Sunday, February 28, 2010

This year I'll be on time

Last year I missed the boat. Not quite, but I could have done better.

2009 was my first year vegetable gardening on two raised 4-foot square beds and on another larger ornamental bed that I'd rescued from the weeds the year before. I'd intended that former weed bed to become a perennial asparagus bed, but I missed the deadline to plant the crowns.

(Actually, as I found out when I belatedly decided to get that bed's soil tested, the pH was far too acidic for asparagus. As a result, even though I was late in transplanting tomato seedlings there, fortunately late blight was ALSO late arriving in my Washington County plot. Thus, humans and groundhogs enjoyed a plentiful tomato harvest.)

But that's how it was... I kept missing planting deadlines all year. Including putting in a fall garden, because I didn't realize that I had to start thinking about that in the middle of the summer! My most striking example of ill timing -- which I left in the ground as an inspiration for 2010 -- was my sunflowers. I sowed Mammoth sunflower seeds so late that I had only three days to enjoy the fully grown plants before autumn started to hit.

Those sunflowers taught me that seed packets truly contain useful information. Today's date + Days to Germination + Days to Bloom = Plant Maturity Date. If that plant maturity date is due to happen after the first frost, we're out of luck. (That seems obvious, but I had to actually experience it to truly register the lesson!)

So this year I'm paying VERY close attention to planting inside dates, to sowing outside dates, to transplanting dates, and to the information on seed packets. A good planting calendar is one of our most important gardening tools.

And it's a free! Yesterday I found a very useful resource on a blog called "Little House in the Suburbs." Their spring planting calendar is really cool, as well as their fall planting calendar and their herb calendar. (Don't mind the 2009 date: you fill in the dates yourself based on your local frost dates.) And, if you're more experienced than I with planning ahead, they also offer a really cool succession planting spreadsheet.

To find your spring frost dates in Maryland, visit this page at HGIC, and for fall frost dates, this one. Because I'm still a newbie gardener, in 2010 I'll be sticking with the 10% dates... at least until I become well versed in the art of protecting my seedlings from frost.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Seeds are coming! The seeds are coming!

Ahhhh......the growing season is almost upon us! It is officially here for me as I just ordered some of the seeds that I will be growing in my garden this year! Yay!

So here's what will be arriving in a few days:

Sweet Baby Girls (cherry type)
Tomatoberry (size and shape of a strawberry)
Rutgers Jersey (a sandwich type and a tribute to my homestate--Go Jersey!)
Roma (a tribute to my grandmother and my Italian heritage)

Cantaloupe: Ambrosia hybrid; Cucumber (Streamliner hybrid); Hot Pepper Caribbean Red (habanero); Mint: chocolate mint. I also bought some tomato seeds that will supposedly produce plants that reach 8 feet tall in 90 days and produce 60 pounds of tomatoes...each!

Oh and I plan to buy more! I am going to purchase the rest of my herb seeds, onions, garlic, potatoes, carrots and a few other things. It's going to be great! I can just see it all now and my taste buds are beginning to water already.

It's going to be a great growing season for us all. I can feel it in my bones. Until next time, everyone.

Happy garden thoughts!

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Companion Planting: Space Saving at its Finest

When you think of saving space in the garden do you have the health of your plants in mind? When I first started using various space saving techniques, I certainly did not think that there were benefits for the plants. I just wanted to grow more in the limited amount of space that I have. But here’s the thing: by planting certain crops together you benefit the health of the plant above and below ground while simultaneously increasing your yields.

Native Americans are the pioneers of companion planting with their ‘Three Sisters’ technique of growing corn, beans and squash together. These three plants, when grown together, have a mutually beneficial relationship. The corn stalk provides the beans with a support to grow on and the leaves of the squash act as a living mulch to discourage weeds.

Companion planting is basically growing plants together that “like” each other. This method of gardening allows you to maximize your garden space by growing things more closely together, but the plants also benefit from the chemical reactions that occur by making certain plants neighbors.

