Garden Calendar: May

May is here and we are busy in the garden. Generally speaking there is an unwritten rule that folks in my area don’t plant until after Mothers Day for fear of a late frost.

At this moment I have about 75 potato plants in, plus a 10ft x 25ft plot of wheat and the same  size plot in corn. The wheat is a new venture for me this year. We we able to acquire a wheat grinder for a dirt cheap price this year and loved the benefits of it, so planting wheat was a no brainer for me.

I also have 25 or so cabbages, and an assortment of broccoli in half barrel pots and a host of beans, peas, beets and onions. The raspberries and currents are coming along nicely as are the grape vines and asparagus I planted this spring.

I think I may actually get a yield of apples from the 6 bare root trees I planted four years ago. A late frost likely took out at least half of the blossoms this year, but I’ll take anything I can get at this point. I’m not sure if my cherries will produce this year, it has only been about two years for them. I actually have about a dozen peaches as well on the two trees I planed a few years ago as well. The plums are a bust this year, but I only put them in two years ago (and they were small plants), so I wasn’t expecting anything anyway.

I have a large variety of vegetabes I started from seed in three inch pots ready to go in the ground as well. Tomatoes, peppers, watermelon, cantaloupe, and cucumbers will all go in over the next two weeks.

So, this being May my garden calendar has me harvesting peas, hilling potato plants, and planting another round of beans and sweet corn.

It’s about this time that I start a rotation of applying neem oil to my insect susceptible plants on a 7-10 day schedule, or after any significant rain. I also try to weed/cultivate every 10-14 days as well.

In a separate post, Ill share my new cultivating hoe, it is fantastic, as well as an inventory of the fruits and vegetables I have going on the homestead this year.

That’s all for now, I’ll see you again in June!

 

 

Garden Calendar: April

April signals the last few weeks before the last average frost date (4-23) in zone 6B. By now most, if not all, the indoor seedlings have been started and are likely being hardened off, preparing to be planted outside or put into a cold frame. Tools should be sharpened and equipment maintained, ready to plow, dig, cultivate, etc.

If the weather has been particularly ugly this year, your luck should be changing at this point. If you haven’t already planted your cold hardy crops such as peas, beets, cauliflower, onions, lettuce, spinach, carrots, and root crops, now is the time to do it.

When planting crops like carrots and beets, I like to mix my seed with 5 additional parts of sand for a 1:6 ratio (seed:sand). I spread this mix into rows as you would ordinarily plant. Doing this will dilute the seed being spread and reduce the headache of trying to spread these tiny seeds evenly. When they sprout, thinning will be much easier, and your seed will be used more efficiently. I wish I would have learned this technique years ago.

This is a good time to consider starting a second round of crops for mid summer planting, like broccoli and cabbage. Some of you heat loving plants such as squash, melons, cucumbers, pumpkins and gourds can be started as well.

If you are really brave, you can try some of the not so cold tolerant crops such as corn and beans to get an early start. I will generally plant half of my corn and beans toward the end of April or early May so that I can start succession planting preventing everything from coming in at the same time. In my area we are almost guaranteed not to suffer damage to these plants with a late frost as they will not necessarily punch through the ground for another week to ten days offering them a little protection. If I do lose some, I simply plant a little extra with the next rotation.

This is also a great time to consider any strawberry starts. Maintenance should be in full swing for garlic (cutting scapes) and potatoes (hilling). It is about this time of year that an initial round of weeding will be needed to the raised beds, but generally not a lot. I like to get to his early, nipping it in the bud so to speak.

If you have rhubarb, consider taking some stems for pie! Established asparagus should be approaching harvest time as well. For newly established plants, I wouldn’t consider taking any spears for the first two years, letting all of the energy go to fern and subsequently the root structure, you will be much happier in the long run with healthy plants lasting several years.

Consider your seedlings started indoors and in the cold frame. A gentle feeding of fish emulsion, kelp meal and Epsom salts should be applied every 10 – 14 days.

Sometime near mid April is when I start watching for insect damage. I usually start to notice damage to my cabbage and broccoli unfortunately. I generally start spraying all of my outdoor plants as well as seedlings in the cold frame with neem oil (1-2 tablespoons per gallon of water) and keep this rotation up every two weeks until the insects are god for the season.

I start to consider spraying my fruit trees as well toward the end of the month after the blossoms have set, the Japanese beetles will create skeletons from my cherry and apple trees almost overnight. I concentrate the neem oil two fold generally for fruit trees (3-4 tablespoons per gallon) as the lower concentration have little effect on the beetles.

