Thursday, April 20, 2017

Spring into summer

It's definitely spring.  Most days it's pleasant to be outdoors, and things are greening up rapidly.  Last week I re-stained the deck after applying a bleach cleaner to remove the mildew.  I knew there was a short window before the trees began dropping loads of pollen and catkins everywhere, and I just got it done in time.  Now the pond is covered with an oily sheen from all the tree 'crud' falling into the water.

The Paw Paw trees that I wrote a post about last fall are blooming now.  The flowers are pollinated by flies, not bees, and have no odor that I can detect.  From what I've read, a low percentage of flowers are successfully pollinated.  Some commercial growers hang pieces of rotting meat in their groves to attract flies.  There are hundreds of flowers, maybe I'll get a few ripe paw paw fruits.

What's this?  Could it be, is it, asparagus? Yes, it is.  I've already picked a few spears, which went into a salad. 

Potatoes were planted in burlap bags, Kennebec and Yukon Gold.  The growing medium is a mix of soil and rabbit poop compost.  I have some doubts about this system, mainly that it will dry out too quickly.  There is a plan B:  put both bags in a plastic tub.  That system may rot the burlap very quickly.  For now I'll monitor the moisture levels and see how long it takes for the potting mix to dry out.

May's greenhouse finally got its peppers out on the racks.  From what I can gather from a conversation with an employee, there was a mechanical problem in one of their greenhouses that caused the loss of a lot of peppers.  I seed a few varieties myself and buy the rest at May's, since they sell them for a dollar a pot and grow nearly 60 varieties.  The seedlings were brought home, repotted into larger Jiffy cup pots and put in the coldframe.

This year I'll be growing:
  • Jalapeno.  It may seem like a pedestrian hot pepper, but there's a reason for its popularity:  it's an excellent pepper with thick walls.  Just right for an egg dish, or in salsa. 
  • Fish pepper.  This will be a new one for me.   I'm not growing Serrano this year (too small, difficult to cut up) and Fish is supposed to be about as hot, but larger.  It's also a very striking pepper, starts out pale green when it's used in fish dishes then takes on various hues and stripes as it ripens. 
  • Bulgarian carrot.  After reading some reviews and watching some taste tests on YouTube I decided to try this.  Apparently it can be much hotter than the ratings.  It's supposed to have a fruity, tangy flavor with a slow developing heat. 
  • Bastan ancho, from Johnny's.  Dave at Our Happy Acres grew this last year.  I'm hoping it will mature a little earlier than the ancho I've been growing:
  • Mosquitero ancho.  This is an excellent ancho, but last year it produced a lot of peppers too late to avoid the frost. 
  • Magyar paprika.  I got this from Renee's.  Can't wait to try it.
  • Carmen.  Wonderful tangy sweet pepper.
  • Mama Mia Giallo.  An orange sweet pepper with a bright flavor.
  • Jimmy Nardello.  For snacking and pizza topping. 

A 4' x 12' bed is now fully planted in cole crops.  It looks like the first kohlrabi will be ready in about a week.  There's still one more set of cole crops in the cold frame that will go into another bed. 

Tomato and okra seedlings are growing indoors under the lights.  Cucumbers, Vertina for pickling and Diva for slicing, were seeded two days ago.  All of the hot weather plants that are seeded indoors have been started now.  Squash and beans remain, which will be seeded directly into the beds in mid-May.   What's the state of your garden?

Thursday, April 13, 2017

It's looking a lot like Spring, or I'm starting to believe that winter is over

I go through this every year at this time.  I just find it hard to accept that winter is done, and the outside world is once again - well, livable and green.  It's a matter of conditioning I guess.  Expectations are suppressed because winter is, for most of us, a steaming load of crap that has to be endured.  Then when it's finally over, and a month ago it looked like it was over when it was not, that's equally hard to accept, because it may just be a tease.  But I'm finally coming to grips with the reality that it's really getting nice outdoors and will likely stay that way.  I'll be fine, really.   I don't need any pity.

The cattails in the upper end of the pond are showing green shoots.  I imagine in a month or so this will go from brown to green.  Cattails are a recent development in the pond.   The redwing blackbirds gather in them in the evening, with plenty of squabbling and arguments over territory.  I'm hoping that the cattails will expand over the upper end of the pond.  They are very good at filtering out the silt and cleaning the water.

The flower beds are coming to life.  All of the hostas have at the least put up some shoots, although some are far ahead of the others.  After five or six years, this is the first year that the helleboros has flowered.  It nearly died in the front bed and perked up when it was moved to the shade bed behind the back deck.  I'm really liking this plant.

