Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Tater Time

Today my son convinced me to get seed potatoes.  I've never grown potatoes before, so I'm hoping this will be a learning experience rather than just a waste of time.  We picked out German Butterball potatoes, I tried to convince him on the purple or red varieties, but like most 3 year olds he is set in his ways.  The package has 5 seed potatoes in it. I'm going to get them started inside with the rest of my starts, in 6" pots, then move them outside once they've sprouted... and once I find somewhere to put them.

This is the same kid that forced me to buy zucchini last year, despite my reluctance, and it turned out to be one of the most productive crops in the garden.  I'm willing to give it a try.  I'm thinking I could build the potatoes some boxes that are small but deep and can be moved around if needed.  Also, since I have to do the research for myself anyway, I'll get a potato culture post up, and onion and garlic ones as well since this is the time of year for planting those things.

Stay tuned...

Brassicas Have Shown Their Faces

My brassicas, planted the 25th, have popped their heads up out of the soil today.  The cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower and kale have all joined their cousins the lettuces in basking under the fluorescent glow of the grow lights.  I planted a few kale seeds at the beginning of February when we had a few days of unseasonably good weather, at this point those seeds have only their initial two leaves, I am curious to see how well the kale planted inside catches up to them.

Currently the weather is just above freezing, blowing like a 2 year old at a birthday party, and a mix of rain and snow is falling.  What a yucky day.  Really hoping this weather improves over the next month, another cold wet Spring is going to leave me wishing I lived anywhere but here.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Territorial Proves Superior Again

There has been an article shuffled around Facebook lately that includes a list of Monsanto owned vegetable seed varieties.  Meaning that Monsanto owns the trademark on that cultivar name, or the patent on a hybrid.  Since I am no fan of Monsanto I took a look at the list and found a few (not many luckily) that I had purchased last year.  So I sent an email to the Territorial Seed Co., from which I buy nearly all of my seed, to ask if they bought seed from Monsanto.

Within a few hours I was rewarded with a response.  No, Territorial Seed Co. no longer buys any of their seed from Seminis/Monsanto.  And they actually grow about 25% of their seed here in Oregon at their farms. 

You've got to respect that. I'm glad to know my purchases will not line the pockets of execs at Monsanto, a corporation who's ethics are questionable at best.  :)

Thanks, TSC, for making efforts like these to please your customers; for fast shipping, great catalogs, and amazingly fast email responses!  (My brother is still mad about his last order though, I have a feeling it was lost in the mail.)

Lettuce Culture

**most of my plant culture information comes from Wikipedia entries, opinions are all my own though.

Lactuca sativa, or lettuce, is a member of the Asteraceae family and actually makes a pretty little white or yellow flower similar to a dandelion if you allow it to bolt and go to seed.  When cut its stems ooze a milky white substance, hence the reason for the name Lactuca.  Some members of the Lepidoptera butterfly family eat lettuce.  In Ancient Egypt lettuce was considered an aphrodisiac.

Lettuce grows best in a humus rich, light soil, with constant moisture.  Lettuce prefers temperatures between 75 degrees and 45 degrees F.  A hot or dry environment may cause it to turn bitter and bolt, though this is less of a problem with certain bolt-resistant or heat-tolerant varieties.  Seeds can be direct sown into the garden or transplanted.  With a protective cover to keep lettuce from freezing it can be grown in mild climates nearly year round.

The primary types of lettuce are butterhead, romaine, crisphead or iceberg, and loose leaf.  Butterhead leaves have a buttery texture, they are similar to romaine, with less crispness and a shorter growth habit.  Romaine, or Cos, grows long leaves with a firm central rib, it is more heat tolerant than other varieties.  Crisphead, or iceberg, grows in a tight head similar to cabbage.  They have a crunchy texture and are generally the mildest flavored lettuces.  Loose leaf lettuce has tender, delicate leaves and doesn't grow a "head" but rather as a bunch of loose leaves.  Summer crisp or Batavian lettuce has a mix of traits of iceberg and loose leaf, being crunchy in texture and having only a moderately dense head.

The less bitterness a variety of lettuce has, the higher the water content, and consequently the lower the nutritional value.  All lettuce varieties will cross-pollinate easily, so be certain to allow only the cultivars you wish to harvest seed from to go to flower.

Lettuce is a fast grower, taking as little as 3 weeks to reach a harvestable size.  Remember to keep your lettuce plants moist, and protected from heat.  Slugs are the primary pest to watch for on lettuce, though cutworms can also ruin a planting by cutting the stems when seedlings first sprout.  Defeat slugs by baiting, hand picking, or laying down a copper barrier.  Protect from cutworms with a paper collar, or start lettuce indoors and move outside once they have a few true leaves on and have grown beyond cutworm edibility.  Lettuce can be grown indoors over the winter under a grow light or in a windowsill.

Mix varieties of red, green, and mixed color lettuce in a salad for a more interesting presentation.  Since lettuce varieties will cross so easily, try leaving two or three favorite varieties to cross-pollinate and see what exciting new crosses you can come up with.  For butterhead, romaine, or loose leaf lettuces harvest only the leaves you need and allow the plant to continue growth; crisphead is best harvested as a whole head. 

For planting: try planting lettuces under a fruit tree, in early spring they will receive full sun, and once the tree flowers and begins to put on leaves it will shade the lettuces leaves from the heat of the sun.  SFG suggests 4 lettuce plants per square, and they can also be interplanted between taller growing brassicas to protect and shade them.  If your tomatoes are ripening and you wish to have lettuces to go with them, try planting lettuce under the shade of the tomato plants, or in a shadier corner of the garden.  If all else fails, grow them inside during the hottest part of the year, in the cool of the AC.

You are unlikely to be able to preserve lettuce at all; it manages fine in the fridge for a few days though.  Be sure to stagger plantings every few weeks to ensure a crop all year and don't plant too many at once or you'll be swimming in fresh lettuce that HAS to be eaten, and can't be saved by preserving.

Happy lettuce growing!

Monday, February 27, 2012

Love Lettuce

Despite the fact that the seeds were planted Saturday night, and it is now only Monday morning, I spotted the tiny white slivers of lettuce stems in my pots today.  I am just amazed at how fast that was.  Optimal conditions for germination make a big difference.

Also, I called this morning for location services to ensure that planting my cherry tree won't involve electrocuting myself or bursting a water line... if it's a problem I will just have to look into a different location for the tree.  I probably should have done this before buying the tree, but oh well, live and learn I suppose.

That's all for today, hoping to get a chance to post a lettuce culture post soon so keep your eyes open for that.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Save Your Soil!

One of the great things about organic gardening is that it costs so much less.  You don't need to buy expensive pesticides, herbicides, and soil amendments.  But that doesn't mean you don't need to amend your soil!

My own garden is managed pretty intensively, I try to keep it growing something as often as possible when there is sun available.  Because of this I have to be very careful about rotation, adding nutrients, and managing pests.  Here are some tips to help keep your soil healthy.

Follow with Fallow: If you have the space to let beds lay fallow for a year or two, by all means do so.  Since I'm working with so few square feet I don't have the luxury of letting it lie fallow.  Instead I make a point of rotating my veggies from bed to bed each year.  Certain ones have to stay in place, such as the pumpkins, but I can skip a year of pumpkin growing if needed to manage pest problems.

Rotate Plantings:  To keep your garden soil healthy and productive you should always move plant families from one space to another each year.  Not just individual plants, but plant families!  If you grew broccoli in a space one year, don't follow it with cabbage the next, instead try to follow it with a plant from a completely different family such as onions, carrots, or tomatoes.  Soil dwelling pests that were attracted to the broccoli initially may have laid their eggs in the soil, when they hatch they will be sorely disappointed to find there is no broccoli (or anything similar) there anymore. Similarly molds and diseases that developed around tomatoes will have no nearby victims if that space is followed with a planting of garlic, and your garden won't be as likely to suffer from them.  In addition, following fruit-bearing plants like peppers and tomatoes with root- or leaf- crops can keep your soil going longer without amendment.  Fruit crops use up a lot of nutrition, it requires much more effort to grow a plant, flower it, and ripen the fruits than it does to grow just the leaves, or the leaves and roots.  This can give your soil the break it needs between fruit crop plantings.

