As I write this on a bitterly cold winter day (17 degrees below zero) it’s hard to think about growing things. Long-term weather forecasts are predicting another cool summer due in part to the ice coverage on Lake Superior, which is still growing thicker with ice as I write this. As a gardener, this has really got me thinking about what I can do get a jump on the season.
Starting seeds inside is a good way to get your garden season rolling despite the weather. Growing green plants inside with lights can also be a great defense against cabin fever. As discussed in the seed starting class I taught last week, you’ll want to keep a few things in mind in order to ensure your plants are robust and healthy enough to provide the season-extending benefits you’re hoping for. Here are a few tips:
- Don’t start your plants too early. Remember that as your plants grow they will need more space, light, and water. When the twelve tomato plants you started in 2 six-packs in February grow into 12, 6-inch pots in May, make sure you’re prepared for your tomato plants to take up your entire dining room table. I’ve been there!
- Provide enough light. If you don’t want spindly plants, you will need to provide more light than provided by a south-facing window. You can experiment with ways to enhance the natural light provided (making a reflector out of aluminum foil, etc.) but the tested method is using a shop light with one cool bulb and one warm bulb per flat. Keep the light just above (a half inch or so) the tops of the plants, adjusting as the plants grow.
- Feed your seedlings. Seeds don’t need food to germinate, but growing seedlings could use a square meal of fish emulsion or worm juice every other week or so (if using a sterile seed-starting mix). If you’re using a non-sterile potting mix that includes compost, your plants may not need additional feeding. Unfed seedlings can become spindly. Refer to the labels on your fertilizer for application instructions.
- Don’t forget to harden off your plants before exposure to the elements! Plants that have grown up inside are not prepared to face the elements outside. To prepare them, gradually expose them to the outside environment, first putting them out in a protected area for a few hours on a sunny afternoon. Put them out for a little longer the next day. You can continue to increase exposer to outside temperatures and wind until you just bring them in at night. I usually “harden off” my plants for at least a week (depending on the conditions) before putting them in their permanent homes outside. Error on the side of being overprotective because once your plants get “shocked,” by the elements, (you’ll know when it happens because your beautiful, robust plants will suddenly look scraggely and sad,) it will take a while for them to recover.
If it’s June and it’s still too cold for tomatoes, consider setting up a mini greenhouse to hold them in until temperatures stabilize. Here’s an example of one I used last season made with 2-foot lengths of rebar, plumber’s tubing, and plastic.
So as a stay-at-home mom, gardener, and educator, I’m always looking for ways to make gardening an enriching and educational experience for my kids. Lately I’ve found myself in this struggle between finding enriching activities for my three-year-old, and having the time to cook a good meal/do garden clean up/prepare the garden harvest for preservation. I’ve been wavering between feeling guilty for not giving my child my full attention, and feeling guilty for not making the most of every plant that took up space in my garden this season. But yesterday I relearned a lesson that I’ve learned many times before: the value of integration. I had a huge bucket full of kale that I needed to get in the freezer. I had a three-year-old that needed some attention. I combined the two with great success!
Together we cleaned out the sink. Sylva got to splash around in the cold water and make bubbles so she was happy. We then filled the clean sink with cold water, and began piling in batches of fluffy, dark green kale pieces.
Sylva happily swished the kale around in the sink and transferred the clean kale to the strainer as I kept pouring in more Kale.
As she swished and drained, we kept our eyes open for the tiniest kale leaves, which Sylva named her “cutie pies.” We thought of words to describe the two types of kale: Dino, “the bumpy kind” and Red Russian “the feathery kind.” As we worked we snacked on the kale, which I explained was some of the best kind of “growing food” you could eat.
I asked her what she thought we should make with the kale this winter. We talked about making soups and lasagna.
After the kale was cleaned, we got the steamer going and I explained how we would put the fluffy kale into the hot steamer for two minutes and it would flatten out and shrink up. I dumped the steamed kale into the cold water in the sink where Sylva stirred it around in order to cool it off. As the kale that filled up our five-gallon bucket was steamed, Sylva was amazed to discover that it all fit in a large mixing bowl. In total we ended up with 9 bags of about one cup of frozen Kale. But more importantly, Sylva got to: feel useful helping Mom with an important job, engage her senses, eat really nutritious kale, and become more familiar with a vegetable that is very well-adapted to our region, and becoming a staple in the development of a regional food system.