Another project is the bed over the septic tanks.  Last autumn I removed the spirea and carpet juniper because they were getting too large to be near the tanks.  Last week I killed the weeds with Roundup, being careful to avoid spraying the creeping phlox, then added some topsoil.  Today I marked the outlines of the tanks with flags.  I plan to put in perennials outside the footprint of the tanks and plant groundcover directly over the tanks.

The field peas planted as a cover crop in the squash bed have come up, although germination has been spotty so far.  Unfortunately the sugar snap peas planted along the trellis have not come up.  Guess I put too much faith in seeds from 2014.

There are two beds remaining that have not been prepped, actually one because after this picture was taken the front bed was turned over with the shovel.  It will be planted with parsnip and god knows what else in a few days. 

I'm about ready to bail on the thyme.  It has shown a few hints of green in the dead debris but hasn't started to leaf out.  A month ago the plant was greening up then took a hit in the late cold snap.  It just can't seem to recover.

Not so for the Victoria rhubarb.  It was planted a month or so ago and has already put out a new leaf, so I have to assume it is happy in its new location.

The first two sets of brassicas are in the beds and doing well, although in retrospect I could have done better with the spacing.   I set the broccoli on the north side of the bed since it is the tallest plant, with cauliflower and kohlrabi in the middle and cabbage on the south side.  By the time they begin to crowd each other, the kohlrabi will come out.

The third set of brassicas is in the cold frame, and the fourth set is under the lights in the house.  In the back are peppers, left over strawberry plants, onions and a replacement thyme.  The peppers that I started are Magyar paprika (from Renee's), and Mosquitero and Bastan ancho, while the largest is a jalapeno that was bought.  I still have to buy some sweet pepper seedlings.

The earthbox planted with lettuce was taken out of the coldframe and set on a bench that I built recently.  This spot is perfect for lettuce.  When the apple tree leafs out the lettuce will go into shade in late afternoon.  I plan to put two potato sacks on this bench, and the frame will keep the foliage from falling down.

That's it for now.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Monday April 3

Well it's about time.  This weekend I picked some overwintered lettuce.  I was a little concerned that it would be strong tasting but it is fine, and much better than lettuce from the store.  The hard freeze in mid-March set it back some but it seems to have recovered fine.

There's going to be lots of spinach.  This is just the start.  I'll have to either give some away or attempt to freeze it. 

The lettuce in the coldframe is coming along but it's going to be at least a week before it's ready to pick.  The onions and brassicas are about ready for transplanting.  I may do that today if the rains hold off a bit.

Now that the strawberries are out of the perennial garden, replaced by a rhubarb plant, there's room for more herbs.  Anise hyssop, French tarragon and rosemary were added.  The Greek oregano plant was pulled out and replaced with another plant, this time 'hot and spicy' oregano.  Actually I thought I was getting Greek oregano.  Should have checked the label.  At any rate it smells like the same thing.  Parsley was planted near the rhubarb, but as the rhubarb grows the parsley will likely need to be planted somewhere else next year.  And the thyme took a severe hit from the hard freeze a few weeks ago.  It's just not coming back and will probably have to be replaced. 

Lastly I put Earliglow strawberry plants in the pallet planter.  These are June bearers.  I tried the everbearing type for a few years and found that they bore most of their crop in June.  After that the berries came in at a trickle, were poor quality, and the birds got most of them.   Another case where something sounds better than it actually is.

To see what other gardeners are harvesting, head on over to

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Early spring preparation is nearly finished

This year's brassica bed was planted with the first set of cole crops about a week ago.  It always feels good to get that first set in the ground, as if the season is really beginning.  I put the bunny protector on the bed just in case.  Now if only we'd get more sunlight, these plants would grow a little faster.

The first set of brassicas is often hit or miss, and frequently the second set that is started two weeks later will produce before the first set.  With the mild weather it looks like this planting is off to a good start.  There's broccoli, kohlrabi, cauliflower and cabbage in the mix.

Another bed is also prepped and ready for seedlings.  It will get onions to start, then carrots and beets a bit later.  I'll set up a trellis on the back (north) side of the bed for cucumbers so I'll have to leave a little room for them.  The onion seedlings have been biding their time in the coldframe, and they are just about large enough for transplanting.  It looks like about 60 seedlings out of a 72 cell tray have survived.  They will go in the beds after the next round of rains go through and the soil in the beds dries out a bit.
I've found that onion seedlings tend to get straggly under the lights, so I try to get them into the coldframe as soon as possible.  They have become stockier growing in sunlight.

One more bed still needs prepping for spring plantings.  It will get parsnips and the last sets of brassicas, as well as a row or two of bush beans to give me early beans.  What's left is the bed for tomatoes and peppers, which has a cover crop of field peas on it right now.  I won't do anything with it until May.

