End of a season; Garden notes from 2017

The growing season is coming to an unseasonable close this year. The pepper plants, inherently loving of warm weather, hung on well into the start of November before our first true freeze wiped them out. The colder-hardy crops continue to grow and thrive. The lettuce which died back in the summer and never quite grew is flourishing. The remaining carrots which grew poorly, the parsley, the kale, the green onions and even the radishes are all quite content in their nearly winter gardens, green and perky. Some of them I may allow to over-winter, but the garden design for next year may not allow it.

Though things are technically still growing I am trying to finish up the growing season. It’s not going well. The days are warm and sunny frequently enough that even the bees are coming out of their hive and collecting pollen a few days a week. I would say that from my childhood it was a 50-50 chance of snow on Halloween and by the time Thanksgiving rolled around we’d have probably had multiple feet. Who knows what normal looks like now. I will likely consider a sturdy hoop cover for next fall to see if I can grow some plants clear through the winter.

Finishing up the growing season means more than just getting your garden beds in order for the winter, old plants removed, fed with compost that’s right on the cusp of being ready, mulched or cover-cropped, etc. It also means taking the observations jotted down and filed away in memory banks and text files from the year and compiling them into something useful for growing in the future. So this post is that compilation for my garden beds, edited and clarified deeply. I hope the lessons I learned this year can prove useful to other people who read this in the future.

2017 Weather and Garden Bed Changes

A general note about the environment my plants were raised in. We’re in USDA zone 6a, though that can vary by one zone if you go a dozen miles in any direction. This year had unusually high rainfall during the summer (nearly twice normal rainfall between may and September). It felt cold but temperatures were fairly normal (slightly above historical averages). The beds got built late and seedlings went into the ground late (mid may).

The garden beds themselves were shifted this year to allow for two large beds, one half bed, and a pair of potato boxes. The front-most bed was brand new this year and the soil was rough and unfinished. The potato boxes were also brand new. (See: This post from last winter showing my garden bed layout for this year and where things were planted, roughly.)

And now into

Plants and their 2017 Notes (in no particular order)

Potatoes

We grew two varieties of potatoes this year; Red Norland and Yukon Golds. Both did sub-par and did not meet expectations due to various factors. The beds they were planted in were brand new 4x4ft beds adjacent to one another and were designed to be vertical potato boxes. They had 1″ mesh plastic green deer fencing around them to hold the dirt in. They were grown by layering hay, compost and dirt vertically for about 2-3′. The Yukon golds had large, robust vines that held up well to the vertical planting style. The red Norland vines rotted away at the base more than the golds, though it was a problem in both varieties. The hypothesis is that the hay matted, molded and rotted more than straw would have with it’s more thorough exchange of air.
Both varieties also suffered from wireworms. The wireworms did significantly more damage to the Yukon Golds, devouring huge amounts of almost every potato. Only a few were uneaten, most were eaten beyond human consumption. The red Norlands had incidental wireworm holes inside but very few potatoes were damaged beyond human consumption. The red Norlands also suffered from minor scabbing from fungus but were generally healthy, robust and crisp potatoes. Though they produced fewer, smaller, potatoes overall, more potatoes were whole and edible. The red Norlands proved they could withstand a heavy wireworm infestation and were firm and delicious. The scabbing seemed to have little effect on the crop. The yellows were soft and mild, the reds were extremely crisp, firmer than a fresh apple and had a strong, almost sharp (for a potato) flavor. Over-all the potatoes produced far less than I expected, but I think the reds will be worth trying again, and replacing hay with straw will improve plant quality.

Onions (bulb)

I can’t recall the variety we grew but we got sets of medium yellow onions from Home Depot. The soil they were planted in was rough and they grew surprisingly well despite that. But they needed MUCH deeper mulching (by about 6″). The stalks fell over and died back very early, long before the roots were done growing. This is our third time growing onions and none have been highly successful. Given how inexpensive onions are to buy and difficult to grow, we will be taking a break from them in 2018 to focus on other plants.

Onions (Green)

I believe we grew Tokyo Long White green onions. They grew extremely well in large bunches and HUGE  plants. They only needed to be spaced further apart and harvested more often. We will be growing these again. They are still alive in our garden right now. A single leaf would frequently grow 1-2 feet tall and 2-3 inches wide.

Wild Garlic

This year we cut back the scapes and harvested bulbs which went very well! Next fall we plan on introducing other heirloom hardneck varieties to our garlic beds.

