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One of the Joys of Maturity

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The Old Guy's Garden Record

Our Senior Garden - 11/30/2012

Thursday, November 1, 2012 - Recommended Seed Suppliers

2012 Seed CatalogsIt won't be long before seed catalogs begin to arrive in the mail for the 2013 gardening season. If you're planning on ordering from a new supplier, now is the time to get in your request for a free print catalog. And of course, if you've ordered from a company in the last year or so, you should be assured of receiving at least one catalog without doing anything. I think Johnny's Selected Seeds gets my Too Many Catalogs award for 2012 for sending me four or five catalogs over the season...while significantly increasing their minimum seed packet prices!

2012 Covers AnigifSince we send in the first of our seed orders during November, I always eagerly await the new gardening season's beautifully illustrated print catalogs. Most of our seed suppliers maintain a significant web presence along with online ordering (Twilley Seeds is the lone exception there.). Even so, I find that I do a more thorough job of ordering everything I need by carefully going through old fashioned printed garden catalogs. I usually find an item or two I might have missed online, increasing the vendor's sale and saving me from multiple shipping charges from multiple orders to the same vendor.

Placing our first orders early isn't just an exercise in eagerness. We start the first of our garden transplants in late December or early January each year. Both onion plants and geraniums take a long time to grow into garden-ready transplants.

Last year, we added a link ("DGW rating") to the Dave's Garden Watchdog rating page for each vendor. The ratings there are simply the totals of positive, neutral, and negative feedback site members' post. Obviously, folks are more prone to post something when they have a problem, but the ratings can warn one off of the, sadly, many bad guys in the business. The Who Owns What page on Dave's Garden can also be helpful, as one often runs into corporations that operate under a bunch of different storefront names.

When doing a posting last month about genetically modified seed in reference to California's Proposition 37, I decided that I really should check our recommended suppliers to make sure they weren't (knowingly) selling GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms). Due to the potential health risks posed by the mostly unresearched effects of food products produced from GMOs, adding such a criterion for our list seemed reasonable.

It turned out I shouldn't have been concerned, as all of our recommended suppliers have either signed the Safe Seed Pledge or state on their site, in their catalog, or otherwise, that they don't sell genetically modified seed. Since Twilley Seed doesn't maintain much of a web site and their 2012 catalog carried no GMO statement, I just gave them a call to inquire about their GMO policy. Stokes Seeds' site was down they day I wrote the posting, so I had to call them as well. Very pleasant representatives of both vendors politely told me their companies sold no genetically modified seed.

That's quite a long introduction for what has become a fairly short list of seed suppliers we rely on. Note that our interactions with seed vendors' customer service departments and representatives (including one incredibly rude and arrogant company president) weigh heavily on our recommendations. It's tough to get on this list, but very easy to get kicked off of it!

Rather than try to list our absolute favorites in order, the listings are in alphabetical order. We've used each of them in the past twelve to eighteen months with good experiences. Note that links, where possible, are to the vendor's catalog request page.

Recommended Seed Suppliers

  • Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds - offers an incredible array of heirloom seeds (DGW rating)
  • Burpee Seed - the W. Atlee Burpee Company, the granddaddy of all seed catalog vendors, still around with lots of great seed (DGW rating)
  • - no print catalog and limited offerings, but good prices and fair shipping rates (DGW rating)
  • Johnny's Selected Seeds - offers hardy varieties for northern (and other) latitudes - good customer service - disturbing across the board price increases (about 17% for 2012) have cut our recent orders to this excellent vendor (DGW rating)
  • R.H. Shumway - lots of heirloom (and other) seed presented in a catalog with lots of woodcut illustrations (DGW rating)
  • Seed Savers Exchange - offers many heirloom seeds through their print and online catalog - offers far more in open pollinated seed through their members-only annual yearbook (DGW rating)
  • Stokes Seeds - offers an incredible variety of vegetable and flower seeds - respond promptly to customer inquiries and complaints - carries the excellent Empress variety of gloxinia seed (DGW rating)
  • Territorial Seed Company - good variety of seeds - flat rate shipping for seeds (great for a bunch of packets but expensive for just one or two packets) (DGW rating)
  • Twilley Seed - our main supplier of sweet corn seed during our farming years - no online sales, but offers both a print and downloadable catalog (DGW rating)

We always try a few new suppliers each year. While we don't have a long enough track record with the companies listed below to include them with our trusted suppliers above, we ordered from each of them in the last year with good results.

  • Annie's Heirloom Seeds - We ordered nasturtium seed and garlic from them in 2012. If you give them a try, be sure to use the "TryAnnies" coupon code for a discount on your first order! (DGW rating)
  • John Scheepers Kitchen Garden Seeds - lots of interesting varieties you may not find elsewhere. (DGW rating)
  • Heirloom Seeds - I ran across this one last spring when hunting reasonably priced granular soil inoculant for our beans and peas. There's not a print catalog available, but I liked their item and shipping prices and the fact that they're a small, family owned and operated supplier. (DWG rating)
Botanical Interests Burpee Gardening Full disclosure: Botanical Interests, Burpee, and Mountain Valley are Senior Gardening affiliate advertisers. We're also a member of the Fedco Seeds Cooperative. Fedco Seeds

Note: While this posting should remain static, our Recommended Seed Suppliers feature story will be updated as needed to reflect our most recent experiences with vendors.

A Savings Tip

Before placing any online order, it may prove worthwhile to check online for promo codes for various seed suppliers. Annie's Heirloom Seeds and Johnny's Selected Seeds often have either percent off or free shipping codes available. I feel the same way about promo codes as I do grocery coupons. I wish they'd just set a fair price for everyone, but that's not how today's business world works.

Decline in Seed Quality

Maybe it's just me, but I think I've seen a decline in seed quality over the past few years. In fact, I'm pretty sure that despite the good germination rates stamped on each packet, we're seeing significantly poorer germination rates for new seed in our setting. We also see more damaged seed included in packets.

