Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Peas and blueberries

This has been a perfect spring for peas.  Or as close as we get around here, anyway.  Okay, the peas I planted at the demo garden dried up in the April drought, but at home I've had a bumper crop - so thank goodness I planted them, as I've almost given up on spring peas!

Spring started early, with ample warmth and rain in March to help the peas germinate.  I started Dwarf Grey Sugar peas inside for transplant, and seeded Carouby de Mausanne snow peas directly in my raised bed.  Both grew equally well in the end, but the direct-seeded peas had a better start.  Raised beds help for planting peas in our typical wet springs, when peas planted in the damp cold ground rot.  Conditions were great for any kind of planting this year.

During the unusually dry days of April, I had to water, but the peas were already growing well by then.  It stayed cool, so the plants successfully produced flowers that became pea pods.  In many years, it gets hot too soon and we get no peas at all.  And we're even getting a few more cool days after our sweltering weekend!  I should be able to pick peas several more times before I pull them out and put something else in their place.

We started picking blueberries three weeks early this year.  The flowers came through the late March freezes just fine, and the earliest berries ripened last week.  I'll need to prune after the fruit is done, because I can barely walk past the bushes anymore (they are part of the landscaping in my front yard, and have only a narrow flagstone path for access).

Time for blueberry muffins!  If I could think of a dish combining peas and blueberries, I'd make it.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Genus: Arctostaphylos Species: uva-ursi

Uva ursi is a Latin name which means bear's grape. Also known as Bearberry and Kinnikinnick. This is a native plant to Maryland. I came across this plant while searching for a groundcover for my garden as an alternative to lawn.  These plants are visually appealing all year round starting with white and pink flowers followed by berries in the Winter. The foliage changes colors throughout the seasons from  yellow-green in Spring to reddish-purple in the fall. It is drought  tolerant , salt tolerant and does well in sandy soil.

It is a plant that is used as medicine by Native Americans. It has properties that were used to treat Urinary Tract Infections prior to the discovery of Sulfa drugs. Native species of animals such as birds, butterflies and bears use this plant as source of food.  Bears eat the berries. Birds and Butterflies feed on the nectar of the flowers.

With this source of food for our animal friends, it will lessen the need for them to ravage on our fruits in our backyard gardens. It will leave us with more bountiful harvest. And beautify our environment in the process.

Beauty as well as function ...

Other native ground covers:
Blue-ridge blueberry (Vaccinium pallidum )
Bunchberry (Cornus canadensis)
Lowbush blueberry (Vaccinium angustifolium)
Trailing arbutus ( Epigaea repens)
Wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens)
Wild Flower Center @University of Texas @ Austin

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Kale and mustard chips

Since my wild garden kale recently shot up and flowered, and I needed to plant peppers in the same spot, I pulled out all the plants today (except one to collect seeds from).  First I harvested the remaining leaves, some of which will be steamed and frozen.  The rest I turned into kale chips.

Here are the steps for making kale chips (adapted from a recipe in A Nation of Farmers by Sharon Astyk and Aaron Newton; recipe by Lynn Jones).

1) Wash your kale, shake it dry, and cut out the thick stems.  Chop the rest into chip-sized pieces (one to three inches across).

2) Toss it in a bowl with a little oil, possibly vinegar or soy sauce, and whatever seasonings you want (garlic, salt, herbs, spices, etc.)  A little goes a long way; you don't want your kale soaking in oil or very salty.

3) Spread your kale pieces on a cookie sheet, not overlapping much if at all, and bake in a preheated 250° F. oven.  The recipe I used said 20 minutes; mine were done in 10.  It will depend on the thickness of the kale, so watch carefully to avoid burning.

4) Use a thin-bladed spatula to remove them from the sheet.  Put them in a bowl and enjoy!  They are delicate, so you won't be scooping up salsa, and dry, so I advise having something to drink.  Makes a great healthy snack.

After the third tray of kale chips it occurred to me that other greens would work too, and since my garden has several productive mustard plants (does anyone else find that when you sow a mesclun mix a few years old what results is almost entirely mustard?) I decided to try that.  Mustard chips are also tasty, with a little bit more bite than kale.

The demo garden is also burgeoning with mustard, and yesterday burgeoned with gardeners visiting for our Grow It Eat It event, which was a big success on a gorgeous day.  Thanks to all who came!