French Breakfast Radish

These grew extremely well. They were very prolific, and grew into huge radishes. Given the space they would grow to the size of carrots with a 1-2″ diameter and several inches long. They started to loose flavor during flowering, which happened as they aged in the heat. They grew insanely fast, and almost all the seeds sprouted. They were edible within a month and lasted in the ground even through light frosts, growing huge as long as it stayed cold. Wireworms and other insects consumed some of them but there were so many it didn’t matter. They did need more mulch and to be hilled/mulch more dramatically. They grow extremely well inbetween other plants and shade out weeds effectively. They were a huge success and will become a staple vegetable for us now.

Peppers

We grew three varieties of peppers this year; NuMex Joe Anaheims, Early Jalapenos and Black Beauty Bell peppers. They were planted close together in new, rough, soil and all three had similar problems and results. The pepper plants all suffered extreme damage from groundhogs early in the season, having all leaves eaten off repeatedly and stems chewed down until they were just sticks in the ground. Surprisingly, all the varieties recovered from this damage and grew back, but they were stunted and small as a result, only growing about 1′ tall. (The groundhogs suffered dearly for their transgressions at the paws of my husky.)  The Anaheims recovered first, putting out lots of big, long peppers. I should have let them ripen longer as they were quite mild and green. The bells recovered next. These peppers start out surprisingly small and dark, absolutely black. As they reach proper eating size they begin to become more like a purple or brown than an inky black. I didn’t realize this and I was picking most of them too early as well, but they were prolific as a result. The Jalapenos were the surprising under performers this year, recovering last and producing little. Normally they do much better. Because we were able to use most of the peppers in salsa and stir-frys (and they generally did well and produced lots) we will be growing all three again next year but letting them ripen more and protecting them more from marauders in the early season.

Tomatoes

Tomatoes were strange this year as we attempted to grow one variety and ended up with another. We tried to grow Bellstar tomatoes this year, but they were started too early and close together. The result was they got severe wilt, grew poorly and died off faster than I could clone them to stay alive. They were a disaster.
However we had very good luck with the San Marzanos that volunteered all across our garden bed from last year. We lost many tomatoes to the ground (and groundhogs) last year and got hundreds of plants sprouting from the ground in late spring this year as a result. We planted them and they grew prolifically producing enough tomatoes to can regularly. They grow EXTREMELY tall, however, and 4′-6′ stakes are NOT tall enough for them. 8′ stakes may be needed in the future. Staking them up and keeping them pruned back made them more manageable but they still got out of hand with growth. They need to be spaced slightly further apart (1.5ft instead of 1ft), staked up earlier than July and their suckers must be maintained more carefully. They did end up with a bad case of blight toward the end of the season and died back early as a result, but they continued to produce despite the fungus, which may have been worse than most years due to heavy rains. They were planted in an older, well-worked bed. Additional calcium in the soil (about 1/2 cup loosely crushed eggshells under each plant) nearly completely eliminated the blossom end rot we have experienced in previous years.
Because of how consistently prolific they are and how easily they grow in our soil we will be growing the San Marzanos again, but with more intense management to control blight and over-grown plants. These are well producing but high maintenance plants.

Zucchini

We grow Costata Romanesco zucchinis in our garden. This year they were planted in rough, newly dug beds. This year we experienced extremely high levels of blossom end rot and powdery mildew and (like the tomatoes) the plants died back early. This was in part due to high rainfall but I also suspect that the rough, less fertile soil had much to do with it. Despite that we grew several 4+lb zucchini which easily carried us through the whole summer and gave us some extra to freeze. We will be planting our zucchini with a lot of extra calcium next year to combat the issues we had.

Cucumbers

These were volunteers of an unknown variety that did OK after first being transplanted but quickly began to have problems after the first few fruits. Since these were not meant to be grown this year not much effort was made towards them. Being in full sun in the new, rough, soil dried some of them out to the point of no return. Later in the season the powdery mildew killed whole plants, but nothing was done to prevent these things from happening because we didn’t intend to grow cucumbers this year. Still, it’s good to know what went wrong so we can do better in the future.

Winter Squash (Acorn Squash)

We grew Table Queen Acorn Squash this year, interplanted near our corn stalks. Winter squashes have traditionally done well for us but this year they vined out excessively, did not cooperate with the corn well (frequently pushing the plants over instead of helping to hold them up) and only gave us 3 squashes this year despite the massive space they occupied. They also suffered from powdery mildew and blossom end rot. Because of this we have decided to try other varieties of winter squash next year and put the acorn squashes on the backburner for future attempts.

