Friday, October 10, 2014

What is 'Cool Season' Anyway?

Moving here from a much colder clime, my imagination has been captured by an ability to grow food throughout the winter, and especially in spring and fall. Where I came from only summer was growing season -- AND, a rather short one, at that.

New gardener, I quickly memorized a long list, which experienced gardeners agree constitutes 'cool season crops.'  Heck, even a thorough peruse of your local greenhouses' seed collection, at its peak, will  give you your own list. Most seed companies nowadays use the label 'warm season' or 'cool season crop' on its seed packet.

So, I grew. Or tried. I dropped each of these seeds, new to me, in the ground in February. Three years of springtime growing, later, I have now learned that my cool season may not be your cool season. My springtimes, you see, are laden with sudden blistering hot days, as the Santa Ana winds in southern California create weather pressure areas that usher in Gulf of Mexico temps into my state.  My sorrel limps. My radishes and kohlrabi grow tough. My arugula, lettuces, broccoli raab bolt if you blink!

It took me several seasons to figure out, yes, that what can't grow in springtime, will grow in the autumn! We do have hot days now and again, but not so hot that the soil is not continuing a slow decent into cooler temps, as opposed to an ascent into warmer temps!

Now, I have delicious tender lettuce. I have luscious bitter brocccoli raab. I have scads of thriving kohlrabi seedlings which will mature by Thanksgiving.

Who knew? Cool season may come once a year, not twice.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Going back to the 'Old Ways'

There are standard practices in gardening, with which I grew up, such as:
-Plant seeds in straight, well-spaced rows.
-Label these said rows clearly.
-Thin rows - or, do not overcrowd seedlings.
-Weed or mulch between rows.
-When a plant has become inedible, pull out. In fact, in the autumn, fully clear out your gardening plot.

But, I am taken by the persuasive talk of gardeners on:
1) Intensive gardening to make the most of a garden space - compressing row spacing with well-composted, highly-nutritive the soil. Trellising and growing crops upward
2) Growing more than one crop a shared space in a single growing season through succession planting
3) Integrating edibles and flowers and herbs as companion planting or to discourage harmful insect infestations
4) Intercropping mutually compatible crops such as the ‘three sisters’ of corn, beans and squash or lettuce in the shadow of tall tomatoes
5) Growing plants to seeding stage, if even over two growing seasons to save seed.
6) I especially like the pioneer gardening practice of hiding edibles in swaths of cutting gardens, making them tougher for foragers - animal or insect - to find.

(Read more about these strategies, as well as, getting more out of your garden here: a handy guide)

Questioning the unquestionable 'rules' and being drawn into the allure of more with less, I welcome edible volunteers, I allow my garden to ramble over its boundaries, with trailing nasturtiums and bushy marigolds. But this year, I fully understood the price of such.  What follows are the lessons I've learned.

Bummer #1: My crowded tomatoes competed for calcium, and it wasn’t sufficient for all, impacting their quality. Blossom end rot, can mean a fruit simply doesn’t mature or then contain all the vitamins and minerals it should. It also impacts its shelf life - trimming the unusable portion from the tomato, means it must be used quickly.
Lesson learned: If my soil is tired, add compost, not an additional tomato! At least allow that soil to grow just a cover crop and till it under — a nice year of rest.

Bummer #2: Crowded tomatillos meant that fewer ripened. While large plants used nutrients from the soil, by the end of the season, only 20% of the fruits on each plant had received the papery outer which means they are ready to pick. So much, unfortunately, tilled under to nurture the soil for next season.
Lesson learned: Thin even the volunteers no matter how much diversity they bring, or how little they require from the soil!

Bummer #3: Crowded lettuces, meant they competed for water. Overcrowded and dry conditions caused them to bolt even sooner than they already do — in my high desert climate. Few days of sweet, mild lettuce on my dinner table.
Lesson learned: More food in the beginning, was too much to eat. Thin the plants, for more tenderness over a longer growing period. Mulch the sides of rows if in doubt about the mature size of a lettuce plant to give sufficient moisture to plants.

Bummer #4: A desire to see my garden plot bear as much as possible, I forgot the benefits of organization which allows one to walk through to reach all plants. So, walking too close to my peppers and tomatoes, I was compacting the soil of both. I believe this made my tomatoes more vulnerable a virus - allowing it to hop from one to 3 tomato plants.
Additionally, the compacted soil around my ‘mild’ hot peppers (Cayenetta, Padron, Pulsilla, Numex Joe E. Parker varieties) seems to have made life difficult for them as well. They were much hotter than I expected — very hot, in fact! Were they struggling to uptake water? Does compact, tough soil make peppers hotter — to me, it seems so.
Lesson learned: If I can't access my plants with a hoe, I can’t aerate the soil properly. Also, I am unable to keep downing weeds, which also compete with plants for moisture and nutrients.

