Senior Gardening

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The Old Guy's Garden Record

The Senior Garden - 2009

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Compost pileSince our kitchen compost bucket was nearly full this morning, I took a few minutes to turn our compost pile a bit while adding the contents of the bucket. I was pleased that the pile was warm and had no offensive odor. That means it's "cooking" properly.

Compost Tumbler We don't have a fancy Compost Tumbler, although if we lived in the city, I'd probably want one (to keep the mess contained and neighbors happy). We just keep our compost in a pile or heap on the ground. I am careful to try to mix layers of different waste materials with soil, lime, and a bit of fertilizer and turn it (mix it) about every other week. Generally, we compost weeds, spent garden plants, coffee grounds, tea bags, and kitchen garbage from vegetable and fruit peelings. No meat or greasy products go into the pile as they can draw the attention of our dogs.

Beans and red zeppelin onionOur compost pile is pretty small right now, as I turned it a few weeks ago and used a good bit of the finished compost to fill in a low area previously used for our main garden and a bit for our planting of sugar snap peas. I'm giving the old garden area a royal compost treatment as it will get a new shade tree this fall or next spring to replace one of our shade trees hit by lightning that must come down.

Our house today was filled with the smell of green beans cooking! I was able to take a light picking of beans from our May 12 planting. If my math is right, that comes out to 50 days for varieties that are rated at around 54-55 days from planting to maturity. I'd guess that in just a few days we'll be taking a heavy picking from the row.

Some of the green beans were a bit lumpy in this picking (the Jade and Stringless Green Pod varieties). My guess is that they weren't as fleshy as I like due to insufficient moisture (at times). This is our first crop of green beans in the raised bed, which dries out fairly quickly. I generally don't mulch green beans with grass clippings, as it makes a real mess cleaning all the grass off of the ones touching the ground.

Green beans

I specifically mentioned not mulching green beans above, as I sorta messed up this week...and mulched our beans. My wife, Annie, and I were outside last night enjoying the cool, early evening air. There was a nice pile of grass clippings by the garden that I hadn't used as yet, and I decided to add some mulch along our pepper planting while we talked. Then I added a bit beside our onions. And of course, the beans are in between the peppers and onions. While I tried to be careful to just bring the mulch up to the edge of the beans, I got it too close. Grass clippings on green beans make them very hard to clean and snap...unless you like a bit of hay in your green beans!

But back to the pot of beans...with a red zeppelin onion and some bacon for seasoning, they were great! I also planted another row and a half of beans in vacant areas that have opened up in the garden.

Roadside HybridAthena melonYesterday, I noticed two different varieties of cantaloupe in our East Garden had set on good sized fruit. The Roadside Hybrid at left and the Athena at right were a pleasant surprise, as I'd not seen any melons set on as yet. They're already full sized. I'll be checking them daily to see when they go to half slip and full slip. Half slip is when a circle appears around where the vine connects to the melon and the melon will break away fairly easily. Commercial melons are usually picked for shipping at or a bit before half slip. Full slip come just a day or so later when the melon breaks away from vine on its own or with the gentlest nudge.

Kleckley Sweet female bloomFinding the two cantaloupes got me looking carefully at our watermelons for fruit or at least female blooms. I did find a couple of tennis ball sized melons set on, but up until now, most of the watermelon blooms have been male. I especially searched our hill of Kleckley Sweets, as they're my all time favorite variety of watermelon. I did find some female blooms, but no fruit set on them as yet.

Don't rush out to the grocery or farmers market looking for Kleckleys (also known as Monte Cristo melons). You probably won't find any. The rind of the Kleckley Sweet variety is too fragile for shipping. I've even broken a Kleckley melon by hitting a bump with my garden cart from the garden to the house!

Most of our melons were planted at the end of April, so we may have cantaloupe and possibly even a few watermelon this month. Our melons are at the shaded end of our East Garden, so that may delay their ripening a bit, but may also help with moisture. Melons do need good, regular rainfall.

East Garden (looking northwest)

All of our melons are mulched with grass clippings for moisture retention and weed control. The whole area was tilled before planting, but I allow grassy strips to grow back between the rows of melons and just mow them for weed control. I try to stay ahead of the vine growth by mulching just a bit beyond the vines, but often just don't have enough mulch. On mornings when the wind is dead calm, I do cheat a bit when necessary and knock down the weeds (and some of the grassy strips) around the vines with Roundup. Eventually, the vines may cover part or all of the grassy strips.

