One of the Joys of Maturity
One of the joys of getting a bit older is having the time to putter around in the garden. Below is my garden blog. This site also contains sections of recipes and features about specific, and often obscure, gardening lore.
Our Earth Day, 2017, has dawned here cold and rainy. Actual temperatures really aren't that bad, but after some really nice days, it just feels cold. With more rain on the way, I'll probably just take the day off from any serious gardening.
I continue moving garden transplants from our plant rack to the cold frame. Yesterday, I moved a large pot of butternut squash plants outside. By this morning, the rain and wind had beat them up a good bit, but I think they'll survive.
I still have our second seeding of tomatoes and peppers and all of our melon transplants under lights. They'll need to go outside very soon. With the melons, I'll partially close the plant rack to give them a bit more protection from the wind as they harden off.
Before bringing anything else outside, I need to use up some of the flower transplants we've grown.
First Hummingbird of the Season
Standing at our kitchen window yesterday afternoon, I spotted our first hummingbird of the season. That's several days earlier than our first sightings over the last few years. Over the next two weeks, we should begin to see lots of the birds.
Hummingbirds.net has a good map of reported first sightings for the eastern United States, along with lots of other interesting information, mainly about ruby throated hummingbirds.
Your Annual Nag about UV Exposure
I broke out and began wearing my sun protective shirts this week instead of my usual flannel shirt. The sunshirts provide good protection from the sun's harmful ultraviolet rays, while being light enough to wear on warm days.
I'm acutely aware of the dangers of sun exposure, as I've had more than a few skin cancers removed over the years and regularly have to use a rather expensive fluorouracil cream product on potential cancers. Being fair skinned, having gotten several severe sunburns during my childhood, and then riding a tractor for eight years with a thin T-shirt on when I was farming, I'm probably experiencing just what I deserve.
Beyond getting appropriate medical care, protecting oneself from UV radiation while still being able to do the outdoor things we gardeners love is a major concern. The CDC notes that the hours between 10 A.M. and 4 P.M. (Daylight Saving Time) are the most hazardous for UV exposure outdoors, with UV rays being greatest during the late spring and early summer in North America. Heavy clouds do filter out some UV, but not as much as you'd think.
The trick for we senior gardeners prone to actinic keratoses and/or skin cancers is to find ways to garden without exposing ourselves to too much UV radiation. Keeping in mind the CDC recommendations and checking UV scales often posted on weather sites can guide one on when it is safest to work outside. But not all jobs can be done in the early or late hours of the day. For me, mowing is one of those jobs where I have to be out in the sun at peak UV hours.
I've come to rely on sun protective clothing, and to a lesser extent, sunscreen, for protection from the sun when working outside, even in low UV hours. In the early spring, I start wearing one of several sun protective shirts and bucket hats when I'm outside, even when going shopping! Since we live in a windy area, I appreciate the chin strap on the hats to keep me from having to chase them across the yard. My "sun gear" hangs just inside the back door to remind me to put it on.
When I get into serious gardening in warm weather, I generally wear a T-shirt with a sun protective shirt over it along with a hat. And since I've had cancers on and in my hands, I wear gloves almost all the time when working outside.
At one time, Coolibar was the only show in town for sun protective garments. With more emphasis on skin cancer in recent years, other entities such as Columbia, the REI Co-op, UV Skinz, and the Sierra Trading Post have entered the market. Hopefully, such competition will eventually reduce the prices on sun protective gear, which until recently has been quite expensive.
Here are some related links about UV radiation and protective clothing:
I started cutting down our old tomato cages this week to use as pepper cages. The old concrete reinforcing wire cages had rusted at their bottoms, with many of the prongs that anchor them breaking off. By cutting the cages in height and also in diameter, I could get some more use out of them, although it made for a lot of cutting. After cutting two old cages with my lopping shears, I made a quick trip to the hardware store for a set of bolt cutters.
With the bolt cutters, I quickly turned seven, five foot tall tomato cages into three foot tall pepper cages. I also had to cut out a couple of squares of the remesh down the sides of the old cages to make them a foot smaller in circumference.
Even though the original cages had been painted years ago, I gave them another coat of Hunter Green Rust-Oleum to help make them last a bit longer. I also topped the cages with a bit of white Rust-Oleum to make them a bit more visible. Tripping over a nearly invisible tomato or pepper cage in the dark isn't any fun.
