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.


  1. Hi Claire,

    The photos of your garden are beautiful. I hope the garden tour goes well, you get great weather, and that everyone has an enjoyable day. It is a nice thing to be able to share a garden, don't you reckon?

    Out of curiosity what makes a Japanese eggplant a superior variety? Last year was the first year that we grew eggplants and the traditional variety did really well but I'm always interested about other varieties.

    Yes, absolutely. Cloud coverage is on the increase here too. I closely watch this with the solar power system and I have heard many anecdotal accounts from other people who rely solely on solar power too. Of course I have not recorded this effect and can only rely on my memory of previous seasons and that may bring inaccuracies. Sometimes I have observed really late seasons (my December / your June) and it hasn't made that great a difference to the final harvest. I'm not sure but I suspect the plants are quite adaptable to extremes of weather.

    I too worry about the loss of genetic diversity with plants. The parrots managed to consume all of the seeds for our perennial rocket recently and fortunately they are still growing and will produce seeds next year (hopefully). Hey, I stumbled across several packets of organic open pollinated wheat seeds a few days back in a store and will experiment with that crop next autumn (2019). Have you grown grains before? Of course you have - the popcorn. You've made me worry about the genetic diversity of corn too. I'm going to try and get around that by growing several different sourced open pollinated varieties of corn all together. Of course that approach may be a disaster? But I don't really know until I've run the experiment for a few years. I read in a book that the old time farmers used to grow the wild crop that corn originated from in order to give their crops a bit of a boost. It is amazing to think that all of these things were discovered by sheer observational skills.

    Are your peas climbing peas, and do you provide them any supports to climb upon?

    Very interesting. I'm curious as to your raspberries and blackeyed peas lodging (falling over). I grow the raspberries in clumps as that seems to be what they want to do and they sort of support each other. I fertilised them today with mushroom compost so hopefully they don’t get too much nitrogen in their diets? What are your thoughts about the minerals in the soil which may have caused the lodging? Or as a guess it may have something to do with the spacing or excess water from heavy rain? I don't really know though.

    I'll be really interested to read in your future post about your efforts to source minerals from within your boundaries. That issue I believe is of utmost critical importance for the future.



    1. Hi Chris!

      Thanks for the good wishes re the garden tour! Apparently the recent very warm weather is expected to continue into early June. If it's too hot attendance will be low.

      I actually don't know why the Japanese prefer certain varieties of eggplants. The Japanese eggplant I grew last year had a purple calyx as compared to the green calyx of the European varieties, so it looked prettier. Who knows - maybe that's it.

      I've grown wheat in the past but prefer to grow corn. Corn grows very well here, it is easier to plant and keep weeded, easier to harvest and to remove the seeds, and easier to grind than wheat. But I like to eat both.

      Your idea to grow several OP varieties together would be likely to result in a landrace that would be suited to your area, if I understand correctly what Carol Deppe says in her excellent book. If my popcorn doesn't yield well, the next time I grow it I might grow another similar variety or two along with it and let them cross, in an attempt to restore the genetic diversity. Or I might try another variety.

      While I grow bush rather than climbing peas, I find they can use a little support. The pea fence is supposed to provide it, but I have to do my part and plant the peas at the right time. I'll try again in 2019.

      The raspberries do support one another in a clump; they aren't lying on the ground. The problem is that I leave only a small space between them and the beds to the north and south, so they end up leaning over into those spaces, stealing sun from those crops. Raspberry rows are supposed to be something like 4 to 6 feet apart, but there is only about 2 to 3 feet between them and the crops to either side. Consequently, I need to be proactive to keep the clumps from bushing out. It's also easier to remove the suckers that snake outwards that way, thus keeping them out of the beds next to them. I don't believe it has anything to do with minerals or rain; it's my wanting the raspberries to confine themselves to a smaller space than they would take on their own.


  2. Hi, Claire!

    Once again, I certainly wish I could be on the tour. Missed it last year, too!

    Ha ha! Irregularly scheduled post!

    We are seeing - so far - a big difference since we started adding wood ash from the fireplace and woodstove to almost all that we plant. I don't know how much we have added. We toss it all over a bed till it's covered, but not deeply, and dig it in. Conversely, 2 or 3 handfuls are added to each plant as it's planted if the bed hasn't already received any.

    Purple Beauty bell pepper is the only bell pepper that I have been able to grow, which is strange as the hot varieties all grow extremely well here.

    It is frustrating about the seed saving. I have huge numbers of old seeds that are from such great varieties, but one can only grow so much. Every now and then I dump a bunch of them on the ground outside the garden so that at least the wildlife can eat them, as you do.

    You have done well with strawberries! Ours were doing well, for the first time (they finally have a nice, sunny spot). They weren't ripening all at once like yours and we were enjoying small bowls full each day. Then yesterday we went out - and every one was gone, even the unripe ones. Coincidentally, I noticed a pile of droppings under the wineberries and identified it as from a rabbit. We haven't had rabbit trouble in years. This one only got in because my son had not completely closed the section of fence that he pulls aside to drive the pickup truck into the garden to deliver concrete or compost, etc.

    I forgot about cutworms. I used to put collars around the tomatoes and peppers, but that is so much to do with all the plants we grow now. It actually seems easier just to grow replacements along with the seedlings we start.

    Our beets are really puny and the daikons bolted about 6 weeks ago. It appears that I planted those things way too early (Feb.). I can't see why else they would have given up way before it got hot? French breakfast radishes performed as they should and did well, even though planted as early as the daikons (beds are next to each other).

