Friday, October 31, 2014

Dispatch from Last Year's Pumpkin Patch


Happy Halloween! In keeping with the spirit of the day, I thought I'd share some of our pumpkin growing exploits of years past. 

Pumpkins were one of the first plants on our "must have" list for the new garden last year. I have wanted to grow them since I was a little girl when I would look forward each October to visiting the "patch" at the local farm stand co-op to select my own Halloween pumpkin. It left me with an urge, no-- a need, to grow my own. This was the catalyst to start my gardening adventures. Sadly, we didn't get around to pumpkins this year. But we did have a stellar pumpkin harvest last year which I never got around to blogging about (see pic below).




Why don't people grow pumpkins much in the back yard garden? Well, they are sprawling space sucker-uppers that are also prone to all sorts of "plague of Egypt" type pests. But they are so beautiful that you can't blame folks for wanting to grow them or failing in the attempt. 

Our early attempts definitely met with mixed success. 
  •  First: Out of a large Terracotta pot on a condo patio. Verdict: Fail. Culprit: Space and lack of knowledge (of how much space). 

  • Second: In the community garden plot. Verdict: Semi-fail (got 3 little ones) Culprit: Vine borer, cucumber beetles, and still not enough space. We also started them to early and ended up with pumpkins in late July.
  • Third: In new, large back yard garden in 2013. Verdict: Success! Eyes were bigger than my stomach. I definitely had grandiose ideas about how many pumpkins one family required. I thought, "I could plant enough to have all the kids in little one's class come pick their own pumpkin." Turns out 15+ vines creates a pumpkin sea. But it sure was beautiful last year. 


Here are the varieties we planted in 2013: 

At the top, Early Sweet Sugar Pumpkin;
 in the middle, Pontimarron;  at the bottom, Bush Butternut

And here is that old enemy, the cucumber beetle. By planting in July it appears we missed most of its life cycle in our zone.

Hopefully coming in 2015: Rouge Vif D'Etampes (Cinderella Pumpkins, yo), Squash Long Island Cheese, New England Sugar Pie, and good ol' Jack-O-Lanterns. (Plus Bush Butternut, Spaghetti Squash, and Pontimarron). Maybe next year I will have enough for all of little one's classmates. We'll see.


Happy Trick or Treating!

Thursday, October 30, 2014

2014 Garden Year Thoughts and Pictures

I am definitely a victim of my own good intentions with this blog. I was shocked to realize it has been over a year since I last updated folks on our gardening endeavors. We have chosen to use our time this year to expand the garden (and enjoy it) instead. But as our first real frost is looming at the end of the week and our main garden season is coming to a close, it is time for an update so that next year we can remember what we learned from this one.

Big 2014 Accomplishments:
  • Broke new ground that expanded the garden by a 1/3 and required removing a very ugly and oddly placed Magnolia tree. 
  • Planted three apple trees and one plum tree (more on them in another post). Espaliering was involved. It's hard to tell what you are looking at in the pictures so I'll include better ones in our fruit tree post.





  • Expanded our compost bin into a second bay and moved them 90 degrees to a southern orientation. 
 
  • Successfully transplanted three red rhubarb plants from hubby's childhood home in the upper Midwest.
  • Brought our existing green rhubarb plant back from the brink of death. (It got much worse than in the pic. Rust every where. It just needed some fish emulsion. Who knew?)
  • Bought a shed and had it installed, but built a gravel foundation for it ourselves.
2014 Good Discoveries and Surprises:
  • We have wild garlic! Why bother planting it when you can find it all over your yard and neighborhood?! It's tiny, but it is the real thing.  
  • We are a little late to the party, but it turns out the Brandywine is an AWESOME tomato! The Black Krim is also fantastic. Between the two, our formerly beloved Cherokee Purple pales in comparison since it is a weak producer and all the fruit is prone to cracking. Not so with the Brandywine. While it is still huge, some are a more manageable size and a prolific producer. The Black Krim is also a good producer and provides smaller, more sandwich-able black tomato slices.  Between the two, I think we can phase out the Cherokee next year.
  • We can grow eggplant! Our previous eggplant problems were likely the result of the community garden flea beetle infestation and not us. Huzza! We planted three kinds under the row cover, including the lovely Rosa Bianca that I have tried to grow for 4 years unsuccessfully, and we had more eggplant than we knew what to do with. And although the Rosa Bianca was lovely, it turns out we liked the Chinsese Ping Tung better because it is a uniform size that is super easy to cut up and cook with. Tasty too.
  • Planting sunflowers next to your Swiss Chard keeps those f^&*ing caterpillars under control. To be fair this is an unscientific assumption of causation with correlation but last year it was a caterpillar plague and the plants were in more or less the same spot. This year, the birds practically lived on the sunflowers (and constantly battled each other for the) and we had no caterpillars. Not one. Zip. Zilch. So, you be the judge, but I'm thinking it helped. 

