Friday, April 29, 2011

TomatoPatch: T-day 2011, let the season begin!

Ready to plant tomato seeds!
Birthdays. Anniversaries. New Year’s and Christmas, and holidays between. And T-Day.

You haven’t heard about T-Day?

That’s the day I start my tomato seeds. This year it was Monday, April 24, but the date varies.

Why so late? Because I like tomato plants to be about eight inches high, sturdy, ready to blast off when the hot weather tells these tropical plants to grow, flower, and fruit. And I’ve learned over the years that it takes my plants four weeks, plus or minus a few days, to grow that tall in individual cups under fluorescent lights in our basement utility room.

Here’s how I do it:

Step 1, Getting Ready: I open the tailgate of my Tacoma pickup—the perfect height for this job—and gather the essentials: seed packets, sterile starting mix, watering bottle, cups, a Phillips screwdriver, trays, ballpoint pen/sheet of paper/clipboard, a marking pen, a sharp knife, and a tablespoon.

Step 2, Preparing Cups: I use wide-top, six-ounce yoghurt cups or small (a.k.a. “tall” at Starbucks) paper or plastic coffee cups. Why buy when you can recycle so easily and for free? I stack two or three cups together and with the Phillips screwdriver punch two drainage holes in the bottoms. Then I place the cups into the trays. I find it best if all the cups in each tray are the same height, which makes it easy to adjust the fluorescent lights under which they will be growing. I end up with 18 yoghurt cups in one tray, 15 coffee cups in the second, and 16 yoghurt cups plus two coffee cups in the third. I use the knife to cut the two coffee cups down to the height of the yoghurt cups.

Step 3, Adding the Mix: I use one of the yoghurt cups to measure starting mix into the cups. I fill each about three-quarters, shaking each cup to level the mix. I fill each cup over the open bag so spills fall into the bag, and I don’t have to clean up later. One eight dry-quart bag of mix is enough for at least 40 starting cups.

Step 4, Dropping the Seeds: I drop two seeds into each cup. That sounds simple, but first I have to figure out how many cups I want to start of each of the 10 tomato varieties I’m growing this year. I’m starting 51 cups, each of which ultimately will hold one plant. Wouldn’t four or five plants be enough for Ellen and me? Well, yes, if I weren’t a tomato freak who wants to grow both old favorites and new varieties—and have both plants and fruit to give away too.

Notes help keep things straight
Step 5, Making Notes: The pen, paper, and clipboard are essential. After I’ve decided how many cups of each I’m starting, I make notes as I add the seeds of each variety, including an abbreviation for each variety. “By-R,” for example, means “Brandywine Red.” The last note on my list—“5x2 Brandywine Red (By-R)”—means I’m starting five cups, 2 seeds each, of that variety. Why two seeds? That’s the minimum. Sometimes three drop in. Germination rates of tomato seeds are high. Johnny’s Selected Seeds packets say their rate is 80%. So two seeds should get me 1.6 plants on average, but in reality, both seeds in most cups will sprout.

Yes, that is a Sungold plant, not a Juliet
Step 6, Marking the Cups: Every time I finish dropping the seeds for a variety, I stop and make a note on the paper and then use the black felt-tip pen to write the abbreviation for that variety on the side of the cups holding that variety. There’s nothing worse than having several varieties of plants and not being able to identify them when it’s time to transplant them into your garden or give them to friends.

Step 7, Watering: After seeds are in their cups, I water them gently with a home-made plastic watering bottle—a water or soda bottle works well—that has a small hole in its cap. I make the hole by heating the tip of an awl on our electric stove and pressing it through the plastic cap. I gently squeeze the bottle to regulate the water flow just the way I want it. This year I used Miracle-Gro Seed Starting Mix, which is slightly moist to the touch, so I didn’t have to add much water—just enough to help the seeds sprout. Some mixes are dry and must be wetted down first—a messy pain in the bucket to my way of thinking.

Small hole in bottle cap
Step 8, Covering Seeds: I use the tablespoon to cover the seeds with starting mix. Trial and error led me to the tablespoon. A rounded spoonful of mix covers the seeds in each cup “just right,” about a quarter of an inch.

Step 9, Watering 2: After the seeds are covered with mix, I gently water each cup again. The drainage holes in the bottom of the cups let me know when I’ve watered more than enough. I’ll check the cups daily until the seeds sprout and give them a little more water if the top of the mix looks too dry. When it dries, the color of the mix turns to light brown from dark brown.

Step 10, To the Utility Room: At first opportunity I move the trays of cups to our utility room, where I place them on a growing stand that friends recycled to me. The temperature there is about 73, just a degree or two below optimum temperature for tomato seeds to sprout. I’ll check the cups daily, and when the seeds sprout in five to seven days, I’ll turn on the lights.

T-Day: I’ve planted my tomato seeds. From time to time I’ll post about what’s happening in my TomatoPatch.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Spring AND late summer asparagus

Here's a neat trick for spreading out your asparagus harvest. In half of your planting, cut emerging spears in spring as you normally do. In the other half, allow the spears to grow into ferns and cut them in late July. You'll then be able to harvest spears in August if you keep the bed well-watered.

