Thursday, March 31, 2011

Heirloom Tomatoes and where to find them

I love growing tomatoes. Of everything in my garden they are the most versatile and the most popular in my family! Last year, my plants reached six to eight feet in length and nearly overwhelmed me with fruit. Nearly... I canned 10 quarts of juice, 20 quarts of whole tomatoes, 10 quarts of tomato sauce, 30 pints of salsa, 6 half pints of hot sauce, and 8 half pints of love apple jelly (tomato, herb, pepper jelly - very tasty on everything bagels). My oldest child and I ate a metric ton of fresh tomato sandwiches, cherry tomatoes, chopped tomatoes on salads, tacos, etc. My garden tomatoes spoiled us completely. They have so much more flavor and depth than grocery store tomatoes.

This February, I started 200 tomato seeds in home made newspaper pots. Of those 200, I've got around 130 decent sized juvenile tomato plants. They are around 2-4 inches tall depending on strain, growing medium, and how I have treated them. (They were left out in the cold one night, and I'm surprised so many of them survived.). I think I've done okay with my tomato seed starts this year.

Tonight I went into my laboratory (read: my upstairs kitchen that looks like a pot farm because of all the grow lights) and sorted out a tray of plants to take to my parents for their garden. I wanted to give them a good variety, so I took out a few of each strain.

I am growing nine strains of tomato this year - all heirloom varieties purchased from one of my favorite seed catalogs, Victory Seed Company. I have always received wonderful quality seeds from them. They come in a paper packet like most seeds. What makes Victory unique is how all their seeds are also packaged in a plastic zip top baggie inside their paper pouches. This guarantees your seeds stay safe and dry for a few years if all your seed is not used in one season. Their seeds arrive quite promptly, are packaged very well, and their customer service is excellent. I highly recommend them if you are interested in heirlooms. I also ordered almost all of my other seeds from them as well this year.

Given that I've said I am growing nine varieties, you might be wondering which ones and why would I grow those particular varieties over all the others. I narrowed my choices by trying to get as many different flavors, colors and sizes as possible. I also chose some varieties I have grown and been pleased with in the past. Here are the descriptions taken directly from Victory Seed's web site along with my reasons for growing them:

2011 Tomato Varieties

"3401311 Brandywine Sudduth Strain Tomato
80 days, indeterminate — Potato-leaf plants produce large (fourteen to thirty six ounce fruits) that are oblate in shape and pink in color. Excellent flavor. This variety originally is from the Ben Quisenberry collection who reportedly obtained the seed from a Mrs. Doris Sudduth Hill who said that it had been in her family since about 1900. Our seed stock was originally sent to us by David Pendergrass. Click here for more Brandywine history. Each packet contains approximately 20 seeds."

I have been growing Brandywines for three years now. They produce gigantic fruit that look awfully pretty on a tomato sandwich:

"3401771 Curry Tomato
90 days, indeterminate — An old family heirloom. The regular leaf plants produce large, pink, delicious, beefsteak-type fruits. Each packet contains approximately 20 seeds."

I grew Curry Tomatoes last year and they made a really great spaghetti sauce. They were heavy, flavorful, and had a good meat to seed ratio.

"3401801 Grandpa Charlie Tomato
90 days, indeterminate — Large (up to one pound), pink fruits that have a mildly tart, good full flavor. The plants are potato leaf. Each packet contains approximately 20 seeds."

It is probably a silly reason to grow this variety, but my kids call my wonderful step dad "Grandpa Charlie" and I just really thought everyone would get a kick out of growing "Grandpa Charlie Tomatoes". Charlie always grows really beautiful tomatoes too and has really been a big inspiration to me in my gardening endeavors. So growing these are kind of a tribute to him.

(The picture above is not a "grandpa Charlie tomato", but it does look a little like him and it came from his garden!)

"3401811 Improved Colossal Red Tomato
95 days, indeterminate — Released in 1948 by the old Burgess Seed and Plant Company that used to be in Galesburg, Michigan.

It produces nice red fruits. A wonderful slicer, good balance of sweet and tart, great texture, very meaty.

See also 'Improved Colossal Yellow'
Each packet contains approximately 20 seeds."

Note the word Colossal... That is the one and only reason I ordered these seeds!

"3401921 Siletz Tomato
70 days, determinate — Released by Oregon State University in 1994.

Early set of near seedless fruit that are red and large (up to a pound). Good, mild, slightly tart flavor. Each packet contains approximately 20 seeds."

Don't know why I ordered these, but I really hope they do better once they are in the garden than they have done in the pots. They look a little wimpy right now.

"3400911 Cherokee Chocolate Tomato
80 days, indeterminate — Sets fruit that are the same size as 'Cherokee Purple' but the color dark crimson red with shoulders that are brownish-black. It appears to be a stable skin color mutation of 'Cherokee Purple'. Excellent flavor and flesh texture. Sweet, slightly tart, firm but very juicy flesh. Nice slicer.

A variety that originated in the garden of heirloom tomato collector Craig LeHoullier and was introduced to the general public by the Victory Seed Company in 2004. Each packet contains approximately 20 seeds."

I've grown the Cherokee Purples, which are delicious and thought I'd give these a go.

"3400251 Cherokee Purple Tomato
80 days, indeterminate — Given to heirloom tomato collector Craig LeHoullier by J. D. Green of Tennessee, it is at least 100 years old and was reported as originally grown by the Cherokee Indians. The fruits are large (twelve to sixteen ounces), dark pink with darker purple shoulders. Excellent complex flavor, slight sweet aftertaste, perfect slicer for tomato sandwiches! Each packet contains approximately 20 seeds."

Yummy pink tomato with a long history. Seriously tasty. They are really have the most depth of any tomato ever eaten. When the description says "complex flavor", they mean it!

(pictured above, my then four year old with a Cherokee Purple that was quite literally the size of his head. It weighed 2.7 lbs)

"3400981 Royal Red Cherry Tomato
70 days, indeterminate — Not only a beautiful fruit, the taste is equal to that of a good red tomato. The plants have heavy foliage with abundant yields. The fruits are nearly perfectly globe shaped, brilliant red, and weigh in the two to three ounce range. Although it is not the Livingston's 'Royal Red' that I was seeking, it is a pleasant find. Each packet contains approximately 20 seeds."

