Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Aching back? 10 tips for senior gardeners

Ankle pain is connected to knee pain.  Knee pain is connected to hip pain.  Hip pain is connected to back pain.  That’s just the way it is for many senior gardeners—at least for me.

Because of all my aches and pains plus muscles that sometimes don’t work quite like they used to, I’ve been adapting the way I garden.  Here’s my list of what I’ve changed to avoid unreasonable pain and suffering.

I share these tips because many senior gardeners aren’t the least bit tempted to hang up their gardening tools in the garage and retire to the teak glider on the front porch as the sun of life slowly sinks toward the horizon.  We adjust our gardening ways and learn practical tricks that help us avoid pain that comes from bending, stooping, and lifting.

1.  Don’t waste a squat or bend.  Squatting or bending isn’t the problem.  It’s standing back up again that brings the pain.  When I’m down, I look around and see what other chore I can do without getting up and then bending again.  If I pull a weed, I look to see if there are more within reach.

Weeding with my favorite
arms extender
2.  Grow longer arms—or shorter legs.  One gardening challenge is that plants often don’t grow at a height that maximizes my tending to their needs.  Weeds often hunker on the ground—two feet below my hands.  My arms would be so much more useful in the garden if they were two feet longer.  Or maybe I could shorten my legs by fifty percent.  Lengthening or shortening my extremities isn’t possible—so I’ve done the next best thing.  I’ve invested in a weeding hoe that lets me accurately weed close to my garden plants without damaging them.  CLICK on the highlighted words if you want to see short videos on “Long-Handled Tools” and “Using the Collinear Hoe” at the Johnny’s Selected Seeds website.  Other sources offer similar weeding hoes under such names as “diamond hoe” or “winged weeder.”  Key features for senior gardeners with aching backs are long handles so you seldom need to bend and relatively narrow blades so you can weed close to your favorite plants without damaging them. 

3.  Start crawling again.  I suppose we all crawled when we were one year old.  But we learned that crawling isn’t the most efficient mode of human locomotion, so we copied our parents and took up walking.  But as a senior, I hasten to add that crawling can be an excellent remedy for avoiding pain in arthritic or deteriorating joints.  If I’m sitting on the ground by a tomato plant and want to move the four feet to a sweet-pepper plant, I can struggle and wobble to stand and walk—or I can crawl from tomato to pepper.  I cannot remember when I first started my senior crawling, but it is a real back saver.  You may feel a bit awkward at first, especially if  neighbors are watching, but generally a muffled “Woof!  Woof!” will divert their attention—or make them smile.

A good weeding hoe has a narrow
cutting blade and points that let you
dig out stubborn weeds without stooping
4.  Beat the heat.  The old saying is that only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the noonday sun.  There’s a lot of wisdom in that statement.  Most of us aren’t mad—or dogs—and few readers will be Englishmen.  The point is that summertime gardening is hottest when the sun is high in the sky and wilts both plants and senior gardeners.  Smart seniors do their hardest gardening chores in the coolness of the morning, when the dew is still on the green beans—and the temperature is 55°F, not after noon when the temperature soars into the 90s.  Of course, the temperature begins to moderate in late afternoon, but evening gardening is warmer than morning gardening.

5.  Weed when the soil’s not wet.  I don’t waste time weeding when the soil is wet.  If I hoe or pull weeds when the soil is wet, many of the weeds will be only temporarily inconvenienced and will re-root and grow to greet me in another week or two.  I usually wait two or three days after a soaking rain so the soil dries a bit.  I weed in the morning, leaving roots exposed so the weeds, not I, wither and die in the noonday sun.   

6.  Shrink your garden.  Are you old enough to remember your mom looking for a “Sanforized” label when she bought you new clothes—so she would have some assurance they wouldn’t shrink?  These days I look around our gardens and landscape features and hope to find some that aren’t “Sanforized”—so I can shrink them.  In recent years I’ve abandoned a large island bed because there really was no point of keeping it up other than adding pain to my lower back.  I’ve reduced the yearly number of tomato plants from about 35 to 23.