While I have a large roll of remesh concrete reinforcing wire to make new tomato cages, I've only cut and put together one so far. With rain predicted for this afternoon, I got out early this morning to transplant some peppers...and put our nearly new pepper cages to use.
I put in seven Earliest Red Sweet pepper plants with a geranium at each end of the row. The pepper plants got a deep hole with a bit of fertilizer and lime worked into it and were watered with our usual starter solution of Quick Start and Maxicrop Soluble Seaweed Powder. While the pepper cages won't be supporting pepper branches any time soon, adding them now helps keep critters away from the plants.
I also added T-posts to our rows of short peas this morning. It was once again too windy to try to hang the nylon trellis netting, but at least the posts are in place.
A few peas have begun to emerge, although one of our dogs roughed up the center of one row. The trellis wires and netting should discourage the dogs a bit in hunting for moles.
April Showers Bring...Weeds!
We've had just enough rain lately to germinate lots and lots of weeds. At this point, most of the weeds are small enough to be handled with a scuffle hoe. But I need to mow, rake, and begin putting down grass clipping mulch soon if I don't want to spend all my time weeding.
But after a good rain, the soil looks dark and rich. And I'm glad to have so much doing well so far in our garden. Even with all the seedling weeds, I'm glad to see our carrots are finally up. Some of our spinach needs to be thinned. It's big enough to produce enough thinnings for a nice spinach salad.
I tilled our East Garden today. With our weather outlook tending towards rain over the next week, I was happy to get in a first tilling to hold back weed growth in the 80' x 80' plot.
We use the East Garden primarily for crops that take up a lot of space. We'll put in melons, yellow squash, sweet corn, potatoes, and sweet potatoes. There's also room for a long row of tomato and pepper plants and a trellised row of Sugar Snap peas.
Half of the plot is rested each year. I picked up buckwheat seed yesterday for a turndown crop. Starting this early, we might get a couple of turndown crops this summer.
I checked the temperature of the soil in our main raised bed yesterday and found it to be 60° F, about the minimum needed to germinate our short pea varieties. The weather forecast for the next few days calls for highs in the upper 70s to 80° F, which was our high temperature today. So the soil should continue to warm.
Peas like fertile, well drained, fairly neutral soil (pH 6.5-7.0) to grow best. Fortunately for us, that's what we have in our main raised bed.
I got an early start this morning on the planting, but immediately faced a minor setback. As I hammered row marker stakes into the ground, I realized that the soil tilled last fall was very firm. So my first job became rototilling the unplanted part of our main raised bed. Our twenty-three year old senior tiller fired on the third pull of the starter cord and quickly loosened the soil.
After raking the soil smooth and staking and stringing my rows, I used a garden rake to make shallow, but wide furrows for the pea seed. I sprinkled a little 12-12-12 commercial fertilizer, some granular soil inoculant, and a touch of lime in the furrows and incorporated it into the furrow with a garden hoe.
With little chance of rain until the weekend, I watered the furrow before seeding. I also started soaking the pea seed before I got started this morning. While some sources recommend soaking pea seed overnight before planting, I've found our varieties tend to split when soaked that long, making them useful only for split pea soup. Today's seed soaked for about an hour before planting.
I actually soaked a bit more seed than I needed for the planting, but since our pea varieties can be somewhat variable in germination rates, I planted the seed pretty heavily along the two, fifteen foot rows.
I raked an inch or two of soil over the pea seed and gently tamped it down with the head of my hoe. The tamping helps ensure good soil to seed contact.
The pea varieties planted today were Eclipse and Encore. Seed for these varieties is no longer available, so I'm pretty careful with my planting. This is the first year we've had enough seed to plant two full rows of the peas with a good bit of seed still left in the freezer in case the planting totally fails.
If all goes well, we'll harvest peas for fresh use and freezing before letting the last of the pea pods dry down for seed saving. Since both Eclipse and Encore are patent (PVP) protected varieties, we can't share or sell any seed, but we can legally grow enough for our own use. The plant patents expire in 2021!
Planting two different pea varieties just three feet apart for seed saving is a major no-no in most cases. Peas need to be isolated by at least fifty feet from other varieties to prevent cross-pollination. But the Encore pea variety is part of the parentage of the "supersweet" Eclipse variety, so a little crossing may actually add some vigor to each variety without substantially changing their characteristics.
Even though these are short peas, I'll add trellises later along the rows to keep the peas for seed saving up off the ground. That helps prevent mold and rot in the drying pea pods. I'll also use the trellises for planned succession crops this summer.