Bummer #5: I transplanted three beets, which had overwintered. Depleted from our dry winter, they returned from veggie netherworlds, and thrived to produce seed. Yet, I had no idea how large they would grow!!! Those three maturing plants required a TREMENDOUS amount of space. While its true that I now have beet seeds sufficient for planting the next decade, they crowded my kale, chard, spinach and shaded other plants, which just never came up.
Lesson learned: Two plants is plenty to allow to seed. (and in some cases necessary for pollination to produce viable seed, such as in spinach.) Also, the trade off? SPACE. Allow plenty of it! In the future, I’ll ask myself: What is the dollar value of what can be grown in that space this year, versus the price of a seed packet next year? Are the adaptations that plant can make in one generation very valuable to future productivity of that crop?
For example, lettuce bolts quickly in our hot springtimes. I allow a little to seed each year, hoping with each successive generation, it will be a bit more heat tolerant - valuable indeed! Of course, its a bonus that lettuce requires so little space in its seeding stage.

Bummer #6: I trellised my cukes, but they shaded my limas, which never reached maturity without adequate access to sunshine.
Lesson learned: Though a plant is growing upwards, and it may be able to better reach the sun, its roots still require real estate for meeting its needs. Additionally, *both sides* of the shadow it will cast, need to be regarded in planning garden layout.

I now understand why grandma does what she does! I see the value in intercropping and succession planting; trellising; hiding plants in herbs, onions and flowers — but these strategies do require the most wonderful of soils, as well as, space. There’s just no getting around it.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

My Radish & one Wireworm with Very Bad Breath

In a high desert climate, radishes are tricky to keep mildly-flavored. Already in March, there are occasional truly hot days.
So, imagine my surprise when I encounter quite a large one, with fresh damage. Its not very likely cutworm damage, as it doesn't occur where the radish root meets the stem. It isn't a hole that starts at the bottom most portion so its not likely a cabbage root maggot. Rather, it enters right from the side. Mostly likely a wireworm.
To wireworms I am no stranger. Several years ago in a community garden where Russian-speaking gardeners grew brassica even through the winter, and beets abounded, too...there was quite a presence of wireworms. One couldn't dig any random hole in the plot without encountering one. Wireworms love root crops & especially persistent in places where those crops are a food source year-round!
I did encounter a wireworm only a couple of days ago transplating a nasturtium into the same bed.
The area of the vegetable garden was once poorly-cared for lawn - mostly weeds. Several years of smothering and solarizing with a tarp should kill both lawn and wireworms. But a bit of crabgrass sprung up through the tarp. So, perhaps they came over from the very-adjacent lawn, perhaps they hung out with the crabgrass, perhaps it was a fluke.
So, what to do? I researched beneficial nematodes. If not so tiny, if they did not solely inhabit soils, they would be truly terrifying. They live for months in the fridge on sterile vermiculite. They burrow into the anus or mouth of their prey and pass along a deadly bacteria - killing the host within 48 hours. Imagine the horror flick made of similar aliens!
Still, they seem such a good idea as their palate is not discerning to say the least. Overwintering cutworms seem common in my terrain; we've dug up more than a handful this spring. And finally, beneficial nematodes could help if, just in case, this is a type of root maggot. But so could, too, diatomaceous earth around the little seedlings. Done, done and done.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Bindweed: Choking out a pervasive, Invasive with....yep, Scissors!

Convolvulus arvensis & Convolvulus sepium

Bindweed is native to Europe and Asia. It was first noted in Virginia in 1739. A "bindweed plague" in the Great Plains in 1877 was attributed to Ukrainian settlers who inadvertently brought the weed seed in wheat seed during the early 1870s. But it was available as an ornamental seed for purchase to plant in gardens and hanging baskets until that time, as well.

It rarely grows in waterlogged places nor spots where it is extremely dry. Yet, its roots can extend down – according to one source - 25 feet to find moisture. Seed that is 60 years old has been found to be viable. Once the seed coat is weakened, the seed will germinate at temperatures of 41° to 104°F. One plant can produce as many as 550 seeds with 90% viability. Also, fragments of vertical roots and rhizomes as short as 2 inches can form new plants.

