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SeedLibraries covergrow a sustainable diet coverAfter being away from this blog since I broke my wrist in March, I’m back! To celebrate my return, I am offering a 25% discount through January 1, 2017 on my cover crop and garden plan DVDs and on my books Grow a Sustainable Diet and Seed Libraries. As always, shipping is free in the US. My DVDs and Grow a Sustainable Diet are educational tools and used in the sustainable agriculture program at Reynolds Community College in Goochland, VA where I used to teach. When I produced them, I had in mind those who couldn’t take my classes in person. So, if you have been wanting to learn more about cover crops, garden planning, garden plan dvd coverplannicover-crop-dvd-blogng your diet around your garden, and planning your permaculture homestead, take advantage of this opportunity to purchase an educational  program that will walk you through the process and help you apply your new found information to your own situation. Or, you may have someone on your holiday gift list that would benefit from these materials. You’ll find these sale prices on my website at www.HomeplaceEarth.com, along with deals for a few great books that I didn’t write.

flax-flowers-blog

flax flowers in the garden

I did enjoy my time off from writing. No matter what you are involved in, it is always good to step back now and then. My wrist has healed nicely, although I am still a bit careful with it. My husband and I took a long-awaited trip to Ireland in May and it was nice not working blog posts around that. In spite of working slower due to my injury, I grew several new crops this year. Flax for linen has been harvested and retted and is

yarn-and-indigo-plants-2-blog

wool yarn nestled among the Japanese indigo plants it was dyed with

waiting for me to build some fiber tools to process it (next on my to-do list). I trialed two kinds of rice this year. I also grew Japanese indigo and used it for some dye work, part of my new focus on fiber and textiles. Once I was sufficiently recovered, I was back to spinning my homegrown naturally-colored cotton for a shirt that I intended to make, weaving the fabric on my small table loom. It’s finished and I wore it for the first time on Thanksgiving.

Working with homegrown fiber is important to me in so many ways. Of course, there was the challenge to see if I could grow, spin, weave, design, and sew garments for myself to wear, and now I have a vest and

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAa shirt. Hurray! I’ve used my time away from this blog to read and learn more about the history of textiles. What was once local production fueled the industrial revolution and the exploiting of people and resources has continued ever since to bring us cheap clothes—way too many cheap clothes. When you shop for clothes I would like you to consider how the people who produced them and the earth that provided the raw materials were compensated to bring you such bargains. There is much to talk about on this subject, so stay tuned. I will be telling you all about my new homegrown, handspun, handwoven, naturally-colored cotton shirt in a future post. I will also be sharing my adventures with the flax, rice, Japanese indigo and other natural dyeing, while I continue addressing the many topics you have enjoyed in this blog.

Learning about my new shirt, however, will have to wait until I fill you in about what has been happening in the seed library world. Seed libraries have been deemed exempt from state seed laws, by the way. You can learn more about that in my next post, which should appear next week. After that I will go back to my old schedule of posting every two weeks.

The video Seed: The Untold Story has been making the rounds and will be shown in Charlottesville, VA on December 8. You need to reserve your ticket ahead of time and you can do that here. After the film there will be a question and answer period with a panel staffed by folks from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange and ME. If you go, be sure and catch me afterwards. I’m always happy to meet the people who read my words.homeplace earth

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lettuce washing Cindy--BLOGOnce you have gotten quite good at producing food for your table, it is natural to think of providing for others. You could casually share with your neighbors and the local food bank, but many want to take it further and exchange their extra veggies for cash. If that is where your thoughts have been leading you, I would like to offer some things for you to carefully consider before becoming a market gardener. There is a big difference between doing what you love when you have the time and turning doing what you love into a business. During my time as a market grower I grew and sold a lot of lettuce. This photo shows me washing it for a restaurant delivery.

On January 29 I gave the presentation Scaling Up from Homestead to Market Garden at the Virginia Biological Farming Conference. It was well received and people who heard me speak approached me that evening and the next day to thank me for the presentation. Those who had already been selling said that my points hit home. I became an organic gardener so that I would have a healthy family. In order to also have a healthy community I became a market gardener in 1992 and sold to area restaurants. The farmers market network was not yet established at that time. In 1997-98 I had a small CSA in addition to the restaurant sales and in 1999 I was a founding farmer at our local farmers market. I left selling produce and eggs for others after the 2001 season to concentrate on teaching and researching so that I could put more knowledgeable consumers and producers at the markets.

