Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Potatoes are in

Planting the garden continues.  Last week the onion seedlings went into the ground, yesterday it was time to get the potatoes in the soil.  Last fall I combined three adjacent beds into one large bed.  Mostly this bed will be planted in potatoes, sweet potatoes and squash, which will be rotated through the bed.

A few days ago the section of the bed that gets potatoes was fertilized and turned over with a shovel.  The ground was tilled with the little Earthquake tiller/cultivator to break up the clayish clods.  The tiller has a 43cc 2-stroke motor, not much but it does the job, and it's light enough to pick up and set in a raised bed.

With the extra space the patch for the potatoes is a little larger this year, enough for 4 rows.  I marked off the rows at 21 inches apart.  A board was laid down to reach the inside rows without compacting the soil.  After dusting the seedling potatoes with sulfur they were planted a foot apart in the row.  I dug a hole for each potato with the tool shown and dropped it in, about 5 inches deep.  There are 3 rows of Red Pontiac and 1 row of Kennebec.

Once planted some sulfur dust was sprinkled on top.  For some reason squirrels like to get in and dig up the potatoes, which they won't eat because they are dusted with sulfur.  The sulfur on the soil surface seems to deter them, and it may help bring down the pH of an alkaline soil.  

The sections of the bed that will get squash and sweet potatoes are now growing a cover crop of field peas.  They are coming along slowly and I'm hoping they put on a growth spurt soon.

Mulching the potato patch was next.  Last fall two 4' by 8' beds were covered with a layer of shredded leaves.  Actually these beds were first layered with some compost, then covered with landscape fabric, then with the leaves.  I wanted to see if earthworms would thrive beneath the insulating layer of leaves and mix the compost into the soil, saving me the work.

I raked off the leaves and pulled away the landscape fabric.  There were actually a number of earthworms laying on the surface of the soil, although they quickly burrowed underground.   I tested the soil with a hoe and found that it was nicely loose and friable.  When it's time to set in the tomatoes and peppers I plan to spread some fertilizer on the surface and plant the seedlings.  No tilling or turning over the soil, which will only bring weed seeds to the surface.  It's an attempt to transition over to no-till gardening.

The shredded leaves were spread over the potato patch.  Last year I used shredded leaves as a potato mulch and found they work well, blocking light efficiently and leaving the ground in good condition.

When I dig up the potatoes this summer, the leaves, which will be about half-decomposed, will be put into the compost bin.  

Monday, April 13, 2015

Monday April 13

Sunday was another long workday in the yard.  A lot of rain has fallen the last week and after a few days of sunshine it was finally possible to get some work done.  The lawn is still a little bit squishy though.  Finally, I got a decent picking of the overwintered spinach, a few weeks later than normal but better late than never.

The spinach really sized up with the sunshine.

I picked the largest plant and a few other plants to relieve crowding.  Ten ounces in all.  I tend to forget just how good fresh spinach is, far better than from the store.  Last night I made spinach alfredo along with some apple brats from my neighbor's pigs.  Simple but delicious.

It's still hard to get away from the winter mindset but warm weather is definitely on the way.  The extended winter weather set back my seeding and planting schedule about ten days, but recently the temperatures have been warmer than average and the soil temperatures must be warming to what is normal this time of year.  Things are going back to schedule.

The asparagus I planted last year is finally sending up shoots.  Some sources say it is fine to pick a few shoots the second year, others say wait until the third year.  The plants looked very healthy last year.  My inclination is to wait and maybe harvest a few spears later, once I see that the plants are doing well.

A trellis was built for the raspberry bushes - steel fence posts and galvanized cable.  I put a cable at about twenty inches and four feet high.  Later I may have to add another support at the top of the posts. Three Caroline and three Autumn Bliss plants were planted last year, both primocane varieties that bear in summer and fall.  I got a few pickings of berries from them last autumn, and expect much more this year.

