Thursday, February 24, 2011

What a mess

It look’s like there’s some work to do whenever the weather improves.  The tree damaged the one bed pretty badly and it will need to be repaired.  Fortunately it’s the bed designated for the tomatoes, peppers and eggplant, so I’ve got at least 2 months to get it fixed.  I’m taking mental notes of the tasks that need to be done this spring.  Rake up the oak leaves in the yard that I wasn’t able to get to before the snows, shred them and put them in the compost pile.  Cut up the rest of the tree into logs, stack, shred the branches for mulch. Restack the compost bin, take out the usable compost, spread into the beds.

The good news, if there’s good news in February, is this:  It’s not January, and the extended very cold weather is mostly over.  High temperatures of 40 degrees beats a high of 15 degrees any day.  The other good news is: my pond came back up.  Last year this area saw one of the worst droughts on record.  August and September saw about two inches of total rain.  The pond level went down about 4 feet below the overflow.  Stumps were out of the water and the surface area was about ½ normal – it was hardly a pond anymore.  When the snow and ice melted the pond came up a few inches, but left the ground saturated.  We got a good soaker last Saturday, the inflow of water became a small torrent, and in a few hours time the pond had come up about two feet.  Another rain yesterday brought it up even more, and now it looks like a real pond, even though it has a way to go.  Now that the ice is gone I’m waiting to see if the catfish and bluegill made it through all this.  It’s a deep pond so I’m hoping for the best.      

Monday, February 21, 2011

Harvest Monday

I'm new at this but slowly catching on, or so I tell myself.  I dug up the remaining parsnip from last years garden and one rutabaga.  Half the parsnip were roasted and eaten - they are still very tasty.  There's still 4 or 5 rutabagas left in the bed.  Parsnip - 2.4 lb.   Rutabaga - 0.8 lb.  That's it.  I plan to set up a harvest tally in a new tab when I get the time.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Starting the seeds, Part 2

It’s past time to get some seeds germinating.  My original plan was to start the seeds on Feb 12, but the remodeling set the schedule back a little.  I use a commercial sterilized seed starting mix that contains some plant food so I don’t have to mix plant food into the water.  I got the mix from Menards last Fall when it was about ½ price.  I’ve found that these mixes need to be prewetted as they will not wick up water when dry.  The surface tension of water is apparently too great to penetrate the small capillary spaces between the particles.  I added about 3 liters of water to the bag, some Mycorhizae mix,  closed it (most of these bags have a ziplock), turned the bag over several times to mix and let it sit overnight.  I filled the pots with the mix and dropped each pot onto the table a few times to settle the mix.

The first set of plants is not much.  There's 2 baby bok choi from Burpees that I recently bought at Menards since I forgot to order some early bok choi when I made the Pinetree order.   Later this spring I’ll switch to Black Summer (F1) bok choi from Johnny’s.  It’s a green-stemmed variety that is more heat tolerant.  I’m also starting two kohlrabi varieties, one is Grand Duke from Pinetree and the other is Early White Vienna from Ferry-Morse.   I like to use larger pots for brassicas than the small cells in multicell packs.  These pots are 3” deep and easily tipped, so I set them inside of some coir pots for stability.    I dropped 4-5 seeds in each pot and covered with ¼ inch of potting mix.  

I also started lettuce in a 4-cell tray:  romaine, loose-leaf (2 cells), and butterhead mixtures from Burpee’s.  These seeds were bought in 2009 but should be good for several years.  I'll thin each lettuce cell to 2 seedlings and set them out as doubles.   I don’t like to buy new seed when viable seed is available from prior years unless I really don’t like the product.   The seeds planted today won't produce anything edible until April but the lettuce and spinach that overwintered in the greenhouse bed will start providing greens in a few weeks. 


The pots were set in the flat system that was discussed in the last post.  Water was added until it just covered the capillary mat (see pic) then the flat was covered with a humidity dome.  The rheostat was adjusted to give a more-or-less constant temperature at the soil probe of 75 degrees.   When the seeds germinate I will remove the dome, turn off the heat mat, and switch on the lights.  Once the seedlings are up the dome becomes a negative.  It prevents air circulation and reflects light.  The lights should be within a couple of inches of the seedlings for best growth.  