Selling to others on a regular basis highlights the need for good record keeping. You need to plan for how much to grow and to plan for how much money it will bring to your business. No matter how good you are at growing some crops, such as broccoli and cabbage, the income from the same amount of other crops, such as specialty lettuce mixes, will exceed it every time. If you have already been a home gardener and have kept some records of your yields you will be able to anticipate how much you can produce from the space you have. Keep in mind, however, that if you have to break new ground for this endeavor, it may not be as productive as the garden you have been building the soil in for years. Some crops might surprise you. Onions turned out to be a good crop, as well as potatoes, winter squash and garlic—all crops that are not as labor intensive as lettuce.

You need to know what your crops will sell for before you even grow them. Notice what they are being sold for in area grocery stores and farmers markets. Start now and make a chart of the stores and markets in your area with a list of vegetables you might want to sell. Record the prices for them each week throughout the year, noting if they are sold by the piece, pound, bunch, etc. If by the piece, how many pieces make a pound? If by the bunch, how many items make a bunch and how heavy is it? Also record the origin of each crop. This list will be invaluable to you as you move forward with your plans.

Cindy's booth at 17th street--BLOG

Potatoes in wooden boxes were sold by the pound. Small potatoes in pasteboard containers were sold by container.

Although prices might fluctuate in the greater marketplace, I decided on a price that was fair for both myself and for my customers for each crop and kept it the same throughout the season. That said, there are a number of things you could do to vary the price. If you have an abundance of something, you could offer a larger quantity of seconds at a cheaper price per pound. I sorted my potatoes and displayed the smaller ones in pint and quart containers at a higher price per pound than the larger potatoes that were sold by the pound. The price displayed for the containers was by the container size, not by the pound. Nevertheless, the prices remained the same for the abundant seconds (cucumbers), the pints and quarts of potatoes, and everything else for the duration of that season.

Know your produce. People often comment on how much more expensive the colored peppers are in the grocery store compared to the green ones. Well, you need to leave the green peppers on the plant for a few additional weeks to ripen to red, yellow, or orange and anything can happen during that time. I priced my colored peppers at twice as much per pound as the green ones and had no complaints. Besides the prices, you need to know the nutritional value of everything you have and what to do with it in the kitchen. The more information you can pass on to the buyers, the more sales you will make.

I sold a limited variety of produce to the restaurants; primarily leaf and romaine lettuce, tomatoes, peppers, and onions and the chefs did not need me to suggest what to do with it. For the farmers market I needed a larger variety of things for my booth and my customers welcomed my suggestions. The greater population has gotten away from cooking from scratch at home and need some instruction as they move back to that. If you package all the ingredients for salsa, for example, plus the recipe, many are more likely to try it. Packaging all the colors of the peppers you have together will entice your customers to buy the package, rather than just the one or two peppers that they had in mind.

Your passion and enthusiasm will go a long way to making sales, but keep in mind that you need to tend to your family first—and to your soil. If you feel you can grow more than you alrFeed the soileady do, maybe it is time to expand what you are growing for your own table, rather than grow for others. How much of your staple crops, such as potatoes, sweet potatoes, onions, garlic, and grains do you grow? Are you growing enough cover crops to feed back the soil and provide all your own compost?

The first DVD I produced was Cover Crops and Compost Crops IN Your Garden and I was excited that I could show people how to manage cover crops in their gardens with hand tools. I knew it would be a tremendous help to small scale market gardeners—those gardeners moving from growing for their family to growing for others. The garden plan DVD followed which shows how to put together a notebook with your complete plan. I wanted gardeners to have a good foundation to help them plan to feed their families and others. Through my teaching I met folks who were ready to jump into growing for the markets with little experience of getting their hands dirty, let alone an understanding of what is going on in the soil when things grow and in our bodies when we eat the food. By the way, you will get dirty, sweaty, and tired. So tired that you will fall into bed at night thoroughly exhausted, only to get back up early in the morning to do it all again. It is not an occupation for the fainthearted.