One last continuing chore I did again today was to spray our brassicas (currently broccoli, cabbage, and kale) with the biological, Thuricide (BT - bacillus thuringiensis). I'd noticed a few white cabbage moths fluttering around the plants the last few days. It's especially important to control cabbage moths and cabbage loopers in the kale, as once they get started, they're hard to eliminate, even with strong insecticides.

Freezing Garden Seed

When I got inside, I took time to gather all of my leftover bean, pea, and sweet corn seed. We're done planting them for this year. Each went into its own freezer bag and those will go into a jumbo freezer bag tomorrow and into our big freezer. We keep our extra seed frozen from year-to-year in a non-self defrosting, chest type freezer to preserve it. Some seed doesn't preserve well even with freezing (onion seed). But I also have had seed labeled with dates in the early to mid-90's germinate in the last year or so (Moira tomatoes, Japanese Long Pickling cucumbers, saved gloxinia seed).

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Friday, July 3, 2009 - About Garden Seed

Victory Garden PosterThis year lots of folks are turning to gardening for the first time or the first time in a long time to cut their food bill. You may have noticed one of the side effects of this resurgence in interest in gardening when you visited your favorite garden supply store. Many such stores are sold out of a lot of common gardening products.

Victory Garden MugLast winter, I began writing a Senior Gardening feature on starting ones first garden. Other than collecting some thoughts and the old Victory Garden image at right, I didn't get very far. I realized that as a veteran gardener, I'd either have to find some beginning gardeners to interview or think way back through the process of what it takes to start that first garden (shovel or tiller, etc.). I decided that I lacked the proper perspective to do such a column and could probably do more good by accurately describing my gardening practices here in my Senior Gardening blog. I did, however, find a cool Victory Garden Mug to add to my wish list.

The renewed interest in gardening appears to have had an effect on seed suppliers around the country beyond giving some their best sales in years. I've noticed a slight, but overall decline in the quality of seed supplied this year. Reputable seedsmen all pride themselves in exceeding federal seed germination standards, but those standards are really not all that high. For example, sweet peppers and carrots must germinate at 55% and green beans and sweet corn at 75% in controlled tests to meet the standard. Some seedsmen stamp their test germination percentage on each packet of seeds. Others don't. And of course, your results in the field or greenhouse are almost always going to be at least a bit lower than the test results due to growning conditions that aren't ideal.

Our list of trusted seed suppliers has shrunk considerably this year as a result of the diminished quality of some of the seed we've received.

  • Stokes Seeds - offers an incredible variety of vegetable and flower seeds - respond promptly to customer inquiries and complaints
  • Johnny's Selected Seeds - offers hardy varieties for northern latitudes - good customer service
  • R.H. Shumway's - offers many heirloom seeds in a unique, old fashioned looking catalog
  • Henry Field's Seed and Nursery - a long time supplier
  • Seed Savers Exchange - I was an early member of SSE, helping preserve the old Reid's Yellow Dent field corn, but dropped out for years after we quit farming. I joined again this year, as SSE has some varieties you won't find anywhere else.
  • Park Seed - provide a beautiful catalog - lots of gorgeous flowers and some nice accessories - we still use an electric grow mat we bought years ago from them
  • Gurney's Seed and Nursery Co. - a good lineup of items - we used to order seed potatoes from them

It's always a bit tough to know if your seed didn't grow properly from something you did or some other variable. Unfortunately, I had some experiences this year that clearly demonstrated inferior seed causing me to remove Twilley Seed, Mountain Meadow Seed, and Thompson & Morgan from the list above. I recently wrote Twilley Seed a letter about their seed and quality control, asking among other things how I could receive a packet of expensive seedless watermelon seed that contained cracked and crushed seeds with the enclosed glassine of pollinator seed in perfect shape. Twilley responded with a refund check and the usual customer service response of an insincere apology, no acceptance of responsibility, and laid the blame for the seed failures at my feet. I returned the check with the suggestion that they learn something more about customer service.

One curiosity variety I tried this year was Paprika Supreme peppers. I originally ordered some from Johnny's, but they cancelled the order as they were out of stock. I finally found some from Mountain Meadow seed, but only got one viable plant after repeated tries. I finally did a seed germination test with the last ten or twelve seeds on a paper towel. None germinated! A packet of their Heat Wave variety of Vinca also proved difficult to germinate.

Thompson & Morgan bit the dust on our list when their Worlds Top 6 Mix of 30 geranium seeds produced only one viable plant. I may yet try them again for the same assortment, as I wonder if this seed failure was part of my greater seed geranium disaster last winter.

