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Archive for the ‘organic gardening’ Category

hairy vetch (back) and crimson clover (flowering)

hairy vetch (back) and crimson clover (flowering)

I have just come back from a great weekend at the Mother Earth News Fair in Seven Springs, PA. It was an opportunity to catch up with friends (old and new), the Mother Earth News editors, and Ingrid and Sara from New Society Publishers. The internet is nice, but after conversing by email all year it was wonderful to speak in person to all these folks. Speaking of speaking—I gave a presentation on my upcoming book Grow a Sustainable Diet. New Society had posters of all their authors who were speaking, including me. I discovered that my book will carry the Mother Earth News Books for Wiser Living Recommendation tag! I also spoke on Solar Food Dryers. Both talks were very well received. We came home on Monday by way of Pittsburgh to check out the seed library there, but that’s a story for another day. It is time to get back to the garden and plant cover crops.

Right now in Zone 7 (first expected frost in late October) we still have good cover crop choices, but time is running out for the legumes such as clover and vetch if we want to get them off to a good start. The time to plant crops intended to winter kill is past. If you wanted to have radish or oats in your bed, expecting a heavy cover before frost, then dying back in January, you would have needed to plant that a few weeks ago for best results in Zone 7. When planted early enough, those crops put on a lot of growth in the fall, crowding out weeds. Given a hard enough winter, they will die back and leave the soil ready for planting in early spring. However, if they are in a protected spot or the winter is too mild (as it was in 2012), they might not succumb to the weather. One year I had oats planted in a bed with a compost pile just to the north. That pile was enough protection to keep the oats from dying. It would have been a good place to have had winter greens for eating that year.

winter peas in rye

winter peas in rye

Wheat and winter rye could go in now. It is good to plant a small amount of a legume, such as hairy vetch or Austrian winter peas as a companion. Too much legume, especially hairy vetch, can overwhelm the grain crops if you intend to grow them out to mature grain. For more information on these and other possible crop choices, refer to Managing Cover Crops Profitably. If you don’t have a print copy, you can read it online http://www.sare.org/Learning-Center/Books/Managing-Cover-Crops-Profitably-3rd-Edition. Winter rye and Austrian winter peas are the two crops that can be planted the latest in the season and still do well. Although I try to finish planting cover crops in October, I’ve planted rye and winter peas in November when necessary.

cover crops in late winter

cover crops in late winter

Except for the crops planted earlier intending to winter kill, these fall planted cover crops will put on limited growth, then slow down when the weather turns cold. They wake up in the spring and start growing like mad. So, if your fall planted cover crops are short through the winter, don’t worry, that’s normal. At the resource page on my website you will find a handout with cover crop suggestions for fall, spring, and summer planting.

winter rye planted in rows

winter rye planted in rows

rye broadcast

rye broadcast

When deciding which cover crop to plant where, look ahead to what will be planted in each bed next year. You want the cover crop to be ready to come out when it is time to plant the next crop. This might not be as important if you were going to till it in, but I’m talking about managing these crops with hand tools. I like to plant rye in rows, rather than broadcast the seed, where I will grow out the rye to maturity the following summer, then plant carrots between the rows of rye stubble. Those become my winter carrots that you can read about here. My blog post Choosing Which Cover Crops to Plant Where will help you with your fall garden planning. It is possible to grow all your compost materials in your garden to feed back the soil as you grow. My post Planning for Soil Fertility and Compost Materials will help you with that.

Managing cover crops using only hand tools can be confusing to new gardeners and to gardeners who have always tilled them in. I understand that, which is why I produced my DVD Cover Crops and Compost Crops IN Your Garden. In that hour long video you see me in my garden each month (except August) from March through November, explaining what cover/compost crops are growing and how to manage them.  Besides learning about each crop and seeing them growing, you will see me planting, cutting grains with a sickle, threshing, and shelling corn. My DVD Develop a Sustainable Vegetable Garden Plan shows you how to plan these crops into your rotations to keep your garden beds full all year.

As you clear your beds to make way for cover crops, your spent crops become your next compost pile. Your garden gets cleaned up, the cover crops keep it green all winter, and with the right planning, the beds will be ready for their next crop come spring. Enjoy the adventure of cover crops!Homeplace Earth

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MEN June-July 2013

Includes Best Staple Crops for Building Food Self-Sufficiency.

