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. 

Friday, March 17, 2017

Let spring begin (please)

It's not like I have any say in this, but after 3 days of temperatures that would be below average in January, it looks (knock on wood) like the weather is finally on the upswing into spring.  It looked like that several weeks ago, when I was raking leaves off the flower beds and the strawberry bed and doing other spring-like work that I normally do when I'm sure that winter is over.  But it wasn't, not by a long shot.  Three mornings below 20 F - Thursday morning the low was 16 F - and most of the exposed strawberries were killed.  The pond had a thin sheen of ice over it.

Beginning Thursday the 10 day weather forecast looked more promising, with more seasonal weather in the forecast.  I was ready to garden Thursday morning, chomping at the bit as the saying goes.  The seedlings under the lights indoors were crowding each other badly, shading the seedlings that had just germinated.   I wanted to at least remove the lettuce to the mobile coldframe.

The Earthbox was prepared indoors that morning.  A self-watering container has a reservoir to hold water, some sort of platform to hold the growing medium above the reservoir, and 'plugs' - openings in the platform where the medium can contact the water in the reservoir and wick it into the medium.  I insert plastic pots, which have a few slits in the sides, into the openings to slow the wicking process.  Without these I've found that the water is taken up too quickly and will saturate the potting mix.

Once the Earthbox was filled with wetted potting mix it was hauled out to the coldframe.  Thursday was totally cloudless, and the temperature inside the coldframe reached 70 F by 11 AM, even though the outside temperature was about 35 F (and rising quickly).  The pavers were warm to the touch.  Once the reservoir in the Earthbox is filled with water it contributes to the thermal mass inside the coldframe.  I've found that the coldframe can maintain a temperature above freezing during a light freeze, enough to protect most plants.

The lettuce was transplanted to its new home.  Lettuce in containers is much cleaner than lettuce grown on the ground.  I usually get about 5 pounds of lettuce from a self-watering container, which is very productive.  Some of it is cut and allowed to regrow, while the bibb lettuce is removed as a head then replaced.  This year I plan to move the containers to the new ledge once the weather turns warm, where it will get afternoon shade.  I'm hoping this will extend the season somewhat.

After transplanting the lettuce it was time to prepare some beds.  An earlier post showed the large bed after a cover of leaves was burned to kill the weeds. The surface of the bed was a mix of dead plants and char.  I decided against spading over the bed, a lot of heavy work with no obvious benefits, and opted to run the little tiller/cultivator at a shallow setting to break up the surface.  This is the beast here:

It did not take long with the tiller, as all I was trying to do was break up the surface for seeding with a cover crop of field peas.  That will have to wait a few days since the soil was quite cold and a little frozen in places.  One edge will be planted in sugar snap peas, and that will also wait until the soil warms a little.

After prepping the squash bed it was off to this year's brassica bed.  The first set of brassicas growing indoors are ready to go out anytime, but the soil needs to warm a little.  This bed was turned over with a shovel.  Mostly the weed cover was chickweed, which was either buried or removed.  There was no need to run the power tiller in this bed since the soil broke easily to the hoe.  After amending these beds for years with compost, they finally have sufficient tilth to break up easily with simple hoeing.  Satisfaction!

The door of the coldframe is propped open to prevent overheating.  On a sunny day such as yesterday, the temperature inside can climb well over 100 F if the door is shut.  There is a temperature sensor inside the coldframe that keeps me updated when I'm in the house.  Today is overcast and the door is closed.

I plan to move the tray of onions into the coldframe on Sunday.  That will make room under the lights to plant more seeds - peppers and another set of brassicas.  After an unexpected reprise of winter, things are moving along again.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Monday March 13

It's not the first harvest of the year.  That would be parsnips, which I dug up in January.  This is the first harvest of a green vegetable.  The spinach was planted last October.  With the mild winter it has sized up earlier than normal.   These four plants were removed to thin the row.  There was enough to make a dish of spinach alfredo.

Since this was harvested the weather has turned very cold and will remain cold until Thursday.  I probably won't get any more spinach for a week or two.  To see what other gardeners are getting from their plots, head on over to Our Happy Acres and have a look.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

One less mole

Last year I nearly always had the mole trap set over a tunnel, hoping to rid the yard of these burrowing pests.   Never got one.  So I went on YouTube and watched some videos.  Armed with a little more knowledge, I set a trap last weekend over a mole tunnel.  This one was on a rampage in the yard, and this picture shows about half of the tunnels it made over the weekend. . 

Sunday morning I checked the trap and found that it had been sprung.  I pulled up the trap and there it was, a very dead mole.  Later that day I saw a new tunnel in the same area (I had stomped down the old tunnels) and set the trap again.  That evening the trap had been tripped again but no mole was found.  It may have been mortally wounded because no new tunnels have been sighted.  One, maybe two, less moles. 

These animals have become an absolute scourge in the yard and garden.  It's not true that moles feed on beetle larvae exclusively.  They will eat every earthworm in the garden,  they are not picky. 

