Thursday, April 17, 2014

Yukon Gold potatoes and the lasagna bed, first asparagus

I was wandering Walmart's garden center about a month ago (I like to browse the garden department of all the big stores every couple of weeks, generally in search of discounted items) when I saw bags of seed potatoes.  It was way too early for our area, but I guess their shipping schedule doesn't acknowledge regional seasonal variations. They were already well sprouted, cheaply priced, and two varieties I don't currently have in my wintered over seed potatoes.  I bought a three pound bag each of Red Norland and Yukon Gold.
When I got home I wrapped the bags in newspaper and put them in the right crisper drawer with my other seed pots. Two weeks later I pulled them all out, laid them on baking trays, and put them on top of the bookcases in the upstairs front bedroom to warm up and sprout a bit more.
On April 9th they went into the ground. I built a 'lasagna bed' of  cardboard, newspaper and compost last fall, and I was pleased to find the soil was rich and full of earthworms this spring when I dug it over for  the potatoes:

Here's a pic of the leggy Yukon Golds that I planted in this bed:

The Red Norland went into a raised bed made of recycled decking material, which held garlic last year. I laid sticks over both beds to keep Sol from sleeping on top of the emerging spuds:

Nearby  I discovered the first asparagus of the year-- and they were purple.  My green asparagus are not showing much, but the purple ones are a bit more precocious:

I'm glad my asparagus has survived it's second winter here in my garden, despite many very cold days  (we were as low as -5) and a bit of snow two nights ago, on April 15th.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Lots of seedlings.... too soon?

Last year my first set of tomato and pepper seedlings did poorly due to the off brand potting soil I used.
I did a second planting in early May and ended up with a great harvest despite the setback, but I was frustrated by the extra money and energy I had to expend.
This spring I was determined to do better. I bought premium potting soil and new seeds, a mat for bottom heat, and built new shelving to keep the light bulbs closer to the growing young plants.
But I didn't adjust my seed starting schedule to the late spring we've had, and now I have too many big tomato seedlings too soon. They have already been replanted into individual pots (deeper to get more root growth along the buried stem), and they continue to grow apace-- well, actually at too much of a pace!
Here's a pic (yes, there are some Moonflowers too):

So now the challenge is to keep them happy until the last frost, about a month away. I'm going to pinch the leader back on a few seedings to see if I can encourage branching, and I will also start to keep them at cooler temperatures. Finally, I will build a cold frame for them in the garden that will be insulated enough to take some of the bigger plants out for hardening off quite early, by the end of next week.  Just in case I lose some I did start a few more seeds this week.  Maybe next year I'll finally get the timing just right.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Seven signs of spring, in pictures and video

It's been a cold first week of spring, and we still have another snowstorm to get through in the next two days. So I've searched for and found some cheerful signs of spring in my garden:

Four cold frames seeded with hardy spring greens:

Candy onions planted last week:


Garlic growing already:

Fiddleheads forming:


And Sol dancing and zooming like a puppy (he's 12):

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Daylight savings and planting spinach

There's still snow in the vegetable garden, but I was stubbornly determined to plant my first crop of 2014 today, the first day of daylight savings.  I got home from work, changed into work clothes, and headed into the garden.
It was a sad sight-- full of debris and snow:

 But there were a few clear beds, including the one I had in mind for building my cold frame.
I quickly laid several rows of cinder blocks inside the bed, then lifted the recycled window section of an old door across the top to check the fit. It was fine for spinach-- not a tight seal, but enough to raise the temperature inside a few degrees. That's all I want or need for spinach.

I took the cover off and propped it up beside the bed while I prepped the soil. I mixed up a couple of handfuls of 10-10-10 fertilizer with about an equal amount of  lime (spinach likes a slightly more alkaline soil), then scraped some of last years potting soil off the soil-sicles I popped out of two adjacent planters:

I mixed all of this material into the soil in the bottom of the cold frame. The soil was frozen a couple of inches down, but I was able to make four furrows, then plant  my spinach and tamp down the soil. There was no need to water, since the soil was already moist, and more water will be released as it thaws under  the glass.
Finally I spread a light layer of straw over the top, then re-covered:

That's it- my first crop planted! Now I will monitor it every day, keeping the soil moist, and not too hot.  I hope to have spinach sprouting by April 1.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Another great winter vegetable: 'Candy' onion

The temperatures  here in Southeastern Massachusetts have fluctuated wildly in the last few weeks, from minus 5.5 degrees in the first couple of days of the year to 60 degrees a week later.   I worried about many things during the lows and highs --  including my oil bill, my pipes freezing, how the Carolina Wren that winters in my garden was faring, and if my onions stored in the garage would freeze.
So how did everything turn out?  Well my oil bill was high, my pipes are ok, I haven't seen the wren yet, and my 'Candy' onions are fine. During the deep freeze I covered them with several layers of old sheets, which was just enough insulation to keep them from freezing. The cold actually did me a favor-- some of the bulbs had started to sprout and it put them back into dormancy.  In a world in which I have so little control over so many things, including the weather, I am disproportionately comforted by the still large stash of home grown onions in the garage.
Why grow onions anyway, since they are so cheap? Well, to get them fresh all summer  (I harvest  about a fifth of my onions young and green) and because they are so easy and fun to grow.
'Candy' is by far the best onion I have grown -- large, flavorful without being too strong, and a good keeper.
 I bought plants, which are more expensive than sets or seeds, but grow much more consistently with less care. Here's a pic of the plants being rehydrated after delivery:

And here they are planted in a well manured raised bed in April:

I mulched them with straw, weeded fairly regularly, and side dressed with fertilizer a couple of times in the next 90 days.
When the tops started to fall over I harvested the crop-- about 120 big onions!