The garden soil was finally dry enough to tranplant the onion seedlings into the bed, about eighty of them.  This year I just "eyeballed" the spots instead of measuring.  Garlic is on the left end of the bed, and the triangular end got a parsley and chervil seedling and was seeded with some cilantro. That makes two beds that are fully planted.

Getting most of the onions out of the mobile cold frame allowed room for the pepper plants to take their space.  Some of these I seeded, others I bought from the greenhouse and repotted into larger pots.  I'm partial to the plastic drinking cups for larger seedlings like peppers and tomatoes.  Night time temperatures are projected at well above freezing for the next ten days, so no worries there. 

So far I've been able to use one growing light indoors by moving seedlings into the coldframe as temperatures warm, making room for new seedlings, like the okra I started this morning.  Soon I'll get the Earthbox out of the coldframe to make room for tomato seedlings.  To see what other people are getting from their gardens, head on over to

Monday, April 6, 2015

April 6 - more work in the beds

Things are picking up now, getting beds ready for planting and starting seedlings indoors.  Even the compost pile is heating up.  It's almost time to harvest some spinach, and this will be more than the measly few ounces that were picked a few weeks ago.  This will be a thinning operation again, but the plants are a lot bigger.

Spinach was planted in the gaps where it did not germinate last autumn and the seedlings are up.  It should fill in quickly with the warmer weather.  Cole crops are growing at the other end of the bed.

Lettuce in the earthbox should be ready for some selective picking in about a week.

The Ruby Ring onions can be set out at any time.  Tropea onions are in the front row.  They were seeded a few weeks after the Ruby Rings and aren't ready yet.

Last weekend I prepared two more beds.  They were spaded over and hoed, then the little power cultivator was used to pulverize the clods.  I'm always amazed that clay is brought up every year when the beds are spaded over.  Organic matter in the soil must be used up as fast as it is added in the form of compost, and the tip of the shovel still turns up the base clay layer.  I'm hoping that someday I can get away from using a power cultivator if enough organic matter is worked into the beds.

That's garlic growing in the front bed.  Onions will be planted next to the garlic. The middle bed will get cole crops.  I seeded one row of carrots at the end of that bed.

Indoors the tomatoes and eggplant were seeded.  Peppers are up and growing.  I don't like to start tomatoes too early and see them get root-bound and leggy if there will be a late frost.  I don't like to set out any solanacae if there is a possibility of temperatures anywhere near freezing.  They don't like a shiver at all.

I started work on a trellis for the raspberry bushes this morning.  The asparagus bed was repaired recently.  Moles had undermined the bed, carrying soil out onto the slope, and it had dropped several inches at one end.  They have really become a problem.  The Austrian field peas seeded as a cover crop in the squash bed have finally germinated.  I'm wondering how big they will get before it's time to plant the squash.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

The kitchen wall

The first phase of the kitchen remodel is complete - the new wall.  This was originally a half wall, about three feet high.  It was an open floor plan concept.

I built the wall up to the ceiling, then installed new electrical wiring and a water line for the refrigerator.  There's a circuit for wall outlets, refrigerator/microwave, and the stove.  The stove is still on the opposite wall.  A string is tied to the outlet so when the stove is ready to be moved the wire can be attached and pulled up from the crawlspace.

Once the mechanicals were in place, drywall was installed, taped and floated (3 coats of mud), primered and painted.  Each step required a day to dry and dragged out over most of March.  Thankfully it's done now.  Since one side of the wall faced the living room, the work disrupted two rooms.  Now I get the living room back.  The disruption in the kitchen I can deal with.

I designed an opening by the ceiling to allow air moved by the ceiling fan in the living room to enter the kitchen.  The bottom of the opening will be flush with the top of the cabinets.  The house is heated by a wood stove most of the winter and this opening should allow free movement of air. That's the theory anyway.  The refrigerator will go in the corner, stove in the middle, as well as some cabinets.

