Thursday, May 14, 2015

My 2015 vegetable garden

I’ve been ignoring this blog in favor of doing garden planning, actual gardening, lawn mowing, and a host of other real-life activities. When the weather permits, I need to be doing garden and yard work, not writing blog posts. But a few days ago, as a prolonged period of rain ended, I picked up the blog’s thread once again to discuss the plan that evolved from the discussion in my previous post.

New tools: over the last several months I purchased some new tools. These are a sturdier reel mower that can mow zoysia and bermuda grass (so far it has worked well, but the real test is coming as these grasses green up); a jab planter I can use to plant larger seeds while standing up; a cutter mattock; a grub hoe; and a three-tooth cultivator. By now I have used all of them at least once and have been pleased with the performance of each. The grub hoe proved to be a fine tool to remove sod prior to planting trees and shrubs, much better than a hoe or a spade. Later this year I plan to use it to remove sod for creating new garden beds. I used the cutter mattock to remove a trip hazard, a short stump of a former peach tree. It was up to the task, not so heavy I couldn’t handle it (it has a three pound head instead of the usual five pounds) and long enough at 45 inches that I didn’t have to bend over excessively to do the work. I’ll also use it to chop corn and sunflower stalks before adding them to the compost pile. I planted pea seeds with the jab planter and will use it for corn, bean, and black-eyed pea seed planting later this summer. I can choose the depth and spacing for the kind of seed I am planting. Finally, I used the three tooth cultivator to incorporate compost and fertilizer into three of the beds I planted this spring, comparing it to digging them in with a shovel or with a broadfork as I did with the remaining beds. I’ll talk more about that below.

New procedures: the acquisition of the three tooth cultivator allowed me to develop the following general plan for preparation of each 100 square foot vegetable bed prior to planting, with the expectation that it would reduce preparation time and allow the compost and 2015 amendment mix to be incorporated a few inches deep, where plant roots could easily access it.   
    - Mow off any tall vegetation with the scythe, or hoe small vegetation if needed
    - If the soil is too dry for digging, water just enough to remedy that condition
    - Single-dig to about 1 foot with the shovel and roughly level with a garden rake
    - Scatter the 2015 complete organic fertilizer mix (COF) and three 5 gallon buckets of compost on top of the bed in a reasonably uniform manner
    - Using the cultivator, incorporate the compost and COF into the top three inches of soil
    - Using the bed rake, rake it smooth and draw the appropriate planting grid on it with row markers
    - Plant the bed according to the 2015 garden map and water.  
When I drew up that plan, I hadn’t factored in the rapidity of the growth of the rye cover crop, nor allowed it time to decompose before planting anything into it. By mid March, I realized that I’d need to dig under the cover crop on all the beds it occupied as soon as possible, before the rye grew too tall and while there was sufficient time for it to decompose before planting the spring crops. A friend of mine (thanks, Daniel!) helped me with this task, enabling me to get 10 beds dug before the end of the month. Three of those were planted to spring crops within a few weeks after being dug; for those, I used the cultivator to incorporate the compost and amendments. The cultivator worked better than older designs featuring a single row of tines with a 90 degree bend but it still required an hour or more to work the entire 100 square foot bed, not as much of a time saving versus digging as I had hoped. The photo at the top shows the bed with lettuces, bok choys, and broccoli plants visible that was planted this way. We’ll eat from the row of lettuce closest to the bottom edge this week.

Of the next three beds to be planted (two for potatoes and one for tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, tomatillos, ground cherries, and a few herbs), none had a rye cover crop and all had only scattered clumps of low-growing spring weeds on them. The easiest plan for the two beds to receive potatoes was to scatter the compost and amendments on the weedy bed, dig them and the weeds in with the shovel, and immediately plant the potato seed. That plan has worked well, as shown in the photo below. These potato plants were hilled up yesterday, after the photo was taken.

I dug the bed to receive the tomatoes and other crops shortly after planting the bed of potatoes so that the weeds would have some time to decompose, but did not add the compost or amendments at that time. Because of dry weather, very few weeds had appeared by the time I was ready to plant, allowing me to incorporate the compost and amendments with a broadfork just prior to planting. Steve Solomon, in his book Gardening When It Counts (GWIC), recommends incorporating the compost and amendments 12 inches deep, the depth afforded by use of the shovel or broadfork, compared to only three inches or so deep with the cultivator. That will prove especially beneficial for all the plants in these three beds, which grow large and deep-rooted.