Carrots

We grew Touchon carrots this year and they did surprisingly well. We attempted to do the “four day” tri-planted carrot method with limited success. The seeds actually took nearly a week to germinate, and the mess of what grew where meant that the carrots were hardly tri-planted. Our soil across our whole lot is thick and clay heavy, and despite amending with a lot of sand, wood chips, straw and compost, we’ve never been able to make good carrot soil. Despite these mishaps, we ended up getting 5lbs of carrots (after removing the greens) out of our tiny 10 square feet (ish) of carrots. Most were small and straight but a few were large and some were crazy and lumpy. They were all quite short as our soil is so heavy. They were also delicious. Most fresh produce is good but the difference in flavor for the carrots was dramatic. Next year we will be growing carrots again, but a different variety designed for heavy soils.

Arugula

The arugula we grew this year did great. It grew well, bolted early and produced many seed pods after. It was resistant to animal consumption and vined out a lot. Strong flavor and very spicy. Will grow again in smaller quantities.

Lettuce
The lettuce mix we grew got consumed heavily by animals in the early spring and suffered in the heat of mid-summer as it tried to recover. It came back strong in the fall as the rest of the garden started to die back, but there weren’t many other vegetables to go with it any more. The lettuce varieties were all bitter and really needed a sweet lettuce to go with them.

Peas

We grew Cascadia dwarf snap peas this year. Early in the season they were dug up by squirrels and eaten down by groundhogs. They struggled to recover in time to avoid being shaded out by plants like the kale. The remaining and sad plants did produce peas that were the best peas I have ever tasted, however. They were extremely juicy and sweet. We will be trying them again next year with a little more TLC.

Kale

We grow Red Russian kale every year and it’s always a star in our environment. It got munched by caterpillars a bit in the hot summer months but bounced back. We did not eat enough of it, however, and really need to get more clever about eating our greens.

Broccoli

We grew De Cicco Broccoli this year. They germinated very well but were really leggy seedlings. They were delicious plants but hardly produced a head more than a couple inches across and they never did become less leggy. We ended up just letting them bloom over and over again to feed the bees during times when other blooms were few. They never produced enough heads to be worth eating substantially. Next year we will be trying cauliflower instead.

Beans

KY Wonder Pole Beans are staple on our farm. As usual, they out-performed most of our crops, producing more beans than we could actually harvest and eat reasonably. My friends and family members were fed with those beans. They also suffered a bit from the wet as they also got hit with various fungi and blights. The new trellises worked very well but really need plastic twine to stay in place. Sisal/hemp or other natural rope twines break too easily and the trellises fall over. The beans also could have been trained horizontally more effectively to allow them to take up more surface area on the trellises. We also need to clip the branches above the trellises back more as they tried to grow up into the trees! Saving seeds from these beans is also amazingly simple. This will continue to be a staple crop for years to come.

Corn

We grew Painted Mountain flint corn this year. Most years we have tried to grow Roy Calais flint corn to no avail. This year the corn actually grew and each stalk produced an ear or two despite our very small stand. The ears were not well filled out and frankly, we didn’t get much corn out of it… But that which we did get was beautiful! Coming in several colors, some ears being solid and some mixed, it’s gorgeous to look at. It did fall over easily. The stalks were thin and needed to be hilled more effectively. The radishes that were inter planted with the corn needed to be removed earlier and replaced with large amounts of mulch to support the corn stalks. Next year we will be trying this variety again as we’ve never gotten a corn to grow to fruit before and I think a larger stand may solve the problems we had.

Watermelon

Watermelons have traditionally been hard for us to grow. We planted Blue Ribbon watermelon. This year we got one small watermelon, but it was strong and ripe. They really need more shade during the height of summer and a longer season. Also, they were planted in rough soil and (like all the plants grown in the new bed) suffered from mildew and calcium problems. This is our second failed year in a row trying to grow these. We will be opting for a different fruit species next year.

Herbs; Mammoth Dill

The dill was transplanted from a pot and never bounced back the way I was hoping. It was plated in with our brassicas (kale and broccoli) to keep bugs away, which it did seem to at least a bit. Last year our kale was devoured by aphids. This year it wasn’t. But the dill itself never became a useful size. Direct sowing will probably serve us better next year.

Herbs; Parsley

We grew some sort of standard curly parsley, and it took off! It’s still alive and growing well in our back yard and seems to have done nicely for itself. The flavor is good and it’s extremely prolific. We will be growing it again next year. Germinated very slowly.

Herbs; Oregano

Did not germinate. Again. Maybe next year? Anyone have any tips on how to grow oregano from seed well?