To truly feed yourself from your garden, you need to grow staple crops. The current issue (June/July 2013) of Mother Earth News contains an article that I wrote about the subject. You can read Best Staple Crops for Building Food Self-Sufficiency in the print magazine (where these things always look better) or online. The crops that I talk about are potatoes, sweet potatoes, corn, wheat, peanuts, winter squash,  dry beans, cabbage, collards, and kale. There are two charts in this article that you might keep for reference. One chart shows suggested varieties of these crops for each region of the continental U.S.  The other chart is “Crop Yields and Calorie Density”. The information posted there is based on my article that appeared in the October/November 2012 issue, with the addition of calories produced. If you don’t have that issue, you can read that article, A Plan for Food Self-Sufficiency, online. The four charts in that article show suggested yields and the number of half-cup servings you might expect per pound of food as it comes from the garden. There are many crops listed, with separate charts for vegetables, fruits, grains, and legumes. A fifth chart (online only) that is connected to that article shows yields and oil content of nuts and seeds. 

Includes A Plan for Food Self-Sufficiency

Includes A Plan for Food Self-Sufficiency.

Including staple crops in your garden plan is one thing; finding the variety for each crop that will do well in your climate, that also fits well with your management schedule, is quite another. Besides depending on my own experience, I pored over catalogs and read variety descriptions and gardeners’ internet postings carefully to decide which varieties to include on the regional chart. Ira Wallace of Southern Exposure Seed Exchange was kind enough to go over the chart with me and make suggestions. It helped that we were both at the Virginia Biological Farming Conference in early February and that our booths were right next to each other to afford us the time and opportunity for that discussion. In working on this staple crops article I met Eli Rogosa through email and telephone. She is the director of the Heritage Wheat Conservancy and provided the wheat varieties for the chart. You may have other varieties of these staple crops that do well for you in your garden. If so, I welcome you to post a comment with the crop variety and the general area where you are located. Your comments will be helpful to everyone. To my readers from outside these U.S. regions, I hope you take this opportunity to write a comment to share the varieties you are growing in your part of the world.

Building our personal and regional food supplies will take all of us sharing information and seeds as we develop a new food system independent of corporate America. If we are to succeed, we need to be active participants in the process. Even with the best information and seeds, the learning is in the doing. Get out in the garden and get growing. Your skills and knowledge will develop more each year. For the sake of us all, I wish you well.Homeplace Earth

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potatoes in basket--BLOGVoles, sometimes called meadow mice, really like potatoes. If you’ve grown potatoes for any amount of time at your place, it’s a good chance the voles have discovered them and moved right on in. Before I grew so many cover crops, I mulched everything with leaves. Voles love the cover of mulch, happily going about their business (of eating potatoes) out of the reach of predators. As much as I loved mulching the potatoes with leaves, or anything else, I had to stop that practice.

It turns out that voles also love living among the grain crops. More than a decade ago I gave up the leaves in favor of cover crops. I’ve been doing some great soil building and the voles appreciate every bit, living among the roots of the grains while they’re growing and when the roots are decomposing in the beds. I’ve changed up the preceding cover crop for potatoes, first with Austrian winter peas and now with oilseed radish. The winter peas were wonderful, leaving the bed friable and able to be worked by April 1, pulling out the green pea plants for the compost pile, but I still had vole problems. I was betting on the oilseed radish. After all, it’s a brassicus and potatoes and the cabbage family are supposed to be friends. Voles also love radish and their holes were evident through the winter where they’d feasted. One advantage of that is that I set traps and caught a few before the potatoes went in. 

I figure maybe I’m supposed to have vole problems, so that I can work on balancing that part of the ecosystem and give you some advice. This year I decided to address the vole problem head on. I scoured the Internet for suggestions and came up with a few to try. Adding greensand to the bed should help, said one source. I’m a little short on potash in my garden anyway and so I added greensand to every potato bed. Bury elderberry stems with the potatoes, said another source. Drop in some crushed oyster shells when you plant, urged my friend. Crushed oyster shells are something you can buy by the bag and are often used as a calcium supplement to feed to chickens. I planted potatoes six different ways to test all the ideas.

potatoes with vole traps-BLOG

mousetraps are under the plastic pots to trap voles

I already knew that varieties make a difference and that the voles love the yellow fleshed ones more than anything, which is why I had long since given up growing Carolas, my favorite variety.  One year when I did grow Carola potatoes, I also had Butte at one end of the bed. I remember that the voles took out the Carolas and slowed down considerably when they came to the Buttes. My choices for 2012 were Kennebec and Butte. As it turns out, they love Butte more than Kennebec. In my trials, the Kennebec yields were 1.6-2.6 times higher than the Butte yields, with the same planting methods.