Pulling Cutworm Collars
With our peas planted well before noon, I was loathe to stop gardening. While it's a bit quicker than usual, I went ahead and pulled the cutworm collars from our broccoli and cauliflower. Both had pretty tough stems at transplanting, but I used waxed paper cup cutworm collars in case there were cutworms in the soil. But the cutworm collars also limit the plants' ability to put out lateral roots. So I'm taking a small chance by pulling the collars a few days earlier than usual. The brassicas and the row of Walla Walla onions beside them got a liberal watering after I pulled the collars.
After years of having cheap scissors break after a year or two of use, I bought two pairs of Klein Kitchen Shears a few years ago. The heavy duty stainless steel shears are ideal for cutting the sides of our cutworm collars before pulling the paper cups out of the ground. The shears break down easily for washing, and they're made in the U.S.A.!
In a perfect world, I would have gardened all day today. Alas, the world isn't perfect, and our grass needed mowing. But even then, I spent several hours riding around in wonderfully warm weather cutting our lawn. Since I mowed the field next to us this week, I'm free to switch out the mower deck on our lawn tractor to the tiller attachment. With a couple more days of dry weather predicted, I may get to till our East Garden plot.
I picked a little over a pound and a half of asparagus today. The picking was enhanced, as I'd not picked yesterday. But this was still our first really good picking of asparagus. Our asparagus harvest usually lasts well into May before the shoots begin to thin, showing it's time to let the asparagus grow and rebuild its strength for another spring harvest.
It's a delicious time of year!
I looked up the word "mundane" this morning and found that Google defined it as "lacking interest or excitement; dull." The word pretty well describes today's chores.
As I moved a few more plants from our plant rack to our cold frame, I noticed that I had accumulated a good many dirty trays, pots, and inserts. So along with the petunias going outside, I loaded up the trays and pots and put them in our garden cart. I filled the cart with bleach and water and let the stuff soak most of the day. In the evening, I began washing and drying the trays and some of the pots.
My other big job of the day was mowing the field next to our property. We keep the field mowed, but also use part of it for our East Garden plot and occasionally, outlying isolation plots. Mowing on a warm day may not really qualify as mundane. It took about two hours to mow the rather rough, one acre field.
I really didn't try to windrow the grass clippings in the field, but ended up with several rows that needed to be raked. The damp grass clippings got spread in a foot deep, ten foot diameter circle over where one of our old compost piles had been last year. The deep, wet clippings will kill any grass and weeds under them and will later serve as mulch when I transplant butternut squash plants into the area. We've had good success over the years growing butternuts and pumpkins on the sites of previous compost piles.
Having started way too many lettuce transplants, I had to work a bit to get at least one of each variety transplanted. I put in Barbados, Nevada, Sun Devil, Crispino, Nancy, Skyphos, Defender, Coastal Star, Valmaine, Winter Density, and Pandero in a pretty tight planting. That should give us a pretty nice variety of lettuces for salads and sandwiches through our always too brief spring lettuce season.
I'll mulch this bed with grass clipping mulch once our yard fills in enough to produce some usable clippings. I've mowed twice already this season, but more to knock down clumps of grass than anything else.
Transplanting some open pollinated onion plants today was much easier than yesterday's transplanting. These plants were a good bit bigger with better developed root systems. In order down the row, I put in Yellow of Parma, Red Creole,Southport White Globe, and Tropeana Tonda.
The Red Creole short day onions should produce our first mature onions. While better suited for southern growers, red creoles produce small red onions for us well before any of our other varieties mature.
Done with the narrow bed by 10:30 am, I messed around for a couple of hours transplanting some catnip by our back porch, dianthus into our front flowerbed, and a geranium in the planter over our cistern. I've grown catnip for several years, but never got it transplanted before the cats got into it while it was still in a seed flat. Hopefully, the catnip will get established before the cats begin laying in it and eating it.
Besides moving the first of our tomatoes and peppers under the cold frame today, I also brought up a whole flat of snapdragons. I like to plant snapdragons along our trellises. While they get overgrown by the peas and cucumbers we grow on the trellises, the snaps endure and show their stuff when the other vines get pulled.
The cold frame remains just about at capacity right now, with extras of stuff already transplanted going to the back porch. As I move more and more plants outside, our plant rack is less congested. Designed to hold twelve seed flats, it now has six on it, with one shelf unused with its lights now off. But it will quickly fill up again when more of our gloxinias break dormancy.
