New Blog Site

I am no longer posting on this blog.

Instead, you can find me at The Green Thumb 2.0 (http://thegreenthumb20.wordpress.com/). While still addressing vegetable gardening, this blog has a broader focus with themes of botany, gardening and photography.

Waiting for Kale…

I feel like Linus in the pumpkin patch, waiting. But I’m not waiting for the Great Pumpkin; I’m waiting for a frost so that I can start harvesting kale. I’ve learned over the years that while the kale might look good, it won’t taste good until it’s been touched by frost.

Other greens aren’t like kale. You can harvest chard and collards any time and they’ll taste great. But kale is different. This cruciferous plant grows well throughout the year but when the frost hits it, the chemistry of the plant changes and so does the taste.

Throughout the growing season, kale is taking the energy of the sun and turning it into the products that it needs to grow. One chemical in particular that kale stores in the cells of its leaves is starch. Starch is made up of a long chain of sugars and it’s a good way for a plant to store energy. The problem is that starch doesn’t taste very good, certainly not as good as sugars. Think about it, which would you rather eat, a spoon full of flour (starch) or a spoon full of sugar? We all know which one makes the medicine go down! If you harvest kale in the summer or early fall, it won’t taste very good because you’ll be eating starch.

But wait for a frost and everything changes. When the nights get cool and the leaves of kale are touched by a frost, the cells of the kale leaves go into survival mode. They start to break down the stored starches and convert them into sugars. They do this to stay alive. If the water in the cell freezes, ice particles will rupture the cell membrane and the cell will die. That’s what you witness when a tomato plant is frosted – the leaves turn to mush because ice crystals have broken the cell membranes and the protoplasm is leaking out of the leaf. But to avoid this fate, kale creates its own antifreeze. Just like the antifreeze in your car’s cooling system, the sugar in the kale keeps the water from freezing and thereby keeps the kale alive.

And that sugar makes all the difference. Once you’ve eaten kale that’s been through a frost, you’ll understand. It has a sweet, delicate taste that you’ll never find in the kale from the grocery store. The sad part is that as the nights get colder and colder, eventually the sugars won’t be able to protect the cells and the kale will die. You can try to protect the plants to extend the harvest season, but here in PA, eventually the cold wins and the kale dies. So I enjoy it while it’s here and I freeze as much as I can to use during the winter.

It’s November first and I’m still waiting but the weatherman says we should be having a good frost tonight. I hope so. I want to harvest some kale!

Too Many Leaves? Try Sheet Composting!

They have a name for everything! I few months ago I was reading the book “Let It Rot!” and I found out that a practice I’ve been observing for years has a name – sheet composting.

Sheet composting is one of the easiest ways to add organic matter to your soil. There’s no compost pile needed, no turning, no layering… in other words, none of the things that can make composting difficult. It’s the most passive of all composting methods but it really works and fall is a great time to do it.

So what is sheet composting? It’s the process of spreading a layer of organic material on the surface of the garden and working it into the soil. That’s it! The major material that I use for sheet composting is leaves. Instead of raking them up and bagging them, I add them to the garden. Over the years I’ve learned a few tricks to make the sheet composting process work well for me.

The first thing that I do is shred the leaves. A whole leaf can take a long time to break down. Shredding the leaves provides more surface area for microorganisms to perform their work of turning vegetable matter into humus. I have a lawn vacuum that shreds the leaves but you could also shred them by running a lawn mower over them.

I then spread the shredded leaves on the garden soil. The leaves are often in a layer 4-6 inches deep… it seems to get deeper every year as the trees grow larger. To have a good sheet composting experience, be sure to work the leaves into the soil. I made the mistake one year of not doing this. I left the leaves on the surface of the garden. The leaf layer provided a thick mulch that didn’t break down very much over the winter. But worse than that, the leaves prevented the spring garden from drying out and kept the soil too wet and cool. Now I always till the leaves into the soil.

The other thing I do is add nitrogen to the soil when I’m tilling in the leaves. The organisms that break down organic matter need nitrogen to thrive. Tree leaves are very high in carbon and low in nitrogen, so the incorporation of some additional nitrogen to the soil will help break them down. Phosphorus and potassium aren’t necessary for this process, so look for a fertilizer with high nitrogen (the first number on a bag of fertilizer) and little or no phosphorus and potassium (the second and third number on the bag.) I use blood meal as an organic source of nitrogen (12-0-0). Fresh manure, if you have a means of obtaining it, would provide the needed nitrogen. You could also use a lawn fertilizer (like 29-2-4) – just make sure that there isn’t any herbicide or insecticide in the lawn fertilizer that you choose! A light coating of fertilizer mixed into the soil with the leaves will provide the nitrogen needed to break them down into humus.

That, in a nutshell, is sheet composting. Throughout the winter, as long as the soil isn’t frozen, the soil microorganisms will continue breaking down the leaves. Come spring, while some leaf pieces will still be present, the sheet composting process will certainly have helped increased your soil’s organic matter content and improved its tilth. Plus, it keeps all of those leaves out of the landfill!