This experience reinforced to me that the ideal learning environment is one which engages the senses, integrates multiple disciplines, and has a purpose beyond just “learning”– a purpose that impacts the world outside of the classroom (like producing food). As a parent, this is freeing to remember because it means that I can have experiences with my kids that are enriching to them, and at the same time enable me to check one more job off of my “to do” list. It also reminded me that kids don’t need a constant inflow of the most up-to-date and developmentally-appropriate toys and educational gadgets in order to grow up and succeed. Mostly, they need adults to engage with them. The garden makes a wonderful environment to engage kids in learning!
So I’ve got a lot of loose ends to tie up! What a weird, long, fall it’s been. It’s mid-November and I still have kale in the garden and spinach in my mini-greenhouse! I wish it were because I was conducting some kind of experiment on the temperatures these hardy plants can handle…but it’s just because other things have taken a higher priority. Not including the neglect of my late-season kale and spinach harvest, I did do pretty well with making the most of my harvest. I’ve tallied up 93 quarts of food that I’ve canned of froze. Check out my planting and harvesting log for the complete end-of-season preservation totals.
Now to provide the end results of this season’s garden experiments: straw-bale gardening, polycultures, season extension, a focus on brassicas, and hugel beds. (Check out post “Building Resiliency into My Garden,” and others, for further explanation and results on these experiments).
Straw Bales: their harvest was meager. The harvest may have improved had I investigated the proper amount of fertilizers to provide the bales throughout the season but pumping fertilizers into the bales just isn’t my style. If I have a problem in my garden, I look to the soil. I have faith that if I provide the soil with what it needs, it will provide for my plants. But with straw bale gardening, you put your faith in the inputs and there’s not a long-term incentive to feed the soil. So I can see how straw bale gardening would be useful in certain applications–like locations where no other soil is available. But I wasn’t thrilled with my results in my own garden. One more factor was squirrels. I did spot a few with tiny potatoes clutched in their paws.
My experiments with establishing polycultures resulted in a much more aesthetically-pleasing and wild look to my garden, and fewer pests! I couldn’t assure you that fewer pests were a direct result of the polycultures, but there were fewer pests. In particular, my cabbage is usually full of caterpillars–not this year. Was it due to the polyculture I planted of cabbage, beets, onions, and potatoes? Or was it because I started my cabbage plants even before I started my tomato plants, potted them up into my tomato planter (not in individual pots) where their roots could intermingle and roam free, and set them out in my mini-greenhouse well before they were ready to be planted. When they did finally get into the ground, they were big and robust and well prepared to resist disease and pests. But back to polycultures: I planted pole beans with carrots, sunflowers, calendula and borage. I planted cumbers with lettuce, carrots with peas, and tomatoes with carrots and onions. I’ll try this again next year, rotating the groups of plants to different sections of the garden, and experimenting with spacing and timing, and see if I still have luck. (Check out my garden maps to see how these polycultures were laid out and see previous posts for pictures of some of these polycultures).
The hugel-bed experiment is on going. This fall I dug a hole about 2 1/2 – 3 feet deep, four feet wide, and eight feet long. I filled the hold with in-tact, jack pine logs, then rotted pine boards, then sand/dirt, and one square yard of manure to top it off.
I planted a mix of plants as a cover crop and will incorporate the cover crop into the bed to build soil.
I’m hoping next year I will be able to plant some small fruit trees. The rotting organic matter will provide good nutrients and will enable the ground to hold much more water in an area where the soil is almost pure sand.
Oh yes, and the last thing: extending the season. I planted spinach, lettuce, komatsuma, and mache in later August. Ideally I would have planted it earlier so things would have had time to size up a bit before the angle of the sun gets too low and temperatures go down too much. The lettuce and mache didn’t germinate too much, but the spinach and komatsuma did well. It’s still out there today and the spinach leaves are about four inches long or so.
Stay tuned as I post my end-of-season evaluation in the next couple of weeks. And then we’ll start thinking about next year!
