One of the Joys of Maturity
The Old Guy's Garden Record
I've been carefully watching our weather forecast, hoping for just a few more days of sunny, windy weather that helps dry out the garden. Yesterday, I faced a choice of turning a bit of soil in our raised garden bed that was almost ready or mowing our yard for the first time. I really wanted to begin transplanting onions and lettuce and direct seeding carrots.
But having worked "almost ready" soil in the past and ended up with a lumpy mess later, I decided to get the yard mowed, especially since we have rain and weather in the 60s and 70s predicted for the next few days. If we get a break in the predicted rain, I may be mowing again by mid-week. But it's certainly nice to look outside and see green grass again. And the solid row of peas and our garlic coming up definitely make me smile.
I went downstairs this morning to just check on our melons that I'd seeded on Wednesday. Since our heat mat was occupied, I'd just laid the flat and dome over two of the fluorescent light's ballast units, giving the flat some improvised bottom heat. When I got the flat into the light, I was really surprised to see that eight of the ten pots started had seedlings up in them.
I had one pot where the young seedlings had pushed almost completely out of the soil searching for light, so I had to poke hole in the soil and tuck them back in. Failure to do so would allow the thin root to dry out, and the plant would die.
While I moved the flat under our plantlights, I did keep the humidome in place to retain heat and moisture. I'll remove the dome in a day or two, as mold does get going pretty quickly in such conditions.
I wish everything germinated so easily!
I really thought last fall that the tree wasn't going to make it another year. We'd been fighting sooty mold on it for a couple of years, and then it got hit hard with fire blight last summer. Some severe pruning appeared to have stopped the fire blight, but the tree was weakened and still beset with the sooty mold on its fruit and leaves.
During January and February, I sprayed it with liquid soap several times to try and remove the mold and also hit it with a lime sulfur and dormant oil mix. Over the last few weeks, it became obvious from swelling blossoms on some branches that the tree still had some life in it. I did have to remove one major limb that was dead and still have a number of smaller dead branches to prune. I also began spraying the tree with a streptomycin fire blight spray.
Maintaining a healthy apple tree shouldn't be so hard, but I hadn't properly pruned the tree for a couple of years. That led to poor air circulation and the sooty mold. The fire blight can happen to anyone, but a weakened tree is obviously more susceptible.
Garden Season Begins
After several weeks of unseasonably warm weather and then heavy, heavy thunderstorms last night, I now have time to write a bit about our garden. I've been doing my usual, "Is it time, yet" drill, waiting for the soil to be ready to till.
Two days ago, it truly did appear that our soil might be dry enough to begin rototilling without destroying the soil structure. Tilling wet clay soil can leave one with a clumpy mess. Wet soil finely tilled will dry to a consistency close to concrete.
I chose to begin tilling in our East Garden, a fallow field east of our house that the farmer graciously allows us to use. About half of the tilling was "new ground," as the part of the garden last year closest to the woods became the local watermelon delicatessen for what seemed to be every raccoon in the area! Abandoning that area necessitated turning some new ground adjacent to the area where we'd grown our sweet corn last summer.
Tilling new ground for a garden is usually pretty hard work, but I found the new ground that hadn't been turned since the farmer gave up farming it several years ago tilled far easier than our old corn patch. The old corn patch had a dense cover of grass, some of which I cut for sod and moved to some bare patches in our yard. But the East Garden has now had its first turn, but will require at least one more pass with the rototiller before it is planting ready.
It was supposed to rain all day yesterday, but when the rain held off (until early evening), I got out and turned over our raised bed garden and part of another section of what used to be our main garden. The raised bed had been limed last fall, so after a quick pH test (around 6.7), just a very light dusting of lime was necessary before tilling.
With the completion of our raised bed last spring, we're slowly getting away from using most of the old garden plot. Our children are now all grown, greatly reducing the need for a large garden. We cut the old garden plot's size in half last year, and will again halve that portion this year in favor of more intensive gardening in the raised bed. Of course, having a good bit of ground available in the East Garden for space hogs such as melons, squash, and sweet corn reduces the need for the old garden plot.
As the rain teased us with on and off sprinkles, I was able to plant our second row of peas. I'd held off planting them until now, as the varieties I'd chosen mostly need warmer ground than our earlier planting. The row now contains Encore, Eclipse, and a few Extra Early Alaska peas. All are low growing varieties, but I still put in T-posts to hold a string trellis that I'll add later.