I want gardeners to understand all of that before they ramp up to feed others. I expanded on what was in the DVDs when I wrote Grow a Sustainable Diet. It includes an additional worksheet (How Much to Grow), and information on nutrition, food processing and storage, garden washing stations, sheds, fences, and more on garden rotations with cover crops. With that book and the DVDs it is like taking a class from me. No matter how many people you are growing for or how much land you are using, my teaching materials apply. I’ve been talking here about determining how much money you could make, but sometimes the profit in this is not so much about the money you make, but the life you make. You become an integral part of the community around you and you can’t put a dollar value on that.homeplace earth

 

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garden plan dvd coverHere it is– a new year and time to plan your new garden. Before you do that, however, I urge you to think about last year’s garden. Most likely, if you are reading this you probably did some sort of planning last year. That’s what my DVD Develop a Sustainable Vegetable Garden Plan is all about. In the DVD I show you how to put together a notebook with your complete garden plan. It even comes with a CD with all the worksheets I talk about, such as a Seed Inventory, How Many Seeds and Plants Needed, Plant / Harvest Times, and a Plant / Harvest Schedule. My book Grow a Sustainable Diet has an additional worksheet—How Much to Grow. It is great to work up a plan, but you might be like someone I met recently who put her plan together in a notebook, just like I advise, but neglected to keep track of things afterward. That is a great start and all is not lost. Even though you didn’t write it down, surely you remember something that happened through the year. Take the time now to note the highlights of 2015 and make a report of your gardening year. Then, file it away with the garden plan you made for 2015 for reference.

overlapping maps-BLOGFor many years my garden plan consisted mainly of my garden maps, the one I made showing what I intended to plant where and when, the Actual version that showed what actually happened, and the Amendments version that showed what amendments were added to each bed and when. It is the Actual version that will help you plan this year’s garden. If you completed it you will know what was in each bed throughout the year and when it was planted, particularly, what is in there now; but the subject of garden maps is a whole other post. Once I became a certified Ecology Action GROW BIOINTENSIVE Mini-farming Teacher I had to keep many other records and send them to John Jeavons each year, accompanied by a letter that explained what went on that year. It always gave the highs and lows of the year, what I was particularly working on, etc. It is that letter that I want you to write for yourself about your 2015 garden.

If you didn’t get past the initial plan, just making that plan should be considered a high. Not following through would probably be considered a low, but I’m sure there were extenuating circumstances. You should note those. It might be that you took a vacation and never quite got back to garden recordkeeping when you returned. Births, deaths, marriages, and divorces pretty much serve to get even the best planners off track, as do the activities of your children and parents. Building projects around your homestead might keep you occupied, and then there is the weather, which is always a good excuse for messing up your plans. If any of those things happened to you this year, they should be in your annual garden report. Although many of the things I mentioned cannot be foreseen or avoided, things like vacations can. If your vacation seems to coincide with crucial harvest times each year, change your vacation time for this year or time your plantings so their harvests will not conflict.

Thinking through the year will help you put things in perspective. If there is something you wished you could do better, such as fill in your Actual Garden Map as the season progresses, you might decide that will be a priority in 2016. What crops were you especially proud of? Even if you didn’t keep yield records you should have an idea if you were pleased or not with the harvest of most of the things you planted. Your pleasure or displeasure could be with the yield, taste, color, or whatever other traits you remember. Put that in your garden report. If you wished you had planted more or less of something, besides mentioning it in your report, make a note to change the amount planted in 2016.

What did you do differently last year? Did you try any new varieties or new ways of managing your tried-and-true varieties? What amendments did you bring in to your garden, if any? What did you use as mulch and where did it come from? Write about those kinds of things.

leatherwing on mint--BLOG

Leatherwing on mint

I hope you took photos of your garden through the year. It is amazing how things will look to you at another time. Having that visual record helps you to remember what was going on. Besides the plants and overall garden throughout the season, take photos of things you built or tools you used. Also, take photos of the insects and other wildlife in your garden. As you can see, I found leatherwings in my mint last summer. If you look closely, you might be surprised to see just how many varieties of insect helpers you have in your garden. This can all go in your annual garden report.

If you depend on the computer to store your photos, make sure to file them somewhere, hopefully in a file titled for that year, such as “2015 Garden”, with copies filed in appropriate files, such as “insects”, “crops”, or “tools”. Some people like to put photo books together online and then receive copies of the actual book. You could document all sorts of things in a book like that. Maybe that could be a project for your children to do, compiling information throughout the gardening season with that in mind.