So if you really want to rack up the tally of pounds harvested per-square-foot of your garden, grow some cabbage. In a previous post I used my three-year-old to lend some perspective to a picture of my biggest cabbage in my patch. That cabbage alone weighed in at just under ten pounds! Last week I spent an afternoon shredding cabbage heads and smashing the shreds into a five-gallon bucket with some salt to make sauerkraut.
I filled up a five-gallon bucket with 27 pounds of shredded cabbage from four heads of cabbage (the other 6 heads I’ll do after my carpal tunnel goes away). Now that’s some bang for you buck! And unlike food that is preserved using heat, fermented foods are alive with healthful bacteria. Fermenting guru Sandor Ellix Katz has found in his research (as outlined in his wonderful book Wild Fermentation) “the organisms of fermentation play a role in protecting us, as organisms among organisms, from disease,” (Katz, 8).
Since fermented foods can keep for several months in the refrigerator, I will be doing my best to ensure the consumption of all of this kraut before it is past its prime. I probably will end of freezing and/or canning some (no way will it all fit in my fridge) although it is soooo much tastier and better for you before freezing or canning. Anyone have some good sauerkraut recipes? Mom and Dad, good thing you’re “kraut-heads” from New Ulm because you will be getting some fermented treats for Christmas!
Keep your eyes on the DCGP web site for info. on a community kraut-making event they’re organizing this fall!
Finally my jungle garden is here! Man I love August.
Mid-July and the garden still wasn’t producing much more than lettuce and peas. But then it happens. Everything explodes and you’re regretfully pulling up plants that you crowded together earlier this spring when everything was so small. But how fleeting this moment of abundance is. At least that’s how it feels this year. I have aspirations of taking care of most of my family’s food needs year round from our own gardens. This year it has seemed like quite a daunting task, given how long it took summer to arrive.
My jungle garden just got here and already there are signs of its demise. The peas are slowing production, the lettuce is turning woody, leaves are beginning to yellow, the angle of the sun is changing. Basically we’ve got little more than a couple of months to harvest and “put up” everything we’ll need for the winter. All the more reason to grow to love sauerkraut, beets, and kale: all things that grow well around here, which I had no interest in before I started investigating the natural systems I rely on to eat. Keep an eye on the DCGP web site if you’re interested in adding pressure canning to your food preservation skills–I’ll be doing a class on it in September. We’re also organizing some community canning sessions. All are welcome!!
Today I planted a bed of winter greens: spinach, mache, arugula, and winter density lettuce. I’ll cover them with my mini-greenhouse and see how long they last into the fall. Today I noticed that the light is different–more like fall. I have been bracing myself for fall–I am soo not ready for another winter. So I’ll try to prolong the garden season as long as I can with my mini-greenhouse.
I just got done reading a wonderful book called “Turn Here Sweet Corn” by a Minnesota farmer named Atina Diffley. She writes about the evolution of the local food movement in the Twin Cities and her role within it. I met her and her husband and visited her farm when I worked at Seward Co-op in Minneapolis and she’s this very charismatic, interesting woman. Anyway, they were one of the premier growers in the area and the story of her farm is totally fascinating! They struggled against suburban development and fought against an oil company that wanted to use eminent domain to put a pipeline across the farm. They won the court case by proving that organic farms are effected to a much greater degree by these sorts of disturbances because they rely much more on healthy soil to feed plants and combat disease. The coolest part about her story is seeing how taking care of the land and feeding people good food for over thirty years resulted in this rich reserve of social capital and good will among everyone that did business with them. So when the farm was threatened, they were able to use that social capital and good will to successfully defeat the powerful oil company. They didn’t have tons of money, but they had social capital.
She also includes a lot of information about soil health, dealing with pests, preventing diseases, etc. One of their specialties was plants in the cabbage family. And I found it really fascinating to hear that they seed their broccoli in nursery beds really close together. When it’s time to plant they actually pull the plant, roots and all, out of the soil, (so it’s roots are bare), take it to the field it will be planted in, and plop it in. Atina explains that the roots of the plants are stronger when they have room to grow and don’t get root-bound in a plug tray or soil block. When their bare roots are first put in the ground, it takes a while for the leaves of the plant to perk up but the roots are established much sooner with this method. This is similar to what I ended up doing this spring due to my eagerness to plant and the lateness of the spring. As you can see, my cabbage has responded well to my early planting and their layover in my jumbo tomato planter and make-shift greenhouse this spring.