The other seven beds, which had the rye cover crop dug into them several weeks ago, will be planted shortly. Because the rye crop should have decomposed by now and the weeds on these beds are very short, I will keep the weeds hoed off until time to plant each bed. Then I’ll scatter the compost and amendments, dig each with the shovel and roughly level with the bow rake to bury weeds, level and draw the row pattern using the bed rake and row markers, and plant.

For most of the beds I draw rows one foot apart across the short length of the bed (four feet) to form the basis of the planting grid. I press down on each row with a hoe handle as Solomon describes in GWIC in order to restore capillarity to the soil in the row before planting. If I’m planting seeds, I use a hand seed sower for small seeds or the jab planter for large seeds to place the seed into the pressed-down area. If I’m using the hand seed sower I sow thickly and will thin along the row as the plants grow. With the jab planter I can use its spacing device to place large seeds about the same distance apart. After placing the seeds, I cover them by hoeing some soil onto them and press down on the covered seeds with the flat side of the hoe. The carrots, parsnips, and beets sown this way have all come in well. For the parsnips, I also sowed in some radish seeds to mark the rows. That allowed me to find the row and avoid hoeing it when the parsnip seedlings still had only two leaves. I may use a different grid pattern for the popcorn seeds but I have not made a final decision on that as I write.

For plants, I space them according to the in-row and between-row spacings that I planned for this year, using the grid to help me put them in the right place. I will give most plants about the same amount of square footage as Solomon does in Column 2 of Figure 6.1 in GWIC (his semi-intensive spacing), but I will continue to plant some vegetables, such as tomatoes and peppers, much closer than Solomon does because my spacings have proven to work well in my climate. If we should experience a drought I can remove every other plant.

I’m growing the following crops and varieties in 2015.

Potatoes: I’m growing Elba, a buff-skinned, white-fleshed potato that I first grew in 2013, and Desiree, red-skinned, yellow potato that is new to me this year. Both are late, high-yielding varieties with moist, firm flesh according to Fedco’s catalog. Desiree is supposed to have good storage capability while Elba has excellent storage capability. Because I’m growing them the same way - in one row down the length of a four foot wide bed, with plants 12 inches apart - I’m testing them for yield, flavor, and storage capability.

Tomatoes: besides my old favorites Arkansas Traveler (a pink slicer) and Hungarian Italian Paste (a red paste tomato), I’m growing Black Prince, one of the currently popular black varieties, and Red Pear, a full-sized, pear-shaped, red tomato that might work well for sauce. I’m trialing the latter two for flavor and yield against the former two.

Peppers: I’m growing the usual two sweet peppers, World Beater (bell shaped) and Italian Frying (a long frying pepper, though we eat most of them raw as they are excellent that way as well), along with Jalapeno as this year’s hot pepper.

Eggplants: this year’s new variety is Listada di Gambia, which has already won points with me due to its seeds’ high germination rate, a trait I haven’t encountered in previous attempts to grow fancy eggplants. I’m trialing it against White Beauty for yield and flavor. Unlike tomatoes and peppers, which do well for me at a tight spacing of one square foot per plant, I give eggplants four square feet per plant. They seem to need the wider spacing to fruit well.

Other nightshade family plants: I’m growing Everona Large Green tomatillo and Cossack Pineapple ground cherry. In both cases I’m only growing two plants and giving each plant four square feet of space. Both are sprawling plants whose fruits fill a small but appreciated niche, so two plants of each is plenty.

Lettuce: besides Bronze Arrow, Anuenue, and Pablo, all varieties that I find have good taste and good yield and bolt late, I’m trialing Kalura to replace Jericho as a green romaine lettuce. My major change with spring lettuce is to grow only 16 full-sized heads, so that we might manage to eat them all before they bolt. For fall, I’ll try raising seedlings in the basement under lights and then plant out the seedlings. I’ve had little success with direct-seeding in August because the soil is too warm for seed germination. September seeding is too late for good growth because of the rapid fall cool-down we experience.

Broccoli: I’m growing four plants of an open-pollinated variety new to me, Limba. Broccoli works best for me as a summer green vegetable. It’ll be composted when it comes time to plant fall crops.

