Monday, May 21, 2018

Garden conversations for 2018

After a very cold April turned into a very warm May, the lilac, redbud, and dogwood bloomed at the same time, something I have not seen in past years. This photo was taken on May 4.

As promised at the end of the last post, I’ll discuss here the conversations I’ll be having with my garden in the 2018 growing season. But first, this post will be interrupted for the following announcement.

Once again Mike’s and my yard will be a destination for this year’s Sustainable Backyard Tour. As the website for the Tour puts it, “A sustainable backyard offers the opportunity to provide food for our families, wildlife habitat, relaxation and visual appeal, all while minimizing impacts on the environment and the communities in which we live.”

The event will take place on Sunday, June 10 from 11am to 4pm at sites throughout St. Louis City and County plus a few others elsewhere in the metro area. To find out more about the Sustainable Backyard Tour and how you can register as an attendee, click on the link in the previous paragraph. The tour is free and the people I’ve met on past tours seem to get a lot out of it.

We now return you to your irregularly scheduled post.

Now that I’m in the sixth year of the soil re-mineralization program described by Steve Solomon in his book The Intelligent Gardener, I have gained a good feel for the garden’s soil as well as the size of garden I can handle and a suite of well-performing vegetable varieties and when and how to plant and care for them. This year, then, besides testing a few new varieties and methods of growing some of the vegetables, the focus of my garden science will begin to shift to look more closely at different materials I might use to re-mineralize the soil.

Before that, however, I wanted to mention some of the new varieties and growing techniques I will try in 2018 in case they may be of interest to you.

Of new varieties, I’m trialing ‘Garnet Butter Gem’ lettuce, a butterhead, against our staple ‘Bronze Arrowhead’ oakleaf lettuce and a romaine variety, ‘Kalura,’ that has performed well in the past few years. ‘Lorz Italian’ garlic is going bulb-to-bulb with ‘Inchelium Red,’ a variety I feared I might lose after last year’s dismal harvest, but to my surprise and delight is growing strongly after surviving a miserable winter and early spring. Later this summer I’ll try again to grow ‘Hilton’ Chinese cabbage for autumn (last year’s seedlings died before they could be planted). I’m growing ‘Arkansas Traveler’ tomatoes from purchased seed again (I’m not sure how true-to-type my saved seed is) and also ‘Cherokee Purple’ and Old German’ based on the excellent tomatoes we picked from purchased seedlings of these varieties last year. If they are as good again I’ll save seeds from them. I’m trying a different eggplant variety, ‘Mitoyo,’ said to be a regional Japanese variety, because Mike likes the Japanese types of eggplants.

I hope to replace the seemingly underperforming open-pollinated sweet bell pepper varieties I’ve grown before with bell-shaped varieties that can keep up with ‘Italian Frying,’ an open-pollinated sweet pepper of bull-horn shape and excellent yield and taste. (I don’t know what its real name is. Many years ago Mike and I bought this sweet pepper from a local grower, and I saved its seeds and have grown it ever since. But I haven’t seen the grower since so I couldn’t ask him its name. Thus, I named it for its shape and its thin walls, typical of a frying pepper.) The two bell peppers I’m trying this year are ‘Ozark Giant’ and ‘Jupiter.’ With those names, each has a reputation to live up to.

Speaking of the peppers, the very cold and cloudy conditions during March and April played havoc with raising seedlings. As I have since 2012, I raised all my seedlings on the enclosed sun-facing front porch, which I have added drums of water to so that it can passively absorb and store solar heat, as I described here. By March, which brings increased day length and a higher sun angle as we head toward the vernal equinox, the porch generally works very well as a greenhouse. Most seeds can be started in flats placed on the floor, with the seeds needing the warmest temperatures, peppers among them, started in flats placed on a heat mat. But the porch needs sunlight to work properly; we don’t provide any extra heat to it. In March, the monthly average sky cover was 7 (0=no clouds, 10=complete cloud cover), with only 9 days of average daily cloud cover 0 to 5, and the monthly average temperature of 43.1F was 3.2F below normal. Many of the seeds I sowed didn’t germinate at all, and others were slower and germinated at a lower percentage than usual. Fortunately, most of the vegetable seeds did fine, but peppers were the exception. I had them on the heat mat as usual, but it didn’t seem to be able to warm the bottom of the flats enough to compensate for the cold air and lack of sunlight. April proved March’s equal for cloud cover and was even colder relative to average than March was (it was the 4th coldest April on record in the St. Louis area, according to the St. Louis NWS office). While I suspect the main culprit in this year’s poor seedling crop was the weather, it’s possible that the seeds I used for some of the crops may have died. I don’t replace all seeds every year (most seeds live anywhere from 2 to 5 years or more) and those I planted fell into accepted standards for age, but it may be that storage conditions caused the seeds to die prematurely. At any rate, I redesigned the two flower and herb beds (I’ll discuss these more below) to hold purchased seedlings and perennials. I tossed the seeds that didn’t germinate to the birds and will replace them with fresh seed next year.