Adding elderberry to the plantings interested me, and we have elderberries growing at our place, so that was easy. I put elderberry leaves on top of each potato piece and buried green elderberry stems between the rows. That bed gave me the worst yield of all, resulting in 6.4 lbs/100 ft² for the Buttes and 17.2 lbs/100ft² with the Kennebecs. Remember we make no mistakes, only learning experiences. I learned not to try that again.

potatoes with posts--BLOGOne thing I had an interest in trying is to put a post in each potato spot with a plastic bottle on top to bang around and make vibration. I used old metal posts, the kind used for electric fence, for some of the posts and bamboo for the rest. I cut “wings” in the sides of the plastic bottles and cardboard milk cartons that I put on top of the posts, hoping the “wings” would catch in the wind and vibrate the posts, making conditions uncomfortable for the voles. Even rain should have caused some vibration. I learned that was nothing I need to try again, also. Dealing with the posts and bottles were a lot of bother, anyway. In that bed, I had a row of potatoes down the middle of the bed and I hilled around each one. On one side I set out cabbage when the potatoes were planted. The other side had snap beans, planted after some hilling had been done to the potatoes. Another year I had interplanted potatoes and cabbage and the voles took out the potatoes. Interplanting potatoes and brassicus is officially off my to-do list.

Oyster shells seemed like a logical thing to do, reasoning that voles don’t like the rough surface, but I had tried that before. If it had worked as well as I’d hoped, I’d still be doing it. Besides, my soil didn’t need more calcium. However, my friend said he had good luck with that and urged me to try it again. I did, putting a handful of crushed oyster shells in with each potato piece, then soil, then shells, then topping with soil. Only Buttes were planted in that bed with a yield of 24 lbs/100 ft².  Oyster shells are officially off the list of things to do again, also.

I built a new 4’ x 8’ coldframe this spring. I dug everything out to about 15” and put ½’ hardware cloth in the bottom. Then I built the sides with dry-stacked solid cement blocks, topping that with a wood coldframe, right out of Eliot Coleman’s Four Season Harvest. Although I needed it to grow seedlings, I wanted to first try it as a potato planter. I only had Kennebecs in there for a yield of 43 lbs/100 ft².  I still found vole tunnels in this planting. The voles could have crawled in over the top (an edge sticking out from the coldframe all around might have prevented that) or may have gotten through a crack where the cement blocks may have shifted. Still, I had potatoes. Things were looking up.

potatoes in brick planter--BLOGIn one bed, I tried a variety of things. I buried large black plastic pots with the bottoms cut out, each with 2 potatoes;  2’ high circles of ½” hardware cloth dug into the ground about 10”, each with 3 potatoes; and potatoes planted loose in between these barriers. The Butte half of that bed yielded 35 lbs/100 ft² and the Kennebec yield was 71.8 lbs/100 ft².  At the end of that bed I had built a planter, laying hardware cloth on the ground and making a surround 3 bricks high, filling it with soil. Into that I put 4 potatoes. Granted, it was a very small area, but the yield was 98 lbs/100 ft²! After fighting the voles for years, friends of mine had done something similar to grow their sweet potatoes in, with success. I would have thought the voles would just climb over the bricks to get in, but maybe they like to stay close to the ground.  

I usually space my potatoes equidistant, every 12”, but with the vole problems, I thought I might be making it too easy for them to go from one to the other. This year, in one 4’ x 20’ bed I put just two rows of 20 potatoes in each row, hilling each plant separately. The Butte half yielded 18.25 lbs/100 ft² and the Kennebec half gave me 30.25 lbs/100 ft². Comparing the Kennebecs in the hilled rows and the ones in the brick planter, 30 pounds is a lot less than 98 lbs. per 100 ft², but just about the same yield per plant. I could increase the yield in that bed with hilled rows if I interplanted something after the potatoes were hilled for the last time and if I was more aggressive about trapping voles early. The interplanted crop would have to be ready to come out with the potatoes.  

Our daughter, Betsy, Lightfoot Gardening Coach, and I have been exchanging notes on potatoes. This is her second year in a garden that she carved out of a field, double-digging the beds when she started. She had planted oats and oilseed radish in her beds preceding potatoes. Since we had such a mild winter, she had to chop the oats in and let that crop compost in place. She pulled the radishes for the compost pile. In “normal” years, if there is such a thing, those crops would have winter killed. She planted Elba potatoes and in the oats bed, with the potatoes planted intensively with offset spacing, she harvested 107 lbs/100 ft².  In the radish bed she planted two long rows and hilled each row 3 times. Her yield there was 90 lbs/100 ft². Planting it that way, she used only about half the potatoes and came close to the same yield. She also noticed that the hilled Elbas were larger than those planted intensively. She planted Red Norlands in a bed that had oilseed radish over the winter. It was treated the same way as the hilled Elbas. There was lots of vole damage, producing a yield of 50 lbs/100 ft². She had noticed vole damage during the winter in her radish cover crop and had worried about this year’s potato harvest. She did okay, with bushels of potatoes for her larder. 