If I don't grow cherry tomatoes, my oldest son will have a fit. These are really tasty in salads.

"3400821 Livingston's Honor Bright Tomato
90 days, indeterminate — According to Alexander Livingston himself, 'Honor Bright' was, "a sport found in a field of Stone tomatoes in 1894" and released in 1897. The plant is quite unique exhibiting yellowish (lutescent), regular leafed foliage, cream colored flowers, medium sized fruits that turn from green to white to yellow to orange to red.

VSC Note: We obtained seeds, called 'Lutescent', from tomato collector Craig LeHoullier who located them within the National Seed Storage Laboratory. They fit the description of 'Honor Bright' and are presumed to be one in the same.

A very unique and interesting tomato. The plants look sickly with young green leaves turning pale yellow. This is its normal appearance attributed to a specific genetic trait. The color changes of the fruit is also an unusual show. Each packet contains approximately 20 seeds."

I really thought the description of this tomato plant was very interesting. The plants do look sickly! I'm really interested to see how they do in my garden!

Tomatoes really are the star of my garden. They give me the most pleasure, the most family meals for my efforts, and a real feeling of accomplishment. If there is one plant that should be in every garden, it is a nice healthy tomato.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Questions Answered

Several friends have been asking questions worried that they are not "doing it right" when it comes to building their Lasagna Garden. I thought I might spend some time answering some of their questions on here. First, here are the absolute rules for Lasagna Gardening:

1. Start with a weed barrier (cardboard, weed fabric, etc.) and make sure as you are building your garden, the growing medium is loose and heavily aerated. The purpose of adding in organic matter in layers with your soil (and by organic matter, I mean: leaves, grass clippings, vegetable and fruit food waste, crushed egg shells, coffee grounds, and Manure from vegetarian animals) is to provide layers that are ripe with air pockets. This facilitates good microbial growth which facilitates decomposition, and gives the growing medium you are creating ample aeration for deep root systems in your plants.
2. Step on your growing medium as little as possible. Don't tamp down the soil you add. Walking on it will squish out all your air pockets.
3. Give your lasagna garden a little time to bake before planting. Six weeks is a minimum. That is about the amount of time that was recommended to me and it worked well.
4. If you are starting your garden in spring, use plenty of soil and manure and add in organic matter in layers with your soil and manure. There is not an exact science and it will get easier each subsequent growing season. My crops right now look like they are planted in leaf piles. That is okay! By the end of the season, it will all be dirt or close to it. See below for last Year's garden planted in leaves:

5. Don't start with a gigantic garden. Start small to eliminate frustration!

That is it! Seriously.

Here is a great example of a small Lasagna Bed in it's early stages:

This is my friend, Chris's garden. She put cardboard on the bottom then more on the sides to help keep the garden contained. She has since added more organic matter on top of the soil and manure and organic matter she already had. This is such a clever upcycling of a rickety old arched trellis that was too weak for it's original purpose! Chris's goal is a small contained garden so this is absolutely perfect for her. She located her compost bin at the end and it provides some arch symmetry as well as being located uphill from the garden and as it rains, the nutrients from the compost will wash down into the garden a bit!

This is my niece Julie's garden. Julie owns a horse and has access to the black gold that comes out of a horses back side! Horse manure is great because it has a crap load of organic material built into it's bulk. Horses eat a lot of fiber! She has used old feed bags as her weed barrier. Julie is a budding Lasagna Gardening and will probably expand her beds later. She also lives in a rented property and if she ever moves, her lasagna beds can be flattened out and quickly seeded with grass seed if the new tenants do not like the idea of a garden in their yard (perish the thought). This fall, when Julie begins adding more organic material to her garden, she can add more manure, leaves, grass clippings she has saved throughout the year, compost from her compost pile.

Both of these ladies have a fantastic start to their gardens in two totally different ways! I can't wait to see what they grow! When I presented my class, I gave the attendees a sample garden lay out for a 4x8 bed. Since your roots grow straight down, you can pack a lot into a small space.

Sorry the picture is sideways. I can't quite figure out how to rotate the pictures in my photo program. This is for a late spring garden since most those who attended my class won't be planting until May. Next spring, when you have an established bed that has been baking with all sorts of good organic material all winter, you can add in early spring crops like brassicas (broccoli, cabbage, brussels sprouts), greens, turnips, etc. May is not too late to plant leaf lettuces or spinach. They have a very short growing cycle.

Keep in mind that most of my crops will go in around April 15 or they are already planted now. If you are just starting your garden or are not in North Carolina, your growing season will be different than mine. So when you plant your tomatoes in May, mine will have already been out for 3 weeks or more. This means, I will probably have tomatoes 3 or more weeks before you. We will probably have beans and corn around the same time, because, I wait until May 1 to plant those - the soil must be warmer for those to germinate properly.

Making the effort to provide at least part of your family's diet from a garden is a noble and wonderful undertaking. I am so happy to see so many who are interested in doing so. I owe most of my meager knowledge of gardening to three people: my parents (Daisy my mom and Charlie my step dad), and a close friend that I have never actually met in person, Deanna. Deanna is a friend from an online Autism/homeschooling support group. She introduced me to Lasagna Gardening and has been a great friend through a lot of autism issues, the birth of two of my four children, and so many other parts of my life. The ladies in this particular support group, have been a huge part of my life. Some of them for 8 years!

Finding support for any endeavor is so important. Whether it be family or friends... I am starting a "support group" for all my fellow local Lasagna Gardener's on Facebook that will link back to this blog and anything else I can find. You can find me on Twitter @stephsgarden.

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Monday, March 28, 2011

What's up?? In my garden, that is...

Posting from my phone is not as much fun as posting from my iPad. But here we go! We've had a few days of really good rain and cooler weather here in Cabarrus County, North Carolina. Things are really springing up in my garden! I've got these cute little spinach plants all down the middle of my potato patch:

There are a few potatoes coming up too. I've also got lettuce, basil, peas, onions, cabbage, an broccoli.