I Plead the 5th:  There are 5 primary organic practices to amend your soil, all of which add organic matter and nutrition to it.  Bio mulch of some type; fallen leaves, hay, etc.  Use these to mulch your summer garden to keep the ground moist.  After the crops are gone leave the mulch on the beds to rot then dig it into the soil in late winter or early spring.  Breaking down this mulch will use a lot of the nitrogen from your soil, but once it is decomposed the nitrogen levels will return to normal, so be sure to give the soil bacteria a couple months between digging it in and planting new veggies.  Hay costs between $3 and $6 per bale from farms, and can generally be found by checking Craigslist or asking at a local farm in the spring.  Growing a cover crop over the winter season such as oats or winter wheat also keeps your soil protected from erosion over the winter and then is turned over into the soil just like a mulch would be.  Adding compost is amendment number three.  The very best compost is made of a blend of leaves, grasses (lawn cuttings or hay), fruits or veggies that were not eaten, and plant waste from the kitchen.  For some people composting is an art form, I am not one of them.  My compost pile is not likely the most nutritious in the area, but it does the job.  Jack-o-lanterns, pulled out plants, peels, stems, cores, rotting hay bales, raked up leaves, all of these things go into my compost pile.  Why bother with a compost pile?  Because nature has a cycle.  Things grow from nutrients in the soil, they feed us, they die, they are decomposed and the nutrients are returned to the soil.  Why would you want to screw that up?  It's a perfect cycle in which you can dispose of all the kitchen waste from your harvests, then use it a few months later to feed your new plants.  We'll go in depth on composting at another time though.  The last two items on the organic 5 amendment list are tea and nutrient specifics.  Tea, or compost tea in this case, is nothing more than water that has had a "tea bag" of compost sitting in it for a short time.  The nutrients in the compost are leached out into the water making a muddy brown "tea" that can be spritzed directly onto plants or poured into the soil to add a boost of nutrition.  If a plant is struggling to survive an insect infestation, or you are transplanting a new plant a splash of tea can really give them a boost.  Nutrient specifics are a little more challenging, these are particular items that add a specific nutrient to your soil or compost.  Before worrying about these you should do soil testing to see if your soil is already in good shape.  Some examples of nutrient specific amendments are listed below.

N-P-K, often listed on fertilizer bags stands for Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Potassium; each of which aids different types of plant growth.
The macro nutrients NPK; generally a well balanced compost will supply all of these without any additions.

Nitrogen (N) - legumes (beans, peas), cow and poultry manures well-rotted only.
Phosphorus (P) - banana peels, crab shells, shrimp peelings, most grains and nuts, and guano
Potassium (potash, K) - fruit skins, esp. banana peels.

 Micro nutrients, these can be more challenging to get in compost and commercial fertilizers don't generally contain them, which means an organic garden is more likely to be healthier!

Calcium (Ca) - eggshells, dolomitic lime
Magnesium (Mg) - manures, compost, dolomitic lime, and epsom salts.
Iron, Manganese, Zinc, Copper and Cobalt (Fe, Mn, Zn, Cu, Co) - kelp in its many forms; meal, powder, liquid.

pH amendments are used to adjust the soil acidity, they either sweeten or acidify soils.  Generally a good organic matter rich soil will not need these but certain plants prefer acidic soils, and some areas naturally have more acid soils and need to be sweetened.

Sweeteners - dolomitic lime, wood ashes.
Acidifiers - coffee grounds, vinegar, compost and manure.

While all of these things work to improve soils you may choose between them based on your own preferences; for example I prefer not to buy soil improvements if possible so would be more likely to use wood ash to sweeten soil rather than buying dolomitic lime.  Also some soil amendments sold at stores like blood meal, bone meal, and fish emulsion are by-products from other industries.  Personally I have no problem with using by-products in my soil; but I don't trust that the animals used to make the by-products were in good health and don't contain chemicals that could leach into my soil, so I stick with plant by-products as much as possible.  I also try to make sure they come from varied sources, using one plant's compost (i.e. mushroom compost) could leave your soil short on nutrients that particular plant doesn't use as much.

Remember to test your soil before adding amendments to it, except maybe for compost.  Compost is just all around good, and won't throw your soil out of balance.

When the Men Are Away, the Women Will... Build a Grow Room?

Shelves, trays, lights, bulbs, and seedling mix.
The original shelf and all the stuff stored there.
Got my grow room set up yesterday, just like everything else it was more challenging than I expected.  The 2' light fixtures I bought were for wiring into a house and didn't have cords, plus they needed assembly which I didn't know until I opened the boxes.  So after returning them I was forced to visit two hardware stores and a Home Depot to find something that would work.  So here's a quick tip: undercabinet lights, shop lights, and aquarium lights are your best bets for fixtures.  Strip lights wire into a home and don't have cords.  Undercabinet lights are primarily less than 2' long, shop lights are 4' and longer, and aquarium lights are in between.  Since you pay close to the same amount for a 2' light as a 4' light it's more cost efficient to have a 4' space and buy one shop light (which are cheap) than to buy two 2' lights (or in my case two 18" lights).  Aquarium lights tend to be more spendy since they are rather specialized, the other advantage of shop lights is that they often come with chains to hang them.  Sadly, my space was not wide enough to fit a shop light so I had to resort to a less efficient system.

 When selecting flourescent bulbs be sure to buy the correct length, circumference, and light color.  While a standard soft white bulb will work to sprout seeds, they will become leggy fast searching for actual sunlight.  Flourescents come in varying circumferences (T12, T8, T5) and you should check the size on the fixture you choose and buy a bulb of the correct size to fit it.  My fixtures require 18" T8 bulbs.

Examples of different bulbs that would work for plant growth.
Once you find the correct size you need to select a light color as close to that of sunlight as possible.  Daylight, Full Spectrum, Wide Spectrum, Plant and Aquarium, Natural Light, or Natural Daylight are some of the names for the bulbs you need.  If you are unsure of whether a bulb will work for your starts you can check the label on the package.  Look for the "Color Temperature" on the label, it should be a number between about 5000K and 6000K.  A number higher than that will cross into the white light category and may not be adequate, while a lower number will become closer to red light and again won't serve your purpose.

Once I solved my light fixture problem I set up my shelf, moved all my junk onto it, then plugged in the power strip.  It took a bit of arranging to get the lights hanging correctly. Then I wrapped tin foil over the cardboard from the shelving box and hung it over the back of the shelf.  Finally, I planted some seeds, I will probably plant more today, but was surprised to find I could fit 29 pots of different sizes into one tray.  I may not need more than that!

Below are more pictures showing the grow room space.

The shelf all assembled, lights hung, you can't really see the tin foil but it's against the wall reflecting the light forward.  I also set my thermometer w/min max on top to watch the temps here and in the green house more easily.

Examples of reusing last year's pots, and of phone book page origami pots.

21 of my pots filled and ready to go.  I had to stop and make more paper pots.

Plastic dome over top.  Seeded, watered and under the lights.  Ready to sprout!

I could have fit 3 trays under these lights but by the time I was done last night I was not prepared to plant that many seeds.  Plus I think I'll need another bag of seedling mix first.  Be sure to keep lights positioned just above the tops of the plants, no more than 4" above them to encourage short, robust growth and deter legginess.  You can move the lights up as needed or move the plants down, whatever is easier.  Lastly I wanted to mention that while researching on plant lights I found out that plants require and grow better with both light and dark times each day, so be sure to turn your plant lights off at night and back on in the mornings, if you are too forgetful for that then set a light timer to do it for you.  Having dark time is nearly as important to plant health as having sunlight.  Good luck!

Friday, February 24, 2012

Support for Anywhere Eden

It occurs to me that while I love to garden, and love seeing my efforts rewarded, I would also love to make my garden pay for itself rather than cost me.

In part it does pay for itself, in fresh fruits and veggies, canned and frozen goods, and organic foods at a discount.  But my goal is to have it not just offset grocery costs, but actually pay for itself.  Part of that is saving my own seeds, part is making compost.  Both of these things cut my costs down, but don't quite leave me with a zero balance.

Growing starts to sell, even at dramatically lowered prices will make a big difference.  If I can sell 10 starts for 50 cents each I will have paid for a bag of potting mix, or 2-3 packs of seeds.  If possible I'd like to get my starts to pay for my seeds each year; my canned goods to recover the cost of the jars and canning supplies; my frozen foods to save me the cost of the freezer bags; and eventually my blog to cover the cost of my tools/trellises/etc.

This blog is here to help others, to give them tips and firsthand experiences so they can learn from my mistakes and keep trying to grow the best garden they can.  It is also ad funded and I can only hope that over time the ad revenue will grow enough to make my garden truly cost free.

So please, if you enjoy the blog and appreciate all the time and effort I put into it, click an ad before you leave to help support my self-sufficient garden. ;)  And tell your friends about it so they can stop in too!

And thanks in advance to everyone who's reading, whether or not you click the ads!

