Thursday, May 30, 2013

Using structure in the garden

Most of the structures that I use in the garden allow the plants to make use of vertical space.  If the growing area has limits it can always be expanded upward as long as the soil has sufficient nutrition to support the higher density of plants.  This morning I finished installing the last of the support structures in the beds and it seems like a good time to show these.

Everybody has their own methods.  The supports I like to use are steel fence posts driven into the bed soil or just outside the raised bed.  I've found that a properly sized post that is driven until its flange is completely in the ground will hold up to any weather excluding a tornado.  They can be hard to pull up in the fall but a few soakings with the garden hose around the base will always loosen them.

In an earlier post I showed the suspended tomato cages and I'll show them again here.  This year I'm growing three varieties in three cages.  That may not sound like much but if the weather is not insane like last year it's not unreasonable to expect a hundred pounds of tomatoes from these three plants (Supersonic, Cherokee Purple and San Marzano).  To make the cages I drove 7 foot steel posts, the rolled steel kind that have hooks, about a foot into the soil.  The cages, made from 4' x 8' rebar mesh, were hung on the post hooks so the bottom of the cage is about 2 feet off the soil, making a cage about 6 feet high.
It's a little hard to see but there are three adjoining cages in the picture.  The cages are supported by four posts and wired together where they touch.  This makes for a very solid structure.  Until the tomato plants have grown into the cages they are supported with a few bamboo stakes to guide them. 

This morning I put up the cucumber trellis.  The plants had grown to the point where they needed support quickly.  Along the back of the bed I drove three 8 foot steel T-posts about 4 feet apart.  These posts were driven just outside of the raised bed to avoid disturbing the soil in the bed, which has a lot of established plants.  A 4' x 8' piece of rebar mesh was "hung" even with the top of the poles using T-post clips, about 6 feet above the bed soil.

With a good twist of one end of the clip with a needlenose plier the clip holds the mesh to the post very solidly.  I used three clips on each post.  I filled the open space at the bottom with pieces from those folding tomato cages you see in the stores.  The cukes now have about 50 square feet of trellis space to expand into. 
Potatoes always fall down about midsummer and I think this just invites disease in when the air circulation through the plants is poor.  I like to give them some support for when they get bigger.  This year I drove four 6' posts at each corner of the bed.  Since they are driven over a foot into the soil I should be able to string wire or string tautly between the posts to help support the plants.

The potato box is an experiment.  This morning I added another row of siding and directed more shoots out through a hole at the bottom of the siding, then added more leaf mold to cover most of the shoots inside.  If this works there's a lot of design changes that must be made to this but for this season it's good enough. The back side faces north so there's no shoots growing out that side.

This is the pole bean tower.  It goes into the sharp angle of the trapezoidal bed so I made it triangular in shape using three 6' fence posts.  The wood crosspieces were connected to the posts with short drywall screws through the holes in the posts.  A cordless screwdriver is a really handy tool to have in the garden for jobs like this.  Some of the wood pieces were attached to the post and some were attached to other wood pieces - whatever works.  I drilled holes in the top crosspieces and tied off garden twine from the top to bottom pieces.  Nothing fancy, it's just the easiest design I could come up with using materials on hand.

Here's a panorama of sorts showing the completed structures in the vegetable garden.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Memorial Day update

Well it's 3 years in a row that I've done an overview of the vegetable garden on Memorial Day.  Usually at this point just about all spring plantings are in the beds - not quite this year - but still a good time to step back and have a look because mostly the plan has gone from paper to soil now.  From now on most plantings will replace a crop that has finished and is pulled out - carrots, scallions, bush beans - things that have a short growing season.

Looking at last years pics I can see that the potatoes, tomatoes and squash are at least two weeks behind where they were last spring.  But last spring had some bizarre weather, 80 degrees in March and 90 degrees in May, and the hot weather crops went in much earlier.  And last year the cole crops were a disaster.  Not this year, they are behind but looking really good.