One's greatest weapon against bindweed is persistence & dedication. When my colleague, a recent grad in horticulture, suggested that I cut back shoots all season long, I balked. But, watching my only-ever-in-my-life application of Glyphosate also damage the plants, which the bindweed has seemingly entangled below the soil - dianthus and columbine - I am convinced I won't return to that solution. My lovelies are simply languishing! Sigh.

So, as another blogger reports, if one clips the plant down to soil surface leaving no leaves every 3 weeks or so, one can eventually starve the plant (as leaves are the food factories for the plant). One may also torch, vinegar, or soap every new shoot. Use a high-strength, hoticultural vinegar, or professionally-made herbicidal soap to really coat the weed. Spray the flowers and leaves at high noon on hot, dry, sunny days-- using big pieces of cardboard to shield your wanted plants. If the weed, however, is well-established from a deep underground root, it takes several repetitions and up to 8 years to fully eradicate a bindweed plant ! But, YES, victory is sweet.( Resist the temptation to pluck or rip out the plant; doing so is like pruning a bush. It will return with more shoots than before.)

If possible, cover the entire area with heavy cardboard or a tarp for the season. Although, to truly solarize and kill the weed, covering may take up to 3 years to work; new shoots that appear on the periphery need to be promptly dealt with.

 If you decide, rather, to make a friend of a foe, the roots are used for some medicinal purposes; it is reputed to relieve constipation if the roots are boiled to make tea. There are also recipes for eating pillbugs - strange but true.

*Herbicides have not proven very effective - ask any farmer. If used at all, they are more effective once the plant is already blooming as the roots do not take up Glyphosate well when they and the surrounding soil are cool. Blossoms form relatively early in the season. So, if one applies Roundup as soon as its a bit warm, its likely a blossom has already come and gone. If you missed a blossom, seeds are already formed/forming; its possible seeds will drop before the plant passes from your herbicide application. So, one may as well gear up for the same application every year in increasing amounts!

D@*n those pillbugs in the Garden

We have been subject to some real whopper weather here. We expect such in the Rocky Mountain region....but just not night after night. So, after my every-color-of-the-rainbow bell peppers were pelted the first night, I knew I had to shield them from a second hail, to save them. Short on plastic buckets or large pots, little cardboard boxes* turned upside down formed shields. One wheelbarrow shielded four plants, too. I was glad I did. It did protect them from the second hail.

But six of one, half dozen of the other, as they say. Those d@*n pillbugs!

My covered peppers are a distance away in the community garden. So, I got to the garden around 8:30 a.m. The dark, dampness of a box, was heaven to a pillbug that feasts upon tender seedlings and new transplants. My little fennel seedlings, with their fine foliage, were COVERED in pillbugs. Standing room only at the hotest spot in town for an herbivore's breakfast! They had no time to scatter once the box was put to the side. Sometimes, my need to protect and shield plants, means my anger is wrought out on those pests; all squished they lie at the feet of the once-vulverable, little 3-inch, fennel shoots.

Even upon mature peppers, more than 6 inches tall, with nearly a dozen leaves, those pillbugs were perched – tiny crustaceans on hammocks. The once-hail-beaten leaves, have been pruned a second time.

I can only thank the healing power of rain and know that it will speed the recovery of my peppers. Such a mixed blessing! The precipitation falls mixed with damaging rocks of ice, which strip away vital leaves. Rain, providing the environment for populations of pests to skyrocket. Nature – seems for me in this life -- a reflection of the human domain, where black and white do not reign either.

*If you use boxes, the bottoms really do need to be taped up well. This provides a waterproofing for the top, where you will lay your heavy weights such as rocks. Without the tape, the rain causes the roof of the box to disintegrate and the rock to fall through onto your pepper. The rocks missed the stems. None were broken, which was pure luck, really, as one large rock was literally lifted from its resting place upon a stem.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Nights too Cold for Tomatoes?

Its been a cold May. Pity I lost those Russian heirloom tomato seeds somewhere in the airport; plucked right from a Christmas wishlist, they were lovingly gifted. I appreciated them deeply. I hope the finder did, too.

As I wait for warmer nighttime temps, ones which my transplanted tomatoes might survive, I am scanning the internet to try to determine how tough my Roma, Borghese and German green tomatoes may really be. This excellent forum contribution from Dar Jones on GardenWeb says it all. WONDERFUL info.