That’s it for now.   I finally cleaned out the sunroom enough to get both tables set up, one for seedlings and one as a workstation.  Here’s the pic of the setup.  I set the reflectors below the table for now.  They will be set on either side of the fixture once the seeds germinate and the lights are turned on.  Happy growing.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Starting the seeds, or, Better late than never

OK it’s time to get some seeds in some pots, but first a little of last year’s business.  With the warmup the parsnip was showing a some green new growth on the tops.  The ground is no longer frozen so I dug the remaining parsnip up, along with one rutabaga.  There’s still some rutabagas left in the bed and I probably won’t use them all, just planted too many and don’t like them that much, except in beef stew.  Parsnips are another story - these are very sweet.  

I finally made space in the sunroom to set up a seed-starting workstation.  It’s pretty basic – a table, fluorescent light fixture hung from ceiling hooks, side reflectors, heat mat, rheostat, and light timer.  The light fixture is a 4 foot work light with a wide reflector that holds two 32 watt T-8 bulbs, from Lowe's.  I made the side reflectors by attaching L-angle to white prefinished 4' shelves.  The reflectors bounce light so it comes from the sides as well as the top, resulting in fuller plants.   Even with the reflectors, this setup gives just adequate light for seedlings, but if they are not planted too close will not get spindly.   I wasn't willing to spend the money on a thermostat control for the heat mat, they're a bit pricey.  Instead I plug the heat mat into a rheostat, insert a temperature probe from a digital thermometer into the potting soil in one of the pots to monitor the soil temperature, then adjust the rheostat to get the soil to the desired temperature, usually 75 to 85 degrees. 

I only use the heat mat when trying to germinate seeds, and will move seedlings already growing to a separate flat off the heat mat.  I’ve found that the arrangement of lights and reflectors will maintain a temperature of 55-70 degrees inside the lighted space with no additional heat source (the unheated sunroom is usually about 50-60 degrees this time of year).  This temperature is fine for cool season crops.  This picture shows the light fixture with the reflectors, heat mat, temperature probe and rheostat.

In the past I put the pots into flats and added enough water every day or two to wet the soil at the top of the pots, which requires a lot of monitoring.  You don’t want a standing water in the flat as this will drown the seedlings and invite disease, or at least mold and algae growth, and you can’t let the soil dry out.  There are systems that float a styrofoam sheet with growing cells on a reservoir of water.  I don't like the expandable plugs though and found that cheap plastic pots and multicell trays provide the most flexibility to raise different size plants. This year I tried to design a system that should need less attention using a capillary mat to wick water from a bottom flat.  The pots are set in a perforated flat that is held above the water reservoir by spacers.  Two slits are cut at each end of the flat and the ends of a capillary mat are pushed through the slits and sit in the water reservoir of the lower flat.
Putting this together is very straightforward, requiring a cordless drill, some spacers and screws.  For spacers I cut three 9” pieces of ¾ inch PVC conduit which I had on hand and screwed them to the bottom of the flat at the ends and the center.  The pipe strengthens the flat, which is very flimsy especially after the slits are cut, and also holds the flat above the reservoir.  I used some white hex head screws with a self-tapping point that were left over from an earlier project.  The flat had to be turned on its side while I used a cordless drill in one hand to drive the hexhead screw into the conduit, held with my other hand.  The hexhead screws are much easier to use in a cordless screwdriver.  The bits are available at any hardware store.  This is a top view of the perforated flat with a few extra screws tossed in to show what they look like.  Note the wide head on the screws. 

And here's a bottom view showing the PVC spacers:

The picture below shows the flat upright with the slits cut at each end. These perforated flats are very flimsy and the slit is easily cut with a sharp knife.  The capillary mat is trimmed as needed with scissors and the ends are then pushed through the slits. 

The bottom picture shows the assembly from the side with the ends of the mat hanging beneath the flat. The entire assembly is set into a solid flat so the ends of the mat lay in the lower flat.  Water is added into the top flat until it wets the mat.