I forged ahead and seeded a row of kale in our main garden. I was also able transplant a couple of rows of brassicas before the rain began in earnest. Note in the photo below that I keep some old lumber around as "walking boards" so that I don't compress the freshly tilled soil too much while working in the raised bed.
The varieties we use are, of course, what works well in our area (west, central Indiana). The kale was an old favorite, Dwarf Blue Vates. I didn't buy any kale seed this year and ended up seeding out of three old, saved packets. I was a bit amused at my seed hoarding, as there were two more partial, old packets that I didn't need to get into.
For broccoli, we again went with Premium Crop and Goliath this year. I've not found a better broccoli than Premium Crop for our garden. While it is often described as a main head variety, and it does produce spectacular main heads under proper growing conditions, we also get excellent side shoots from it, extending its productivity considerably.
Our cauliflower is all Amazing, the best self wrapping cauliflower I've seen. Wrapping the leaves around cauliflower heads prevents yellowing of the head and resultant bitterness. While Amazing's leaves do wrap, we often take a piece of string and tie some of the leaves around the head as well.
And our brussels sprouts are a new variety from Johnny's Selected Seeds, Churchill. And I must admit, I don't think I've ever grown good brussels sprouts. They always get buggy and nasty, but since my wife loves them, I'm trying again this year.
Our brassicas (broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, and brussels sprouts) each went into a hole with a little lime to prevent clubroot, some liquid starter fertilizer mixed with a touch of insecticide to discourage cutworms, and a dixie cup (with the solid end cut out) as a cutworm collar to further frustrate the cutworms.
Starting Seedless Watermelon
I moved our first planting of vining crops outside, under our cold frame, yesterday. Earlier in the week, I'd started our seedless watermelon varieties. Seedless, or triploid, watermelon varieties require a pollinator, and most seed vendors include a few seeds of Crimson Sweet or Sugar Baby that are to be grown alongside the seedless varieties for pollination. Unfortunately, the vendors often put either the triploid or the pollinator in a glassine envelope, unlabeled, in the same packet as the triploid seed. I have noticed that some suppliers have finally started printing the name of the pollinator on the glassine.
A new triploid from Johnny's Selected Seeds that we're trying out this year, Farmers Wonderful, actually came with the packet stapled to a separate, labeled packet of pollinator seed, and a printed growers guide that is probably the best I've seen on growing seedless watermelon. Although I've successfully grown seedless watermelon before, the guide had several tips that I'd not known before, such as keeping the soil mix just moist, but not really wet to improve germination.
Just telling you about the guide would be sort of a nasty trick if it weren't available without purchasing seed, but Johnny's supplies What you should know about growing triploid (“seedless”) watermelon (60K) as a free downloable Word document!
You may have noticed a slight change for our site in your web browser's toolbar. I replaced our web host's favicon with our own this evening. From Tutorials by Jennifer on PhotoshopSupport.com, "A Favicon is a little custom icon that appears next to a website's URL in the address bar of a web browser. They also show up in your bookmarked sites, on the tabs in tabbed browsers, and as the icon for Internet shortcuts on your desktop or other folders in Windows."
I really hadn't planned on doing a favicon for Senior Gardening, but had previously looked into how to do it for another site I publish. Then I got to playing around with a rather unremarkable shot of a daffodil bloom I'd taken yesterday. A little Photoshop magic with the magnetic lasso tool isolated the flower bloom and a good bit of cleaning up the edges of the bloom produced the shot at left.
Following Jennifer's tutorial, I downloaded the appropriate plug-in, resized the image to the required 16 x 16 pixel dimension, and saved and uploaded the resulting favicon to the site.
Once I remembered to clear the cache on my web browser, the tiny daffodil icon appeared by the url and in tabs.
While our tiny favicon certainly doesn't stand out like some of the really creative ones I've seen on large, commercial sites, it may help folks using tabbed browsing keep track of what is where.
Chopsticks for Gardening?
I'm a disaster eating with chopsticks, but I still pop a pair or two in the bag each time we get take out from our favorite Chinese restaurant in Sullivan, the China Wok. Over time, we've built up a good supply of them from times I really just want to get something in my mouth and not try to expand my cultural experience.
