Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Fall garden cleanup pep talk

This is the lecture I've been giving myself the past week, and I figured I'm not the only one who needs it:

It's okay to pull the plug on your garden, even if it's not dead/frozen/finished yet.  I took out my tomatoes last week (all but those in the hoop house).  Sure, it there was a forecast of possible patchy frost, and it's better to pick green fruit before vines are damaged by a freeze.  But the truth is, it was just diminishing returns at this point.  One or two fruits were ripening up outside, but mostly they were just sitting there.  Another week, even of 60 degree weather (unlikely) was not going to help.  The plants were succumbing to late-season fungal diseases, and ripe fruit had issues anyway.  I picked only perfect fruit and brought them inside, where they will may not be as good as high-summer toms, but they will keep me in sauce for a few more weeks.  It's really hard to abandon that tiny eggplant or pepper, but the reality is there's just not enough time/heat/daylight for things to mature.


It is also okay to string a pet plant along, if you're inclined. If  you have a full fridge and can't deal with processing the last picking of green beans, or if the forecast has a rogue hot spell after one cold night and you think you might get a few more jalapenos, go for it.  Cover plants with remay, sheets, or tarps, and most things can survive the first couple of light frosts.  My summer squash is miraculously healthy and plugging away at fruit (and I'm not tired of them yet!) and I think I"ll let that baby drag on until the final freeze.

Don't try to do everything at once.  Just like in the spring, tackle a section or two at a time.  I picked most of the remaining harvest last week, and tackled the aformentioned tomato vines; this afternoon I'm working on peppers and beans.  Prioritize by what is the least cold hardy (BASIL) and what can stay standing long into winter (kale, broccoli, leeks). 


Don't leave everything until next spring either! Leaving mildewy or diseased plants over the winter is just creating issues for the following season.  Non-beneficial insects will overwinter there as well.  Besides, cleanup and preparation makes getting started in the spring SO MUCH easier.  Everybody hates weeding, especially with the rationale that the coming freeze will kill plants anyway, but a last pass in your gardens and paths will really pay dividends later on.

It's okay to not compost everything.  Our city collects yard waste, and while I try and recycle most of my weeds and garden byproducts within my own property, some things just aren't worth it (for me).  I send sickly tomato and potato vines to the curb for pickup, as well as woody stems and root balls that will have a hard time breaking down.  This reduces the time it takes my compost to be ready to use, and also cuts back on introducing disease or weeds. While definitely having volunteers like dill or celery is the norm in my garden, unfriendlies such as stinging nettle are not welcome.  Even plants I like that are aggressive (cleome!) will often get send to the city, whose composting volume is large and hot enough that they do a better job of killing seeds and fully composting woody stuff.

If you don't have this option but you have the space you might want to separate out the more difficult waste products and give them their own pile.  As woodier bits break down you can introduce them to a future turn of the compost. 

Speaking of which, fall is a great time to turn that big pile of compost.  I mostly feed my beds in the fall.  One reason for me is that I have chicken manure going into my bins, and depending on the timing or my skill at building a great compost pile--this may not be broken down thoroughly when it goes into my garden.  Too-fresh manure can burn plants, and has the potential to transmit pathogens. While I don't have a lot of worries about catching anything nasty from my girls, the generally accepted practice is to wait 90 days after spreading fresh manure before harvesting (longer if the food is in contact with the soil).  So for us Northern gardeners, this works out well for feeding beds in the fall anyway.  If my compost isn't fully finished, a last sit in the garden over the winter helps break the remainder down, all the while sending nutrients into the soil below.

Putting gardens to bed:  The last fall task for me is mulching with leaves and grass clippings.  The final mows of the season are great for creating a lovely brown/green mix of mulch that can cover sleeping gardens and feed them all winter long, as well as protecting the soil from harsh conditions.  If you're a planner and know where your earliest crops will be next season (onions, lettuces, peas etc) you can prep those beds thoroughly now, so they are ready to plant as soon as the ground is warm enough.  No digging required, I often plant my onions right through the mulch.  Actually the first planting will be this fall's garlic:  so I clean up and feed that bed first so I can plant around Halloween, and mulch it super well with leaves/grass (and straw, if I have it).

Makes notes for next year.  I definitely struggle with this,but it's the perfect time to reflect on what worked and what didn't, and what your goals are for next season.  I think the hardest part of this is the natural let-down of the end of the season.  As I work in my overgrown and weedy beds, I tend to only see the failures (how did I make so little pesto this year? Why were my peppers so non-prolific?) but sitting down with your spring notes/plans can help you gain a little perspective and remind you of what did work (what a great year for cauliflower, I had almost forgotten).