Herbs; Genovese Basil

Germinated extremely slowly and needs to have a LOT of dirt space to grow properly. I have never seen a plant stunt itself so badly from lack of space before. We ended up growing this in both beds and pots and it did extremely well in both! Very prolific once it finally started to grow properly! Had to pinch the blossoms a lot to keep it from going to seed too early. Next year we will grow enough to dehydrate or turn into dairyless pesto for storage!

Herbs; Thyme

Our thyme grew wonderfully but was used minimally. Should be good as an inter planted pest repellent herb for the future, but not as heavy production for consumption. Forgot to dry the leftover herbs this year. Also took a long time to germinate.

Blackberries; This year we started a stand of blackberry canes. Unfortunately, there’s not enough to share with the birds as they ate nearly all of them. Next year we may try bird netting to maintain the stand better.

Strawberries; These had a great early season but as late summer rolled around they became so thick and over grown that the fruits weren’t turning red and were just rotting away on the vines. We will thin them heavily this year, possibly to hanging pots, and maintain them a bit more carefully to allow us to harvest more appropriately.

Management notes for next year;

This year was very wet and saw a lot of problems despite overall success. Management of soil quality in newly dug beds proved problematic. It was extremely difficult to get the beds in this past spring and many of the plants in those beds suffered as a result. Low mineral levels and low fertility in general seemed to effect some of the plants dramatically.
Animals consumed a lot of plants early in the season. Excluding wild animals from our lawn more effectively is going to be a requirement for the future.
Wireworms were a new problem that hit our potatoes particularly hard. They are common in freshly dug beds for up to 5 years because they live in grass roots. We can’t wait 5 years for them to decide to leave so we will be using other management techniques instead. The potato beds will be tilled repeatedly now that it’s fall, and again in the spring, to make the beds cold and drive the wireworms out. They will be treated with coffee grounds to make the soil more acidic than the wireworms prefer. We will also use small amounts of coffee grounds to fertilize our potatoes during growth. We will lastly be applying a small number of beneficial nematodes, which kill wireworms. It’s our hope that with these techniques we’ll be able to prevent them from living in the root vegetable beds and our potatoes will be safer for it.
Fungal blooms were a large problem as nearly all the plants experienced some sort of disease or another from fungus. Better, airier, plant spacing and more pruning will likely improve prevention of fungal diseases. Tilling soil, baking soda sprays, thick mulching and calcium supplements will also be used to help control fungal blooms on the plants including blight and powdery mildew.

The Summary

Despite some serious problems in our garden with fungal blooms, pests, and rough soil conditions, the garden went very well and produced a lot of food for us! It really felt like the garden was worth the work load this year. We learned a lot this year and I think next year is going to be extremely promising. We’re already adjusting our land and practices to compensate for and prevent the problems we had this year from effecting our spring plantings. I’m looking forward to the next growing season!

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Summer Cold

And no longer the weather kind. Dan has brought the sneezing-coughing sickness to us and though it’s a short illness it’s a bad one to have. I spent a few days with my head feeling like a bowl of soup, heavy and sloshing when I moved. Somehow things got done despite that. Greg and I are now starting to come out the other side of it, though I still have a bit of a cough left and the chores have stacked up in our absence of ability.

Although the summer has been pretty cold and it is now technically fall, it very suddenly heated up. It’s now in the 80’s… Right in time for the fall nectar flow for the bees. I have set out food for them, but they aren’t taking it like they were a month ago. All over the asters are in full bloom and the goldenrod is just on it’s way out. I wish I could have gotten the bees to build more comb before this, but now they are going crazy building hard. I swapped a bar of brood from the top box to the bottom about 10 days ago. They filled out that empty bar and just barely began to build new comb in the bottom box when I went to check on them this week. We swapped over two bars with a lot of brood on them to the bottom box and left the bars that were beginning to be built upon in the bottom box. The brood pattern in the hive is beautiful and the queen seems to be doing a great job, filling in the center of each brood frame in a tight consistent pattern. The top box now has two empty bars in it which I hope they fill rapidly with the good nectar currently available. It’s good because they desperately need the space to store honey. They NEED to put away food for the winter. If they don’t fill up both boxes, they could die. I will be putting in bee candy for the winter as well, but if they do very poorly they could end up needing to be fed next year again as well. I may feed them for 1-2 weeks in the early spring one way or another. While my late summer-fall flowers are well cultivated, my early spring blooms are lacking.

