Monday, April 30, 2012

Late April in the Garden

 There is a lot going on in the garden (and in the house) this time of year.
Fava Beans (that sprouted last fall) are blooming.  We've been eating lettuce and spinach planted last fall.  The lettuce and spinach we planted this spring are almost ready to start picking from. 

The peas are about four inches tall.  We covered them with chicken wire after the birds pecked off a bunch of their leaves.

Purple broccoli that overwintered has been producing a bunch of florets.  We've been eating lots of broccoli lately.  It's very sweet and tender this time of year.

It's nice to know other gardeners because as they improve their gardens, they happily get rid of their old stuff.  Lisa of generously gave me her old double grow light set up.  I set mine on top and ta-da a three tier grow light system.  Not pretty, but it works.  I'm growing a bunch of stuff for our community garden plant sale on May 19th.  Hopefully I can get things up to size and hardened off before then.  

Lots of tomatoes happy under the lights.

Basil- I couldn't resist a taste and made bruschetta last night.  The basil was wonderful, the grocery store tomatoes were not.  I can't wait until mid/late summer when we'll be swimming in tomatoes.  

We stuffed a whole grocery bag full of chard grown at our community garden plot.  The downside to growing lots of vegetables is that you eventually have to clean and process them.  When I harvest I like to pick everything very carefully ensuring no slugs and bugs come inside and to make for easy cleaning.  Terry grabs, cuts, and stuffs the bag and leaves the mess for me to deal with.  I let it sit on the counter for a couple days and then begrudgingly start meticulously cleaning it for blanching and freezing.  I should be thankful for the bounty and while I love growing vegetables, I really do hate cleaning them.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Parking Strip "Farm"

Our parking strip redo project is just about done.  While we have grown veggies successfully in the parking strip for several years in raised sod beds, we got really tired of maintaining the grass around the crops.  So, over several weeks we transformed the space to smother the grass and enlarge the raised beds.

Old Sod Beds

Here's a description of the process:

  1. Drink Tea.
  2. Design- measure parking strip, sketch to scale raised bed locations and dimensions.  Argue Discuss with spouse how much space is allocated to vegetables vs. flowers.
  3. Calculate- determine how much soil and wood chips to order.
  4. Drink Coffee.
  5.  Remove old sod bed borders- Terry used a pick axe to break the sod down and then I spread the sod out over existing grassy areas.  We also scraped the sod off along the sidewalk about 2 inches below the elevation of the concrete.  
  6. Layout Design- mystify neighbors with dozens of blue and orange flags.  We marked the corners of the new raised beds with flags.
  7. Order soil- I debated whether to get 3-way mushroom Topsoil from H&B or Tacoma's Tagro Potting Soil.  I ended up ordering 13 yards of Tagro Potting Soil because the delivery fee was cheaper and to support the Tagro program.  It will break down faster than topsoil and dry out a little quicker, but it's a reliable product and usually weed free.  In addition to the new soil, we also had the soil that was in the old raised beds to use.
  8. Drink Coffee.
  9. Collect cardboard for sheet mulching- we dumpster dived in cardboard recycling bins at the City Dump, as well as, behind local strip malls.  Neighbors also donated their boxes. In total we stuffed my little truck's bed (which has a canopy) about 5 times.
  10. Sheet mulch over grass- to smother the grass we laid down overlapping double layers of cardboard.  This got us the most questions from passersby.  When we explained what the cardboard was for- lets just say most people could not see our vision.  Several people even asked how we were going to remove the cardboard later.  Smile.
  11. Move giant soil pile- as we laid sections of cardboard down, we shoveled and wheelbarrowed the soil to the locations of the new raised beds (between those handy flags).  We made the soil about twelve inches deep.  We raked the lumps out and shaped the sloped sides.  Once the soil was spread, we watered it down a little to help it settle.   And since we had some onion sets, seed potatoes and dahlia tubers to plant we did so.  Why wait till the whole project is done.
  12. Order free wood chips- a thick layer of wood chips is a key part of successful sheet mulching.  They hold the cardboard down and help smother the grass.  We really needed chips right away to cover the exposed cardboard, but had to wait until the soil pile was gone.  So, the day after the soil was moved, I made a call to a local tree service that did work for us a few years ago- the number was disconnected.  I called another local arborist who donated chips to the community garden last year- they wouldn't have any chips any time soon.  I called Tacoma Power and left a message on their wood chip request line- which said that I would receive a call within 10 days.  I scanned the phonebook, but didn't want to call companies that weren't located in Tacoma.  The next day, I just happened to drive past a tree service working in the neighborhood.  I stopped and asked if I could have the chips.  They said yes and in a couple hours they dropped off about 7 yards of chips for us to spread.  The chips were perfect too.  Lots of chunky cedar wood chips, not too many leaves and needles.
  13. Drink Coffee.
  14. Spread wood chips- we covered the rest of the cardboard with about a foot of wood chips.  We raked them out as best we could.  The chips create pathways between the beds.  Also, since the raised beds don't have typical wooden sides to help retain the soil and moisture, the chips will help.  We spread out the big pile and realized we didn't have enough chips.  Luckily, Tacoma Power called yesterday and dropped a small load that should take us to completion.  This load wasn't as nice as our first pile.  This load had a lot a fines- doug fir needles and small bits of actual wood.  So, with free chips, you never know what you're going to get.

