Friday, October 31, 2014

Vegetables have much to teach us

Not all experiments succeed. But, I did learn a lot this year.

Fall-planting young broccolis in raised pots did not work.

Since I'm putting the garden to bed now for the upcoming winter, I wanted to post an update about my raised pots experiment. When I first got into the garden this spring to do cleanup for planting, I found that every one of my six broccolis I had planted the previous fall were gone. Dead. Five of them also disappeared, and only a one inch stub was left of the remaining one. I don't know if they froze and then got eaten by slugs, or if the slugs got them before they had a chance to freeze.

Growing spring/summer broccoli in two-gallon pots did not work for me.

I bought six new baby broccolis as soon as they appeared in the garden stores, and potted them in those same pots, stirring up the soil when I did, to make sure it wasn't particularly packed down. The new brocs grew, but quite a bit more slowly than all the brocs I had grown in previously years, and attained less than half the typical size. Their little heads were so small they were hardly worth cooking, so I ate them fresh in the garden. They were quite tasty.

Peas in pots did great.

I also tried growing my snow peas in one-gallon pots, completely buried in the ground, to keep the moles from unearthing them. That worked great. The peas grew well and I got lots to eat from them.

My greenhouse cantaloupes also failed.

I also tried growing cantaloupes in ten-gallon pots in my little glass greenhouse. They took a while longer than I expected to sprout, but once the weather warmed up, they grew very well in the pots (three per pot) and got to a respectable size. Despite the fact that they only got sun until about 1pm, they even flowered, producing dozens of male and female flowers. Sadly, they never got pollinated, even though I left the greenhouse vents and upper doorway open, hoping to encourage some of the million flying bugs in my yard to do the pollinating for me. I'm guessing that proves that if you grown melons in enclosed spaces, you're going to have to do the pollinating. But I also wondered if it's actually crawling bugs that do the pollinating on melons.

It was another good year for strawberries, too, but not so much for my strawberry bed.

Never put a wide bed where you don't have comfortable, easy access on all sides.

I planted 3 alternated rows of strawberries in my 2.5' wide bed, but placed it less than a foot away from my back fence because I wanted it to get as much sun as possible. Bad idea. Bending over to harvest strawberries is really hard on your lower back. If I had left enough room to sit or even kneel  on that side, I would have been a lot happier.

High beds are much better than low ones.

Bending over, period, is really hard on your lower back. I'll never bother putting in a low bed again. Too much work for too little gain. But again, if I had left more room all around the bed, I could have sat in my weeding seat and still had excellent access to every plant, strawberry, and weed in the bed. Lesson learned.

But there was some good news:

Once you get one good crop of potatoes, you'll never have to plant them again.

Despite the fact that I planted no potatoes this year, I had as many healthy plants as I ever had in the previous three years. Purples, reds, and fingerlings—all sprouted and grew superbly all year. Most of them are still in the ground; I'll probably start pulling them out soon, now that my garage is cool enough to store them for a while. It really surprised me that I got so many, because I did what I thought was a really careful and thorough job picking out every single tiny tater I could find when I harvested last year, and pulled up the first few dozen potato sprouts this spring.

As a result of all this negative—but nonetheless constructive—feedback from Mother Nature, I'm going do major reconstruction in my garden next year, in order to solve what might be the biggest lesson of all:

Don't put water where you don't want anything to grow.

My entire garden, including the veggies and orchard, are on a slope. Consequently, no matter where I put water, some amount of it always ends up going downhill. Because I have always planted veggies right up to the lowest part of their garden—so they can get the most sun possible—part of that water flows on top of the underlying clay into my neighbor's field, where it supports the largest and healthiest crop of weeds in his whole five acres. And all of that is my fault, because I'm the one who's watering them. The plastic sheeting I put up over the fence and bury into the dirt effectively keep my sprinkler from watering the surface of his dirt, but it does nothing to keep the water in my soil from seeping downward. And because I've created a wonderfully moist patch of garden uphill from him, one of the nastiest invasive weeds in the western US keeps spreading from his field into my garden: Russian thistle.

Russian thistles spread both by seed and by long white rhizomes that grow deep beneath the surface of the soil. My neighbor minimizes the production of seed by mowing his field one or two times a year, but that doesn't stop the rhizomes that are happily growing uphill toward the water I'm inadvertently providing them. I dig them up when I can, and spot treat them with roundup in the spring, but I can't stop new ones from coming.

So, I'm going to take some drastic measures next year. For starters, I'm not going to plant anything in the ground. I've bought some big plastic tubs I'm going to use for nice, tall, planting tubs, for everything I want to grow next year. Much cheaper than I would have to spend for the wood for raised beds. Even the potatoes will go into the tubs. No more in the ground. That means I'll probably be pulling them up all spring and summer.