While most of this week I have just wished for it all to be done already, making plans to spend the last brisk sunny days putting my garden to bed for the winter is not the worse chore I can imagine.  I can't wait to see the (mostly) neat beds ready to sleep away until spring.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

A successful garlic experiment

Last year I was a wee bit short of garlic.  I ended up with 80ish heads, when our goal is generally closer to 100+.  I couple of things contributed to this--obviously I didn't quite plant enough bulbs--but also I had purchased a few "fancy" types from the market to diversify my crop a bit, and NONE of them survived the winter.  Lesson learned.  Also: our pickle production has been HUGE the last few years, and I forget how much garlic you use in every batch.

There was a bit of hoarding and skimping of garlic over the winter--I had resigned myself for buying garlic for the first time in YEARS, but we actually made it thanks to a hefty load of scape pesto in the freezer.  We limped along until this year's scape harvest, and I've been nicking a few baby green garlics out of the garden here and there.

Anyway, last fall's planting had a little more pressure to get it right.  I had to walk a balance of saving enough for planting, and having enough to mostly get us through the winter.  Then I had this idea.  There was a "plant".  A sort of chive, sort of not, at the end of one of my beds.  I realized somewhere along the line it was a garlic that I had missed one year, and it just kept coming up, making tasty snippings for dinner, and then teeny tiny little scape heads in June.  So I kept it, as kind of a volunteer pet plant (other people have these right?  That weird arugula patch growing in your pepper patch you just can't stand to pull?

So last year, we revamped that little bed for strawberries, and I dug that sucker up.  TONS and TONS of tiny garlc bulbs.  I wish I had taken a picture.  It was like a little garlic factory.  SO, this was my secret weapon last fall.  I planted half of my bed (about 75 bulbs) with big fat mature garlic from the last season's harvest.  The second half was chock full of wee baby bulbs.  I figured, at worst, they'd be tiny but edible, or I could replant them again and build them up to a larger size in a year or two. 

And they've done fantastic.  They've been noticeably shorter than the main crop, but I've pulled a few for fresh eating over the last few weeks and they are a nice size.  Today I lifted them all out and they are awesome.  I will definitely be integrating these little troopers into my main crop.  It looks like I may have harvested them a little late so they may not store all winter, but I'll definitely hang onto a few to plant this fall.  I should note my main crop is just selected from an unknown variety--probably organic grocery store garlic--and they are dependable if not exciting.  I am happy to have these little red-skinned cuties to add to the mix.

I'm totally going to cultivate a few intentionally neglected plants in my herb bed from now on.  It's the perfect fall-back garlic to cover for a poor year.   Meanwhile my "main crop" doesn't seem quite ready.  They still have 6 green leaves and are just turning brown at the tips, so I'm leaving the rest for another week or so. 

Thursday, May 8, 2014

0-2 weeks to last frost(!) - Some tips on early spring planting

As is fairly normal for this time of year, we've had a rollercoaster of weather the past two weeks.  When the temperature dropped into the forties with rain, most of my plants came back inside for an extended break, and I bunkered up as well.

Inside the hoop house, spring plants loved it though.  They didn't get the rain, but the cool, grey days were perfect for spinach, salad greens and peas.  This week I had to start adding support to the indoor peas, while their outdoor counterparts are all of an inch high.

But the pendulum swung back the other way this week, we're at nearly 70 degrees as I write.  I semi-opened up the hoop this week--rolled up the sides and took out a few side panels that were getting in the way of my snap peas.  For the most part, the plants inside now are tolerant to light frosts, and are less happy when the temperature climbs to 100+ degrees.  Also, with the sides up I can install my gutters and take advantage of that rain!

Last week I was talking to a woman who works with local farmers, and she was saying that the window of opportunity for spring planting was frustratingly small this year.  We'd have a couple of nice days, then lots of rain, and they couldn't get their tractors into the fields.  It made me realize that home gardeners have an advantage for sneaking in early crops.  Still, dealing with wet soil can be an issue.  I have a couple of tricks:

1.  Prep beds in the fall.  I turn my compost piles in the fall, and give all available beds a nice layer of compost and a mulch of leaves.  For beds that will have bedding plants, I don't have to do anything in the spring--just move some mulch out of the way, and plant.  This is great for broccoli/cabbage and onions, who are often ready to plant when the weather is wetter.   One note, I am observing some slug issues with the leaf-mulched beds where I did this, they apparently can also be cozy spots for critters to overwinter.