Lynn Jacobson, the Grow It Eat It webmaster and "asparagus queen" in our office, sent this photo and note a few days ago:
"The left row is the row we let grow last Spring, and cut back (missed the late July recommended time because of vacation) and harvested in August last year .  We decided to try it again this year.  The other rows have been cut.  So far we've had about 50 lbs of asparagus!  The left row doesn't appear to have suffered any ill effects from the August cutting!"
 (Note: Lynn grows the 'Jersey Giant' cultivar and mulches her beds with shredded leaves. The walkways between the beds are covered with landscape fabric and leaves).

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Derwood Demo Garden update

Yesterday we had our third workday of the season at the MG demo garden in Derwood, Montgomery County.  The vegetable beds are beginning to take shape, as is the rest of the garden.  We had previously planted seedlings of leeks as well as kale and other brassica family members (mostly under row covers to discourage pests), and yesterday we put in mustard, orach, and quinoa (which looks just like its Chenopodium relative, lamb's quarters), as well as lots of seeds.  It was warm though windy (hats and seed packets flying all over), and I kept feeling that the spring had slipped away from me - let's hope for some more cool weather to let the late-planted spring crops mature!

We are trying to garden even more vertically this year.  Here are MG Barbara Dunn and intern Lily Bruch putting up one of the new bamboo trellises (this one will have bitter gourds and... something else on it, and the other completed trellis visible to the side will hold luffas).

The trellises are in the Asia end of the Old World part of the vegetable garden - all organized by origin of species (and when I say "organized" I mean "trying to remember to refer to my list and sketch map while desperately getting those seeds and plants in").  I hope it'll all work out well!  Signs are next, honestly.

We have enormous new compost bins for our enormous output of trimmings and (safe for compost with no seeds or regenerating roots) weeds, built as an Eagle Scout project.

This is just the old three-bin system writ large.  We'll dump into the first bin, and then our compost crew will move (with a front-loader, I assume) the finished compost from bin 2 into bin 3, and shred the new stuff into bin 2 so it can rot properly.  And so forth.

After a lot of rain we are finally getting to some tasks that might have been done a bit earlier.  Here are MGs Judy Bradley and Mish Brousseau taming the blackberries (while discussing the Royal Family).

The rest of the garden looks great too.  Here's Wildlife Lead Gardener Mary Johnson contemplating her realm:

Lots of native plants back from last season, including some lovely trilliums.  I'll give you looks at the other sections of the garden as the season goes on, along with regular (I hope) updates on the veggies.

Please come visit us!  We are at the Agricultural History Farm Park in Derwood, MD.  You can come anytime the park is open to walk around the garden by yourself.  Our workdays are Tuesday 8 am to 12 noon.  And if you have a group that would like a MG-led tour, please contact Montgomery County Master Gardeners.  We love giving tours!

Enjoy your spring gardening, and... please, more actual spring would be useful...

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Start those squash, cukes and melons now for May 15 transplants

Just a reminder for anyone that wants to get a jump on the squash, cuke or melon season. You can start your plants now for transplant into the garden around May 15. (I live in the Clarksville area and the frost date here is really that late.) Anyway, grab a 4 inch pot and fill it with your favorite soilless mix. Plant four seeds in each pot, after sprouting, you can cut off the two weakest seedlings. Water the pots thoroughly and place under lights. They'll be up in a couple of days and you can either leave them under the lights or if the weather stays warm, move them outdoors.

If you use a black plastic mulch, you can warm the soil up and the plants will grow more quickly. Another trick is to cover the plants with row cover which will preclude all the squash plant loving pests from feasting on your plants. Just remember that once the plants start to bloom, you'll have to remove the row cover so that all of the pollinators can do their jobs.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Bill's no-cost salad factory

Bill's no-cost cold frame
Bill Mitchell has been picking lettuce and spinach for salads since the third week of March in his two no-cost salad factories, cold frames he made from odds and ends he had on hand.

Bill's Black Seeded Simpson lettuce
The names of Bill’s salad greens may be familiar to many gardeners: Black Seeded Simpson lettuce and Bloomsdale Long Standing spinach.

“I planted them in early September,” explained Bill, who lives with his wife, Chris, on a wooded lot in Sykesville in northern Howard County. “I put on the glass before frost but took it off on really warm days. During winter, snow sometimes covered the glass cover. The lettuce and spinach came through fine.”

Bill built his two salad machines by recycling materials. “I used untreated scrap 2x6 lumber, which I cut to a size that recycled storm windows would cover the top of the frame, and a dozen nails for each. The soil is basic garden soil plus compost,” Bill said.

His lettuce and spinach are beautiful—and tasty too. Bill shared some that we enjoyed for our evening salad.

For later picking and eating, Bill has more salad greens up and growing in a sunny spot near his cold frames: chard, kale, turnip greens, and more lettuce and spinach.

Bill repairs heirloom chairs
One of Bill’s several other hobbies is repairing chairs. “I splint weave, cane, replace pre-woven cane, and rush weave,” he explained. We know. He recently replaced the pre-woven cane backs of our four kitchen chairs which, after twenty some years, had worn through.

Good jobs, Bill—your cold frames and our chair backs too.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Breakfast veggie that isn’t

What don’t the French eat for breakfast?

French Breakfast radishes, according to Barbara Damrosch in her “A Cook’s Garden” column in the Washington Post.

Damrosch calls French Breakfast radishes “cute, tender and delicious” with “sweet mild flavor and succulent crunch,” the “handiest of snacks,” and “great for dipping.”

Would you like them buttered and salted?

I’d better let Damrosch explain that. To read “The roots of the French Breakfast,” CLICK HERE.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Cabbage Worm Armageddon Part III

Not this year for us.