But first the pickin's for the week.  I picked the first broccoli.  Not much of a broccoli, a mighty 4 oz floret, but it's something.  The first planting of cole crops got a bad shiver this spring and they are all dwarfs.  It was a nice snack.
The kohlrabi is from the second planting of cole crops.  I planted Kolibri and Grand Duke this year.  It looks like they mature at about the same time. I let this one get big to see how big they can get and still be good.  It's not hard to tell when broccoli is ready, but kohlrabi?  My theory is that as long as the bulb is growing fast it should be OK.  And why not let it get big?  It takes the plant almost two months from seed to when it starts to bulb, when the plant is adding leaves so it can make sugars.  So once the plant has invested all that time to make itself into a productive sugar making machine it makes sense to use that capacity to it's fullest.  If I wait a 4 or 5 more days and the bulb doubles in size from a half pound to a pound then it's worth giving the plant the extra time.  That's a more efficient utilization of space.  This bulb was 17 oz and it was not at all woody.

This is the greens bed, which gets a bit of everything.  The last of the overwintered spinach bolted and were pulled out.  There's some spring planted spinach but there's probably not much chance it will produce edible leaves before the coming hot weather causes it to bolt.  The first batch of cole crops are in this bed and they are all small.  When more space opens up I'll put some carrots in this bed.   

Here's the main brassica bed.  There's kohlrabi (Kolibri and Grand Duke), broccoli (Major and Gypsy), cauliflower (Summer Harvest), cabbage (Gonzalez), and brussels sprouts (can't remember the variety).  It's all looking really good this year.

These two beds are mostly planted in onions.  The front bed has two rows of parsnip at one end and garlic at the other.  The back bed has carrots at one end and bush beans at the other.  Cucumbers are planted along the back side.  I've set in the posts but still have to put up the trellis, and those cukes are growing really fast!  I really scaled back the parsnip this year after they sustained a lot of mole or vole damage last year.  I used last years seed.  They say you should get new parsnip seed every year but I just seeded heavier and the germination was good enough.

The solanacae are growing well.  The eggplant was set in this morning in the open space between the tomatoes and peppers.  At the upper end is the last batch of cole crops.

Potatoes are looking good.  So far I have added a layer of half finished compost, then pulled the center ridge of soil over them, then added another layer of compost.  Soon I'll set in some posts at the corners and string wire between them to help support the plants.  I gave up on putting them in cages this year.

Also the potato box is about ready for another row of siding.  Some shoots were directed through holes in the sides so they can make foliage.  The shoots that have leaves are called shaws if you're a stickler about the terminology.  When the next shoots are long enough I'll attach another row of siding and direct some of those out through the new holes.  I've been adding half finished compost to the inside and will continue adding shredded leaf mold as the plants grow upward.

Then there's squash.  With the recent cool spell the different varieties of summer and winter squash have all germinated but haven't opened up their true leaves.  So I'm going to pull all of them out and reseed.  I'm convinced that it's critical to get squash off to a good start and when the early growth is interrupted it's an invitation to disease, and they get plenty of diseases around here.  So I'll start over.  It's not a big deal.  I've found that the later planted squash will quickly catch up and overtake the squash that went through a cold spell.

There's some squash and okra in this bed as well as some extra potted plants that were set into the ground in case the first transplants had some bad luck.  That's a bean tower made from three six foot fence posts.  Some pieces of wood are screwed to the posts and string is tied from the top to the bottom pieces.  It's planted with Kentucky Wonder beans.

That's it.  With the new beds and SWC's I'm hoping to get at least 300 pounds from the beds this year.  If the squash aren't leveled by disease like they were last year that should be doable.  Last year was probably the worst year since I started doing this, a measly 180 pounds.  But then most summers don't have a week of 100+ degree days like 2012.   

Monday, May 20, 2013

Monday May 20

After a late spring the vegetables are quickly catching up to a more normal schedule.  Except for the eggplant which should have been seeded a week earlier, all of the warm weather plants are in and doing well.  