2.  The 2-step turnover.  I know the latest trend is minimal working of soil--a lot of folks go the no-till route, and some say not even to turn compost into the soil at all, just let the worms do the work.  I've never had or used a tiller, but I do like to dig a bit in my garden.  Sometimes I have late fall plantings that don't get fed before winter--I'll have a pile of compost on the side of a bed that needs distributing.  And also, I confess, turning over soil with a shovel is a distinct pleasure for me.  I love the physicality of the process, and the sight of bits of eggshells and mysterious half-composted bits, fat worms and thousand-legged bugs.   I love how the robin follows me around, snatching treats when I turn my attention elsewhere for a minute.  So despite the slight risk of bringing weed seeds to the surface, I still do a bit of shovel work.

So I have a trick for wetter days (Not too wet! If you soil really sticks to the shovel it's best to wait, you don't want to damage the soil structure.) A day or so after a rainy spell, I do a light turnover, and let the bed sit, chunky and uneven.  After a few hours or even the next day, it will be dry enough at the surface to come back with a rake and break up the larger bits and smooth into a lovely surface for planting.

3.  The cheat.  When I want to plant tiny, fine seeds (such as lettuce or carrots), or the ground is just too wet to work, I spread a little potting soil.  In this spot, I had beds prepped for beans, but wanted to add a few rows of lettuce and arugula around the outside.  I pulled back the mulch, and spread some leftover soil mix.  In this case I recycled some empty (i.e. failed) pots from my seed starting extravaganza. 

This works great for folks who use lasagna-style gardening, and have heavily mulched beds.  It just gives the seeds a nice layer of fine soil to sprout in.  It's also not likely to have weed seeds, which gives more delicate plants a nice head start.  (Ahem, in my hoop house I spread some lovely fine sifted compost before planting carrots, and ended up with a cover crop of lambs-quarters, darnit!)

So here we go!  There are currently no days below 44 in the Madison 7-day forecast, and I'm getting pretty optimistic that we are past a danger of a hard frost.  I'm still waiting on planting my heat-loving peppers, eggplants, and tomatoes, and am holding off on cucumbers and melons.  But, I did seed some beans yesterday, and my zucchinis as well.  My fruit trees are getting ready to bloom, the grapes are breaking bud, and all the birds are telling me spring is here!

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Four weeks to last frost, and a follow up

As did many in Wisconsin (and apparently many places in the US) we had snow this week, blarg!  Even worse was waking up to a 19 degree morning, with a high of 37, which is the normal low temperature for this time of year.  But really, somehow, in about 4 weeks our chances of frost will be nearly over.  Right?  RIGHT?

There is not too much on the indoor seeding front for me at this stage. I started a few more flowers:  nasturtiums, marigolds, and some cosmos and zinnias.  You can start a few last vegetables at this point, such as cucumbers or squash, but I usually find these all do better seeded directly in the ground, and don't seem worth the effort of babysitting inside.  If you do want to get a jump start on these guys, I would use compostable pots or newspaper for seeding, so these can go directly into the ground with less transplant shock. 

There are a couple of good indoor chores this time of year:

Plant Inventories:  Make a list of what you've started and tick off those healthy seedlings.  This is where I discover my Ancho peppers did not germinate at ALL, and that I planted way too many Sungold tomatoes (again).  Make notes if you have to pick up any plants that failed, or better yet trade emails with a gardener friend and swap! (Anybody have any Ancho peppers??)

Pot up:  If the season is running cold (like it is) I will pot up tomatoes at this stage so they can wait a bit more happily for warm planting weather.  Select your favorite strong seedlings, and plant them deeply in a larger pot.  Burying the bottom of the stem makes them even sturdier and roots will grow right out of the stem too.

Fertilize:  I am not a huge proponent of fertilizing, I generally rely on my overall soil health and add a ton of compost to my garden beds and leave it at that.  But, I do have a small bag of organic fertilizer I use for container plantings and at this time of year.  Fertilizing too early seems to make seedlings leggy and overgrown, but this late in the stage they can sometimes get a boost from a light feeding a few weeks before being planted out. I mix in some granulated fertilizer (or compost) when I pot up tomatoes, or make a compost tea (or just dissolve a little organic fertilizer) for watering. 

But, the best part of this stage of pre-frost preparation is getting out in your real outdoor garden (no lights, no flats, phew!).  I seeded peas a week or so ago, and this is a fine time to sow some early lettuce or spinach if you have a dry bed ready to plant.  This weekend I'm transplanting onions.  Since I had mentioned my method way  back in February, I thought I'd follow up with a few pictures of those seedlings.