What I call the 'greenhouse bed' for overwintered plants is looking great.  The spinach has never looked better at this time of year, especially the row of Reflect spinach.  I've gotten a couple of small pickings so far, but expect to bring in much larger hauls very soon.  The lettuce - Pinetree winter mix - was looking very nice until the harsh cold snap in mid-March.  It looks like it is recovering.  There's a row of bunching onion and a row of spring planted spinach, which is hard to see in the photo, that is coming up nicely now, and at the other end,  four rows of garlic.

If everything works according to plan, all of this will be out by June, excepting garlic, and will be replaced by a summer squash plant and some okra.

The everbearing strawberries were pulled out of the perennial bed.  I put in a Victoria rhubarb plant, after first digging a large hole and amending it with compost.  After allowing for the rhubarb to get larger that still leaves some additional room.  I'll put in some more herbs to fill the space.  The section planted in asparagus was mulched with wood chips.

I was going to plant a rhubarb crown but after removing it from the bag and seeing it was not encouraged, in fact wasn't sure it was alive.  Last weekend I stopped at May's Greenhouse in Bloomington and saw they had nice healthy rhubarb plants in the pots, actually all their stuff is amazingly vigorous.  Decided I couldn't wait to see if a crown was going to make a plant when a real plant was available for eight bucks.

Seedlings are coming along.  After ten days, the first peppers finally - finally- germinated.  Peppers take forever, that's why I'm more than happy to buy most of them as seedlings at May's.  I started the peppers with a heat mat under the trays, since at the time their wasn't room for my preferred method until some of the seedings could be moved out to the cold frame.  The heat mat is really pointless since I use a two tray system with a reservoir and wicking mat, and the heat never gets up to the top of the pots.  What does work is the plastic domes that trap enough of the light via the greenhouse effect to warm up the atmosphere inside of the dome.  They also keep the surface of the potting mix moist.

There's a temperature sensor inside that shows the dome maintains a temperature between 76 and 80F when the lights are on.  That's close to optimal to get peppers and eggplant to germinate. 

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

A reflector for the light setup

Like a lot of gardeners I start most of the plants for the garden indoors.   The lighting system began as a 2-flourescent tube shoplight suspended from the ceiling,  with plants in trays on a folding table beneath. The system evolved to a four shelf rack with a 4-tube light suspended from the top shelf.  More lights can be added to lower shelves although I haven't needed a second light setup yet.   A mobile coldframe is an integral part of the system, as seedlings can be moved out to the coldframe as they get larger, making room for new starts indoors.

It always bothered me to see that a lot of light was wasted out the sides.  When I set the lights up this year I fastened a wood crosspiece on the back side of the rack and stapled a piece of Reflectix to it.  This stuff is like silvered bubble wrap.  It has a reflective coating on both sides and a dead air space in between. Setting up the reflector at an angle helped put more light on the plants, as opposed to the vertical placement it had last year.

I did not consider doing this on the front because I wanted easy access to the plants.  What was needed was a reflector that could be inserted or removed easily.   I was thinking of using a piece of plywood with Reflectix stapled on it, a heavy cumbersome setup.   Then it came to me - use a piece of foam insulation board.  It's strong, rigid and light.  I had a piece of foam in the pole barn from the kitchen remodel, when a hole was cut in the wall for a window.  (This is why I never throw anything away).

Here you see a piece of foam, a piece of Reflectix, and aluminum tape that is used for sealing the joints in ductwork.  This tape is a bit pricey, and duct tape will probably work fine, but I had a partial roll of this from a prior job, so I used it.  After taking some measurements the foam was cut to size and the Reflectix was taped onto the foam.

The reflector took about 15 minutes to make.  It's light enough to lean against the suspended light unit and can be removed with one hand (the movable reflector is on the left in the picture).  With reflectors on each side I believe the light unit can be raised to full height with little loss of illumination.  With taller seedlings like tomatoes the reflectors should help get light to the lower leaves.  Another benefit: if the space is needed the trays can be turned crossways and still get adequate light.  Why didn't I think of this years ago?

The foam doesn't look that great, but it has another benefit.  I like to work on the computer in the sunroom.  Now I don't have to look directly into the lights when I look up.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Another day's toil, and it's getting there

Continuing the theme of what's involved in getting the vegetable garden ready for another season, here is another post on spring preparations.

I still haven't planted the rhubarb.  Having spread the usable compost on the squash bed, there was none left to amend the soil around the rhubarb planting, and I have read that you must be sure that the soil that rhubarb is planted in has lots of organic matter.  I'll have to buy a bag of compost.

Before the rhubarb can be planted, the Tribute strawberries had to come out.  I decided not to transplant them to the pallet planter.  I'll purchase June-bearing strawberries for that.   The plants had been damaged heavily by the late cold snap, since I had raked the leaves off of them several weeks ago.  After hoeing out the strawberries, the bed was smoothed over.  The end of the bed that has asparagus was covered with a layer of mulch.