Mulch suppresses weed sprouting and
makes them easier to remove
7.  Mulch, mulch, mulch.  Most gardeners know the many benefits of good quality mulch.  One benefit is that a two- to three-inch layer of mulch helps tremendously in weed suppression and removal.  I use straw mulch around tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, and strawberries and pine bark/fines mulch in our flower beds.   I decapitate newly sprouted weeds on a weekly basis with my weeding hoe.  The job takes just a half hour if I do it regularly. If for some reason I have to pull a weed, the mulch usually makes the job easy.

8.  Stop total tilling every year.  Springtime soil preparation can be hard work—a real pain in the back or joints, whether you use a shovel or fork or a tilling machine.  I used to turn over my garden from edge to edge, leaving no spot unturned, no weed unburied.  But then I read articles about no-till gardening and gardening in raised beds.  I decided the key is preparation of soil where crops will grow, not to the border areas or walkways where I never plant.  Since I dig a lot less now, I have less joint and muscular pain.  In fact, I’ve just about abandoned my shovel for cutting, lifting, and turning garden soil.  After 15 years, I’ve amended most of our gardens to the point where my long-handled warren hoe slips easily through the soil and prepares it for planting better than my shovel ever did.   

9.  Be brave and yell “Help!”  I used to climb trees and saw away with a chainsaw.  I used to use a sledge and wedges to split logs for our fireplace.  I used to climb up on the roof and hang over the edge like a monkey to inspect soffit and fascia or clean the gutters.  Note the past tense.  I used to….  If an ice storm or a thunderstorm rips a huge limb off a pine, I don’t climb the tree with my chainsaw dangling.  I call a grandson and ask if he or a friend….  Grandkid, neighbor, niece or nephew, who’s there to help you prepare this year’s garden?  As you chat with your helper, clever you might even pass on a bit of gardening wisdom.

10. Be creative!  Holly, one of three Howard County, Maryland, Master Gardeners known as the “Veggie Chicks,” told me a story about her dad, an aged gardener who sorely missed his vegetable garden after moving into assisted living.  “Dad always liked to start his tomatoes from seed,” Holly explained, “so by gosh that's what we did. When they were big enough to transplant, I bought an Earth Box with a trellis to put in front of the large window in his room.  I had to rig a fluorescent tube light above, as the plants became leggy because they didn't get enough natural sunlight. Dad liked big, juicy, slicing tomatoes, but we planted grape tomatoes, hoping they would grow better.  Dad wasn't overly thrilled with them, but the staff loved to come in his room to visit the “jungle,” as they called them, and to pop a few tomatoes as a snack.  He was happy to share! Several years later when he moved to a group home, we grew tomatoes in large pots and drywall buckets on its sunny deck and had much better luck and bigger tomatoes.”  Yes, be creative—and garden on!

That’s my list of tips to help keep senior gardeners in their gardens.  Now it’s your turn.  Please post a Comment below with your special tip for avoiding the aches and pains of senior gardening.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Carrots, a great way to extend the gardening season

Extending the season for harvesting fresh vegetables from your garden is a great way to provide fresh produce for the table.  Erica recently wrote about harvesting fresh leeks and I've recently written about extending the season for broccoli and kale using low tunnels.  To see a video on building low tunnels click here.  For season extension of above ground green vegetables, just substitute a plastic covering for the spun bound polyester row cover shown in the video.

Root crops grown in the late fall can be left in the ground and dug as needed.  Carrots, beets, potatoes and other root vegetables grown in the fall are all good candidates for in ground storage until needed in the kitchen.  These pictures show Mary harvesting Nantes carrots just prior to the ground freezing over the last week.

As you can see, Mary has a handful of beautiful carrots for the dinner table. 

While these carrots were harvested prior to the ground freezing, it's very easy to protect root vegetables from freezing in the ground.  Simply cover the area where the root vegetables are being grown with 3 to 4 inches of loose mulch (I find straw is best) to insulate the ground from freezing.  When you want something fresh for the table, simply remove the straw and dig the root vegetables.  I use this technique for my fall potatoes, carrots and beets.  Think of it as a root cellar that you don't have to build.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

When does a root vegetable slip through the cracks?