Look, no snow!  And a chicken! Here are the flats, a nice healthy size for planting. 

 Popped out of the cell pack, you can see all the roots.       

I had watered these a few hours prior to planting, and could easily separate the seedlings.  Gently grasp just about the teeny root bulb and peel them off one at a time.  They look tangled but really they slide apart very easily.   These beds were prepped in the fall, all I did was rake off excess leaves and plant right through the leftover mulch.  No digging required.  I mass plant onions in beds about 4-6 inches apart.  You can plant even closer and harvest in-betweens as scallions early in the season.  Even though onions are quite tolerant of cold I cover these earliest planted beds with row cover, as I think it gives them a little heat boost and keeps out critters (mainly my dog, who has forgotten the difference between paths and beds over the winter).

Saturday, April 5, 2014

6 weeks to last frost: Gardeners, start your tomatoes!

Sorry I'm a little late on this one, but then again, so is the weather!  We've had a crazy week which included some good news, some bad news, and these little guys, which are pretty distracting.
Three new chicks to add to our flock:  our two oldest hens are five years old this spring, and while they are still laying well right now they are slowing down a bit. We lost two from their age-group last summer, so have started up a new generation to fill in as needed.

Sturdy Roma tomato: this is one of a few I started early to go in the hoop house. Confession: I also started my basil early.
So right, gardening.  Six weeks to the last frost is the timeline for starting tomatoes, basil, and some flowers such as calendula or marigolds.  As they are the big hitters in the garden, and so rewarding to grow from seed, they get more attention around here.  Tomatoes like heat for germination, though they are not quite as picky as peppers--I do put them on my warming mats if I have space.  This year my last round of peppers was lagging behind so the tomatoes had to wait, and ironically it was a non-heated variety that sprouted first (though it was brand-new seed).

I don't have a ton to add about starting sets at this point, except to mention that if you have been seeding all along, this is the stage where you have the most work cut out for you.  Learn from me:  don't have 17 flats of plants to take care of(!!).  But even with a few, you are watching the latest germinators, adjusting light heights, checking older plants for moisture levels, and maybe even hauling flats outside to get some real sun on some nice days (or if you have a cold frame or hoop, most days).  But it's also the stage where you start to see the rewards of all that labor.  Look at those sturdy plants!  You can almost imagine your future garden beds filled with all these babies you started yourself. 

Look at all those peppers!
And hopefully, 6 weeks to frost is also the time when you can actually get started in your outdoor gardening space.  I know folks up North are still getting snow (sorry about that!) but here in Madison we are finally getting a weekend with SEASONAL temperatures and some sun.  SO get out there, bond with your garden space, and start planning/imagining your lovely plants out there.  If I'm really lucky I'll find a dry spot to plant some peas!

Monday, March 17, 2014

8 weeks to frost - transplanting

Last week I seeded the brassicas:  Broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower.  These generally are advised to plant 6-8 weeks before setting out, but since most of these are fairly cold tolerant, that set-out date can be a little earlier than the average last frost.  Depending on the forecast and how warm the soil is on a given year, I start thinking about setting cabbage and broccoli out in mid- to late-April, with the protection of row cover or a low tunnel.  So I do start these on the early end of the range.  Another good idea with these guys is staggering planting--start a few indoors early, seed a few outdoors later, and you'll extend your harvest. 

On the schedule this week are the remaining peppers, and a few ornamental flowers.  But, also on the agenda was transplanting some of my earlier starts:

In general, I lean towards planting seeds with an eye for the least amount of transplanting--ie, plant in the size pot the seedling can live in until being set out in the garden.  This saves work and stress on the plants.  Still, sometimes you accidentally or intentionally have a few extra seeds planted, and have to thin your pot to avoid crowding.  In this case it's fine to cull the weakest plant--just snip the stem close to the soil to avoid disturbing the remaining plant's roots.

But, if you need that plant (perhaps the cell next door had poor germination) or you just can't stand to kill an otherwise healthy seedling, here's how I transplant young plants.  In my case, I have deliberately overseeded a few things to save some space under my lights during germination, and this week I was ready to move them into their future homes.

My tool of choice for this is a wooden skewer.  I poke the blunt end under the chosen seedling, and gently lift until it is rising out of the pot with no resistance. Very gently, lift the plant by the stem, just under the leaves.  If all goes well you'll have a barely disturbed baby root ball.