The rhubarb will go in the center.   I plan to add some more herbs at the end opposite the asparagus.  Anise hyssop for its bee-attracting qualities, and something else.

Two beds need to be ready in a week or so.  A few days ago I spaded over this years brassica bed, and today I spaded over the adjacent bed that will get onions, carrots, beets and maybe parsnip.  First I raked off the cover of field peas and volunteer chickweed that survived the winter.  Most of it came up like a carpet.

After removing what I could with the rake, the bed was spaded under.  Since this bed will be planted in small seeds and onions, it needs to be in a fine tilth.  The shovel was pushed in as far as it would go before turning the shovelfull over.  I was surprised at the amount of tree roots in this bed, which have to be dug up every year.  It was rough going, as every time the spade was plunged in it had to be levered up with difficulty to break the roots.   A large cherry tree about twelve feet from the bed was removed about five years ago, and there's no way it was the culprit.  

That leaves the hop hornbeam tree over 20 feet from the bed.  Also known as ironwood for it's gray bark that has a metallic look, it's a small understory tree that has grown very slowly.   I can't imagine that this tree would spread its roots far beyond it's canopy, but I can't think of anything else that would send its roots here.

The tree is certainly not coming out.  I'm fond of this little tree with it's ungraceful limbs, so I'll resign myself to digging up roots every spring.

I'll go over this bed with the little power tiller, and it will get the onions in about a week, with a planting of carrots about the same time.   The first set of cole crops is in the cold frame ready for transplanting into the big bad world.  Tonight and tomorrow night frost is predicted, so I'll wait two more days to set them out.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Pallet planter v 2.0

After several cool cloudy days we had another nice spring day, and that brought a long day of work in the garden beds.  'Make hay while the sun shines' as the saying goes, and that I did.  With no frost likely for days, the 72 cell tray of onions was moved into the coldrame.  That left room under the lights to start peppers.  I started two Mosquitero anchos, three Bastan anchos, and two Magyar paprika peppers, dropping two seeds in each pot.  I buy the remaining peppers as seedlings from May's Greenhouse in Bloomington.  They offer about 60 different varieties of peppers seedlings and I can usually find the kinds of peppers that I want there at a dollar a plant.

Field peas were inoculated in a slurry of nitrogen-fixing bacteria and scattered over the large bed.   After the seeds were scattered the bed was covered with a thin layer of compost from the bins.  The compost gives the peas enough protection to germinate.

There was one module of finished compost and it didn't go far.  The compost that was still 'working' in the other bin was shoveled over into the just emptied bin in order to get to the bottom where there was more usable compost.   The unfinished compost that was left in the bin should really start getting hot now that it has been aerated.

I got enough good stuff out of the bins to cover the bed.  When I was finished spreading compost there was a two module bin with 'green' compost that's still working, and an empty two module bin.  Kitchen scraps and bunny poop will go into the empty bin while the full bin is left to finish out.  I'm hoping this compost will be sufficiently ready in two months to add to the beds that get hot weather plants.

A row of sugar snap peas was seeded along one edge.  I drove in two fence posts and attached cross pieces top and bottom, but never got around to tying some strings to the cross pieces.  I'll have to hunt down some plastic and see if I can rig up a makeshift cloche to help warm the soil over the sugar snaps to speed up germination.

Then there's the pallet that I made into a strawberry planter last fall.  One plant made it through the winter.  That's not surprising as I did nothing to protect them.  I had to choose between scrapping the thing or trying to improve it.  It seemed like less work to improve it, and I really like strawberries.

I cut triangles from 2 x 4's on the miter saw and screwed them to the sides of the pallet, then 1 x 4 pieces were fastened to the triangles to make six pots.  The pallet was leaned at a greater angle and rebraced.  Potting mix was added.  I'm thinking this might actually work.  The growing medium in each individual tray connects with the mix that fills the pallet, so the roots have plenty of room to roam.  It's also much easier to water.

Now I'm trying to decide whether to take out the everbearing strawberries in the bed - they have to come out anyway - and transplant them to the planter, or should I buy June-bearing strawberries?  I've found the everbearers really don't do much after the first flush of berries, and the birds get most of them anyway.  And people say that June-bearers taste better.  Which people, I don't know.

After the strawberries are dug out of the bed they will be replaced with rhubarb.  Yes, rhubarb.  Good stuff, makes any berry or fruit taste better.   And I like the looks of it, big leaves and red stems.  The first set of brassicas needs to go out into the bed ASAP.  It has to wait, as storms are predicted tomorrow.  Progress may be slow but progress or something like it is underway.