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Tomato Patch: Exposing seedlings to reality

Sungolds & Juliets growing fast now
This was “toughening up week” at the Tomato Patch.  Late Sunday afternoon I moved my three-week old tomato plants from their warm growing racks under fluorescent lights in our utility room to semi-protected containers on the east side of our house, so they would get increasing amounts of sunlight and be exposed to breezes that would help stiffen their stems.

This toughening up is called “hardening off,” which the Maryland Master Gardener Handbook defines as “the process of gradually acclimatizing a plant that has been raised indoors or in a greenhouse to harsh environmental conditions in the garden” (Chapter 17, “Vegetables,” p. 411).

I would be happy to transplant my tomato seedlings directly from utility room into the garden, but the risks would be high.  If subsequent days were warm with intense sunshine, the tender plants could sunburn—just as I would if I went to Ocean City and lay the whole first day in the sun without sunblock lotion.  Also, a sudden spring thunderstorm with wind and a downpour could twist and bend the tender stems and smash the plants to the ground.

So that’s why gardeners who start spring vegetables from seed indoors “harden them off”—“gradually acclimatizing” them to the cool, sunny, breezy world, though I hesitate to call our garden a place of “harsh environmental conditions.”

"Gradually acclimatizing"
“Gradually acclimatizing” for my plants meant this: (1) I put them in open plastic storage bins that protected all but the tops of the tallest plants from wind gusts.  (2) I took them out late Sunday afternoon for their first direct-sun exposure, and the afternoon shadow of the house shaded them after about two hours.  (3) Since it rained Monday and Tuesday, I kept the plants under the roof but on the edge of the porch, so they got bright light but weren’t battered by downpours.  (4) When the rain clouds exited and the sun shone brightly, I moved the plants a foot farther from the house each day so they’d get ever-increasing direct sunlight.

I planted the seeds in cups on April 19.  The shortest plants (Celebrity) were four inches tall by Wednesday and the tallest varieties (Juliet, Sungold, and Amish Paste) were more than six inches and growing at least one inch a day.  I was beginning to think they were clones of Jack’s fast-growing magical beanstalk.

The rains earlier this week were important to the Tomato Patch.  Early spring 2012 was especially dry.  Year-to-date rainfall before this week was about six inches below average.  Lack of moisture can be a factor contributing to blossom-end rot in early tomatoes when garden soil has insufficient moisture for the plants to move calcium from the soil to the developing fruit, so I’m hoping I’ll not have the significant losses that I had last year from that disease.

I’ve already written in my Garden Notes that I should start my tomato seeds a week later in 2013, around April 25, so they’ll be ready to transplant around May 25.  Tomatoes are a tropical plant and really thrive best in well-warmed soil, which means the opportune time to set them out here in Central Maryland is near the end of May or even early June—though that may seem like heresy to gardeners who set out their tomato transplants in late April or early May.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Frugal Gardener: Closing my mini-greenhouse

Last mini-greenhouse lettuce crop
I’ve closed my mini-greenhouse for the summer.  I grabbed the two handles and pulled straight up, moved the green-house aside, and looked at the three lettuce plants that still had been growing inside—two Green Ice and one Red Sails.

We’ll have to use those three heads soon because they show signs of getting ready to bolt.  Yes, I should have cut them a week ago, but I didn’t.  And after growing in the cozy greenhouse for several months, they may react adversely to the colder, windier life outside their plastic box. 

But lettuce life goes on. Nearby I transplanted eight lettuce seedlings that I started April 29 in yoghurt cups—two Red Velvet, two Cracoviensis, two Green Ice, and two Red Sails, so we’ll not be dashing off to a supermarket any time soon to buy lettuce.

New lettuce transplants
I’ve declared the mini-greenhouse a success.  I grew lettuce overwinter and picked heads in January, February, March, April, and May.  Of course winter 2011 to 2012 was one of the warmest on record, with temperatures here in central Maryland only reaching lows of 18°F two or three times.  What if the temperature had dipped to 15° or 12° or 10°?  Would Red Sails and Green Ice have turned into Red and Green Slime?

When I hosed off the mini-greenhouse, I noticed several cracks that indicate it won’t last forever.  Three of the four upper corners—which were not reinforced when molded as were the bottom corners—had slight cracks.  I’ve already duct-taped the cracks in preparation for another winter’s crop of lettuce.

