city. Few people garden. As a matter of fact, a Realtor remarked to my wife recently that gardens violated “community standards” where the unwritten standards are chemically treated lawns maintained by a firm. In the city itself where need for food is great, few people garden. Despite an increasing amount of vacant property, there are very few community gardens in this area. Most importantly, few people have access to close friends and family members who know anything significant about gardening. The same holds true about food preparation and food preservation. Few people know much of anything about self-sufficiency. The generations who do are largely dead now. In an economically depressed area … cheap restaurants boom. Dinner at home is “take out” or “frozen from Wal-Mart”. Irrespective of the cause of this lack of knowledge, we don’t have food skills and we don’t have any people  close to us who do.

I am 60. I grew up in a household where there was always a small garden. I watched a lot and helped a bit. I lived in a home where cooking and preservation was done, but preservation was the odd canning of tomatoes and relishes in the early fall. Some of our neighbors were older immigrants and they did a bit more. I saw their garlic, onions and herbs drying in their garden sheds. I drank some wine and ate a bit of processed meat. When I got married in my early 20’s I started a garden. It was a complete failure. I knew nothing it turns out. I then began a process of learning. I asked. I read a lot. I put an incredible amount of time into my gardens. Slowly it paid off. I persevered. In about 5 years I was a modest gardener and in about 10 I was very good. The same is true about food preparation and preservation. My wife came from a family of good cooks (mine were so-so) but she knew only a little of preservation. Together we tried and learned. This too took a long while.

As a society, we are, I am afraid, ill prepared to address our current challenges with a simplistic directive to “go garden”. Without some close support or a will to learn by failures until it turns out right, most will try once, poorly, and give up. Where are the family and friend support groups? And, “No”, ag extension services are not sufficient to the task (all be it staffed by good and willing people). They cannot replace advice from your mother or father or other close relative.They won’t be there to dig alongside you. Master-Gardner programs cannot scale up and one does not make up for five years of practice with a six-weekend course.  And food preparation and food production … where is the help there? Rachel Ray? The Food Network?  Maybe TV and TV stars work to generate enthusiasm to try but what counts is practice, practice and practice … and having to eat your failures. This takes time and resiliency … and a good stomach to keep the failures down.

What we do need are strong community-based efforts to help people get started and to learn. We need to mobilize older people who have this knowledge and bring them together with younger people who want it. We need massive community gardens. We need to have community policy statements that encourage these activities. We need to tear down policies that promote sterile land use and chemical poisons. We need to tolerate a bit more risk … like tolerating hens in  back yards and learning how to safely air-dry meats. We need to think about how we quickly ramp up to make ourselves a bit more knowledgeable and self-sufficient with our food stream.

I am not simply pessimistic but I am not analytically optimistic that this will happen. I watch the people around me and they seem utterly incapable of self-sufficient actions and either offended or depressed at the idea of learning to be self-sufficient. Heck … even the farmers that I know, only know how to fire up the tractor and lay down a couple of hundred acres of commodity crops before they go on down to Applebees. So … where was the author of the opinion piece when it came to asking these questions? Does he garden? Does he preserve food? This is why we get better information from bloggers these days than from the commercial media.

Developments March 1, 2009

March 3, 2009

This weekend was the final (sort of) harvest from last year’s garden. I pulled some leeks from the mulch so that Marilyn could make a leek pie for St. David’s Day on the 2nd. I also pulled the last of the carrots and wound up with about 7-8 lbs. of really nice big ones.

Giants of the Earth

Giants of the Earth

Finally I pulled the last of the parsnips. I only had six but the smallest was big enough to provide a side dish for dinner for four. I said “sort of” for final harvest because I do have a few leeks left and, more importantly and for the sake of continual gardening, I have spinach wintering over under mulch that, if it survived, will be ready to eat in late April.

At the same time I did a lot of basement work. I put seeds in flats for my peppers, tomatoes and eggplants.

Seedling flat

Seedling flat

I also transplanted radicchio, endive, lettuce, broccoli and mustards from their seeding flat into plastic cells. As usual, I have too many tiny seedlings left over. I’d pot them up but then I would have no room for them under my grow lights. When I checked the next day, all of the transplants are doing well … even the mustard which has a tendency to get leggy. The trick now is to keep the moisture level just right so they don’t damp off. I grow them in a 55 degree basement with the minimal heat from the fluorescent lights and a plastic sheet to keep the heat in. Once I get the peppers and tomatoes up and transplanted I’ll have to add an incandescent light bulb for additional heat. They are currently in my baking proof box at about 77-80 degrees.

We are having a very cold snap here in NE Ohio right now but as soon as it breaks, I’ll put plastic over the hoops in one big bed (4′ X 16′) and start planting outdoors. I’ll switch to floating row cover when the evening temps are reliably above the teens.