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Garden in late winter with compost piles as part of the rotation.

Garden in late winter with compost piles as part of the rotation.

For many years I had compost bins lined up on the edge of my garden. Discussion about compost generally included what kind of bins I used and where I sourced the materials to put in them. My bins were made from pallets I acquired for free. Each of three sides was made by pounding two t-posts into the ground and sliding a pallet over them. If one side needed to be replaced, that could be easily done, since the sides weren’t tied or nailed together. The fourth side was made by using bungee cords to hold it in place. To remove the compost, I released that side by removing the bungee cords.

The ingredients of those piles were usually animal bedding (from our animals or some I brought in from other places), leaves (from here or elsewhere), food scraps from our table, and maybe grass clippings. The compost bin was a handy place to toss garden residue—weeds and spent plants. Gradually I stopped including outside materials in my compost as I studied GROW BIONTENSIVE (GB) methods and produced more of my own compost biomass in my garden. The bulk of the material I used to bring in was for the carbon. With GB I grew more grains and corn, using the straw and stalks for carbon. Eventually, all the compost materials were coming from my own garden.

Butternut squash growing around and over the compost pile.

Butternut squash growing around and over the compost pile.

Rethinking the materials is only part of rethinking compost piles. If you are into tidy, and think compost requires a bin, you may have a hard time thinking outside that, but I urge you to try. Besides keeping them tidy, bins serve to keep animals out of your piles. If you include food scraps in your piles and have a dog, or neighborhood dogs frequent your place, you may want a bin. However, if your compost pile is within your fenced garden, you have already fenced out the critters. Once I put a fence around the garden I did away with the bins, but the piles were still on the edge of the garden space. It was when butternut squash grew wild around and over my pile one year that I began to think about the nutrients that were leaching into the ground each year beneath the piles and not being used.

Having to walk back and forth to the edge of the garden to put compost materials there that had grown in the garden, or to retrieve compost for the beds, also served to nudge me into planning to have my compost piles as part of my garden rotation. By the way, I did away with the notion that compost needed to be turned regularly long ago. Left to what they do best and the microbes turn all that organic matter into finished compost all by themselves. I do water occasionally to keep them hydrated.

Now I devote a garden bed, actually more than one, to compost. On my garden map, compost is shown, just as all the crops for the year are. The two biggest times for starting a new pile for me are in June when the grains are harvested and in October when the cornstalks, sweet potato, and peanuts are harvested. It is in October when the new compost bed is put to use. Whatever bed is designated to store compost for the coming year is where I start the new pile in October. The pile I created in the summer that needs more time to cure will be moved to this new compost bed. That is the only time it gets turned. If the new compost bed is part of the garden rotation it will be located next to the old compost bed, making the transition an easy one. You do not want to do any long distance hauling—just fork it from one bed to the next.

numbered compost piles

numbered compost piles

The rest of the compost in that bed, including the one started the previous October, should be ready to spread, which I do in September and October before I plant cover crops. Throughout the year there will be other materials added to the piles as weeding and harvesting is done. There will also be finished compost available to add to beds each time a new crop goes in. By following GB guidelines and having at least 60% of the garden devoted to compost crops for the year, it is easy to have an abundance of compost. To keep track of the order the piles were made, so I know which will be ready to use next and which needs to set longer, I use old smooth metal fence posts (the kind used for electric fence) with blocks of wood on top with a number painted on them. Some people have little signs for their piles that say such things as “use me”, “feed me”, or “working.” The pile that I make in the fall will not be ready to use until the next fall. Wanting to make the best use of all my resources, including space and available nutrients, I plant butternut squash around the base of that pile and let the plants grow over it. Besides soaking up nutrients from beneath, the plants shade the pile, preventing weeds from moving in. By the time the winter squash is harvested, the compost is ready to spread.

In October I plant winter rye in the bed that the compost vacated. That cover crop soaks up all the nutrients that may have leached from the piles and gives them to the corn that will go into that bed the following year. When the rye is shedding pollen (about May 7 here in Zone 7), I cut it with a sickle and leave it lie in the bed as mulch. Two weeks later I transplant corn into the mulch. Generally there is a small amount of a legume, such as Austrian winter peas, sown and harvested with the rye. I have my best crop of corn in the bed that follows the compost.

This might all seem confusing, but if you take time to think it through, it will become clear. In Grow a Sustainable Diet I explain GROW BIOINTENSIVE methods and how to plan to have 60% of your garden in cover crops for the year. In that book I also have a garden map and explanation for the Garden of Ideas that shows compost as part of the garden rotation. My DVD Cover Crops and Compost Crops IN Your Garden shows compost making in the beds and the management of the cover crops with hand tools through the growing season. Think outside the compost bin and make compost an integral part of your garden!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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Winter Food Crop Rotation-- croppedIn January 2013 I wrote about what I do to have winter carrots. I begin in the fall of the previous year and plant rye in rows in my future carrot bed. The rye crop is allowed to mature all the way to seed, which around here in zone 7 is mid-June. When it is cut, the harvest is seed and straw. I lightly hoe between the rows of stubble and plant carrots. I keep this bed well watered to get the carrots off to a good start and replant if there are spots lacking good germination. Once everything is growing well the only attention is to weed periodically. The stubble decomposes, gently feeding back the soil for the carrots.