Cabbage: I’m growing four plants of a main-crop cabbage, Golden Acre, that has performed well for the past few years, as well as two plants each of two late varieties that are reputed to store well, Danish Ballhead and Premium Late Flat Dutch, which I am trialing against each other and Golden Acre. All of these are old, open-pollinated varieties. The major question is if the late cabbages can survive our long, hot summer.

Other cabbage-family plants: I’ll grow the proven Prize Choy bok choy in spring and fall (I may start the fall crop in the basement along with the lettuce so it can grow to full size). For fall greens and roots, I’ll grow arugula, two storage radishes (Red Meat, a beautiful round radish with a red skin and green interior, and a daikon, Miyashige), two mustards (Osaka Purple and Purple Rapa Gene Mix), Purple Top White Globe turnip, White Russian kale, and Alabama Blue collard. All these crops do well for me when direct-seeded in late July to mid August. The kale, collard, and the Purple Rapa Mix mustard are new varieties for me. I'm interested to learn how they taste and yield and how long they survive into late fall or winter.

Onions, leeks, and garlic: I’m growing the same two medium-day onion varieties that I grew last year, Bronze D’Amposta (red) and Australian Brown (yellow). Both had good yield and flavor; both stored well, with the red onion storing a few weeks longer than the yellow (we ate the last red onions in April). I’m also growing the same leek as last year, Giant Musselburgh. All three were started from seed in late February and planted as seedlings. I'm also growing the same three varieties of garlic as last year: one softneck (Inchelium Red), one rocambole (Kaskaskia Red), and elephant garlic.

Carrots, beets, parsnips: I’m growing the usual orange carrot, Danvers 126, and a red carrot, Red Samurai, to trial against the orange carrot for flavor and yield. As I noted above, I’ve finally had success in germinating a parsnip, Andover from Fedco. Now we’ll see how it does in our long, hot summer. I’m growing Cylindra, a cylindrical red beet that does well for me.

Peas: I’m growing a shell pea, Little Marvel, and a snow pea, Oregon Giant, both of which I’ve grown before and like. Their bed is the only one on which I did not press the hoe handle into the soil before planting. It could be that fact, or it could be the cold weather after planting in late March, that made for spotty germination of both varieties. I added more seeds a few weeks ago and got a few more plants, but the bed is still spotty. We like peas well enough that I’ll let them produce instead of planting the pole beans early into those areas (the  pole beans will be planted after the peas finish).

Green pole beans: I will trial two of these, Musica and Potomac, growing them at opposite ends of the bed so they will be less likely to cross. Musica is a flat-podded type while Potomac has round pods. I’ll also grow a yard-long bean (called that, but it’s actually a vining cowpea), Red Noodle, that has red pods. These will be planted after the peas finish, to bear in fall.

Sunflower: I’m trialing a short variety suitable for snack or oil use, Sunseed, with the hope that I can reach the heads and net them to keep the birds and squirrels from eating the seeds before they are ready for harvest. Wish me luck on this one!

Squash family: I’m planning to grow two varieties of cucumbers, Homemade Pickles and Arkansas Little Leaf H-19, to trial against each other; two varieties of melons, Green Machine and Hannah’s Choice; the usual zucchini, Costata Romanesca, and the usual winter squash, Butternut. What is notable here is that I’m trying melons once more (I’ve yet to have success with them but I like them enough to keep trying) and one of them, Hannah’s Choice, is a hybrid. It’s possible that the vigor of the hybrid will help me to achieve melon success. I’m considering trialing some hybrids in the cabbage family next year as well. I don’t have enough space to grow enough plants for most squash or cabbage family crops to keep a variety pure, so I may as well trial hybrids against open-pollinated varieties.

Corn: I’ll grow the popcorn variety that I received from a local farmer and have saved for over a decade. Popcorn seems much less attractive to four-legged critters than any other kind of corn that I have grown.

Dry beans: I’ll grow Midnight Black Turtle, a variety I received from the same farmer who gave me the popcorn.

Black-eyed peas (cowpeas): I’ll grow Queen Anne, a variety I’ve had success with in the past.

Sweet potatoes: I’ll grow Hernandez, Ginseng, and O’Henry. I’ve grown and liked O’Henry so I will be trialing the former two varieties against it for yield, flavor, and storage ability. I’ll also see if I can raise my own slips from the stored potatoes.

I’ll post preliminary results as I have time and a final report in fall or winter. In the meantime, I plan to take up the human-powered tools discussion again, as well as anything else which suggests itself whenever I have time to write.