With a few plants, we can handpick and destroy the cabbage worms easily.

A row cover will avoid the Imported Cabbage worm butterflies to lay down theirs eggs on the leaves of the cabbage family members (broccoli, cauliflower, kale, kohlrabi, mustard, radish, turnip, etc) .

Another possibility is to do like I’m doing: grow a rosemary plant near your broccoli and cabbage plants. According to the Cornell University extension the smell of the plant will repel the cabbage moth.

I’ll let you know how that goes!

Bye, bye, stink bugs!

I’ve accidentally discovered the answer to the invasion of the brown marmorated stink bugs, which threaten to eat our tomatoes, corn, soybeans, raspberries, apples, and who knows what else this summer.

Yes, while scientists of the United States Department of Agriculture are studying the possibility of releasing a small Asian wasp that will parasitize the eggs of the stink bugs, I’ve found a solution that apparently is 100% effective and has no environmental effects—no imported insects to release, no pesticide residues, no nothing, to use the vernacular.

I discovered the miracle remedy at the High’s Shell station in Glenelg, a town that I love because I was always a tad backward at spelling, and Glenelg is my kind of word. Yes, one way it’s Glenelg, and the reverse is glenelG.  But I digress. 

When I was on my way back from picking up a load of compost at the Howard County Recycling Center, I pulled into the High’s station to fill up my Tacoma.

The photo tells the story. I filled the tank with 15.761 gallons of regular for a total of $57.35, which was after a $3.15 discount (20¢ a gallon) from the Giant Foods Bonus Card savings program. Yes, that total is correct: $57.35.

And note that just below the figures are five dead stink bugs that seem to be permanently entombed between the digital readout and its protective glass. I have no doubt the stink bugs died of cardiac arrest when they saw the price of gasoline.

What a discovery! Perhaps our veggies and fruits can be saved without importing predators or polluting our foods with pesticides!

Now all we have to do is to figure out a way to march all the stink bugs past gas stations. That might be quite a challenge, but perhaps the USDA researchers can solve that problem too.

WARNING: This was attempted humor.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Dandelions: Weeds, food, cancer killers?

Cancer killer?
When I see a dandelion growing in my veggie garden, I reach for my hoe.

Other gardeners may stoop to pick the new leaves of a young dandelion plant to add to their next salad.

But this humble and much tread-upon plant has potential as a cancer killer. To learn about that, you’ll have to read Patterson Clark’s “Eat your weeds,” in his weekly “Urban Jungle” column in the Washington Post. CLICK HERE.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Rain, rain, rain: I surrender

Rain, rain, go away...
April showers may bring May flowers, but, quite frankly, they’ve washed out my gardening plans.

I had every intention of planting cool weather veggie seeds—lettuce, beets, chard, carrots—during the first few days of April, but rain and showers saturated our garden and made that impossible. One day I started to hoe some winter weeds but surrendered—quite happily—when the sticky soil just wouldn’t fall off the roots of the weeds. Our Maryland soil is basically clay, so if I plant seeds in the wet soil, the soil will crust when it dries and the seeds may find it impossible to break through.

For every day of sun that we’ve had during the first three weeks of April, we’ve had two or three cloudy days, often with showers, rain, even downpours. The “Official weather data” for Baltimore-Washington International Airport through last evening, as reported in the Washington Post, tells the story: we’re nearly an inch above average rainfall year to date. The forecasts for the next five days aren’t encouraging for seed planting either: rain Tuesday, thunderstorm Wednesday, rain possible on Friday.

I surrender. If I can’t plant lettuce outside, I’ll plant it inside. And that’s exactly what I did late Monday afternoon.

I gathered essentials for starting plants inside: sterile starting mix (soil), beverage cups that I saved over winter, and, of course, seeds. I took the packets of lettuce seeds—Red Sails (Botanical Interests), Coastal Star (Johnny’s Selected Seeds), and Simpsons Curled (Bentley Seeds)—out of the plastic jar in which I store them in our refrigerator and went to work.

Plastic dividers make two growing areas
First, with a Phillips screwdriver I punched two drainage holes in the bottom of each of the seven recycled cups I planned to use. Then I filled the cups three-quarters full of starting mix, dividing the growing area in half with plastic strips I fashioned with scissors from a blueberry box that I liberated from our recycling bin. (The plastic strips will make it easy to separate the plants, two per cup after thinning, when I transplant them later.) Then I sprinkled two or three seeds into each side, covered them with about a quarter-inch of starting soil, dampened them with water, and took the cups in a plastic tray into our kitchen, where they’ll sprout in five to 10 days in temperatures ranging from the 60s at night to 70s during the day.

I don’t plan to move the seedlings down to our basement utility room to grow for three or four weeks under fluorescent lights. Instead, when they sprout, I’ll carry them outside during daylight hours for a week or so, until they look tall enough to survive the next shower or downpour. Even though temperatures outside dip into the 40s at night, lettuce is a “cool weather” veggie that should be flourishing outside in our garden, not inside our house.

Why do I plant the lettuce varieties that I do?

Red Sails has beautiful, burgundy-tinged leaves that look and taste great in salads, and it’s slow to bolt when hot weather arrives, so we can harvest it longer into the summer. When lettuces bolt, they send up a flower stalk, turn bitter, and go to seed. From planting seeds to harvest: 45 days.