This week I picked the first of the spring planted cole crops, a Kolibri kohlrabi.  More should be coming in soon.  I sliced it up into french fry strips and sauteed it briefly.  It's a pity that more people don't know about kohlrabi, if they grew it once I'm sure it would be part of a regular planting.  It's easy to grow, matures quickly, and is mild and buttery.  The beer bottle in the picture is there for size comparison.

Of course there's the usual lettuce and spinach which has been producing for weeks, always the first of the vegetables that I get here in southwestern Indiana.  This is the first lettuce that came out of the raised beds.  Prior to this picking I harvested about 4 pounds of lettuce from the Earthbox, a pretty good haul in my opinion.

The potato box experiment is in progress.  I planted two Red Pontiac seed potatoes in the box, and the shoots were up about 3-4 inches.  Yesterday I covered about 2/3 of the foliage with some half finished compost, leaving the front shoots uncovered.  When they get a little longer I will attach the next pieces of carsiding and direct the shoots out through holes cut in the boards.

For the week I picked:  spinach 6 oz, lettuce 17 oz, kohlrabi 8 oz.     

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Planting day

Whether planting seeds or seedlings in the beds, I think of starting vegetables as work in progress.  Something is always going in or going out.  Spent plants are pulled up and replaced.  In these parts most people with a garden plant everything sometime before Memorial Day (fair weather gardeners).  I've been planting sets of cabbage family seedlings every 12 days since sometime in March.  But it turns out there is one day each May when more plants get started in the beds than any other day.  That day was today.

Why today?  On Monday morning the area had it's last predicted brush with a frost.  Actually it wasn't even close.  Now it's warm, in fact 82 degrees F as I write this.  It was time for the warm weather plants to go into the ground.  I have been setting the tomatoes and peppers outdoors each day for several days to get them ready.

This year I'm planting three tomato plants instead of two - Supersonic, which I plant every year, Cherokee Purple, and San Marzano, a sauce tomato.  I plan to can some salsa.  This is my caging method.  First I set three cages on the ground to mark their location.  I found that pushing the cages into a somewhat oval shape allowed them all to fit into a triangle in the bed.  I drove 7 foot fence posts at the outside mark of the back cages then hung the cages on the hooks in the post (it so happens that the post hooks are the same distance apart as the mesh in the rebar cages).  The cages are held on the posts with the bottom of the cage about 20 inches above the soil level.
I suspend the cages this way in order to get the maximum height possible.  Six feet is nothing for a healthy tomato plant.  I made sure the horizontal wires of the cages matched exactly since they will be wired together later.  The bottom hooks of the post face down and the bottom wire of the cage was pulled down and over that hook, which takes either very strong hands or a good pair of pliers.  Once hooked this way the cage is attached quite securely to the post.

Then I marked the outside of the front cage and set in two more posts.  The front cage was suspended on those posts in the same fashion.  Once all the cages were in place I wired them together.  With only four posts for three cages the finished structure is actually very solid.  It was time to set in the tomatoes.
The tomato plants were more than ready to be set out.  The nurseries and greenhouses around here always start their plants too early.  I bought them two weeks ago and repotted them to larger pots.  The same with the peppers.  The suspended cages leave plenty of room to set in the tomato plants.  The two red cups mark the location for the eggplants which are not big enough to go out yet.  The peppers are:  Ancho, Holy Mole, Jalapeno, Lipstick (similar to Carmen), Cabernet (a  Burpee's purple sweet pepper which is a cross between Marconi and something else), and Corro di Torro Rossa, which is a bullhorn type sweet pepper.  I was planning to put two okra plants in the unused space at the end but will put something else there.  The plant at the front is a small Greek basil.
Millionaire okra was planted in the two self-watering containers that I built early this spring.  Guess I'll find out if the design worked or not.  The Earthbox grew several pounds of great lettuce.  It's all out now and replaced with celery seedlings.  Maybe this is the year I actually get some celery out of the garden.