120F = Severe heat, but if plenty of water is available, the plants are fine. This temp is way above levels at which pollination can take place. Plants with heavy fruit set may show stress. Nutrient transfer imbalances occur because the plant is busy moving water into leaves instead of moving nutrients into fruit.
92F = This is the temp at which pollen starts clumping and blossoms begin to drop.
70F to 92F = This is the goldilocks zone. Tomatoes grow prolifically, flowers set readily, plants need maximum fertility in the soil. The high end of this range is optimum for spread of several foliage diseases.
65F to 72F = the best temperature to grow seedlings.
50F to 65F = this is the beginning of cold stress. Tomato plants in this range grow slowly, often produce anthcyanins (turn purple), and become pale green from loss of chlorophyll function.
32F to 50F = This is the range where normal tomato plants show severe cold stress. Leaves shrivel, turn yellow, wilt, stems lose turgor, roots stop absorbing water. If your plants get this cold overnight, you can reverse the effects by raising the temperature above 90 degrees the next day for the same length of time they were too cold!
28F to 32F = This is the maximum range most tomatoes can withstand without freezing. Note that if frost forms on the leaves, then the leaves will freeze and die. The plant may live and can form new leaves, but the stunting effects take quite a bit of time to overcome.
22F to 28F = This is the range that a few select varieties can withstand for brief periods of time but stipulating that frost on the leaves will still kill them.
15F to 22F = This is the range that a few Russian cultivars are reported to survive, again only if frost does not form. The reports I have read indicate that this tolerance is only for a limited time period, in other words, repeated low temps for 3 days or more will still kill the plants.
0F to 15F = A few Russian cultivars are able to handle temps this low for brief periods of time. This is the low end of the range that wild tomato species S. Habrochaites, S. Chilense, and S. Lycopersicoides can withstand.

So "WaterWalls" to the rescue? I just bet that the gardener in my local community garden who transplanted his tomatoes Easter Sunday (4/20/14) in walls of water, will be eating tomatoes by the 4th of July! His plants look lovely even after a big snowstorm and a couple of freezing nights. Homemade water walls might be in the mix, as my gardening budget is tighter this month. Here's a comparison of soda bottles, e.g. DIY Wall-O-Water, versus there real thing,
Of course, also, a How-To on your own wall of water:
And finally, a very good encyclopedia of cold-tolerant tomato seeds! Good luck pronouncing come of these; Glasnost might come easily, but Csikos?

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

More on Bees in the Xeric Garden

An academic, and long-time hive keeper, set up (2) hives - the first in the two decade history of my community garden. Unexpectedly fascinating to watch, true. Unlike hives in the wild, the workers have not grown up with the queen to which they have been artificially assigned. No, The queens have been 'grown' separately. Under normal conditions, the workers would exterminate this foreign queen. So, the hive keeper places the queen in her own little chamber plugged with a marshmallow. It will take the workers a day or so to eat through that little white puff, at which time, they will have watched and gotten to know her. By the time the marshmallow is finished,  she's kinda grown on 'em. They will no longer have a need to do her in.

In the meantime, I love watching bees. I love seeing the diversity of types of bees in my garden. Who knew I had over 6 distinct varieties in my small selection of flowers and bushes? after a seminar in which I learned the vast majority of bees make their homes in soils, I truly can't understand why farmers, horticulturalists and gardeners doubt the connection between toxic soils and bee deaths - at least in part. I have a burden for bee life and health.

Yet, keeping a hive, I place on a totally different plane. Those dedicated to bee welfare in the form of nurturing their palaces - seem to share a certain resiliency, certainly, as hive deaths are all too common.  I think, too, that hive keepers share a sort of  eccentricity I have yet to define. And finally, I wonder how many of today's hivekeepers will be tending hives in 20 years, when everyone's lips are not all abuzz about bees. Just true confessions.

In the meantime, I am moving my Petrovskia - which they ADORE - from the walking path where we always seem to be disturbing them. I am ordering up some mignonette and growing a bit of borage - both of which they can't seem to resist & will grow happily in my vegetable gardenw hich is irrigated. Finally, I think I'll invest in some blue spirea, which seems to take a backseat only to Petrovskia in its place on bee's palates.

Here are a few other things I've learned about bees in the garden:
- Bees are highly attracted to blue, purple and yellow flowers.
- In general, bees prefer flat, single blossoms such as asters, alyssum & cosmos, to double blossoms such as double impatients. Such flowers produce less pollen and nectar; plus, the nectar is harder to get to for the bee. Long-tongued bees, on the other hand, prefer mint, sages, lavender and oregano. Long-tongued Bumblebees, adore columbine (perennial), bee- balm & larkspur. ie., flowers, which have a long nectar spur.
- As all living things, bees require fresh water. A little dish filled with pebbles, sticks and fresh water each morning, will keep bees returning to your garden.
- Of course, avoid synthetic chemicals, as well as, flowers hybridized to not produce seed. The latter produce little nectar and pollen. Instead, think heirlooms and natives!