I bought Coastal Star as an experiment while looking in the Johnny’s catalog for Parris Island romaine. I liked what I read. It’s heat tolerant (slow to bolt), and similar to Parris Island but with darker green leaves. From planting seeds: 57 days.

I didn’t buy the Simpsons Curled seeds. They came in a promotional packet from an organization soliciting my membership. I’ve grown greenleaf Black Seeded Simpson, apparently a similar variety, for years. Small plants can be pulled to highlight salads in about 28 days and full-size plants will be ready in about 46 days.

Which variety will sprout first? Most likely the Simpsons Curled.

And I’m still wondering when we will get a week or 10 days, rain free, so I can plant carrot, beet, and chard seeds in our garden.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Spring is for planting...and for harvesting

April is said to be the time for seed starting, or patiently watching seedlings and waiting for the day when they can be put into the ground. For me, this year April has been a time of harvest, marvellous harvest.

If you have to travel for work, as I do, then it feels particularly cruel to have to do so in March and April. This year I was gone for most of those months and during one brief return home, I noticed that my kale and collards appeared to be pushing through the winter covers. There had been a few warm days and I imagined they had bolted. I couldn't bear to look.

So it was with a somewhat heavy heart that I approached my garden a few days ago, and what a surprise...kale and collards galore, (very little bolting) as well as beautiful garden salads.

The last bits of salad seeds that I had casually strewn among the garlic in October/November (?) had turned into this beautiful bed.

Kale chips are now in demand in my household - break the leaves off the stems, toss with a little salt and olive oil, place on tray in 250 degree oven, and voila, kids love it. This time I amde my kale with the last of my home-grown garlic and onions from last year - steam the kale, saute garlic and onions and toss in the steamed kale.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Friday Field Trip:: Red Wiggler

Today I will be starting a new feature I hope to carry out throughout the growing season. I'm a new blogger to the GiEi blog (but have been blogging on my own blog for several years now). I'm so excited about this new feature, I began with the "Field trip" idea on my blog earlier this year. I'll be visiting different places that grow food over the course of the growing season!

I'm starting this week with a Montgomery County farm and CSA, Red Wiggler. I thought it might be interesting to show how the season begins behind the scenes at a local small farm. I've made 2 visits out to the farm to see what they've got in the ground over the last couple weeks and things are really just starting to swing into full gear.
The growing season for small farms in our area is really from May to November with most farmers markets and CSA's beginning to sell at the end of May. Because of the scale of the farms food production they don't begin to plant until they really need to and over the years Red Wiggler has become very skilled at knowing what to plant when. Late winter and early spring are the times to prep the ground and there was a lot of unseen work that had recently gone into readying the fields and improving the soil structure through cover crops and tilling practices. The small farm tilling practices include a variety of tools each used for a specific purpose with restraint! In case your interested they use the following tilling equipment:
Spader, large version of the garden tiller but the spades move up and down rather than in circles which damages the soil less.
Disc, this is great for incorporating cover crops.
Rotovator, a walk behind rotary plow.
Subsoiler, creates divets to plant in (illustrated in the photo above).
This Spring has been a cool and somewhat wet one which has delayed some earlier planting. Since Red Wiggler CSA customers begin to pick up at the end of May the farm must schedule their crops to come in "on time" and they need to offer their customers a variety of about 10 crops from the very first pick up! These are considerations that the home gardener may take into account but don't have to stick to. For the small farm though, it's vital that they have a variety of plants producing by the end of May.
I was a little surprised that they didn't have more planted when I visited for the first time at the end of March. They assured me that they were kicking it into full swing and shared with me what had been started so far. There were several crops that had been overwintered (in addition to cover crops they used-rye, hairy vetch, clover and alfalfa) such as garlic (image below), kale, daikon radish and bok choy. The farm also has a couple of early spring perennial that customers may or may not get a taste of, asparagus, rhubarb and some grape varieties (more about these later). Direct sow crops that have been planted so far are, leeks, onion (by sets), arugula, kale, beets, carrots (in raised beds in the photo above), fava beans and peas. I admire the fact that there is very little that is started indoor and transplanted, this makes for less and more efficient work in the field, but it has it's drawbacks for the home gardener who may want to get started earlier and reap the rewards of tender spring greens earlier in the season. Red Wiggler also has no green house (but hopefully will next year) and no room to start things indoor on their larger scale.
Next on the farm's planting schedule will be potatoes, peppers, both sweet and hot and tomato transplants. The farm also takes on some fun projects such as last year's new addition of the chickens, who will hopefully help to control the levels of BM Stink Bugs (maybe, a little!) and the Catawba Grape vines.
I'll be sharing another post soon about the story behind these native grapes, their rescue from Clarksburg and how they came to be at Red Wiggler.
I'll be checking back in with the farm over the growing season to see what's happening. I hope you've enjoyed this virtual "field trip" and will check back for more of them about once a month. Have a great weekend!

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Slugs: Slime, Sex, Slugfeast

Slug slithering over edge of brick
Slime trails sparkling in the morning sun. Holes in veggies, fruits, and flowers. Yes, slugs dine overnight in our gardens.

In veggie gardens, slugs sometimes chow down on such favorites as asparagus spears, tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants. A herd of hungry slugs can mow down a row of lettuce, spinach, beet, and chard seedlings.

In flower gardens, slugs relish hostas and roses, chewing round holes in leaves, at least those deer haven’t eaten.

How can you protect your plants from these pests?