When it's a leek.

*crickets chirp*  Okay, not a great joke.  But seriously, do we include leeks in our Year of the Root Vegetable?  They do belong to the onion family, many of which have bulbs that we consume and therefore are definitely root vegetables.  But the part of leeks that we eat is the "stem" (really a bundle of leaf sheaths) and not the part that naturally grows below the ground.

On the other hand, when we grow leeks we usually mound up soil around the plant to blanch it, so it does grow "underground" after all...

Oh well.  No matter how you define leeks, they are a vegetable worth discussing.  And this is a great time of year to discuss them, because guess what?  This is the Great Leek Meeting Point.  Some of us still have leeks in our garden to harvest - look, I do:

(Okay, this was not taken today; you can tell because there's only a smidgeon of snow.  But most of the leeks are still there.)

And this is also the time of year we ought to be thinking how we're going to grow our leeks for 2013.  Here are the options:

  • Start from seed:
    • Inside, 8 weeks before setting out in April.
    • Directly in the garden.
  • Buy seedlings.
I've done all three of these, and this year my plan is to buy plants, because I don't expect to have room for a tray of leek seedlings under lights, and all the seeds I have are a bit old to trust for direct seeding in cold and possibly wet spring soil.  But it is perfectly possible to direct-seed leeks; you just need to remember that their growing season is long and harvest will be later, which is fine considering that they'll last through the winter in the garden if necessary.

I harvested a few of my leeks earlier this week to make leek-potato-parsnip soup.

The blanched (white) sections of these leeks are six to eight inches long, because that's how much soil I was able to cover the plants with, gradually as they grew, after I planted them last spring in a trench dug into one of my raised beds.  If you have nice rich soil, with plenty of finished compost added, leeks are a very low-maintenance crop; after you've filled the trench and piled soil up around them as high as you can, all you have to do is water as needed, keep the plants mulched and weeded, and harvest by pulling out the plants at whatever size you desire.  (Like baby leeks?  Put in your seeds or transplants 2-3 inches apart, and pull every other plant at a cute immature stage, letting the others mature to full size.)

Leek recipes always start with elaborate directions for cleaning, because leeks you buy in stores are usually grown in a sandy soil that gets inside the leaf sheaths and has to be washed out from between the layers.  I've never had this problem with home-grown leeks, probably because the compost/top soil mix in my beds doesn't insinuate itself as well.  Still, once you've cut off the roots (see? not a root vegetable) and the loose green leaves, and tidied up the outside of the remaining white-and-partly-green shaft, it's worth slicing it lengthwise so you can expose the layers and rinse under running water.  Gritty stuff between your teeth while chowing down: not pleasant.

For the soup, I simply sliced the halved cleaned leeks crosswise, then chopped up some peeled potatoes and parsnips (neither of them home-grown, alas) and sautéed all of them briefly in butter.  Then I added stock to cover and let it simmer until the vegetables were soft, and then seasoned it (some pepper, a dash of soy sauce, and a big dollop of mustard).  It's a comforting warm dish for a cold winter's day.

Another favorite leek recipe also involving root vegetables?  Sweet Potatoes Anna.

Here's the Grow It Eat It vegetable profile for leeks.  Start looking for your seeds or plants!

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Stink bugs could mount a comeback this spring in the Washington D.C. area


Christopher Bergh, a Virginia Tech associate professor of entomology, said the overwintering population of bugs this past fall was “substantially larger” than that observed in 2011.

“I don’t want to raise any red flags unnecessarily,” he said. “But growers are going to definitely need to remain vigilant starting in the 2013 season.”

Bergh said the early arrival of spring last year also helped farmers and growers avoid the worst of the bugs; many early-season crops got a head start on the insects, which then emerged in smaller numbers.

“There was less opportunity for them to do damage,” he said.