I was especially concerned about the ‘Italian Frying’ pepper seeds because they dated from 2015. Pepper seeds seem to have a rather short period of high viability, only about 2 years under my less than ideal storage conditions in the basement. Because of this I had planned to save seeds from this pepper in 2017 for future crops. But the life I mentioned in the previous post put paid to raising any seedlings in spring of 2017, so I could not replace the 2015 seeds with a fresh crop. When I sowed the ‘Italian Frying’ seeds from 2015 this year, I sowed extra heavily, fearing that germination would be low. It was worse than that; only one seedling had resulted from the March 6 sowing by March 27. So I sowed them again. And it turned out OK; between a straggler or two from the first sowing and a few seedlings from the second, I managed to raise 6 seedlings of this pepper. Not the 8 seedlings I planned space for, but it means I shouldn’t lose the variety, because I can save seeds from these plants for future years. But it reminds me that annual crops can be a precarious business. It’s good to save some of your own seeds, but don’t forget to support the companies that offer seeds grown by small breeders and farmers. The more people and farmers are raising any one variety, the more likely it is to remain available to all of us. Any of us can lose a variety through life issues, and I am not out of the woods with my favorite ‘Italian Frying’ pepper until I have a packet of seeds set aside from this year’s crop.

One other effect of the especially cold weather in March and April is that it delayed getting the garden started. It’s May 21 and the pepper, tomato, and eggplant seedlings still haven’t been planted, whereas I usually plant them around May 1. This has the advantage of giving the pepper seedlings time to grow large enough to withstand attack from damping-off fungus when I plant them. But I should put cutworm collars around them when I plant them as they are small enough to be subject to cutworm attack.

Also concerning the tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants, I plant them in a separate bed to make it easy to rotate them throughout the garden, to help reduce the effects of disease on them. In the past I have tried to grow basil, calendula, and zinnias interspersed with them. But all of these grow too tall and wide in the well-amended soil. This year I intend to grow only quite short flowers in between the vegetable plants, in the hope that the flowers might draw pollinators and cover the soil between these vegetable plants without interfering with the growth of the vegetables.

This year I’ll be growing popcorn to replenish our popcorn supply. The last time I grew popcorn I noted that it didn’t yield as well as it had in the past and wondered if it was suffering from inbreeding depression. If I get low yields again this year and other factors don’t readily account for it, then I will be certain enough of inbreeding depression to have to take some kind of action the next time I grow popcorn.

Since I decided last year not to grow sweet potatoes again, I redesigned some of the garden beds. However, I didn’t do the best job of it that I could have, because I didn’t place the peas in the bed with the spring lettuce, cabbage, broccoli, and bok choy. Had I done that, the peas would have been planted in late April when the soil temperature was about right for them. Instead, they were planted on May 8 which began a stretch of July-type temperatures, much warmer than peas like. But since the pea seeds did not germinate I will use their space for a second sowing of zucchini and cucumbers, which should provide those crops for a longer period of time. And I can do the same after future pea crops die, as there is plenty of time left in the growing season for good crops of these.

Meanwhile, the flowers and herbs that I didn’t plant in the tomato/pepper/eggplant bed, and more besides, have been planted in the two beds that also have the towers on which I am growing pole beans. Last year I only cultivated the portion of each of these beds that held the pole bean towers. This year I am putting all of these beds into plantings. I can space the herbs and flowers more widely in these beds and grow more varieties of each than by trying to interplant them in the vegetable beds. The beds won’t need any added minerals because they retain some from previous years, and they should help to support pollinators. In addition, I relocated some perennial native plants that had grown into the mowed paths around the bed into these two beds. In this way I can save them and then replant them into other parts of the yard next year.