One good thing about keeping records is that it helps in planning for next year. I will continue working with Kennebec potatoes and will compare them to Betsy’s Elbas. I might grow a radish cover crop and trap the voles through the winter, something I should have worked more on this year. I’m going to be looking at different preceding cover crops and planting in hilled rows with space for possible interplanting on the sides. Although I don’t like to do much cultivation, I think regular cultivation and hilling helps deter the voles. Hoping to develop an ecosystem that makes the voles stay away voluntarily, I’ve been adding daffodils to the perimeters of some beds (have yet to see that as effective) and have added castor plants to the garden. In the end, it will be everything together that determines success—variety, planting and cultivation, soil fertility, weather, etc. Wishing you success in your potato endeavors. Do you have any potato/vole experiences you would like to share?

 

 

 

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cowpea seedling in stubble-BLOG

cowpea seedling in grain stubble

Summer is well under way and hopefully your garden beds are all full. Some crops will have been harvested and the space is empty until you fill it again. If you worked out your garden plan and made a garden map back in the winter, you will have an easier time filling those spots. You should already have anticipated when each crop would be finished and what would go in next. The seeds would have been included in your seed order and are ready to plant. Not everyone is as up on their garden planning as they would like, and even if you do have a great plan, things have a way of changing. Some of you are new at gardening and are just now learning as you go. You need to consider what comes next in the succession of crops through your beds. Rarely do you plant at just one time and then weed and harvest for the rest of the season.

Succession planting refers to planting one crop after another. It can be succession planting in one place, with a new crop going in when another is done. I grow cowpeas, often known as black-eyed peas, as our dried bean. Cowpeas prefer soil that has warmed to 65 degrees. I harvest wheat and rye for grain in mid-June, although this year much of the grain harvest has been early with the weather heating up so early. Mid-June is a great time for the cowpeas to go in. I make furrows in the dead grain stubble and plant the cowpea seeds. The stubble provides some shelter for the new seedlings and will gradually decompose to feed back the soil.  Besides the grain beds, other spaces that might open up for planting at this time are where your garlic, onions, lettuce, sugar snap peas, potatoes and cabbage family plants were growing.

Succession planting could also refer to planting a certain crop at intervals so you have a continued harvest. In that case, the next planting is done in another bed while the first planting is still growing. The snap beans that I grow give me a good harvest for two weeks. If I want a continual harvest each week in the summer, I can plant them every two weeks somewhere in the garden. I did that when I was selling vegetables. Of course, if they are for your table that means you are snapping beans all summer. For home use, you might plant enough for a large harvest to preserve, then a smaller planting or two to eat fresh. I plan to have beans to can early in the summer, before the tomatoes come in.  You should schedule things like this around your vacation plans or other times you know you will be busy. The forms in my video Develop a Sustainable Vegetable Garden Plan can help you calculate your plant and harvest times.

Planting for a continual harvest of something like sweet corn is interesting. You could plant the same variety at two week intervals like with the snap beans. You could also extend your sweet corn harvest by planting early, middle, and late season varieties at the same time. They will mature one after the other. In this case you need to know the days to maturity for the varieties that you are planting. Corn will cross pollinate with other varieties and it will show up in the seeds that you will be eating and saving. If you want to keep the varieties separate, make sure there are at least two weeks from the maturation of one variety to the next. I plant Bloody Butcher corn for cornmeal and popcorn for fun. The Bloody Butcher goes in first because that is my main season crop. The popcorn is planted later. 

seedlings at the ready-BLOG

seedlings at the ready

Things like summer squash or cucumbers can be planted at one month intervals. Those zucchini plants that looked so good when they were first coming along have a tendency to just die on you one day. That’s when it is nice to have that second or third planting as a backup. Even a few plants here and there, filling in spaces as they become available, help to keep the produce coming into the kitchen. For crops that succumb to the first frost, you can decide if you have enough time for it to mature by figuring the days to maturity plus the weeks of harvest. Add about two weeks because once the nights begin to cool down in September, maturity time is affected. Now you have the number of days you need before that first frost to allow for this crop. Using a calendar, count back that many days from the first expected frost in your area. You have up until then to plant the crop. If you don’t already know when to expect your first frost, ask around or call your county Cooperative Extension Service. You can use your coldframe through the summer, without the lid of course, as a space to grow seedlings to have ready when you need them for transplanting.  