It works like this: every plant releases different chemicals either from its leaves or from its roots and those chemicals either attract or repel insects. These same chemicals also either encourage or inhibit a plant’s growth and yield. Each plant also gives off a sort of signal, called a molecular vibration. Insects, both good and bad, use this vibration to find plants in your garden. Companion planting makes it more difficult for insects to establish themselves and find food (Avant-Gardening: Creative Organic Gardening).

There’s a lot that goes into companion planting, but don’t let it overwhelm you. A little research about each plant’s needs can help you plan out what will go where in your garden space.

The list of companion plants is too long to put here. There are plenty of web sites that have lists of what plants go well together. Just to wet your whistle a little here are a few: beans, cabbage and broccoli provide great shade for celery, lettuce and spinach; leeks and onions can be planted with carrots, parsley, pepper and eggplant.

So just remember, with a little planning companion planting will not only save space. It will create a mutually beneficial relationship between your soil and your plants. If the soil is happy and the plants are happy, the possibilities are endless!

Thursday, February 11, 2010

What becomes of the broken garden?

The worst snow storm on record. I was ready. Went out and got plenty of groceries (I was all out so I wasn't going just for the snow), filled the car up with gas and was even ready for a power outage (which thank God I did not have). I didn't think of one thing: the garden cage.

I still recall the horror clearly. After the snow had passed my husband looked out the window and said "I was afraid this would happen." My heart sank. I took a few deep breaths and then looked outside. Yup. The weight of the snow on the chicken wire collapsed the roof of my garden cage. Now, I was not a physics major as my husband was, so the fact that the cage might collapse didn't dawn on me. I gave him a dirty look and said "if you thought this was going to happen you could have told me....I would have gone out and cut the chicken wire from the roof of the cage!" Of course I know this wasn't his fault. But someone had to be the target of my misdirected anger and that cowardly snow miser certainly was nowhere to be found.

I cried. Yes, I really did. My husband said "the main supports are fine. We'll go out, cut down the roof before the next snowstorm and in the spring I will make it better and stronger and bigger." Bigger? Ohhhhhh I'm planning what to do with those extra square feet already!

So though my heart feels much like my beautiful garden cage looks, I know that she shall rise again like the Phoenix. The positive in all this--besides the extra square feet I will be getting? It will give me LOTS to blog about!

But in the meantime, if you see this guy....tell him I'd like to have a word with him.

Until next time. Happy garden thoughts!

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Why do I want to think about summer today?

Oh, that could be why.

A great weekend to look at seed catalogs and consider which seeds need to be started inside when. One unusual (for this country) plant I may try again, although it wasn't quite a success last year, is Solanum muricatum, the pepino melon.

Pepino melon, as some of you can guess from the Latin name, is a member of the wonderful Solanaceae family, and a close relative of tomato and eggplant. It is native to South America. It's not a melon, botanically, but it tastes sweet like one. Or so I hear. The plant that grew beautifully for us in the demo garden did produce fruit, but a frost started to blacken the leaves before the fruit was fully mature. Here's what it looked like just before that:

(photo by Katherine Lambert)

We picked the immature fruit anyway, hoping it would ripen like a green tomato does inside, but it stayed hard. I did finally cut mine open and try it; it tasted like, um, an unripe melon. But it promised to be good when ripe.

You can see a fully ripe pepino melon cut open at this link.

I think I'll try growing them again, starting plants inside sometime this month so they are sizable by the time we transplant them into the garden in May. The plants are about two feet high at maturity, and grow well in standard tomato cages (you know, the ones that are too flimsy to work for tomatoes). In their native climate they are perennial and evergreen; not here.

Anyone have experience either growing or eating these?

Friday, February 5, 2010

Open Pollinated Corn – Part 3

Why there may be a place for open pollinated corn varieties

In spite of the problems detailed in the previous post, a fair minded observer would have to say that the adoption of hybrid corn by commercial farmers has been a huge success. This applies not only to field corn varieties but also to sweet corn varieties. For the latter, the recent development of the extra sweet and super sweet hybrids have been a big hit with consumers in North America. Why then would anyone even think of going back to these old fashioned varieties? As I see it, there are three reasons.