The Costs of an Early Start

Growing seasons differ across the country.  A lucky friend of mine just sent me a picture of the lemon and orange trees in her yard that are in full fruit right now, living in southern California makes a big difference I suppose.  The weather here is still touching on freezing overnight and with as mild as the winter was it would not be remiss to expect it to keep going this way for another month or even two.

I recently picked up an indoor/outdoor thermometer with min/max capabilities to keep an eye on how much the temperature in my tiny greenhouse is changing.  In the past week the minimum temperature inside the greenhouse was 33 degrees, and the maximum was 96.  Unless one of the kids slapped the thermometer with a hot potato when I wasn't looking, that means there was a more than 60 degree change in temperature just within the week.  Too cold for winter veggies and too hot for them too.  I definitely need a better greenhouse system, but I'm unwilling to invest in one since I have such limited space.  Instead the greenhouse will be used solely for hardening off, opening it up during the day and closing it on cooler nights to keep the temps from going out of control.

This has left me in need of a space to get my winter veggies started.  My brother, may his awesomeness reign forever, has agreed to start my hot weather plants for me again this year.  I plan to attempt starting the cold weather plants myself though.  With that in mind I decided to build a "grow room"... er, shelf inside.

People give you a lot of strange looks when you mention that you are building a grow room, it seems the phrasing just makes them think of growing marijuana, but in actuality it makes good sense (cents?).  Starts from a nursery are often limited to the most common varieties, and by what is in stock.  Each start you buy ranges in price from .99 to $5.00 (for gallons).  But if you have a grow room and some seeds you can effectively pay far less in the long run and have better quality plants of more varieties.  If you save your own seed it cuts the cost even further.

So let's talk about the costs of a grow room.  For cool weather plants the costs are lower than for hot weather plants, primarily because you don't have to heat them as much.  Start with a shelf, or shelves, or a tabletop, or a windowsill, anywhere you can find room to set one or more trays of pots, hang a light over it, and keep it away from things or people that could cause trouble.  You will need lighting, if it's a completely enclosed space you'll need ventilation, if it's outside of the house or you will grow hot weather plants longer than a few weeks you'll need a heat source you can monitor and adjust.  You also need trays, pots, potting soil, seeds, water, and a power source for the heat/lights/ventilation.

For example, my "grow room" will actually be a few shelves in my laundry room.  The furnace and back door are in there, and it is generally left open to the rest of the house so ventilation and heat should not be an issue.  There is a power source (the outlet the washer is plugged into) to run the lights, though I will need a power strip to use more than one light at a time.  Currently I have a small metal shelving unit in there which holds the overflow of my Costco shopping trips that won't fit in the kitchen.  My plan is to replace this with a 4 tier shelf that is wider and taller.  It will still hold my overstock goods in the bottom two shelves, but the upper two will be outfitted with lights and house my starts.

36" wide 4 tier shelves:  $60
Power strip:  $20
2' wide single bulb flourescent light fixtures:  $10 each
2' long flourescent light bulbs (daylight or plant and aquarium):  $8 each
Plastic seedling trays:  $2 each
Organic seedling potting mix (small bag): $5 each
Aluminum foil: $5
Newspaper/reusable old pots/phone book:  $0
Cardboard:  $0

Depending on how many plants you plan to start it should have an initial cost of about $150 or more.  Nearly half the cost is just the shelving unit, which is totally reusable year after year and can be used for storage between growing seasons.  The other big cost is the power strip and it can also be used year after year, or used for other things when it's not needed for the plants.  The light fixtures and plastic trays should last you a few years too.

The things that need replacing each year are the potting mix, aluminum foil, cardboard and pots.  But cardboard is free from any recycling bin, aluminum foil is inexpensive, potting mix can be made in bulk, and pots can be made of free recycling items too.

So, to make the cost comparison, let's say you are planning to grow cabbage, broccoli, kale, onions, and carrots.  About 70 plants total.  To buy these plants already started you'd pay about $2 each for four packs of the larger veggies or 6 packs of the smaller ones.  For this price you get the smallest starts, basically a stem with its first set of true leaves.  If you want 40 of the large veggies it will cost $20 and let's say about another $10 for 30 of the smaller ones.  So you spent $30 on starts.  Not so bad really, in fact, I know I usually spend more than this... maybe I underestimated the cost.  But no matter.  4" potted starts will cost you up to twice as much for one plant.

The first year of building a grow room you will have spent $150 on the setup alone, and about $7.00 for the same five types of plants.  The difference is that a packet of kale seeds contains around 50 seeds, carrot packets contain closer to 100 or more.  So instead of 70 plants you have the ability to grow 250 plants.  You can grow spares and sell them, or trade them to other gardeners, or share with friends or family.  Or you can save all that extra seed for the next year and save yourself the seed costs.  Obviously there is no savings the first year, but the second year you only have to pay... well, nothing if you make your own potting soil from your own compost, about $5-$15 if you buy it, depending on how much you need.  And so on, for many years.  Light bulbs will need to be replaced every few years, and undoubtedly your plastic trays will eventually need replacing, but for the most part the grow room will be low maintenance and save you money in the end.

Considering I spend $150 on seeds alone, of nearly 40 different plants, if the grow room will allow me to improve their survival rate and possibly even turn a few starts into cash by selling them to neighbors or my mom at a discount I will be happy with the investment.  Two shelves of grow space alone should provide all of my cool season crops adequate room, and it could also be enough space for the hot season plants if needed (after the cool plants were moved outside).  Imagine how much you could grow in a whole room!

The other big bonus to creating your own grow room is getting ahead of the game on planting times.  In the Willamette Valley a gardener has between April 15th and October 1st to do all of their growing.  Just over 5 months.  If it takes a cabbage 60 days to reach maturity and a tomato 80 days... there just isn't enough time to plant one from seed and then follow it with the other from seed.  Working in a small space you can really increase your returns by planting the same area twice, or even three times, in one season.  With a grow room I can start my cabbages inside a month earlier than I could outside, while the soil is still too cold for germination.  They can grow larger under optimum conditions before being put outside, then finish their growth in the garden where they will have plenty of room.  This means that I should be able to have the cool weather crops (or at least most of them) harvested and pulled out in time for the hot weather plantings to go in at the beginning of June.  Then I can even start a fall crop in August when the determinate tomatoes have finished producing and the basil is harvested, leaving the longer season tomatoes to finish off before it gets cold again.

Lastly, I can use my grow space over the winter to grow entire plants for fresh eating indoors.  Spinach, lettuce, green onion, annual herbs like cilantro and basil, all of these can grow indoors over the winter.  They won't outgrow their space and can easily be harvested as needed without sacrificing the entire plant.  Inside a house they shouldn't even need extra heat to stay healthy.

P.S. I almost forgot to explain the purpose of the foil, cardboard and newspaper etc.  Backing and/or siding your shelves with a reflective surface (i.e. aluminum foil wrapped over cardboard for stability) will help keep the light and heat focused inward toward the plants and can make a big difference in plant health.  Newspaper or phone book pages make excellent paper pots, or you can reuse any old start containers from previous years, just be sure to wash them well with soapy water.  I've found that newspaper origami pots are about a 4" pot, while phone book pages make a pot closer to the size of a 2" peat pot.  Yellowbook phone books are totally recyclable and have soy based inks that won't contaminate your soil, check online to see if your phone book is made with soy based inks.  If not, stick to newspaper, which is always made with non-toxic inks.

Next time... When the Men Are Away, the Women Will... Build a Grow Room?
In which my daughter and I put together our grow room, start seeds, and then wait for my husband to notice it when he gets home.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Drowning in Berries

I have already discussed strawberries to some extent, how they grow and how to care for them in Strawberries, The Ultimate Food Crop.  I did not include recipes and preserving directions though since I was pressed for time that day.  So today we will cover what to do with all of those strawberries.

The first few days of finding ripe strawberries will likely be filled with fresh eating, strawberry shortcakes, and sliced strawberries in your cereal bowl or on your salad... but a few days later you'll find the novelty of it wears thin and long for a way to save those flavors for the winter months.  Luckily by this time your strawberries should be in full fruit.  If your patch is small and you are still only harvesting a few berries here and there, go out and pick some at a local farm and use them for these recipes.

There are two primary ways to preserve your strawberries, prepared or frozen.  Some ways to prepare them include making jams, pies, or syrups.  If this is too much hassle it's often easier to just wash and hull the berries, then lay them in a thin layer on a cookie sheet, freeze them like this and then bag them up.  This method of freezing keeps the berries from freezing into one solid lump, instead you can remove what you need to defrost from the bag and put the rest back in the freezer.