I got an early start today seeding our carrots and transplanting onions into one of our narrow raised beds. I seeded a nine foot double row to Short Stuff Chantenay, Scarlet Nantes, Laguna, Mokum, and Nelson carrots. The short row reflects our inability to use up all of our spring carrots before our fall crop comes in. We'll add the Bolero and Dolciva storage varieties to our fall planting.
I was glad I got an early start, as the wind picked up in the afternoon, which would have made planting tiny carrot seed impossible. As it was, I had to weigh down seed packets as I seeded to prevent them from blowing away!
As usual, I used a piece of old 1" lumber to make a shallow furrow for the carrot seed. While I'll have to go back and thin the carrots, I seeded fairly heavily, as most of the seed is several years old. After covering the seed with a quarter to half inch of soil, I firmed the soil with my hand before watering the planting.
I broke out a brand new piece of 1x6 treated lumber to cover the planted carrot row. Using a board to cover the row holds in soil moisture while denying weed seeds on the soil surface the light they may need to germinate. The new lumber will later serve as a walking board to help spread my weight and prevent soil compaction when working in our main raised garden bed.
For years, I've had great success growing a double row of carrots between double rows of onions. Not wanting to tempt fate, I began transplanting onions along one side of the carrot rows. I only got one side of the bed planted, mostly due to the windy conditions. I transplanted Clear Dawn, Milestone, and Red Zeppelin onions in the double row before thoroughly watering the fairly dry soil.
The last of our main crop onions are Walla Walla sweet onions. We always have trouble with them because they mature a week or two later than our other onion varieties. To fix this problem, I planted the Walla Wallas alongside our broccoli, at the southern edge of our main raised bed. There, they can have all the time they need to mature into large, sweet onions.
The flat of onion transplants I used today weren't as well developed as our transplants usually are. I'm not sure what I did different with them, but another flat of Red Creole, Yellow of Parma, Tropeana Tonda, and Southport White Globe onions that I'll transplant tomorrow are far better developed.
I'm obviously about half done planting this narrow bed. After getting the rest of the onions transplanted, I'll fill the open area between the onion rows that doesn't have carrots with lettuce transplants. We have one of the nicest bunch of lettuce plants this year that I've ever grown.
Once I get the narrow bed planted, things will slow down a bit. I have daisies, dianthus, and impatiens to transplant into our flowerbeds. Our first tomato and pepper plants are now ready to go under the cold frame, which puts transplanting them at least a week to ten days off. That's good, as I have a new roll of welded wire to cut, paint, and form into new tomato cages. Our old tomato cages will get their rusted bottoms cut off and then will serve as pepper cages.
With the last of our frosty nights behind us, I got started gardening today. Our first major planting each year is of broccoli and cauliflower. The transplants have to go into the ground as soon as possible to mature before the heat of summer turns them bitter.
Having tilled the area for our brassicas last November, soil preparation before transplanting was limited to just raking the bed smooth and checking the soil pH. Brassicas like to grow in fairly neutral ground (pH 6.8-7.0), and our ground tested at 6.8. With the lime we add to the planting holes to prevent clubroot, we should be fine on soil pH.
After smoothing the planting bed with a rake, I strung it for two rows twenty-four inches apart. Broccoli and cauliflower can actually be planted in rows only eighteen inches apart, but I think we'll get a better crop with the plants having more space for sunlight and air circulation. For folks planting more than two rows of brassicas that can be worked from outside the rows, I'd suggest a row spacing of 30-36 inches to allow easy movement up and down the rows for cultivation, fertilization, spraying, and harvesting.
I dug ten holes along each row, spacing the holes about eighteen inches apart. Each hole got a light sprinkle of 12-12-12 fertilizer and lime that were worked into the soil. As I began transplanting, I watered each hole in turn with a very dilute mixture of Quick Start and Maxicrop Soluble Seaweed Powder. Then I backfilled the hole with the soil dug and popped in a cut down paper cup to serve as a cutworm collar, making sure the top edge of the cup was an inch or two above the surrounding soil level. I dumped more transplanting solution into each cup and squished in a transplant, covering it with soil to the top of the cup.
I put in five each of Goliath and Premium Crop broccoli, four Amazing, two Violet of Sicily, and four Fremont cauliflower. I also transplanted a vinca at each corner of our main raised garden bed and a Long Island Mammoth dill plant at either end of the brassica rows. We tried growing dill by our brassicas for the first time last year. I'm not sure if the dill warded off any bugs, but it had a nice aroma every time I worked the brassicas.