Saving Seed

This year we'll be saving seed from just two vegetable varieties, Moira tomatoes and Earliest Red Sweet peppers. Saving seed requires strict isolation to prevent cross-pollination from other varieties. Our Moira for seed and the ERS pepper are planted in our East Garden, over a hundred yards from any other tomato or pepper plants. We also have some Moira and ERS in our main garden, but won't save any seed from them as they grow beside other varieties. Tomatoes generally self-pollinate, but that one odd honeybee can introduce a cross that can spoil your saved seed!

I'm also growing out a couple of Japanese Long Pickling cucumber plants this year to make sure our seed saved last year is true to type before offering them through the Seed Savers Exchange. If we save seed from them, I guess that will make three varieties. And of course, we're working on hand pollinating our gloxinias for seed production.

Color in the Garden

One disappointment with what so far has been a really good gardening year is the lack of color (besides green) in our vegetable garden. It's there if you look for it, but I didn't plan a full flower bed this year in our main garden. I guess I thought that the reds of our tomatoes and the reds, yellows, and oranges of our peppers would satisfy my lust for color, but all have yet to put on much color in their fruit.

Color in the vegetable gardenOur corner and row marker flowers do add some needed color to the Senior Garden, but I always wanted our garden to be an explosion of color for the eyes and for this web site. Part of the lack of flowers may be that I decided this year that I wasn't going to buy any plants, flower or vegetable, for our garden this year. Since I'm retired, I have the time to grow all of our needed transplants. We just didn't do very well this year with some of the high priced seed we tried. While I question my planting technique over and over, the funny thing is that seed frozen and saved from last year and inexpensive plant packets purchased at various stores germinated well!

I spent some time Wednesday adding a few more flower plants around the edge of the raised bed garden plot and also replacing some row marker plants in the East Garden that had failed to grow. I did notice that some of our zinnias in the East Garden were just beginning to bloom. I hope the deer don't eat them!

Next year I think I'll have to devote a section of our main garden to flowers to satisfy my need for color in the vegetable garden.

Insect Control

I should probably put something on the About Senior Gardening page about our insect control plan...if you could call it that. The Senior Garden isn't an organic garden, but we certainly lean that way. I try to control insects via crop rotation, avoiding planting concentrated areas of similar vegetables, and hand picking bugs when necessary. I use lots of the biological, Thuricide, to control pests on our brassicas and our evergreen trees. When the spray seems ineffective, I go to Dipel dust (same active ingredient) for control before resorting to something stronger.

When cutworms threatened to ruin our pepper planting this year, we used paper coffee cups as cutworm collars. However, I was ready to douse the soil with something considerably stronger had the collars proved ineffective.

I guess what got me started on this topic were the japanese beetles I saw (and squished) Wednesday while picking green beans. Since we're close to our first heavy picking of green beans and the bugs haven't done too much damage as yet, I'll probably wait until after that picking to begin spraying for insect control. Our first chemical line of defense is the plant-derived insecticide, rotenone, usually in a rotenone-pyretherin mix. It only stays active for about a day, but is great for knocking down infestations. Note that pyretherin can be absorbed directly through the skin, so even though this product is considered one of the tamer insecticides, caution is indicated. Later on and especially in years where the farm field next to us is planted to soybeans, I fall back on stronger products such as sevin.

Japanese Beetles on Green BeansOops!

Most of this posting was written on Thursday. When I checked our green beans today, it looked like a Japanese Beetle convention on one of the plants. Apparently, the beetles flew in from the field west of us that was being tilled. So...the beans got sprayed today (Friday), and I'll wait until Sunday to do our first heavy picking!

BTW: I have a great shot of a Japanese Beetle on a sweet corn tassel on my Desktop Photos page.

Even when we grew commercial sweet corn, I was able to get by many years by spraying mineral oil on the corn silks to prevent earworms from destroying the tip of the ear and more. But when the bugs begin to bore in through the side of the ear of corn, it's definitely time to spray something stronger.

So, no, we're definitely not an organic garden. But for first-time gardeners reading this page, I'd add the caution that you really want to think about what you spray on what you're going to eat. I'd rather lose a few lettuce plants or kale leaves than hurt someone with spray residue remaining on or absorbed into a leafy vegetable.

Our Main Garden Looks a Bit Better

Main garden, July, 2009

The guys who farm the field west of us, Wayne and Todd, and some neighbors who were already finished with spring planting put in a couple of long days getting the field worked up and planted to soybeans. While we don't have any commercial interest in the field or farming operation, it sure makes the Senior Garden look a lot nicer with the weeds gone from the field.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

After a rainy Fourth of July weekend that washed out countless ball games, cookouts, and fireworks displays, Monday was a gorgeous, sunny day. Our garden patches absolutely loved the rain, as we'd had about ten days without a good rain.