With this post I thought I would show the carrots in a three bed rotation plan that provides greens and carrots for my household through the fall and winter months, while feeding back the soil with cover crops. If you have trouble reading the text on the garden map, click on it and it will open up in a new window, as will all my photos. I grow all of my compost and mulch materials in order to avoid bringing damaging materials into my garden. In the photo you can see the skeleton of this plan. The carrots and kale and collards take up 43% of the space for the year in the total of the three beds. There are 12 bed crop months in each bed for a total of 36 bed crop months. The carrots and greens use 15.5 bed crop months, or 43%. When I plan cover crops I like to have 60% of the bed crop months in the garden in soil building crops. That would mean that the rest of the space in the three beds would need to be devoted to cover crops, plus I need to have some extra in the rest of the garden to make up for the shortage here. The winter rye that is already part of the rotation is a cover crop.

Rye planted in rows in preparation for carrots to be planted into the stubble the following June.

Rye planted in rows in preparation for carrots to be planted into the stubble the following June.

The map you see is for the calendar year, showing the crops that are already in each bed at the beginning of the year. The green areas in the plan show when each bed is available for crops beyond the carrots and greens winter food plan. There is a lot of flexibility here. First I will give suggestions for filling those areas with cover crops. Bed 1 is already filled all twelve months, so look at Bed 2. You will harvest carrots from the fall until you have pulled them all or the weather warms in March and they start sending up a seed stalk. If you still have some then, pull them and store them in plastic bags in the fridge and you can have carrots for weeks in your kitchen. If you want to save seed, leave some of the carrots in the garden to go to seed. That might take until July so you may want to have those on one side of the bed, leaving the rest of the bed for something else. Only save from one variety to avoid crossing. My plan shows the carrots are there until March 1. That could vary and they could be there until they show signs of bolting. For a soil building crop you could plant fava beans or field peas. Favas and field pea plants can be harvested as green biomass for the compost pile when they reach full flower. In my area the blooms of fava beans tend to fall off when the weather gets hot, making it hard to save seed anyway. If you take them while blooming, you could follow with another legume, such as cowpeas or soybeans for biomass. Buckwheat can be planted anytime in there to keep the bed planted and to attract beneficial insects. The goal is to have the bed free by the middle of August for the kale and collard transplants that will overwinter. It helps to put a low tunnel on this bed then. It provides a frame for shade cloth at transplanting that is replaced by a plastic cover when the weather warrants. This low tunnel can be moved from one bed to the other to follow the brassicas crop.

Greens and roots for winter food.

Greens and roots for winter food.

In Bed 3 you can see that it begins the calendar year with kale and collards already there, left from last year’s planting. That group of crops (carrots early and kale/collards late) were planted in Bed 3 the previous year as you can see by the rotation arrows, leaving the kale/collards there to overwinter. If the harvest is for greens only, the bed will be ready for the next crop in mid-March. If you intend to save seeds from either kale or collards, those plants will be in the bed until June. Favas or field peas are an option for this bed, but so is spring wheat. That could be followed by cowpeas (or another legume), then buckwheat before it is time to plant the winter rye. In my area rye can go in anytime in October. Plant the rye in rows as to make the carrot planting easier. You can see by the rotation arrows that the crops in Bed 1 will rotate to Bed 3 in the next year and conveniently, the rye will be there, right on schedule.

If you have plenty of compost materials from the other beds in your garden you might prefer to plant crops for eating in those green spaces on the map. In that case, salad crops such as sugar snap peas, lettuce, spinach, and bunching onions could be planted after the carrots or kale and collards. Those crops could be followed by snap beans. Bed 2 needs to be open by mid-August, but you have into the fall in Bed 3 leaving the possibility of planting sweet potatoes in late May/early June after the salad crops. Winter squash is a possibility in Bed 3 and you can use the rye straw harvested from Bed 1 as mulch. Potatoes followed by snap beans could happen in either bed.

Of course, the timing of these crops depends on your location. If you enjoy going to the farmers market for fresh vegetables or belong to a summer CSA, but also like to garden, you may want to consider this winter food plan. It might do well for those of you who like to travel in the summer, as long as you are around for the key planting times. You will find other garden maps and plans in my book Grow a Sustainable Diet. Once you learn how to plan for the whole year, the possibilities are endless.

I will be talking about all of this on Saturday, January 31, 2015 in the presentation that Ira Wallace, of Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, and I are giving at the Virginia Biological Farming Conference in Richmond, VA. Come and see us!Homeplace Earth

 

 

 

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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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