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Archive for January, 2014

williams pride in full bloom 2013 - closeup-BLOG

Williams Pride apple blossoms

What you see in the photo is blossoms on a Williams Pride apple tree. The data stored automatically from my digital camera says that photo was taken on April 16, 2013. What a handy thing that is for the camera to record that information! I surely didn’t at the time. What difference does it make that I know when that happened? Knowing when the bushes and trees in your yard bloom, drop petals, and whatever else they do, helps you to know when the time is right for planting your vegetable crops without looking at the calendar. The study of recurring plant and animal life cycles and their relationship to weather is called phenology. By studying these things, we can learn how our climate is changing from year to year and, more specifically, we can know how things are doing this year. Are things blooming later than usual? In that case you wouldn’t want to be too anxious and plant your vegetable crops earlier than normal. My friends, Pam Dawling and Ira Wallace, keep phenology records of what is happening at their farms in Louisa County, Virginia. In her book, Sustainable Market Farming, Pam says that falling apple blossoms are said to be a phenological sign that conditions are good for transplanting celery and celeriac. She goes on to say that the time to plant is after the last frost and the weather has settled. For planning purposes, I use April 26 as the date for my last expected frost. I imagine those petals would have been dropping by then. You can read more about what Pam has to say about phenology and even see the chart she keeps for the gardens at Twin Oaks Community at http://sustainablemarketfarming.com/tag/phenology/. Ira mentions phenological signs in her book Vegetable Gardening in the Southeast. In this era of climate change, the date on the calendar of when to plant things will gradually shift, but nature will already be on top of it.

The temperature of the soil is also an indicator of when to plant. In fact, soil temperature has a lot to do with the phenological signs I just mentioned. Just because the air temperature has warmed up, doesn’t mean the soil is ready for seeds and plants. Over the years I’ve noticed that we have a warm week in the first half of April. The temperature might even soar into the 80’s. I’ve also noticed that in the next couple weeks after that, April will deliver cold temperatures before the weather settles. I taught at a community college and no matter how much I talked about expected last frost dates (and that it wasn’t until late in April in our area), some of my students would plant warm weather crops during those early warm days. A new farmer once asked me when I planted summer squash and snap beans. When I replied after April 26, he said he got that same answer from a neighbor. It was that warm spell in early April and he had just planted his warm weather crops. He thought I was being too cautious. I advised him to only plant early what he was prepared to lose and to plant his main crop when the soil was warmer.  Of course, many farmers have high tunnels and use row covers now to get a head start on planting. They are warming the soil to prepare the right conditions for the seeds and transplants.

compost thermometer in kale bed

compost thermometer in kale bed

You can check the soil temperature by putting the probe of a thermometer a few inches into the soil. I use a compost thermometer for that. It has a long stem that serves two purposes. I can read it without bending down so far and I can find it when I need it. I often leave it in a garden bed or a coldframe so I know where it is. I can readily know the temperature in that spot and pick it up to move it to a new location. I have a thermometer I keep in my kitchen that I bought from a cheesemaking supplier. I use it when I make yogurt, but it would do to check my soil. You can buy an inexpensive (about $7) thermometer at the grocery store. Those thermometers even come with a plastic sleeve to protect the stem. That would do fine to check your soil temperature. As long as you are keeping records of phenological signs, you might record the soil temperature at the same time. Keep in mind that it will vary if you are checking it at different times of the day or in different locations, so be consistent. Nancy Bubel’s book The New Seed Starters Handbook contains helpful charts on Soil Temperature Conditions for Vegetable Seed Germination, the Number of Days for Vegetable Seeds to Emerge at Different Temperatures, and the Percentage of Normal Vegetable Seedlings Produced at Different Temperatures.

ladybug on cowpea plant

ladybug on cowpea plant

Knowing what the insects and birds are doing should be part of your phenological records. If you haven’t gotten your record keeping set up before things start blooming and insects and birds start appearing, take photos and let your camera record the date for you, if your camera does that. If insects are on a plant, by taking the photo, you will have a visual record of the insect and of plants they like, whether they are beneficial insects or harmful ones. This photo shows a ladybug on a cowpea plant. I’ve found other beneficials attracted to the cowpeas. As I write this, we are in the grip of weather colder than normal, even for winter here. Before it hit, someone told me she knew a weather event was coming because she saw bluebirds at her bird feeder. Since bluebirds eat insects, they were usually not visitors to her feeder.