Hand pick them
Hand pick them—with your hands, not mine—and drop them into a bag with salt at the bottom. Slugs are mostly water, and the salt kills them by osmosis.

Surround plants with strips of copper or abrasive barriers of diatomaceous earth, coarse sand, oyster or crab shells.

Fill a shallow bowl with beer and invite slugs to a drink-and-drown party, though tipsy slugs can be annoying at two in the morning when they start belting out, “Ninety-nine bottles of beer on the wall…”

Call in birds, frogs, toads, box turtles, rats, beetles, and snakes—many of which eat slugs. Whoa, you say, forget the rats and snakes. Put up a fence and buy a chicken or duck—champion slug eaters.

Put on your old dancing shoes and dance on their heads when slugs come out of hiding after a warm spring shower.

If such suggestions don’t fit your gardening style or time you can devote to such slug killing, do the two things that I do.

First, I minimize slug habitat in or near our gardens—moist places where they hide from the sun. That includes piles of leaves and flat things like boards, large pieces of bark, bricks, and rocks.

Iron phosphate slug bait
Second, buy a box or bottle of slug bait. My newest purchase is a plastic jug of iron phosphate bait called “Slug Magic.” Other brands include "Sluggo" and "Escar-Go!" I used to use bait based on metaldehyde but switched to iron phosphate because it is less toxic to the environment, though it may be a little less effective in killing slugs.

Whichever bait or brand you buy, read the directions carefully before using it. The label on “Slug Magic” proclaims: “Makes Slugs Disappear. Can Be Used Around Pets and Wildlife. For use around vegetables, fruit trees, citrus, berries, ornamentals, shrubs, flowers, trees, lawns, gardens and in greenhouses.”

The plot: Sprinkle bait around plants or slug hideouts. Slugs find it when they come out for breakfast in the evening. They chow down on the bait, stop eating the plants, and begin dying in three to six days. During the warm season, I often find slime trails in our backyard between blue-star junipers and a nearby flowerbed. I assume slugs are spending the day in the dense shade under the junipers, so I sprinkle bait into the junipers and around nearby daylilies.

Note: The newer iron phosphate baits can be used around pets. Metaldehyde can be hazardous to dogs, for example, and carries warnings to apply it in ways that do not come into contact with edible parts of plants. The “Precautionary Statement” attached to the back of the “Slug Magic” bottle warns that the bait can cause “moderate eye irritation” and recommends a good washing of hands and clothing that may have come into contact with the pesticide.

Now that we’ve discussed slugs and how to control them, what about the sex and the slugfeast?

For those subjects, at the end of this posting please link to Patterson Clark’s “Urban Jungle” column, “The surprising sex life of leopard slugs,” in the Washington Post. You will find slug sex life, well, just short of unbelievable.

And as for slugfeast, I’m not convinced that I will ever eat a slug. Wikipedia notes that a cure in ancient times in southern Italy for gastritis and ulcers was to swallow a live slug. To my way of thinking, that probably was the origin of the saying, “The cure is worse than the disease.” The “Urban Jungle” column lists three factors that “may give pause to the potential slug chef” and ends, “Bon app├ętit!”

I’ll end with two words too: “Yuck! Yuck!”

To read “The surprising sex life of leopard slugs,” CLICK HERE.

If you have a serious slug problem in your garden, I encourage you to read the University of Maryland Extension’s Fact Sheet 822, “Managing Slugs in the Garden and Beyond.” CLICK HERE.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Cheap energy = cheap food = loss of appreciation for food

by Dale Johnson, Farm Management Specialist, University of Maryland Extension

For the past century we have had cheap energy in the form of gasoline and diesel oil. Let me illustrate.

Suppose you need the energy to move 1,000 pounds of wheat 10 miles to market. Here are three ways to do it. All calculations are roughly adjusted to current dollars.

  1. Hire a porter at $200 per day for 20 days to carry it on their back at 50 lbs per 20 mile round trip. Cost = $4,000. Backbreaking labor was used for several millennia to produce food.
  2.  Hire a driver, wagon, and team of horses for one day to make the 20 mile round trip. Cost = $400. Draft animals took some of the backbreaking labor out of producing food.
  3. Hire a driver and truck at $2/mile which includes driver, deprecation, repairs, fuel and oil. Cost = $40.

This is only 1% of the cost of the most prevalent method used in the history of mankind.  Petroleum fueled machinery has been used for a less than a century to produce food.

By historical standards, $4/gallon of gas is basically equivalent to free energy. Think about that the next time you fill your car and stop to grab a burger & fries for your kids as you take them to soccer practice.

During most of the history of mankind, people spent 70%-90% of their time to get food. The rest of the time was spent getting clothing and shelter. Children were an asset to work more land to produce more food. The only soccer the kids got was kicking a squash around when their parents weren’t overseeing their weeding and watering.

Because of cheap energy, we have cheap food and we are losing our gratitude for it. It costs us much less than 10% of the time and energy we expend for work and other activities. Here at Grow It Eat It, we encourage spending more time and energy to generate food. People who grow some of their own food have an appreciation for it that is being lost in our society. One of our goals is to restore that appreciation for food in more people.

We encourage you join our efforts and be an advocate for Grow It Eat It.

Things Fall Apart

Things fall apart. That’s the way it is sometimes, and that’s the way it happened with the cold frame kit. I put it together on a warm day in early March, and set it up over the arugula I had started inside weeks earlier.