The process wasn't as clean and tidy as the 14 steps might make it sound, but it worked.  We just have to drink some more coffee, collect another load of cardboard to finish the outer edge near the road and spread the new pile of chips.  Meanwhile, we've got most of the new beds planted.  Terry planted his early corn, beets, onions and potatoes.  I planted the flower beds out with some existing daylilies, dahlias, and irises I had elsewhere.  I'm also trying out a bunch of annual flower seeds- snapdragons, calendula, godetia, larkspur, cosmos, sweet peas and tithonia.  I'm excited to see how they do.  

For maintenance, we'll just have to stay on top of weeding out any grass that tries to poke up through or between the sheet mulch.  We can always add more cardboard/chips in trouble spots.  Also, there is bound to be some weed seed in the soil, so we'll have to keep the beds weeded so the darn things don't get established.  Terry will need to weed whack the tiny remaining strip of grass along the road.  Other than that, it's just watering and enjoying our crops and flowers.

New Raised Beds before Wood Chips

After Wood Chips
Onions Bed
Second pile of free chips- courtesy of Tacoma Power
Almost done- just need to finish the sloped edge by the road

Thursday, April 19, 2012

They Come Out At Night...

When night falls, the creepy, crawly, and slimy creatures come out to feast in the garden.  Every morning we have found that another seedling had been tortured or devoured.  Last night, my husband, embarked on a seek and destroy mission.  Upon his return, he proudly announced his success as I reminded him to wash his hands.

His total kill:  6 large slugs, 6 snails, 2 cutworms.
There is no photographic evidence to share of this gruesome scene.

On a lighter note, he also witnessed the moonlight mating dance of earthworms.

Egg Carton Seed Tray- FAIL

So this year, I thought I'd be clever and use egg cartons instead of used latte cups to start some of our tomato and pepper seeds.  This was done to save space and make it easy to transplant the starts once they started getting a little leggy.  Well- I'll never do it again.  First of all, the tomato seeds germinated well, but there was so little soil in each cell that the roots started coming out the bottom before the starts were an inch tall.    Also the cardboard absorbed a lot of the water and it was difficult to tell if the soil was moist thoroughly or not, so we lost a few to drying out.  This forced me to transplant the tomatoes while they were still super delicate.  I moved them up to the latte cups that I should've started with in the first place.  It was messy, time consuming, and I believe this handling and disturbance to their roots contributed to the stunting of their growth.  I'm hoping my new grow light and a little fertilizer will help them grow a little quicker now.

So, lesson learned is to start my tomato seeds in latte cups (like I did the past four years), so their root and shoot growth can be undisturbed for at least a couple months.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

DIY- Grow Light

I love having friends who are just as crazy about gardening as we are.  I visited a friend last week who had rigged up a grow light this year in order to be more successful with her vegetable starts.  Let's just say, I was super jealous of her 8 inch tall lush tomato starts.  (Once again, I'm kicking myself for not starting our seeds sooner.)

She gleaned ideas for her set up by searching the internet for DIY grow lights.  She found that she could use a cheap Christmas rope light for a heat mat and a fluorescent shop light with a cool bulb and a warm bulb for a grow light.  She turns the light on when she wakes up and turns it off when she goes to bed.

Since I was super motivated after visiting my friend, I went to Home Depot and purchased a 4' hanging fluorescent shop light and a packet of "daylight" bulbs and a packet of "soft light" bulbs.  I hope I got the right ones.  In total I spent less than $40 and I have two spare bulbs in case I want to get a second light fixture.

I used some wood and screws we had laying around to build a framework that would fit on our breakfast nook table.  The only other parts I used were two eye hooks and two "S" hooks to hang the light from the framework.

There's enough space for one tub of starts.  If this works out well, I'll adjust the framework to fit two lights and two tubs.  I'm excited to see how much faster these starts grow compared to the ones only getting light from the window and the ones in the cold frame outside.  