Seed houses don't grow all their own seed, if any. They mostly purchase it from just a few, large seed suppliers nationwide. Whether some seed houses are specifying lower quality seed to cut costs or the large seed growers are just supplying an inferior product than in the past, I don't know. But the stamped germination rate on seed packets today often doesn't reflect what experienced end users practicing ideal germinating conditions experience. Querying seed suppliers about germination rates is an invitation to be insulted. I know, as I've questioned the germination rates stated on seed packets with several seed houses, only to be informed that there couldn't be anything wrong with their published data and that I must be doing something wrong.

A Few Words About Heirloom Varieties

There has been a resurgence of interest in so called heirloom vegetable varieties in recent years. Overall, I think that's a very good thing for sustaining the genetic diversity of varieties of vegetables and plants. But there were reasons for the nearly wholesale switch to hybrid varieties by seed houses over the last thirty years. One cynical reason is that hybrids can't be used for seed saving, thus insuring the customers' return for more seed. But beyond my cynicism, hybrids also offer improved disease resistance, more uniform growth and ripening (important mainly for commercial growers), better shipability (again, important to commercial growers, usually at the expense of flavor), and in a few cases, better quality and flavor of produce (sh2 sweet corns come to mind as an example).

Heirlooms are often touted as having "that old fashioned taste." In some cases, that's true. But one needs to be careful when selecting heirloom varieties, as some of them are simply godawful tasting, susceptible to disease, and have unruly growth habits. One of the reasons I've become a big fan of Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds is their frequent comments in variety descriptions of personal favorites based almost solely on quality and flavor. So don't be taken in just by the word "heirloom." Some are great, and some aren't so wonderful.

My Favorite "Heirloom"

I really have trouble calling any variety introduced during my lifetime as an heirloom. But when a variety moves past twenty or thirty years old, the label is now frequently being applied. So under that definition, my favorite heirloom vegetable would have to be the Moira tomato, developed by Jack Metcalf at the Smithfield Agricultural Farm (Trenton, Ontario) and introduced in 1972. Moiras produce early, 6-8 ounce tomatoes with deep red interiors and have excellent flavor. They're ideal for canning and also great for slicing, although certainly not as big as beefsteak varieties.

Although listed as a determinate variety, grower tests often carry the comment, "somewhat indeterminate." For the home grower, that means that you may have a plant that puts out growth, sets and ripens its fruit, and that's about it (determinate). But you may also get a plant that appears to continue putting out more leaf and stem growth once it has set a crop, continues to bloom and produce fruit throughout the season.

Caged Moira Moira in cage
Three Moiras Canning Moiras

I became a much happier gardener growing Moiras when I stopped growing them on the ground, put them in tall tomato cages, and treated them like an indeterminate variety. While our Moiras don't put out the extended growth of say, a Better Boy, they do continue to grow and produce excellent fruit throughout the season.

The downside with the variety is that they seem to have no resistance to some nasty seed and soil borne diseases we continually fight here at the Senior Garden. Even when we hot water treat our seed and plant on clean ground that hasn't had tomatoes or related crops on it for several years, we still get some bacterial spot and anthracnose. Interestingly, when we planted a related variety, Quinte (also developed by Jack Metcalf at the Smithfield Agricultural Farm, released in 1975) at the far end of a field where I knew no tomatoes had grown for twenty years, we had no bacterial spot or anthracnose, but the plant did develop bacterial speck late in the season!

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Saturday, November 3, 2012 - Getting the Soil Ready for Next Year

Crockett's Victory GardenThe late Jim Crockett argued in Crockett's Victory Garden icon"that November is the most important month in the gardener's calendar because it's the month the soil should be prepared for the next spring's plantings." With the summer drought curtailing most of our fall garden, we got a big head start on soil preparation in October, but still have a lot to do this month.

Clearing away previous plant growth from ones garden plot(s) lessens the chances of disease carryover from one season to the next. While some garden refuse can just be tilled into the soil, we usually pull plants, pick up leaves and fruit, and compost them all. I got sloppy one year in cleaning up the hundreds of grape tomatoes that had fallen under a plant. Volunteer tomatoes have been a major weed problem in that area of our garden every since!

compost pilesEven with composting plant remains, one needs to be careful how the compost is used in the future. To be safe, I assume that our compost heap isn't going to get uniformly hot enough to kill off any and all disease organisms and seeds in it. I use the compost under crops that are not susceptible to things like late blight, bacterial speck or spot, and anthracnose. We occasionally have to pull a volunteer tomato or melon plant from under our asparagus, but that's far better than the year when I transplanted healthy looking but infected potato plants growing in our compost heap to fill in bare spots in our potato row.

One exception we sometimes allow in clearing plant residue is that I sometimes will leave existing grass clipping mulch on the garden to prevent wind erosion over the winter. Some intensive gardening routines always leave heavy mulch over garden soil, sometimes skip tilling, and simply pull back the mulch in spring to plant or transplant. I should add an advisory here that those of us who use grass clippings as mulch know all too well that we're also bringing in grass and weed seed with that mulch. Usually a good hoeing or tilling before planting will suppress germination of weeds long enough for direct seeded crops to emerge and be effectively weeded or mulched. Usually...

Luster Leaf Soil Ph Meter Plus Ph Plant GuideOnce garden plots are cleared, one needs to evaluate the need for pH adjustment, soil fertility, organic matter, and sometimes adding more soil to low spots in the garden. Depending on ones estimate of their soil conditions, several pH tests of a garden plot and possibly even nutrient tests may be indicated. Generally, gardens east of the Mississippi require lime to raise the soil pH to around an ideal 6.8, while western gardeners may need to add sulphur to drop their soil's pH to levels suitable for crops.

We switched from chemical kits to an electronic pH tester long ago that gives somewhat (good enough) accurate results. The ad image at right is the closest product in appearance I can find to what we use. When I tested last month, our main, raised bed plot came in fairly close to ideal and should only require a very light dusting of lime to be ready to go (unless we add some manure or peat moss to the plot). Our large East Garden plot (6400 sq. ft.) is going to require a good bit more lime than our main garden bed. According to a dandy online liming rate calculator on the National Gardening Association's site, we'll need to apply a little over 300 pounds of lime to raise the soil pH from 6.0 to 6.5-6.8. (For folks living west of the Mississippi, the National Gardening Association also provides an online sulfur calculator.) The Ohio State University Extension offers a cool downloadable Excel spreadsheet, Lime Application Rate Calculator (40K), but home gardeners will need to convert tons/acre to pounds/100 square feet to make use of it.