I have recently discovered that there is a new strain of Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis galleriae-Btg) specific for beetles. I am anxious to give this a try this year. The only product I can find on the market at the time of this writing is BeetleGone and it appears to be internet only. I have tried my local Agway and they are not able to get it in.

Well it looks like that’s about it, should be a lot to keep you busy for the month, but don’t sit back and relax too long May is just around the corner, and this month is even busier for me.

Spring Garden Update

It is the very beginning of growing season here in Pennsylvania, so I thought I would share a garden tour before it gets too crazy.  A little background first: My house sits in rural Pennsylvania right in the middle of Amish Country.  I recently planted 10 new fruit trees and a perennial garden. I do keep an annual garden as well with traditional tilled beds as well as several raised beds.  I have a few laying hens and just started another round of broilers last week.  Turkey chicks will be arriving in about two weeks.  So, lets get started…

This is a shot of my perennial garden, or at least the start of it.  I have a few varieties of blueberries as well as raspberries in (They are the sticks you see every once in a while popping up).  As you have likely already guessed, these were bare root plants put in this winter and they haven’t started to leaf out as of yet.  In the bed to the right of the raspberries, I have strawberries almost ready to go in.  From left to right, blueberries, raspberries, strawberries.

I’ll place two tarps over a 10 x 12 kennel for the broilers when they are ready to be outdoors.  I move this cage up and down the row about once a week to give them some fresh grass to feed on.  I have buckwheat planted in these bare gardens, ready to start sprouting.  I haven’t decided if I will till these under this year or chop and drop the buckwheat and plant directly in the beds. In all likelihood, it will likely be some combination of the two as a little experiment.

My compost pile is ready to go.  The pile in the back is a combination of horse manure and fallen leaves.  To give some reference of volume, I dumped 4 loads of manure from a 10 ft x 6 ft dump trailer, and 6 loads of fall leaves that I gathered.  The original pile was at least twice as big as this, before it composted down. Even with 10 full trailers of compost material I still do not have enough. I replenished my raised beds first, and will use any remaining compost as an adjunct when planting. The smaller pile is a load of fresh horse manure that I will compost in a separate area, and add to when the resource becomes available, so I can get a head start on next years supply.  I generally like to compost right in one of the garden beds because I would rather have any leachate and remnant compost to be right where I want it, in the garden.  I plan to use this bed for a crop of corn this year. An added bonus of composting in the bed is that it should aid in growing my heaviest feeder, corn.

These are some of my raised beds.  I established them in the fall two years ago, so this will be my first growing season with them.  I started with mushroom compost from a local nursery as a bottom layer, and then added added 6 inches of my home made compost to the top.  I repeated this process for the long wooden beds as well as the half barrels.  I obtained the barrels from a local dairy farmer.  They originally held an organic milking machine cleaner and they are food grade.  I think I paid $10 for each barrel, so that averaged $5 for each half.  I have 5 more barrels that need to be processed and will ad them sometime this spring giving me 10 additional round beds.

This is my mini orchard.  I planted 4 apple and two cherry last year, and added 10 additional bare root fruit trees this winter.  I actually got one apple (Gala) last year from a third year tree (first year for me), and surprisingly it was very good. I have 6 apple (Macintosh, Gala, Red Delicious, Fuji and 2 Honeycrisp), 4 cherry (Bing and Ranier), 2 plum, 2 peach and 2 chestnut.  I actually found an nursery in North Carolina selling American Chestnut so I was happy to add those.

Regarding my cold frame, I generally only use this for seed starting. I did have a setup in my basement with heating mats and shop lights, but have not been satisfied over the last year or so with this setup. The seedlings just didn’t seem to do as well as those started in the cold frame.  I’m not sure if it was an issue with the heat mat or the lights in general, but no matter, I prefer the cold frame anyway.

It still gets in the low 40’s and even the low to mid 30’s on occasion, so I added a ceramic heater at night.  I set it in the mid range and it keeps the cold frame in the 70 degree range.  I also have a fairly cheap remote thermometer I picked up at Lowes for $15 and have been very satisfied with it so far.  It really takes the guesswork out of trying to adjust the temperature of the frame based on observation alone.

These are my original raised beds I put in several years ago, and have grown just about everything in these. Since the addition of my other raised beds, I generally only put leaf vegetables, herbs and cutting flowers in these beds as they are close to the house and are easy access from the kitchen.

I also put in several varieties of bare root grapes this winter as well and am waiting for them to leaf out.  I am anxiously awaiting some fruit form these, but I know it will be several years before that happens.

I even have a little time to grow some oranges.  I wouldn’t suggest eating any of these though, well at least that’s what my brother said after I talked him into trying one. Apparently they are VERY sour!