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These are the asters that cover my back lawn in the late summer. They are beautiful and they swarm with pollinators of all sorts. I have counted a dozen different species on them including 2-3 local bee species like small and large carpenter bees and bumble bees. We may also have mason bees, and mining bees. It’s hard to tell. But the plants swarm with them, alongside some species of flies, beetles and the occasional wasp.

Asters like this are native to my area of Ohio and they grow over 6′ tall in some cases. Asters are also one of the few native and heavy food sources for bees in the late summer and fall. Because of their size they are very much in violation of city ordinances. I had a nice talk this summer with one of our potential city council members about changing that but it seems unlikely. City councils, much like HOAs, were not developed to preserve freedom, but to preserve property values and restrict activities. Gotta love those free markets. Mine is the only lawn where they seem to be welcome because I believe firmly that the city ordinances are wrong and so the pollinators are welcome to congregate here. We also have a 6ft fence so our neighbors (mostly) cant see them. Sometimes we get in trouble and have to cut them down. It always makes me sad.

The raccoon continues to be a menace. We are now down to 6 birds in total. It’s been showing up during sundown instead of full dark, trying to pry open doors and nest boxes… Anything it can to get a fresh Chicken snack. We had an injured bird that was recovering, but Dan left the garage door open. Rest in peace little bird. The wildlife this year has been a nightmare everywhere. My sister had a deer break through some fencing in order to eat her tomato plants, my dogs managed to pick up fleas, the rats have been a nightmare, my other sisters tomatoes were equally ravaged, though they were on her front porch and the wildife has been breaking trashcans in the neighborhood. While it’s honestly tolerable as I was going to replace most of my flock this year it’s still a shame.

And the rabbits have been messy as well. We picked up a few rabbits from a lady who gave them away for free. They have been nothing but a disaster thus far. They were raised in wire bottom cages, and when we brought them home to our solid-floor cages the buck immediately had his feet deform. I suspect that the wire floors allowed his toes to grow at odd angles. With nothing but my usual husbandry, even with regular toe nail clipping, his toes turned at all kinds of angles. Within a month he was unable to breed or balance well and had to be culled. Now one of the does has given us a litter of 11, but keeps stepping on them, crushing them, and refusing to nurse them. That litter is down to 5. The other doe gave us a litter of 6, but two were stillborn with open wounds. Perhaps they got stuck during birth? But these unhardy rabbits make me long for Iams and Purina. I miss those bunnies, they were extremely robust. Because of their problems, I can’t in good conscious sell them as breeders. Every one of these bunnies is slated for the stewpot. They will each get one more chance before the does, too, are slated for dinners. Such a shame.

But the garden continues to grow well. We put eight jars of tomato sauce away, beautiful smooth like butter sauce that we sent through an old hand-crank food mill my sister gave me. It’s the best sauce I have ever made and tastes awesome. My hope is with this heat we will be able to put away another 8 jars before winter. Our second crop of radishes is growing extremely well and is coming out as big as my palm. The zucchini are growing huge as always, the winter squash have come in nicely and the beans continue to produce prolifically. Even the peppers have recovered, and are giving us several hot peppers and some small bell peppers each week. The garden is thriving this year like it never has before. I just wish the livestock were doing better as well.

We now have nine chicks who are thriving in my bedroom in an 80 gallon aquarium. They were bought from TSC when we went on a trip for feed. They were on sale and in all we spent $6 on the 9 chicks. Three are barred plymouth rock pullets and six are straight run buff orpingtons. Between these and the new wheaten Ameraucana chicks we are due to be receiving in a month I will have a brand new flock next year.

I also have fodder growing in my basement again. I purchased pet-safe tear-proof plastic window screening from Home Depot to line the bottoms and it’s been working very well indeed. This is for the chickens as they move into winter and lack fresh food options. They’re growing well but mold is still a problem I hope to find a way to resole that some day.

This week we spend cleaning to resolve the rat and flea problems. I can only presume they are interconnected. Hopefully we can get that done before winter and the need to order new hay. Fingers crossed!

Busy Fall Days

It’s not quite fall yet, but it certainly is rapidly approaching this year. While most of the world is on fire, underwater, or burning to a crisp, we have had extremely mild weather. It’s been a downright cold summer, filled with 4X’s our average rainfall for this time of year. Given that we get an average of 45 inches of precipitation a year (nearing rainforest levels of rainfall) that’s a lot of rain. It changes our local micro climate and makes things feel cold.