Second, I'm not going to grow anything in the bottom half of the garden, next to the fence. I'm going to keep it as dry as possible, and I also plan to cover that area with a woven black plastic fabric used a lot around here by nurseries who grow their plants in pots. That will keep the thistles from coming up and growing, and it should also slow them down from spreading into my yard. I don't know how long that will work, but making sure that dirt gets none of my veggie water during their growing season should help a lot.

I only had to water my small orchard of fruit trees twice this summer, and next year their roots will be even longer. There are a few thistles coming there as well, but I can't dig those trees up and put them in pots—they're too big.

Diminishing returns

Sadly, my veggie garden faces one major threat I can't do anything about: it's surrounded by healthy, growing Douglas fir trees. In a few more years, my downhill neighbor's young firs will be tall enough to block the early morning sun from reaching my garden. As I mentioned, they already get no sun after 2pm at the latest, from the already 100-ft-tall firs in my South neighbor's yard, and the same size firs in my own yard. I've been thinking of moving all my strawberries up closer to my house, where they'll get the maximum afternoon sun I can give them. But every year that sun gets less and less, because the surrounding firs grow 1-2 feet every year. If I can't get the money to take down some of my trees, it won't be many years before I won't even have enough sun for my blueberries.

That's what happens in a forest.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Raised Pots - A new science experiment

I've been thinking about doing this for a while.

7 years of pots—a solution looking for a problem
I really want more raised beds for my veggies, after moles killed my snow peas by lifting them out of the ground, and almost did the same to half my spring broccolis. BUT—as everyone knows, raised beds cost $$$$—far more than a year's supply of frozen broccoli. Meanwhile, I have a large pile of pots just waiting for me to recycle them. So I took my six baby winter brocs this morning and gave each one a mole-free and hopefully vole-free home in a 2-gallon pot.

2-gallon pots, fiberglass mesh, and a baby broc
I started with 1-gallon pots, but then I remembered how big my spring broccolis got, and how thick those stems were. I don't want to crowd their roots. The drain holes in the 2-gallon pots are big enough to let a vole or a baby mole through, if it were lucky enough to find it, so I lined the bottom of each pot with 1/8" fiberglass mesh, the same stuff I used under the strawberry raised bed. I really can't see any critter wanting to chew through fiberglass, it's inert, and little roots can get through it if they want to.

Buried in the soil, ready for insulation
I mixed in store-bought compost with the soil, just for a bit of extra tilth and drainage, and then dug a hole and buried about 4" of the pot in the soil. I didn't want to bury them all the way, which would help keep the roots from freezing, because that would make it easy for voles to climb into them, but I didn't want to leave them completely exposed, because that would make the soil more likely to freeze during the freezing spells. If we do have an extended freeze—like the ten-day one we had a few years ago—then I may lose them anyway. As the soil warms up and they start to grow in the early spring, I'm hoping the slight elevation will help the upper soil drain well and maybe warm up a bit earlier than the surrounding soil, which is one of the major benefits of raised beds.

Just need a few more leaves
After I planted each one, I filled the top 1" of each pot with a mat of the decaying hay from this year, and then I'm filling in leaves around and over the pots, which will help insulate them and block weed growth. I'm hoping that the only difference they'll notice from being in the ground is that they have a little better view.

So, now we sit back and see how they do. I really should have planted them a month or two ago, but I blew off a lot of my garden chores this fall while the weather was nice in favor of painting outside in my garden, which was one of the most fun things I've done in years.

As I dug the holes I found some subway tunnels, and lots of small, really deep, or half-eaten potatoes that I missed when I did the big dig. No wonder I always get so many volunteers every year. I'm shifting my potato culture to the west half of the garden next year; I've been growing them in the same rows for three years, and although I didn't see any disease, I'll rotate them for a year or two.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Early fruits come in

Asian pears and apples

When I checked the orchard last evening, there was a big Shinseiki asian pear on the ground. It had a big rotten area on one side, but the other side looked really good. I wanted to taste it and see how close it was to ripe, so I took it up to the house to cut out the bad part. When I cut into it, the flesh was so crisp it crunched as I cut, and juice dripped from it. Of course I ate it! It hadn't developed much flavor yet--it needs another month--but it was mildly sweet and the texture was terrific. So I decided to go around and shake all the trees. Seven pears and five apples!