Making prepared strawberry recipes is more time consuming, but pays off when you can pull a strawberry-rhubarb pie out of the freezer at Thanksgiving and throw it in the oven right away, or pop the lid off a jar of strawberry jam and enjoy the taste of summer in February.

Jams are what most people think of when they consider preserving strawberries.  They are incredibly easy to make, keep well without needing to be pressure canned and are a product used in most households year round.  There are a number of recipes for jams available and depending on your own tastes and preferences you can choose the one that best suits you.  A standard jam recipe such as is found inside a pectin package can have up to twice as much sugar in it as berries; this will give you a very sweet jam and sometimes sets too firmly leaving you rolling a chunk of strawberry Jell-O across a slice of bread. 

Many pectin packages also include reduced sugar recipes, these cut down on the sugar which in turn can effect the jam's firmness and leave it runny.  They are not as sweet and allow more of the berry flavor through, however the reduced sugar is also more likely to cause the jam to brown in the jar.

I am still trying to find a perfect canned pectin jam recipe, each year I try a few in hopes of making the perfect jam.  Freezer jam on the other hand is so simple my toddler can make it.  Select a pectin designed for making freezer jams, mash up berries and scoop the required amount of berries into a bowl.  Mix in required amount of sugar and pectin for a few minutes allowing it to dissolve completely.  The pectin brand I use calls for 1 2/3 cups fruit, 2/3 cups sugar, and 2 Tbsp pectin.  This makes 16 oz. of jam, which you then scoop into freezer safe containers (leaving head room for expansion) and put into the freezer up to a year.  Freezer jams aren't cooked so they tend to be runnier than cooked jams, but being uncooked also means more of the bright fresh strawberry flavor.  Of course to make freezer jam you also have to have a large enough freezer to hold it, and once it's opened freezer jam will spoil faster than a cooked jam.

Last year I bought Ball RealFruit Pectin in "flex batch" containers that turned out to be really helpful with making small batch jams.  Instead of using an entire pectin packet to make a huge batch of jam I can measure out how much pectin I need based on how many berries I have on hand. 

I also found a pectin-free jam recipe last year that I had to try purely because it meant one less thing to buy in order to make my own food.  The pectinless recipe came from Clearly Delicious:An Illustrated Guide to Preserving, Pickling, and Bottling by Elisabeth Lambert Ortiz.  It requires a bit more work, but I definitely appreciate being able to make jam without running to the store for pectin.  For this recipe you need 4 quarts of strawberries (4 lbs.) crushed, 2 Tbsp. lemon juice.  Simmer these until berries are soft.  Add 7 1/2 cups warmed sugar over low heat and stir until well mixed.  Increase the heat and boil rapidly without stirring for 15 minutes or until it reaches setting point.  Candy thermometer should read 220 degrees.  Skim off froth, cool slightly then pour into sterilized jars and water bath process them.  I don't think my jam using this recipe cooked quite long enough, it turned out a little bit runny, but it tasted fabulous and I can appreciate that this recipe contained far less sugar than most of the others.

One thing to note about strawberry jams: if berries aren't completely crushed the air pockets inside them will cause them to float to the surface of your jam and this can make them discolor leaving you with unappealing brown berries at the top of the jar.  Crush them well to prevent this.

Looking for a strawberry rhubarb pie recipe (since I have no rhubarb yet I have never made one) I found this site and was amused by the author, plus it links to the recipe she used.

 You can also make up these pies into single serving pie-in-a-jar, for days when you have no one to share with.  A recipe for this can be found at Adventures in Sustainability and is usable for any fruit pie.  Be sure to tell her who sent you. ;)

So there you have it, some easy and some not-so-easy ways to deal with excess strawberries.  If they survive long enough to be "excess".

Butterfly Bush Changes

When my family first moved into our home one of the first things I planted was two butterfly bushes next to the back porch.  The bushes were on the south side and during the heat of summer blocked the sun from the porch area; they also blocked my view of my neighbors on the other side of the empty lot, and the one across the street who enjoys smoking outside early in the morning during the summer... so early that he generally hasn't put on a shirt yet.  Since I too enjoy my morning coffee and cigarette on the porch in the summertime, but do not enjoy the view of him, the butterfly bushes were a welcome addition to my yard.

Sadly, a year later butterfly bushes were deemed noxious weeds in the state of Oregon.  They were completely removed from all nurseries and if you live in an area in which they are considered a problem, you should not propagate them and remove all the seed heads at the end of summer to prevent their spread.  I love my butterfly bushes, partly because they are so easy to grow, which of course is how they became classified as noxious weeds to start with.  Luckily, they look pretty shabby when the flowers die off anyway, so deadheading them isn't an issue.  Each fall I take my shears out and slice off everything above the porch rail, then double check that no flower heads are left below that line.  They grow back beautifully every spring and attract a multitude of beneficials to my yard.

This post isn't about the bushes however, it's about the bugs.  After nearly four years living here my bushes have gone through three summers and I have noticed the changes in visitors to them over those three years.

The first year they were bombarded by little brown skipper butterflies, painted ladies, and swallowtails.  Obviously this was what I had planted them for, butterflies!  The weather that year was normal for western Oregon, warm wet Spring followed by a hot dry summer.

The second year there were dozens and dozens of hummingbirds, piles of carpenter and bumble bees, a few honeybees.  But almost no butterflies at all.  The only ones I did see were a few swallowtails.  That year the spring stayed cold much longer, and even summer was fairly cool.  Everyone complained that their tomatoes wouldn't ripen.

The third year was similar to the second, no skippers, no painted ladies.  Even fewer swallowtails.  Plenty of hummingbirds and bees.  There did seem to be a shift from the carpenter and bumble bees to more honeybees though.  Again that year the Spring cold stayed on long after it should have, I still had snap peas producing by the pound in July.  The summer was warmer than before, tomatoes ripened on time.

I am very curious about the shift in visitors to the bushes.  The butterfly bushes themselves have done great throughout.  I did water them daily the first year since they hadn't established a deep root system yet, I suppose the moisture level of the bushes may have attracted more butterflies.  I would be very interested to discover what is causing the change in bugs and birds each year.  Is it the weather? Or maybe something completely unexpected like a nearby field being sprayed or mowed and killing the butterflies before they hatch?  But if so, then why did I get so few bees the first year?

I will keep watching and see if I can work out some pattern in the next few seasons.

Mid-Winter Blues

Posting is slowing down as my patience with the cold and dreary weather is fading.  The one week of sun at the beginning of the month got me excited to start work on the garden, which is good since it gave me a head start on cleaning up, but it left me unsatisfied and even more lackluster about the next few weeks.  It is so unpleasant outside I can't even work up any interest in spreading my last few bags of bark mulch.

I did, however, finally settle on the type of plant to put in front of the house.  I selected a dwarf Bing cherry tree.  Now I just have to double check that there aren't any power lines running beneath my planting spot and wait for a day when it'll be nice enough to dig a hole.

More on that later, I will have a post including pictures showing the tree and how to plant it!

A Bit About Bugs

While doing some weeding of the garden beds in preparation for my first spring plantings I came across some bugs (well grubs) of an unknown type.  By the way, this is a great time to pull up any dandelions, dock and other taproot weeds since the soil is still very soft and moist; it's more likely you will get the entire root out rather than have it break off and re-sprout.  The grubs I found were gray or dirty white with dark heads, I also found a green grub or caterpillar that was hanging around in the weeds.  I have no idea what they are, after some internet investigations the best answer I could find was cutworms.  Since I'm not certain of this I tossed them over the fence into the empty lot.  If they are harmful at least they are out of the garden, if not, I wish them the best in their new home.
I am considering picking up some beneficial nematodes to help manage soil dwelling pests.  One reason for this is that I spotted two cucumber beetles at the end of last summer, bright beautiful little green ladybug-like beetles with 12 black spots.  While they are very pretty, these beetles are a real problem in the garden.  They eat just about any vegetable they can get to, then lay eggs in the soil, when larva hatch they too will feast on vegetables and they spread bacterial wilt and squash mosaic virus.