I am bringing in a basket of vegetables every few days now. Massive multi-pound zucchinis (last year’s record was 7lbs 10oz), baskets of tomatoes and green beans, precious few beautiful peppers and basil flowers all adorn my house, scattered about in large numbers. I really must get to canning them but my canner plate has gone missing. This is the little metal plate that goes on the bottom of the canner that keeps the jars from being directly on the bottom where the metal is in contact with the heat, and therefore keeps the jars from becoming damaged or exploding. Greg will be home monday-tuesday (as that’s his weekend) and will be helping me look for it. I even found all the other parts, and replaced the overpressure plug and sealing ring with parts my father got me for winter holidays. Typically I would have Dan help me look. But this weekend he’s fallen ill with some sort of sore-throat-and-sneezing-disease of one kind or another and has been doing naught but sleeping on my couch all weekend.

We did manage to get maintenance done on the bees and purchase feed. Dan rose up from his near-constant napping to help me stand out in the sun in a swarm of fall-enraged honey bees to see what we could do to fix what was happening wrong. You see, the bees refused to build in their lower box, no matter how much we feed them. We’re in the middle of a HEAVY food glut for bees as the asters and goldenrod are blooming all across the state and they STILL won’t build (though they are bringing in TONS of pollen!) so we decided to do something about it. With some patience, a smoker and sugar water (usually we only need the water) we managed to swap a single frame of honey and brood from the top box to the bottom box. Our hope is that this will not only force them to make a new frame and fill it in the top box, but also, that the presence of a frame in the bottom box will encourage them to build.
Also, on the bee front, is the good news that we have learned to manage our ant population. We had a set of larger black ants attempt repeatedly to move into the quiltbox. Apparently this is a common problem for warre hives. After removing the nest twice and pouring boiling water on the ants and their eggs to kill them we found our solution; Cinnamon. We powdered the whole inside of the quiltbox with the stuff, dropped a cinnamon stick in there for good measure, and powdered around the outside of the hive itself. This was met wit great success. We had a few scout ant for the next week, but after that we haven’t seen an ant colony since. It’s especially hard to get rid of ants that are attacking bees sometimes because the two species are so closely related. It can be like trying to kill mice without killing rats. Luckily the quiltbox is physically separate from the main hive so the cinnamon powder is unlikely to effect the bees, but should deter the ants nicely.

And speaking of rats, our rat problem continues. We have been trying to avoid poison but soon it will be cold and the rats will start to move indoors. This is unacceptable. We also need to get our hay brought in without rats nesting in it. We’re running out of time for more natural solutions like physical traps and dogs. They have also taken their toll on the rabbits. We can no longer have litters in the garage. They will get eaten.

Predation has also been very bad this year. We have had a young raccoon trying to devour everything. And he comes in very early in the night indeed.

But it’s not all bad. We have learned to manage. The garden is booming and we have had two litters of kits this week. Outdoors of course. We also purchased some chicks from TSC. Six St Run orpingtons and 3 pullet plymouth rocks. This is very pleasing as they were on sale and the whole lot only cost us $6. We honestly probably should have picked up more. The hope is to have a few replacement pullets for some older birds in our flock that are ready to move on. Splash and a few of the older buffs have nearly stopped laying, even being given consideration for moulting, so it’s time to move in younger birds for the spring. Rocks and orpingtons are all brown egg layers. As I transition part of my flock into purebred chickens, we will no longer be able to keep chickens that lay blue or green eggs that are not wheaten ameraucanas. So these new chicks fit in nicely.

The are living in a bedroom right now in an 80 gallon long aquarium. It’s been wonderful to just sit and watch them romp about. They’re so inquisitive and active. As I write a few of them are having fussy and fuzzy little fights for dominance. I’ve never raised chicks this close to me before, but concerns about rats drove my decision. Greg has always wanted chicks that would come running up to us, eat from our hands, and generally behave friendly towards us. This will be his chance to get that.

And despite not building in the bottom box, the bees are otherwise doing quite well. They have several frames chock full of brood with a fantastic brood pattern. My hope is that they start to pack away frames of nothing but honey soon also. Young bees build wax, so the frames of brood are exactly what we’d like to see in order to build up the hive frames for honey storage. We will have to take the time to feed them lots, but I believe that if they start to build some wax this month and put away honey that they will make it through the winter.

All around it’s been a difficult and busy season, but we are pulling through. Our homestead is coming back into order. And hopefully will be functioning smoothly again before winter.