Through the years I have often referred back to the letters that accompanied my records to John Jeavons and Ecology Action. Your annual garden report will reflect more than what is on record sheets. It can tell of the excitement, disappointment, discoveries, and enlightenment you experienced throughout the year. So, before you plan for 2016, take time to reflect on 2015. By writing an annual report, you can better direct your actions for planning this year’s garden.homeplace earth

 

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garden clipboard and veggies

I hope you have been making notes from your garden and your kitchen about what you have been growing and eating this summer. Being able to eat as much of a meal as you can from what you have produced is a feeling of accomplishment. Even if you don’t grow everything you eat, supplementing your meals with items from local growers can give you the same good feeling. It is very satisfying to sit down to a meal and know where everything came from and how it was grown.

If you are striving to produce meals with only (or mostly) homegrown ingredients, what would you have to provide, in addition to what you already grow, to make that happen? For example, you could make sure the ingredients for salsa or spaghetti sauce are in your garden plan. In my Homegrown Friday posts you can read how I only consumed what I’d grown for the Fridays in Lent. If you run out of ingredients in your favorite dishes long before next year’s crop comes in, plan now to plant more if space allows.

I know that garden space is at a premium for many and that careful choices need to be made. In that case, think of local growers as an extension of your garden. Whatever they can supply in abundance is something you can take off the list for your garden if you have limited room. You could devote your garden space to the things you love that there is never enough of at the local markets, whether it is sugar snap peas, potatoes, or a special winter squash. Maybe you want to eat from your garden all winter. Those crops need to be planned for, since they will be planted while the traditional summer crops are still in the ground. You will find a three-bed plan for winter eating in my post Winter Food Crop Rotation.

cover crops in late winter

Cover crops in late winter.

Now is the time to be planning for next year because as the summer crops fade away and space opens up, cover crops need to be planted. Which cover crop to plant in each bed is determined by what crop will follow next year. If you are managing cover crops with hand tools, as I advocate, the cover crops have to be finished before the next crop goes in. By finished I mean winterkilled, cut at the proper time to lie down as mulch or compost material, or harvested at the end of its life cycle. A handout that will help you with cover crop decisions is available as a free download on the resource page on my website. In Grow a Sustainable Diet there are sample garden maps showing how to include cover crops in your rotations, the reasoning behind the cover crop choices, and thoughts on what other choices could be made. Getting cover crops planted this fall is your first step to having a great garden in 2016, as long as they are planned with the next crop in mind.

Mississippi Silver cowpeas ready to harvest for dry beans.

Mississippi Silver cowpeas ready to harvest for dry beans.

Just so you know, the perfect garden plan doesn’t exist. You will always be changing it as new ideas come your way. Also, the weather has a way of encouraging gardeners like us to look at new varieties and new crops to add to our plans. Cowpeas came to be part of my garden after a couple years of serious drought. I put my mind to what grows well in dry times here in the mid-Atlantic region and came up with cowpeas, sometimes known as Southern peas. That first year with the cowpeas was another dry one and they did great. Don’t you know, the following year was the wettest year I have ever experienced. The cowpeas did great then, also, and have been part of my garden ever since. I save seed each year, ensuring I will have adequate seed for next year that is already acclimated to my garden, no matter what the weather brings.

If eating a substantial part of your diet from your garden and local sources is a goal for you, participating in the 10-Day Local Food Challenge can be a gauge to measure how far you have come. The formal challenge is taking place October 1-10, but you could determine any days to be your challenge. The formal challenge suggests you eat food grown within 100 miles for 10 days. Acknowledging that humans have been trading for eons, 10 exotics are allowed to augment your local/homegrown diet. The exotics are things not grown within the 100 mile limit. So, if you really can’t exist without coffee and chocolate you can include them in your exotics while you think about weaning yourself off of them a bit. Maybe you could experiment with herb teas from your garden rather than having another cup of coffee. I don’t have any suggestions for the chocolate other than to experience all the flavors you can from your garden, which will fill your belly and your soul, lessening the need for something like chocolate.homeplace earth

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Garden Paths June 2015--BLOGEverything is growing like crazy at my place, including weeds in my garden paths. Unfortunately, I don’t have white clover growing there like I usually do. Dutch white clover is a short-lived perennial that, in my opinion, is great to have growing in your garden paths. Without white clover, I mulch my paths with leaves or grass clippings, with or without newspapers or cardboard underneath the mulch.