Spotted cucumber beetle

Cucumber beetles also have a striped species that looks similar but the spots are instead stripes that run from the head to the rear.  These guys are a real danger to a garden.  Unfortunately they are also a challenge to be rid of.  Parasitic wasps can be helpful, if you don't know how to get these, try planting flowers that will attract them to the garden.  Tiny nectar-filled flowers such as thyme, savory, dill, cilantro, parsley, yarrow, candytuft, verbena, sweet allysum and goldenrod.  If you spot caterpillars or other pest bugs with tiny white sacs attached to them leave them alone!  The sacs are the cocoons of parasitic wasps and the pests will die when they emerge, spawning a new generation of pest killers.  Another cucumber beetle predator is the soldier bug, "leather"-backed firefly-like bugs that can eat up to 100 bugs a day.  Soldier beetles are attracted to pollen and nectar filled flowers and particularly like hydrangea, goldenrod and milkweed.  Tachinid flies are also effective at managing beetle populations, and are another type of parasitoid.  Tachinids are not as preferential as other biological controls and will just as likely parasitize butterfly caterpillars.  Having a large garden variety will help to attract these pest managers.

Beneficial nematodes are microscopic roundworms that live in soil and prey on soil dwelling insects.  They are effective controls of fleas, ants, termites, roaches, flies, grubs; yet they are harmless to humans, pets, and our soil-dwelling friends the earthworms.  You can try to attract nematodes to the garden by adding plenty of compost and having rich organic soil, but this is a grab bag; you could just as easily attract pest nematodes.  It may be wiser to purchase a small package of beneficial nematodes to spread through your garden instead.

Since I live in a mobile home park that was built over an orchard in the 60s, I suspect this area was heavily treated with pesticides in the past and the likelihood of it supporting its own nematode population is fairly slim.  So I will most likely purchase them from a supplier and sow them in and around my garden and yard.  Ants are a major issue in our area, and I imagine if we had a natural nematode population that would not be the case. 

I also plan to sow a package of "Beneficial Bug Mix" flowers in the empty lot next door.  My garden lacks space to add a lot of these plants but I can at least use them to attract beneficials to the vicinity of the garden itself. 
If you plan to attract beneficials to your garden to help with pest management, you should keep a few things in mind:

-Don't spray! Insecticides will kill your beneficials, birds that eat pests, and the pests.  Let the birds and bugs do their jobs and handle the pests for you.

-Identify before you destroy.  It does you no good to attract ladybugs to your garden and then kill their nymphs because you thought they were pests.  Take time to identify bugs, if you can't then move them out of the garden and hope for the best.

-Provide what they need.  Food and shelter in the form of flowering plants, and water.  Your bugs need to drink too.

-Putting out a suet block or feeder of quality untreated bird seed will attract a variety of birds to your garden, many of which also eat pests.  You may find you have a lot of millet to pull up later in the year though.  You can also grow sunflowers and save the seed each year to offer the birds.

The garden is an environment all its own, keeping a balance between flowers and food, pests and beneficials will allow it to transform into its own natural environment that maintains its own balance rather than needing constant interventions. 

Friday, February 17, 2012

Educated Organics

Every garden is individual, I understand that.  I also understand that for my generation and every generation before it back to the 1940s using chemicals in the garden, on the farm, or in the yard was considered the norm.  I cannot recommend enough that people read Michael Pollan's book The Omnivore's Dilemma, and pay close attention to the worldwide news regarding chemical agriculture.  I also cannot stress enough how important it is to grow a clean, safe garden.  Keep it organic, whether or not you grow actual food in your garden, there is no reason to use dangerous chemicals to keep healthy plants.

I started out as a conventional gardener, and guess what? I still killed plants.  Now I keep my garden organic, and yes, I kill plants.  But I find I actually kill fewer plants because instead of spraying them with pesticide I take the time to research and learn about the plants I grow.  If a blueberry bush is fading I don't pump it full of chemical fertilizers, now I've learned that a little apple cider vinegar, or coffee grounds may be all it needs to come back strong.  Organic gardening requires that a gardener be knowledgeable about their plants, that the gardener pay attention to plants, climate, pests, watering.  No, it's not as easy.  Yes, I will forgive you if you still prefer conventional gardening; primarily because a home gardener uses far fewer toxic chemicals than a commercial farmer.  I would rather you grow your own veggies with a little Roundup than buy veggies shipped from lord-knows-where that have been sprayed over and over just to ensure they will be perfect for market.  I'd like to convince you not to though!

But I think it's important that every gardener really understand what the repercussions of these sprays are.  Commercial fertilizers can scorch plants, for instance, something that no amount of compost or compost tea will do.

Suppliers of these products will spend any amount of money and are quite willing to straight-out lie about the dangers of their products and the problems they cause.  Because of this it is very hard to link them directly and scientifically to those problems.  If the pollution created were likened to an oil spill (the Gulf Coast oil spill last year let loose 12.5 million gallons a day into the Gulf of Mexico) it would strike far more of a chord with the average person.  American farmers use 1.5 billion pounds of pesticides each year, that's equivalent to 1500 million pounds a year, year after year after year.  Or one third as many pounds as gallons of oil in the Gulf Oil Spill every day.  Why don't we hear more people yelling about this?  Why isn't there government mandated cleanup of pesticide pollution? And why aren't the pesticide companies held accountable for the damage their products do?  Because they scam us into believing that they're safe.

Meanwhile, agricultural pollution has been connected with birth defects, cancer, Parkinson's disease, and other human health risks; with wildlife destruction, dead spots in the seas, mass honeybee die offs and Colony Collapse Disorder; millions of bird deaths; soil destruction, water and air pollution, making the air you breathe, water you drink and soil you grow on unfit to sustain life.  Chemical based agriculture depletes the soil, meaning the plants we eat that are grown this way have less nutrition, the animals we eat that consume chemically grown feed have less nutritional value.  They are more sickly and are then treated with medicines and chemicals to improve their health and growth, which are in turn passed into our bodies when we eat a burger or chicken nugget.  It also increases the likelihood of new super weeds and super bugs developing that will be immune to these chemical treatments.  Certain crops are bred specifically for this type of agriculture such as Roundup Ready crops, and weak varietals that show well in stores, or have good shipping and storage features.  This diminishes the variety of available genetic material with which to develop crops that are naturally adapted to each climate and instead are completely dependent on more sprays to keep them healthy. 

Using chemicals in a garden is lazy, uninformed, and creates a downward spiral that leaves us more and more dependent on chemical companies and less able to do for ourselves.

Just to drive this concept home, here is a link to an article written about my home:  Downwind: Big Ag at Your Door, this article talks about my own hometown of Blachly, Oregon.

I can't tell readers enough about why organic is the only way to grow, and I truly hope that this blog helps to educate readers and interest them in organics and becoming knowledgeable about their plants.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Smart Seed Sorting

I know this is kind of out of order, but I realized today as I was daydreaming about seed starting that I never sorted through my seed order when it arrived.

I generally like to sort through all of my seeds and organize them by planting time.  Cool weather crops (those that will sprout below 60 degrees) and long season crops (slow growers like onions) get put in the early start pile.  This pile includes cool crops like cabbage, kale, broccoli, lettuce, spinach, Swiss chard, cauliflower; long season crops like onion, garlic, artichoke, celery, and leeks.  These will be started inside a few weeks before last frost date, this pile should also only include crops that are okay with transplanting.

Cold Season- Indoor Start seeds laid out for organizing
For crops that are early but don't care for transplanting I will direct sow as soon as the weather allows, these go in a separate "direct sow - cool" pile.  Peas are an example of cool direct sow plants, it is a waste of space to start them indoors since they will sprout in soil as cold as 40 degrees and grow fairly fast. 

The next pile will be hot weather plants that need to be started inside, anything that requires hotter than 60 degrees to germinate goes in this pile.  Tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, basil, cucumbers, melons, and winter or summer squashes all fit in this category.  They will be started indoors in early May and transplanted to the garden by the first week of June.

There are a few plants that prefer hot weather but don't transplant well, corn, beans, and carrots are the most common of these.  They should be bundled separately and planted when the hot weather transplants go out, or a bit earlier if you're willing to keep them protected.

Hot Season- Indoor start seeds
I tie up each of these piles with a rubber band and a scrap of paper for a label, or if you find you have too many seeds for rubber bands you can put them in paper bags instead.  This helps me to avoid missing a plant date for something if I'm not paying attention.  I can just grab the pile of seeds I am ready to plant and go.  It really helps to avoid finding out in June that I completely forgot to get my artichokes started early enough.

Are We There Yet? Seed Starting

It's early February and while it's warm out right now, it's still a little too early for seed starting.  Last frost here in the Willamette Valley is the first week or two of April.  From my own experience and the particulars of my garden I will put out my coolest weather plants in late March.  I have plastic sheeting to cover the plants if there is a late frost expected, and my beds are all raised so the soil tends to warm up faster than in-ground beds. 