But Tracy Leskey, a research entomologist with the Agriculture Department, said the reduced population of bugs “essentially rebounded over the course of the growing season” last year, and homeowners saw far more bugs come inside to spend the winter than they did the year before.

“We have been trapping in the late season, and we know the populations are probably at least 60 percent greater this year compared to [2011],” she said. “If they survive over the winter, there will be many more bugs in the spring.”

As for the stinkbug on the picture, he/she was found inside our chimney during an inspection, prior to repair, last week.   According to the chimney guys, they often found the bug inside a chimney during a sweep in the fall.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Tomato Patch seduction season?

When I think tomatoes, I think seeds, plants, cultivating, and harvesting.  Washington Post columnist Barbara Damrosch has a more attention-grabbing focus: seduction! 

I had the biggest smile of the week when I read the first sentence of her most recent column: “Seduction season is upon us, as seed catalogs roll off the presses and tomatoes—the gardener’s obsession—bounce off the pages and into our dreams.”

I smiled because, well, Damrosch got it just right.  Seed catalogs are filling our mail boxes—and tomato fans (short form of fanatics) are beginning to fantasize about mouth-watering tomatoes they’ll pick later this year.

The cover of Burpee’s just-mailed seed catalog for 2013 caught Damrosch’s attention with its photo of a perfect ‘SuperSauce’ tomato “Shown actual size!”—“The world’s largest sauce tomato!—apparently measuring about 5-inches wide by 5½-inches tall and weighing two pounds.  Page-3 text promises that “’SuperSauce’ produces gallons of luscious seedless sauce from a single plant harvest—one tomato fills an entire sauce jar.”

One plant should more than supply our yearly needs!  And only $6.50—plus shipping, of course—for 25 seeds.  What fun—and probably a lot cheaper than seeing the woman who bites off snake heads or the man who weighs 1,000 pounds at a carnival sideshow.  You can check out the Burpee catalog HERE

As usual, Damrosch speaks truth to her readers.  Postal delivery people are delivering the new 2013 seed catalogs.  Many of them feature tomatoes—our “obsession”—on their covers—with descriptions of new varieties apparently written by the best carnival barkers to entice us to “buy.”  Gallons of sauce from a single plant!  Oh, yes!  One tomato fills a jar!  Oh, yes!

We smile.  Our mouths water.  Our fingers twitch as we think of preparing Tomato Patch for May transplants.  We fantasize and dream about … tomatoes, tomatoes, tomatoes.  We skim through the catalog pages, toss coins to make decisions, fill out order blanks, and seal the envelopes.

Will one ‘SuperSauce’ really fill a jar?  I’m going to find out.  Every year I experiment by planting a new and promising tomato variety, and how can I ignore one that is more than promising—all but guaranteed?

And here are two other catalogs that tempt this tomato grower to nod off into tomato-picking dreams. 

The Tomato Growers Supply Company catalog indexes 365 varieties, most illustrated with stunning photographs.  The catalog also lists seeds for sweet and hot peppers, tomatillos, and eggplant.  You can check it out HERE.  I’ve already put a check mark by “Solid Gold FT Hybrid,” described as “very crack-resistant,” which could be a major improvement of the crack-prone Sungolds I’ve been growing for years.

The Totally Tomatoes catalog indexes 294 varieties, most with photographs, plus sweet, hot, and ornamental peppers, and more limited offerings such as “Salad Fixin’s,” “Egg’ceptional Eggplants,” and “Fruity Fixin’s.”  Obviously Totally Tomatoes isn’t totally tomatoes.  You can check this catalog out HERE.

Frugal Gardeners will note that prices sometimes vary considerably between the seed companies for both seeds and shipping/handling costs.  For a Sun Gold Hybrid seed packet, Burpee charges $4.95 (30 seeds) plus handling fee of $4.95 for orders of $0 to $10.00 and $6.95 for orders of $10.01 to $20.00.  Tomato Growers charges $3.65 (30 seeds) plus a flat handling fee of $5.25.  Totally Tomatoes charges $2.75 (20 seeds) plus handling fee of $4.95 on orders of up to $24.99.