I set the lightweight plastic cold frame over the plants I had stuck in what the soil thermometer said was 48F soil. Assuming the ground would warm considerably in short order with the frame in place, I seeded a small row of arugula beneath it to stretch the harvest. I shut the lid with visions of early homegrown arugula salads dancing in my head. And then the winds came and like the Big Bad Wolf, blew it all down. (The pieces are visible in the background of the second picture propped against the fence.).

Instead of trying the frame again, I covered the plants and the little line of arugula, which looked by then like a stream of frog spittle. But the row cover wasn’t enough. While everything survived, barely, it all went into a kind of stasis for weeks; it hung there, refusing to get any bigger.

It just goes to show that you can push the season some, try to make it adhere to your wants and needs, but the weather does pretty much what it wants (which is what makes farming such a high-wire act). With high tunnels, hoop covers and sturider cold frames than I had, you can mitigate adverse growing conditions and fool plants into production, but the mechanisms need to be strong and you need to pay close attention -- tweak, adjust -- and pray or hope, depending on your bent.

Recently I was talking with a friend, a professional horticulturist, about the lessons that gardening teaches. Thinking primarily of what gardening can teach the I-want-it-all-and-I-want-it-now generation, my list consisted of things like Delayed Gratification, Working Toward Long-Term Goals, as well as the satisfaction and sense of empowerment gained in growing some of your own food. She had a list of one.

“The biggest lesson,” she said with conviction, “is that we’re not in control. We can work with Nature, do our best, and it can still get trashed when a big hailstorm comes, or a tornado, or a drought. It’s humbling.”

She’s right. My cold frame kit, flimsy at the start, was bound to collapse with less provocation than it had, but I could have worked harder, done better, and it still might have come apart. My failure was partly due to my own negligence, partly due to the inadequacies of the kit itself and partly due to the vagaries of Nature. But if things had been different, it could have worked. When you’ve managed to pick your own arugula for a roasted beet salad (and pulled your own beets too, but it’s way to early for that right now), the sense of accomplishment is incredibly buoying, which is what keeps me, and many many others gardening.

We persuade people to try growing their own vegetables and herbs – at least I do – by highlighting the potential positives and soft-pedaling the possible failures. It’s often the best way to inspire people to try something new.

But there’s a balance. You need to let people see your failures – and I’ve had plenty –to let them know that they, too, may experience failure, frustration, discouragement. It’s normal. And it builds emotional muscles, which come in very handy in life. But if new gardeners start small, don’t do stupid things like starting things way too early and putting them in the ground way too soon (as I often do, and as the commercial competition among garden centers has encouraged by selling tomato plants in the beginning of April for heaven’s sake! I mean, come ON! Our usual last frost date here in zone 6b-7 is mid-April and I’ve seen frost here on the Upper Eastern Shore as late as May.).

But the joys, despite flimsy cold frames, despite hale storms, rabbits, voracious bugs, blight and the other things that we might encounter, still don’t diminish the pleasure and satisfaction of growing our own food. In fact, it may increase it. Success without struggle doesn’t offer the same sense of accomplishment. When I grab a jar of homegrown, home-canned tomatoes off the pantry shelf, it’s with intimate knowledge of what went into the process from seed to jar. What I bring to the table for family and friends is not only the result of attention, care, and in some cases, luck, it’s an expression of love.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Growing potatoes but not in-ground.

Why not!

For a home gardener, it’s not an obligation to buried in- ground the 8-10 patato seeds you just bought at the garden center or big box store. I grow my Yukon Gold on the turf or on the concrete soilless.

At first you need a 6-8 hours of sun and water source.

Second you need something to hold the soil when you built the tower. Some people use 4 old tires ( 14” in diameter is good) some other a 18” high and 18” deep container or some folks like me use a tube made of chicken wire with the same dimension than the container early mentioned.

Third, you need potato seeds. Do not use the potatoes from the groceries stores. The potatoes seeds we use look like baby potatoes, they are disease free and the days of maturity are between 90 and 120 days.

To grow potatoes on my concrete slab, I use a support for drainage, pour 6” of soilless dirt and bury the seeds in 1” to 1.5” deep.

To grow potatoes on the turf I pour 1” or so of compost, put the seed and cover it with 4” of leaves.

Grown this way, the potatoes plants need to watered often to keep them moist but not soggy.

When the plants reach 8”, I will mount (add) 4” of leaves around the plant and repeat it another time.

If I don’t use as soil with fertilizer, I will add during the second mount, a balanced fertilizer.

For my Yukon Gold, it will take 2 months before to see the flower and another mount before I can harvest for storage my potatoes. For new potatoes, as soon the flower dies, you can start to harvest by gently digging around the outside of the plant a tuber at the time.

Few things can kill or damage a potato plant:

Heat: that’s why I grow an early-maturing variety. The other option will be to grow a late-maturing variety.
Diseases: Early blight can be a problem use liquid copper as preventive method if problem occur
Insects: Aphids is my problem. I change the soil every year to avoid other pest.
Frost: I thing I don’t need to explain why.
Pest: Ground hog like tender shoot. Cover your plants with a net.

When the plants die, harvest the potatoes.

Have fun!

Hello from the Washington County Demo Garden

It's finally not like this outside anymore, so yesterday we had our first workday at the Demo Garden at the Sharpsburg Extension Office. The Washington County Master Gardeners started it two years ago, and this year I'm the self-appointed documentarian. Over the course of this growing season I'll be pointing out things of interest that happen there, as well as in my own garden.