I could have bought a commercial greenhouse—for $150, $1,500, $5,000, or $25,000.  But $13.76 seemed like a perfectly reasonable price for a Frugal Gardener.  If I get another year of use out of the container—fine.  If I get two more years of use—excellent.  If I get three years, I’ll be tempted to trade in my bib overalls on a kilt.

Cleanup time
At the end of the day, I hosed off the mini-greenhouse.  It’s ready for growing lettuce again next winter.

If you want to see what the mini-greenhouse looked like when I created it, CLICK HERE.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

It's time to bag apples.

Cunning plan?  Maybe.  The idea of bagging apples with paper or plastic bags to protect them from fungus and pests, to help them to develop a bigger size and a sweeter taste sounds foolish but it's not.  In fact, some Asian countries have used this concept to raise high quality blemish-free fruit for the last 200 years.  In the USA, Washington state apple growers bag approximately 15 million apples a year.  On second thought, in Asia, they also have a bug named  Halyomorpha halys  aka brown marmorated stink bug.

The concept is simple - wrap and attach a plastic bag around the stem of a very young apple.  The bag needs to be big enough to have room for the apple to grow.   

It's not sexy but it works.

Using this method is up front labor cost only but, in our case, the bags are free (with a paid subscription to the local newspapers).   Commercially, there exists a product that does the same exact thing with the same result and takes less time, but it costs money and needs to be applied regularly: kaolin clay, aka Surround.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Let's Celebrate Worms

From May 6 to May 12, it is the International Compost Aware Week.
In the spirit of composting, let's celebrate worms and the job they do!

Good things come in small packages.

It came with instructions

There they are, a couple months later.

Starting out several months ago...bottom bin with a metal can in the middle

The top bin with cover.

Drilled holes on the bottom of top bin.

Stack the bins. There also holes around the rims on the top bin. Worms need air.
Line bottom of top bin with newpaper, then add greens...

How it looks after a couple of months.

Happily ever after!

Click on the link below. Courtesy of Growit!EatIt! Master Gardeners on Vermicomposting


Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Derwood Demo Garden: join us May 19!

Please join us on Saturday, May 19, 10 am-12 noon, at the Montgomery County Master Gardeners' Demonstration Garden in Derwood, for our Grow It Eat It: Veggies 101 event.  Beginning and experienced vegetable gardeners will find plenty to keep them busy between classes, demos, garden tours, and lots of opportunities to Ask a MG!  We have been planting and planning and creating in the garden and are looking forward to showing it off.

Here's a small sample of what's keeping us busy these days:

photo by Darlene Nicholson
Structures!  We like vertical gardening a lot, and MG Barbara Dunn (at right) and her team are building like crazy.  Here's a tall structure on which MG Sandy Occhipinti (at left) will be growing runner beans.  MG Intern Adele Fenwick braves the heights to fasten twine.

Photo by Darlene Nicholson

Planting!  Beans emerge from the soil.

Thinning!  This is our salad table last week...

... and this week MG Intern Robin Ritterhoff has a lot of seedlings to pick out.

Harvesting!  Southern Giant mustard...

Red Giant mustard...

... and spinach 'Space.'

Photo by Darlene Nicholson

 Finding friends!  (The more toads, the better!)

Photo by Darlene Nicholson

And... maybe friends.  Bumble flower beetles help process garden waste and only sometimes eat fresh fruit.  We'll worry more about other insects, which will be joining us soon.

Growing Cumbers Inside

Cucumber with bloom

 Win some, lose some when you're experimenting, but it's fun to experiment, especially when it comes to growing food and pushing the limits of production. This year, one of the things I wanted to try was growing a greenhouse cucumber so I could harvest at least one way before I could even plant any outside let alone harvest. 

I used to start all my seeds in the kitchen under grow lights, but when I was finally able to get a greenhouse, I plonked for it and have never looked back.  It lets me start my own varieties -- giving me the pleasure of their company and the joy of watching them grow until I can get back into the garden. In addition, the greenhouse's oddly bright light saves me in February’s grey days. 

My small, south-facing greenhouse is built from a kit that is anchored with ground screws and sits on a dug, cinder-block-framed foundation filled first with crusher run followed by pea gravel. That allows every bit of water, which is drawn from the rain barrels at the corner of the garage, to drain through and go back through the earth to be filtered and used again.