One of the things about lasagna gardening is the surprise of a volunteer plant every now and then. They spring up out of the heavily composted growing medium and leave you thinking, "Hey! Who put that there?!?". For example:

Now, I am pretty bad about letting bagged potatoes sprout. Last fall I sent my oldest son out with a load of potato peels to dump. He went to the very edge of my largest bed (as close as possible to the house) and dumped them. Then I went back through and dumped about two feet of pecan leaves on top of them and thought no more about it... Until last week! As you can see, I now have big and healthy potato plants growing from these discarded peels. Last year I had cantaloupe and cherry tomatoes grow this way as well! Yipee!

I love surprises like this!

Garden March 2011.

Location:Beech St NW,Concord,United States

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Worm Compost Versus Organic Potting Mix

Just a quick note to show you all what a difference worm compost can make:

Note that the leaves, stem, and probably the roots as well on the Grandpa Charlie Tomato plant on the right are bigger, thicker and healthier than the same variety on the left.

These tomato plants were planted at the end of January and I've controlled the environment fairly well. Except for a few nights where they got a little cooler than expected on the porch.

I have topped off all of my tomato plants varieties with a bit of worm compost with the hope they will get a little boost before planting after April 15th.

I will also be saving all my worm compost from this point forward for my seed starts for next year. I will not be making any further purchases of organic potting mix! I've had to pluck a few extra sprouts because the compost is not sterilized, but I certainly think this might be worth the trouble of a few sprouts!

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

Monday, March 21, 2011

A year in the Life of my garden - August through December

August is the hottest month here in North Carolina. As the mercury rises, my desire to go outdoors and work in my garden is beginning to wain. I only go out in early morning and late evening to water and harvest. I spend my small amount of work time this month picking up any trash in my yard and cleaning up sticks and branches that occasionally drop so the autumn leaf collection will be easier on my mower blades. By mid August, my sweet potatoes I planted in July are trailing. I will let these grow until the first frost. I harvest cantaloupe and other melons at the end of July and beginning of August. By mid August I harvest the last of my squash, my green beans, onions, and almost everything else in the garden.

You also plant fall crops in August. New batches of lettuce, carrots and parsnips, more broccoli, greens, etc. I usually do not plant fall crops, but I plan to save one bed for fall crops this year. I am hoping that having some green going in my garden this fall and winter will stave off the winter blues as long as possible. August is so hot and is really spent just trying to keep cool!

September brings the next phase in my Lasagna Garden. My tomato plants are yellow, brown and droopy, the foliage is almost totally gone and the tomatoes that are left are usually unlikely to ripen before they fall off the vine and rot. The only thing left in the garden are sweet potatoes and this year any fall crops I will have. I use this time to fortify unplanted spots with any grass clippings and compost I have been saving throughout the year. I spread this material over the garden liberally. Then the leaves begin to fall.

This time of year is so hard for me. With the Autumnal Equinox, the weather begins to cool, the leaves begin to fall, my garden is entering a dormant stage. October brings a two month long process of taking any leaves that fall in my yard and dumping them into my garden. I mow them up with my riding mower and grass catcher attachment. Before I had the attachment, I used my mower to mulch them and blow them into bigger piles for easier collection.

October also usually brings the first frost, I pull the tops off my sweet potatoes around October 15. I allow the sweet potatoes to sit in the ground for about a week, then I dig them up. Sweet potatoes store well, but if we have an overabundance, we pressure can them or freeze them.

By the time I am done with this process around Thanksgiving, my garden looks like a tiny mountain range going through my yard! I stack the leaves until my beds are at least 3' deep. I set some leaves aside in the compost pile to fortify the beds that have winter plantings. When the crops are harvested, I will add any composted materials to that bed.

In December, if we have a warm day, I go out and knock the tops off the mountains a little and just sort of flatten out the whole thing. Six weeks after I've finished the process of adding a couple feet of leaves to the tops of my beds. By early January, the leaves have rotted down a bit and it looks like this:

So that is a year in the life of my garden!

Next post: some new Lasagna beds. Sharing the beginning of the process.
- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

A year in the Life of my garden: June and July

June and July are by far the most productive and busy months on my garden calendar! I do most of my canning and preserving during these months. The biggest majority of the tomatoes, beans, potatoes, broccoli, zucchini, and other produce are harvested daily during these months. Weeds and pests begin invading in full force all throughout the summer. I spend most of my time in summer doing maintenance on the entire ecosystem.

The plants get gigantic during June and July and a lot more work goes into maintaining the garden this time of year. I usually spend about 15-20 minutes a day getting little things done like pulling any little weeds, trimming, tying up plants, replacing damaged stakes, pruning dead leaves from my plants, pest control, watching the plants for diseases, watering, and/or harvesting veggies. If I can manage it, I spend much, much more time just piddling around because I simply love to be out there. I trim the edge of all of my raised beds weekly with my riding mower when I mow the grass. I have a grass catcher that was well worth the investment attached to the back and I put all my grass clippings in my compost pile. I will use all of the material in my compost pile in the fall to fortify my garden.

I pull any weeds just as soon as they sprout, because young weeds are much easier to pull than mature weeds! Since I have a Lasagna bed, my weed problem isn't huge, but there are a few trailing plants and really hardy deep root plants that invade now and then. Weeds I occasionally have to remove from my garden are barn weed (spring, has a little purple flower), clover, crab grass, wild strawberries, poison ivy, poke weed, and the occasional pecan tree sprout.

The first week of June, I harvest a lot of broccoli, spinach, lettuce, and other cool weather vegetables for about the last time. I have been harvesting off of these plants for about a month now and all of them look pretty ragged. I will sometimes leave the plants in until they die naturally and let them feed my garden, but often times, I have already begun planting other things in around these and it is time to let these baby plants begin their time of reproduction. I pull up anything I feel needs to be pulled to let other plants grow. I try to plant later crops in amongst the early crops to give the late bloomers ample time to grow before the strong summer heat kicks into high gear. By mid-June, the early crops are totally gone and my late crops are pretty sizable.