Two eight foot lengths of rebar trellis were set up behind the terraced bed on the slope toward the pond.  There's a lot of compost in this bed.  I got lucky and found someone with a supply of well composted horse manure and straw which went into the remaining unplanted beds.  I planted half of this bed in Metro Butternut, a Johnny's variety that has always worked well here, and the other half in Teksukabotu, an Asian hybrid that is part C. moschata so it should be resistant to the borer.

As for the rest of the garden, the cole crops are coming along well.  I expect to pick some kohlrabi any day now.

And the greens bed has been steadily producing spinach.  The lettuce is almost ready but I've got several pounds in the refrigerator.  There's also some cole crops in the greens bed that were the first plants set out, but they got a shiver in the late cold and are miniatures.

I left space on the north side of this bed for cucumber plants, two Diva plants and two Picolino plants.  They also went in today.  I still have to set up the trellis but could not find the ambition to do that today.   The open space at the front was planted with Provider beans.

Last but not least the trapezoidal bed was seeded with a yellow zucchini and Honey Bear acorn squash.  One corner was planted with two Silver Queen okra seedlings.   Well not quite last as I almost forgot.  Two of the more decomposed modules from the compost bin were set on the slope toward the pond and filled with soil and compost.  The sweet potato slips will go here.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Monday May 6

I harvested spinach (5 oz) and lettuce (17 oz) this week – the same two leafy vegetables I’ve been getting for about a month.  It won’t be long before the cole crops are ready, first kohlrabi then cabbage and broccoli. There's about one more pound of lettuce to get from the Earthbox, then in go the celery seedlings.  I'm finding that the Earthbox grows some really nice lettuce.

With the 10 day forecast looking promising I’ll seed a small patch of Provider green beans tomorrow.  This week I’ll start preparing the solanacae bed for the tomatoes, peppers and eggplants.  Those seedlings as well as okra and cucumber are growing under the lights right now. 

The gash in the levee from the recent hard rain has been repaired.  First the large wild rose bushes were cut down.  I got tangled up in the thorns a few times trying to crawl underneath the thorny canopy to reach the trunks with the chainsaw - working on a steep bank no less.   Since the rose canopy was a large ball of vines the best I could do was push the entire ball of foliage down the slope of the bank with a rake.  I realize now that the overgrown rose bushes were the problem.  They only anchor the soil around their trunks and the canopy is so dense that nothing else grows underneath, leaving areas of soil with no root system to anchor it. 

Once the rose bushes were out of the way I set concrete blocks into the gash, making several levels of crude retaining walls to help hold the new dirt in place.  Then it was time to add dirt.  The dirt was loaded into the cart, pulled with the garden tractor to the levee and then shoveled into the gash.  It took 8 yards of dirt to fill the gash and make a smooth slope.  This picture shows the first blocks put into the gash.  About 20 more blocks were added.

By Wednesday all the dirt was in place.  Since the dirt was delivered dry (much lighter than wet) it needed wetting.  To reach the repair with water I ran 125 feet of extension cords toward the levee, set up the pump and attached 130 feet of hose which just reached the far end of the repair.   That’s when I found that the dry soil would not absorb water very much water without forming rivulets of water that would eventually form channels.  I lightly watered the soil once an hour for the remainder of the day and several more times the following morning. 

The next day I seeded the soil with grass seed and tossed loose straw over it as well as I could.  I had bought a seeding mat, a 4 foot wide roll of netting that contains straw inside the netting.  Since the dirt on the slope was not walkable, I stitched together two pieces of the mat side by side with garden twine, using a nail as a needle.  The resulting 8 foot wide piece was laid on the bank and anchored at the top with pegs.  To help hold it in place I set some PVC pipe that the builder left behind on the whole affair.  Holes were drilled through the pipe at one end and rebar was inserted in the holes and tapped into the ground to hold the top end of the pipes in place.    

It’s been raining nearly all weekend.  Fortunately it has been a very slow rain and it looks like the repair has held together.  I think an intense downpour would have washed much of it away again, so a bullet has been dodged.  There’s still some minor repairs to do and the remaining dirt will be put on top of the levee to raise up a low place in the embankment.  I hope that I never have to do this ever again.