The first has to do with sustainability. The very thing which makes hybrids so successful turns out to be a drawback. A field of hybrid corn has plants which are all genetically identical. If one plant is susceptible to a pest, all of the plants are equally at risk. On the other hand, a field of an open pollinated variety of corn, although containing plants which have similar genetic composition, will have much more genetic diversity. This reduces risk not only from pests but also from abiotic risks such as drought, extreme temperatures, low fertility, etc. Open pollinated corn varieties are less dependent on costly inputs, such as high levels of fertilizer, irrigation water, and pesticides than are hybrids. Yes, hybrids will yield better if given the necessary inputs in a timely fashion. But open pollinated varieties should have better yield stability – the ability to maintain an adequate yield in spite of less than ideal conditions.

The second reason is that open pollinated varieties may fit into local food, slow food, organic food and home gardener production systems better than hybrid varieties in many cases. The seed can be saved and replanted, significantly reducing costs. There are more opportunities for farmers to do selection and breeding on their own farms for specific growing conditions and market needs. Cultural and ethnic specific characteristics can be selected to supply very narrow local niche markets. A home gardener who is hand harvesting corn does not need to have all of the corn mature at the same time. In fact, this may be a disadvantage for sweet corn in a home garden.

The third reason has to do with maintenance of genetic diversity of corn. Many old varieties of corn have been lost since the advent of hybrid corn. Many farmers had consciously or unconsciously developed unique open pollinated varieties of corn as they saved seed from their crop and replanted it. Some of these farmer varieties and “land races” were collected by commercial seed companies and incorporated into hybrid varieties. Some are maintained in USDA seed banks. Some are maintained as heirloom varieties. But many have been lost forever. A large scale revival of open pollinated corn production by commercial growers and home gardeners will help to not only preserve the genetic diversity that still remains but also have it readily available to farmers and future generations of farmers at relatively low cost. I like to think of this as “genetic democracy”. Let a thousand varieties pollinate? Herbivore Reed

Next: Ok I get it! How can I get started?

Monday, February 1, 2010

What's Up Doc?

Wouldn't Bugs Bunny be surprised to see this carrot rainbow? This was my first attempt at growing carrots and was delighted to harvest these jewels in late October. I planted the cultivars 'Little Finger' and 'Carnival Blend' on July 7.

I will definitely plant these again this spring. I'll have to remember to be patient though. It can take up to 25 days for seedlings to emerge. These took longer that that - probably because they are a cool season crop and I planted in July. It was well worth the wait!

Share your successes. Comment with your favorite cultivars.

When tomato met basil

My first garden was a mixture of a garden plot and container plants. I didn't have enough room to plant everything that I wanted to grow so I grew my tomatoes in pots alongside my garden.

One day I came home from Papa John's (the nursery, not the pizza place) with some basil plants that I just had to have. But I had no room for them. I checked my tomato plants to see if they needed watering and my daughter noticed these tiny little bugs on the undersides of the leaves.

I immediately got online and did some research. Yep. Aphids. I went out and squished all that I could see but there were a lot. I was frustrated and thought my plants were goners. I didn't want to use any pesticides and I didn't have the heart to throw my babies away. I thought "well, I'll just keep them around and see what happens".

I knew that I liked basil and tomato sandwiches, and was sad at the thought of no garden fresh tomatoes. Then it hit me! Since there was no more room in the garden for my new basil plants, I just put them right into the pots with the tomatoes. I thought since they went well together on a plate, maybe the basil and tomatoes could be friends. I was right! Within two days there was not an aphid to be found on any of my plants. My tomatoes were saved! Yay, basil! The picture above is the first of many maters that I harvested that year. So I saved space and took care of that pesky bug that was bothering my maters.

Seasoned gardeners, I later found out, already knew this trick. So I'm sharing it for those that don't know. The next time you are growing your maters, throw some basil in the mix. You'll save space, grow more, and your maters (and your taste buds) will thank you later!