Two last things on liming, well, maybe three or four: Liming is best done in the fall, as it takes time for lime to react in the soil. Ground or hydrated lime works faster in the soil than pelletized limestone, but drifts easily in the slightest winds, making it somewhat more dangerous to use. Most sources advise that one should add no more than 9 pounds of lime per hundred square feet at a time. If you need to add more, a split fall and spring application may be indicated. Either calcitic or dolomitic limestone can be used, the former adding calcium and the latter magnesium. We were big for years on using dolomitic limestone right up until we began having lots of blossom end rot problems with our tomatoes. Adding a dusting of calcitic limestone to each tomato hole pretty well cured the problem until this year when there wasn't enough moisture in the ground to uptake the calcium necessary to prevent blossom end rot. And that fourth one, especially if you're using hydrated or powdered limestone: wear some visual protection. Even pelletized lime will have some dust at the bottom of the bag, so be safe and protect your eyes when working with lime.

As to soil fertility and nutrients, one can use one of the many home soil test kits or for really accurate and detailed tests, send off soil samples to a lab. Monica Hemingway's Soil Testing for the Home Gardener is an excellent source about taking and sending soil samples to extension or commercial soil testing labs. Note that lab testing can include tests for heavy metals if you're worried about contaminants in your soil.

Adding compost or rotted manure always seems to help a garden plot with both fertility and organic matter. We added almost a ton of well composted horse manure to our main, raised bed plot last spring. I also found that a sprinkling of Maxicrop Soluble Seaweed powder incorporated into the soil can supply some trace elements possibly missing from ones soil. We never could grow good peppers on our current soil until I applied some of the stuff. Maybe it was the seaweed, or maybe one of the dogs or cats peed or stopped peeing on the garden. Who knows?


BuckwheatWe grow and turn under green manure crops of buckwheat and alfalfa in our garden plots when possible. Such crops help loosen our heavy clay soil with their organic matter. There are lots of other cover crops one can use. We've just had good luck of late with buckwheat and alfalfa.

Possibly the best soil amendment one can add to their soil is sphagnum peat moss. Sadly, the stuff has become so expensive in recent years that you'd have to be rich, or lucky, to add much of it to your garden. We now just add peat moss to the planting holes for our melons and some other crops. I do haunt garden and farm centers in the fall when they may be likely to put peat moss and other cool gardening stuff on a closeout sale. Several years ago, our local TSC store had half a skid of peat moss bales that I bought for $2 per 2.2 cubic foot bale. I'll probably never again get that lucky, but I haven't stopped looking.

How much is too much of soil amendments? I really don't know, as I've never gotten to that point. Organic matter in the soil breaks down in time, so one almost always needs to add more. Area turkey farmers did get to the point where their farm fields couldn't handle any more turkey droppings and litter, but it took them years to get to that point! And most of us don't have one to six buildings, each housing a flock of 14,000 turkeys every 16 weeks or so. (Also note that the litter [wood shavings] in the turkey droppings takes a good bit of time to break down in the soil. But if you can get it already composted, or have a spot to let it sit for year or so, it's a good addition.)

I should add here that some gardeners in the UK and United States have experienced problems with compost that contains trace amounts of herbicides used on hayfields and pastures that passed through the animals into their manure and resultant compost. Killer compost has been blamed for wiping out or seriously damaging many gardens. We've not experienced such problems with the composted manure we occasionally buy, but it's something to be aware of.

After adding whatever you need to the soil, incorporating it into the soil with a rototiller or garden fork and hoe will spread the soil amendments throughout the top six to eight inches of the garden's soil. It also prevents runoff of the products added. We got into raised garden beds because our main garden plot was on an incline. We have the most lovely, well fertilized patch of lawn where the runoff from our garden settled for years at the back of our yard!

MTD TillerJohn Deere tillerI use a very old, rear tine rototiller to incorporate soil amendments into our large, main raised bed, but often just use a garden fork followed by hoeing for our narrow (3' wide) raised bed. And I finally gave up and purchased a pull-type, mechanical rototiller that attaches to our lawn tractor for our large East Garden plot. After fighting the old MTD tiller for years to work the soil and turn under green manure crops under the guise of "playing my way into shape," I really hurt myself doing it this year and the John Deere tiller became a necessity.

Nitrogen added to the soil in the fall may leach out of the soil over the winter, so it's probably best to make commercial fertilizer applications of nitrogen in the spring before planting, especially for nitrogen loving crops like sweet corn. Of course, commercial garden fertilizers are usually supplied as N-P-K (nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium) mixes, but one can choose a 10-20-20 mix instead of a 12-12-12 or 24-5-5 mix for fall application. And never, ever, ever add a "weed and feed" lawn product to your garden. The "weed" part of it is herbicide! Likewise, grass clippings from a treated lawn used for mulch may kill your garden plants. If added to a compost pile, you may create your own "killer compost."

Once any fall tilling is done, planting a cover or green manure crop on ones garden isn't a bad idea. We have alfalfa seed on hand to broadcast over the half of our East Garden to be rotated out next year. The ground needs to dry out a bit before I can till it again and seed the cover crop. I also have a bag of buckwheat seed I'd like to broadcast over the East Garden area that we will use next year. But it's getting pretty late for buckwheat which won't survive a good frost, so I'll probably save that seed for next year.

Moving Back to the Real World

Main, raised bedI got the mulch pulled back off our main, raised bed garden this week. I'll need to spread a bit of lime and milky spore over the ground before fall tilling. I'd hoped to add a bit more composted horse manure to the patch, but the vendor I've used in the past was out of it yesterday!