The real challenge was the painting.  Most of the walls in the house were painted with a faux finish - a basecoat of an offwhite shade then a spotty overcoat of a darker shade.  The overcoat is applied with a natural sponge on a roller.  I liked the effect, sort of cloud-like, and wanted to replicate it.  Long story short, I managed a passable imitation on the living room side,  tolerable for a few years anyway, but gave up on doing this in the kitchen.  I just don't have the skills or patience to do this everywhere.  This is what the living room side looks like:

It's not nearly as good as the original, but it will do for now.  This is a good point to put the project on hold for a while and get some work done outdoors.  Next step:  installing a ceramic tile floor. 

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

The REAL first day of spring

For those of us that live in a temperate climate like the American Midwest there are probably a lot of different ways to claim that spring is here and winter is over.   There is the spring equinox, March 21, officially spring.  The way I know that spring is definitely here is by the tasks that are done, and by that yardstick yesterday, March 31 officially was the first day of spring.

I knew by the weather reports that an extended spell of nice weather, not just one or two days, was on the way.  On Monday the backyard and vegetable garden looked like this, with the plastic greenhouse still in place.

With better weather on the way the greenhouse had outlived it's usefulness.  It had protected dormant spinach over the winter and kept the soil a bit warmer than if it was exposed.  After the greenhouse was removed their was some parsnip to deal with.  With the late cold followed by rains, there were three rows left in the ground that had sprouted.  I assumed that once sprouted they were unfit to eat, so I dug them out and put them in the compost bin.

Now the spinach can get unimpeded sunlight.  I expect it to really grow with the sunny days.  The Viroflay spinach never germinated well, and Burpee's Double Choice spinach was seeded in the gaps about two weeks ago.  It is just now germinating. 

The open space in the bed was turned over with a shovel.  I added a few handfuls of 8-8-8 fertilizer and a few handfuls of blood meal, cut up the clods with the hoe and raked it smooth.  The first batch of cole crops under the lights was more than ready to go into the ground, but I waited.  One more frosty night and on Tuesday the weather warmed nicely.  It was time to set them out.

I have never tried to ease cole crops into the great outdoors by transitioning through a cold frame, they are pretty tough.  Going into direct sunlight can be a bit of a shock for them though, especially on a windy day like yesterday.  I waited until later in the day to transplant.  First I set the pots into the places they plants would go.  I just eyeball this.  Broccoli goes on the north side of the bed, as they get taller and need their space.  The wind was knocking them over pretty good.

Then I just dug them in. There is Green Magic, Major, and Aspabroc broccoli, Gonzalez cabbage, Kolibri and Grand Duke kohlrabi, Snow Crown cauliflower and Tatsoi, ten plants in all. The final positions were changed a little.  I soaked them with the hose because the wind was going to draw water right out of them.  This morning they looked fine.

Just getting ten brassica seedlings into the ground should mark the turning point from winter to spring, but I wasn't done.  The hose reels were wheeled out and hooked up, the garden tool rack was wheeled out too, the season's wood ashes were hauled out to the pasture and spread out (won't need to burn any more fires in the stove), and leaves that had piled up on the flower beds were removed.  There was ajuga, day lillies and and even hosta buds underneath it all.  Now if that doesn't mark the beginning of spring nothing will.

The Ruby Ring onions have been growing well in the mobile greenhouse, as well as the lettuce in the Earthbox.  I started the first batch of lettuce indoors, then thought that the remaining lettuce could be seeded directly into the Earthbox.  It's been very slow coming up.

I found this yesterday on the deck, the remains of a crawfish.  Where did it come from?  Lately a red-tailed hawk has been hanging around the pond roosting in a tree.  Looks like the hawk has developed a taste for lobster dinners.  It also left a copious amount of white bird poop on the deck rails.  This bird is a very neat eater.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Pruning the two apple trees

I don’t have much experience pruning trees other than removing low branches.  Most large yard trees can be treated with benign neglect.  Fruit trees are another thing altogether.  Shaping the tree properly in its early years can have a strong impact on its capacity to bear fruit later on.  I wanted to get it right, but for a novice like me pruning a young apple tree is like driving at night with the headlights off.