If I see an open space anywhere, I try to put something edible in its place. Along the fence is a raspberry and a currant.  I have never had currents before so I thought I would give it a try, if I don’t like it, well I could always use another berry bush, maybe blackberry this time.

Neem Oil as an Organic Pest Control Application

Neem oil is by far one of my favorite methods of pest control in the garden. It is safe for human exposure with appropriate use, safe for the plants, the environment, and pollinators, but murder to leaf eating insects and larvae. There is some data to suggest it may be slightly toxic to aquatic life, so use caution around ponds and other bodies of water/run off areas.

Neem oil is a product of the (nut) seeds of the neem tree (Azadirachta indica) that is found indigenous in India and the Indian subcontinent. Neem trees can also be found in parts of Asia, Africa, South Pacific Islands, Central and South America, as well as parts of Florida and California.

It is very likely that you have used neem oil in some form without even knowing it as it can be found in toothpaste, cosmetics, pet shampoo and soaps.

Neem oil works as an organic pesticide via multiple avenues. Depending on the insect it can simply be a repellent, it can affect insect growth and its ability to lay eggs, as well as interfering with their ability to feed.

Neem oil can be sprayed directly on the leaves of plants for an effective pest control option. Since neem oil has a half live of just a few days, frequent spraying may be required. In my practice, I have sprayed every 7-10 days, and after any significant rain and have had great results.

There is also some application for use in the soil to fight nematodes, but I have no personal experience with this use. One of my favorite YouTubers, Gary Pilarchik of The Rusted Garden, has an excellent video explain how he uses neem oil in his seed starting process.

It is important to note, that when I refer to neem oil, I am speaking specifically about 100% pure cold pressed neem oil. This is an example of a resource I like to use. I have searched the local garden mom and pop shops as well as the big box stores and cannot find 100% cold pressed neem oil. In my opinion the products they sell, as an example, are not effective and are much more expensive than the 100% cold pressed neem oil found online. In a nut shell, these store bought products simply do not work.

Application of neem oil varies on the vegetation and insects you are trying to control. For general garden plants I use 1 tablespoon per gallon of water (I have a LARGE garden) or 1 teaspoon per quart of water. For pesky insects you may need to double the amount of neem during some applications.

Since neem is an oil, and we all know oil and water do not mix well, a few drops of a general dish soap may be added to the solution to limit separation. Regardless of soap use, consistent agitation (shaking) of the solution is recommended for thorough dilution during application.

For my fruit trees, I start with 2 tablespoons of neem per gallon to start, but may increase to 3 or 4 tablespoons depending on the nature of the insect damage. I can honestly say, I can’t remember ever needing the highest concentrations in my applications. Consistent application processes as well as good garden observations will make a significant difference in success vs failure.

If you would like to read a study published in 2013 regarding other uses of neem for medicinal purposes, that research can be found here. There has been some question lately regarding neem oil use and the contraceptive-abortive process in humans that may be attributed to neem oil. If that is your focus for reading this study, be careful not to confuse garden application and use with described contraceptive use as cited in this article. The use of neem oil in these separate functions are night and day when comparing application concentrations and actual use. I want to be perfectly clear when I say…….NEEM OIL IS SAFE FOR HUMAN AND ENVIRONMENTAL USE IN THE GARDEN, there has been no documentation or research to prove otherwise. 

My Favorite Vegetable: Marglobe

The Marglobe is by far my favorite tomato. It’s very versatile, either cut up in a salad or on a sandwich, or my favorite, preserving them into sauce for pasta.

I have been growing these predominantly for the last few years and have gotten many compliments from friends and family when I give them away. In fact the compliment I usually get is “What were those, that was the best tomato I have ever had.”

I gave my neighbor a few plants last year to grow and he raved about them calling it the best tomato he has ever had, and I’m sure he has had a few in his 70+ years. In fact he flagged me down about a month ago to confirm the name again saying he looked all over the area and couldn’t find anyone selling Marglobe’s. He even exhausted his Amish resources! I’m sure I will be taking a walk down to see him and bring a few more in a few weeks.

I’m not sure why these are so infrequently used today, in fact I haven’t heard of them until a few years ago when I, by total chance, gave them a try. I gave a few tomatoes to my uncle and he told me that his father, my grandfather, planted these on his farm for as long as he can remember. Unfortunately I never met my grandfather, he passed 6 months before I was born, but there is a sense of kinship knowing I am planting the same variety he did  as early as the 1930’s and 40’s.