Some crops, such as the cabbage family, are cold hardy and are tastier once they have been touched by frost. With a little protection, they can be harvested over the winter, depending on your climate. Eliot Coleman’s book Four Season Harvest has good information on that, plus a chart about planting times according to your frost date. Without added protection, however, you will need to bring that crop to maturity by that first frost date, even if the harvest continues long after. I plant carrots and beets in the summer so they will mature no later than mid-October. If I’ve planted enough, I can harvest all through the winter. The tops will die back and I’ll throw some leaves over the bed for protection once the voles have found other winter homes.

mid-July garden-BLOG

mid-July garden

It might be that you have space open that you intend to plant something in, but for one reason or another, there will be a delay. That is a great niche for buckwheat. It grows fast, filling the space and flowering in about 45 days, leaving no place for weeds to come in. Furthermore, those flowers attract many beneficial insects that prey on the annoying ones. It is good to have buckwheat coming up somewhere around your garden all summer.

Having a tight rotation, with one crop following another, will do much to keep weeds from overtaking your garden beds. However, it happens to everyone, sometime, that the next crop is delayed and the weeds do move in. Consider them a compost crop and add them to your compost pile as you clean up for the next planting. Hopefully you take them out before they go to seed. Those weeds will add diversity to your compost and be a good reminder to you how helpful it is to follow a tight rotation.  There is still plenty of summer left. Have a good time in your garden!

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Many people have asked me what they can do to prevent their tomatoes from succumbing to disease. The first answer to protecting any of your crops from disease is to start with the soil. Have your soil tested and correct any imbalances with organic amendments. If your local feed store or garden supply can’t offer help with organic information, check with your state organic organization or Cooperative Extension Service. In Virginia, Countryside Organics and Seven Springs Farm are two sources of amendments. The two places I’ve used for my soil tests are Timberleaf Soil Testing and A&L Eastern Laboratories. Timberleaf results give suggestions for what product to add per 100 sq. ft. It is less expensive to have a test done at A&L. A&L gives great test results, but as usual with soil tests, their results tell you how much of each thing is needed (nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, boron, etc) and you have to figure out what product to use and how much, since only a small percentage of that item is in the product. There are other labs and services out there that can be of help. It might be that the place you find to purchase supplies can help you interpret your test results. Dr. Mark Schonbeck, a friend of mine in Floyd, VA, can interpret soil tests and offer recommendations.

One problem with tomatoes is blossom end rot. When your tomatoes begin to ripen and you have a black spot at the end, that’s blossom end rot. If you look it up, the books will tell you that it is caused by a calcium deficiency, or too much water, or too little water. If you have had your soil tested you will know if there is a calcium deficiency. Another reason I’ve come to know is if there is a cold spell after I’ve set my tomatoes out. In that case, the first flush of tomatoes might have it, but the rest will be fine.  So, don’t get yourself too stressed if you see it. If it is calcium, well, you should have amended after your soil test. If it is too much rain, know the rain probably won’t last forever. If you’ve left those poor plants on their own in a dry time, get out the hose.

tomato before trimming-BLOG

tomato plant before trimming

The biggest problem here in the mid-Atlantic is blight. It doesn’t really matter to me the exact name or if it is early blight or late blight. The bottom branches of the plants begin to turn brown and die and it gradually works its way up the plant. The fungal spores that cause that are in the soil and the disease begins in the leaves that hang down and touch the soil. Furthermore, if the soil is bare under the tomatoes, when it rains, those spores are splashed onto the plants. Now is the time you can take preventative measures. Trim the lower branches of your plants so nothing hangs down and touches the soil, and mulch around the plants. You will need to come back in a couple weeks and trim your plants again because they will have put out more growth. It is hot and humid here in the summer and giving tomatoes a little breathing room will do wonders. Open up that space at the bottom and get the air flowing. Listen carefully, your tomatoes will be thanking you.  

tomato plant  trimmed and mulched-BLOG

tomato plant trimmed and mulched

Your disease prevention should have started last fall by planting cover crops. Cover crops do wonders adding organic matter to the soil with their roots and later with the biomass grown on top. That’s where your mulch can come from. Planting cereal rye in the fall provides you with the most mulch, but your tomatoes will be planted a little later, since you cut it in place when it sheds pollen and then wait two weeks to put in the tomatoes. Legumes, such as hairy vetch, crimson clover, or Austrian winter peas, can be cut earlier, allowing earlier transplanting of your tomatoes. The resulting mulch, however, is not as long lasting. The mulch in the picture of the tomato before trimming is hairy vetch that was so prolific when I cut it in the spring. Now it is disappearing fast and I added leaves on top to keep a mulch cover. Hairy vetch is highly recommended to precede tomatoes. These cover crop mulches are slow-release fertilizers for the tomatoes, or anything else they are mulching, as they compost in place. The mulches with the most carbon will compost more slowly, which is why the rye lasts longer than the legume mulch. My daughter plants sweet potatoes next to her tomatoes and they provide a living mulch to keep the soil from splashing.