Really late garlicWhile I heartlessly ripped out all the existing flowers in the bed, I ended up leaving the one kale plant and the brussels sprouts plant that came up from roots I didn't effectively grub out. I also took several cuttings from the geraniums in the patch, something I usually don't do. We usually grow all of our geraniums from seed to avoid disease carryover on existing plants. We'll have to wait and see how that one turns out.

I also dug an elephant garlic that I'd missed when harvesting our garlic last June. It had gotten pushed to the edge of the garlic area, probably by a mole, and went undetected at harvest. It put up a number of shoots this fall that I just left until this week. After digging and washing it, I trimmed the tops and popped the garlic in the fridge (in a green bag), as fresh garlic is really a treat to cook with. Our whole house smelled of garlic, making me want to cook spaghetti sauce, Portuguese Kale Soup, asiago cheese and tortellini soup...or something with garlic!

geranium cuttings

trimmed geranium cutting
Rooting gel on cuttings
Thermostatically controlled heat mat

The geranium cuttings I took were wrapped overnight in wet paper towels and newspaper until I could get to them yesterday. The big leaves, and actually almost all leaves, got trimmed off the stem tips. Each stem then got a quick dip in some rooting hormone gel, which really works far better than the old rooting hormone powders (and is significantly more expensive!!!), and was plopped into a 3" pot of sterilized planting medium. I placed the nine cuttings on our thermostatically controlled heating mat with a humidome cover over it to hold in heat and moisture.

I wound up our germination tests on saved pole been and tomato seed yesterday. The pole beans had at first appeared to germinate at 80% (8 of 10 seeds). But I kept the two, smaller and ungerminated seeds after pitching the bean sprouts and seeds and found that one more germinated with the other seed showing signs of sprouting. appears we have some very good Mohon's Greasy Pole Beans seed for next year.

Pole bean germ test
Extended pole bean test
Quinte germ test

The large batch of Quinte tomato seed I had drying also got good marks for germination, but only after I set the baggie holding the germination test on top of our Bunn coffee pot that keeps water hot in it all the time. (I wonder how much that raises our electric bill!) The Quinte seed sample only showed slight signs of germination before I gave it some bottom heat, but the results tell me I have some very good seed to start next year and to share with Seed Savers Exchange members through the SSE's annual yearbook. (And let me add a big "thank you" here to the USDA Agricultural Research Service's Germplasm Resources Information Network for the start of Quinte seed from their repository.)

If you're new to germination testing and thinking, "That looks pretty easy," you're right. Doing germination testing really isn't rocket science. You just take a seed sample, plop it on a wet paper towel, coffee filter, or similar medium, bag it to hold in moisture, and then read your results in a few days.

Of course, my tests are usually of just 10 seeds or so. Commercial seed vendors test hundreds to a thousand seeds at a time to determine their germination rates. But just ten seeds can tell you if you can reliably expect almost each seed planted to produce a plant or transplant, or whether it's one of those times when you start a bunch of seeds and hope for one or two to emerge!

Germination testing also gives one an idea as to whether they need to go hunt more seed, or in my case, can feel confident in offering the seed to other, discriminating gardeners through venues such as the Seed Savers Exchange. There's a bit of pride and ego involved in sharing good seed with others!

One Last Thing

I wrote in my last posting about my favorite "heirloom" seed variety, Moira tomatoes. But for a sad disaster, I might well have written about our strain of Moon & Stars watermelon. I think our original Moon & Stars seed came from a packet from Park Seed. We'd grown it out and saved seed from the melons over the years. While our seed may have been corrupted by cross-pollination with other varieties, we had a strain that regularly produced 30-40 pound melons with Moon & Stars markings. The variety had obviously adapted to our local growing conditions. But...

I didn't save seed for several years and then the inevitable happened...our seed didn't germinate several years ago. I'm really disappointed to have lost our family strain of Moon & Stars, due only to my failure to save seed from the melons each year. While a bit seedy, the melons were gigantic and had excellent flavor. The plants thrived in our growing conditions (variable moisture and lousy soil).

As a veteran seed saver, I'm embarrassed to once again have lost a start of a valuable and adapted variety. One of the reasons one saves and grows out seeds is that you can selected the best fruit to save seed from for your use, further refining an open pollinated variety for ones own locality and growing conditions. Luckily, Moon & Stars seed is once again readily available from several commercial sources, the Seed Savers Exchange catalog, and any number of Seed Savers members. But what I'm now working with, supplied by SSE, isn't what I had...a true heirloom variety adapted to our Senior Garden.

Big Moon & Stars Cut Moon & Stars

Tuesday, November 6, 2012 - Election Day (U.S.) and Seed Inventory

I came down with a cold on Saturday, so I've been staying inside watching the talking heads on cable TV channels as we approached the presidential election. I early voted towards the end of October and really didn't pay very close attention to the TV, keeping my hands and part of my mind busy doing our annual garden seed inventory.

I won't tell the whole story of how I do my inventory, as I did so around this time last year. But over the past year, I have made one important improvement to our inventory, adding a new column for "days to maturity."

Seed inventory

Once done, or almost done, all the vegetable seed went back into our big, manual defrost freezer. I still have a little more work to do on our tomato inventory, and I haven't even started inventorying our flower seed, as I'm still cleaning saved flower seed from this last season. I also will need to enter germination test info on the spreadsheet once the tests are done (and hopefully don't require me to pitch any bad seed).

One interesting thing came from doing the inventory. Since I'm saving seed from the open pollinated Moira and Quinte tomato varieties, I'd thought it might be interesting to grow out and potentially save seed from the Earlirouge variety that was a later and far more popular introduction from the same series as Moiras and Quintes. I searched my 2012 Seed Savers Annual Yearbook and online seed houses for the tomato seed, coming up empty, other than one Canadian supplier who has to charge a ton for shipping into the United States (something about seed certificates). I thought at one point I'd finally found the seed, ordering a packet of Early Rouge seed from a U.S. vendor, only to realize later that the Jack Metcalf developed "Earlirouge" tomato was far different from the heirloom "Early Rouge."

