Garden Diary – February 25, 2016

Garden Diary – February 25, 2016

I am sitting at a small table on the patio in the middle of my vegetable garden, on a sunny day hovering around 60 degrees.  The chickens are out and about sometimes visiting for a few minutes before resuming bug patrol.  They seem to love grubs and insects of all kinds.  They are also fun to watch.  Although they look identical, they each have their own personality and style.  One of the chickens likes to fly a little when she’s in a hurry.  Her sister prefers taking long strides while the third chicken has a fast waddle that is hilarious to watch.

THE "GIRLS" OUT AND ABOUT

THE “GIRLS” OUT AND ABOUT

We just got a warning call from the neighborhood crows who sounded like they were three houses over.  I find it fascinating that the chickens heard, listened and responded to the call by heading toward the chicken pen door.   No flies on these girls.

It has been a very windy day with numerous gusts that have shaken the trees violently; a very noisy day outside.  That has made opening up the tunnels an adventure; never knowing whether or not the wind was going to rip the plastic sheeting from the hoops.  I did manage to harvest a couple dozen long, thin carrots without major incident.

HARVESTED LATE WINTER CARROTS

A MODEST CARROT HARVEST IN LATE FEBRUARY

The “Red Kitten” spinach in the other tunnel is nearly ready to pick.  Unfortunately, the Mache is far from ready.  In fact, most of the seeds have yet to germinate.  I did water everything while I had the tunnel opened, so maybe the seeds will start to wake up.

 

 

APPLE TREE AFTER PRUNING IN FEBRUARY

ONE OF OUR DWARF APPLE TREES AFTER PRUING

 

Fruit tree pruning is finally done.  Next activity is spraying the trees with dormant oil in a week or so.  It’s taken me quite a few years, but I now feel confident about my pruning skills.  I have been trying to train all of the trees to an “open vase” style.  We’re starting to get there.  The chickens  are bugging me for a treat so I’ve gotta go.  There are only 26 days left until Spring.

YOU LOOKIN' AT ME?

YOU LOOKIN’ AT ME?

DSCN1251

All the best,

Greg

Starting Leek Seeds – A New Gardening Season Begins

Starting Leek Seeds – A New Gardening Season Begins

It is now late February and time to start leeks and other members of the Allium family such as onions.  Call me lazy, but I don’t start my own onion seeds anymore.  Years ago, I discovered that you could buy onion plants and save yourself the aggravation.  I would gladly purchase leek plants, but the variety I like (Bandit) is only offered as seeds.

Why I Choose “Bandit” Seeds

Bandit is a variety that will over-winter in the garden for harvest the following Spring.  I harvest most of the crop in late fall, but leave some in the garden so that I can enjoy them in early Spring when there isn’t much else available.  We celebrate the Spring leeks by making a foccacia topped with sauteed leeks.  It is one of my personal favorites and something I look forward to every Spring.

How I Start my Seeds

First of all, I have an indoor seed propagation stand equipped with T5 flourscent light fixtures.  This is “seed starting Central” for me.  Last weekend was taken up with washing and sanitizing all of the trays, and cell type seeders that I will be using from now until mid-April.  We will be starting hundreds of seeds; greens, peppers, tomatoes, herbs, and flowers.

STARTING LEEK SEEDS

STARTING LEEK SEEDS

Starting with a sterile tray and sterile 1 1/2″ plug tray, I filled each of 72 cells with potting soil to within 1/4″ of the top of each cell.  I gently tamped the soil and watered each cell.  I then placed two leek seeds in each cell  and then filled each  cell to the top with a fine grain “germination mix” that will make it easier for the seeds to emerge.  I then covered the entire tray with a clear plastic dome to maintain the proper moisture level.

The average temperature in the space where I keep my propagation stand is 67 degrees.  At this temperature, seedlings should begin to emerge in fourteen days.  Once most of the seeds are up, I will pick the strongest in each cell and snip off the others.  As the leeks grow, I make sure that they have adequate moisture and fertilizer.  I use a water soluble liquid fertilizer with a formula of 10-4-3.

Every couple of weeks we will trim the tops of the leeks so that they won’t get singed by the T5 bulbs.  The leeks will be transplanted to the garden in mid to late May when the seedlings are about as thick as a straw.

Transplanting Leek Seedlings

There are two basic techniques for transplanting leeks.  There is the “Jim Crockett’s Victory Garden” method that produces baseball bat sized leeks.  This involves digging a trench 12″ deep and 12″ wide.  Fill the trench about six inches high with fully rotted compost.  Plant the seedlings in the compost and continue to fill the trench over time as the seedlings grow.  This method works, but uses up a  lot of precious compost, takes up a lot of garden space and is time consuming

I prefer the dibble method.  You start by adding compost to the soil and tilling it in.  While the soil is still soft and fluffy, you make holes every six inches with a dibble.  You then drop a seedling into each hole.  I prune the roots of each seedling so that it fits easily into the hole.  Rows are also six inches apart.  Given the competition for space in the garden among the other Allium crops, I find that this compact method works best for me.