The target pots have been prepped and are ready to go before I start.  Using the skewer, I form a hole in the new spot, and gently reinsert the seedling.  Sometimes, if there's a long root, I use the blunt end of the skewer to carefully guide that root into the hole as I go.

The plant spends all of a few seconds exposed before moving into it's new digs, and that way experiences almost no transplant shock.  I like plants about this size for transplanting--they don't yet have their first "true" leaves yet, but they are sturdy enough to take a little handling.  And if you have two close together, their roots are not developed enough to make them hard to separate. 
Occasionally you will have a fatality in this process, don't stress over it.  Here's where I also admit I've killed sproutlings by "helping" them out of their seed shells.  I think we've all done that, right?
Next up:  I fight with myself over the realistic date to plant tomatoes--the end of March--or the overly optimistic March 19th that for some reason I wrote on my calendar.  Maybe I'll split the difference? 

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Cold Frame - Spring uses

FINALLY we had a break in the weather and I spent a quality afternoon outside.  My old cold frame is frozen to the ground from a winter sheltering leeks, so last weekend we built a new one to handle our burgeoning inventory of starter plants. In a few more weeks we should have both in full use. And since I've mentioned it a lot in my previous posts on seed starting, I thought I'd do a quick overview of how I use a cold frame this time of year.
As I've mentioned, I have a fairly minimal light set up, and the real estate under the lights gets more precious every year. So, as plants mature (meaning they at least having a set of true leaves), I begin to rotate flats outdoors into the sunny, warm, micro-climate of the cold frame.  I find the true sun and the warmth of the box makes for happy plants.  As the cold frame warms up, and the lid is propped open to ventilate, plants are exposed to direct sun and light breezes, creating sturdy stems and plants that are practically hardened off and ready for the real world, by the time the real world cooperates anyway.
One word of warning, using a frame requires a fair amount of effort and monitoring, especially at the beginning of the season when weather conditions change rapidly.  It takes some practice to regulate temperatures, and it's very easy to burn or freeze young seedlings.  And there is legwork involved: while a "hot box" greatly increases temperatures while the sun is out, it does not hold them well, so plants still need to come inside nightly.  There are a lot of trips carrying plants in and out.  For me, after a winter of being cooped up, I enjoy any excuse to spend time outside and frankly I need the exercise.  Babysitting a few flats at a time is do-able for me, but you may find your schedule or style doesn't fit this method as well.

A few basic tips:

  •  Keep it close to the house:  My hoop house is great for growing seedlings, but it's not very convenient. My hot box is set up on a picnic table right outside the back door (or as close as it can be and still receive sunshine).  I can swap plants in or out in a few minutes.  A deck or front stoop might be a good option.  
  • Avoid plant shock--especially at the beginning, the transfer from your house to shelter should not be too jarring.  After plants get hardier I am more lax with this, but at the start I wait for temps above freezing outside, and in the cold frame at least as warm as indoors.  For colder-hardy plants, I watch until the box hits 50ish degrees. Keep transfer times to a minimum.
  • Related to this, keep an eye out for adjustment issues--Even with venting the box can top 100 degrees easily, and plants dry out and overheat rapidly.  I water everything thoroughly and keep a close eye the first day out--often leaving plants for just a few hours to adjust.  Starting plants out on an cloudy day is a safe bet as well (did you know that an overcast day is still 1000-2000 lumens?)  And on gloomy days in the low 30s my greenhouse still hits mid-60 degrees easily.
  • Get a remote thermometer.  Seriously, these little gadgets have saved me lots of times.  I keep the base in a spot I walk by frequently, and a transmitter in the hoop and the cold frame.  It helps me gauge when to take things outside, and when to rescue things when the hoop hits 115 degrees and I need to open a vent.  Mine can also record highs and lows, which can be helpful when you are getting ready to leave things out overnight.  A regular thermometer works fine too, but the remotes are inexpensive and save you a few trips.  Bonus:  also useful for home-brewing and chicken rearing!
  • Ventilation:  Our original design used an adjustable prop.  Later we added a Univent--another super useful (but kind of pricey) gadget.  These have a piston which expands as the temperature rises, lifting the lid.  I love mine, and I think it's saved my plants more than a few times.  It gives you a little more flexibility as it will close the lid completely in the evenings, if you can't get to it right away.

Update:  We are excited to be partnering with a local store in Madison to offer cold frames for sale this spring!  2 models are currently available at the Madison Greenhouse Store!   More details are can be found here.