Just to bring you up to speed, in February 2009 we put in two 4x4 square foot beds, a 4x12 lasagna (sheet composting) bed, two barrels, and a compost bin. In March 2010 we put in a rain garden with native plants (which from our veggie garden's perspective is a great way to attract pollinators), and at some point a plastic composter was added. Today we installed an Earthbox, a birdhouse, and a bench.

We weeded, moved strawberries from barrel to berm, edged, put up a birdhouse, turned the compost pile, emptied the plastic composter and laid compost on the beds, set up pipe trellises and used twine to mark square foot spaces in the two 4x4 beds, planted peas in a barrel and covered them with straw, planted a traditional square foot garden (SFG) in one of the 4x4 beds, planted Brussels sprouts in an Earthbox, planted alyssum, kale, parsnips, and dill in the lasagna bed, and rebuilt the compost pile with browns and greens we brought in. Left over from last year are the garlic we planted on the fall in the second 4x4 bed, and some parsley in the second barrel.

What I learned today is that I'd like to hire this crew to work in my home garden (in which I've not had time to plant yet), and that time flies when you're working with others. We had everything done (see photos) in less than 2 hours.

More to come soon!

Friday, April 8, 2011

How Large a Rake Do You Need?

These old teeth get the job done
Do I need a Tacoma pickup truck or an 18-wheeler to cart bags of pine-bark mulch from Sun Nurseries to our house?

Easy answer: My little Tacoma is just the right size, thank you, to haul about a dozen large bags. An 18-wheeler would be overkill—and the 90° bend in our narrow driveway would give fits to even a skilled big-rig driver.

And out in my garden, what size rake do I need for my veggie gardens?

In her “A Cook’s Garden” column in the Washington Post, Barbara Damrosch shows a 29”-wide rake available from Johnny’s Selected Seeds, one of my favorite catalog and online sites. I looked up the rake in the catalog, and wow, the rake must be the Lexus of rakes.

Called the Bed Preparation Rake, its Swiss-made aluminum head is 29” wide. The head, which has 20 four-inch teeth, is adjustable, to suit your height or the job at hand. There’s even one optional accessory: a pack of six plastic tubes that slip onto the teeth of the rake to mark rows or make a grid. Total: $76.00 for the rake and $4.95 for the tubes, plus $11.95 shipping.

If you have a huge garden, hire hands to care for your garden, or grow neurotic carrots or beets that require straight planting rows for their seed, then this $90 rake is probably just what you need. But do Susie Smith and John Doe gardeners, with their 15x15 veggie beds, need such a large and expensive tool?

This gardener doesn’t. Like most gardeners, I have an old garden rake in the garage. It was my dad’s. The head is standard width, 14”, plenty wide for raking jobs in my small, terraced veggie beds. No, its 14 teeth are not adjustable, but I simply raise or lower the handle to change the angle of the teeth whenever I wish. It works fine the two or three times a year I need a rake.

Economy tool for making planting rows
Can I get along without having plastic tubes to put on my rake teeth to mark rows for crop planting? Well, yes, in ancient times my dad showed me how the rounded handle end of the rake makes a dandy tool to make a row in garden soil. A corner of a hoe blade works just as well. My veggies grow well even if their rows zig a little or zag a little.

This frugal gardener will make do with his heirloom rake, which has served two generations well even though it doesn’t have adjustable teeth.

To read Damrosch’s article and see her photo of the big rake, CLICK HERE.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Grow It, Eat It, OR ELSE! by Dale Johnson

Corn, wheat, soybeans, and rice feed the world. You can find them in almost every processed food. Meat and dairy products are made of them. For decades supply outstripped demand as production increased much faster than population. But things are changing. We are running out of land, water, oil, and other inputs. Yields are not increasing as fast as in years past. The population continues to grow and we are constantly finding new uses such as biofuels for these crops. Demand is now outstripping supply and prices for these commodities are skyrocketing. These prices will be passed on to consumers in higher grocery bills.

average price
2011 harvest futures price
Is there a solution to this problem? Yes! Grow it! Eat it! In the past gardening has been more of a hobby. It made little economic sense to garden when produce in the grocery store was much cheaper than growing it yourself, especially when you considered your labor. But in the future, many people will find it economically essential to grow their own food. Most people have room for container vegetables and a salad table. A small back yard can produce fruits and vegetables from early spring to late fall. A few laying hens will utilize the refuse and produce eggs and manure for composting. A little more land can feed a dairy goat and some broiler chickens. A small farm can support bees and beeves. Set a goal now on how much of your own food you will grow and eat this year. Increase that goal next year. You will feel the relief in your pocketbook, you will bask in fresh produce, and your physical, emotional, and spiritual outlook on life will soar.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Eat your weeds, garlic mustard edition

Here's an inexpensive dinner idea:  mashed potatoes and... weeds?

Garlic mustard (Allaria petiolata) is an invasive thug in our landscapes and wild areas, taking over large areas if left unchecked.  I've certainly got my share of it in my yard.

Yesterday I went on a garlic mustard eradication mission in the back forty (i.e. back quarter acre).  Didn't get it all, alas, but I pulled up a grocery store bag's worth.  More than half went into the yard waste repository (for the moment, the county can compost it more safely than I can) but I collected about four cups of leaves for the kitchen.