Inventory-earlirougeAs I finished up our alphabetical inventory with tomatoes (watermelons get listed under cucurbits), I ran my eye down a list of very old tomato seed I've had frozen since my farming days in the 80s. There, at the very bottom of the list, was a packet of Earlirouge tomato seed I'd saved in 1988!

Pushing back an impulse to do a germination test on a sample of the 24 year old seed, I put the Earlirouge packet back into the big freezer with the rest of our tomato seed. I know that every seed in the packet is precious, as many won't have survived that long in storage (and various thaws and refreezes over the years). But from an experience of successfully growing out some 1984 and 1992 saved tomato seed of another variety a few years ago, I know I may get lucky and have several viable Earlirouge seeds. And hey, all I really need is one to make it!

Election Party Suggestions

Lea Lane put up a funny column of suggestions for watching tonight's election returns in Election Night is Almost Here: 8 Creative (!) Ideas, beginning with "Host a party (or even better, get invited to one)." But she saved her best for the end of the column, writing:

Watch Fox if you're for Obama 

Liberals, you've put up with it in doctor's offices. You've heard acquaintances quote Steve Doocy. You deserve payback.

In 2008, when it became clear that Barack Obama was winning, I left MSNBC and turned to Fox. Dick Morris sputtered out of the side of his mouth, and turned red. Hannity the Manatee, in disbelief, searched for solace and could not seem to find it. Britt Hume fumed.

It was wonderful. For the first time I enjoyed every single minute of that alternate universe. I hope to be doing it again on Tuesday night.

I suspect that if you're on the other side of the political fence and the election swings your way, watching the folks on MSNBC sweat might prove equally satisfying.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Curing potatoesWe're into a brief, but enjoyable warm spell. Drying soil and temperatures in the 60s and 70s have allowed us to get a good bit of our garden cleanup done. I dug the last of our Kennebec potatoes yesterday, clearing the East Garden for tilling. It appears that adding a floating row cover over the last of the row extended the growing season just enough for the plants to swell their tubers a bit. Of course, maybe the larger potatoes were there all along. But having gradually dug the row, removing the row cover a bit at a time, each digging produced more large, baking size potatoes.

The summer drought took our row of Red Pontiacs, giving us lots and lots of small red potatoes (which are great cooked with roasts without peeling). The Kennebecs fared slightly better through the dry weather with about a third of the plants withering and dying. Yesterday's digging was gratifying, although it didn't come anywhere near what one would get in a normal growing season.

That makes two straight years of bad potato harvests for us. The first was due entirely to gardener stupidity (moi), and this year due to the drought that made gardening more of a chore than a joy most of the summer. I'm doing everything I can to ensure that we get a good crop next season.

And when you're growing Kennebecs, there's almost always a strangely shaped potato like the one shown below with a couple of more normal Kennebecs.

Strange kennebec

Putting the East Garden to Bed (for the winter)

The soil in our East Garden was a bit damp, and my knee was killing me from digging potatoes. But I went ahead and spread 320 pounds of lime and 4 pounds of sulfur (for the potato area) over the East Garden yesterday, tilling it in with our new John Deere 30" Mechanical Tiller. The job took most of the afternoon, as I "slid" the East Garden about five feet to the west and fifteen feet south to get away from the shaded north end of the field. Tilling the new ground, even with a brand new tiller, took most of the time. The ground had heavy sod, requiring overlapping passes with the tiller. At times, the tiller would catch on the sod, causing my lawn tractor to leap down the row. Most of the time, I kept my foot off the accelerator while turning the new ground, as the push from the tiller eating through the sod drove the tractor forward at an appropriate speed.

Getting our lime and sulfur in now will allow the chemicals time to raise and lower soil pH to appropriate levels by next spring. Note that I double spread the lime in most of the East Garden, spreading first from south to north and then going over the patch east to west to try to get as even a spread as I could (with my primitive coffee can spreader). I used pelletized calcitic limestone for this application, mainly because the pelletized stuff is easier to spread. I was happy I'd bought that kind, as it was a bit windy when I broadcast the lime.

Tilled East Garden

As long as our puppies don't view my marker stakes as playthings, I should have the East Garden plot marked for next spring...when it probably will require yet one more tilling before planting. Weather (and knee) permitting, I hope to turn over the East Garden once more, tilling in the opposite direction from what I did yesterday. I'd hoped, rather optimistically, to seed the back half of the plot to alfalfa this fall. Problems with getting the new tiller ordered and mounted followed by weather delays will keep our alfalfa seed in the freezer until spring.

We're now down to just a few more fall chores before our outside gardening is done for the season. I still would like to till our main, raised bed before planting garlic. And I need to get our pea rows ready for next spring. Fall seedbed preparation of pea rows allows one to plant incredibly early (March 1 or so) by just poking the seed into the ground if hoeing isn't possible.

It's also almost time to cut asparagus stalks off at the ground. Our asparagus is just beginning to show some golden color at the top of the plants, but with heavy frosts predicted for several days next week, it should be time to cut by next weekend. Clearing old asparagus growth makes adding compost or manure over the bed easier, as well as possibly preventing disease carryover on the previous year's stalks. We've been fortunate not to experience either insect or disease problems in our two asparagus patches. And our asparagus stalks which are quite fibrous don't go into our compost pile. I use them to fill other holes around the property.

Bonnie's asparagus Golden asparagus Asparagus raised bed

One final garden chore this fall will be to pull our snapdragons. Since the plants are pretty frost hardy, I'm prone to leave them until we've enjoyed their very last bloom. Once a really hard freeze takes them, I'll pull and compost them and get our garden T-posts and trellises put away for the winter. (Note: Warm winter days are a great opportunity to wire brush T-posts and repaint them to extend their useful life.) And yes, the rain gauge needs to come in for the winter. I've destroyed a rain gauge or two in the past by letting water freeze in them.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012 - First Seed Catalog Arrives

Thompson & Morgan

Red Double Brocade
Purple Double Brocade

Our first seed catalog of the year came in last week. While not one of our main vegetable seed suppliers, Thompson & Morgan does carry seed for one of our favorite gloxinia varieties, Double Brocade. They also have some fairly inexpensive geranium seed bundles such as their World's Top Six Mix, although germination rates with the seed have been somewhat disappointing for us.