That's it for now.  I'll update the success, or not, of this system in the near future.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

A rough winter, or, I think the worst is over

Firstly, I changed the URL of my nascent blog from “hoosiergardnr” to “gardenvariety-hoosier” .  The original URL was very similar to an established blog, which I did not realize when I created the URL.  
Here in SW Indiana we’ve enjoyed some refreshingly nice weather the past few days, and today it’s reached over 60 degrees.  It’s hard to imagine that the morning of Feb 10 saw 0 degrees when the last few days have seen highs in the high 40’s and low 50’s.  The “epic” winter storm in this area began with freezing rain followed by sleet followed by a dusting of snow, to give everything that just-went-through a blizzard veneer, with lots of tree branches down for ambiance.  The storm left a sheet of crusty ice about 2 inches thick that is slowly giving way to the warm up.  I still can’t open the door of my minibarns, which face north, due to the frost heave and ice buildup.   This morning I took a peek inside the plastic greenhouse where spinach and lettuce have overwintered.  There's a row of Space and a row of Bloomsdale (I think) adjacent.  It looks like the recent sunny warm days have motivated the spinach to start growing.  I'll have to thin it soon.  I see a spinach-mushroom-cheese omelet made with farm fresh eggs in the not too distant future.  

I was planning to start the first set of seeds on Feb 12 but the sunroom is being used as a work station for a bathroom remodel.  So the planting schedule got pushed back a week, or in this case 6 days, to Feb 18.   This year I changed the seeding interval from 7 days to a 6 days, which fits better into a monthly schedule, thus the seeding dates in the spreadsheet are on the 6th, 12th, 18th, 24th, and 30th of the month.  The broc/kohl/cabbage/bok notation is a shorthand for any combination of cabbage family crops that I want to start on that date.  I think that usually it will be something like one broccoli, two kohlrabi, one or two bok choi, and one or none cabbage for each planting.  Here’s the schedule, it's a little hard to read but it shows indoor seeding dates, transplant dates, direct seeding dates, and a column for the greenhouse bed, subject to change at any time. 
Now for the layout.  The beds are drawn to scale, although their relative position in space (sorry for the phraseology but I revert to my chemistry training at times) has been altered to fit the page.  The trapezoidal bed is a little problematic, as it is a little too wide to reach the center from either side.   A 2x4 board laid across this bed allows me to reach the center of the bed by setting one foot on the board and leaning forward.  This year the trapezoidal bed gets the brassicas.  The bed in front of it, which is also a bit overwide, gets the solanacea – tomatoes, peppers and eggplants.  Two of the 4x12 beds will contain the squash (two winter, one summer) and the potatoes, which I plan to plant in cages this year.  One of the 4x8 beds has the plastic greenhouse on it, this is the “greens” bed for spinach, lettuce, chard in the spring, and later spacefillers.  The other two 4x8 beds are for parsnip, rutabaga, carrot, onion, okra, celery and any other spacefillers like bush beans.  That’s the plan, anyway, and it’s a caveat that the plan is a very general plan that will be modified extensively as conditions demand.  The crosshatch marks on a bed perimeter denote a trellis, used for the butternut squash, cucumber, and sugar snap peas.
Next post, seeds and my seed starting setup.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The last butternut of the year.

Is squash a forgotten food?  It looks like squash has faded away in importance in our times, which is a great loss.  Pick up an heirloom catalogue and it is apparent that squash has been taken seriously by growers for a long time - there are hundreds of squash varieties that have been developed all over the world. 
I’m partial to Delicata squash, an heirloom squash which was nearly lost forever but saved by the efforts of some dedicated gardeners.  Delicata is not a great keeper, and I have lost the plant the past two years to the vine borer, but not before some Delicatas were harvested and eaten with gusto.  In my garden, butternut squash has been the dependable producer.  The variety I have planted is Metro PMR (F1) from Johnny’s Seeds.  It produces just right size butternuts, about 3 pounds, which makes two nice servings.  So far it’s been impervious to the vine borer , is mildew resistant, and the flavor is incredible, with high sugar content and beautiful color.  I couldn’t ask for more, this is an incredibly high quality variety.  The yields of squash in 2010 were not great, 8 butternuts from one plant,  compared to the prior year when I got 25 nice size butternuts from a single plant.  This is the last one from 2010, worthy of a tribute.   Here’s a picture of the last squash, it’s got a very small seed cavity and great color. 