I mentioned in the previous post that two crops, raspberries and blackeyed peas, flopped over onto the crops planted next to them. To prevent this from happening I am trying support systems. For the raspberries, I have put a tomato cage over each clump, as shown in the photo below.
The raspberries inside the tomato cages are in the middle of the photo, with one of the herb/flower beds in the front and the strawberry bed between them.

As the canes grow, the tomato cage should keep them contained within their allotted three-dimensional space. To do this, I remove canes emerging from the clump that I cannot guide into the support as well as the offsets that branch off of the clump and put up new shoots away from it. Because I had extra tomato cages, it didn’t cost me anything but the time I put into setting up the cages and pruning the canes to fit within them. So far the cages are working as I envisioned; it’ll be interesting to see what the yield of raspberries is when they are caged compared to when they are left mostly to their own devices. 

For the blackeyed peas, I’ll try using pea fences to keep them contained.

As I mentioned above, now that I have learned how to re-mineralize the soil to produce consistently good yields of vegetables, I am beginning to consider ways in which I can replace some of the minerals added that I now purchase with sources available within the boundaries of the yard. Rather than stretch out this post, I’ll take a closer look at what the soil has told me over the past five years in the next post and what I have on hand that might be able to replace some of what I typically purchase. In the meantime, I’ll concentrate on putting the rest of the garden in and readying it for show-and-tell on June 10.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

The 2017 garden: small is bountiful

Plum tree blooming on April 6, a week or two later than usual.

2017 was a year that didn’t go according to plan, and thus neither did this blog. However, I’m back to the blog now and intend to continue making posts on an irregular basis. And that means it’s time to report on what the garden told me in 2017.

I had expected to raise seedlings in February and March of 2017 for spring planting as I have in past years, but life had other plans. It’s easy to find vegetable seedlings for sale if you don’t care about what varieties you buy. I had to make do with what they had for sale, which for the most part did not match what I wanted to grow.

The most important question I asked the garden to answer was how much I could raise in 1,024 square feet of bed space. That includes 100 square feet planted to strawberries and another 100 square feet planted to raspberries, with the remainder in vegetable, root, and grain crops. Over the past few years the area devoted to food crops grew larger than the amount of time I wanted to spend on it, plus I grew more than we wanted of some crops. The 2017 garden area was about half of the 2015 garden area. I also asked the blackeyed peas to tell me if I could grow them on much less cottonseed meal (an organic source of nitrogen) than I use for vegetable beds, and the pole green and yard-long beans if I could grow them on no soil amendments at all, as part of my long-range goal to reduce inputs I need to obtain from outside the yard. I also got a new human-powered garden tool in 2017, a Hoss wheel hoe, that I hoped would make some of the work of preparing and weeding garden beds easier on my body, and I bought two bean towers to grow pole beans on.

One other change I made was to replace the fence around the entire garden area. In the post on the 2016 garden, I discussed how my removal of fencing around part of the garden and the creation of a brush pile near it allowed for continual rabbit raids on garden produce. Before the 2017 gardening season began, I re-used the best of the old fencing to fence in the garden. Remembering how much easier it was when I could bring a garden cart up to the bed I was working on, and how much easier it was to maintain the path area when I could bring a mower up to it, I put in a gate. It isn’t elaborate; as you can see from the picture below, it’s just two panels held between closely spaced posts. I can lift or slide the panels to make a large enough space between the posts for the cart, lawnmower, and wheel hoe. It works very well!

The garden gate: the two panels at center left.

However, after I planted the lettuce seedlings, I again found rabbits in the garden, eating the lettuce. We hadn’t had time to mulch the brush pile; in fact, it had grown during the year. The rabbit resort residents had figured out how to break into their dining hall. Chasing one of them, I noted it leapt through the wide openings at the top of the fencing. After pondering on the situation, I realized I had enough old fencing left to turn it upside down and attach it to the existing fencing. The small openings on the outer layer would then cover the large openings on the inner layer, preventing rabbit access. With that change in place, the rabbits found other food sources easier to access, and we ate lettuce, carrots, beets, and sweet potatoes in 2017. Last autumn I finally hired a tree service company to shred the rabbit resort and scattered seeds of native flowers where the resort had been, to provide food and shelter for pollinators. I expect less rabbit predation in 2018, though the cover afforded by the tall native plants may attract more rabbits to the area near the vegetable garden in future years.

The 2017 growing season weather

As I’ve noted before, the highly variable nature of weather in the US Midwest makes it a major factor in what my garden can provide. For this reason, I’ll recap the weather and suggest how it affected the crops that I grow.