(This article was originally published on Mike the Gardener Enterprises, LLC http://www.averagepersongardening.com)

Garden-in-a-Bag

This year I found an idea in a copy of Mother Earth News that had me intrigued from the moment that I read about it. According the article, you could plant an instant garden using nothing but a bag of potting soil. It sounded too good to be true, but I gave it a try.

I was amazed by the results! The things I planted in my garden-in-a-bag grew well and it was so easy to do.  Whether you’re planting a single bag with some lettuce or a tomato plant or if you want to start a full size garden, using this technique is a fast and easy way to grow your own food. I’ll describe the process for starting a small, one bag garden, but you can simply expand it to fit your needs.

The first step is purchasing the bag of soil. If you’ve been to the garden center recently, you’ll realize that this step in the process can be a little overwhelming. You’ll find potting mix, compost, top soil, potting soil and more. So which one do you purchase? It’s suggested that you look for a bag that has the word “soil” in it. These tend to be a little heavier and have a courser texture which is good for outdoor planting. Soils that are called mixes are usually very light and fluffy, excellent of seed starting and potted plants but not so good for a garden-in-a-bag. You can choose either regular or organic depending upon your preference. I used a bag of Miracle Gro Potting Soil.

With bag in hand, find a nice level spot with full sun where you want your garden to be. There is no need to till the ground or even remove any sod that is present. Just place the bag of soil where you want it to be and push some pieces of cardboard under the edges of the bag so that you end up with a 6” border of cardboard. The purpose of this is to prevent grass and weeds from growing right up against the bag and to give you space to mow if your garden is started in a lawn area.

When the bag is in place, cut a window into the bag leaving  a 4” border of plastic around the edge. For example if the bag is 24” x 36”, the opening in the top will be about 16” x 28”. This 4” border of plastic will keep the soil in the bag while allowing you plenty of room to plant.

The final step in preparation is to take a screwdriver or large knife and poke a dozen or more holes into the bag. Just plunge the knife into the open window of soil that you’ve made. This step pokes holes into the bottom of the plastic which serve as drainage and also provide a way for the roots of the plants to reach into the soil below the bag.

That’s all there is to it. You now have an instant garden-in-a-bag that is ready to plant. I had great success growing lettuce, kale and sunflowers but you could grow almost anything. Just be aware that you will need to keep a close eye on the moisture level of the bag in the beginning. Until the roots start to grow into the soil below the bag, you’ll want to make sure that the potting soil stays moist.

What I love about a garden-in-a-bag is that you can prepare and plant a garden in an hour or less. It’s also a great way to create or expand a garden without having to till or remove sod. After the first year you can remove the bags and till the ground for a traditional garden. The ground beneath bags will be much softer and friable due to the action of the plant’s roots and the worms which will tunnel under the bag. For the second year you can also just put a new bag of soil on top of the old one and repeat the process.

Some readers in the south might be able to try a garden-in-a-bag now and fill it with plants appropriate for their region. For those of us in the north, we can think about this technique for our spring garden. A garden-in-a-bag will let us plant earlier in the season since we won’t have to wait for the garden to dry. Personally, I’m going to use this trick to expand the garden and plan to grow tomatoes in the bags.

Who would have thought that those piles of bagged soil at the garden center can be turned into a thriving vegetable garden with just a little time and effort?

(This article was originally published on Mike the Gardener Enterprises, LLC http://www.averagepersongardening.com)

Straw Bale Gardening – Part 2

Well, this is one of those ideas that sounded good on paper, but the results have been less than satisfying!

I loved the idea of being able to plant a garden in a bale of straw but unfortunately, nothing has grown. I let the bale rot for one week and then planted a couple of plants of collards, lettuce and Chinese cabbage. This was all about a month ago and if you saw the plants today, they’re the same size as they were when I planted them. One lettuce plant is starting to bolt. All the other plants just look like they’re frozen in time. It’s not a pretty sight.

Now part of the problem might be the heat – it was a very hot August and none of the plants that I tucked into the straw were warm weather crops. But the kale and cabbage that I planted in the ground next to the bale garden are growing great and they’re cool weather crops as well.

Another problem might be that the bale is too dry – aside from bring hot, it’s also been very dry here in PA and I’ve only been watering the bale every few days. But I don’t think that’s the problem either because the bale is producing a wonderful crop of mushrooms. The fungi are growing out of the top and sides of the bale. Mushrooms need moisture and they’re doing fine so I don’t think moisture is a problem.

The other issue might be the nutrient level of the bale. I fertilized it when I first wet it and I’ve been adding fish emulsion to it often. But all of that high carbon straw is likely to be tying up the nutrients and leaving the plants without the various nutrients that they need to grow. The Chinese cabbage and lettuce look OK but the collards do have leaves that are a little purple which could be a phosphorus deficiency. Who knows for sure what’s happening.