  •  Baker Creek peas outperformed the Burpee seeds, and our toddler likes eating peas right off the vine. 
  • Thinning your beets is overrated. We have taken to growing mostly cylindrical beets because you can sow and forget them. They crowd each other out but still seem to grow fine and shoulder their way up when they are ready.
  • Found out that kale and mustard are surprisingly resilient. We planted it somewhere out of the way last year and forgot about it. Not only did it come back and produce well (while being totally ignored) when it eventually went to seed it gave us tons of fresh kale seed. I don't think we need to buy kale seed ever again. 
  • Learned that fresh parsnip seed really is better. We have a parsnip plant in our kitchen garden only because its flowers are umbrella shaped and the bees love it. It is really pretty. It gave us tons and tons of parsnip seeds as well which we planted in the fall garden and...........they all germinated and right away. None of this wait two months and see if anything pops up. It's too early to say how the parsnips the seed produces tastes, but I'm hopeful. 
2014 Blunders and Disappointments:
  • A hard winter and late frosts really put a damper on a spring garden. We had our last snow storm at the very end of March and all of April was pretty frigid. Needless to say we didn't really get our ducks in a row to have a great spring vegetable garden and some of the cold weather stuff we planted (mainly brassicas) didn't have enough time to grow before it was blazing hot. 
  • Having neighbors down the block with cedar trees  is enough to bring cedar apple rust to your apple trees during a rainy spell. Luckily, hubby noticed the damage fast and we were able to limit it to one tree. Next year we will treat with copper fungicide BEFORE a long rain spell is forecast.
  • We planned 2 ft between our tomato lanes because we didn't want to feel like we were walking through a tomato tunnel come July. What we didn't realize was that we had measured from trellis to trellis without taking account for the actual hilled lane the plants would live on. This reduced our lanes by at least half a foot and a whole foot in some places. Next year, we will measure 3 ft between the trellis to make sure we have enough room.
  • The Dick Raymond "Joy of Gardening" Mixed Crop Row doesn't work for us (although it was a good way to get our carrots to germinate). We forgot it underneath a row cover and then everything went to seed. The radishes got too big, only one kind of lettuce took hold from the mix I planted, and the onions just fizzled out. BUT our carrots are beautiful and NO carrot fly damage whatsoever.
  • Kohlrabi that is set out late and then forgotten under a row cover during a very hot summer gets even more pungent than usual and when you cut it up in your kitchen, your house smells like rotten garbage. No bueno. I think we are taking a break from that for a while.
  • 13 cherry tomato plants produce barely enough to keep up with a toddler's voracious tomato appetite. Next year we will plant 20.  
  • Broccoli and cauliflower from seed is more work than it is worth. I think we will have a brassica break next year.
  • Starting 40 tomato plants inside is hard. Potting them out once before outside transplant is even harder. Next year we will start them in larger cups that they can live in til they go outside because honestly, I haven't seen any evidence that the second potting makes the roots stronger. Experiment for next year.
  • We didn't get around to planting pumpkins, squash, watermelons, or cucumbers this year. And let me tell you it killed me to pay $5 for a pumpkin at home depot but what can you do. We had to prioritize and this just didn't make it. We had a number of Pontimarron winter squash come back from seed (pic below) and go wild at the bottom of the garden but something, likely cucumber beetles, gave it powdery mildew and that ended that. It is still out there limping along, but the squashes are only the size of softballs.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Garden Beginnings

Here is the progression of the new garden:

Started on July 4th:
We have 5 lanes that are 40' x 16" with 1' wide lanes in between. This time around we are following Dick Raymond's (of Joy of Gardening fame) wide row method since it is much back friendlier and more efficient in terms of time (weeding, watering, etc). The lanes run east to west with some shade on either end. We did this on purpose because we have excruciatingly hot summers here and I am tired of everything bolting in mid-June and having sun scalded tomatoes.