Marglobe’s are a determinate variety that mature in roughly 75-80 days. One of my favorite seed companies (Southern Exposure Seed Exchange) lists the Marglobe heritage as a cross of the “Marvel” and “Globe” tomato. The plant will reach anywhere from 4-6 feet tall and give a nice 6 oz fruit on average. This is obviously an heirloom since my grandfather planted them pre-WWII, and they are open pollinated so you can save the seed year after year.

Apparently Marglobes were developed in 1917 and released by the US Department of Agriculture in 1925 and were some of the first verticillium and fusarium wilt resistant varieties. This actually makes sense to me now, whereas some of the other varieties I have planted over the years have succumbed to v. and f. wilt, my Marglobe’s were hardly affected at all. Some report getting 50 pounds per plant in their test gardens. I have never weighed my yield, but I have gotten a fair amount as well, but I don’t think it has been 50 pounds.

As I mentioned previously I like to slice them and use them fresh, but I also combine them with Amish Paste tomato’s and make a great sauce to be canned for use over the winter months. If you are inclined to try a new variety, or are simply looking to grow a few tomato’s for the first time next season, I don’t think you can do any better than the Marglobe.

If you do choose to grow a few why not support some of the companies that are working hard to preserve the heirloom varieties. Here are a few of my favorites:

And my favorite:

Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

GROWING:

1. Seeds should be started 6-8 weeks before the last frost.

2. Consider transplanting outside when there is no danger of frost and average temps do not fall below 40 degrees. Consistent nighttime temperatures in the 50’s is when I like to plant tomatoes outside.

3. Plant tomatoes as deeply as possible or laid down in a trench, the stems actually form additional root structure when planted. I like to place 2/3 in the bed and leave 1/3 open to air.

4. Tomatoes are heavy feeders. See my recommended basic fertilizing process. Ensure appropriate calcium supplementation.

PESTS and PROBLEMS

  • Major concerns for tomatoes are blossom end rot, the tomato horn worm and fungal wilt.
    • Blossom end rot is caused primarily due to low calcium levels in the soil. Applications of lime products at planting time can be used as preventive measures as well as treatment if caught early. I like to crush egg shells and throw them into my beds as a long term preventive treatment. Egg shells take forever to breakdown (~12 months) and will have no benefit in the garden this year, but over time they will decompose and add calcium to your soil.
    • Tomato horn worm can be most easily controlled by hand picking (and feeding to your chickens) and Bacillius thuringiensis kurstaki (Btk) can be easily sprayed if there are any signs of insect damage or if the tomato horn worm is spotted.
      • If you see this moth flying around, a preemptive Btk spray would be prudent. The tomato horn worm is the larvae of this moth.

    • Fungal wilt is usually caused by either the fusarium or verticillium fungus. The best treatment option is actually prevention. Good crop rotation, choosing resistant plant varieties, and avoiding high nitrogen fertilizers offer the best protection. Any signs of wilt should be followed by removal of the affected leaves, or even better, the entire plant.
      • Neem oil, and low dose sulfur sprays have proven to be somewhat effective, but not great. There is some mention in the literature regarding aspirin and baking soda sprays as options as well, but I have no personal knowledge of this.

SEED SAVING:

  • Seeds must ferment prior to drying
  • Differing varieties should be separated by at least 150 feet to increase your odds of getting an uncontaminated (cross pollinated) seed.

Garden Calendar: March

Generally speaking March is when spring fever starts to set in. The weather makes a turn for the good, the snow melts away, and you start to see more activity in the form of blooming flowers and woodland animals running around.

This year happened to be the exception. We had very little precipitation in the form of snow this year, but just as you think old man winter is on the way out the door, he drops 18 inches of snow on you in the 3rd week of March! The funny part of this story is we had two days of 80+ degree weather the week prior. Oh well.

On to the garden.

Consider tilling in cover crops. I like to till in any cover crop about 2-3 weeks before planting. This leaves enough time for the crop to decompose and have some availability for the newly planted seedlings to uptake this resource. I generally do not get everything planted until around June 1st, so I am in no hurry to till in cover crops. There are exceptions however in my potato, broccoli, cauliflower and pea sections of the garden.

Finish up any equipment maintenance that slipped through the cracks over the winter. Tractors, mowers and tillers should have fresh oil, air and fuel filters if needed and sharp blades.

Any cool weather seedlings that have been started up to this point should be in the cold frame or garden/raised beds by now making room for the warmer season seed starts like tomatoes, peppers, etc.

Now is a good time to work on trellises and stakes for climbing plants.

 

 

 

Consider turning the compost pile one more time to finish the cook, and see what is in the middle. It is always gratifying to see the final turn, knowing all of your work will soon be put to use.