Stink bug update: Entomologists predict an upswing in numbers of brown marmorated stink bugs to plague our veggies and fruit this gardening season.  CLICK HERE to read the news from today’s (January 20, 2013) Washington Post. 

And linger two minutes to read Barbara Damrosch’s article, “Tomato growing starts with picking seeds,” from the January 16, 2013, Washington Post.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Carroll County's Grow It Eat It Vegetable Gardening Classes Kick-Off

Great first night last night for the first of eight Vegetable Gardening Classes to be held by Carroll County's Grow It Eat It Team. Sixty nine (69) folks came out to learn about "Getting Started in the Vegetable Garden" and "The Dirt on Soil". Great kick-off for 2013!

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Carrots (Daucus carota) for container gardening

I have never grown carrots but I am now. Most of what I am about to write is from research.  My focus is growing carrots in containers for those of us with limited space. But my fellow MG will be blogging on growing carrots in the great outdoors.

For inspiration, I am starting off with a couple of great simple recipes I found.
From the Carrot cookbook by Audra and Jack Hendrickson
Carrot Butter
Preparation : 10minutes, Cooking: 60-75minutes. Yield: About 2 &1/2 cups
2 large carrots
¾ cup water
2 oranges

½ cup crushed pineapple, drained

½-1cup sugar, or to taste

Cut carrots into thin coins and place in medium saucepan with water and bring to boil.

Peel the oranges, remove all the white membranes and seeds, separate them into sections, and add them to the carrot mixture.
Reduce the heat and simmer until the carrots are tender. Remove from the heat and cool, and then blend or process until smooth. Return to the saucepan, add the pineapple and ½-1 cups sugar, to taste. Cook until the mixture is of spreading consistency.

Pour into jars, glasses or jam pots and store in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks.

Carrot Soup

Preparation: 20-25minutes, Serves 4-6
2 cups diced carrots
1 ½ cups diced potatoes
¼ cup diced onion
3-4 cups water
2 slices bacon
½ cup soft bread crumbs
2 tablespoons butter or margarine
Salt and pepper to taste
Combine the carrots, potatoes, onion, and three of the four cups of water in a medium saucepan, cover, and cook until the vegetables are tender.
While the vegetables are cooking, fry the bacon until it is crisp, crumble it, and set it aside.
When the vegetables are tender, stir in the soft bread crumbs and the butter or margarine, and season the soup with salt and pepper to taste
If you think it needs it, add the remaining cup of water to the broth, bring it back to the boiling point, and simmer for 5 minutes or so.
At serving time sprinkle the bacon over each bowl, or add it to the tureen just before you place it on the table.

There are really great recipes in this book. First printing of the book is way back in 1986, more than 25 years. But great simple recipes never die! And growing your own carrots to use in these recipes can increase the beta carotene content of up to 55% over your store brought commercial products. A single orange carrot has ~4,749 I.U.s of Beta carotene.
Now back to gardening...
Carrots are among the easiest of root vegetables to grow for home gardeners.

There are many varieties of carrots a home gardener can choose. The best varieties for container gardening would be carrots that have short roots. Longer roots require deeper soil. A good variety for your container is Chanteney, an heirloom. And I  prefer heirlooms because the seeds are not sterile and you can save the seeds from your carrot plants and it will grow true to form.

Use a container that is at least 12 inches deep and 18 inches in diameter. I am using a container that is 15 inches deep x 12 inches wide and 18 inches long. It is sitting in a heated garage. I will be moving them to a brighter area of the house once they germinate with at least 6-8 hours of direct sunlight and temperature of 55-75 degrees. The soil is a mix of potting soil and compost that are well drained. Water well but do not dampen. (Root rot=no carrots).

Friday, January 11, 2013

Cucumber and squash mosaic virus prevention

This fall I took over an abandoned plot at the South Germantown Community Garden, one of a network of community gardens run by Montgomery County Parks.  (My garden at home is increasingly shady, and I am so happy to be a gardener in a lovely sunny space again.  Looking forward to spring planting!)