Main garden 090706

Green beans emergingBroccoliOf course the rain got our grass growing again, so I had to start mowing on Monday instead of picking green beans as I'd planned. But I did notice the rain had popped up a short row of green beans I'd planted last week. And our one row of broccoli that I left in the main garden is still putting out good sideshoots. Whenever I think it's time to take the row out, it seems to surprise me with yet another round of small, but delicious heads.

Our yellow squash continue to put out a bountiful harvest. My wife, Annie, fries them up with broccoli and cauliflower (and whatever else she throws in) in olive oil to make a healthy, tasty vegetable dish. I think the large, yellow blossoms of squash against their vivid green foliage is one of the prettiest sights to be seen in a garden.

Yellow squash

The shot above was taken with my not-so-gracefully aging Nikon Coolpix 4300. It's been a good camera, although it required an expensive repair just out of warranty (that I believe Nikon should have covered as a known defect). But it's retractable lens labors to extend and retract and the battery door has been held shut for several years by electrician's tape, so we're now seriously camera shopping. The camera I bought in October as a short term replacement for the 4300 turned out to be very short term. It failed after five months of use, and has returned from each of two trips to Nikon service in worse shape than before. Nikon is currently ignoring my emails, phone messages, and letters. Needless to say, none of our leading candidates for the next Senior Garden Camera are Nikons.

Powershot A1000IS Powershot SX10IS Digital Rebel XSi EOS Rebel T1i
Canon Powershot A1000IS 10MP Digital Camera with 4x Optical Image Stabilized Zoom (Grey) Canon Powershot SX10IS 10MP Digital Camera with 20x Wide Angle Optical Image Stabilized Zoom Canon Digital Rebel XSi 12.2 MP Digital SLR Camera with EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS Lens (Black) Canon EOS Rebel T1i 15.1 MP CMOS Digital SLR Camera with 3-Inch LCD and EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS Lens

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Strike green beansAfter several days of rain and other delays, I finally made our first major picking of green beans yesterday. Since I had delayed picking, there were more over mature beans than I'd like, but still picked three gallons of beans.

I'd planted four varieties of green beans in the row, as I think canned green beans (and many other vegetables) taste a bit better with a mix of flavors. The prettiest of the beans were the Strike variety, which really were at the nice, straight stage where I might have steamed them as gourmet beans. But with time constraints, I just threw them in with the other three varieties, Bush Blue Lake, Stringless Green Pod, and Jade. All four varieties produced well and seem to have no disease problems so far.

Washing beansPressure gaugeI washed and snapped the beans last night, but waited until today to can them. Even though I've canned green beans lots of times, I always go back and read through the directions in the Ball Blue Canning Book (Ball Blue Book). I few years ago when I didn't check the Blue Book, I added a tablespoon of salt per quart, rather than the proper one teaspoon per quart! Yuck!

One of the things I really have to be careful about in canning is watching the pressure on our pressure canner. Even at the lowest setting of our range, the pressure wants to climb right past the recommended 10 PSI to around 15 PSI. Rather than go on to other chores while the canning was going on today, I just stayed in the kitchen to monitor and adjust the pressure. At one point, I turned off the stove when the pressure had reached 11 pounds and waited for it to drop before re-lighting the stove.

Canning green beans

Green beans with hamWe have most of the basic canning tools we need on hand in our kitchen. But one item that was missing for years was one of those jar lifters that are specially made for placing and removing canning jars from the canner. We'd had one, but it got misplaced somewhere along the line. I'd made do for years with various tongs, frequently scalding myself in the process. Last summer, I broke down and bought another lifter and am glad I did. New gardeners really can cut their food budget with a garden, but all the items necessary to plant and maintain a garden and can or freeze the harvest take a long time to amortize. Of course the payoff, such as the pan of green beans seasoned with onions, ham, and bacon shown here, make it all worthwhile.

Garlic Harvest

Digging garlicGarlic dryingOur garlic that was planted last November got dug today. I actually may have waited a bit too long for the tops to totally brown, as some of the elephant garlic showed signs of spoilage setting in.

While garlic takes a lot of time to grow, it's a relatively easy and trouble free crop. Our harvest will keep us in garlic all year and also provide sets to plant in October. (Yeah, I got our garlic in really late last fall.)