Items to start indoors in early March are: celery, lettuce, broccoli, cabbage, and onions. Late march seed starts include: brussel sprouts, cauliflower, tomatoes, peppers, basil and eggplant.

Outdoor direct sowing can be completed for potatoes, horseradish, onion sets, beats, peas, and strawberries.

The most difficult part of working in the garden in March, is not getting too far ahead of the game. I have to keep reminding myself that the last frost is still almost a month away. Had I tried to get ahead of the game, and planted during the 80 degree days, I would have been sorry a week later when 18 inches of snow obliterated it.

 

Spring Planting: Start Your Own Seeds

It is rare that I buy plants for the garden anymore, in fact I couldn’t tell you the last time I bought a live plant.

Let me take a step back, and correct myself. I can’t tell you the last time I bought a live vegetable plant.

Perennials are a different story however. Every year I add new perennials to the garden. Over the last few years I have focused on fruit trees. Currently, I have 8 apple trees (5 varieties), 4 cherry (2 varieties), and 2 varieties each of peach, plum, chestnut. I’m not sure right now, but I think I may have lost a chestnut and a cherry over the winter, we will see how it goes when I prune everything this spring.

I have also added several berry plants over the last few years including several blueberry, blackberry, raspberry, and a currant for fun. I’m looking forward to adding some strawberries this year as well.

I added 4 grape vines last year, but I am confident I will only have one left as the evil rabbits decimated them last fall and over the winter. My fault though, I di
d not keep up with them or protect them with cages. We will see how this goes, I will add a few more this spring, and pay more attention this time. I also plan to put in a few asparagus crowns, and am really looking forward to reaping the rewards of those, in three years….

Perennials are fantastic, however this post is about annuals, specifically starting them from seed. Seed starting is one of the easiest, and fun, tasks to do in the garden, but just like most things in life, we tend to over complicate the process.

Starting you own vegetable plants from seed can be one of the most fulfilling things you will do and it is as easy as filling a solo cup with starter mix, watering, and sitting it in the sun.

For me seed starting, actually starts in the fall with seed saving. I try to save as much seed as I can, as I grow mostly open pollinated, heirloom vegetables. But honestly, a packet of seeds from the big box store, and some medium to put it in is good enough.

When the weather warms up, nights in the high 40’s, seeds can generally be started outside, but they may take some time to germinate and the growth will be slow. The risk of doing this is a hard frost that will kill most seedlings outside. Besides, one of the major benefits of starting your own plants from seed, is to get a head start on the growing season.

I have and old metal shelving system that I use in my basement for my seed starting. I placed a heat mat down (easy to find them on Amazon), and put a few shop lights above it. These are the cheap big box store shop lights, nothing extravagant here. I did splurge and placed a timer on the lights, set for 18 hours on and 6 hours off, just because I’m lazy. For a few bucks on Amazon, it does make my life easier.

A specific UV growing light can be added (at a significant expense) to replace the shop lights, but I find them unnecessary for simple seed starting, at least the way I do it. I do have a UV light, but I only use this for growing greens and arugula indoors over the winter.

I like to use 72 count cell trays and trays (also found at the big box store) for my containers, and add one to three seeds per isolate. Folded newspaper blocks, or solo cups will do just as well, but they will take up more room. Any organic potting soil or seed starting mix will do just fine, again we don’t want to over complicate this. Seeds will germinate without light or food, but they absolutely need water. It is imperative that your seedlings do not dry out. Be careful not to “flood” them, consistent damp medium is all you need.

Once the “true leaves” start to show, you will need to start feeding your seedlings if you are not using a feeding soil mix. I like to make my own mix with worm castings, crushed egg shells, peat moss or coconut coir and perlite. By making my own mix I am adding organic material (peat-coir), as well as a gentle feeding (castings) for when it is needed. The perlite makes the mix very loose, and easy for the seedlings to grow strong root structures. The egg shells are for long term calcium supplement and this adds a little more organic material in the garden beds.

The egg shells were actually added to my worm castings as a source of material for the worms to help process foods in their gizzard, so it serves a dual purpose. Besides, with 6-12 chickens at any given time, I have lots of eggshells to spare, and is a free source of calcium.

When my plants are a few inches tall, I like to transplant them into larger containers and get them outside as soon as possible into the cold frame. This will harden them off for planting, as well as give them a lot more UV light than I can create with a shop light. If you don’t have a cold frame, or a small greenhouse, consider making them. They are a fantastic addition to really make your plants healthy and shoot up when the weather turns for the good.