I’ll leave the bale in the garden during the fall. Maybe things will start to grow in the cooler weather. I might try some chemical fertilizer to see if that makes a difference – the nutrients in chemical fertilizers are more readily available to a plant. Maybe I’ll try it again next year with peppers or eggplants, plants that have deeper roots and like the heat.

But whether I’m able to harvest greens this October or not, the good news is that I have a nice rotted bale of straw that I can till into the ground this fall. At least in the end this experiment is sure to add a little more humus to the soil!

The Horror!!!

There’s a strange sight in the garden right now. On my tomato plants there are some large green worms that are covered with white things that look like rice. Stange as it might be, this is actually a very good thing. What I’m seeing are tomato hornworms that have been killed by a parasitic braconid wasp, Cotesia congregatus.

Hornworms are the larvae of a moth. In my garden, I find that they are drawn to three plants: tomatoes, parsley and fennel. The caterpillars start out small but they grow to the size of a man’s finger. They’re one of the largest caterpillars that you’ll ever see in the garden and they can wreak havoc in the tomato patch. With their voracious appetites, hornworms can strip tomato plants of many of their leaves. Since they are so large, one way to control them is to pick them off of the plants. But if you find that there are hornworms covered with rice-like protuberances, don’t pick those off of the plant; leave them, because this is nature’s way of controlling hornworms.

I love natural control of insects so I like seeing hornworms sprouting those white “things” in the garden. But when I learned what was really happening, I almost felt sorry for the hornworms… almost.

Here’s what happened. While the hornworm was happily chewing away on my tomatoes, a small parasitic wasp located the worm and laid up to 80 eggs just under its skin. And here’s where it gets a little gross – the eggs hatched and the larva fed on the living hornworm. When they matured, they chewed through the skin and pupated (made a cocoon) on the back and sides of the hornworm. It’s like something out of the movie “Alien!” Those little rice-like things that surround the hornworm are the pupae of Cotesia congregatus. When I see those worms covered with white bumps, I’m witnessing the action of a parasitoid – a parasite that kills its host. The hornworm is the hapless victim of a wasp that literally ate the hornworm alive.

I’ve heard that when Charles Darwin discovered other types of parasitoids, the horror of their reproductive process caused him to question the idea of a benevolent God. I do admit there is something a little disturbing about the way these wasps have evolved to reproduce. But I like braconid wasps. They control hornworms so I like what they do even if I might be a little put off by the way they do it!

In Praise of Garlic

There are some vegetables that taste so much better when home-grown that I would not consider growing a garden without including them. Beans, tomatoes and eggplant are a few of them. But I have recently added another vegetable to that list – garlic.

I am a true garlic lover. When I was buying it in the store, I would never buy one head or bulb at a time like most shoppers; I purchased a bag of 3 or more heads and knew that I would be buying more soon. I loved the taste of those white heads that were piled up in the produce section of the grocery store – but no longer.  I now grow my own garlic. I will only buy those bland heads of garlic from the store when I run out of my home-grow varieties. The difference in taste is indescribable.

Garlic comes in two basic types, hardneck and softneck. In hardneck garlic, the cloves grow in a circle around a woody central stem. The cloves tend to be large and do not store quite as long as softneck varieties.  Softneck garlics produce more cloves per head but they tend to be smaller. Softneck varieties are what you want to grow if you are looking to make garlic braids.

Both types of garlic are easy to grow. While you can find garlic in the garden centers in the spring, the best time to plant is in the fall. More and more seed companies are offering garlic for fall planting or you can plant some of the garlic that you might find at your local farmers market. Just do not try planting the cloves you find in the store; often they are treated with a growth inhibitor. I plant mine here in south-central PA in the middle of October. I simply break the heads into cloves and plant them about 4-6 inches apart and about 2 or 3 inches deep. Garlic will grow just about anywhere as long as the soil does not get waterlogged in the winter. The cloves will start to grow in the fall and then take off in the spring.

Garlic is ready to harvest when there are only 3 or 4 green leaves left on the plant. Each of the leaves represents one layer of covering over the bulb. If you wait until all of the leaves are brown, you might find that the head has no wrapping on it, the cloves are exposed to the soil and the garlic will not store well.

After harvesting, garlic needs to spend 2-3 weeks in a shaded and well ventilated place to cure. Once this has happened, you can trim off the tops, cut off the roots and store the heads in a cool, dry place.

The thing that amazes me is how each variety of garlic has its own unique taste. I have made it my mission in life to try as many of them as possible! So each year, I plant one variety that I know grows well and tastes good and then I order a new variety to try. I have yet to be disappointed by any of them.

It might be one of the newer vegetables in my garden but garlic is one that I will always grow.

(This article was originally published on Mike the Gardener Enterprises, LLC http://www.averagepersongardening.com)