After gently lifting the garlic out of the bed with a heavy garden fork, I shook as much dirt from the roots as possible. I let the garlic sit out a bit in the sun and breeze before shaking dirt from it again and loading it into our garden cart. I cure our garlic (and onions) on our back porch. It's shaded part of the day and also receives a good breeze when there is one.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Canon EOS 450DAnd the winner of our Senior Garden Camera search is....ta da...the Canon Digital Rebel XSi.

The XSi, or EOS 450D, is actually one step behind Canon's latest entry-level digital SLR, the T1i. But it also was around $120 less than Canon's latest and greatest, and that means a lot to a retiree.

I'm now working to learn how to use some of the many features of the new camera and put it to work on Senior Gardening. Compared to my 30+ year old 35mm Canon AE-1, the XSi is a little overwhelming. And as yet, I haven't taken any real "keepers" with the new camera. I did, however, use the XSi to take the main garden shot that appears at the top of this blog. Until today, I hadn't as yet replaced the original shot that has headed this page since we started in August, 2008.

And of course, the best way to learn how to use a new camera, after some consultation of the manual, is to get out and take lots of pictures. I'm having a ball doing just that.

XSi Composite

Grandma and PennyOne of the llamas that live down the road from us seemed quite interested in what I was doing. The cattle who live a bit further down the road appear to have cared long as I didn't get too close.

And in an incredible stroke of good timing, the camera came in the same day our most recent granddaughter was born. Grandma proudly holds Penelope (Penny) Lane in the hospital the next day. Grandpa also eagerly took several turns at holding Penny.

Obviously, we didn't do a lot of gardening over the last few days.

Friday, July 17, 2009 - Color in the Garden

Maverick Red GeraniumI wrote early this month about being somewhat disappointed about the lack of color in our garden this year. I guess I was just being impatient, as I've been dazzled by the colors in the garden this week.

Geraniums in soft bedWe had a tough time getting our seed geraniums started this year, but they're now blooming profusely in the rich soil of our raised bed garden. I used four of them for the corners of a soft bed where our garlic was growing. The bed now awaits a renovation before being replanted to a fall crop.

While we had a flower bed in the main garden last year, this year most of the flowers in our gardens are serving as row markers. Rather than leave planting stakes in the ground at the end of a row where I've sown seed, I pull the stakes and transplant a flower right into the stake hole. This system usually works well unless something cuts off or eats the flower!

I think the first flowers I used for row markers were zinnias. I started using them to mark the rows of our sweet corn years ago and still use them now. I usually use the old State Fair variety, but tried Peppermint Stick this year and was rewarded with some interesting blooms.

Zinnia Zinnia Zinnia White Zinnia

Tomatoes and marigoldsMarigold and beeOur tomato and basil plants are ringed with marigolds that have now come into full bloom. I forgot to grow or buy any marigolds last summer and missed them in the garden all summer long.

I'm really not too picky about marigold varieties, leaning more to the smelly, cheapy varieties than some of the fancier and more expensive ones often featured in seed catalogs. We had trouble getting our marigolds going this spring, so I dug into my seed stores and replanted our flats with whatever varieties I found!

You may notice that our caged tomatoes have gotten away from me with many shoots outside the cages. I'll have to prune them back to prevent the vines being weighted down and broken from the fruit.

Even our potatoes are beginning to produce lovely purple blooms.

Potato bloom


Boiled and buttered cabbageLunch today was boiled and buttered cabbage fresh from the garden. Cabbage is a lot like sweet corn. For best flavor, it needs to be cooked immediately after being picked.

We have just one head of savoy cabbage left in the garden, but I have transplants started for the fall. I've also seeded lettuce, broccoli, and cauliflower in fourpacks for the fall.

We had green beans from the garden with our supper this evening that were picked this morning. And I also froze a quart of broccoli florets from a picking of sideshoots.

Bagged garlicOur garlic that I dug a little over a week ago is now bagged in old potato net bags, but still sitting in a shady spot of our airy back porch. It will go downstairs where it is cooler and dryer in a week or so. I had to hurry it a bit in drying, as some of our Red Zeppelin onions are falling over. They'll soon need the space on the porch where the garlic dried and cured to dry out. Our Walla Walla sweet onions aren't far behind as well.

As I wrote the paragraph above, I looked at the photo I had of the onions bent over and decided that I really didn't like it all that much. Since there appeared to be a nice sunset beginning, I grabbed my new Canon Digital Rebel XSi and headed for the back yard. Shep, our border collie cross, and I sat and watched the sunset. Then I took a flash photo of the onions. Wondering just how good the XSi's low light capabilities were, I shut off the flash and tried again. Other than my somewhat shaky grip, the existing light photo really looked better to me than the one with flash.