I recently found a use for our extra chopsticks. When I'm rooting (or trying to root) various leaves or branches, I cover the cuttings with a clear plastic bag of some sort. I've bent many clothes hangers to keep the bags from touching the stems and leaves, but really wasn't too happy with that practice.
When I recently took cuttings from my wife's Wandering Jew plant (which was in bad shape due solely to my neglect of it), I decided to use some of our extra chopsticks to hold the bread sack that served to hold in moisture. They're working out far better than our previous coat hanger props.
Our main raised bed is finally beginning to look like a garden. I transplanted onions, carrots, beets, and lettuce into a softbed at one end of our raised bed yesterday. A softbed is...well, that's a subject for a whole feature story...an area where we try never to step on the soil, working it from the side of the raised bed or using walking boards to spread weight and prevent soil compaction.
We employ intensive gardening techniques in our softbeds, reducing the distance between rows drastically, and planting vegetables that grow well with each other in close quarters.
Our onions, started in January, were of a perfect size for easy transplanting into the soft, fertile soil in our softbed. Since I noticed some crowding of our onions last year, both in the row and between rows, I was careful this year to add a bit more spacing for them. While Walla Walla onion seed was a bit tough to find this year, we still had some from last year that germinated well, so Walla Walla was our sweet onion. The rest of our onion varieties are all storage types, Red Zeppelin, Pulsar, and Milestone. All four varieties are capable of producing large onions under proper (lucky?) growing conditions.
Our planting technique isn't very fancy. I just stab the soil with a trowel and pull parallel with the row to open a hole for the onion plant. The onion gets pressed into the side of the hole. Then I press a bit of damp soil to the roots to hold the onion shoot in place before moving the trowel around 4-5" downrow to stab and drag soil to fill the previous hole and create a new one. I don't water the hole for each transplant. I come back later with a watering can with dilute starter fertilizer to wet down the area.
I use several tricks from Jim Crockett in planting carrots and beets. And of course, one only plants carrots in soil that has been worked deeply. I thinly (about 1" spacing) seed our carrots into a 1/2" deep row, but also seed radish right over the carrot seed. The radish germinates quickly and helps prevent soil crusting. By the time the carrots are up and need the space, the radishes are ready to pull. I also try to cover my carrot seedings with my walking boards to hold down weeds and retain moisture. Of course, the radishes will be up in three or four days and the boards will have to go then, but even a few days of moisture retention helps.
I usually grow a few beets indoors to transplant into the garden. This year our half flat of beets got swamped in a heavy rain, so I'm not sure the transplants will take. Half of our half row of beets were transplants and the rest were direct seeded.
I've had some problems with lettuce germination this year, so I didn't have any of our favorite soft head, Crispino, ready to transplant yesterday. But we have lots of other varieties and have some Crispino going under our plantlights for a later planting. Since we like Romaine lettuce, I planted several varieties of it, including Defender and a romaine mix from Harris Seeds that had a red romaine (shown at left). We also have Red Lollo for a bit of color and some Summer Crisp and Sun Devil.
I hope we'll have as good a softbed as we had in this same spot in 2008 (shown at right). While I didn't mark every row with a flower transplant yesterday, I did go ahead and risk a couple of red geraniums at the corners of the softbed. I'll also be adding grass clipping mulch to the bed as it becomes available to hold down weeds in the bed and to help retain moisture.
Rather than try to list the tight spacings I used in the softbed, I've reproduced my softbed garden record here to show what went where and how it was spaced. And yes, I still chart my garden with draw documents in the now ancient AppleWorks program.
While clearing some brush and scrub thorn trees that have been steadily encroaching on our East Garden, I startled a bird yesterday. Closer examination revealed a nest of squabs, but by the time I got the camera, a mourning dove was back on the nest. The full frame image (at right) is available for free download on our Desktop Photos page.
We're in a bit of a dry spell here. That's good for getting soil worked up, especially in our large East Garden (shown at right), but a bit tough on new transplants in our garden and possibly a real problem for direct seeded crops.
I took a tape measure out to the East Garden yesterday, as I really didn't know the dimensions of the area I'm working up. It came out to 40' x 75', or around 3000 square feet. That's just a tad under the area we had tilled there last year when the patch ran back towards the woods.