Around the last two weeks of June, I harvest my first tomatoes, zucchini, spaghetti squash, cucumbers, green beans, and larger potatoes.There is nothing sweeter to me than my first tomato sandwich of the season. Last year, the day we were to leave on vacation around June 22, my garden gave me my first big pink Cherokee Purple tomato. I promptly had a tomato, cheese, and mayonnaise sandwich for breakfast. That same day, I pulled out two good sized Zucchini squash, a cucumber, a handful of green beans, and some green onions. By the time we got back, a week later, I had a dozen two foot zucchini squash, dozens of ripe tomatoes, cucumbers galore, and the potatoes plants had fallen over dead. The potato plants begin to look kind of pathetic that last part of June, but this is normal and as soon as they die back completely, I will harvest whatever is left in the hills.

The entire month of July is spent canning, canning, harvesting, canning, freezing, canning, cooking, canning, maintenance, pickling, playing in the sprinkler, and did I mention canning? My mother and I do a lot of canning together, because big projects go so much faster when you have a team! Last year we canned green beans, tomatoes, tomato sauce, salsa, jellies, jams, pickles, peppers, apple sauce, apple butter, pumpkin, and hot sauce. You can find any number of things to make with a tomato! Anyway, I will dedicate an entire post just to canning sometime soon, but if your garden grows beyond what your family can eat or that you can give away without being annoying, then preserving food for later is definitely a great option.

Both June and July are filled with all sorts of visitors to my garden. Fungus, blight, beetles of all sorts, the occasional slug or snail, caterpillars, ants, mantises, bees, lady bugs, birds, squash bugs, spiders. Some of these are pests, others are wonderful additions to any garden. For most insect pests in my garden, Neem Oil concentrate works wonderfully. It is an organic pesticide that interrupts the mating cycle of most adult insects and kills most eggs and larvae as well. However, there are a few pretty hardy little guys that are harder to get rid of: Colorado Potato Beetles, caterpillars, and ants. For the ants, I have tried stone ground grits with a modicum of success. However, no chemical or natural treatment I have found works on the infernal beasts that are caterpillars and Colorado Potato Beetles. So... I squish 'em. I squish 'em good. The caterpillars like cauliflower and broccoli. Colorado Potato Beetles like... Potatoes. Or rather, their larvae like the foliage of the potato plant. They will ravage the leaves and can devastate whole fields of potatoes in great enough numbers. In larval form, they look like this:

Kind of like a bulbous misshapen spotless slimy ladybug...

When they grow up they turn into this:

It is a shame to me to kill all these really beautiful insects. I truly find them to be one of the prettiest beetles Ive ever seen. This is also my favorite picture from my garden last year. But squishing them seems to be the only solution. I squished every larva I could find last year.

The good critters that I transport to my garden whenever I find them are: lady bugs, worms, yellow orb spiders, lizards, and preying mantises. Getting over any fears of creepy crawlies is the first order of business in a garden. The orb spiders may freak you out, but the more orb spiders you have catching Japanese beetles on your beans and tomatoes, the fewer Japanese Beetles you will have on your tomatoes.

I plant out my sweet potatoes in July by pulling the sprouts from my sweet potato plant bed and digging a ridge somewhere in the garden to plant them. I plant them about 6 or 8 inches apart and have water on hand to pour directly on the root before I cover them up. This seems to give them a jump start as the roots begin to establish themselves.

By the end of July, my Zucchini begins to die back, the tomatoes are getting tougher and are good for juice and sauce, but not as good for eating, and most of the other crops are beginning to dwindle. I may get a few more pieces from the garden before all the fall crops are planted in August, but the prime time for my summer crops is nearly done.

Next up... August and September... To fall crop or not to fall crop.

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Tuesday, March 15, 2011

A year in the life of my garden - April through May - Early Crops and Summer Plants

I would suggest that if this is your first year starting a garden that you start really simply. Don't go out and invest a fortune on specialty equipment. A hoe, a shovel, a garden rake, a really nice pair of gloves and maybe some garden shears. Tomato cages, and maybe a bit of fencing and a few fencing stakes. You can easily throw a few tomatoes or cucumbers in a plot of land, but it is not going to produce as well as a well planned out and spaced garden.

Be sure to take your time thinking out a plan that will work for what you want to grow. Sketch it, think about it, dream about it! Think of planning a garden like arranging furniture in your house. You do a lot less work if you have a picture of it, at least in your head before you start.

If this is your first year, on April 1, you don't have the things I planted in February and March. What you might have are some seed starts of tomatoes and peppers that are almost ready for planting. You might also have purchased some bush or pole beans, zucchini, yellow squash, spaghetti squash, acorn squash, cucumber, herb, cantaloupe, corn and watermelon seeds that you are aching to plant. Don't do it! Not yet!

By April, I have great big teenage tomato plants that are just aching to move out on their own and start their reproductive cycles with the bees and the butterflies. But I don't bother planting tomatoes out until at least April 15th and only then if the weather is being cooperative. If it is a cool spring, it will not hurt to wait until late April and even into Mid-May. On warm days throughout March and until I plant them, I "harden off" all my started plants by placing them outdoors in a sunny spot during the day and as the evening cools. I bring them back in before bed time to protect them from early spring's chilly nights. I have a second floor porch and it stays a few degrees warmer at that height. On nights when the weatherman says it will be in the mid-forties, my porch is perfectly safe for my 5-7 week old tomato plants.

By the end of April, I begin harvesting the spinach and lettuce I planted in February. Spinach and leaf lettuce are able to sprout new leaves and grow as long as it is not too hot and a few leaves are left on the plant when harvesting.

By the end of May, these plants are beginning to look a little unhealthy and sometimes a few bugs have begun nibbling their leaves. I don't like spraying these plants for pests, even with organic spray as I have read that their tender leaves and roots absorb quite a bit of what is used. So when the bugs start biting, I harvest the whole lot. We eat a lot of salad in May and I may blanch the spinach and freeze it for later use in recipes. I try to replant leaf lettuce near tomato plants as they provide shade as they grow and you can have some salad in the heat of summer as well.

Below: Late April, 2010. Baby Spinach near ready for pruning.