Onions at Night Onions at night existing light
Onions at sunset using flash Onions at sunset with no flash

I've taken over 500 shots in just a week with the new camera and have lots of under and overexposed shots on manual, blurry images where I didn't handle the auto-focus correctly, and lots of other issues. But the issues are mine, not the camera's. One of the glories of digital photography is that it only costs you time to learn by shooting lots of shots. So, I'm still pretty happy with the new camera.

Let me leave you with the sunset Shep and I watched.


Have a great weekend!

Sunday, July 19, 2009

I often spend hours reading up on vegetable varieties before deciding on which ones best meet our needs and suit our growing conditions. And other times, I may just order something that strikes me as sorta cool.

Red Zeppelin onions drying

Red Zeppelin onionMy selection of the Red Zeppelin onion for our garden this year was just a bit of whimsy. Stokes Seeds offered two red onions whose names caught my fancy, Red Zeppelin and Grateful Red. I'd previously used the Mars variety of red onion, but liked the description of both red onions with rock 'n' roll inspired names as having good storage potential. I chose Red Zeppelin over Grateful Red purely on price, as a packet was just $2.75 as opposed to the minimum order of a thousand Grateful Red seeds for $8.24.

I'll be interested to see how well our Red Zeppelin onions store, but having harvested them this early in the summer, won't count it against them much if they don't store well into the winter. Late harvested onions usually store better.

We'll grow Red Zeppelins again next year, as they appear to be an excellent variety for the home garden. They produced an excellent crop of medium to large, dark red onions that have a good flavor.

Our Walla Walla sweet onions are just beginning to fall over, so I helped a few by bending their tops down. That allows them to finish bulbing and begin the drying process. Our main storage onions, Milestones and Pulsars, are just at golf ball size, so it will be another month or so before they're ready to harvest.

Baby Sweet carrotsOne of our granddaughters was here for an overnight this weekend. We picked (and ate) grape tomatoes out in the garden. I really like having things that our grandchildren and pick and eat right off the plant. Grape tomatoes and sugar snap peas are favorites of our grandkids.

We grew only one variety of carrot this year, Baby Sweet from Stokes Seeds. This is a variety I've grown before and like, and they're not too expensive ($2.19/pkt). I pulled a few several days ago, and yesterday Katherine, my granddaughter, and I pulled, washed, and ate a few more.

Egret and heronGreat Blue HeronAfter doing some weedwacking today, I ran into town to pick up an appliance light for our refrigerator. I took the back way into town on purpose, traveling across the causeway of Turtle Creek Reservoir in hopes of seeing some heron. I had my Canon Digital Rebel XSi fitted out with its 55-250mm lens in case I got lucky. The heron have been quite scarce and especially shy this summer.

I was delighted to see a great white heron (great egret) along the bank of the reservoir. Unfortunately, the light reflected off the water overexposing the white heron in most of my shots. As I snapped away, a blue heron flew into view, and I caught it with its wings spread before it landed.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009 - Our Melon Patch

It's raining today and probably will be all day. While that makes outdoor gardening a bit tough, the rain coming in produced a near perfect gardening day yesterday with clouds, moderate temperatures, and a refreshing breeze all day. And we really do need the rain!

Athena melon (cantaloupe)During a break in the showers this morning, I did get out to our East Garden to check our cantaloupe. I'm watching an Athena and several Roadside Hybrid melons to see when they go to "half slip." That's the point where a ring appears at the point the vine connects to the melon. The Athena melon at right is really close, but when I tried the stem, it was still firmly attached. At half slip, just a little pressure will detach the vine from the melon. For home gardeners, waiting a day or two from the half slip stage to full slip (the melon detaches from the vine by itself) is good insurance to pick the melon at maturity.

Crimson SweetI also took time to "thunk" a few watermelons. The Crimson Sweet watermelon shown at left really should be ripe from its days to maturity (80) and planting date, but I'm still not quite sure. And I've found over the years that I'm really bad at thunking (tapping and listening for that "ripe" sound...whatever that is) watermelons. Since our melon patch is shaded a bit in the morning, I'll wait until the melons thunk just a little better before picking one.

Our melon culture is something I stumbled upon last year. The whole area for our melons was tilled in March and again in April (and a bit more in May). I plant our melons in north-south rows in very shallow hills, two or three plants to a hill. I mulch around each hill with all the grass clippings I can afford at the time.