Community gardeners share a lot of things: information, seedlings, resources, but unfortunately also pests and diseases, which can spread easily from plot to plot.  At Germantown the gardeners have had a difficult time with mosaic viruses, especially in squash and cucumbers.  So (self-interestedly among other reasons!) I've done a little research into the problem.

Squash leaf from SGCC in July 2012
Mosaic viruses, which come in many types and affect many plants, cause mottling and distortion of leaves and fruit, reduce yield significantly, and if unchecked can destroy a crop.  The most likely suspects in this case are cucumber mosaic virus (which affects many other species, including tomato and pepper, as well as cucurbits) and squash mosaic virus, which affects mainly squash and melon.

Cucumber mosaic virus (CMV) is mainly spread by aphid feeding, as well as by infected transplants and by tools and gardeners' hands.  The best control method is to select resistant varieties (you'll find these in seed catalogs marked with CMV).  It is also very important to control weeds, because many weed species either harbor and support aphids or are a host for CMV.  If your plants show CMV symptoms, remove and discard them immediately (don't put them in the compost pile!) and disinfect your tools and hands before touching any other plant.

Squash mosaic virus (SqMV) is spread by cucumber beetles, which are a difficult pest to control, but can be discouraged early in the season by using row cover over seedlings.  It can also be seedborne, so if you actually managed to save seed from last year's affected plants, don't use it.  There are no actual resistant varieties, though a few yellow squashes show the effects of the virus less than others.  Again, if you see symptoms on plants, discard them immediately.

More information on aphids and cucumber beetles and their control can be found at the GIEI vegetable pests page.  Aphid control by predatory insects can be encouraged by planting attractant flowers and avoiding pesticides.

Information on mosaic viruses from these sources:


Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Turnips for The Year of the Root Crop (And Beyond)

First, the confession: I didn’t grow them, but I’m eating them like crazy. I get turnips (and carrots and more) from our friend, Theresa Mycek, the grower/manager of Colchester CSA, who lives just down the road and grows a fabulous selection of carrots, beets, turnips, and daikon radishes (and the proverbial more).

Root veggies as a hostess gift
I’ve always loved vegetables, but I didn’t used to like turnips ONE BIT until I had some fresh from the ground – and not overcooked.  Old, and overcooked they’re bitter and icky. Fresh and well cooked, they’re really good. Theresa grows three kinds of turnips – Purple Top, Hakurei, and Gold Ball. Purple Top, with pretty purple shoulders, is what we usually see in the grocery store. Hakurei is a white globe that’s crisp, and slightly juicier and milder than the purple top, so in addition to being good cooked, it’s nice cut up raw in a salad or shredded in coleslaw like a radish. Gold Ball turnips have creamy, pale yellow flesh and are sweeter than Purple Top, especially when roasted.

Turnips (brassica rapa), which are relatively high in Vitamin C, are members of the same family as broccoli, kohlrabi (aka turnip cabbage), and rutabaga, (aka Swedish turnip or Swedes). The turnip itself is a large taproot, whose leaves are also edible. People over here on the Eastern Shore often stew the greens with bacon or ham and some onions or sauté the young leaves.

Neeps (turnips) and carrots, washed
Turnips take 40 to 65 days from seed to maturity, depending on variety. For example, Southern Exposure Seed Exchange’s fall-planted Amber Globe turnip is 63 days to maturity, while the spring-planted Nabo Roxo Comprido turnips reach maturity after only 40 days. Turnips are generally cool weather crops; you can sow seed practically as soon as you can get into the garden in spring. Succession plant if you want a steady crop until the heat sets in in June, then sow them again in August for fall and winter eating. You can actually grow turnips in containers too, being sure to thin them so they have sufficient space to grow. Below is a link to a list of turnip growing tips.