Compost, of course, should be part of your soil fertility plan. It helps build the organic matter. Throwing some fertilizer at your tomatoes when you plant, thinking the more the better, might only result in lots of foliage and less fruit. If you do want to add something extra, wait until the plants have flowered. Keep in mind, if you walk into your local garden center which sells all sorts of chemicals, and ask them what to do for your tomatoes that are showing signs of disease, telling you about cover crops, organic matter, and mulch, if they even know about those things, is not to their benefit. They are going to show you whatever product they have on the shelf that the chemical company has labeled for your problem.

Some varieties of tomatoes might work better in your area than others, so choose carefully. The seed catalogs often do a good job with their variety descriptions to help you decide. Some varieties are bred to resist certain diseases. Over the years, the ones I tried solely on disease resistance looked great, but weren’t as flavorful as others I grew. It might be that you have just bought your plants from a big-box store. That’s okay, you have to start somewhere.  However, a few years back there was a big disease problem all along the East Coast. Climate conditions made it a bad year for tomatoes anyway, but contributing to the problem were tomatoes that came from greenhouses that service those big-box stores. When everything comes from one source, and that source has problems, everything has problems. Talk to the farmers at the markets this summer and ask them what varieties of tomatoes they are selling and how well they cope with disease. If they are open-pollinated varieties, you could save the seeds yourself from the tomatoes you buy at the market, or ask the farmer if you can buy plants next spring.

Begin to take notice of your plants. Which ones survived the summer the best? If you also liked them for other reasons, save the seeds for next year. Over time you will develop a strain of that variety that works well in your spot under whatever conditions exist there.

No matter what tomatoes you have in your garden this year, you can learn a lot by watching, taking notes, and talking with others.  When you are planning your garden next year be sure to look back at your notes and plan accordingly.

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canteloupe seedling-BLOGI’ve been thinking lately of how someone would get started in vegetable gardening these days. In many ways it is a lot different than when I got started so many years ago, and in other ways, not so much. You are still just putting seeds in the ground and watching them grow, hoping to harvest a bounty later in the summer. When I started I had no knowledge of frost dates, days to maturity, garden maps, etc. We had moved out of our one-bedroom apartment and into a rental house with a backyard about a mile from the Ohio State University campus. I dug up the garden space in the area, where neighbors told me later, a garage had been. We bought seeds off a rack in the store and tomato and pepper plants from somewhere that I don’t remember. I do remember the peas we planted. We didn’t know they would get so tall, and when they started growing wildly everywhere, our neighbor suggested we put up a string trellis. With sticks and strings, we got those peas off the ground, just in time for them to stop growing. Who knew they stopped growing as we got into summer? Not us! Another thing I remember is that the tomatoes were planted too close, or so I was told. In our neighborhood the residents were either twenty-somethings, or retired homeowners who had lived there for decades. Our next door neighbor was wonderful. Across the street was a woman who was rather a busy-body. My garden gave those retired women something to talk about. The busy-body would come over to my neighbor’s, look over the picket fence, and pass judgment, which I would learn of later from the neighbor. That’s how I learned the tomatoes were planted too close. Another memory is standing in the garden one evening with my husband and other neighbors (twenty-somethings) across the alley. We were all looking at the green beans which, as I now know, were ready to harvest. Our friends asked when it would be time to pick them and we weren’t exactly sure. Everything was picked a little on the late side, as we watched it grow past its prime. I grew some great carrots that first year. I was just realizing that it was time to start pulling them for the table when there was a frost warning. Thinking I had to get them all out of the ground before the frost, I pulled them all and gave many away to friends. I now know that I can leave carrots in the ground all winter, with some leaves thrown over for a cover, and harvest at my leisure.