Other updates: we spent a week at the cabin just in time to harvest shelling peas from the cabin garden and pick beautiful, big, wild blueberries.
Our week at the cabin also gave me some time to work on my Hugel Bed project. I’m planning on establishing a big hugel bed (about 4 x10 ft) to eventually plant a couple of fruit trees in at the cabin. I figure this would be a good application because the soil is pure sand and a hugel bed would provide nutrients and keep moisture in the ground a lot longer.
This week the harvest really started happening! I’ve been picking raspberries, currants, cucumbers, zucchini, peas, kale, a couple of cherry tomatoes, and basil! Man I love this time of year.
My garden is loving this heat! Finally things are starting to size up. So far I’ve harvested lettuce, asparagus, broccoli, greens, basil, parsley, and chives. Lots more is on the way! Peas are blossoming, the beans and cucumbers are climbing to the top of their trellises, zucchinis flowers are waiting for pollination, and today I noticed a few cherry tomatoes beginning to blush! Oh! And Sylva has been picking strawberries from our little patch! She tells me they’re good–she devours them immediately and won’t let me get near the patch.
I’m bracing myself for the chaos that characterizes the harvest season in our climate that is hospitable for the growth of food plants only 5 or 6 months out of the year. Given the season’s late start, I feel especially antsy about making the most of what I grow and filling up all of those jars in my cupboard that my family has been emptying for the past year.
I also wanted to share this side-by-side comparison of my tomatoes planted in pots and my tomatoes planted in the straw bales. The pots are winning. Not sure if I just need to fertilize my bales more or what. The nice thing about soil is that you can continuously improve it, eventually reducing the need for inputs like fertilizer. After the bales are spent, you just start over with new bales. I’m anxious to see what I end up with by the end of the season. I’d be really excited if I actually do end up with a pile of luscious compost where my bales used to be.
…I’m getting mixed results. My tomatoes and cole crops (broccoli and cabbage) in the straw bales are coming along. The plants look reasonably healthy but not quite as robust as my tomatoes in pots or my broccoli and cabbage plants in the ground. The plants themselves are just not as lush or fast-growing. But there are quite a lot of blossoms on the tomatoes.
The potatoes I planted in straw bales are nearly all poking through to the surface now!
I was a little worried because I had a serious crop of two types of mushrooms that sprouted on half of the bales. The potato plants on those bales are slower to poke through but most of them have now. And I still have hope for the couple that haven’t because the seed potatoes were placed a good 12 to 18 inches deep in the bales (as instructed), so they have more space to cover before reaching the surface of the bale. Again with the potatoes, the plants look alright but are not nearly as healthy-looking as the potatoes I planted in the ground. More fertilizer? I applied a foliar spray of fish emulsion to all of the plants in the straw bales. We’ll see if that helps. Any other suggestions?
Strawberries and Rhubarb!!
So this year we moved are strawberry patch because it was recommended to me that I move them every three years. The new patch got off to a rough start since spring took so long to arrive, and since our resident bunny family snacked on every luscious plant I put out, killing over half of them. So on attempt number two I put in bare root stock, which our wacky neighborhood squirrels promptly dug up by the roots. I’ve since planted beets, chard, cilantro, and corn in the plot and will try again next season. So this year’s strawberry harvest is thanks to the strawberry lady who sets up on Grand and Belknap in Superior. Combining the berries with rhubarb from my young and meager patch, as well as rhubarb foraged (with permission) from three neighbors, I was able to get out the water-bath canner for the first time this season and make a batch of strawberry rhubarb jam. The remainder of the harvest is headed for the freezer to be used on cereal, in pancakes and dessert.
So one of my experiments this summer is planting more polycultures (or multiple plants that compliment each other in the same bed). Today visiting my community garden I gained a little insight on some things to consider when doing this in the future. In the previous post I included a map of my polyculture beds. My observations at the garden today emphasized the importance of spacing and timing. My cabbage plants are looking beautiful and big. The beets I planted around the cabbage have germinated nicely but I’m afraid a lot of them will be too shaded out by the cabbage plants to fully mature. This season my cabbage plants were soo big by the time I put them out–due to my starting them way too early because I had spring fever so bad and due to the late date that the snow finally melted. In a normal season (if we ever get one of those again) beet seeds would have been planted a good month earlier and my cabbage plants would not have been so large. Next time I would also space the cabbage plants farther apart so there was more room for beets.
