Monday, October 5, 2015

Good Day For a Cry

Guest post by Susie Hill, Frederick County Master Gardener
Liza and Katy Hill are shown swinging on their playset in the garden.
It is a glorious day. The crickets are singing, the humidity is low and the sky is cobalt — a perfect contrast to the goldenrod. It is an ideal day to have a good cry.
This lump has been building in my throat for a couple hours because today is a day of massive transition — emotionally. My kids’ play set has just come down. It was disassembled in a matter of minutes by the backs and hands of five strong men.
It took far longer for my husband to assemble it. It took 10 years to build a cache of memories that will last a lifetime. My kids would swing or climb while I would work and play in the garden. Sometimes, they would join me. Often, they would stop me to say, “Look at me!” followed by, “Look what I can do” — or more importantly, a child’s version of, “Please look at me when I am talking to you. I want to spend time with you. Are you listening? I want to feel important today.”
When I laid out my garden, I spent months thinking through all the things I wanted to grow and how much space would be needed. I admired photographs of kitchen garden books and foolishly thought my garden might one day look the same. It was folly, but I thoroughly enjoyed it and was tickled when it was finally laid out and ready for planting. Many people looked at me, shook their heads, and told me it was too big. They were right … this garden I had dreamt up was far too big to manage, and I am now in the process of downsizing.
There was, however, one thing I did that I will never regret. I made room for the kids’ things in the garden too. The swing set sat in the middle. I dedicated one bed to a playhouse. I tried my hand at sunflower mazes and bean teepees. I laid paths and boards for them to meander. I allowed them to use my marigolds like snowballs. I had tea parties in the garden with them, and we drew with sidewalk chalk. Costumes were welcome, as were all children who wanted to plant, pick, play, swing or just be.
I always said that I would cry the day I pulled into the driveway and saw grass growing under the tire swing. Somehow, it happened, and I didn’t notice. It’s just like the way you don’t see your own kids growing under your nose, but the growth spurts of other peoples’ children are striking. The grass started coming in slowly, under my nose. The swing set came down in a flash. It is a harsh reminder of the passage of time and opportunity.
In my mind, the garden was always sacred territory with the kids. I never fussed at them or demanded help. I just wanted them to feel welcome to enjoy the space with me, wishing that they too would find peace and solace there.
Although the swing set is now gone, my hopes remain. Removal of the swing set has made room for a fire pit — far more appealing to teens and tweens than a play set they have outgrown. I will put it right in the middle of the garden. And if those big kids decide to have a tomato fight (it has happened before), I will turn my head and pretend not to see. I will do anything for the opportunity to have more kids, of any age, in my garden. That just might bring a little tear to my eye.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Garden lessons learned 2015

Every year I try to think back over the growing season about things I've learned (often re-learned) about gardening, so here's the Derwood Demo Garden version thereof for 2015. Not that the growing season is over, but maybe I can still remember some of it at this point.

1. Mother Nature is boss. No matter what plans you make, the weather will screw them up, or perhaps provide you a few bonuses along the way. We had the second really cold winter in a row, which did some damage to our hardy kiwi and taught us that we'll need to give it some winter protection this year. We'll also protect the newly-planted fig tree in the same area. June was unreasonably rainy, leading to fungal diseases on many plants later in the season, and the end of summer was unremittingly hot and dry, making it difficult to get fall plants started. And today we should have been showing off our garden at the Harvest Festival, but Hurricane Joaquin had other ideas. This is a lesson we have to learn anew each year - but all we can really do is prepare for whatever conditions might occur and adjust quickly.

2. Corollary: spray the tomatoes. We've pretty much decided that prophylactic spraying of copper fungicide is the way to go, considering the pattern of wet springs we've been having. (Next June: complete and total drought.) I have also noted that tomatoes planted a bit later than the earliest possible moment (i.e. late May-early June) do much better in the fungal disease stakes. Also, the tomatoes grown in our hay bales were fantastic, beating out everything else in the garden.