Last Sunday the weather was gorgeous, April-like.  With rain on the way that evening I spent the day working in they yard.  I weeded the raspberry bed, spread some fertilizer on the soil, and put some mulch over the bed.  With the early spring, some of the raspberries were sending up shoots. 

I gathered more leaves, spread them over the parts of the squash bed that were not covered in the first burn, and set them afire.  I learned something here.  It's better to light the pile on the downwind side.  The fire must advance against the wind, and it will burn more completely with less smoke.  I checked it the following day after the rains went through, and this is what it looked like.

There were still some weeds at the edges that looked alive, but after a few days most of them had succumbed.  You probably can't do this if you live in the city, but it appears to be a very effective way to kill any weeds that survived the winter.  The most problematic weed here is ground ivy, which spreads with runners and is hard to remove.  I'm hoping that the heat from the fire finished them off.

Indoors the seedlings are coming along nicely.  The first set of brassicas is setting true leaves and the lettuce looks healthy, while the second set of brassicas and lettuce have not yet germinated.

The Pontiac onions are also doing well and are ready to be thinned.

I was planning to set the lettuce and onions into the mobile greenhouse later this week.  Then I checked the forecast and got a shock.  Sunday morning the temperature is predicted to bottom at 17 F (-8 C) with a cold spell lasting several more days.  Holy cow!  After crazy warm temperatures in February, we get January temperatures in March.   Even though it's getting a little crowded, the seedlings will stay indoors for at least another week.  I'll start the peppers once the onions are moved out.

Even though it won't be used for awhile, I took the mobile greenhouse out of the minibarn and wheeled it into its springtime spot, then set the pavers in place.  The concrete pavers retain heat overnight and keep the inside several degrees warmer than the outside.

It looks like spring is not really here yet, but after this final cold snap it will be here at last.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

State of the Garden March 1 2017

or Making the garden great again. 

Was it ever great?  Was it ever that bad?  Let's not dwell on such pesky details, it's time to put out the old and replace it with whatever.  It looks like the health care system for the garden has to go, after all the tomatoes had a bad case of blight last year.  The current system of maintaining the garden health, combining organic and cultural controls, has been imperfect (although insect problems have diminished greatly over the years), so it obviously has to go, to be replaced by an obviously much better plan that exists for now in a nimbus cloud of happy thought, ready on cue for implementation.  Now, there may be some issues with completely destroying a health care system that actually works, although imperfectly, something a self-promoting billionaire who claims to have all the simple answers may have realized when he said - "Who knew that a health care system was so complicated?"   Actually just about everybody who needs to navigate the byzantine passages of a for-profit system, which doesn't include billionaires, another pesky detail. 

Maybe I was thinking about something not quite the garden, and I don't actually have any plans to throw out what I've been doing in the past, just improve it.  The garden beds, now dormant, are looking quite nice, thank you.   Some of the beds have a mat of dead cover crops over them.  I think this is much better than bare soil.  Poking a finger in the soil reveals a nice loose tilth beneath.

Field peas that were seeded later in the season last year managed to overwinter quite well and are growing again, along with a lot of chickweed.  Both of these plants are good rabbit food, so I'll be harvesting this for the bunnies until it is spaded under for planting.

The large squash bed is another matter.  Ground ivy has occupied much of the area and it's a real nuisance.  I'm trying something different this year.  There are still a lot of leaves that blew against the buildings.  A few cartloads were gathered up and spread over part of the bed:

The leaves were then lit off, in the hopes that the fire will kill the weeds and any seeds on the surface:

After a heavy rain last night, I checked the area this morning.  Where the fire burned completely it looks as though the weeds were killed.  I plan to gather some more leaves and burn them over the rest of the bed.  In a few weeks I'll seed the entire bed with field peas.

The two apple trees were pruned about a week ago.  I'm pruning them much earlier this year due to the mild weather.  Fortunately we've been having some days with more seasonal temperatures and I'm hoping that the cool nights will keep the trees from leafing out prematurely.  This is the Golden Delicious tree.  It had a lot of watershoots that were removed and the leader was cut down several feet.

The leader on this Fuji tree required even more drastic cutting back - it was way too high.  The surrounding branches near the leader were also cut back so they weren't any taller than the leader.

A few days ago I removed the plastic greenhouse from the winter bed.  A cage with chicken wire on the sides was put in its place to keep out any wandering rabbits, squirrels, or dogs.   There are four rows of garlic, each row a different variety,  three rows of spinach, a row of lettuce and a row of bunching onions. 

Last autumn I tried seeding a new variety of spinach, Reflect, for overwintering.  It's the row on the left side.   The variety that I've been growing for years, Double-choice, is represented in the two rows on the right.  I'm always happy to trial a new variety and find that it works even better than what I've been planting in the past, and the Reflect spinach is doing markedly better than the old variety.

In a few weeks the first set of brassicas and lettuce will be ready to go outside.  Looking forward to a new growing season and hoping everyone else's plans work out.