Turnips and carrots prepped for roasting
I didn’t learn to enjoy turnips until I began to grow them myself. We’d usually steam and mash them with caramelized onions, parmesan and a little splash of cream, like rich mashed potatoes – and they’re delicious! Some roasted garlic adds a little dash of je ne sais quoi. But there are other ways to cook them. For Christmas this year, I roasted some in the pan with the leg of lamb along with potatoes, carrots and onions. Yum yum yum. Usually, though, I dice, season and roast them and keep them in the frig to pull out when I want. They’re delicious as a side dish with chicken or goose (or duck or whatever else your resident Visigoth drags home).  More often, I pull a handful out of the container in the frig, warm them a little and add them to salad with toasted hazelnuts and blue cheese with a splash of pear or fig vinegar and olive oil.

To roast turnips:

Peel and dice turnips into whatever sized pieces you like. I usually do them about ¾ of an inch because they shrink as they roast, and I like to have the outsides toasty and the insides still soft. Others cut them small for a chewier texture.
Toss them with maple syrup or honey, salt, pepper and a bit of oil with whatever spices you like to add.  I usually do either berbere spice or smoked paprika and Adobo. Curry’s nice too. Toast at 350F for about 35 minutes or until desired doneness.
Roasted Gold Ball turnips with lettuce, stilton, and toasted walnuts

Sunday, January 6, 2013

2013: The Year of the Root Vegetable!

Here at Grow It Eat It, 2013 is now officially the Year of the Root Vegetable!

All year we'll be celebrating the crops that grow edible parts below the ground.  Some of them, in fact many of them, grow edible parts above the ground too.  But think roots, tubers, rhizomes, corms, bulbs, etc. - we will try to talk about them all!

In the early months of the year, we'll have a post every week or so about a specific root vegetable.  We've already had posts on sweet potatoes and beets.  Keep an eye out for upcoming posts (they will all get a "Year of Root Vegetables" subject label) and feel free to post in comments here or elsewhere about vegetables you want us to write about.

As we get into the growing season, we'll let you know how various root vegetables are doing in our gardens, and we'd love to hear from you as well.  Please send photos of your root vegetable crops to grow.eat@gmail.com so the GIEI website staff can put together a photo essay of the year.

And (you knew I was going to say this, right?) root for the root vegetable!  Go team!

Friday, January 4, 2013

Book Review - Square Foot Garden Answer Book

When I was a kid, I had a terrific book called The Make-It Book, which detailed a bunch of creative projects, both rainy day and non-, for kids of all ages that kept me and my brother happily engaged for years. The Square Foot Gardening Answer Book reminded me a bit of that book. Simply (but not simplistically) written, encouraging, with clear drawings and straightforward instructions, it is a soup-to-nuts guide for anyone interested in creating a small, productive and easy-to-maintain garden in a host of spaces. Square foot gardening (SFG) is great for the new gardener who wants to start smart and keep going happily, but is also good for the time and space-crunched, who want to savor the pleasures and satisfactions of gardening without making the kind of commitment row upon row of veggies can require.

A square foot garden as the name suggests, is constructed in a grid, so it’s a space-miser. The planting takes a page out of Nature by mixing plants – for example, cabbage with nasturtiums (which help deter cabbage moths and add peppery spice and color to salads), lettuce with root crops like beets, carrots and turnips, tomatoes and peppers with basil, cilantro and parsley – an approach that is not only beautiful to look at and productive, but helps to cut down on problems with pests and disease.

Square foot gardening first came to prominence in the ‘70’s when many back-to-the-landers, most of whom grew up in the burbs and knew nothing about growing something to eat, decided to become self-sustaining. Tilling, planting and cultivating rows of vegetables turned out to require more space and labor than these new mini-farmers had anticipated, which is one thing that made square foot gardening so appealing. It shares the interplanting principle with the French intensive method, which at the time was also gaining adherents for its big production in a relatively small space. But SFG was simpler and far less backbreaking than the double-digging usually suggested in French intensive gardening.