Huge healthy tomatoes on the left
3. Rabbits love soybeans. Actually, rabbits love beans in general - I'm talking the young plants rather than the pods that we wait for - but it was bleakly amusing to note that in our Asian bean area some of the plants were only nibbled on while the soybeans and adzuki beans were chomped down to the ground. That was when the rabbit(s) (we only ever saw one at a time) managed to hop over to that area after chowing on the 100-square-foot garden's beans for the umpteenth time. Bunnies do also eat bean pods when those are in reach, but don't tell that to the indomitable 100SFG team who finally managed to harvest some by August.

4. Nevertheless, the Year of the Bean was fun. Especially these "pretzel bean" cowpeas that I got from an Amish heritage seed company.

But I won't be planting chickpeas again - in previous years I've lost the crop early to something (probably rabbits) mowing it down, and this year our pods were pierced and beans eaten by a pest we were never able to definitively identify.

5. The peppers will be late. I'm finally harvesting huge numbers of peppers from a few plants in my own garden, and we've been doing the same at the demo garden:

but they took their sweet time. You can see a lot of these are green - we're cutting them because they are weighing down the branches.

6. Corollary: it's worth looking for one early-producing variety of everything. This helps with succession planting and spacing out the harvest. One example: the 'Gulliver' tomatillo grown by the 100SFG team. They were able to direct-seed it after harvesting spring crops, and it produced by late August - massive 3-inch tomatillos. Imagine how early it would be if started indoors and transplanted in May!

I also had good luck with 'Dash' spinach as a spring-planted crop, which can supplement fall-planted spinach if you manage to get that going against all odds in wacko weather. (We'll see whether the seeds I put in this week washed away.)

7. Leeks grow in containers. I always throw a few unusual things into big pots just to see, and there were some extra leek seedlings, so... anyway, it worked, although they were small in comparison to the in-ground ones. Our container-grown sunchokes also did pretty well - and we have managed to eliminate them from the soil, we think!

8. Potting mix needs mid-season "fluffing" - at least if it rains steadily all through June. The container area did very poorly in summer and compaction of the soilless mix turned out to be one factor.

9. Bean trellises should not be built taller than gardeners can reach. I got really tired of getting out the ladder.

10. Drip irrigation saves shallow salad tables. We even managed to get parsley to germinate in July. It's doing well. I am coming to prefer salad tables more than 3 inches deep, though - sorry, Jon!

11. It's not worth waiting to harvest potatoes until the Harvest Festival. Especially if it doesn't happen! We were going to harvest the sweet potatoes today, but I guess we'll get to it this Tuesday. Anyway, the long tradition of October potato harvesting has bowed to increasing pest and weather issues, and we got our potatoes out in August (some for the public at the GIEI open house) and put broccoli seedlings in their place. Much better use of space than taters sitting underground being gnawed on by wireworms and occasionally sprouting.

12. We have a fantastic team of MGs at the DDG! I didn't need to learn this lesson; I already knew it. Thanks everyone!

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Fall soil improvement can lead to greater yields in 2016

I'm a vegetable gardener that makes intensive use of the space in my 4 foot wide raised beds.  What do I mean by intensive use, I mean that I pay more attention to the spacing between plants (see HG16 - Planting Dates for Vegetable Crops in MD)  and no attention to the distance between rows.  I'll use snap beans and beets as examples.  For snap beans, I plant 3 rows in my beds with seeds spaced 2 inches apart.  In a 5 foot long space, this gives me 90 plants, more than enough for myself, family and food bank.  For beets, I plant 4 rows with seed about 3 inches apart, which gives me 80 plants. Add to this the fact that I succession plant a lot of my summer and cool season in blocks like this and my garden is very productive.

There are 3 main ingredients to this kind of intensive gardening, but since it's fall, I'm going blog about soil improvement, since soil provides not only support for the vegetables but also holds the water and nutrients which are necessary for optimal yield.  Fall is a great time to improve your soil since you may have areas in the garden that are not planted.