MEN-OG-BLOGWe’re talking 1974 here. No internet service or home computers. Making a long-distance telephone call was a big deal. We had a small black-and-white TV and a stereo that played vinyl. My education in organic gardening began with reading Organic Gardening magazine at the local food coop when I visited. It was a couple years before I felt we could afford to actually buy a subscription, which I did in early 1977. Robert Rodale, may he rest in peace, did a wonderful service to humanity through Organic Gardening and Rodale Press. With his magazine and the books that Rodale Press published, he educated so many, many people. In fact, he’s probably not resting on The Other Side, but continuing his mission of guiding people in ways to feed the population of this planet without destroying it. Mother Earth News was also important in our lives. John Jeavons was just beginning to develop what became GROW BIOINTENSIVE® at Ecology Action in California. That was about it for the resources that were out there for organic gardeners and homesteaders.

Fast forward to 2012 and you get instant information overload. A person can become paralyzed with too much information. You don’t need to read everyone’s opinion about something on the web or see all their garden pictures before you put in your own garden. You can just dig up a spot and get started like I did. If you need help, find a resource to focus on to get started, and go from there. I hope that my videos and blog provide that focal point for many. I can be the helpful neighbor across the fence, hopefully not the busybody one. The learning is in the doing. You will soon have some experiences of your own to share. Growing your own food is the thing to do these days and you should be able to find a local group with similar interests. If not, start one.

4 Rodale Books-BLOGThe book I found most helpful when I was first learning is How To Grow Vegetables & Fruits by the Organic Method. It is still a favorite of mine to turn to when I have a question about a crop. Other helpful books have been Home Food Systems, Gene Logsdon’s Practical Skills, and High-Yield Gardening, all out of print by now. In 1989 Chelsea Green came on the scene when it published New Organic Grower by Eliot Coleman. That book was helpful to me when I became a market gardener in 1992. With the new century came an explosion of books and magazines on organic gardening, sustainable living, urban agriculture, etc. They are easy to find with an internet search or by browsing in your nearest bookstore. In preparation for this blog, I took a look at some of my old Organic Gardening and Mother Earth News magazines. I believe they could be re-published just as they are and be relevant today. In fact, Mother Earth News has all its old issues available on a CD and many articles accessible through its website.

I began teaching at J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College in 1999 because I had identified a need. Those classes continue with our daughter, Betsy Trice. Her next class, Organic Gardening Resources, begins May 24 and involves a lot of hands-on. Students will dig garlic, onions, and potatoes and evaluate the yield. They will cut rye and wheat, thresh out the grain, and make compost. For those who can’t take a class, she has started the business of Lightfoot Gardening Coach for people in the Richmond-to-Charlottesville (Virginia) area who may want someone at their side to guide them. She lives between the two cities. She can help people get started with vegetable gardening, backyard chickens, and other homesteading endeavors. Betsy and I are joining together to give a presentation at Ashland Coffee and Tea in Ashland, VA on Tuesday, May 29 at 7:30pm.  I will lead a Wheat Workshop at New Earth Farm in Virginia Beach, VA on Saturday, June 2. For those out of our area, if you check around, you may find learning opportunities near you. Some of you out there just might be the ones to offer such programs. You could start by giving a talk at your local library. Sponsoring a public showing of my videos is a good way to attract like-minded folks. You don’t need any special permission from me or pay any additional fee to do that. You can make hard-copies of the worksheets from the CD to use with participants/students in your own teaching, all with proper credit to Homeplace Earth, of course.  What you do not have permission to do is to make copies of the DVDs and CDs themselves.

Bloom where you are planted. The time to start is now and the place to start is wherever you are.  Best wishes in your endeavors!

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crimson clover and hairy vetch-BLOG

hairy vetch on tomato fence and crimson clover

You did a good job last fall getting cover crops planted.  Now, they’ve taken over your garden and you don’t quite remember what you had planned to do with them. What you’ve done is to grow great biomass for your garden that you can use as compost material or cut down as mulch right where it was grown.  Give yourself a pat on the back!  The next step is to cut it down at the right time as mulch-in-place or cut it and put the material in the compost pile.  At this stage it is all green matter and your compost would benefit from an addition of an equal amount, by volume, of dry, carbon material.   At this time of year my carbon comes from Jerusalem artichoke stalks, or sorghum and cornstalks that I put aside in the fall.  Maybe you have access to leaves, hay, or straw.  If you are bringing in that material from outside sources, read my post Killer Compost to know what to look out for.  Water well when building your compost pile.