The SFG Answer Book is straightforwardly laid out and combines answers to the questions author Mel Bartholomew has been fielding since publishing his first book on SFG in 1981. It offers practical advice for planning, constructing and maintaining your own square foot garden, regardless of where you live. Chapters include Planning and Locating Your Square Foot Garden, Building Your SFG Boxes, Planting and Harvesting, Working with Mel’s Mix (the growing medium aka soil), Dealing with Pests and Problems, and Making a Difference with SFG.  (Bartholomew created the Square Foot Gardening Foundation, a nonprofit that spreads the message of SFG through humanitarian projects throughout the world in an effort to end world hunger.).

This book is for anyone who wants to start gardening, whether it’s food, annuals, perennials or a combination or all of the above. It’s also a perfect way to start gardening with kids, or to start kids gardening on their own if they prefer to do it completely themselves since the project is manageable in small bites, but is completely scalable if they want to ramp up, or maybe have their own square foot space beside that of a parent, friend or gardening mentor.  SFG Answer Book addresses the problems of limited space, offers potential solutions for less than optimal sun exposure and is very much focused on health for both plants and people.
Square Foot Gardening Answer Book by Mel Bartholomew (Cool Springs Press, $16.99).

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Season Extension

I like to try to maximize the amount of time my garden is in production.  I do this by using two methods.  The first is to plant cold tolerant crops like kale, broccoli, spinach and other hardy vegetables.  The second method is to extend the growing season by using season extending techniques like cold frames, cloches, row cover and low tunnels. 

This fall and early winter has been milder than in past years and has been great for cold season vegetables.  I planted 16 "Premium Crop" broccoli seedlings in in early September with hopes of harvesting fresh broccoli for Christmas Day dinner.  Needless to say, I was not disappointed. 

As the picture shows, I picked both kale and broccoli on Christmas day.  To extend my broccoli harvest, I covered the broccoli which is a little less cold tolerant than kale with a low tunnel made out of half inch PVC and a plastic sheet.  The plastic retains heat, just like a greenhouse. It worked like a charm and in fact is still working.

Well, the sun is starting to go down, so I think I walk out back and see if I can pick some side shoots for dinner.


Beets, A Great Twofer Vegetable

What a great way to transition from the year of the leafy greens to the year of the root vegetable but to start the year off with a twofer vegetable like beets.  When growing beets, you get tasty greens which are a good source of calcium and vitamin A and a tasty root which can be used fresh or stored. 

Beets are a crop which can be sown and grown throughout the entire gardening season, since the seeds germinate in soil temperatures from 45 to 85 degrees F.  The "seed" is really a fruit which usually contains multiple seeds and, thus, beets will need to be thinned with the thinnings being used as micro greens in a salad.  Cultural requirements for beets can be found on the GIEI website under "Vegetable Profiles" or http://www.growit.umd.edu/Vegetable%20Profiles/Beets.cfm.

In my garden, I grow mostly globe shaped beets which are tend to be quick maturing. My favorites are "Red Ace", "Detroit Dark Red" and "Touchstone Gold" which is a sweet yellow beet.

The red varieties mature in 48 to 50 days, while Touchstone Gold matures in 55 days.  I love the Touchstone Gold for its better germination than "Golden", color and less earthy flavor.  One of my favorite spring salads is made by roasting a few of each of these beets, cooling them, dicing them into bite size pieces, adding a little feta cheese and a sprinkling of good balsamic vinegar.  I generally roast all of my beets since it tends to concentrate the flavors and make them sweeter.

My garden consists of four foot wide raised beds.  In general, I plant a block of beets about four feet by four feet.  Seed is planted about two inches apart in four rows (along my drip irrigation tape) and thinned to about three to four inches (a total about 64 beets in the four foot square).  I succession plant my beets every three to four weeks through the entire year, planting my last crop sometime in late August or the first week of September.  With a days to maturity of 55 days and addition of the short day factor of 14 days, these beets can be dug early to mid-November, although they may have to be protected using season extension techniques such a row cover, cloche or cold frame.

So if you don't currently grow beets, try some in 2013, especially the Touchstone Gold variety if you are looking for a less earthy flavor.