The first task to complete when improving your soil is to do a soil test, if you haven't done one in the last 3 to 5 years (Univ. of MD's Home and Garden Information Center (HGIC) recommendation). The results from your soil test will tell you your soil's pH, nutrient levels  (phosphorous, potassium, calcium, magnesium and other micro nutrients, nitrogen is not tested for because it is transient in the soil) and amount of organic material (OM) in your garden.  The example below is from the Univ. of Del. soil test lab.
In the results from the soil test, the Univ. of Del. tells the client the specific amount of lime to add to bring the soil's pH range into the 6.2 to 6.8 that vegetables prefer.  It also tells the client what nutrients need to be added, when to add them and how much to use.  I would note that these recommendations are for commercially available inorganic fertilizers and that organic gardeners would have to convert these recommendations for applicable levels of organic fertilizers.  Help with this conversion is available from the friendly folks at HGIC. Just scan a copy of you report, email it to HGIC using the "Ask the Experts" button on the GIEI page and give them the analysis (N-P-K on the container) of your choice of fertilizer or allow them to choose from the wide array of organic choices.

One caveat I would add at this point is that nutrients need to be in water soluble form in order for plants to take them up.  Some organic fertilizers are not water soluble and have to be acted on by soil microbes to convert them from an organic form to a water soluble form.  Thus, when the soil is cold in the spring and fall, it is advisable to select a water soluble organic fertilizer (e.g. blood meal a source of water soluble organic nitrogen).

The second soil improvement task is to add additional OM to the soil.  (HGIC recommends adding 6 inches of OM to new gardens and one inch annually to established gardens.) This can be accomplished in two ways, either by adding compost or other OM or by growing a cover crop which can be incorporated into the soil and allowed to decay.  Both of these techniques add OM to the soil, which becomes a residual source of nutrients available to plants as soil microbes convert the organic forms of N-P-K into water soluble forms.

The goal for my intensively planted garden is to keep the OM content of my soil to a level greater than 5%.  Besides acting as a reservoir of nutrients for the plants, the humus which results from the decomposition process increases the water and air holding capacity of the soil. It accomplishes this by "glueing" soil particles together into larger clumps or aggregates which creates micro pores for holding soil solution containing nutrients and macro pores which allow the soil to drain and introduce air into the soil.  Soil with good structure, lots of macro and micro pores and containing adequate nutrients, will result in optimal yields.

So this is my general formula for soil improvement.  It works wonders in my garden and can do the same for you.  If you would like to hear more on soil improvement, I am making a presentation tonight (Thursday, Oct. 1 at 7 pm) entitled "Better Yield Through Better Soils" at Miller Library in Howard County MD.  Please phone 410-313-1950 to register.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

I'm glad summer is over

Boy, I sure am glad we are finished with summer.  Now maybe we can start making up the 6 inches of rain which we missed in August and September.

Like almost everyone I know, my tomatoes suffered from early blight  and Septoria leaf spot..
My harvest was modest at best and I did can some spaghetti sauce.

Fall crops have been planted (first week of August) and the cabbage. broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower and kale are doing wonderfully.

The plants are so large, I had to remove the 7 foot row cover.  So now I'm spraying with BT for the cabbage worms.  I also have some harlequin bugs, which I am hand picking twice a day.  Broccoli and cauliflower should be ready in mid October.  At that time, I'll side dress the broccoli with a quarter cup of 10-10-10 per 10 foot row as recommended in the HGIC vegetable profiles  Cabbage and Brussels Sprout should be ready in November.