Seedlings and Frosty Mornings

April 14th is our last average frost date for the year and May 1st our last extreme frost date. The weather has been wacky this year and has lead to several problems. I know that many people who farm tree-based commodities are running on panic mode right now. Our weather has been alternating between extremely warm spells (60’s and 70’s day and night) for two weeks and sudden, aggressive frosts, typically accompanied by several inches of snow. Sap season for maple syrup this year started and ended a month early, and we waved goodbye to most of the US peach crop as they bloomed with the heat and died in the frosts. Bees have been having trouble too. A lot of people are noticing the bees getting very active because of the heat, drawing out comb and eating winter stores to do so, and then when a frost hits they can’t reach their food (or don’t have enough left) and die. It’s a rough sort of spring.

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This was the view outside my bay windows last Thursday. The trees had so much snow on them, they were being pulled to the ground. Normally these flowers are well above the windows. Now it’s in the 70’s.

For me, the effects of the weather have also been substantial. My back lawn is essentially a swamp of sorts. The vast majority of northeast Ohio used to be swampland and wetlands before it was colonized by the English, and the effects of that heavy watershed still holds fast to this area. The alternating weather patterns have also been accompanied by alternating precipitation patterns, and when the water hits the ground in this area, it doesn’t leave until it evaporates into the air. There’s nowhere for it to go. This area is where the water is SUPPOSED to drain off to. As a suburb, we’re trying to get it to drain off even further. It’s not easy.

So preparing the expansion for my garden bed has, all around, been going poorly. Not only is there several inches of mud, but on top of that is inches of standing water. I was trenching (double digging) a new area of my lawn for the garden bed expansion, but I’m afraid that all I did was create a small lagoon in my back yard. I really need to rebuild those irrigation ditches this year to help drain water away.

The massive amount of water, sitting on top of the clay slab that I refer to as my lawn, is a large part of the reason why we garden the way we do. We have to amend the soil if we want to grow our staple diet needs. Clay soil floods, roots have trouble penetrating, and nothing seems to grow well in it at all. The water simply pools and sits on top, and we rely on evaporation not waterflow or absorption to lower our water table. So we build raised beds. Do note, the finished raised bed area from last year (lagoon to the fence) has no standing water. It’s still wet, but not flooded. It works.

(Broccoli and lettuce that should be planted outdoors, but it’s been too wet to
work the soil)

Good soil management plays into this a lot. We rely on fresh/arborists woodchips to play a big part in our gardening. The woodchips serve several purposes. First, they help with water management. They will absorb water when it’s wet, release the water when it’s dry, and also create pathways through the soil for water to travel, unlike the clay which simply stops it. Next, they slowly gather and hold in nitrogen, an essential nutrient for growing plants. At first, fresh wood chips are so busy absorbing nitrogen that they will leech it out of the soil, but in later years they shed the nitrogen in a form that is usable by plants in large quantities. To help mitigate the nitrogen loss, we use the wood chips in our chicken yard first, allowing it to mingle with the nigh-nitrogen content of chicken poop and start to break down. The wood chips also add biomass to the soil, not only through their own organic matter, making the soil looser and more fibrous, but also by feeding tons of microbes, insects, fungi and other things that live in the soil and help plants grow. Using the woodchips in the chicken yard also gives us an extra benefit; our chickens do not smell because their poop is neutralized by the carbon in the wood chips. It’s an extremely natural, effective, and usually inexpensive way of managing an integrated agriculture system.

But this year, the service I used to use to get wood chips delivered ($20 delivery plus $1 a yard) changed hands and is no longer offering that service. so I’ve been struggling with other groups instead. I have tried websites like Chipdrop (which was awful), I have been calling local arborist companies, etc. I have heard a lot of promises that I will get wood chips, but no deliveries yet. It’s been VERY difficult and frustrating.

As a result, it’s frankly too wet to work in my lawn to build the rest of the garden bed. Every step means sinking 2″ into the mud, every push on a wheelbarrow sees it creating ruts 6″ deep, and every shovel full of dirt comes with a flood of water. There have been no woodchips to mitigate the problem and make it manageable. So right now, I’m stuck.

I managed to plant nearly all the seedlings I was planning on for the year, and they’re ready to start hardening off. But I have nowhere to put them yet as I have compost to spread and dirt to dig before they can move into soil.

seedstarting.png

My seed starting station in my basement, with tons of green plants, some of which can handle the light frosts outside until may, but not the flooding.

So I wait. And wait. And wait. And maybe someday my wood chips will show up. When they do, there will be a massive party at my house, both figuratively and literally as I invite lots of people over to help move some dozen of yards of wood chips and eat one of the meat chickens and some squash that I raised out last year.