When I am very sure all the frost is gone, (usually late April or the very first week of May) I start my Zucchini, Yellow Squash, Cucumbers, and Melons from seed directly in the garden when I plant my tomato plants. All these seeds I plant in hills with 4-6 seeds per hill. Pepper plants are planted at the same time as tomatoes, so now is the time to buy those plants too, or take your started plants and put them out.

Growing vining plants like cucumbers, some types of squash, and melons is fun, but you need to give your vining plants plenty of room to trail and grow. You can train the vines back into the garden as they grow so you don't have them growing out into the yard. You can also trellis some vining plants like cucumbers to save a bit of space.

Below: May, 2010 - this picture shows my three garden beds in early May. The long bed on the left contains volunteer pumpkins, volunteer sunflowers, onions, potatoes, broccoli, cauliflower, zucchini, Brussels sprouts, green beans, and about 15 tomato plants interspersed around the bed (but not near the potatoes). The middle bed contains a really annoying and hardy tree, loads of tomatoes, and peas. The bed on the right contains a particularly persistent poke weed, spinach, lettuce, green beans, asparagus, carrots, and parsnips.

In early to mid-May, I plant green beans and corn. Both of these types of seeds need warmer soil to germinate and if you don't wait until warmer weather, you waste a lot of seed. I plant corn in a row, placing the seeds only a few inches apart. Corn silks need to brush against one another for proper pollination. This way they develop full ears of corn. Each seed is fertilized and it gets sweet, fat, and juicy! Beans are also planted in rows. I usually plant bush beans because they do not have strings like pole beans. I love the flavor of yellow wax beans, green beans, and there are even some purple varieties that are delicious.

About three or four weeks after planting, I give my tomato plants a bit of a boost with some liquid fertilizer and the whole garden a spray down with a liquid fertilizer about every three weeks after that. More on fertilizer later!

I also start my sweet potato plants around mid-may in a spot I have reserved out in the garden just for them. I take whatever sweet potatoes I have leftover from last year's harvest and out them into the soil. I cover them with about two or three inches of soil. They take several weeks to begin sprouting. I will provide more information on planting the sprouts in the next blog post.

By the end of May, my potatoes have begun blooming and giving new potatoes. My onions are the perfect size to make a tasty green onion treat! My tomatoes are really tall, needing staking, and usually have a lot of blooms and a few small fruits. All my plants have established deep roots. Either mother nature or I provide water every day.

Next up... June and July!

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Monday, March 7, 2011

A year in the life of my garden - January to March - Seed Starting and Early Crops

Starting plants indoors always gives me a late winter mood boost. Here in NC, we have a few warm days in January and February that tease us and make us think it might be spring. It is on these days, that I get out in my yard and start clearing up for planting. I flatten off the tops of my mountain ranges that are the lasagna beds with a rake to make for easier planting and clean around my beds. I search for weed sprouts and pull them out.

In early January, I order my seeds. I always over order because I think I want to grow everything under the sun! My staples include: several varieties of heirloom tomatoes, leaf lettuce, spinach, several annual herbs, bush beans, mammoth melting peas, melons, pumpkins, broccoli, cabbage, zucchini and summer squash. I start my tomatoes indoors with grow lights around the 25th of January to give them ample time to grow great big roots before planting in April. I've also tried, but not had much success with starting broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts and head lettuce.

In February around Valentine's day, I plant my first batch of potatoes, lettuce, arugula, onions, peas, and spinach. To grow potatoes, take your store bought potato and slice it into several pieces so that you have an eye or two on each piece. The eyes are where the buds sprout out and grow into plants. Let the sliced potatoes sit over night on some paper towels so the wet edges can dry a bit. Plant these "seeds" in a ridge about 8-12 inches apart. If your are planting a hill, you place three or four "seeds" per hill in the same manner you plant Zucchini. I plant two several foot ridges in my four foot beds of several varieties. (red, white, blue, Yukon Gold) between the ridges I plant my spinach, lettuce and arugula. I plant a row of mammoth melting peas through the middle of a bed and plant onions down either side of the peas. I also put up a trellis for the peas to climb. Even before these early crops completely die back, I will begging planting seeds and young plants right in with them. Including tomatoes, zucchini, melons, cucumbers, etc. More on that in the next post.

By the first week of March, my spinach, peas, and lettuce sprout. Before the end of March, I might see some little potato sprouts begging to poke through the surface. If I dig into the ridge, I will definitely notice my potatoes growing roots. During the first two weeks of March, I will plant broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower or Brussels sprouts. These cool weather crops will grow and die by mid-June at latest and I will be able to put several tomato plants right in between my rows of these plants when the tomatoes are ready for planting.

Starting seeds is a really fun project to do with your kids or on your own here's what you are going to do:

Where to buy?
Heirlooms: Heirloom plants produce a really interesting and different flavor in your garden. I highly recommend giving a few heirloom varieties a try. And not just for tomatoes! There are heirloom melons, lettuce, beans, peas, and a lot more. Victory is a great resource for finding unique varieties.
Traditional: Lowe's and Home Depot. Don't give up on the traditional seed packets you find at Lowes and Home Depot and even Walmart. Beefsteak tomatoes are as sweet and tasty as the Cherokee Purples! Don't overbuy on seeds. One pack of tomato seeds contains anywhere from 20-30 seeds which is more than enough to give you a good start and maybe have a few to give away.
Potatoes: Grocery Store. Start checking your potatoes for eyes and growth. As soon as you notice some growth, put them in a drawer in the fridge. This will slow the growth until they can be put in the ground. Potatoes are definitely something you can buy cheaper at the grocery store than buying seed potatoes. I've got one exception and that is blue potatoes. I bought a bag of seed potatoes for those because they tend to be more expensive at the grocery store than red, white or Yukon gold. I will grow all three of those varieties, plus the blue potatoes because they make a really unique looking mashed potato that my kids gobble up.
Onions: Hardware Store or Walmart. You can buy onion sets just about anywhere. They come in traditional bulb bags, or as already sprouted
bundles. You can also get onion seeds. I've bought some of these this year and will see how they do along side my onion sets.
Sweet Potatoes: Me! I will be putting in a sweet potato starter bed in time for planting around July. Sweet potatoes are harvested in October or even early November. If you need them and are local, I will have them available for $8 per 25 plants. Last year, my mother and i planted two rows of around 120 plants per row. We harvested two giant wheelbarrows from her traditional tilled garden full of sweet potatoes. If you want to start your own, it is fairly easy. Get a tub, some soil, and plant store bought sweet potatoes in the bin. Then water them a little daily. When the plants sprout a few leaves, pull the plant off the potato and plant them in the garden in ridges around July. Don't start your sweet potatoes too soon. Around early May is when I will start my bed for July plants.