Like other members of the Allium family, leeks need plenty of moisture and regular weeding.  I use a “Collinear Hoe” with a 3 3/4″ blade that I bought from “Johnny’s Selected Seeds”.  Designed by Elliot Coleman, the genius “Mad Scientist” of gardening, the hoe is meant to be used in an erect posture, sort of like dancing.  After a little practice I have found this to be the perfect tool for weeding all of my onions, leeks, shallots and garlic patches.

COLLINEAR HOE

COLLINEAR HOE WITH 3 3/4″ BLADE – PERFECT FOR WEEDING THE ONION PATCHE

Harvesting and Using Leeks

We don’t typically harvest leeks until mid to late fall.  In October, I will harvest a half dozen at a time, just enough to keep up with our cooking needs.  Right around Thanksgiving, I will harvest the remainder of the crop except for a small number that I will leave in the ground to over winter for Spring harvest.

We use leeks in the stuffing recipe at Thanksgiving.  We are also quite fond of potato/leek soup which we make often in the late fall and early winter.  Sauteed leeks with almost any other vegetable is a great side dish.  Leeks are part of our gardening tradition.  As long as I am able, I will save some space in the garden to grow my own leeks.

All the best,

Greg Garnache

CROP ROTATION, THE FOUR CROP METHOD REVISITED

CROP ROTATION, THE FOUR CROP METHOD REVISITED

 

Blogger’s note:

In 2010, I took my first stab at blogging about gardening.  One of the first topics I covered was crop rotation, to me, one of the essential concepts to master in order to become a successful vegetable gardener.  My knowledge of crop rotation came from an article in a short-lived magazine called “Kitchen Garden” in 1997.  When I wrote my article about crop rotation in 2010 I was going totally from memory because, like a fool, I had misplaced/lost that issue.  That post has since  been viewed over 12,000 times.  However, I was unable to credit the original author because I had forgotten her name.  I have since acquired a copy of the original article.

This post has two goals.  First and foremost is to acknowledge the author who’s article changed me from a mediocre gardener to a consistently successful one.   Next, I will restate the principles of crop rotation that I practice with the goal of bringing greater clarity to this subject.

Crop Rotation – The Four Crop Rotation Revisited

Have you ever read something that  literally changed your life?  In early 1997, I had that very experience in the form of an article in “Kitchen Garden” magazine entitled “Yes, You Can Practice Crop Rotation”.  Written by  farmer and farmer’s market director, Cynthia Hizer, it described a simple four crop rotation that was easy to follow and which I have used  successfully for the last nineteen years.

In the ten years before reading this article I had made several attempts at vegetable gardening, relying on a little reading and a lot of trial and error.  Until then, I had never encountered any information regarding crop rotation that made much of an impression on me. When I read this article it was like getting hit on the head with a brick and all of a sudden being able to sing like Tony Bennett.  OK.  Maybe not that cool.  However, this knowledge allowed me to become a very good vegetable gardener, the kind of gardener that other gardeners turn to for advice.

Why is Crop Rotation so Important?

Planting the same crop in the same place year after year leads to some bad voodoo.  First of all, the soil will eventually lose the nutrients necessary for proper growth and health.   If you continue to plant crops in the very same place year after year, insects will figure this out and move in permanently.  Believe me, this is not good.  The same goes for diseases, especially fungal diseases.  I have read that fruiting vine crops like squash, cucumbers and melons need to be rotated on a four to five year basis in order to avoid various soil born diseases.  So, plant nutrition, disease resistance and insect infestation all seem to be good reasons to rotate your crops.

Four Crop Rotation – An Elegantly Simple Solution

The key to this four crop system is organizing crops based on their nutritional needs.  The four groups break down to leafy crops, fruiting crops, root crops and legumes.  Leafy crops like lettuce and cabbage need nitrogen.  Fruit crops, on the other hand like phosphorous.  Root crops require potassium.  The fourth group is legumes.  It’s not so much what they need.  It’s more about what they produce – nitrogen.   Hmm! And leafy crops like nitrogen?  It sounds like the beginning of a plan.

So where does the phosphorous and potassium come from? Soil amendments, most commonly rock phosphate and green sand.  At the heart of this crop rotation system is a program of adding soil amendments at just the right time and that time is at the end of the growing season and the place where these amendments  are added is the legume bed.

What makes this work so well is that the rock phosphate and the green sand need time to break down so that plants can make use of the available elements.  If you plant leafy crops in last season’s legume bed, they will benefit from the available nitrogen produced by the legumes.  In season 3, the phosphorous released by the rock phosphate will be available for the fruiting crops like tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, cucumbers, melons, etc.By the time the root crops make it to this bed in  season 4, the green sand has released it’s potassium to the soil. Cynthia; you are a genius.