    The cabbages and kale are all under large net-covered boxes and are doing great. the funny thing is, now that they are protected from cabbage moths, I see no cabbage moths, except for one I saw in February. The collards and mustards are not covered and have not been attacked either. In the past, those moths (butterflies?) have been a complete scourge.

    I grow a bit of tobacco as a couple of family members use it and the flowers are quite beautiful. I wouldn't fool with it, though, if others didn't like it as the plants are huge and heavy and have to be staked. I can never get it to grow from seed sown outside, which seems awfully strange since we are in a tobacco growing state.

    We just now have small pea pods. It seems kind of late. They are growing on a metal fence. Could they be getting too hot?

    Thanks for the report and best of luck to you with the tour.


    1. Hi Pam! Thanks for your comment! I'll answer it more thoroughly later but wanted to let you know I have seen it.


    2. Hi Pam!

      Apologies for getting to this so late. It's been busy here, as I am sure it is for you as well.

      First of all, thanks for sharing your experience with using wood ash! Your success is good anecdotal evidence as I contemplate delving into the intricacies of the chemistry next winter. Since I studied chemistry, there is no good reason for me to not do this, only that my studies were 40+ years ago so I have forgotten a lot. I put wood ash on two beds this season so far as a start and both look fine.

      I'll have to add Purple Beauty to my pepper trials next year. As of today, the 'Italian Frying' peppers have a few green peppers on them, but neither of the bell peppers has produced any peppers, as far as I can tell.

      You mentioned how the animals are always after our crops on Chris' blog. I'm sorry that the rabbit got to your strawberries and the groundhog is eating other crops. I'll be really disappointed if we don't get any peaches this year, because they looked better this year than any year since 2012. They still aren't ripe but any day now, unless the critters get them all first - and if I were a gambling woman, I'd put my money on the critters.

      It was a difficult spring season for lettuce and all the cabbage-family crops - too hot overall, and sometimes too wet as well. One of the cabbages and one of the bok choys rotted, and the broccoli plants have only managed to produce 2 small heads. Your peas may have had difficulties with heat as well; they are not fans of hot weather, especially prolonged heat. I'm not sure if the metal fence would have made it worse or not.

      I've not tried growing tobacco but it might be interesting to add it to next year's herb and flower bed. Do you buy seedlings of it? I don't think I have seen them for sale here.

      Hope your garden does well during the rest of the growing season!


      On the other hand, the cucumbers have produced very well, the zucchinis are starting to catch up with the cucumbers, and we have enough yard-long beans for the first side dish of beans. I just picked the first tomato today.

  3. Hello,
    I want to say how much I appreciated coming across your posts on gardening. I was particularly intrigued by the comparing and contrasting of Solomon's and Jeavon's methods. I read The Intelligent Gardener in early 2017 (and Jeavons years ago) and have been doing the TIG analyses and amending since.
    I am prolific backyard gardener in zone 4, using a strong permaculture bent.
    As a chef, I am very interested nutrient density in veggies. Dan Kittredge of is one such farmer-researcher who's work I have been following. He talks a lot about re-mineralization as Solomon does, but he also aligns with Dr Ingham whose work on the soil food web is very compelling. Even though I am not tilling and growing field corn, I found the work of soil analyst Gary Zimmer really useful, especially in respect to certain mineral-soil interactions (Ca, B, S).

    I would just like to mention a few questions on gardening/soil health/nutrient density that I have been thinking about and trying to research/test of late:

    I would like to see more tests/accounts of yield and nutrient density on those gardens grown exclusively with Dr Ingham's methods - mainly, add no minerals, only highest quality compost.
    How long does a garden soil take to get to a fully activated/healthy place using the Dr. Ingham methods. It seems like its a longer term method on par with ecology zone shifts. I believe with are in the infancy of a totally new understanding of soil - the biological one.
    Do domesticated garden vegetables stand apart entirely as a class of plant in the paradigm Ingham talks about? Don't these plants need soils that humans modify with (more) fertility vs trees, shrubs, other perennials we may consume. Its perhaps a question of how and where a plant's genome evolved.
    Better to do 1-2 polycultures of all garden plants (save carrots...) or monocrop them with rotations as per Rodale? I practice more of the former and will increase that so.
    In my 4 year test beds of sheet mulch, double dug, lasagna bed and cover cropped 3 years, the bed with the best soil and production is by far the cover cropped bed.
    My practice now will be to leave out 25% or so of garden to cover crop it. But here in zone for I might be able eek out some Favas which can fill two roles.

    Lastly, having gardened 15 years in many community gardens before more own home for the last 5, I can really see how the excess carbon (compost, chips, etc) that is high in potassium, really does make a poorer soil with less tasty vegetables. Calcium and sulfur and boron are very much neglected in some of these tough urban locations. All carbon is not equal was one such take away from Solomon's work.

    Thanks for your posts and contributing to your garden wisdom.

    1. Interesting! I haven't read Dr. Ingham's work yet. I wonder if the difficulty for a home gardener is making high quality compost? In my case, compost making happens so slowly that it might be that rain leaches out some of its fertility before I can put it on the garden. Covering it might help, but that adds to the complexity of composting. At any rate, it might be a good idea for me to try not re-mineralizing a bed, just adding compost, to see what effect that has now that I've practiced re-mineralization for several years.

      I've yet to figure out how to cover-crop my beds, but I keep it open as a possibility. Also thanks for the info about bio-nutrients and Gary Zimmer's work; things for me to look into during the winter.