Far more of an issue in my garden is that the fence along the back of each bed is south facing.  Right now we can have a beautiful sunny day and my beds are completely shaded, as well as several feet past them onto the patio.  The fronts of the beds won't see direct sunlight until mid-March, and the backs won't until late April.  I can start seeds indoors though and put them out in mid- to late March.  The only issue with this is trying to find a balance between when to plant versus how large the plants will get by the time they can be moved outdoors.  My small greenhouse will keep them safe a little longer, but they will become spindly and weak quickly and exposed to very high temperatures in the greenhouse when the sun is out.  The little standing shelf style of  greenhouse is useful for the transition between indoor growing and outdoor growing, but it really doesn't have any temperature controls and heats up very fast.

I generally figure about 10-20 days of indoor growth.  The first ten days are just to allow for sprouting, the next ten are to allow at least one but preferably two or even 4 sets of leaves to develop before transplant time.  Most cool weather plants shouldn't have trouble with this; others, such as celery, need much longer to develop.

I also don't have any south facing windows or any grow lights currently, so if I plant seeds too early they will get lanky searching for light long before it's warm enough for them outside.  The only windows in my house that face south are in my kids' bedrooms, and that's just not a practical place for plants to be. 

My best bet for starting brassicas, lettuces, spinaches, and other cool weather crops is to plant them around the last week of February to the first week of March, then move them to the greenhouse in mid-March and wait for the weather to clear for transplanting.  This is one of the reasons for keeping notes on your garden.  Last year I started things inside the first week of March, then directly transplanted them at the end of March because I didn't have the greenhouse yet.  They were very spindly after a month in the house, and i was forced to put them directly in the ground a little too early because the greenhouse was tipped over in a Spring storm.  I learned to weigh it down with a cinder block to prevent that happening again!  The plants struggled outside until the sun finally started to reach the garden beds in April, they did well after that though. 

This year I think I can get a head start by starting just as early indoors, then moving things to the greenhouse, and holding off to transplant until April.

One thing I do plan to change is the size of pots I will be starting seeds in.  Last year I used the tiny 2" peat pots from a seed starting kit.  This year I will be starting seeds in 4" pots, this will save me from having to transplant them before they outgrow the 2" ones.  Since I'm not running a nursery where seed starting space is limited it makes more sense to me to save myself the step of switching up to bigger pots.

You can start seeds in anything, peat pots, plastic pots, egg cartons, or paper pots.  Anything that is roughly the right size and will hold dirt and water, just make sure it has some drainage holes in the bottom.  You will also need a tray of some kind to catch water runoff; plastic trays from seed starting kits are reusable for this year after year, cookie sheets with sides work too, or a mesh screen over a bucket even.  My dad found a collection of old school lunch trays at a garage sale many years ago that work great for all sorts of things, including seed starting trays.

My brother found a very cheap solution for pots as well, that also protects against transplant shock.  Newspaper pots! Fold newspaper origami-style into a pot shape, plant your seeds, watch them grow, then plant the whole pot into the garden.  Here is an excellent video showing how to make these.  If your origami skills are lacking you can also try this method.

So you have a tray, and pots, now you just need some dirt.  The one thing to be careful of for seed starting is not to use old, used dirt from the garden.  Normal garden soil is full of weed seeds, fungus spores, insect eggs, etc. that you just don't want in the pots with your seeds.  You should use potting soil, seed starting soil, or if you prefer a less expensive option you can use peat moss and give it an occasional dose of compost tea once the seeds sprout.  Peat moss can be bought for a few dollars a cubic foot, which is more than enough to start all the seeds you need.  It retains water well so won't dry out between waterings and is soft and loose, allowing roots to spread out and grow better.  Peat moss doesn't have any plant nutritional value though, it's like the potato chip of soils.  Spritzing your starts with compost tea once a week will help supply the nutrients they need to grow healthy in a peat soil, and prevent them from damping off before they are transplanted. 

Plant your seeds, smaller things like spinach can be planted 2 or 3 to a pot, larger plants should be in separate pots.  Label each pot, see tip below.  Find a sunny (or somewhat sunny) spot in the house where seedlings will be safe from kids and pets (my cat ate my first lettuce plantings last year).  Cover trays with plastic wrap, or the plastic domes that come with seed starting kits to help retain moisture and heat.  Remove the plastic covers once the seeds have sprouted to prevent mold though!  And wait for your sprouts to come up.

Make sure to note what day they were planted and what day each type of seed sprouts.  If you have sprouts of everything but lettuce after 10 days, you should probably plant new lettuce because it should have been the first thing to sprout.  Again, this is when taking notes is really useful.

Tip: Don't write labels on the paper pots, they will smudge after watering.  Instead, you can use plastic knives from party packs of plastic silverware (because you always end up with leftover knives, yet need more forks and spoons) and a permanent marker.  These work great; they are sturdy, don't smudge, and it's a nice way to reuse something that would otherwise just keep stockpiling in your cabinets.  Another option that I found at Backyard Homesteader's YouTube Channel is using window blinds as plant tags, plastic blinds can be found for a two to three dollars at most stores that sell housewares, then cut up into small tags to label plants with.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Ask and Thou Shalt Receive

Please feel free to make any suggestions on topics to cover in the comments (which I believe I have finally gotten fixed).  I do plan to cover as much as possible in culture, recipes, and general gardening, but if readers have suggestions of what they'd like to see I'd be happy to work on those first.  Also, any questions regarding particular topics will be responded to as fast as possible, I would love to have reader input and am happy to help with any questions or concerns.  Even if that means referring you to another website for guidance.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Make a Note

Well, the beautiful weather has gone back to a moist gray chill.  I suppose I will be back in the house for another week or two.  That's okay though, since I wanted to bring up the topic of notes.

Taking notes on your garden seems like a waste of time, but in reality it is rather hard to remember the date and conditions of planting a specific seed for a year or more.  As your garden gains more plant varieties and you start to push the limits of what you know, it's important to write these things down so that next year as you select tomato seeds you can refer back and remember that Brandywines were good producers, but Legend struggled in the bed it was in.  You can make a list of what seed you have at the end of summer, so your new order in Spring doesn't accidentally double up.  You can look back at some misconceptions you had and remind yourself not to do those things again.

I tend to get so excited about gardening by springtime that I put plants into the ground too early, or start them in the house too early and have sad spindly plants by the time the weather has warmed enough for them to go outside.  I have to make a note to remind myself that curcubits don't actually like the weather in Oregon in May, they get too cold and wet and end up with mildew issues.  If I use this information next year I'm more likely to hold off until June.  I also keep notes on what seeds were planted inside, outside, and at different times; what day they were ready for harvest; what sprouted well and what didn't; and what the weather was like.

Taking notes is like slowly building up a Farmer's Almanac that is based on your specific location, crops, and experiences.  You may plant rhubarb this year, have it die, then 6 or 7 years down the road think, "Oh, I should plant some rhubarb, I like rhubarb!" but not remember the circumstances that led to its death the last time and end up having the same thing happen again.

Note taking doesn't have to be really intensive, if you're a journaler by nature keep a little leather bound journal next to your garden gloves, or keep a cheap spiral bound notebook if you prefer.  If you're a blogger, type it all out in a blog.  I am lucky to have an iPhone that I keep on me nearly always, I use the Notes app to type in notes on what day it is, what the weather has been like, what seeds/plants are growing and how they fare, and this year I will add to that what sort of harvest I see from each.  I almost prefer to do a voice-to-text note taking; I am not a skilled typist and even less so on the iPhone keyboard, it's tedious to take notes that way but it's always at hand and is durable.  Plus I back my notes up with Dropbox so if my phone is lost or damaged I will have a backup copy safe and sound.
Sample of notes in the Notes app.

Note Dos and Don'ts:

-Do date your entries!
-Don't write a book, this is just some notes not a novel.
-Do list plant varieties as well as types, and anything special about them.  Indigo Rose (determinate, blue, slicer, hybrid) tomato produced 3lbs. by July 8th.  Oregon Spring (determinate, slicer, hybrid) produced 5lbs by July 8th, first tomato of the year ready on June 12th!
-Don't keep notebook in your bookshelf in the office or library.  Keep it close to hand to ensure you will keep it up to date.
-Do keep up with note taking throughout the year.  How much harvest and how long your preserved harvest lasts will be helpful in deciding how much to plant next time.  Jan. 31st 2012, still have 14 jars strawberry jam, and 20 jars freezer jam; ran out of frozen strawberries.  40 jams is too many, freeze more whole berries next time. 
-Don't forget to keep track of trials on new things! April 2nd, 2012 laid pennies around two cabbages to test for slug repellent, check back in two weeks.  April 16th, 2012 cabbages surrounded in pennies show less slug damage than others, will continue with penny use.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Eggs Florentine and Other Spinach Culture

Let's talk green.  Spinach, that is.  Spinach is an early spring crop,  it prefers cooler weather and will bolt when it gets too hot, you can also plant it in the Fall but if you aren't careful about timing it may still bolt.  The earliest record of the spinach plant is from China AD 647.  Since then it has been used throughout China, India, the Middle East, and was introduced to the Italians in the 9th century.  Native of Florence, Italy, Catherine de Medici was a huge fan of spinach and insisted it be served with every meal; this is why "Florentine" is the label attributed to foods with spinach added.  (BTW, all my spinach trivia is via Wikipedia's "spinach" entry)

Spinach plant, this is a much healthier plant than mine were.