Spring 2017 was warm and very wet. The last frost date, March 16, was two to four weeks earlier than usual. I did not have my rain gage out in early April, but the St. Louis NWS official station is only a few miles away so it is a good proxy. It received 10.37 inches of rain in April, almost 4 inches above normal! April was warmer than normal as well. May also featured above-normal rainfall of 6.7 inches and warmer than normal temperatures. Seedlings planted in those months did very well, but seeds planted in the wettest weeks rotted. Luckily conditions improved later in May and early June when I planted the corn and bean seeds.

We received 2.8 inches of rain in June, 4.2 inches in July, and 2.9 inches in August; between the rain and some supplemental watering, moisture proved sufficient. June was a little warmer than normal, July much warmer than normal, and August a little cooler than normal. The cooler weather in August made it easy to get direct-seeded fall crops started. The heat and humidity of July were hard on crops like peppers, cucumbers, and zucchinis but other summer crops grew and produced well.

Autumn conditions turned quite dry, with only about 0.3 inches of rain in September, though we got close to normal rainfall in October at 2.8 inches. While September started cool, with the morning low already down to 48F on the 2nd, the second half of the month featured an impressive heat wave to end the month at above-normal temperatures overall. October was warmer than normal until about the last week, with the growing season coming to an abrupt end on October 29 with a hard freeze of 25F. The dryness and heat did not favor fall crops. I concentrated watering on the tomatoes, leaving the fall greens, lettuce, and root crops at the mercy of the heat and dryness.

The 2017 results

Despite my disappointment at not being able to grow some of the varieties I wanted and the disruptions due to various aspects of life, it was a good year. I harvested over 500 pounds of vegetables, roots, and dry beans, about 33 pounds of dent corn, and 30 pounds of berries in the 1,024 square feet of fenced-in garden space, in total the best yield I’ve obtained. The blackeyed peas did fine on reduced nitrogen, the pole beans did fine without any amendments at all, and the wheel hoe proved its worth in reducing the effort and time required to prepare beds and weed paths and beds with widely-spaced crops.

I’ll discuss each crop briefly below. Following that is the table of results for 2017, from which the crop vignettes are derived. The left side of the table shows the crop, variety, date planted, and yield in pounds per 100 square feet for the best previous year. The right side of the table includes the same data for 2017 plus the area I planted and the weight I harvested out of that area. 

Potato onions, garlic, and leeks: the aforementioned life conspired to prevent me from removing the mulch on these crops till early April, about a month later than is ideal. While the elephant garlic leaves grew through the top of the mulch, most of the ‘Inchelium Red’ garlic and potato onion leaves were unable to grow through the mulch before they exhausted their food stores. As a result, the elephant garlic yielded well but the other garlic and the potato onions yielded poorly. I ended up with a lower weight of potato onions than I planted the previous autumn, not exactly sustainable. Fearing that I would lose the ‘Inchelium Red’ crop altogether, I purchased a new garlic variety, ‘Lorz Italian,’ to plant in fall 2017. As it turned out, I had enough ‘Inchelium Red’ to plant some of it as well as the ‘Lorz Italian’ and elephant garlic for 2018. As for the leeks, the blackeyed peas planted in the bed to their south flopped onto them in late summer, killing some of the leeks and checking the growth of the rest. At least we got enough for two batches of leek-potato soup.

Bok choy: I didn’t find seedlings for this crop at the nurseries I visited in the spring and the seeds I direct-sowed failed to germinate, so I grew it only in the autumn. Its low yield relative to the best year can be attributed to excessive heat and dryness and no supplemental watering, and possibly also to some shading from the corn crop in the next bed to the south. In addition, one of the four plants I grew died before harvest.

Spring-planted cabbage and broccoli: the broccoli planted at one plant per square foot yielded over twice that planted at one plant per four square feet and beat the previous best yield to boot. As for cabbage, the unlabeled but probably hybrid variety I planted in 2017 failed to out-perform the heirloom ‘Golden Acre.’

Fall-planted cabbage family leaves and roots: most of these were adversely affected by the hot, dry weather, my not watering them, and perhaps excessive shading from the corn plants in the next bed to the south of them. In addition, I neglected to thin the direct-seeded root crops, which reduced their yields compared to the best of previous years. In spite of the difficult conditions, the kale and arugula yielded as well as the best previous fall-grown crops, while the mustard greens yielded only about half of the best previous (a different variety, so that may have had an effect).