At the very least, even if you never record any of these things, start to notice them. Keep your eyes and ears open and you will become more in tune to where you are and what is going on around you. There is a whole other world available to you, right in your garden. All you have to do is take the time to noticeHomeplace Earth

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vegetable cabinet

vegetable cabinet

Now is not the time to be bringing in large quantities of vegetables from your garden to store for future eating, unless you live in a climate much warmer than mine. However, now is the time to be scouting the best places for winter food storage in your house, even if you haven’t had a harvest yet. In the heat of the summer, it is hard to imagine what the conditions are in your house in the winter.

There are books and magazine articles about storing the harvest that will provide details about the best temperature and humidity for the storage places. Somehow humanity has managed to survive without climate controlled spaces for all these years, so use these resources as a guideline and don’t obsess if your spaces aren’t exactly what you’ve read about. We heat our house primarily with a woodstove, using the furnace as a backup. That means the rooms in the house closest to the stove are warmer than the areas further away, which makes for much variation to play with when finding appropriate storage spots. If you use central heat exclusively, you could lower the temperature in a room by closing the heating vent. Lower it further by opening a window or installing a vent. If you have a closet available for food storage, one with an outside wall is best to bring the temperature down. It is not quite as easy to find cool spots in super-insulated homes, but check around.

vegetable cabinet is 58.3 and kitchen is 70.2

vegetable cabinet is 58.3 and kitchen is 70.2

I use a thermometer to occasionally check my storage areas. It has a remote feature so that I can tell the temperature of the space the thermometer is in and also the space I have the remote sensor in. This photo shows the kitchen temperature is about 70 and the temperature of the sweet potato/onion/garlic/butternut squash storage area is about 58. Ideally, sweet potatoes and winter squash are comfortable stored at about 50-60˚ and 60-70% humidity. Irish potatoes are happier at a little cooler temperature and 80-90% humidity.

My husband built pull out shelves in our lower kitchen cabinets. We designated the cabinet area in the northeast corner of the kitchen (top photo) for produce storage after I discovered how cold it was in there one winter day (50˚). It doesn’t stay that cool all the time, but usually that cabinet is about 10˚cooler than the kitchen. The pull out shelves in that area have bottoms made of a heavy metal grid that allows ventilation, yet is heavy enough for a load. Irish potatoes are stored here, in addition to the sweet potatoes, onions, butternut squash, and garlic. Extra potatoes, sweet potatoes, onions, butternut squash, and garlic are stored in the crawl space under our house. When the outside temperature dipped into the teens (which it doesn’t do too often) the temperature in the crawl space only fell to 48˚. So, if a polar vortex comes knocking again, we’re still okay. Mind you, that’s with the vents closed for the winter. If the vents were left open that would be a different story and the cold air coming in could freeze pipes that were nearby. Crawl spaces can provide storage spaces with higher humidity.

pantry

the dryer used to sit in this spot in the pantry

We have converted our utility room, which contained a washer, dryer, and storage shelves, into a pantry. The washing machine is still there but we gave the dryer away, since we never used it. The sun outside and heat from the woodstove dry our clothes. That left space for crocks holding nuts and fermented food and for jars of dried food, including beans and grains from our garden. We didn’t have a honey harvest this year, but when we do, the honey jars are stored here. Before we lived in this house, there was a furnace in this room. A hole in the floor and another one 4’ higher for vents were left behind. I screened those holes and kept them for air circulation. That room is about 10˚ cooler than the kitchen, also. We just have to remember to keep the door closed.

canning jars in the cellar

canning jars in the cellar

We have a cellar under part of the house. That’s where I keep the jars of food that I’ve canned. I have to go around and down the outside stairs to get there, since there is no access from inside the house. If I could just pop down the stairs from the kitchen, I might store more food there. Canning jars get heavy. You’ll see that we used 2×12 boards for the shelves. It has been interesting finding convenient places to store increasing amounts of food from the garden. Wherever you store food, you need to think of everything that could affect it, such as mice. My friend Susan has a nice house that is built on a slab containing heating coils. That makes her house nice and comfy, but since the coils are throughout the house, even her closets are heated. She stores her harvest in an area screened with hardware cloth in her garage. It was after her peanuts disappeared in the garage that she resorted to screening her storage spot to protect her food from mice.

My upcoming book, Grow a Sustainable Diet, has a chapter on food storage and preservation with more information on handling your harvest. When I have it available you will be able to order signed copies from me at www.HomeplaceEarth.com. Finding a place for what you grow and for the equipment that goes with it is as important as growing the food. If you have no plan for storage, your harvest will spoil or ruin the harmony in your home as it sits around cluttering your living space. Check any possible storage niches in your home with a thermometer and record what you find. It might make for a fun project for your children if they are home on a snow day this winter.Homeplace Earth

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