The "new ground" I'm tilling there really has worked up pretty well. I'd left a good cover of grass that grew in the fall where our sweet corn grew last year, and I'm having a terrible time getting that section planting ready. The grass is a problem, but my tiller and its operator are getting old! I took a look online at new rototillers and decided I'd just put in the time necessary with my 15 year old tiller. There's nothing I can do about my age but enjoy it.
A few of our transplanted brassicas are showing some stress from lack of rain, but they also were recently mulched with some pretty green grass clippings. Our kale is slow and spotty in emerging, while the radishes (over carrot seed that will take a bit of time to emerge if it doesn't dry out) are doing well. Our transplanted beets have perked up a bit with a little watering and a few of the direct seeded ones are up. And our lettuce is just gorgeous...so far.
After a couple of cold evenings when I had to put the top down on the cold frame, our nighttime temperatures appear to be free of frost for the next week. I've brought all of our our transplants up from the basement, causing our usual spring clutter on the back porch. Note that our dogs all seem to instinctively know to step around and not in the plant flats!
I decreased the porch clutter just a bit today by putting in our bell peppers and some geraniums. While we're still a week or so before our frost-free date, the weather appears to be on a warming spell that should continue. And if not, I'll be covering the peppers with a blanket to protect them from frost.
Since I got our peppers a little crowded last year, I tried to space ours a bit more this year. That, of course, resulted in less plants per row. The peppers went in with some liquid starter fertilizer and dixie cup cutworm collars. I'll mulch them with grass clippings a bit later.
I also plan to use some of the short tomato cages again this year for our peppers. I find the small, cone-shaped cages pretty useless for tomatoes, even our determinates, but they do work pretty well for peppers!
I put a row of geraniums in the small area next to our first planting of peas. But before I could do so, I also had to reset one of our raised bed timbers that had heaved up about an inch over the winter. I think moles tunneling under it had helped with the heaving.
The peas are up and now vining on the string trellis. The Sugar Snaps are almost twice as tall as the Aldermans (Tall Telephone). Most of the geraniums are the Maverick Red variety with a few Horizon Salmon and Geronimo to add variety. Before I mulch in the geraniums with grass clippings, I may try to squeeze in some petunias in the gaps between the geraniums. But for now, I'm sorta waiting on a rain to soak the bed, as I added a good bit of peat moss to it today before transplanting the geraniums.
Our second planting of peas are emerging despite the dry conditions. The Encore variety is a bit spotty in germination, but the Eclipse and Extra Early Alaska have come in quite thick. When I started to put up some trellis netting yesterday, I was disappointed to find that I only had 9' of string trellis material to cover a 15' row. Fortunately, I'd saved some plastic trellis material from several years ago and used it. The plastic trellis is shorter (just 3' tall, where the string trellis is 5' tall), and it can be a bit tough on vines that bend over it. It's "sharp" enough to damage and even cut tender green pea vines and is just plain unsuitable for vining cucumbers.
Our garlic, shown in the foreground of the pea trellis shot (above left) is doing well. When I pulled the mulch from it and hoed it a bit, I was disappointed at how dense the soil had become. I haven't added any organic matter to the bed in over a year. It was rather difficult to hoe.
The Colorado Blue Spruce Tree Kit from GenericSeeds.com I wrote about in March has produced four viable starts (down from about nine that germinated). I've moved them outside and will soon be uppotting them into something more appropriate in size. I'm not sure what I'll do with them if they all survive, but it's been an interesting experience starting them from seed.
It appears that I stumbled across the magic words last week when I wrote about our "dry spell." We've now had days and days of heavy rain which pretty well curtails any outdoor gardening efforts. So far, we've been spared any severe weather such as Mississippi experienced over the weekend. Our weather is supposed to clear tomorrow, although the weather folks keep changing their prediction for the overnight low for tomorrow night from near freezing to the mid-30's. So we'll probably just hold off another day if it clears to let the chance of a late frost pass us by.
With the showers, I've been able to devote a bit more time to our gloxinias growing under our plantlights. Besides spreading them out a bit under the lights, I've repotted some plants that I'd just left in fourpacks until they began blooming. While working the plants, I noticed one plant with several velvety red blooms with lots more buds in evidence. I brought it upstairs to stay in the kitchen through its blooming cycle. The photo at left really doesn't do it justice.