Lettuce: I didn’t find any seedlings of any of the varieties I like to grow for the spring crop, instead choosing to buy an unlabeled frilly red lettuce. It didn’t yield that well and we preferred the tastes of all the varieties I grow compared to the red frilly variety. Surprisingly, since the heat and dryness of autumn killed some of the seedlings after I planted them, enough survived to match the best yields I’ve obtained previously.

Carrots and beets: while the beets yielded a little better than the best previous yield, the ‘Danvers 126’ carrots suffered from poor seed germination due to too-old seed. The ‘Cosmic Purple’ was a free package from one of the seed companies I ordered from, and its seeds germinated much better. It wasn’t a bad carrot, either.

Potatoes: both of the two varieties I grew yielded well. I preferred the taste of ‘Yukon Gold.’

Cucumbers: I had difficulty getting them to germinate in the excessively wet soil of early May. When I finally got them to grow, they grew well enough until the heat wave of July broke their spirits. But at least we got enough to enjoy fresh cucumbers and to make some pickles.

Winter squash: not only does ‘Burpee’s Butterbush’ taste as good as ‘Waltham Butternut,’ but it yielded 2 1/2 times better and is a smaller, easier to manage vine. And for the first time, I got several ‘Kakai’ pumpkins with mature hull-less seeds, the feature I grow them for. All told I grew about ¾ pound of seeds, which I roasted and eat as snacks.

Zucchini: we got a decent yield of these, though like the cucumbers they didn’t care for the excessive heat and humidity they experienced in July, the vines dying by the end of the month.

Sweet potatoes: ‘Hernandez’ yields well and the voles left us most of the crop, but its vines crawled through the two corn beds to its north, and it grew small tubers into both of those two beds as well as the one I planted it into. We aren’t fond enough of sweet potatoes to eat that many, and they require more effort to harvest than any other crop, including potatoes. I won’t grow them again, preferring to use that space for something we like better.

Sweet peppers: despite the heat and humidity, ‘Better Belle’ yielded respectably and tasted good as well. It appears to be a hybrid seed according to results from the search I did on it, so I couldn’t save seeds from it if I could find them for sale. Nor did it out-perform the best yield I’ve obtained from the ‘Italian Frying’ seeds I’ve saved for years. ‘Gypsy,’ a pepper that I think was bred for cooler summers, performed poorly in my garden. I didn’t grow any hot pepper varieties in 2017.

Tomatoes: all four of the varieties I grew yielded well. Oddly, the label on the ‘Arkansas Traveler’ tomatoes I bought claimed them to be hybrids, while the seed companies I buy the seeds from label them as open-pollinated, and I have saved and re-grown those seeds myself. The tomatoes from the seedlings I bought didn’t look quite the same as those I have grown in the past, nor did they seem to taste quite as good, so it might be that there are two different tomatoes out there with this name. If so, I prefer the heirloom version I’ve grown in the past. ‘Cherokee Purple’ was every bit as tasty as Carol Deppe says it is, and ‘Old German’ tasted good enough to grow again, plus its yellow fruits with red stripes looked appealing next to the pink and purple fruits of the others. ‘San Marzano’ is a widely available paste variety that yielded almost too well.

Pole beans and vining cowpeas (aka yard-long beans): the bean towers proved their worth, as they made it easy for me to find and pick the beans off the plants as they grew up the strings. I had to drive a stake next to one tower and tie the tower to the stake to keep the tower from leaning after strong winds pushed it partway over. I also planted the beans earlier than in the past and was rewarded with higher yields despite not amending the soil they grew in at all. I’ll keep growing them this way as long as the yield holds out.

Cowpea/blackeyed pea: the variety I grow is supposed to have short vines, but they seem rather long to me, and the seed company I bought them from says the trade allowed the vine length to increase. As noted in the entry on leeks, the vines crawled into their bed, and also crawled up the raspberry canes on the other side. For all that, I doubled my previous best yield, and this with very little added nitrogen. Better growing conditions? Earlier planting? I don’t know enough to say, but I’m in favor of it.

Dent corn: this yielded almost twice as much as in 2016, perhaps in part due to being planted earlier. This variety makes a good-flavored corn mush, so we can eat it for breakfast instead of oatmeal. Good thing; it’ll take us awhile to get through last year’s and this year’s crops.

In the next post I’ll discuss my plans for 2018’s garden and what has happened so far.