Garlic mustard is here in the first place because it's edible.  It's an import from Europe, brought over for food and medicinal uses.  So (as I've been meaning to do for a long time now) I decided to use it for dinner.

Here's what I made:

I used this recipe for colcannon, a traditional Irish dish (which may have been made with garlic mustard before for all I know; it's usually made with cabbage or kale).

So how was the garlic mustard, you ask?  I like it.  It was pretty strong and bitter in that quantity, so I think if I do this again I'll use about half of a milder green (collards, kale, cabbage).  Besides, washing and separating all those little leaves is tedious.  If you're picking, I'd try to get the garlic mustard soon though, first because you then have a better chance of getting rid of it all, and secondly because the leaves will probably get more bitter as the weather warms and the plants that are in their second year go to flower.

I am not by any means suggesting you plant garlic mustard as a kitchen garden crop:  please don't!!  But since you probably have it anyway, you might as well get some good out of it on the way to ripping it all out (and unfortunately it will probably be back since not everyone is so vigilant).  If you're not busy enough in your own yard, some parks departments and other organizations have Garlic Mustard Pull days for the community in which you can go to a park with your friends and yank the stuff out to your heart's content (and maybe win prizes if you pull the most).

Always be sure, before eating a wild plant, that you are sure of the identification (many plants look alike but have different chemical effects) and have confirmed that it's edible.  Many weeds, such as dandelion and plantain, are great salad or cooked green ingredients.  Another that's out there now in desperate need of removal is hairy bittercress - I pulled some of that yesterday too, but decided not to include it in dinner because all those fussy little leaves were just too much to deal with.  I did snack a little though; it's fresh and tasty!

Enjoy getting rid of your weeds - and maybe eating them too!

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Repurposed containers for seed starting

Here in Montgomery County in recent years there have been rule changes allowing us to put more kinds of plastic containers in our recycling bins.  However, whole categories are still forbidden, and those end up in the trash.  The best solution for the eco-conscious consumer is not to buy products that come in those containers in the first place, but sometimes it just happens.  When I end up with one of those non-recyclable containers, I often try to think of a repurposed use for it, so at the least it spends longer out of the trash, and maybe replaces some other plastic thing I would otherwise buy.  And of course the first use I think of is seed-starting.

These tomato seedlings are growing in a container that once held mangos.  It already had holes in it, so I put it inside one of the black trays our Chinese takeout comes in.

I used to reuse yogurt cups, either with holes punched in as seedling pots, or cut into strips as plant labels, but now we can recycle those so usually they go in the bin.  Now I cut strips from styrofoam trays to make labels out of.

Here's another tomato growing in the thing a farmer's market vendor used to hold her cupcakes.

It has a lid that snaps on and is good for keeping the soil moist during germination.  A lot of the containers I save have lids.

I admit that my system doesn't look tidy and uniform, but actually I like all my mini-trays and one-at-a-time starting pots, because I'm often starting just a few of one sort of plant, not a whole traditional seedling tray full.

What containers have you kept out of the landfill by reusing them, and for what purpose?

Friday, April 1, 2011

April Fools

Oh, thank goodness, I've been waiting all day for someone to post a gardening April Fools joke.  Here is Behnke Nursery's Larry Hurley telling you to harvest your tomatoes, via Susan Reimer's Garden Variety blog.

While you're watching videos, here's one someone linked me to last year that still makes me laugh: Utah State University Extension's Gnome Management in the Garden.

Let the SPINning begin!

Hello garden gals and guys! Remember I said that I was going to try a new method of gardening called "SPIN" gardening? Well the process has begun!

This past Monday I went out into my garden and dug up four 2 foot by fourteen foot beds with a one foot walk way in between them. I then dug two smaller beds in the space I had left. I direct-seeded (put the seeds directly into the ground) four different types of lettuce, spinach, kale, turnips, radishes and carrots.

SPIN stands for Small Plot Intensive gardening and the idea behind it is to have each bed produce not just one but several crops throughout the season. The idea is that you can have produce from your garden starting in May (when most people are just beginning to plant) and reap harvests all the way through fall.

Each one of my garden beds will grow several crops throughout the season. Once the lettuce is harvested and the weather is too warm for another lettuce crop, I will pull out the leftovers, amend the soil with some organice compost and plant my tomato seedlings which are growing quite nicely in my laundry room! The spinach bed will be come a cucumber bed, the kale and turnips will turn to beans. I'm not sure what crop I will put in my carrots/radish bed...probably peppers.

Since I don't have a lot of space, each one of my beds is divided in half to be able to grow two crops within a single bed.

I think this is going to be my best garden yet! I am looking forward to saving lots of money and feeding my family nutritious, fresh and chemical free fruits and veggies!

Here is a picture of my garden with the beds all dug and planted:

It doesn't look like much more than soil right now, but I will post piks as my new seedlings start to sprout. I'm nervously awaiting these little sprouts as I have never direct-seeded before. I've always grown from seed inside and then transplanted!

Oh and here is a picture of my tomato seedlings:

Some of the seeds never sprouted but I'll work with what I've got...and they look good. In fact, I just gave them their first seawood fertilizer feeding and they look strong and healthy.

If you have any questions about SPIN gardening or about my garden in general, leave a comment or send me an email!

OH! I almost forgot. I finally finished my classes for the New Farmer Trainee Program. Now the real work begins starting April 5th, as I get on the farm and get dirty! I'll be blogging about that too so stay tuned!

Until next time garden gals and guys....happy gardening!