Cuke in Jackson Perkins pot
I bought seed for what were billed by the seed company (Johnnys, I think -- I should know but I can't find my records at the moment) as greenhouse cucumbers. In late February, I started them in organic seed-starting mix in a 6-celled flat, and put them to germinate on a heat mat set to 70 degrees. They came up within about 5 days, and as soon as they had a set of true leaves, (about 2 weeks into it), I transplanted them into a flat with larger cells using organic potting soil, and put them back on the heat mat. I transplanted them twice more -- once into a 4-inch plastic pot that I had sterilized (as I do every year with every pot or flat I use), and stopped the heat mat for a kind of in-house hardening off. The next transplanting (the fourth from seeding) was the final one. One plant went into a 12-inch wide X 10-inch high pot in organic potting soil. Two others went into 14-inch by 12-inch sterilized heavy plastic pots that I got a couple of shrubs from Jackson Perkins in years ago. Another went into a 10X10-inch black plastic greenhouse pot whose outside I had spray-painted blue for a change of pace. Three pots have veg ladders inserted, one is on a greenhouse table and reaches to pathetically sprawl on a wooden trellis I wedged beside it. The last plant in a large pot went to a friend. I lightly fed every two weeks or so with organic vegetable food.

I was looking forward to pollinating the blossoms with a Q-tip (it takes several visits by whatever pollinator to produce a full-fledged cuke), but because I have automatic vents at the top of the greenhouse, and open the door on warm days, the insects took care of pollination.

The first cuke, about the size of one of Churchill’s cigars, seemed ready in mid-April, so I clipped it off and sliced it with great pleasure into a Greek salad. There are probably two dozen more little cigar-like cukes still slowly growing in the greenhouse. It may not be much quantity-wise, but it’s incredibly satisfying and delicious -- they are very thin-skinned and cucumber-y in flavor -- and I feel insufferably virtuous.

Greek salad
Jeanette, to whom I gave the last plant and who also has a small greenhouse, phoned last week to ask when she should harvest her first cuke. I told her to do it right then.  I always pick the first offering of any vegetable or fruit a little early because I think it encourages the plant to produce more. Jeannette was thrilled – not only to eat a cucumber that she'd grown herself (in April!) but was also thrilled to discover when she was harvesting that she has about 6 more in various stages of development. 

You could probably grow a greenhouse cucumber in a sunny room, too, though you’d probably also have to hand-pollinate, an exercise that illustrates what a gift we have in pollinators and another reason to be sure to plant for them in the garden or in whatever space you can.

Quick and Easy Greek Salad

Juice and zest of 1 lemon
salt, pepper and dash of sugar
about 1/4 cup olive oil
Whisk this together in a small bowl.
grape tomatoes
chunked cuke
sliced scallion
chunked sweet pepper and some mild hot pepper
lemon basil, if you've got it, parsley or something else if not
1 handful of crumbled feta or goat cheese
black olives

Toss all vegetables, cheese and herbs in dressing. It's great with a couple of slices of really good baguette or stuffed into a pita pocket.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Carroll County "Fruits of the Loam" are At It Again

The Carroll County Grow It Eat It Team has been busy preparing for the 2012 opening of their public demonstration garden in Westminster, MD.  This spring has seen much activity including the addition of several unique and traditional small fruits.  The "Fruit Cakes Team" have been busy adding to their "fruits of the loam".

Helper Debbie McEvoy and MG Frank DiSanti
christen the public demonstration garden Vineyard.
Planted this week were three grape varieties:
Concord, Sugargate Black Muscadine & Roucaneuf French Hybrid.

MG Henry Lysy stands by two recently planted and
nearly forgotten fruits - Pawpaw Trees
MG Butch Willard poses with a newly added food forest.  This new plot
will contain one Arkansas Black Apple, two Bush Cherries (Jan & Joel)
and two Elderberries (John and a Native).

An Inspired Garden!!

Hello there, everyone!  It's been a while since I've posted here.  As many of you know, I have my own blog, and I usually cross post here as well.  One of my garden blog followers said I was the inspiration for her garden and I just had to share the interview I did with her from my blog!

I was very touched to hear that I inspired her and asked if she would email me pictures of her garden--and she did!  She was also very gracious and allowed me to interview her.  Here is a picture of her garden:

Beautiful, right?!  She proves that you don't have to have a huge can make it any size you want.  Here are some radishes that she has harvested:

Well, here is my interview with Shay:

DivaGardener: Why did you decide to start a garden?