And this evening while hauling in some potting soil, I noticed that four of our dormant gloxinias had broken dormancy with tiny green leaves emerging. The golf ball sized corm at right has two shoots of small leaves coming up from the corm. These plants had been just sitting in a dark corner of our basement plant room for two months or so. During dormancy, they receive no care (no water, fertilizer, and very little light). I repotted each plant, leaving the soil around it that had roots and breaking away soil without roots to make room for fresh potting soil.
Last month, I thought I'd had the bad luck to pick up the odd bag of moisture control potting soil that somehow had a pH level of 5.8! But today, I purchased a couple of bags of regular, Miracle-Gro potting soil (not the moisture control kind) and found the pH on them to be around 6.2 to a more acceptable 6.5. It would appear that the folks at Miracle-Gro aren't neutralizing their potting soil to bring it to an optimal pH of around 6.8. I found out the hard way, as we had some plant starts do very poorly until I checked the soil pH. I ended up watering them with limewater to correct the pH of the potting soil. So, if you're having trouble getting seeds started or getting tender young plants growing well in Miracle-Gro products, try testing the soil's pH. You may get the same ugly surprise I did.
Mother Nature did supply a light frost on Wednesday morning, hopefully our last of the season. I'd bought a package of Hot Kaps® Domes from Gurney Seeds this spring in case I was able to get our melons out early. I didn't, but the hot kaps worked well for protecting our pepper plants in the main garden. I also sun dried the kaps the next morning, so that I could reuse them sometime in the future.
Our narrow flowerbed of geraniums, snapdragons, petunias, and vinca were covered with one of those paper dropclothes sold at painting centers secured by landscape staples. Both the hot kaps and dropcloth did their job. Our tender plants came through the light frost without damage.
Today was a busy day in the Senior Garden. Our peppers, transplanted ten days ago, were ready to have their dixie cup cutworm collars removed and be mulched in and caged. I cut the dixie cups on two sides, removing them half at a time to avoid disturbing the roots of the pepper plants too much. Then I pressed the soil down firmly and watered with a dilute fertilizer solution and surrounded each plant with a dried grass clipping mulch. I used some old, short, cone shaped tomato cages for our peppers that actually came with the property when we bought it. They're far too short for indeterminate tomatoes, but work fairly well with peppers. I did notice this week when I was at our local Rural King that someone is making similar, but much larger tomato cages of the same style.
Once done with the peppers, I got to do one of the annual gardening tasks I always enjoy, putting in our tomato plants. We have room in our main, raised bed garden for six caged tomato plants. Each hole dug for the plants got about a quarter handful of 5-10-5 fertilizer, a light dusting of lime to supply the calcium tomatoes need, and a half coffee can of transplanting solution.
Since we'd had a problem last year with our sometimes top heavy tomato cages blowing over, I dug a ring around each plant before sinking the cage an extra few inches into the soil. With our frequent 35 MPH winds, I hope this trick will hold the cages in place. The downside is that it also makes the cages that much shorter.
Our tomato cages are homemade from welded wire with 6" openings. I wrote about them in an August, 2008 posting, so I won't go over all that again here.
Once the cages are in place, I add grass clipping mulch inside the cage, and if I have enough on hand, around the outside of the cages. With all the rain we've had and finally a few clear days to cut and rake the grass, I had enough grass clippings to mulch the peppers and tomatoes and the rows in between.
Our tomato varieties this year included old favorites Better Boy, Bella Rosa, and Fantastic, an experimental no-name early variety, and Red Candy for our grape tomato variety. The grape tomato always goes on the end of the row so that grandchildren can get to it easily. Our main canning variety, Moira, will all be transplanted into our East Garden, as we will be saving seed from them again and want to eliminate the relatively small chance of cross pollination.
With rain threatening most of the day, I hustled to dig and transplant a few kale plants to even up the row. I also mulched in our garlic with the last of my grass clippings.
With April coming to an end, our raised bed garden is fully planted!
As we move into May, we still have our paprika peppers to squeeze in somewhere, a bunch of herbs and spices to plant, and our whole East Garden to plant. There are also almost two flats of various flowers to use at the edges of the garden.
at Senior Gardening