What to buy?
Tomatoes = one tomato plant = 20 to 50 or more tomatoes
Onions one onion set = 1 onion head.
Potatoes one sliced potato with decent eyes = several pounds of potatoes
Zucchini 4-6 zucchini seeds = dozens of zucchini
Spinach, Leaf Lettuce 1 packet of seed = three to five big bowls of salad for a family of four.
Beans buy a big pack of seed and get a twice weekly crop that will allow you to feast on green beans and maybe put some back for later.
Peppers 4-6 plants of various types when put with the tomatoes = vats of salsa

How to start?
Indoor Starters
Tomatoes recommended starting time for tomatoes is 6-8 weeks. I am giving mine 8-10 this year. Last year I gave them 6 weeks and while they took off eventually, I lost a lot of young tender plants when I put them out and fertilized them too early. The ones that did best were the biggest of the bunch and some older plants I bought from a nursery. Don't fertilize any young tomato plants. Let them grow on their own with just water for as long as possible. When their root system is well established in their permanent home, about three weeks after planting them in your garden, give them a sprinkling with the fertilizer of your choice. More on that later...
Peppers. This year will be my first year growing peppers, but my mom has grown them for years. I plan on simply buying a few plants to put in as these are not my all time favorite food to snack on. I love peppers in recipes, but my family doesn't. If you are starting them at home, the recommended start time is 6-8 weeks like tomatoes.
Lettuce heads. Iceberg, Romaine, butter crunch, basically any lettuce head can either be started indoors or in the garden. The seeds are tiny, and need to be thinned, where you plant them in a row and the pluck out all the weak plants until you have proper spacing. I experimented with starting these indoors and outdoors this year. They do require a cooler environment, and my indoor starting methods were not successful!
Sage/Basil - sage and basil both start well and transplant well. Be patient with herbs!

Garden Starters
Spinach, Leaf Lettuce. Spinach and leaf lettuce (mesclun, spring mixes, etc.) all grow really well outdoors in early to mid spring or in the fall. Spinach is one of my favorite things to grow because your results come so quickly. You can harvest some young leaves and not harm the plant. It will keep bearing for you. Leaf lettuce is the similar. I prefer these over head lettuces because they are heartier and less likely to end in failure or a slimy mess of slugs. Slugs and bunnies love head lettuce, but they don't seem to bother my leaf lettuce and spinach as much.
Onions - onions grow really well in a ridge. Where you kind of make a little mountain range in your garden and plop the tiny onion sets along this ridge in little holes. As the onion heads grow bigger, you take a hoe and kind of pile your growing medium up onto the bulbs as they peek out of the ground as they get bigger, it will encourage growth.
Beans and peas - I love bush beans as they keep producing and they don't have strings which is convenient because I'm also lazy. But I plant both bush beans and climbing vine type pole beans. In early spring you can plant peas. I love in the pod peas and buy Mammoth Melting Peas. The pods can get as long as my hand and still be crisp and sweet! I plant bush beans in Mid april to mid May. After my peas die back around early June, when weather just gets too hot for them, I put pole beans in their place on the trellis. This means my early harvest of beans comes from the bush beans and my late harvest from my pole beans. And having fresh green beans all summer is a grand thing.
Zucchini zucchini grow in "Hills" like most melons and cucumbers. To do this, hoe up a little pile of soil, make several holes around the top of the hill and drop in 4-6 seeds. This method works really great and the past two years I have had such a bounty of zucchini and squash that I had to give away arm loads of it!
Potatoes - potatoes can grow in ridges or hills. Last year I did a combination of each. My ridges performed a little better then my hills.
Cilantro - I just found out that cilantro doesn't transplant well at all, so it is just not worth it to buy those peat pot cilantros from the store. I had a little success growing some last year, but it got really leggy very quickly and soon went to seed. Which made it Coriander and not Cilantro...

How to start seeds indoors

Buy a sterile planting medium - this means buy potting soil. I am experimenting with a mixture of my own worm compost, but if it is your first year, just go to Lowes and buy some plain old potting soil. Miracle gro
works fine, but can sometimes cause rapid growth in young plant stems. You want your young plants to develop on both ends. What is below the ground is just as important as what is above it. A healthy root system is just as important as a healthy stem and leaves.

Find your containers
Pot options include:
Peat pots - there is a debate about peat moss and whether or not it is an ecologically sound choice for use in gardens. Peat moss is harvested from sphagnum moss bogs. Most of what we get in the US is harvested from wetlands in Canada. While bog restoration is common practice among the companies who harvest it, these lands are rarely restored to their original form. I use peat moss sparingly in my gardening now that I know its harvesting really impacts the ecology of the area from which it is taken. Peat pots are cheaper than plastic, but can be used only once. Usually they are planted with your started plant right into the garden.

Plastic pots - I save pots from when I buy flowers and other plants every year. These pots are great for starting your vegetables. You can also purchase plastic pots from the store or on the web.
Cow pots - if I could afford them, I would so use these pots! They are made from sterilized cow manure and are just brilliant. They were created by a dairy farmer who had too much excess poo and decided to make use of it.
Newspaper pots - I love making something useful out of trash. Newspaper is vital to a lasagna garden and making these pots is so easy. And when it is time to plant, just tear off the bottom of your pot and stick the rest of it in the garden with your plant!

Recycled containers - milk jugs, yogurt cups, paper juice cartons, juice boxes, egg cartons, boxes, pretty much any container can be used as seed starter. Some of the paper items can be planted in your garden just like peat pots!