I planted two apple trees three years ago (I think), a Golden Delicious and a Fuji.  They were in pots and had some lateral branches on the main stem.   The Golden Delicious is now about 10 feet tall, while the Fuji, with a central leader, is more than 12 feet in height.  I’ve made attempts over the years to shape their growth by removing some lateral branches and vertical growth.  This year I realized that both trees needed a more aggressive pruning to shape their growth as they approach maturity.
The thing about pruning to consider is not what the tree looks like just after it is pruned, because at the end of the growing season it will look quite a bit different.  The manner in which the tree is pruned affects the manner in which it grows.  One has to envision what a pruning cut will produce in branches in the years to come. 
I checked out some books from the library on pruning, some helpful, others not at all.   Currently many resources recommend a central leader tree with the largest branches low and smaller branches high for maximum fruit production, assuming I guess that the rootstock the tree is grafted to will prevent the tree from growing excessively tall.   Two or three whorls of well-spaced scaffold laterals are allowed to establish themselves.  Unfortunately the tree rarely cooperates with the ideal. 
I already knew that trees grow at their tips to increase length and the phloem layer just beneath the bark produces wood and adds girth.  Trees don’t grow out of the ground and a branch always remains at its initial height on the trunk.   During the winter chemical energy is stored in the roots and in the spring  the sap moves up to feed the opening buds.  Pruning removes buds, meaning that as sugars move up the tree in spring the chemical energy is distributed to fewer buds.   It seems counterintuitive, but a weak branch will grow more if pruned more severely than a strong branch. 
While pruning new growth back a few buds will stimulate growth, completely removing a branch at the branch collar ends that branch for good.  However, if you leave a short stub that branch may well start a new bud and ultimately a new replacement branch.   This branch was removed because there were two branches arising at the same height of the trunk. 
Two weeks ago with cutting tools in hand I set about pruning both trees.  The Golden Delicious tree is something of a problem tree.  It has a large lower side branch at about a 45 degree angle, really not enough, although the crotch appears solid.  Maybe I should have removed it early on, but there were few other scaffold branches to work with so I left it on.   This is the tree before pruning.  It had a large number of watersprouts and crossing branches from last year's growth.

Last year this tree lost its central leader.  A high branch came off the leader at an acute angle and I planned to cut this branch off when the tree went dormant, but circumstances forced my hand.  Last summer I was trying to spray the leader with some Neem oil and as I was pulling down the leader to spray its leaves the crotch broke.  The leader tore off, leaving the uppermost branch and a large gash in the trunk. The tear has healed partially but it may not heal strong enough to support the weight above it.  Next winter I'll decide whether to remove the topmost branch entirely.

This is the same tree after pruning.  It looks severe, but most of the mass of the tree remains.  With the central leader gone, the tree is best described as a half-standard.  In all likelihood the uppermost branch will have to be cut off below the wound but I felt that, for this year, enough wood had been removed.

The Fuji has a much better fan shape and was easier to prune, although some thinning was needed. Many of the laterals were too closely spaced had to be removed.  You can’t see it well in this picture since the shot doesn't go high enough, but an upper branch matched the central leader in height and one of them had to go, otherwise the tree would have two leaders.

This is the same tree after pruning. I tried to thin out the upper branches more in order to let light into the lower branches.  The central leader is reaching for the skies, and it may well have to be removed because it will be hard to reach apples up there.   It looks like the tree will flower this year and produce a few apples.  For the time being I’ll leave the leader in place, and see if the first years’ fruit production will stop the vertical growth.  Any reader’s suggestions are welcome.