Verdict so far? The wide rows and the shading worked great. We need to make the paths a bit bigger and we need to add at least two more rows but that is the beauty of this system. Since there are no 4' x 8' wood borders, I can till everything under at the end of the season and start all over with very little fuss. The narrower rows have made it a bit more challenging to place the row covers over the lanes but we arranged them parallel which has worked so far.

 July 4th, 2013



Fast forward to early Aug:

And today:

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Hello again!

Apologize all for the blogging break, but we had a good reason. We found the yard of our dreams and bought the house attached to it. Most of April and May were devoted to this effort and left little time for blogging (or gardening). Sadly, our promising tomato and pepper starts are a little worse as a result, having only finally found a permanent home this past weekend. While we now have an enormous yard that will allow us to avoid the space limitations of the community garden, it has thick grass over dreaded Virginia clay. If you aren't familar it is great for making bricks, adobe houses, or growing trees but not great for gardening until it has been lightened up a bit. We will spend at least the next year (who am I kidding, years plural) trying to turn it into something resembling soil, and we invite you to read along as we start a new gardening journey.


Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Seedling Progress



 We are a bit behind in blogging. Here are the updates. We re-potted the tomato starts on 3/25/13 and moved them to the windowsill 4/6/13. They were simply too tall for the light set up, and their leaves kept getting burned (which gives me tomato guilt). Due to life events we never started the second group of tomato seedlings, so these are it for the year. Good thing I started all the Cherokee Purples in the first group.  The Blondkopfchen seedling (below) is the best tomato start we have ever had. This gives me warm fuzzies because it is from the seed I saved myself. Overall the tomato starts are sturdier than lasts year's were by this point.




The peppers were also re-potted on 3/25/13 and are now enjoying exclusive rights to the plant light. We started all of them at once instead of in two staggered groups because we realized it was easier to get them all done while we had all the soil, etc out. We are trying the "Red Mini" this year from Baker's. I love the thought of mini red bell peppers and the number of red mini seedlings is in equal proportion to my excitement.



Monday, February 25, 2013

Seed Starting Update no. 2

Today we sowed:
  • Peppers: Beaver Dams (4), Garden Sunshines (4), Mini-Bells (4)
  • Kohlrabi (6)
  • Broccoli (3)

Updates:
  •  Potted out early tomato starts
    • Starting tomorrow we will keep them under the grow light during the day and put them out on the patio at night so they can be exposed to cooler night time temps. Apparently keeping them at 50-60 degrees at night will encourage early flowering.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

It looks like we found a new seed company to try. A colleague made us aware of the Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. They are a Baker Creek-esque seed company based in Mineral, Virginia that focuses on gmo-free, untreated, open pollinated seeds suited to the inland plains of the mid-Atlantic (our zone, 7a) and the mid-Atlantic region writ large. They describe this area as "generally characterized by high summer heat, humidity, numerous plant diseases, uneven precipitation and occasional high temperatures in the early spring and late fall. Soils are predominately clay except in the sandy coastal areas." Add in the plagues of Egypt-magnitude insect problems we experience at the community garden and this precisely captures our growing conditions.
 2013 Catalog Cover
Am I in love? Very possibly. I am withholding judgement til we grow some of their seed, but all indications are positive. 

For starters, their catalog is lovely. Just the type of seed catalog a garden hopes to get in the middle of winter: one filled with planting and seed saving tips, planting calendars (again, for MY zone...how great is that?!), planting quick references, and great information about seed exchanges and preservation programs. It has a great mixture of plant photos and old-timey drawings. All the seed descriptions include indicators identifying varieties "especially well-suited to the Southeast," heirlooms, ecologically grown, and USDA certified organic. They are up front about the specific plant seeds they carry that are hybrids (only four of them). They even sell seed-saving supplies that are usually difficult to find, such as muslin bags and seed vials.

They have a "safe-seed" pledge that says they do not "knowingly buy or sell genetically engineered seeds or plants." I'm happy to see this. While it doesn't necessarily mean they go as far as Baker Creek does to ensure their seed is not GMO tainted (for example testing each batch of heirloom seed), it is still a far cry better than most seed companies out there. 

They are even part of the Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association (OSGATA) et al. vs Monsanto lawsuit which definitely scores them points with me. If you aren't familiar with the lawsuit, I encourage you to read about it here

Overall, I am excited to order some seed from these folks. We've been looking for some summer lettuce that can withstand our brutal June temperatures, and it looks like they have a few varieties that fit the bill. (I'm eyeing the "Jericho" which was bred for desert heat and which is "especially suited to the Southeast.") I will do a follow up post later this summer.