For my tastes, they have their catalog arranged backwards, with flowers in front, followed by vegetables. But for a serious flower gardener, I suspect that arrangement might be just right.

Thompson & Morgan's United States sales are now operated by Gardens Alive, a conglomerate that also operates a number of other old seed house names such as Gurney's and Henry Field's Seed and Nursery. While their seed offerings appear to match Thompson & Morgan UK, their Dave's Garden Watchdog rating (and especially some of the comments about what has happened to the company) is pretty dismal. I still make occasional purchases from Thompson & Morgan (US) and the other Gardens Alive entities, but sadly, can't include them in our listing of Recommended Seed Suppliers.

Got a Round 2it

Round 2itDave's Garden WatchdogOne of our wonderful, school secretaries used to hand out wooden "round 2it's" to folks who commented they'd do something when they "got around to it." (And let me add here, if you want to be a successful teacher, having your school secretary on your side is essential.) So thinking of dear Norma Bemis, I finally got around to doing one of those things I should have done long ago. (I lost my round 2it long ago, and Norma's was much cooler than the image at left. But at least it gives you an idea of what I'm referencing.)

I'd guess it's just human nature that we tend to post comments to reader forums when we have an ax to grind. I know I do. But I got busy today and posted a positive comment on Dave's Garden Watchdog for each of our Recommended Seed Suppliers. We've used many of them for over thirty years without incident or with only minor squabbles. We've also seen some move to new locations, fail, get sold out, and then return from the ashes to become reliable vendors once more. But each one deserves some praise for suppying quality seed over the years. So I made a general, positive posting today about each of our nine top ranked suppliers, often with anecdotal information about them going the extra mile for a customer.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012 - Two More Seed Catalogs

Stokes CoverTwilley SeedTwo more seed catalogs arrived in the mail yesterday, and this time, I'm really excited. Each year I spend several days paging through the Stokes Seeds and Twilley Seed catalogs, front to back. I've already marked up pages with possible choices of onion, geranium, broccoli, and zinnia with a Sharpie marker.

Once I've gone through the catalogs, marking desired varieties while also consulting our seed inventory spreadsheet, I'll transfer the information to our garden order spreadsheet. After that, I tally up the cost, faint, recover, and begin paring down my "wish list" to a much shorter list that fits our garden and pocketbook.

Geranium seed from Stokes has consistently produced excellent germination rates for us. Every time I decide to try a cheaper source, I end up regretting it. Twilley's supersweet sh2 sweet corn varieties have been a favorite since my farming days over 20 years ago. Our roadsided sweet corn on the farm wasn't organic, as the seed was treated, we supplemented manure spread over the winter with starter fertilizer, and applied granular herbicide in the row. But beyond that, we cultivated for weed control and found that a quick spray of mineral oil on the silks of each ear of corn kept the ear worms out (other than the few that bored right through husks on the side of the ear). We still use commercial fertilizer for our sweet corn, but since we aren't growing 2-4 acres of it anymore, we're able to forego any herbicide and rely on cultivation for weed control.

We'll do a bit of shifting from one vendor to another for price advantages as other seed catalogs come in this month, but our Stokes and Twilley orders will be placed by the end of the month to insure we have our geranium and onion seed in hand for seed starting in December and January.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

As I was cooking supper last evening, I found myself admiring the view out our kitchen window of one of our stands of asparagus.

Golden asparagus

I had planned to cut the asparagus stalks this week and add compost over the spot. But it's such a pretty view, especially when lit by the warm colors of a setting sun, that I'll probably end up leaving and enjoying the view until after Thanksgiving.

Long view Bonnie's asparagusBonnie's asparagus 2We call this patch "Bonnie's asparagus" to differentiate it from the bed of asparagus we started a number of years ago. Bonnie's asparagus patch had sat pretty much untended on some ground behind our property for years. It would get mowed down once or twice a summer and had surprisingly survived the ill treatment and weed pressure for over twenty years. The landowner, Bonnie Huff, would occasionally pick asparagus from it, but other than a light picking every few years, it received no special attention, other than our admiring its fall colors (shots left and right from 2008).

At Bonnie's suggestion a couple of years ago, we began to care for the asparagus, mowing around it, mulching for weed control, and even throwing a few shovelfuls of compost and/or several handfuls of commercial fertilizer onto it each fall. We did our first light picking from it last spring. I also widened my mowing to knock down the poison ivy infested grass which surrounds the patch. It still has one stubborn wild rose in it that I need to kill, but other than that, it has become a domesticated asparagus patch once more. It makes one wonder, "Who planted it and when?"

I hope to take a nice picking of asparagus to Bonnie, who is now in a nursing home, next spring.

Our asparagus

Our asparagus patch, being in a well drained raised bed, didn't put on its usual profuse growth during this summer's drought. It's a full foot or two shorter than usual at this time of year. It also seems to persist with green growth a bit longer each year than Bonnie's asparagus.

I started our asparagus patch from seed, making the process a whole lot longer than it needed to be. Most folks just purchase asparagus roots to start a patch, but I'd started another asparagus patch from seed on my farm over thirty years ago when I couldn't afford to buy roots. Starting again from seed was just what I knew.

For those considering starting asparagus, fall is the best time to get a bed ready for it. You'll want to deep dig (a foot down or so) the area and add as much peat moss (with a bit of lime to compensate for the acid peat moss), compost, and/or composted manure as you can. A good sprinkle of bone meal wouldn't hurt as well. Since I went down around 20" when starting our asparagus bed in 2006, I added a good bit of gypsum to the lower, heavy clay strata to loosen it up a bit.

And since we started our asparagus from seed, I really can't recommend where one should get their asparagus roots. I can say that you should buy the best quality roots you can afford. It will save you time, money, and frustration in the long run.