Melon patch

mulched rowSpotty weed controlAs the season progresses and the melons rapidly grow, weed control is a constant effort. The mulch put down around the hills usually holds back the weeds (and retains moisture). I try to stay ahead of the rapidly expanding vines by adding more grass clipping mulch and training the vines over the mulch. I also mow around the melons, creating grassy walkways that eventually will be pretty well grown over. And in all honesty, when I can't till down weeks, mow them down, and don't have enough mulch, I pretty quickly resort to using Roundup to keep the grass from overwhelming the crop. Ideally, I'd stay ahead of the vines with heavy mulch as shown at left, but often have rather spotty weed control that requires another application of weed killer. The last time I sprayed, I used a small sheet of plywood to protect the vines from the spray applied to the grass.

For insect control, I try to plant on clean ground, keep the vines in good health, and hope for the best. Melons can wilt overnight from an invasion of squash vine borers, or striped cucumber beetles, so I do keep on the lookout for them. Bacterial wilt can cause the same thing to happen. Unfortunately, if your vines wilt, it's pretty much too late to do anything then. But if you lose one vine and find the telltale "sawdust" around the entry hole of the pest, then a general insecticide can protect the rest of your crop. Splitting the vine with a knife from the invasion site towards the base may reveal the pest. If so, destroy it and bury the split vine, but...generally you're going to lose at least that vine, if not the whole plant.

We didn't have to use any insecticides on our melons and squash last year, and I hope that will be the case again this year. If I do have to spray, my first line of defense is usually a rotenone-pyretherin mix. I'll also go to a longer lasting carbaryl insecticide (Sevin, Eight) if necessary.

The best description I've seen for organic control of these pests is on Tom Clothier's Garden Walk and Talk site, Squash Vine Borer Control.

Main Garden

The Illustrated Encyclopedia of American CookingI worked until dark last night, taking advantage of the great weather to pick broccoli sideshoots and harvest our last head of savoy cabbage and a red cabbage as well. While a previous head of cabbage never made it to the fridge and got consumed as boiled and buttered cabbage, I'll make garden slaw from this one from an excellent recipe I found in my wife's copy of The Illustrated Encyclopedia of American Cooking.

Tomatoes, beans, kale, and peasWith rain on the way, I fertilized and tilled a new row of green beans and our kale. I had a few flower transplants left, so I put them in on the north side of our trellis that has a rather sad looking planting of sugar snap peas.

With the tiller out, I also worked the area where the savoy cabbage had come out and planted a half row of green beans in it. The other half of the row was already planted to beans a week or so ago.

And I once again renovated a soft bed section of the main garden with peat moss, lime, and fertilizer. When I dug our garlic earlier this month from the area, I turned up some heavy clay that necessitated some soil amendments. I wrote about renovating this area last August in the somewhat whimsical Lazy Summer Days (Daze) feature.

Main garden

After the showers last night and this morning, the bed looks great. Although the bed is probably the best soil in our garden, I added four 2 cubic foot bags of Miracle-Gro Sphagnum Peat Moss to it to break up the clay I'd turned up. Our local Wal-Mart had cut the price on it from $8.94 a bag to just $3 each. I usually buy our peat moss in the larger compressed bales, but this deal was too good to pass up.

This bed probably will hold our fall broccoli and cauliflower, although I'm not really sure as yet.

Saturday, July 25, 2009 - About Those Tomato Cages

I wrote a bit last August about the tomato cages I use in the Senior Garden. I make them out of concrete reinforcing wire (described as welded wire in some hardware stores). They're the best cages I have found yet, but they do have some problems.

The wire rusts over the years and the welds break, necessitating replacing them every six or seven years. I've gotten around this problem a bit by putting a couple of coats of rustoleum on the cages the last time I had to replace my old ones (which are still in use in our large, East Garden).

A second problem with the cages is that they are bulky, being about 22" in diameter and around 5' tall. We have a decrepit old shed on our property that is falling down. While it looks terrible, the old shed serves for winter storage of the large cages.

Another problem with the cages that I haven't written about here made itself apparent again this morning in our main garden. As the tomato plants grow, they can become top heavy. With the ground softened from heavy rains, the wind was able to topple over three of our cages this morning. This problem has occurred in the past, so it appears that I need to find a way to anchor the cages a bit better. Do note that we are subject to some pretty fierce winds where we live.

Tomato cages down

The cages stood back up fairly easily, and I stepped them back into the ground. Since the plants weren't uprooted in their fall, they should continue to produce as long as we don't get another storm with similar winds.