I’m happy to report that my cabbage plants have not been munched on by any slugs, flea beetles or anything. This is unusual for me!! Could it be the result of the polyculture? We’ll see if it lasts…
Also, a word on thinning: I had the tastiest snack while thinning out my beets. I’ve come across gardeners who meticulously drop just the right amount of seeds perfectly spaced so they don’t have to pull up plants while thinning. I have never had the patience for that. But those tasty plants I uprooted today–they’re lives were not in vain! I munched them all up and had the tastiest little micro-green salad as I gardened!
Building Resiliency into your Garden
This year my family and I decided to start keeping a phenology chart. I wanted to start doing this because it makes me pay more attention to the natural world. I made a chart which included animal sightings, seasonal events like “ramp harvest,” and “ice-out,” as well as a place to list major weather events. We’ll record our sightings and events for the next ten years on the same chart, allowing us to compare from year to year and potentially recognize changing patterns. The historian in me also likes the idea of leaving behind this historical artifact to give future generations insight into what life was like “back then.”
Our changing environment and the increased occurrence of extreme weather events has me thinking a lot about how to build resiliency into my garden. How can I make my soil less vulnerable to flooding and drought? How can I protect my plants from extreme temperatures?
Once again the first place solutions seem to appear is in the soil. Of course healthy soil is our best defense against the excesses of the elements; good soil holds onto water in a drought, sheds excess water in a flood, and provides balanced nutrients to plants, keeping the plant’s “immune system” agile enough to combat any threats posed by disease or pests. But what can we do beyond building soil health to enhance resiliency? April and its snow showers has provided me with plenty of time to think about this question and I’d like to share a few of the techniques I will be experimenting with in my own garden:
Problem: Too much water.
Solution: I plant to install a couple of rain gardens in the yard in the hopes that this will provide more space for the excess water to pool and allow my gardens to dry out sooner.
Problem: Unseasonably cold temperatures.
Solution 1: I built a mini greenhouse on the south side of the house with rebar, ½” pvc pipe, and plastic (as recommended in Francois’s workshop at the spring fling) which housed my potted up plants until it warmed up.
Solution 2: Straw bale gardening. The idea is that the decomposing straw will provide nutrients to the plants. The advantages are that the bales warm up quicker than the soil, they require very little bed prep, and they offer greater flexibility because you don’t need to have good soil where you plant them. They’re also handy for gardeners who are in wheelchairs or have trouble bending down to tend their gardens. For details check out this site: http://www.no-dig-vegetablegarden.com/straw-bale-gardening.html
Problem: Not enough space for perennial plantings (which naturally provide higher yields with less work).
Solution: Develop marginal land for planting using hugelkultur beds. Hugelkultur is a technique for building a garden bed that incorporates logs, tree branches, and other woody material into a very deeply dug (or raised) bed. The woody material is buried with soil or compost. As the woody material rots, it greatly increases the bed’s ability to absorb water and the decomposition process enhances the life of the soil, providing great nutrients for your plants. Once initially established, the bed requires minimal maintenance while providing nutrients for your plants for numerous seasons. We will experiment to see if this technique will allow us to establish fruit tree plantings at our cabin where we won’t be there to water consistently and where the soil is nutrient-deficient (pure sand). For more information check this out: http://www.richsoil.com/hugelkultur/
Problem: Increased pests and disease issues.
Solution: Establishing polycultures. Polycultures are groups of plants that compliment each other when grown together. I’ve practiced companion planting by planting a row of tomatoes next to a row of basil. I’d like to take it a step further and experiment with planting, for example, tomatoes, broccoli, onions, and carrots all in the same bed. (see the illustration of the polyculture I will be experimenting with in my community garden plot.) Polycultures are more closely modeled after natural ecosystems and are said to require fewer inputs, less work, and greater yields.
Stay tuned with updates on these projects!