Here are some other sources and entries about starting asparagus:

Paul Calback was also kind enough to share his experiences in words and pictures in starting a new asparagus bed:

I hope I've gotten you hooked on growing asparagus. It's a delicious spring treat each year. And once you get the hard work of preparing the ground and transplanting your roots done, it's fairly easy to care for. Since asparagus puts out dense, lush growth once it's established, little weeding is necessary. And as Bonnie's asparagus has evidenced, it's incredibly hardy and durable.

Friday, November 16, 2012 - Just for the Fun of It

While working on something or other today, I ran across a photo I took in 2009 and used on Senior Gardening of a red-bellied woodpecker working its way towards the dogfood bowl. We've had at least one nest of overwintering red-bellies back towards the barn for years. They often scold me as I pass by on my daily trip to the barn. When they've hatched out young in the spring, they are timid, but regular visitors at the dogfood bowls, presumably using the dogfood to supplement bugs and other stuff they feed their brood.

The photo has absolutely nothing to do with November gardening, other than maybe to illustrate that I'm already getting a "Dr. Zhivago" complex, needing to see lots of summery images. But it's a nice shot, and I just thought I'd share it (again).

Red-bellied woodpecker

A Little Worried

Precipitation (Inches)
  2012 2011 Ave.
Jan. 3.20 0.84 2.48
Feb. 1.10 2.28 2.41
March 1.52 3.79 3.44
April 3.80 11.51 3.61
May 1.19 3.38 4.35
June 0.15 5.53 4.13
July 1.89 3.25 4.42
Aug. 1.99 0.32 3.82
Sept. 4.59 3.76 2.88
Oct. 3.31 2.31 2.76
Nov. 1.01 5.63 3.61
Dec.   3.62 3.03

2011 & 2012 precipitation data from the Kinmerom2 weather station, Merom, IN
Average precipitation for Indianapolis, IN

I'm beginning to get a little worried about our rainfall this month. Even though the ground remains too wet to till from our last rain, we only have a little over an inch of precipitation halfway through the month. My concern may have been unduly heightened by us running the well dry one night this week. It was one of those freak things with a big load of wash, too many flushes, and the water softener doing its daily purge and recharge. But it was definitely a clear reminder that our groundwater levels are still pretty low.

Getting Ready for Thanksgiving

With fairly nice days of late with highs in the upper 40s to low 50s, I've gotten a few outside chores done each day. But today was devoted to grocery shopping for Thanksgiving. I bought a cheapie turkey at Kroger, only to find that Walmart had Butterballs for a great price. So...I also bought a Butterball for Thanksgiving with the Kroger cheapie going in the big freezer for Christmas or some other time when we need 18-20 pounds of fowl to feed a crowd.

Lettuce 2011As I began working our Thanksgiving menu, I was again reminded of how blessed we've been in the past and what a disappointing gardening season we had this year. Our usual Thanksgiving feast includes several vegetables from the garden (sweet corn, peas, beets, broccoli and cauliflower, and/or green beans). This year, we will use the only four butternut squash we got for our baked "yams" and potatoes from the garden for mashed potatoes. We do have a few quarts of canned green beans on hand, but will probably rely on grocery store french style green beans for our usual "white trash" green bean casserole. And we have lots of carrots that somehow miraculously survived the drought.

Our youngest daughter, Julia, sent me a Facebook message last night requesting we have spinach salad with poppyseed dressing again this year. Last year at this time, we had lots of spinach and lettuce still thriving under floating row covers in the garden. This year, the baby spinach leaves will have to come from the grocery.

Lettuce - 2011 Spinach 2011
Lettuce, November 23, 2011 Spinach, November 5, 2011

And of course, what we have on the table for Thanksgiving will be far less important than who is around the table...and far more than many in the world will have. With six children scattered across the United States, we're always blessed to have a few of them make the trip back home for the holidays.

Light House Mission

Monday, November 19, 2012

White skunkI'm not getting a lot of gardening done these days, as we're still too busy cleaning and getting ready for Thanksgiving.

I did have to take time to do one outdoor cleanup today. We've had a skunk making its presence known for several nights. This morning, I noticed another white bunch of fur next to Mac, our large lab/something mix dog. It turned out to be a dead skunk. Before I got around to bagging it, the other dogs drug it around the yard a bit, further spreading the smell.

I never knew there were white skunks, and at first, assumed it was some kind of albino. But it had black stripes on the side. After doing a web search, I found several photos of white skunks. They apparently aren't all that rare.

Hopefully, the skunk is a lonely bachelor and doesn't have a family that will come looking for it tonight.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012 - Happy Thanksgiving...a day early

Dogs chasing deeryeast rollsWe're still in full, flat out get ready for company mode here, scrubbing floors, walls, and cabinets and laying in ever more food. So today's posting is another brief, non-gardening one before I get back to cleaning, followed by preparing what I can a day early for our Thanksgiving feast.

I noticed on our site stats this morning that Grandma's Yeast Rolls had shot up in the monthly page view rankings. I guess a lot of folks are looking for a good yeast roll recipe. If I have room this evening in the refrigerator, the yeast rolls are one item I'll be starting early, as you can do the first rise of the dough overnight in the fridge.

While things still have a slight skunky aroma here, the worst of it is past. Our guardians, three of the four pictured at left chasing a deer, apparently have once again defended the homestead, albeit, while making things really stink for a few days. Note that every deer I saw yesterday while driving into town was running full tilt, obviously not "looking both ways" before crossing roads. With hunting season in progress, one has to drive a bit more cautiously.

Coffee truckAnd speaking of driving, when I went to get a haircut last week, I grabbed a shot through the windshield with my old iPhone 3G that many might find descriptive of "coffee heaven." I came upon a semi-tanker with the word "Coffee" emblazoned on its rear.

Marathon Robinson refineryAlas, for those who like their coffee by the gallon, the tanker did not hold 8,800 gallons of coffee, but merely advertised a truck stop's coffee on what around here is a ubiquitous gasoline tanker. The Robinson Marathon Oil refinery is about ten miles across the river from us. I took the shot at left off Merom Bluff a few years ago, which is a couple of miles south of the Senior Garden.