Here is a basic butternut squash prep that I use:  Cut the squash in half lengthwise.  Leave the seeds in, they will add flavor.  Coat a fry pan with a little oil, place the squash halves face down in the pan, add ¼ cup water, put the lid on, and simmer until soft.   For well cured squash, this can take up to 90 minutes, store-bought squash will usually soften in 30 minutes.  When soft, remove from the pan,  turn face up, scoop out seeds, score the pulp with a butter knife then spread the pulp evenly around the squash.  Top with 1 tablespoon butter, 1 tablespoon turbinado sugar, some ginger and cinnamon.  Bake at 400 F for 20 minutes.  Simple and very satisfying.  Having just finished off ½  butternut prepared this way, I can’t even begin to describe how good this is.  

Monday, February 7, 2011

First post, snow-ice, I cut down the cherry tree

There they are - seven raised beds under a crust of snow and ice and what's left of a felled tree.  What’s with the tree?  It was a black cherry on the north edge of the garden, about 16 inches in diameter, that forked into 2 equal trunks about 8 feet up.  Problem was, one side was dead and the other side was mostly dead.  Instead of waiting for a storm to take it down in an unknown direction, possibly on the house, I cut it down last fall.  It did not drop exactly where I planned and caused some damage to the beds – another job come spring.  The part of the tree that fell on the beds was mostly cut up and removed, then the snows came.  Here’s what the crime scene looked like the day I felled the tree.  The bed in the upper left took the brunt of the fall.  I had set logs around the other beds and they were spared a direct hit. 

The greenhouse is a plastic contraption that I bought through a seed catalogue.  It folds up and has four screened windows that zip shut, kind of like a pup tent.  Last fall the greenhouse was set over what I call the “greens” bed because that is where spinach and lettuce were planted last fall to overwinter.  There are two plantings of lettuce/spinach.  The first planting was made in late September in hopes of a late Fall harvest.   I wanted to seed them earlier but the late heat wave kept the soil too warm and hampered germination.   Because the trees block much of the late Fall sun the spinach just couldn’t get to size before winter.   The second planting was made in mid October and was intended to overwinter.   I expect the spinach and hopefully some of the lettuce to start growing again in late February/early March and provide an early harvest while I start the spring planting of greens in open spaces in the bed.   I also planted a row of Claytonia in the same bed last fall, a very cold hardy green, but it looks like the seeds are only viable for one year as there was almost no germination.  Too bad, they are very tasty.  If space permits I will set out the first batch of kohlrabi and bok choi in the same bed.

Since the garden was started in 2008 a brief history is in order.  The garden layout of raised beds was mostly in place in spring 2009, except that a semi-open bed that was terraced at the pond side was converted into 2 large raised beds in 2010.  Most of the earthmoving and construction was done in Fall 2008.  Since the soil in the garden area is hard Indiana clay I cheated and brought in a truckload of black dirt and a truckload of compost.   The back side of the area near the pond was terraced with field stone and the black dirt was used to level the area.  The compost was turned into the underlying soil in the beds as deep as I could dig with a hand shovel and tilled with a Mantis cultivator to break up the chunks of clay.  A sheet mulch was set on the open bed earlier that spring.  I  put a layer of newspaper and brown paper down to block sunlight,  then added  compost, shredded branches, sour straw, and some blood meal to get things working.  The worm action over the summer loosened the underlying soil and made the area much easier to dig and turn that Fall.

Garden construction 2008 (cherry tree still standing):

And a view from the pond side, showing the stone terracing:

Here's the garden in midsummer 2009, the Year of the Squash.  I got about 25 butternut squash averaging 3 pounds each from one plant in the open bed at the left.  Also Kabocha, Delicata, and Acorn, but the Delicata and Acorn succumbed to the vine borer later.

And finally, the garden in late summer 2010.  The tall mass of green on the left are Kentucky Wonder pole beans (not seen are the Japanese beetles munching away), the tall mass of green in the center are two Diva cucumber plants on a trellis. The potatoes in the front bed are nearly done. 

Well that's two years of gardening in the blink of an eye and I'm ready to start the new season.  Next post, The Plan and The Schedule.