Shay: I decided to grow a garden because the difference between home grown and store-bought vegetables is incredible, and I love knowing exactly what I'm putting into my body.  Lettuce actually has flavor--did you know that?

DivaGardener: Is this your first garden?

Shay: This isn't my first garden, but it is my first attempt at gardening in about 10 years.  For the first time in almost 10 years I've got a stationary enough lifestyle to be able to manage a garden.

(By the way, Shay proudly serves our country in the military!  Thank you for all you do, Shay!)

DivaGardener: What do you like most about gardening?

Shay: My favorite thing about gardening is watching all of these amazing little plants spring from practically nothing.  My neighbors walk by, and most of them stop to find out what I'm growing and ask questions about how I manage it.  I'm really hoping to inspire more people in the neighborhood to start their own little gardens- there is just no better thing to bring to a dinner than a giant salad, made entirely from vegetables you've grown.

DivaGardener:  About how much did it cost you to make your garden?

Shay: It cost me about $120 to get started, which included wood for a raised garden bed, soil (I also added manure and hummus to enrich the soil), seeds and some seedlings.  I didn't use even close to a whole bag of any of the seeds, but as I'm pulling up radishes or lettuce (or those seedlings that didn't make it) I still have plenty of seeds to replant.

(Remember, that cost is a one-time thing.  Once you have it set up, then year after year you only cost is seeds or seedlings and some compost to amend the soil.  So the garden really pays for itself very quickly when you think about how much you can save on produce!)

DivaGardener: What advice would you like to share with someone who wants to start their own garden?

Shay: My advice for anyone who wants to start their own garden in this area is to consider using a raised bed if you have soil like I did - solid red clay.  I tried to plant things last year and they all died because they just couldn't make it in the soil, and trying to improve your soil is a huge job.  It only took me a few minutes to set up my raised bed, and my plants are all thriving.  The other thing I'd say is not to give up.  You're guaranteed to have some set backs because plants can be finicky, but stick with it and the rewards are so exciting!

DivaGardener: What type of soil did you use to start your garden (did you buy bagged soil or compost)?

Shay: I purchased bags of soil, and I have a composter in my yard that I use to feed the soil on a regular basis.  

DivaGardener: What's it like to eat fresh veggies that you grew yourself?

Shay: The radishes I've pulled up so far are a little sweet and a bit spicy.  I love them.  Butter crunch lettuce beats the pants off of anything you can buy in the store, any day, and I've been making mojitos and iced tea with the three different kinds of mint I have growing.  Even drinking a mojito, it feels like I'm being nice to my body by feeding it fresh, organic mint.  Added bonus- my arms look great from working in the garden!

So there you have it, garden gals and guys!  Having your own garden has many benefits including getting in a good workout!!

Thank you so much, Shay, for taking time to share your story with us!!!

Until next time my garden gurus.....

Happy gardening!!!!!

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Kale in a salad box

   Why would a person grow kale in a salad box to show to people during Grow It Eat It spring classes, a Master Gardener vegetable class and, as pictured above with my lovely wife, for the Montpelier Herb and Tea Festival in Laurel, MD? 

   This is what happens when you take the words spoken by Maryland State Master Gardener  coordinator and the Grow It Eat It Action Team Leader John Traunfeld during the 2009 Kick-off:  “go out and reach people” and combine it with  “2012, year of the leafy greens” on the Grow It Eat It Blog.

   The kale in my salad box is dwarf heirloom and the two biggest plants in the back are fully mature.  I have already started to harvest some leaves.  A mature leaf is about 6 to 8 inches long and is more tender and with less bitterness than a standard kale leaf.  To reach the maturity in late April, we planted the seeds in mid-February during the “Home Vegetable Gardening 101” class my wife and I taught at the Prince George’s Community College.  I kept the salad box on my patio in direct southern sun and used 2 wire hoops and a clear plastic tarp as a greenhouse to keep the salad box warm when the temperature was in the 30’s*F.  I used a loose row cover when the temperature was too warm.  The seeds spouted in the first week of March and it takes normally 60 days to harvest, according to the instructions on the seed packet.  Some early warm weather sped the maturity by one week this year.  In late March I removed some of the early plants, put them in our garden and reseeded the box with more kale.  That’s why you see kale plants at different stage of life.

   Now, if you would excuse me, I have some kale, arugula, and spinach leaves to harvest for dinner tonight.