We, as always, have a lot to be thankful for this year. Another healthy grandchild born, a son-in-law home safe from Afghanistan, one of our children's marriage healed, fairly good health for Annie and I, and the many blessings the Lord bestows on those of us fortunate enough to have been born in this country.

Like many of you, we will spend tomorrow and much of the weekend celebrating with family.

Rejoice evermore.
Pray without ceasing.
In every thing Give Thanks:
for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you.

1 Thessalonians 5:16-18

Happy Thanksgiving

Monday, November 26, 2012 - Planting Garlic

Planting garlic 1Planting elephant garlicBefore Thanksgiving, I'd been waiting for our soil to dry out enough to till our raised bed and East Garden one last time this fall. With some moderate showers that passed through last week and temperatures steadily dropping, getting our garlic in the ground became a higher priority today than waiting to till. I had to wait until a little after noon to begin the job, as the top inch or so of soil needed to thaw out in the bright sunlight from its overnight freeze.

The area planted hasn't been tilled since last spring, but it also has been under mulch the whole season. A bit of scuffle hoeing last week cleaned up a few weeds that had broken through the mulch (which had been pulled off the area a week or so ago). I'd also spread some Milky Spore on the area to hold down cutworms (and the moles who eat them and play havoc with crops such as garlic) and a bit of bone meal. Since I didn't get to incorporate the bone meal, it probably won't do the garlic much good.

I used the dibbleicon I'd ordered in October to plant the regular garlic. Our elephant garlic cloves were far too large for the small hole the dibble makes, even with reaming the hole out a bit, so I switched to a trowel to plant them.


The dibble worked pretty well, but had some problems that required repair. After planting just a few sets, the handle pulled off, having been glued improperly and with a poor glue. The rivet holding the metal end was also loose. A bit of sanding to remove the varnish off the end of the dibble and some carpenters' wood glue took care of the handle. I still need to smack the rivet with a hammer a few times to tighten it up.

Besides correcting their sloppy workmanship, the manufacturer could improve this product by adding some depth measurements along the side as I did with a Sharpie marker.

garlic dibble holesMulched garlicI spaced our garlic rows a bit closer this year than usual, about six inches apart, other than the elephant garlic which had eight inches between it and the last row of regular garlic. The regular garlic went in at five to six inch intervals, while the elephant garlic got eight to nine inches between sets. I tried to keep the tops of the garlic cloves/sets at least three to four inches under the soil surface.

For several years, we have used our own, saved garlic for fall plantings. I really haven't been terribly happy with our regular garlic (variety not known) as it doesn't store as well as I'd like. That induced me to order some some Late Italian iconfrom Burpee and Mother of Pearl from Annie's Heirloom Seeds this year to try. I also planted a row of our own, regular garlic.

The last step in planting was applying a heavy layer of grass clipping mulch. Since the grass clippings had been piled up for several weeks, they'd decomposed a good bit, making the job a bit messy. But the mulch will hold down weeds, moderate extremes in soil temperatures (especially from warm winter days), and hold in soil moisture.

I've planted garlic as late as November 30 and gotten a good crop, so we should be okay this year. Ideally, one would plant about a month earlier, giving the garlic sets more time to send out roots before winter sets in. And the year we planted garlic on November 30, we had snow on December 1!

Nov 30, 2012 Dec 1, 2008
November 30, 2008 December 1, 2008

Having some mulch left, I also mulched our asparagus raised bed. It had a good many more weeds than usual this year when I cleared the top growth, so the mulch may help suppress the weeds a bit while protecting (and nourishing a bit as it breaks down) the asparagus roots.

Burpee Gardening

Wednesday, November 28, 2012 - Twenty Years Ago Today

It's my wife's birthday today. It's also an anniversary of sorts for us, as we went out on our first date exactly twenty years ago today. Our nineteenth "regular" anniversary rolls around next May.

Annie with cats

Marrying Annie has to be the best thing I've ever done. Happy Birthday (and sorta anniversary), Sweetie!

Friday, November 30, 2012

Precipitation (Inches)
  2012 2011 Ave.
Jan. 3.20 0.84 2.48
Feb. 1.10 2.28 2.41
March 1.52 3.79 3.44
April 3.80 11.51 3.61
May 1.19 3.38 4.35
June 0.15 5.53 4.13
July 1.89 3.25 4.42
Aug. 1.99 0.32 3.82
Sept. 4.59 3.76 2.88
Oct. 3.31 2.31 2.76
Nov. 1.28 5.63 3.61
Dec.   3.62 3.03
Totals 24.02 46.22 40.94

2011 & 2012 precipitation data from the Kinmerom2 weather station, Merom, IN
Average precipitation for Indianapolis, IN

November, 2012We're winding up November in pretty good shape. All of our main garden plots have been cleared for next spring, although we didn't get to do as much fall tilling as I wanted before things got too cold and wet. We have one pea bed ready to go, but would like to get another prepped yet this fall. Since the second one will be for our "late" peas that require fairly warm soil to germinate, not getting the bed prepped won't be a real disaster. I've been stalling on getting the second pea bed done anyway, as a row of extremely hardy snapdragons occupies part of the space needed. I just don't have the heart to pull them out while they're still alive and in bloom.

Our first two seed orders (Twilley Seed and Stokes Seeds), placed mid-month, arrived in good shape. We're all set for early plantings of petunias, onions, and geraniums.

Our soil moisture levels have been a bit strange, as we're in trouble again with November total precipitation (1.28"). In spite of the sparse rainfall, our topsoil never did dry out enough to till again in the second half of the month. Even so, we're still experiencing water table problems that make us go easy on our well and well pump.

We're also finishing the month with a very pleasant, if slightly disturbing, warm spell with daily high temperatures in the 50s. The disturbing part is memories of the warm weather last February and March that portended the summer's drought. But I'm taking the warm, sunny days for what they are, sitting a few minutes each day on the back porch enjoying the warmth of the fall sun.

October, 2012

From Steve, the at Senior Gardening


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