The dark red apple on the lower right is the only gala--it really didn't want to come off but it's so blemished I doubt there'll be much to eat on it. Its footie got peeled back early on by a critter and it's been scarred since it was half this size. The two on the top are Honeycrisp and the two smaller ones on the bottom are liberties. The two darker pears are Chojuros, and the light yellow ones are Shinseikis.

Several of these fruits have wounds where squirrels tried to chew through the footies, but I can cut around those. I weighed the bagful and it was six pounds! I put the apples in the fridge (I still need to check and see if the Honeycrisp need cold storage) and the pears out on the counter to ripen a bit more.

The squirrel repellers I put up two weeks ago still seem to be keeping the squirrels away. The liberty and the pears still have another month or so till full ripening, but I'll keep watching them and checking. I'm glad I'm getting some of my harvest!

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

A surprise harvest day

I finished my painting session today just after noon, and was walking around looking at what I need to do in the garden, and spotted one of the grape clusters on my Himrod vine. Half of the grapes in it were half an inch across so I thought I'd taste one and see how close it was to ripe. It was sweet and delicious! So I ate more, and as I did, I spotted the other clusters. I went up to the house and brought down my pruners and cut all half-dozen of the clusters. I ate as many as I wanted and took the rest up to the house and put them in the fridge. I was surprised that most of the tiny grapes were as sweet as the larger ones—not all of them, though. None of my other three vines had fruit this year, but I'm still quite happy to have what I got.

I also decided it was time to pick both my Bartletts, and they must have agreed because they came off the tree quite readily. It's such a small tree, and had to struggle so much its first two years in the ground, I was skeptical that both these pears would make it to maturity, but they did! They're full-size, nice, green-golden pears, and I'm hoping they're going to taste as good as they look. I should know in about a week.

I marked my calendar so I'll know next year when to expect harvest!

Friday, August 2, 2013

New squirrel in town

There's good news and there's bad news. The bad news is that grey squirrels have discovered my orchard. This was the first sign—an asian pear stripped of its footie and carried a hundred feet away and dropped on the other side of the barn. It wasn't ripe yet and won't be ripe for at least another couple months. I found the footie under the tree—it was from my Shinseiki.

Two days later I found two apples knocked down from the Liberty, and one damaged but still on the tree. Happily, this time the footies didn't come off, and the squirrel didn't chew through the footies and didn't actually get any of the apples, just left bites in them. They also won't be ripe till at least mid-October.

I've been trying to make sure I spend some time every mid-day out in that area of the garden, just to make sure the squirrels see me there. They haven't come back. My neighbor said one of them got run over in the road, and they've set traps at their place. But if they really get determined, I do have a trap that I can set up.

The good news is that the strawberries are bearing again! I had to rebuild my cage to keep the birds (and squirrels) out today, because they grew so big the strawberries were starting to ripen outside the cage! I ate half a dozen delicious big ripe ones, and had to throw away as many big green ones because I couldn't fit them back through the mesh. I raised the level of the top another 8" or so and redesigned it so it was the same height everywhere, instead of arched. I had one other idea that seemed like a good one, so I'm trying it, although I'm not sure it'll work—I staked up the fruiting stems with short lengths of bamboo poles, so the fruits will be off the ground. I have a couple other ideas if that doesn't quite work.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Berries, berries, and cherries

Seascape strawberries and Montmorency cherries
Harvest is starting! I've been eating fresh strawberries every morning for two and a half weeks now, and really enjoying them. The first flush of Seascapes is coming to an end now, but I'm still getting some every couple days. I'm expecting a 2nd crop in a month or two, but I'm not sure when.

And I have cherries! The 162 I counted two months ago are almost all still there--except for this pint I picked a few days ago. I'm heading down this afternoon to get the next bunch. I'm going to try cooking the ones I have so far, later today. Don't want them to sit too long. I'm very happy to see that the fruit fly trap worked really well, so far at least. I haven't found a single inhabited cherry yet, and only a few have been attacked by the birds. I have a net ready to put over the tree, but I really don't mind if the birds get a few. The first ones mostly came off the stones when I pulled on them, and only a couple trios came off with the stems. I decided to give them a few more days before I harvest again. This morning I peeked at them when I went down to hay the potatoes, and I see darker red than I've seen before. I'm still new at this, and definitely learning.

"Fall-bearing" raspberries—in June.
The raspberries started ripening in a really phased manner this year, way different from the last two years. I got about half a bag full over a week, just a few at a time, then suddenly a couple days ago I got a full pint. Now they're coming slowly again, and I've got one plant that is covered with green ones and only had 2 ripe ones when I picked the others. These are all basically the same plant, all located within a six foot circle, so I'm at a loss to explain the different timing this year. It did seem that they started early this year, but my schedule's so screwed up this year—with the month of June gone for jury duty—it's hard to say for sure.