Follow instructions on the seed packet. Simply put, but very important. Your seed packet will tell you exactly how to plant each type of seed and how long it will take before germination.

Provide the right environment. You can grow plants just about anywhere, but all of them need about the same thing. Provide light, a temperature of 60-72 degrees, soil, and water.

Give your babies daily attention. Make sure your seedlings stay moist and get at least 8-12 hours of light every day. When the weather warms up let your babies visit the outdoors to get used to that environment. But be sure if it is cold at night, they come back inside!

Seed starting can be really rewarding or really frustrating. I've found a bit of both creeping into my head this season. I have planted 200 tomato plants that are doing beautifully. I will probably have loads extra to give away or even sell come planting time. Head lettuce and the whole cabbage family were quite disappointing and I ended up garden starting the lettuce and buying plants from the cabbage family. But giving it a shot is really worth it. I try something new every year and get better and better at it. Like learning any new skill, learning to garden takes practice and time!

Next time - April-June - Raising healthy veggies and pest management.

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Sunday, March 6, 2011

Building a Lasagna Garden Bed

Writer's side note: My husband has informed me that this blog post is too long... But I figured splitting up how to build a lasagna bed wouldn't be a great thing. Subsequent blog posts will hopefully be shorter. :)

What is Lasagna Gardening?

Lasagna gardening is a process of layering certain elements to provide your plants with ample aeration, nutrients, and moisture year after year. Each layer will provide an essential element required to grow loads of delicious veggies. Since you are layering several feet of material on top of the ground, you end up with a raised bed that provides ample aeration, loads of room for roots to grow straight down, and all the organic material within your growing medium will hang onto just the right amount of moisture, without a huge weed problem.

Maintenance of my garden consists on tending to my plants, providing layers of material to replenish the soil in the fall and sometimes pulling out the occasional sprout of poison ivy, crab grass, wild onion or clover. During growing season, I spend about one to five hours a week tending to my garden. Mid growing season, most of that time is spent harvesting vegetables or just hanging out around my plants to be sure they are healthy and safe. Five hours sounds like a lot, but think of it as about 45 minutes a day and only on dry weeks do I spend that much time! I spend a little more time when I first plant in spring and when I provide new layers to my lasagna in the fall!

Lasagna gardening is sustainable and very friendly to the environment. Lasagna gardening provides a home for all the creatures (microbes, worms, insects, fungi) that help break down your materials into a growing medium that is chock full of healthy microbial life. From bottom to top, you will not only provide food for yourself, but for worms, pill bugs, beetles of all sorts, beautiful yellow writing spiders, mantises, birds, and millions upon millions of soil borne microbes that are essential to every living thing on the planet.

Cardboard is your official weed reducer. It kills the grass and most of the weeds growing in with the grass. Exceptions are deep root plants like Poke Weeds, trees that are already established, and certain types of wild onions. The worst of these is the Poke weed. It can grow roots as big around as traffic cone or sometimes they grow on and on for 6-10 feet in long skinny carrot-like spires. If you pull it up in early spring or late fall, the root can be used in an herbal tincture to boost the immune system, and the young greens (less than a foot tall) can be used as a cooked green as long as you throw out the cooking liquid. However, it should be treated with respect as when it is harvested and prepared at the wrong season, it can be toxic. Getting rid of poke weed roots before your cardboard goes down is very important. They grow everywhere in this area of North Carolina.

Straw is not a necessity but will add a level of aeration to the growing medium you are creating for your plants.

Newspaper can be used in addition to or instead of straw.
Soil a layer or two of sandy top soil is always helpful in introducing the soil borne organisms that will help produce more soils and encourage composting worms to inhabit your garden.

Manure provides a lot of nutrients. Cow poo, horse poo and worm poo work great. As does elephant poo if you can find a circus! Basically any vegetarian grazing animal's poo can provide a lot of useful stuff for your garden. Do not use dog or cat poop because those contain nasty bacteria that you do not want in your garden.

Household food plant based waste. - potato peels, banana peels, coffee grounds, rusty lettuce leaves, broccoli stalks, etc. Anything that grows in the ground can be recycled into garden soil.

Organic Plant Matter (Leaves, Grass Clippings, Store Bought Mulch) start a collection pile this summer as you mow your grass for adding to your garden next fall. My best investment ever was my grass catcher for my mower. Not only does it catch piles and piles of grass, but in the fall, it does a great job of picking up leaves from the 7 pecan trees that incircle my property.

How to build your bed
1. Begin by clearing your garden spot of any roots, tree stumps. You don't have to dig up your grass! You are going to kill it naturally by depriving it of air and sunlight.
2. Take several layers of cardboard from regular cardboard boxes and place them on top of the grass in the shape of your garden. Be sure to overlap them so you don't provide gaps in which weeds will sprout. Complete coverage is key.
3. Use straw, newspaper or some of each to create a layer covering the cardboard and give it a good soak. This layer needs to be a couple of inches thick.
4. Cover this layer with a good layer of top soil and/or manure. This will provide the microbial base to break down the straw and newspaper. It will also provide some nutrients. If you use only manure, you may want to put in a very thin layer of sand. Worms and other creepy crawly creatures love horse poo, but require a little bit of soil grit to keep their digestive systems healthy.
5. Now you will begin layering whatever kind of organic materials you can find - except meat and dairy. Leaves, grass clippings, compost, coffee grounds, apple peels, banana peels, egg shells etc. More straw, more paper... Whatever you can find to go in there. If you don't have a compost pile, check with your local government to see if they provide residents with mulch from their stores - they pick up leaves in the fall and more and more communities are providing affordable or free mulch to their residents.
If you don't have these materials now and your municipal government doesn't provide a mulch service... For this year, do what I did my first year and find a road side mulch place and a friend with a truck who is willing to haul over a good sized load of really nicely composted mulch to your yard. Then be sure to thank the friend with a few tomatoes, onions and zucchini later this year.
6. Your first year, you may want to add a little more top soil and manure to your top layer to help facilitate break down of all the organic material. I did this my first year and it worked pretty well. Subsequent years, you do not have to start over, just keep adding layers of organic material in the fall and by spring it is all ready to go! I usually build up my beds to a minimum of 3 feet each fall.