Although I have access to leaves and grass clippings from our own property, sometimes they are used to mulch the crops in the garden beds or other areas in our landscape, leaving little for the paths. I used to have access to as many leaves as I could want that came from other places and I used them liberally in my paths and on my beds. Now, however, there is a danger of herbicides being used that persist in the environment for a long time after they are used and could be in materials I would acquire. I wrote about that in my post on Killer Compost. When I decided to limit outside inputs to my garden, including those leaves that were hauled in from elsewhere, I had to rethink what I would do with the paths. I turned to Dutch white clover and have been pleased with it. I am thinking even more fondly of it now that it is not here.

Winter Squash provides mulch for this path.

Winter squash provides mulch for this path.

So, why is white clover not in my paths this year? Last fall my attention was called to too many things besides the garden. I was happy I was able to get the cover crops planted in a timely manner, but I never tended to the paths. I told myself I would do that early in the spring. Unfortunately, spring proved to be busy, also, and the clover never got planted. Well, I’m paying the price for that now. I have been weeding all my paths and mulching with grass clippings from our lawn. I’m also taking advantage of things like letting the winter squash wander into the path, naturally providing mulch, as it is doing in this photo beside this cowpea bed. The cowpeas will need little tending until they are harvested for dried beans.

Ordinarily, in the fall when I plant cover crops I reshape my beds if needed, scraping any loose soil from the paths back into the beds, and sow white clover in the paths—raking it in with my cultivator. It gets off to a good start in the fall and keeps a green cover on the paths through the winter. In the spring it is growing nicely and keeping the weeds away, allowing me to concentrate on what to do with the garden beds, with little maintenance needed for the paths. Dutch white clover is the lowest growing clover, so that is the variety you want. You can see my garden with clover paths in my DVD Cover Crops and Compost Crops IN Your Garden.

The clover will flower here in June. Too often I wait until it is in full flower to cut it, which is probably why it sometimes dies out in mid-summer and needs to be planted again in the fall. That’s okay. It had done its job for the year. If I trimmed it sooner, it would probably last longer, just as it keeps growing in your yard when you mow it. I only cut it a couple times during the summer with my sickle—the same one I use to cut my grains. Those of you who are into noisy machines might use a string trimmer to keep the clover trimmed. Sometimes the clover creeps up into the edges of the beds, but I don’t find that to be a problem. The clover keeps weeds from the bed edges and can be easily pulled out when I weed the beds if it starts to creep in too far. In that case I harvest it for compost material.

Some paths did get attention in the spring and they have cardboard or brown paper bags as mulch, sometimes under grass clippings and sometimes alone. The organic grain I buy to grind as feed for my chickens comes in the brown bags. I don’t have many chickens, so not so many bags, but I save them up for this job. I don’t go looking for cardboard for the paths, but sometimes boxes find their way to my house and have no other use. I have not made a study of whether cardboard is safe to use in your garden these days, but I don’t use it often—only when the boxes start to accumulate and I need to cover garden paths. Remember, most years I have white clover growing there, so don’t need the mulch. We get the newspaper daily and usually recycle it, but when I need to keep the weeds under control, such as now, I use it (newsprint only, not the glossy sections) in the paths. Since newspapers tend to blow around, I cover them with grass clippings.

Rye straw from the mulch in the bed on the left of the corn and grass clippings in the path on the right.

Rye straw from the mulch in the bed on the left of the corn and grass clippings in the path on the right.

I grow grains in my garden and if I didn’t use the straw for the carbon addition to my compost, it would be available to use as mulch. In some of my beds rye is grown to be cut early and kept on the bed as mulch for the next crop. Allowing some of that rye straw to spill into the paths takes care of some of them. In this photo you can see the rye straw from the bed covering the path on one side of the corn bed and grass clippings mulching the path to the right of the corn.

My paths are now all weeded and mostly mulched (more grass clippings coming with the next mowing), so they should be good for the summer. I have to admit, they started to get away from me there. I always like to have everything under control by July 4th. If your garden is getting the better of you right now, don’t beat yourself up. Harvest the weeds to feed to your compost pile and be happy for the great compost they will make for your garden for next year. Then, make a plan so you will be more in control in the future. You can bet that I’ll be planting Dutch white clover in the paths this fall, making my work easier in 2016.Homeplace Earth

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Butternut Squash

Butternut Squash–sometimes squash flowers are taped shut after fertilizing.