Two final steps wrapped up the planting. I sprinkled Shot-Gun Repels-All Animal Repellent around the planting to discourage both our dogs and area rabbits and deer from messing with the brassicas. The plants got a thorough spraying with Thuricide (BT). I've already seen several small white cabbage moths around our yard.
For more information about growing brassicas, see our how-to feature, Growing Great Broccoli and Cauliflower.
Our weather forecast is still discouraging me from beginning our spring gardening. With predicted lows of 37, 32, and 35° F for the next three mornings, I'm making myself refrain from putting anything new into the ground.
I'm not sure how the cold temperatures will affect our apple trees. Our semi-dwarf Granny Smith apple tree is opening a few blooms already. I haven't as yet found a bloom on our dwarf Stayman Winesap tree that had just one apple last year (that self-pruned before it was ripe). And a volunteer apple tree that sits just off our property has lots of small blooms. I think it serves as a pollinator for the Granny Smith tree, although the volunteer tree's small apples are a delicious mix of red delicious and winesap flavors.
While the apple trees are pretty when most of their blooms open up, I really like the deep red, unopened blooms. They seem to create more striking photos.
It definitely feels like spring outside, but I decided to put a hold on getting started transplanting. Temperatures are now predicted to drop into the low 30s on Friday and Saturday mornings. Our brassicas and onions that are ready to go into the ground probably would survive a light frost, but I'd just as leave not take the chance. I may transplant some dianthus and daisies close to the house this week where it stays a few degrees warmer at night.
I started our melons and squash yesterday. Ten four and a half inch pots of cantaloupe, honeydew, and watermelon are now on our heat mat, with pots of butternut and yellow squash germinating on another shelf without bottom heat. The varieties seeded are just about what I described last month.
I tell all about our melon growing in our how-to feature, Growing Great Melons on Heavy Clay Soil.
While out picking asparagus yesterday, I was pleased to see that some of our spinach is up. Seeded on March 24, all the varieties I started are up, other than our Abundant Bloomsdale from saved seed. Since last year was my first try at saving spinach seed, I'm unsure of the viability of that seed. I may have to go back and re-seed part of the row with commercial Abundant Bloomsdale seed.
We have garlic planted from last November and peas and spinach planted last month, but April is really when our gardening season begins. We usually get all of our raised garden beds planted during the month. Since our large East Garden plot dries out much more slowly than the raised beds, we don't do much with it in April.
We'll be transplanting onions, broccoli, cauliflower, and lettuce early this month. Towards the end of the month, we'll transplant tomatoes and peppers into our raised beds. We'll direct seed carrots between our onion rows and also direct seed two more rows of peas.
Obvious omissions from the plans shown at right are green beans and kale. With the field next to us rotated to field corn this year, we can grow our green beans as a succession crop after something else (the brassicas) comes out. Jim Crockett noted in Crockett's Victory Garden, "Bush beans seem to be at their most tender late in the season." From experience, I also know that trying to grow late green beans next to a field of soybeans invites a massive insect infestation from the soybeans.
While we love kale boiled with a bit of bacon and onions, we also grow kale as a late succession crop. We want our kale to be ready to pick when many of our other vegetables have matured to make Portuguese Kale Soup. Besides not having early kale, the main drawback to a late planting is trying to get the kale seed to germinate in the hot and often dry conditions we experience in July and August.
We'll also be filling in our new raised herb bed this month. Our sage, thyme, and oregano overwintered well, but we'll have to replace the rosemary that didn't survive the winter. We'll be adding annual dwarf basil, dill, and parsley to the bed. I'm going with a dwarf basil variety this year, as our standard basil last year overgrew everything near it in the herb bed.
Our annual spring asparagus harvest began late in March. Hopefully, we'll continue that picking well into May. Our raised asparagus bed got a generous layer of compost over the winter. Bonnie's Asparagus Patch, which we care for but is just off our property, got a little compost and a good bit of balanced fertilizer.
Garden Tower Giveaway
If you're into patio, deck, porch, balcony, or rooftop gardening, you might want to sign up for a Spring Garden Tower Giveaway. Entering is free, although they'll have your email address. But the guys from Bloomington, Indiana, are giving away ten Garden Tower 2s on April 10.
at Senior Gardening