An even simpler solution is a piece of clear plastic draped over your trays and supported as to not touch the plants. This is only temporary until you can obtain the cold frame/greenhouse as you will quickly tire of adjusting the plastic with every watering or gust of wind.

There is a good bit of research geared toward placing a over your seedlings to help them grow strong. The theory is the constant movement (mimicking wind) places a little stress on the stalks, causing them to grow thicker, and ultimately healthier. I agree with the research, but I think this is unnecessary for me as I try to get them outside as soon as I can. See what I mean about over complicating things?

When your plants are in your cold frame or greenhouse, it is crucial that you monitor the temperature and moisture. A 65 degree day is just perfect for you and I, but the temperature in a good cold frame or greenhouse can reach well over 80 degrees during this time, killing off young seedlings.

I find that I usually have to water at least daily, and sometimes twice a day for weather over 60 degrees. I placed an inexpensive outdoor remote weather thermometer in my cold frame and set the alarm to go off if it starts to get too hot. When this happens, I simply raise the lid on my cold frame a few inches and let it breathe naturally. This seems like a frivolous expense, as I told myself for many years, but I also fried more plants than I care to mention, simply because I got too busy or neglected to take note of the outside temperatures. The thermometer is a foolproof way to keep yourself in check.

Once the plants have been outside for a week or more, I try to give them a gentle liquid feeding of fish emulsion, seaweed emulsion, and Epsom salt (magnesium) every 7 – 10 days.

In zone 6B, the last frost is generally around the end of April or mid May, but the rule of thumb is not to transplant any sensitive plants into the garden until after Mother’s Day. It might be an old wives tale, but again, I don’t want to think about all the plants I lost because I jumped the gun.

So again, I will say that starting seeds indoors is as easy as buying some organic started mix, placing it in a solo cup (red of course) and starting your seeds in a warm and bright window. There are plenty of things you can do to enhance this without over complicating the process, as I have tried to do over the years. Just keep in mind, these seeds are going to grow no matter what you do to some extent, I just try to keep them reasonable happy until I can get them in the ground.

Don’t get caught up in the minutia of things and find yourself suffering from paralysis by analysis. K.I.S.S. (Keep It Super Simple) it and have fun.

Garden Calendar: February

Before we get started with this months plan, I think we should review my progress as far as the January garden calendar is concerned.

In my last post, I discussed the items on my January checklist. Let’s take a look at what I actually got done:

Completed:

1. Preparing seed starting equipment

2. Inventory and order seed

3. Turn and monitor compost pile

4. Build new cold frame

 

 

 

 

Not Completed:

1. Germination testing

2. Oil changes/equipment maintenance

Not too bad I guess. I will take care of the equipment maintenance soon, we should have a seasonably mild weekend coming up, this will likely motivate me to get out and get that done. As far as the germination testing….ehh, I don’t see that happening to be honest.

February falls generally 8-12 weeks before the last major frost in late April for zone 6B.

Some tasks that I generally take care of earlier in February include:

1. Equipment maintenance

2. Preparing indoor seed beds

3. Inventory and consider buying needed suppliers such as liquid fertilizers, pesticides, etc. (All organic of course)

4. If you have an existing coldframe, take a look at it and make sure mother winter wasn’t too hard on it. If you don’t have one, consider building one.

5. Craigslist items. This time of the year is a great opportunity to buy used equipment and supplies via craigslist. All of the snowblower ads start to go away and the gardening stuff becomes available. The only better time for these items is in the fall when people are trying to get rid of them, cheap, so they don’t have to store or deal with them over the winter. If you have any items to sell, consider doing this now.

6. If you do not have a water catchment system, start researching plans that you like online or at the library, and create a system on paper. This is a great time to look for used equipment such as barrels, 300 gallon totes, pipe systems, etc on craigslist or commercially. March is a fantastic time to build and be ready for the April showers.

7. Generally speaking you may be able to consider starting some hardy plants such as lettuces, kale, and collards in cold frames or hoop houses in early February. As mild as it has been this winter, I may consider skipping the coldframe and direct sow in my raised beds. Late February direct sow candidates include peas, beets, spinach, carrots, and herbs.

8. Plants that can be considered for indoor seedling starts during the first or second week of February would include cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage, and kohlrabi. Indoor seedlings to consider during late February include eggplant, peppers, tomatoes, and onion seed.

9. If the ground is workable, consider compost feeding existing perennials such as asparagus, strawberry, grapes, and other berry plants and harvest some horseradish. Check on your garlic that you planted in the fall, if it is a harsh winter make sure the mulch is still intact. If you are having a mild winter like we had this year (numerous 50 – 60 degree days in February) consider pulling back some of the mulch and let the green come through.