Our tomato cages in our East Garden were planted several weeks after the ones in the main garden. They weren't top heavy and came through the storm just fine. The photo below shows a couple of the newer, painted cages beside four of the older ones. As the older ones rust and break, I just trim off a 6" layer of the wire to continue using them. All of these tomato plants are the Moira variety. I plan to save seed from them. Even though tomatoes are generally self-pollinating, I only planted Moiras in the East Garden to insure isolation and purity of the variety in the saved seed.

New & old cages

Moiras are a determinate variety of tomato often not caged or staked. I've found that I get cleaner fruit by caging our determinates, rather than growing them mulched on the ground. Determinates are also known as "bush" varieties, as they generally are shorter than the vining, indeterminate varieties. Determinates also don't put on "suckers" that have to be pruned when staking indeterminate varieties. The Garden Web has a good description of determinate and indeterminate tomatoes.

OnionsBella Rosa TomatoOur onions also got bent over from the wind, as did our non-caged pepper plants. While the onions may be limited a bit in size by getting bent over prematurely, neither the onions or peppers were really damaged too badly.

As I came in from taking the pictures above, I noticed our Bella Rosa tomato plant on the end of the row that didn't get toppled over filled with ripening tomatoes.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Potato rowsPlanting potatoesI decided yesterday to see if I could take a few new potatoes from our row of red potatoes. I've not had much luck growing potatoes here, but this year we have a nice row of Red Pontiacs and another of Kennebecs in our East Garden.

I really wasn't counting on planting potatoes this year, but had picked up a 5# bag each of red and white seed potatoes from the garden store just in case. I turned so much ground this spring in the fallow field east of us (our East Garden) that I did have space for potatoes. They were the last things planted in the area, going in on June 8 between a row of tomatoes and our sweet corn.

Potato plantPotatoes and yellow squashWhile I did a thorough job of soil preparation for the potatoes, I really haven't done much more for them than keep the weeds down somewhat and watch them grow. When I dug under a Red Pontiac plant yesterday, I was in for a very pleasant surprise. I found not only ample golf ball sized potatoes, but some much larger ones as well. I stored the larger potatoes and put the smaller ones in some leftover green beans. And yes, both the beans and the potatoes were delicious.

We've grown our potatoes in the past in our main garden which has much more fertile soil than the East Garden. Often, the potatoes would put on lots of top growth but succumb to insects. When we did have adequate insect control, we often got more top than anything underneath. Maybe I've been "too nice" to our potatoes in the past.

Let me add a photo tip here before I forget. Almost forty years ago in a workshop for wedding photographers, the presenter recommended buying a neutral or UV filter for each new camera lens you buy. He suggested putting the filter on the lens before ever mounting the lens on the camera or taking that first shot. With a filter on an expensive lens, an impact breaks the filter, but hopefully not the lens. And of course, cleaning a filter is far less risky than having to clean the lens itself.

While scratching out the potatoes yesterday, I looked down and was aghast to see that I'd flipped dirt on the barrel and end of the lens on my new Canon XSi! The dirt came off the barrel with just a few dusting motions. I used a lens cleaning tissue on the filter, but it took several minutes to remove the dry dirt.

I was thankful I heeded the advice of that photographer from years ago. When I bought my new camera and another lens for it, each lens got a UV filter before ever going into service.

NasturtiumsLast year I planted nasturtiums between our rows of potatoes and late onions in a well fertilized area of the garden. By fall, they'd pretty well overgrown that whole section of garden. So this year I confined my nasturtium planting to one edge of our sweet corn in our East Garden. Following the old adage, "Be nasty to nasties" (nasturtiums), the row received no fertilizer at all. So far, they, along with some marigolds, are providing a nice border for that area without putting out too many runners.


It appears that we'll also get at least some sweet corn this year. From our repeated plantings of some inferior seed, we now have the irregular patch above tasseling out. Behind the early corn, the main season variety is a disaster with so many gaps that it probably will not pollinate properly. But we may get lucky and just have a steady, if small, supply of corn for several weeks. We'll see.

As July winds down, I'm beginning to get excited about making our first batch of Portuguese Kale Soup. A year ago we made the tasty soup in August, but had to rely on canned tomatoes, store bought potatoes, and a bag of mixed frozen vegetables. We did make another batch in October using more of our own garden produce, but again had to use commercial potatoes.

Green beans and kaleThis year we'll have our own kale, garlic, onions, tomatoes, green beans, carrots, and potatoes to make the soup. I've been saving chicken and turkey stock for some time in the freezer and have also stocked up on Eckrich Skinless Smoked Sausage. The kale shown at left with a row of green beans looks to be almost ready. When it's ready next month, we'll be all set.

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June, 2009

From the at Senior Gardening


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