Also planted lots of lettuce, pak choi, kohlrabi, radishes, collards, tatsoi and spinach.  With the hot dry weather, I had trouble getting it to germinate, even with my drip irrigation.  But they are up and should provide some variety for my table

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Fabulous Fall Greens

We’ve braved the summer heat and as we bid farewell to one season it’s on to colorful foliage, crisp fall weather, football, and fabulous greens. All alliteration aside, as fall approaches so does a new set of fall crops including broccoli, cabbage, and most importantly all the greens. Here are some great facts about some of our favorite greens:

Kale has previously been used and seen as a decoration piece, providing a bed for shrimp cocktail and deli spreads. However, it’s made quite the comeback as a nutritious superhero packing a long list of nutrients and health benefits. Kale is rich in vitamin A and C, the minerals calcium and iron as well as numerous other phytochemicals (healthful chemicals found in plants). Kale is versatile and can be prepared in many different ways for endless meal ideas. You can simply steam or sauté and top with lemon or oil/vinegar dressing, or add to pasta with vegetables or even your morning omelet.

Spinach is available year round at your local grocery store but take advantage of grabbing it in season from your local farmers for the best flavor and experience. Spinach is a dueling superhero green due to its similarly packed nutrition punch. Spinach contains vitamin A and K, folate, vitamin C, magnesium, calcium, and a long list of other vitamins and minerals. It’s just as versatile too. From salads, to smoothies; spinach can even be steamed in the microwave and added to rice or casseroles.

There are so many leafy greens to grow, buy and consume including turnip greens, collards, mustard greens, swiss chard and dark salad greens.  Though each leafy green is unique in its nutritive qualities they all are rich in vitamin A, vitamin K, vitamin C, folate (a B vitamin), fiber and various phytochemicals including lutein and zeaxanthine (these two phytochemicals are really good for eye health). In fact, according to the University of Georgia Department of Food and Nutrition, leafy greens are known to provide these health benefits:

1.      Helps maintain healthy eyes and vision.
2.      Helps keep immune system healthy to fight infections.
3.      Helps reduce the risk of cancer and heart disease.
4.      Helps reduce the risk of high blood pressure and stroke.
5.      Helps reduce the risk of cataracts and macular degeneration.
6.      Helps keep bones and teeth strong, along with diet and enough calcium and vitamin D.

They may not always be crowd favorites but with winning nutrition and countless recipe options, it’s hard to deny the highlight of fall vegetables. When buying from a local farmer be sure to rinse and clean your greens well and remember to always eat your greens! 

Here are some recipes for you to try:
Greens and Beans (UMD’s Eat Smart MD website)
Servings: 6

2 Tablespoons vegetable oil
1 onion, chopped
2 cloves of garlic, chopped
2 (15.5-ounce) cans of white beans, rinsed and drained
6 cups fresh greens: spinach, Swiss chard, or kale, washed
2 Tablespoons fresh parsley or 1 Tablespoon dried parsley flakes
Salt and pepper to taste
  1. Heat oil in pan over medium heat.
  2. Add onion, cook for 2 minutes.
  3. Add garlic and cook for 1 minute, stirring often.
  4. Add beans and parsley, cook for 2 minutes.
  5. Stir in greens and cook just until wilted.
  6. Season with salt and pepper.
*Click on link in references section for nutrient information of recipe.
Seared Greens (USDA Mixing Bowl):
8 cups kale or collard greens (1 1/2 pounds)
2 tablespoons vegetable oil (or olive oil)
garlic clove (chopped)
1 cup water
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
2 tablespoons vinegar, cider
1. Clean the greens thoroughly and cut stems away. Dry well and tear into salad pieces or slice across leaf into 1/2 inch pieces.
2. In a large deep pot or skillet with a cover, sauté garlic in oil. Add greens in pan with 1 cup water.
3. Cover pan and steam for 4 minutes.
4. Uncover, stir constantly until greens shrink. Add salt and pepper and continue to stir on high until mixture is thoroughly wet.
5. Sprinkle cider vinegar on mixture. Cover.
6. Turn off heat. Let stand until ready to serve.

This post is a collaborative project of Lisa Gonzalez, FCS Extension Agent and Kimberley Zisman, Dietetic Intern.

Eat Smart MD. (2015). Greens and Beans.

University of George Department of Food and Nutrition. (2003). Leafy Greens.

USDA Mixing Bowl (2015). Seared Greens.