10. I also like to review where I planted specific items last year and create a planting plan for this year, to maximize crop rotation.

11. If your compost pile is finished cooking, or close to it, consider prepping your raised beds and letting the rain move the nutrients deep into existing material. The same goes for in ground garden areas, consider plowing under cover crops to give them ample time to breakdown before the late spring/summer planting begins.

12. If you have any unused seeds, prep them for storage for next year or fall planting by sealing them in a mason jar with some powdered milk folded into a paper towel to absorb any remaining moisture and store in a cool dark spot.

13. If you have any fruit trees or plants that require pruning, this is an ideal time to do it. The old adage is to prune during the time of year when you are most miserable outside, this way you will ensure that the plant is dormant as to not stimulate early growth. Considering this mild winter, I’m going to hold off any pruning until early spring as to ward off any early growth stimulation. I have been considering pruning in late winter or early spring regardless, just as the buds start to poke through, it gives me a better idea of growth and where I need to aggressively prune. If you had a mild winter like we had this year, I would be out every week checking my fruit trees for blossoms, not that you can do anything about the early bloom, but at least you may be able to gauge any potential diminished harvests due to early bloom and subsequent frost killing.

That wraps it up for February. Enjoy the last few days of rest over the winter, once March – June hits, we will be crazy busy.

 

 

Garden Plan 2016: Seed Stock

This is the time of year that the seed catalogs have been read thoroughly, multiple times in my case, and the orders have been put in. It just so happens that I actually got my order in early this year and my seeds have arrived!

I actually save a good bit of my seed from year to year, as I usually only grow open pollinated varieties, most of which are heirloom. The only exception to this “rule” would be sweet corn. I have yet to find an open pollinated variety that tops Bodacious, but I keep trying. Bodacious is a hybrid variety, non GMO, corn that is fantastic right off the cob, and freezes very well. Last year we processed 43 dozen!

Generally speaking, I plant lots of tomatoes, potatoes, corn and peppers. These are staples for almost everything we prepare in the kitchen and store very well for future use. We eat the tomatoes fresh, dry them for flakes, and make a ton of sauce and salsa with them.

I always grow Yukon Gold potatoes. If you have never eaten a Yukon Gold or a homegrown potato for that matter, do yourself a favor this year and try growing them. They are easier to grow than you think, dig a hole, place in the seed potato, cover the hole with half the soil, and wait for the greens to get 8-12 inches tall then mound up more soil. Hill them one more time and then wait for 2/3 of the greens to die back in the middle of summer and dig them up. If you don’t have the room, grow bags would be a good substitute, I would imagine (I have never tried it before).

If you do grow these spuds, you will never be able to eat a store bought potato again. My favorite way to eat a Yukon Gold is mashed with the skins on or baked. They are fantastic, you almost don’t need any butter, they are so flavorful. They are heavy feeders though, so make sure you mix in lots of compost.

I grow a variety of peppers as I like to dry them and process them into flakes for cooking. We’ll also eat them fresh as part of meals (think stuffed peppers), in salsa and canned for use over the winter as well. Hot, mild, sweet, I show no prejudice when it comes to peppers, well except for green bell peppers. How anyone can eat a green bell pepper, Ill never know, I always wait for them to mature and turn orange or red, the flavors are fantastic.

Aside from these staples I also grow a variety of others vegetables such as peas, beets, cauliflower, drying beans, green beans, carrots, cabbage, cucumbers, muskmelons, watermelon, onions, a variety of lettuces, garlic, broccoli, and herbs.

I have about a dozen fruit trees but only a few of the apple and cherry are ready to produce fruit this year. My plum, chestnut, pear, and peach trees are a few years away from any significant yield.

I’m going to try brussel sprouts again this year, but I’m not holding my breath. This is one of those things that I just do not have much luck with, I’m just not sure why. That’s a shame though, I love them fried in butter!

This is a bad time of year for me, sitting here looking at these seeds staring me in the face screaming “lets get moving!” It’s way to early for that, I won’t even think about starting broccoli and cabbage until the end of February. The peas, beats and potatoes will go in as soon as I can work the ground.

Until then, I’ll just sit back and relax, or try to at least. I have been considering growing some lettuce in the basement under lights, maybe that will satisfy my appetite to start growing something.

 

Growing Organic: My Take on the Subject

organicI had been asked the other day if I am an organic gardener. I actually had to think about this for a moment, because I really hadn’t put much thought into it. The simple answer is yes, I would be considered an organic gardener. The complicated answer still yes, but I don’t want to be considered an organic gardener.