Like many leafy greens spinach is said to have high antioxidant levels, it is a great source of Vitamins A, C, E, K, and the B complex vitamins.  It is also high in many minerals, and is considered to be a rich source of iron. Storage of spinach for more than a few days can destroy its nutritional value though, which is one reason to grow it yourself; fresh from the ground it is packed with vitamins and minerals.  Spinach is also one of the 12 most pesticide-laden produce products, so even if you don't grow your own organically you should always be sure to buy it organic.

Spinach comes in three primary types: Savoy, with dark green crinkly or curly leaves; Flat or Smooth, with broad smooth leaves that are easier to clean; and Semi-savoy, with less crinkled leaves this variety is a bit easier to clean than a standard savoy. 

New Zealand Spinach is actually not even closely related to spinach, it was given the name because of it's resemblance to spinach.  New Zealand Spinach leaves are eaten and have a similar taste and texture to spinach.  Unlike normal spinach it is comfortable growing in hotter climates, and is nearly untouched by slugs and snails.  If, like me, you find you lose more spinach to the slugs or bolting than you get on your plate, then New Zealand Spinach might be worth a try in your garden.

Start your spinach seeds in the ground several weeks before the last frost date, 3 to 5 weeks is acceptable.  In my garden it's pointless to start spinach this early since my garden beds don't see sunlight until April, I start spinach at the end of March.  It takes about 7 weeks to reach full size, but can be harvested a few leaves at a time after the first 4 weeks or so, when the leaves are large enough to be worth the trouble to harvest.  According to SFG standards spinach can be planted as close as 9 plants per square foot. 

At my house, early Spring is slug season so I rarely see much spinach at all.  In fact, I likely won't even be planting it this year since I lose so much to the slugs and most of the rest to bolting.  For those who want to plant it be sure to protect it from slugs, and if needed shade it from the heat to prevent bolting.  Some tips for doing this can be found in my posts "Slugs and Snails and Puppy Dog Tails" and "Bolting Is Bogus".

Since spinach is so very happy to bolt like crazy, make sure to plant open pollinated varieties and let them go to seed when they bolt.  You can essentially have free spinach seed for life!  Last year my spinach bolted the first week of June, set flowers that attracted pollinators to the garden, went to seed, and dropped the seed by early August.  Then that dropped seed sprouted just as the weather began to cool, and a second crop popped up for fall.  Not a bad system when you think about it.

As a final note, while spinach can be a bit touchy, and is appealing to certain slimy pests; it also grows quickly, is packed with nutrition, and is very versatile in cooking.  Give it a shot, and enjoy.

"I'm strong to the finish, cuz I eats my spinach!"--Popeye the Sailor Man

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Thinking on Trees

The few days of beautiful February weather got me kicked off to a good start on my yard work, which means I haven't had as much time to sit around the house and blog.

Yesterday I got the pleasure of raking the yard and laying down bark mulch, as it turns out 4 cubic feet of bark doesn't come anywhere near what I will actually need to finish the yard around our patio.  I was surprised at just how little it did cover, today I will go back to the store and get another 6 bags (since that's likely all my car can carry at once) and see how much farther it gets me.

In the meantime I am on a mission to discover what would be the best plant to put in the front of my house, where it is bare and gets no shade at all in the summer from about 2 pm to sunset.  If I can come up with something attractive with flowers or fruits that will shade the house it could make a big difference in our cooling bill during the summer heat, and provide food or bouquets or at the least a nice centerpiece to the house.  I have considered a lilac, but am thinking that it may be too slim to make much difference in shade.  I've also considered trellising grapes, wisteria, or clematis, but again I am not sure they would get large enough to provide much shade.  An evergreen could make a statement, and won't make a big mess like deciduous or fruit trees, but it also won't make a floral show in spring or fruits later in the year.  The other option that came to mind was a cherry tree, or other fruit tree that wouldn't require cross-pollination.  I'd have flowers, fruits, a mess to clean up, and a shade tree large and branching enough to make a difference.
This time of year the house is shaded, but by summer there will be nothing to keep it cool.

The annuals are not nearly so difficult to decide on since they change each year, but a tree is a big deal.  It will be there for years, and probably won't produce much for several years after planting, I need to be absolutely certain before selecting a tree to put into the yard.

When you are considering a semi-permanent to permanent change to your landscape here are some things to keep in mind:

-How big will it get?
-How much maintenance will it require?
-Will it drop fruits or leaves that need cleanup each year and do you want to take on the extra work?
-Will the planting location make a difference in other things? Will it shade the house, or garden?  Could the roots grow too large and damage sidewalks, driveways, or water pipes?
-What are you trying to gain from the planting? Shade, flowers, food, etc.
-If it is a fruit tree, will you need more than one for pollination?
-Will you move before you can reap the benefits of the plant? If you expect to move in 3-5 years it doesn't make much sense to plant a tree that won't offer much shade for 10 years.
-If you select for appearance, be sure to take the time to find out if your tree or shrub is native, and if it has many known pests or diseases.  If you select something for its health to begin with, you will have fewer worries later on.

The Arbor Day Foundation can be a great resource for learning about trees, and even offers 10 free trees selected for your area as a membership incentive (they also offer member discounts for the purchase of trees). This can be a great way to get some trees started in a larger landscape, or you can ask friends or neighbors if they'd be interested in sharing your 10 trees.  The small donation/membership cost is worth it if you are planning to add trees to your yard, but aren't necessarily seeking specific types.  When I joined a few years ago it was primarily just to make a donation to what I felt was a worthy group, I ended up sending my free trees to my nephew who has several acres and raises fowl as well as a garden, he made good use of the trees which I didn't really have the space for at the time.

I am definitely leaning toward a cherry tree, however there is some debate over what type; my daughter likes sweet cherries, while I prefer to preserve pie cherries. There are combination trees available, but I have never seen one that did as well as separate sweet and sour trees.  Next stop, check with the local nursery on good selections for our area, and do a little research on planting a new fruit tree.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Battle Blackberry

As I went out this morning to take my own advice and get an early start on spring cleanup in the yard, I tidied up the front and side yards, then closed my eyes and held my breath before glimpsing into the dark, creepy back yard.  Normally when I refer to my back yard I mean the side yard with the garden and patio.  Primarily because I like to pretend that the muddy, weedy space at the actual rear of my home does not exist.Which is part of the reason it is in its current state.  Full of old playground equipment from the previous tenants, random junk that broke and couldn't be fit in the trash can, some sort of annual weed that has set up a colony and breeding program, and huge masses of blackberries.  Well, they aren't THAT huge actually, it's only a 24x12 foot yard.  When we first moved in this yard was in decent, if not particularly hospitable condition.  The swing set worked and the trampoline was fun, but they took up a lot of space and the yard was surrounded on two sides with sheds, one side with a fence, and the other side with the house.  It got light for a few hours in the morning and became a murky cave after that point.  Two years ago the neighbors behind us removed a large birch tree that was dying; the birch had shaded the back yard so I was happy to have it gone.  As it turned out though, the birch had also shaded and restrained a small patch of blackberry canes underneath it too.  Once the tree was removed the blackberries had a heyday, growing up over the fence and landing in my back yard where they immediately sprouted suckers and new roots. 

Since I don't spend much time back there other than to toss scraps in the compost pile, I didn't really notice this until it was too late.  By then I had a 24x12 blackberry patch filling every space in and around the playground, crawling behind both sheds, and working it's way up over the bean trellis into my garden area. 

I have cut them back a few times to prevent them eating my house, but always during the growing season when they will quickly just sprout two more heads for every one that is cut, like a hydra.  Today I was ahead of them, and it made me think that as a garden blogger it was imperative that I share my intimate knowledge of blackberries with readers.  Now that my shed has been unburdened of blackberry canes I am free to take a break to write.