Nice hay--lots of flowers this year!
Sometimes I'm learning the hard way: June is awfully late to be putting hay around my potatoes, but I have at least one excuse. I was waylaid with a sprained ankle and couldn't even make it down there for a couple weeks, and then it started raining again, so I waited. Well, today I got out at 5am, before the sun came up over the ridge, and put out my bale of hay. I had to push the plants back into their rows so I could get the hay around them on both sides, but it went pretty well. I really like the way it looks with the hay. The reason I'm in such a hurry to get it done down is, while I was pulling a few weeds two days ago, I came across a 2" purple majesty potato pretty much right at the surface, and I really don't want the sun to be hitting them. I won't start harvesting them for another two or three weeks.

Basket o' kale
Yesterday I harvested the broccoli yesterday, half-cooked it and froze it all. I probably should have just blanched it, but I wasn't sure how successful that would be with the big heads. This morning after haying, I cut down the four stalks of kale that hadn't fully bolted yet—it really happens fast when the temperature goes up—and brought them into the kitchen. Then I spotted a spider on one and took them back outside and sprayed them off. I set up my stockpot and a bowl of ice water and blanched 4 leaves at a time, and after I got them all done I figured out how to bag them for the freezer. I was going to leave the midribs in, but they were still so stiff and took up so much room, that I cut them all out, folded up the leaves in little bundles, and fit them all into one and a half quart bags. So we'll see how that works. I've never blanched anything before, so it was a bit of an adventure, too. It's nice to have that all done, now I just have the stuff I've done before. Should give me several weeks of greens to go with my taters. I did notice that the sweet, mild taste of the tuscan kale did actually get a lot stronger in the last week. I wasn't sure before how long it would last, so now I know: until the weather warms up.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Summer, Saturday, and Strawberries!

What an incredible day! I spent the morning in a garden workshop at Gracewood Studio (see my other garden blog for today) and came home to a wonderful quiet afternoon, 75º outside, no wind, and a dozen and a half of fresh-pickable strawberries, not to mention a couple snap peas and the first raspberries of the year.

I rinsed these off and have eaten half of them already, with my supper. For the last few I mixed up an easy instant chocolate sauce (1 Tbsp. nonfat Nancy's yogurt, 1 tsp. cocoa powder, 2 Tbsp. powdered sugar. Adjust quantities for sweetness and thickness), and oh my goodness, what incredible, astonishing flavor. I feel that I am now in a position to HIGHLY recommend Seascape strawberries! They are growing and producing great guns, and throwing runners like it's going out of style, and the berries are so sweet and bright-tasting they practically effervesce. They have exactly the same sprightly bubbliness on your tongue that a perky flute of champagne does. I have no idea how that happens, but it does.

The Liberty apples are growing faster than any of the other apples and pears, about 1.5" in diameter now. The pears have grown, as have the other apples, but they're way behind the Liberties. So far the footies seem to be stretching easily to fit the fruit. I'm wondering if I'll need to go around and partially untwist the footies so they'll stretch more easily. I'm just keeping them under observation for now.

My tuscan kale is so beautifully lumpy! It's also more tender, quicker to cook, and milder than any of the kales I've grown so far. I need to start blanching it because I can't eat it fast enough to keep it under control. It's great with potatoes and vinaigrette.

My bergarten sage in the veggie patch is looking beautiful and blooming more than last year. The other little ones I put out other places are still getting established, but I'm hoping they start looking like this next year. I love the big light blue flowers.

I've learned a bunch about basil this year, trying to grow it for the first time. In mid-may I bought 7 little pots of it and planted them in with my blueberries, and one green one and two purple ones in a pot on the patio. The slugs promptly ate every one I put in the ground, and within a couple weeks the ones in the pot were rotting at the base of their stems and falling over. I told a friend and found that she keeps hers in her greenhouse till June. Two weeks ago, I happened on an herb man at the Oregon City Farmers' Market who told me that basil plants do just fine outside down to 40º, but only after they've been hardened off. My big mistake was buying plants from greenhouses and then setting them out immediately, and not to mention, putting them in the ground without a moat of slug bait around each one. I bought two new green ones from him, and put them outside in the pot with the one living remnant of the purple ones that's still hanging on. I did put a plastic cloche over them when the rain was coming down hard, just to keep them from getting too wet and beat down. July 4th and the dry weather are both coming. The fragrance is fantastic. I pruned the sprout tips tonight and put them in with the potatoes I cooked. Mmmmm. This is turning into a wonderful year.