Let me explain:

I do not use non-organic pesticides or chemical fertilizers. Pesticides are bad news on multiple levels, and you simply can’t escape them. I do not see the need for chemical fertilizers given the fact that I can grow my own compost in bulk, as I have demonstrated many times in this blog. I use compost primarily, but will supplement with fish emulsion, liquid kale, and Epsom salt (sparingly) and a small amount of Plant Tone or Garden Tone when I transplant.

I like to make my own seed starter mix as well with coconut coir or shredded leaves, worm castings, and crushed egg shells. This mix has worked quite well over the years, although it is a bit of work. Fortunately for me the time is spread out over the year continuously crushing our used egg shells and processing the worm castings. When I am ready to start my seeds, its just a matter of mixing it all together.

I like to handle pest management with hand picking when I can, although admittedly is not as often as I would like it to be.

I have become a firm believer in neem oil. I have struggled with pest control for years until I discovered the mighty neem, and have been very happy with it. It’s not perfect, but I am harvesting a lot more than I have in the past, so it’s a win for me. When I am able to identify a specific pest I can have a more narrow spectrum with the control, such as Bt for most types of caterpillar, i.e. cabbage worm.

I am really happy with the way my pest management plan is going because I believe “nature” is keeping it in balance. I found a total of two tomato horn worms last year, not bad for over 75 plants, and this was one of them.

See those white spots on the hornworm? That is “nature” taking care of my garden, the parasitic wasp. There is no way this would happen of I used pesticides and salt based fertilizers.

I’m fairly confident that staying away from the harsh pesticides allows beneficial insects like the Braconid wasp to do their job. The Braconid (parasitic wasp) is a non stinging wasp that is the arch nemesis of the tomato horn worm. It will lay its eggs on the back of the tomato horn worm (see above) and as they mature, they will eat the caterpillar from the inside out. I let this guy alone and tucked him away, back into the tomato plant, knowing the little he will eat, will be peanuts compared to the benefit of letting these all of these eggs mature.

The one pest that is driving me nuts is the Japanese beetle on my cherry trees. The neem oil just isn’t effective. These beetles have skeletonized my cherry trees for the last two years. They are only 4 years old, with two of those years on my property and I am concerned they will eventually be killed by the beetles. I have a plan next year for neem oil and diatomaceous earth (DE).

I practice organically, however should I ever choose to sell my harvest at the local farmers market I cannot sell any of it under the “organic” label, because I am not “certified organic.” I understand the thought process that goes into this certification, and the reason for it, but unfortunately the government has once again stepped in and undermined it, using it for some sort of revenue generation charging hundreds to thousands of dollars to obtain and maintain this certification.

The USDA criteria for organic certification can be found here. A general reading of this site makes you all warm and fuzzy, organics are saving the world. The real truth can be found here, here and here.

A pilot study testing organic crops was completed in 2012 and the results were startling. This study revealed that only ~82% of the broccoli samples were found to be pesticide free. Only 67.2% of the apples were found to be pesticide free, as well as only 65.5% of the tomatoes. If this wasn’t bad enough, these data also showed that only 16.4% of the sampled organic potatoes were found to be pesticide free. Of the 571 organic samples that were studied, conducting more than 110,000 individual analytic tests, only 57.3% were found to be pesticide free.

Granted some of these pesticides are likely on the approved organic list, but my point is, the organic tag is not all it’s cracked up to be, and we have all been deceived. Take methyl bromide for example, it is not on the approved organic pesticide list, however it is allowed to be used by a select few organic farmers with special approval by the government, we’ll call it the less toxic cigarette. Just ignore the fact that methyl bromide is classified as a “highly acute toxic” substance by the EPA, or that methyl bromide is highly volatile and almost all releases of it are into the air, which by the way has a half life of about a year.

Another example of the organic hypocrisy is Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) that is so widely used as an effective organic insecticide used to kill caterpillar type pests. I have admitted to using it myself, and it is effective. The issue I have with this product is the same people that are using it for their organic gardens are crying foul to the use of Bt in GMO (genetically modified organism) products such as corn.

Either you are organic or you aren’t, you simply can’t have it both ways. In the past I have chosen to stay out of the organic argument simply because, just like they do when they get their hands on most things, government entities have ruined the spirit of the movement.

Having said that, will I chose organic products over non-organic when given the choice? Absolutely, especially when considering the “Dirty Dozen.” Does this mean I will fall into the organic trap and close my mind to the reality of it all?  No way, the only way to know what goes into your food is to grow it yourself, and that what I am trying to do every day.