Saving your own seeds is a wonderful thing to do, but it is something you should plan for early in the growing season. If you know you will be saving seeds, make sure the varieties of each crop you will be saving from do not have a chance to cross pollinate with other varieties of the same crop. There are charts online and in seed saving books that give isolation distances for each crop—the distance varieties must be separated to avoid cross pollination. The distance might be shortened if there are barriers present, such as trees or shrubs and solid fences. Having a hedge as a boundary around your garden would decrease the distance you have to be from your neighbor’s garden to avoid cross pollination.

You could use time as an isolation method. Plants that have a limited blooming period can be managed so that the flowering of different varieties doesn’t happen at the same time. For example, on the same day you could plant two varieties of corn that have at least two weeks difference in their dates to maturity. The pollen from the first variety will have finished by the time the pollen is released from the later maturing variety. Or, you could plant two varieties of corn with the same dates to maturity, but space the planting times two weeks apart.

Some growers resort to using bags or screened cages to keep their crops from cross pollinating and some even resort to hand pollinating. Hand pollination is sometimes done with flowers in the squash family—the cucurbits. I’ve never had the patience to watch for female flowers to open, then pollinate them with pollen collected from the male flowers of the plant. The fertilized flowers would then be taped shut. If I intend to save seeds from squash crops I only plant one variety in each species in the genus Cucurbita. Although there are six species, I’ve only encountered four: Cucurbita maxima, C. mixta, C. moschata, and C. pepo. You can grow one variety of each species at the same time without worrying about cross pollination. A good seed catalog will indicate which species a squash variety belongs to.

Have goals in mind for what you are selecting for. When you are first starting out you might be happy to save any seeds at all. Collecting from as many plants as possible will give you a broader range of genetics; however, you might want to select for certain traits, such as earliness, lateness, taste, shape, size or color. If you save seeds from the plants that produce the first tomatoes of the season, you are selecting for earliness. Those plants may or may not be the same plants that produce tomatoes the longest into the season. Pay attention to what drives you to choose the plants to save from. Sometimes you will notice a plant that is doing exceptionally well, but it is not the right time to save seeds yet. Tag that plant that has the characteristics you want to preserve so you can identify it when the right time to save seeds occurs.

Principe Borghese tomatoes

Principe Borghese tomatoes

When tomatoes and peppers are harvested at full ripeness for eating, their seeds are mature and can be readily saved. For summer squashes and cucumbers, you would need to leave the vegetables on the plant until they are overgrown and way past the time to harvest for eating. Still other crops need to be left over the winter, saving the seeds when the plants flower the following year. The extra time for these plants to be in your garden needs to be accounted for in your garden plan.

Red Russian kale gone to seed.

Red Russian kale gone to seed.

The kale and collards you might have harvested for food for the table through the winter will be vacating your garden bed in March when they begin to bolt. However, if you are saving seeds from them, they may occupy that space until June. Only let one variety of cabbage family plants flower and go to seed at a time to avoid cross pollination. Before the variety you are saving from begins to flower, you should have begun to choose which plants you want to save seeds from. Most likely, the first to flower won’t be among your choices, nor will the plants that produced the least foliage to harvest through the winter. Pulling those plants out first leaves more room for the others and is part of the selection process.

Seed saving is a way to deepen your gardening experience and is an adventure that you can share with others through your neighborhood seed library. If your seeds are destined to be shared through a seed library, you will want to make sure that what you are sharing is what you say it is and hasn’t cross pollinated with anything else. If you don’t have a seed library in your neighborhood you may want to start one. You will find guidance for that project in my book Seed Libraries and Other Means of Keeping Seeds in the Hands of the People.

Seed libraries have been evolving at a rapid pace. Those who have been involved in that evolution will be coming together to study the issue at the First International Seed Library Forum in Tucson, Arizona, May 3-6. I’m looking forward to being one of the panelists for that event. You never know where your seed saving hobby will take you.Homeplace Earth

 

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20" long compost thermometer with a 1 3/4" face

20″ long compost thermometer with a 1 3/4″ face

Spring is here and I know you are anxious to be in the garden. As soon as the temperatures begin to climb it is really tempting to get seeds in the ground. Before you take that step, however, I encourage you to make sure the ground is ready for your seeds. Of course, you will loosen the soil and add compost and, if necessary, organic fertilizers, but did you take the temperature of the soil?