Blackberries are cane plants, they grow from seed, or rhizomes, or underground runners, or above ground runners; pretty much they can grow from anything.  They are thorny, pernicious weeds in most areas.  Mind you, when I am talking about blackberry as a weed I am referring to Himalayan blackberry, there are many other varieties of blackberry that are far less invasive and make delicious jams and pies too. 

The only way to beat blackberries is to kill, kill, kill year after year.  For large patches it's sometimes easiest to clear a small area each year and work it down until there is nothing left.  If you can borrow, or already own a goat, they are the blackberry's natural nemesis and will eat each and every cane until nothing is left if given the opportunity.  I think the very best way to handle blackberry destruction is to borrow a goat each spring to destroy new shoots until the shoots finally give up and stay dead.  My dad's neighbors put their goats out near a huge patch of blackberries on their property and a few months later were rewarded with a mobile home!  The house had been buried in blackberry canes for so long no one even knew it was there until the goats ate their way around it.

Not everyone has the goat option though, if you don't you'd better don your hat, leather gloves, sturdy pants, boots, and long sleeved shirt.  This is part of the reason to cut them back early in the year, it's still cool enough to keep yourself completely covered.  Cut down canes with a machete, or loppers, or pruning shears.  Most lawn weed whackers will just bend thicker canes and not actually cut them.  Cut down to the ground!  Rake up all the debris from your murderous rampage, then throw it out with the trash or in a yard debris bin.  Do not compost blackberries: they may grow back in your compost, seeds may sprout in the compost or garden beds where it is used, and dropped thorns might still be there when you add the compost to your garden. Ouch!

Once the canes are cut to the ground and the cuttings have been disposed of you should dig up as many root balls as you can.  They can grow back from even the smallest root, but if you can remove some of the largest ones you will have a head start, by leaving only small roots which are not well-stocked with food. This is another reason to kill blackberries early in the year, the ground is still soft and moist which makes root removal much easier.  If you keep all new shoots cut to the ground as soon as they pop up these smaller roots will eventually die, since they have no leaves from which to absorb sunlight, larger roots have much more stored nutrition and will live longer.  At this point you simply have to maintain the status quo, despite the blackberry's attempts to regrow.  Cut new shoots during the spring and summer season, in the fall lay down a VERY heavy mulch layer, next spring you can mow or weed whack new shoots if they are small enough.  Continue this way until you finally stop seeing any growth, but pay attention, check back every few weeks to ensure they really aren't coming back.  I also don't recommend doing any permanent landscaping in the area until you are certain there will be no regrowth, it's awfully hard to pull blackberries out of retaining walls and garden borders.  This may take a few years but eventually you can win the battle, if not the war.

Spring Cleaning

February and early March are the time of year to do your yard and garden cleanup.  It's past the worst weather, you get a few nice sunny but cool days to enjoy the outdoors, and best of all the weeds haven't started growing yet.  Once the weather gets warm weeds will start their Spring growth with abundance.  This time of year is when you scour your yard for any trash blown in during winter storms, or left next to the shed last summer when you didn't have time to take it to the dump.  Get these things cleaned up, turn over your compost (especially if you're like me and rarely remember to turn it), pull out weeds in paths and beds while the soil is still damp and soft.  If you have landscape work to do, like laying new paths or putting in new beds, or decorative mulching this is also a great time to do those things.  Getting a head start on these chores means not having to worry about them when it's actually time to plant.  It also means getting ahead of the weeds, so you don't have to weed much before laying paths or mulch.  You can also do a quick trim of trees now, to save yourself the trouble of trying to do it when they're in full leaf or blossom.  For fruit trees this will improve your harvest, for other trees it just helps them to keep a neat appearance, and may remove diseased or broken limbs that could cause issues later.

This is the time of year to get the yard tidy and ready for the growing season.
Start at one end of your yard and work your way around the house getting everything in the best possible shape before the growing season begins.  Remove dead plant matter, maybe wash your windows and power wash the house; clean off the roof and gutters too.  Once all of this is done you will be in great shape to enjoy your yard all spring and summer, and you'll be able to plant, grow, and harvest without wishing you had washed off the siding before planting your new tea roses right in front of it.

This year I will be replacing the pebbles in the path around our house, they have gotten very thin and weeds overwhelm the path rather quickly.  Also the landing below the front porch steps needs new gravel, it has sunk a bit and now becomes a lake when it rains heavily, and grows weeds the rest of the year.  I also plan to bark mulch the open areas around my garden beds, and lay a few stepping stone paths to the shed and fountain there.  Lastly, if my budget allows for it (which it may not since I'm also remodeling my kitchen right now) I plan to rake out the lava rock around the front lawn and replace it with bark mulch, and lay in a pebbled path to the shed on the front side so my husband won't complain about getting his motorcycle through the mud to the shed anymore.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Strawberries, the Ultimate Food Crop

Strawberries are perennial plants that reproduce primarily by runners.  Each year they shoot out a stalk, called a runner, that touches the dirt and begins to grow the roots and leaves of a new plant.  This type of reproduction means that a small planting of strawberries can expand into a large strawberry patch in just a few years.  Such simple reproduction also means that strawberry plants tend to be one of the least expensive fruits to purchase and grow.  In May of 2009 I bought a dozen bare root strawberry plants for $5, by 2011 I had a 10 foot by 2 foot bed filled with over forty plants that produced 2-6 cups of berries every other day from June to mid-July.

Once established a strawberry patch can be an excellent producer of these tasty berries.  They are very hardy plants that don't take a lot of care.  In fact, my patch of berries doesn't generally receive any water between the first week of June and last of August.  Summers here are very dry, though not generally very hot.  If they looked thirsty I would water them, but haven't needed to since the spring they were planted.  My strawberries are planted in a space that was mulched with red lava rock, they seem to do well with the rock as a mulch to keep out weeds and shade their roots.  Once a year, in early spring, I clean out all of the dead leaves and remove any sickly looking plants.  The dead and dying plant matter can harbor molds, fungi, and slugs, so I make sure to keep the ground around the plants clean.  I also slug bait just as the first blossoms come in to keep the slugs in check until harvest is over.  Supposedly a strawberry bed should be dug up and a new one planted every 4 years or so, since my bed is only 3 years old I haven't yet done that.  I may leave it in place until I actually see a decline in the health of the plants or fruits.  Since I remove all the dying plants and let any new runners (so long as they stay in the bed) grow, my strawberry plants are constantly being renewed.  I am not sure if the soil's fertility will be affected though, and that may be the only reason to move the strawberry patch in the future.
One day's harvest, notice only some of the berries are fully ripe.

One thing I have learned about growing strawberries is that you actually should pick the berries the day before they are perfect.  I have found that if I leave a not-quite-ripe berry on the plant and come back the next morning it will be perfectly ripe... and have a HUGE hole through it where a slug beat me to the harvest.  I don't know how, but the slugs have a nose for when a berry has reached its peak of perfection and I just can't seem to beat them.  Instead I pick the berries just less than ripe, in the end this serves me well since a perfectly ripe berry will turn to sweet mush after being frozen.  Also strawberry jam made with all-ripe berries is almost too sweet, less ripe berries tend to make a more flavorful and less sweet jam.  I'm not saying that I pick them while they're still green; they are red, but a light red rather than the darker rich red of a fully ripe berry.  Also, if berries have over-ripened, been chomped by something, or have mold on them; remove them and dispose of in compost.  Berries shouldn't be left on the plant to go bad, they will grow mold and that will spread to the new berries still forming.  Remove any damaged fruits as you do your harvesting and toss into a bucket for composting.
Strawberry patch viewed from the gate, they are slowly invading the empty lot next door.
The one downside to having your own strawberry patch is just how sick of picking strawberries you'll be before they are done each year.  My children are terrible strawberry pickers too, they miss any berries that aren't right on the edge, so it is up to me to pick every couple days or let the berries go to waste.  For the first week or two that's not so bad, but 6 weeks into it you may begin to wonder why you didn't plant them in beds 4 feet off the ground!  You also do have to be somewhat careful about planting strawberries right alongside your annuals.  They spread and could fill up an entire garden bed that was meant to hold tomatoes if you let them, to keep them in check, trim off any wandering runners once they develop a root and a few leaves.  Give these starts to a friend to start their own patch with.

In conclusion:
-Strawberries will spread, keep runners in check to avoid being overrun.
-Keep bed clean to avoid the most common issues with strawberries: slugs and molds.
-Slug bait and harvest early if slugs are a problem
-Mulch beds with something that won't biodegrade to protect roots and fruits without being shelter for pests; black plastic, pebbles, lava rock.
-Take a Tylenol and keep on picking because by next May you will really be wishing you'd frozen more of these fabulous fruits.