FOUR CROP ROTATION

SEASON 1         SEASON 2          SEASON 3       SEASON

LEGUMES              LEAF CROPS         FRUIT CROPS                 ROOT 

 

PEAS                         LETTUCE                TOMATOES                      ONIONS
BEANS                      SPINACH                PEPPERS                           BEETS
FAVA BEANS           KALE                      EGGPLANT                       CARROTS

CORN                       VINE CROPS

 

END OF SEASON
ADD                                                            Plant garlic
Green Sand
Rock Phosphate
Lime
Plant hairy vetch

I have to admit that “legumes” were not part of my gardening vocabulary when I first started gardening.  That changed after reading Cynthia’s article and our lives are richer for it.  We discovered “Haricot Vert”, the delicious french filet beans.  They are the best.  We also discovered fresh peas; one of the very best reasons to grow your own vegetables.  If you don’t garden, then you don’t know one of the great pleasures in life – fresh peas.  We also grow beans for drying; enjoying them in soups, stews and chili during the Winter months.

Putting These Principles into Practice

The obvious first step in implementing the “Four Crop Method” of crop rotation is to divide your garden into fourths.  I have sixteen planting beds in the main garden; four for each plant group.  I draw up a new garden plan each year, planning my rotation so that leaf crops will be planted in last season’s legume beds.  The fruit crops will go into the beds where last season’s leaf crops grew.  The root crops are planted in last year’s fruit crop beds.  Legumes are planted in last season’s root crop beds, starting the whole cycle over again.  Here’s how I organize each group:

ONE OF MY LEAF CROP BEDS IN MID-SUMMER

ONE OF MY LEAF CROP BEDS IN MID-SUMMER

LEAF CROPS

Lettuce
Spinach
Kale
Cabbage
Cauliflower
Baby Lettuce Greens
Broccoli
Brussels Sprouts
Corn

A FRUIT CROP BED FEATURING TOMATOES, CUCUMBERS, EGGPLANT AND SWEET PEPPERS, PHOTO TAKEN IN JUNE

A FRUIT CROP BED FEATURING TOMATOES, CUCUMBERS, EGGPLANT AND SWEET PEPPERS, PHOTO TAKEN IN JUNE

FRUIT CROPS

Tomatoes
Sweet Peppers
Hot Peppers (Grown at least 25 feet away from sweet peppers)
Eggplant
Cucumbers
Melon
Squash
Zucchini

TWO ROOT CROP BEDS - ONIONS IN THE FOREGROUND WITH GARLIC IN THE BACK

A LEGUME BED IN THE FOREGROUND WITH THE ONION PATCH NEXT DOOR.  THE TALLER CROP IN THE BACKGROUND IS THE GARLIC PATCH

ROOT CROPS

Onions
Shallots
Green Onions
Leeks
Carrots
Beets
Swiss Chard (Related to Beets)
Turnips
Radishes
Bulb Fennel

LEGUMES

Peas
Green Beans
Fava Beans
Snow Peas
Beans for Drying
Hairy Vetch (a weed that is also a legume, planted after soil amendments have been applied. Plowed under in the Spring, adding more nitrogen and green matter to the soil)

HAIRY VETCH GROWING IN LATE FALL

HAIRY VETCH GROWING IN LATE FALL

Some Exceptions to the Rule.

You may have noticed that potatoes are not listed in the rotation.  Spuds present a dilemma; they are related to tomatoes (nightshade family), and they like a more acidic soil than most vegetables.  I get around this by planting them in a separate garden in a three crop rotation with legumes and Winter Rye.  We already know about the nitrogen producing properties of legumes.  The Winter Rye helps loosen the soil and repels nematodes who would prey on the potato tubers.  If you don’t have room for a separate garden, I would suggest that you grow potatoes in a container and change the soil every years.

Another exception, actually, more of a timing issue is garlic.  Garlic is a root crop which is planted in the fall; late October in my neighborhood (zone 6a).  What I do is clean up a fruit crop bed, apply some compost and plant my garlic there.  It is going to be a root crop bed next season anyway, so that’s where it’s going.

Oh Yes, Almost Forgot

At the end of the season, I add compost to next year’s fruit crop bed, root crop bed and legume bed.  Building soil with organic matter is what we do.  Over time, this creates a nice loose soil that retains enough moisture but also drains well.

Summary

Thoughtful crop rotation is a key component of a successful vegetable garden.

Divide your garden into fourths, group like vegetables together into the following:  legumes, leafy crops, fruiting crops and root crops.

At the end of each season add the following amendments to the soil in the beds where you grew legumes: rock phosphate, green sand, lime (if your soil is naturally acidic like mine), and compost.  It is also a good idea to plant hairy vetch in this bed as well after you have applied and tilled in the amendments.

I welcome your questions and comments.  If you are still a bit confused, by all means send me a comment.  The goal is to help you be a better gardener.  That’s my mission.

All the best,

Greg