Baking Instructions
Be sure to layer until 24-36 inches deep at a minimum. When your garden has "baked" for 6 weeks, it will be much shorter. By the end of the gardening season it will be almost completely soil and will only be 4-10 inches deep! Make your garden as deep as you can to start to provide ample planting depth as it breaks down.

Baking your Lasagna
Allowing your garden to remain undisturbed for at least 6 weeks is important. Before then, it is too hot for planting and will kill all but the hardiest of plants! At least six weeks will allow the PH of your garden to balance out and the microbes time to reproduce, begin the breakdown of your organic material and attract the insects and crawling things that eat the microbes. It would be great to find a shortcut, but the best thing to do with this is give it the time it needs. When you plant, you will be planting in some form of partially digested compost. This is okay! I have killed plants, but I have never killed a plant by planting in this material. I have killed many young plants with miracle grow fertilizer.

Do not walk on your beds. If you walk on it, you will compact it and compacted soil makes for shallow growth of plant roots. Loose soil makes for deep roots! The deeper your roots grow, the closer you can plant your plants. My broccoli plants are only about 8-10 inches as apart opposed to the recommended 12 inches and they grow just as well as plants I've seen in traditional gardens. My tomatoes are very close together in rows of two about a foot and a half apart in my 4' wide beds.

Don't make your lasagna beds more than 4'-5' wide and as long as you want. Make paths so you won't have to trample your precious growing medium!

Maintaining your Garden

Keeping the edges of a raised bed trimmed seems like such a simple thing, and it is! But it is key to keeping crab grass, clover, barn weed, and wild wood strawberries from invading. Creeping plants like these will take over your garden beds very quickly! I make my beds far enough apart that my mower conveniently fits between them! This has been a huge timesaver! I recommend either lining your paths between with cardboard and mulch or making them wide enough to mow. Four foot beds give you easy access to vegetables and fruits you grow without the need to walk all over your garden bed to retrieve them

Do not "turn" the bed as layers must remain unmolested. You turn certain types of compost piles so you can encourage airflow. And you encourage air flow to encourage natural microbial growth. Since you introduced microbes into your bed, and your bed is chock full of air pockets, this step is not needed and will only serve to compact your garden.
Pull the few weeds that do come up when they first sprout out of the ground. Weeds are easier to pull when young. Young plants are tender and their roots aren't as deep. Pull them young. Don't wait until you have a full on invasion!
Save grass clippings throughout the summer to layer on with leaves in the fall. This is so important! It makes less waste in your yard and gives your garden everything it will need to have ample growing medium next summer.
Layer on as much organic matter as possible every fall. My garden growing medium was four feet tall last fall after I put on my last layer of leaves for the season.

Compost household plant waste for fall and spring layering. A compost pile will give you loads of great material for your garden. I don't recommend continuing to put your waste directly into the garden through growing season. Composting is so easy and even if you only grow a few plants, there is no reason you shouldn't be doing so. It is natural recycling!

Building your garden should be fun. If you do not like dirt, being outdoors, bugs, worms, or plants you won't maintain it and you will feel like a failure when you end up with tiny tomatoes or bug infested squash. I love being out in my yard when the weather is warm and my garden brings me a lot of joy. If it doesn't bring you joy, find a different hobby! I recommend starting small - perhaps a 4'x8' garden bed your first year, expanding in subsequent years.

Next post: Seed Starting!

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New Blog - New Outlook

Yesterday, I taught two gardening classes at my house. My hope through this blog is to not only post my notes from those classes, but make it a place folks can come to learn how gardening can impact their hearts, souls and minds, and bodies. I gain great amounts of joy from the three of the most important areas of my life - my husband, my children, and my garden. Yes, my garden is very near the top of my list. Every year, when I grow and lose plants, I gain a new spiritual understanding about myself. Tending to young and tender plants and watching them grow and thrive and live out their lives, having my hands in the soil, watching the lives of insects and other creatures that inhabit my garden, walking barefoot in the grass, eating the produce, or seeing the intricate patterns of all life in a garden that satisfies something inside me and makes me feel connected to all of life on Earth. It is cathartic. Discovering that my garden as a whole is not only host to living, breathing organisms, but has very human-like qualities in its ecosystem and is indeed a mini-earth. It has brought me closer to a spiritual understanding of exactly how dependent and close every living creature is to the Earth. Awareness has brought out a desire to build a nearly self sustaining cooperative between myself and the little plot of the Earth that I have been blessed to inhabit. I give of myself to the Earth and in return Earth gives me not only food on my table, but joy and the ability to share that joy with others.

Okay, all of that sounds very religious in nature. Honestly, it kind of is. I have had a rocky spiritual life. I have been in Christian churches off and on all my life, but have only come close to spiritual fulfillment through church attendance and volunteering a few times. Over the years, my dissatisfaction with church life has grown and life's events have made me question my faith and the very existence of any god, let alone whether or not the one in which I had placed so much faith was really the loving, accepting god I needed him to be. The essence of the message of Christ still rings as truth in my heart. Love each other, take care of each other, be kind, stand up and do something when you see evil in the world, share your joy. I know the evangelical message is much different than that, but right now, this is just where I am. At this point in my life, I am satisfied with that.

So how does any of that relate to gardening? My garden providing healing at a very low point in my life and has continued to bring me something wonderful. It goes back to sharing the joy and satisfaction and in general thinking time I have when I dedicate myself solely for an afternoon on a regular basis (at least weekly, but preferably daily!) to my garden. It has become a sort of church: the garden - teeming with life that seems to seep through the earth and breathe that life into every ounce of my being. I can equate this with how folks who gain spiritual fulfillment through their churches go home from church feeling energized and ready to face the week because of the "food" they receive in their respective places of worship. Gardening not only gives me physical nourishment, but a great deal of spiritual edification as well.

My reasons are personal to me and may bring nothing to the table for you. All of us have a calling, and this is mine. So those reasons aside, I hope the one person who will read this will gain some understanding and knowledge about how to at least feed your body with what you can grow on your own. If you begin to feel some sort of joy from doing so, it is all just gravy!

More to come soon!

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