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Cold Frame

I really really really want a greenhouse.  A little garden retreat that will heat up on those sunny winter and early spring days.  A place where I can work with my seedlings even when it's raining.  

Over the winter we debated where we could build one in the garden and whether to design a combination greenhouse/chicken coop.  The debate continues, so in order to move some of our starts out of the dining room, we built a little cold frame out of salvaged materials we had taking up space in the basement.

We placed a number of our starts in the cold frame.  We moved out what we thought were the most cold tolerant starts- cilantro, parsley, artichokes, and zinnias.  We also moved out a couple tomatoes starts as a test.  If this cold frame design works out okay over the next couple of weeks, we'll build one or two more.

Now, if it were just big enough for me to crawl inside and be toasty warm, I'd be happy.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Starts 2012

I vowed that I wouldn't use my window seat for starts this year.  Well this is how it turned out...
We planted our starts on March 17.

Artichoke- Green Globe

Tomatoes are putting on their first true leaves

Cilantro is almost ready to start eating

Fresh Pickings

Lettuce we planted in January (under plastic)
Broccoli planted last Fall
Dill (self seeded)
Salad in April

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Potato Towers

Growing potatoes is really easy and fun.  Freshly picked potatoes taste fantastic and have the most amazing texture.  (This is coming from a gal who hated potatoes growing up.)  There are many different methods for growing potatoes from straight into the ground, to using tires, cages, bags, garbage cans, and boxes.  In the past we’ve tried large pots and in the ground using the hilling up method.  The in ground method worked very well, but makes for difficult harvesting of young potatoes.  This year we are going to try using potato towers for our early and mid season potatoes.  Our late season potatoes are being planted in a raised bed using the hilling up method.

We googled “potato towers” and found a variety of styles.  We also searched YouTube for videos on “potato towers” and “potato boxes” and found a number of unsuccessful harvests and a couple of videos from successful growers.  The two biggest mistakes we saw from unsuccessful towers were letting the potato shoots get too tall before adding more soil and keeping the soil too wet.  Letting the shoots get too tall allows the shoot to convert to a “shaw” or leafy growth. When this happens it no longer produces potatoes along that shoot.  It is important to add more soil when the shoots emerge out of the soil.  Cover the shoots with an inch or two of soil.  The plant does need to photosynthesize at some point, so we may let some shoots get a little taller and develop leaves while covering up some shorter ones.  I highly suggest the following links for more information.   

We built 2 ft x 2 ft boxes using four 2x4's for the vertical legs and six inch wide cedar fence boards for the sides.  We attached one layer of cedar fence boards at the base.  One side got a second layer to add a little more stability.

We set the boxes in a raised bed with the bottom layer partially buried.  We then planted 6 potatoes in each box (2 per side).  We planted early & mid-season potatoes- a mix of Reds, Banana Fingerlings, and Yukon Gem.  In trenches behind towers we planted late season varieties- Russets and German Butterball, as well as, the extra Reds and Yukons.  We covered the potatoes with a few inches of soil and then layered some pine needles on top to help acidify the soil. 

When the potatoes grow out of the soil an inch or so we’ll add some more soil and continue this until the soil fills that first layer of boards.  When we screw on the next layer of boards we will drill two ½ inch holes in each side where the two boards meet and try to train one shaw from each potato to grow through it.  This will allow the potato to photosynthesize (create energy) while the rest of the shoots continue to grow upwards and get covered with soil.  Once the entire box (four board layers tall) is filled with soil, we’ll let the plant grow freely to make a full leafy top.

When the potato plant starts to flower, we will be able to remove a lower board and reach in to grab young potatoes to eat fresh.  Later in the season when the top growth dies back, we’ll be able to remove all the boards and easily collect the remaining potatoes. 

Terry is practicing how he'll reach in and grab those young spring potatoes.

Storing Potatoes:
Last year we grew potatoes in one of a raised garden beds using the hilling up method.  We ended up just leaving them in the ground and harvested as needed.  This worked out very well except when I had to go out on an rainy icky day and root around in the dirt for dinner.  What was neat is that this Spring we found some little potatoes left in the bed and we got to eat our homegrown potatoes even though we thought we finished them off months ago.

Basic Growing Tips:

  • Buy Seed Potatoes from a nursery (they should be disease free)
  •  Feed with a 1-2-2 ratio Organic Fertilizer
  •  Use well-drained soil, you can mix in composted leaves, pine needles, straw
  •  Use acidic soil (this will prevent scab); add pine needles or coffee grounds
  • Keep the pile of soil near the potato box to make for easy filling
  • Do not overwater or the potatoes can rot