cereal rye-BLOG

cereal rye

Last May I wrote Cutting a Rye Cover Crop at Pollen Shed.  It speaks to the importance of cutting your cover crop, in that case cereal rye, at the time when it has reached its most biomass, just before it produces viable seed.  For any crop, that would be when it is flowering. You don’t normally think of grain crops with flowers, however, you will see where the seed heads begin to form and the pollen will be hanging off it.  If you cut it earlier than that, the rye and wheat plants, like the grasses they are, will grow back.  If you wait too long, seed will form. That’s okay if it’s seed you’re after.  In that case, you would wait longer to cut it and need to make sure the seed has matured. One way to test is to cut a few seed heads and thresh out the seeds in your hand.  If you don’t get seed that looks like what you planted, it’s not ready. After the plant has put its energy into seed production, it begins to die. You will see the rye and wheat plants begin to turn brown when it is time to harvest the seed.  The harvest will be seed and straw and usually occurs here in mid-June.

Here in the Mid-Atlantic in zone 7 our last frost date is around April 26.  Cereal rye is my major cover crop and generally sheds pollen around the end of the first week of May.  That’s also about the time that the farmers who are on top of things are making their first cutting of hay.  This year, however, the weather seems to be all mixed up. We didn’t have much of a winter and warm weather arrived early.  Usually we have a spike in the temperature in the second week of April, fooling people into setting out their tomatoes, only to turn colder before the weather has settled.  The weather did a good job convincing my rye that warm weather was here and it flowered early.  I cut it in the beds where it would be left for mulch on April 20. I’m really interested to see how the rye and wheat do that are in the beds to be grown out for seed. The temperatures here dipped into the 30’s on April 24th and 25th after nighttime lows in the 60’s on April 16th and 17th. Looking back to my temperature records from last year, I see that the April nights were consistently warmer in 2011.  Last year I cut the rye for mulch on May 10.  It must be the lack of winter this year, not warm April nights that brought the rye to flower earlier in 2012.  My video Cover Crops and Compost Crops IN Your Garden shows my management of this system.

crimson clover-bee hovering-BLOG

crimson clover with hovering honeybee

It might be that you have grown Austrian winter peas or crimson clover as your cover crop. These crops are legumes which fix nitrogen from the air in the nodules on their roots, returning that nitrogen to the next crop as those roots decompose in the soil.  You could cut these crops at flowering and let them lie as mulch, as with the rye, but their biomass wouldn’t be as long lasting as the rye.  They are best used as green material for the compost, adding carbon to capture all the nutrients as composting occurs.  Crimson clover, not to be confused with red clover, is a beautiful plant that generally flowers here around mid-April.  The legumes can be easily pulled out or cut for compost material and the bed planted soon after.  I wait two weeks to transplant after cutting the cereal rye beds for mulch, but I could transplant sooner than that into the legume-only beds.  If I was seeding into the beds, I could easily do that in a legume bed two weeks after cutting.  If I was only after the biomass and in a hurry to get the next crop in, I would cut crimson clover as soon as it has flowered.  However, I have bees that enjoy it, so I wait a little longer before cutting so they can have the most benefit from the clover blooms. 

Sometimes hairy vetch is planted in the fall to precede tomatoes.  I’ve done that in two tomato beds this year.  I prepared the beds last fall and moved the tomato trellises there at the same time. The vetch grew up and I cut it April 25.  My tomatoes are ready now in the coldframe for planting out.  I started the seeds there on March 16.  Having grown in the coldframe, they are already acclimated to the outdoor temperature fluctuations.   Sometimes hairy vetch can be a nuisance in the garden.  In the past I’ve used it as a companion to the wheat and rye and you can see that in my cover crop video.  You can also see how it became a problem in the rye.

It is good to plant a small amount of a legume into your grain crops and the legume I use now is Austrian winter peas, a winter hardy variety of field peas. Both the vetch and winter peas will grow quite tall and could pull down the grain if left to grow.  That doesn’t matter if I’m just cutting the crop to lie down as mulch, but if I want the grain later in the season I need to pull out the vetch or winter peas.  Austrian winter peas are much easier to pull out than the vetch.  If you are growing grain on a larger scale than your garden bed, you might choose red clover as the companion to the wheat or rye.  You can seed it into the growing grain in the spring.  The red clover will grow some and provide a nice green cover when the grain is harvested, then it will keep on growing and a harvest can be taken the first summer.  Let it grow over the winter, then harvest twice the second summer.   After that it is time for another crop for that space.

You can find the best cover crops for your location and situation by reading Managing Cover Crops Profitably, 3rd edition, available from www.sare.org.  Be sure to read all the text, not just look at the charts.  There is a lot to learn and every time you think you have it down, something else comes along to figure out.  The important thing is to let the soil and the garden guide you.

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