Seeds are naturally programmed to germinate and grow within a certain range of temperatures. Within that range they will grow faster or slower, depending on their comfort zone. It has been my experience that just because it is the right time to plant on the calendar, it may not be the right time to plant according to the soil. The temperature of the soil is more important than the date on the calendar. When I was a market gardener I would be anxious to get sugar snap peas in the ground in early March. I would put in another planting two weeks later. If the weather had been too cool, the first planting may not come into production until the second planting did. I learned to pull back the leaf mulch that covered the bed over the winter and put down a sheet of plastic two weeks before planting the sugar snaps to warm the soil. If the weather has been too cool and wet there is the danger that the seeds will rot and not germinate at all. Peas, beans, and corn are most susceptible to this, which is why you might find those seeds for sale coated with fungicide. Steer clear of fungicide coated seeds and plant at the right time. Beans and corn like the soil to be 60° F (15.6 °C) and cowpeas would like it if you wait to plant until it warms to 65° F (18.3°C).

If you have mulch covering some of your garden beds, go out and stick your hand in the soil under the mulch and then put your hand in the soil in a bed without mulch. You will feel a noticeable difference in the temperature. During the winter an organic mulch such as leaves or straw does a good job of protecting the soil and providing habitat for the earthworms. However, when things begin to warm up in the spring the mulch will insulate the soil from the sun’s rays. Removing the mulch two weeks ahead of planting will help to warm the soil. I am not so much in a hurry these days, so I don’t use plastic to further warm the soil, but it is an option. With my system of cover cropping, when the cover crop is finished, it is naturally time to plant the next crop.

thermometer with a 5" stem and 1 1/4" face

thermometer with a 5″ stem and 1 1/4″ face

You can monitor the temperature of the soil with a thermometer or by sticking your hand in the ground. Even better, go barefoot. There’s nothing like the whole body experience. You might want to use a thermometer until you can gauge the temperature by touch. I use either a 20” long compost thermometer with a 1¾” face (top photo) or a thermometer with a 5” stem and 1¼” face that I bought at the grocery store. I keep the long thermometer stuck in the soil somewhere so I don’t lose it. Usually it is in my coldframe, where it is right now. The nice thing about the compost thermometer is that it is easy to read without bending over too much. The small thermometer has so many uses. It comes with a plastic sleeve that has a pocket clip –handy if you are going to be carrying it around. The one you see in the photo is the one I use to monitor the temperature in my solar food dryer. It sticks through a hole drilled for that purpose with just the gauge showing on the outside of the dryer. A small thermometer such as this can be used in the kitchen, which is why you will find it in the grocery store.

You can find a chart showing a list of crops and the minimum, optimum, optimum range, and maximum soil temperature conditions for each in How to Grow More Vegetables by John Jeavons. A chart I find interesting is Days to Appearance of Seedlings at Various Soil Temperatures from Seed Planted at ½” Depth, compiled by J.F. Harrington. You can find it with an Internet search. It shows the number of days it takes for each crop to germinate at different temperatures. For example, peas will take 36 days to germinate at a soil temperature of 41°F (5°C), 13 days at 50°F (10°C) and 9 days at 59°F (15°C). You can see how warming up the soil will contribute to an earlier crop.

tomato,pepper, and zinnia seedlings in the coldframe???????????????????????????????

coldframe seedlings–tomatoes, peppers, and zinnias

Peppers, on the other hand, are shown to take 25 days to germinate at 59°F, 12 days at 68°F (20°C) and 9 days at 77° F (25° C). If you plant pepper and tomato seeds at the same time, the tomatoes will germinate first—in 14 days at 59°F, 8 days at 68°, and 6 days at 77°. I start my seeds in my coldframes, which provide cooler temperatures than starting them in the house. I put tomato, pepper, and other seeds of warm weather crops in my coldframe during the last week of March. Since I save much of my own seeds, I am developing strains of each crop that will germinate in cooler soil. The healthy plants that I take out of the coldframe are the ones that have germinated and thrived in the cooler conditions. The peppers that I have been most successful with in the coldframe are Corno di Toro and Ruffled Hungarian.

By saving your own seeds, you can develop strains of your crops that will germinate and grow under the conditions that you want to work with. Experiment with planting times and conditions in your garden. I would advise, however, to only take chances with what you can afford to lose. If you go into it with that attitude, you won’t be disappointed.

Homeplace Earth

 

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