I dried them in the garage for several weeks on a rack:

And moved them to another rack held up off the floor for air flow (to keep them dry):

That was in July. Six months later I have eaten many, throw a couple out that sprouted or rotted, and still have this many 'Candy' left to enjoy:

And yes, a small bin of 'Red Zepelin' onions too. I bought the same number of 'Red Zep' plants as 'Candy', but the harvest was much smaller in both  bulb size and number of surviving plants. I really like having both red and yellow onions in my winter storage crops, so I'll try a different red this year. I've already ordered my 'Candy' plants!

Friday, January 3, 2014

Let us now praise famous winter vegetables: Waltham Butternut

I've been growing winter squash for only three years, but I've learned a lot. First, not to plant it near the fence adjoining the back field, because woodchucks will sneak in and eat it, even with a pretty solid second wire fence around the squash patch.  Sol works hard to keep the woodchucks out of the garden, but near the fence line it is  just too easy for them to sneak through.

Second, to give them ROOM! Compact winter squash are cute, but don't set much fruit. To get lots of big storage squash, let the vines spread out. Space also reduces mildew and gives the fruit time to mature.

And third, if you want a lot of medium sized fruit for winter storage, plant Waltham butternut, especially if you live in Massachusetts, where this cultivar was developed. One of the first things I noticed when I moved here in September over twenty years ago was that that many of the farmed acres nearby were planted in butternut squash, and I think it’s safe to say it was Waltham.  Butternut is such a major crop in my neighborhood that the farmers have heated outbuildings with temperature alarms for storing them.

 The species is Cucurbita moschata, just like my beloved trombone squash, which means it is also resistant to squash vine borers, cucumber beetles, and the fungal infections they spread. It produces up to five pound fruit with thick straight necks that are easy to peel, and I got four per plant this year, which is about average. 
Here's a picture taken in May of where I  eventually planted my two vines-- in the straw between the raspberry patch and the potato bed Sol is sitting in:

I planted the seeds in June, and when the potatoes came out in July I let the vines climb into the bed and spread out:

Soon there were some young striped fruit. I put dry grass under the fruit to make sure they didn't develop fungus on the underside:

I waited until the fruit was evenly tan in color, and the vines beginning to die back ( late September) before cutting the fruit off with a sharp knife and leaving it to dry in place for a few days. Then I moved them to the garage for a week or so, and finally into my upstairs back bedroom, which is kept at around 55 degrees all winter, an ideal temp for winter squash storage.

Here's a pic of the first six:

I picked two more in early October, including this one that had rambled into the raspberries and hidden itself from me for weeks:

I made my favorite butternut dish,  a simple casserole of one large squash sliced thin and  baked with onion, butter, salt, pepper and nutmeg, for Thanksgiving dinner. I was disappointed  because it was pale, watery and bland.  I made it again for Christmas and it was delicious: drier, deep orange, and packed with sweet nutty flavor.  
That was when I really understood that butternut squash is like wine-- it needs to age.  The fruit I used in November was one of the late ones, and not ready yet. Next year I'll sharpie the dates of harvest on my squash, and use them oldest first. 

Meanwhile, there are still three left.  Three big beautiful Waltham butternuts to enjoy in the depths of winter.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Greens in the winter (not the kind you eat!)

While it's true I now garden primarily for food, I also think about other needs when I plant.
And one of them is my need for green in the garden in the winter. And no, that doesn't mean 'greens' grown under plastic, like my neighbors down the street at the little garden that could.

As I have said before, I don't grow winter crops-- I'm just too busy at work, and I'd rather not do something than do it with less than all my attention.

But I have planted evergreens around my one acre lot in strategic places for viewing, and I do make a wreath or swags from these trees and shrubs every December. It's amazing how a bit of green accented with red berries can cheer me up on a dreary day.

My favorite evergreen is the male Ilex opaca ( a holly native to much of the East Coast) which I planted as a rooted cutting from Appalachian Nursery in 1994.  It's now twenty feet tall, and gorgeous:

But since it's a male, it doesn't have berries.  Luckily, my one male holly can pollinate many closely related species, including the native Ilex verticillata, which drops it's leaves but sets lots of bright red berries:

The big holly also pollinates some hybrid English hollies along the eastern edge of the garden, and their shiny leaves make a nice contract with the matte leaves of the opaca in an arrangement:

The other day I took cuttings from all my hollies, including the small leaved glabra,

as well as branches from arborvitae, juniper and bittersweet (yes, I work hard to kill all the bittersweet, but some survives, and it is pretty):

I tied them all together with wire into two swags, then hung one from the pillar on my front porch:

The second swag adorns my beloved dry stone wall, a relic of the farm that was here long before my house:

It's amazing how these two simple arrangements of red and green cheer me up when I see them every night as I roll my truck down the driveway at dusk.