But for now, there’s not much I can do. The wet and unstable weather has me unable to traverse my own lawn, and only time will tell if I get my plants in the ground in a reasonable time frame or not.

Meanwhile… Have some pictures of my chickens, being wonderful and enjoying not being penned in (since we have nothing growing).

Everything I see is a seed cup

AKA, my top five DIY/upcycled seed starting options! (Scroll down for a list!)

Last time I reported how I was going to be starting about 300 seeds indoors. That’s a lot of seeds for me, and seed trays can be a bit pricey. So recently everything I’ve been looking at has started to look like a seed starting cup. That novelty glass jar? Maybe I can drill a hole in the bottom and… The tray that holds the custom-painted ornaments I gave Greg this year could just have some holes punched in it and… You know, the top to that board game box is nice, sturdy cardboard just the right depth, and if I planted the seeds in rows… It’s getting out of hand. Everything I look at, whether it’s important, in use, impractical, or not, I can’t stop thinking about cannibalizing it into a seed starting cup! Yikes!

Every year I buy a combination of peat and plastic seed trays in small quantities to add to my collection. I weigh a few things when I buy seed trays. Cost is the first. I don’t wanna be spending a crazy amount of money or I might as well be buying my own veggies, not growing them. Sustainability includes economic sustainability, and I aint in the 1% here! Second is environmental sustainability. Peat trays seem great on the surface… Biodegradable, made from renewable resources… But there’s an environmental cost to everything and a balance must be struck. Peat has to be grown, harvested, and processed into pots. And the equipment required to do that relies on fossil fuels. It’s like how even if you recycle a plastic bottle, it still takes fuel to recycle the bottle so it’s better to have not used it the first time. So peat pots have a footprint from being manufactured. Plastic pots and seedling trays have a higher footprint, but unlike peat pots are reusable. When the ecological impact is divided across several years and the plastic is ultimately recycled, plastic could easily be the better option. Even in a perfectly balanced world, there’s a level of plastic that is sustainable to have in production.

The other thing about peat trays is how they effect livability of plants. Since my soil is lacking in peat, every little bit counts and when I plant my pots I tear the bottoms off but leave the tops in tact. This creates a peat pot ring around the top of the plant stem that helps prevent bugs from attacking them. Plus it adds peat to my soil when I crumble the bottom half into the dirt, right where the plant needs it the most. On the other hand, plants whose roots hit the edge of a peat pot often become stressed and unable to grow further, desperately trying to push through the compressed peat. Don’t believe the lies that the roots will grow right through the pot nd you can plant the whole thing in the ground… They won’t! And it will strangle your plant’s growth. In a plastic pot, those roots simply turn and start growing around the pot in spirals, allowing the roots to uptake more nutrients and water to continue growing (but also creating a tangle of roots). It’s a bit of a trade-off. All around, it just kind of comes out as a wash to me. But I like to give it some serious consideration none the less.

One way or another, buying pots costs money and no matter what I do, a manufactured seedling pot comes with a footprint. So I’d much rather have things that were already made for another purpose and upcycle them into something I can use again! So here’s some great upcycling ideas for seed cups and pots! This is a list about from smallest to largest, because size is very relevant in seed starting pots. If you want to grow your plants for 10 weeks indoors, a larger pot might be better. If you are going to transplant them very quickly, use a smaller pot. I hope it helps give you some ideas!

Toilet paper rolls

seed1

TP and paper towel rolls make for nice, tiny, seed starters. The fact that they are cardboard is nice, you can use them much like peat pots, in that they will wick moisture up through them to keep the plants moist if the bottoms are set in water, without over-watering. I wrote a whole post about how to make and use TP rolls as seed starters way back when I first started homesteading.

Since then I’ve learned a few things about them that are worth noting. One, the ones made from half of a toilet paper roll are smaller than the ones made from 1/4 of a paper towel roll. They might even be too small. Two, they dry out VERY fast, and must be kept in trays with water at the bottom to stay moist. In some places they can develop slime or mold this way, but I haven’t had that happen much. Three; they are VERY small, and as a result, some plants need bigger seed cups or they need to be transplanted at least once before they go outside. So bear those facts in mind as you grow in cardboard tubes. However, once those facts are accounted for they can be quite effective, in abundance, super easy to make, and freeeeeeee!

Tomatoes

TP roll seed starters and peat pots, in a plastic tray so they can sit in water 24/7

Bonus!

Empty wrapping paper rolls! These are exactly like the toilet paper rolls, but bigger. They are cardboard, made the same way, wick water the same way and have all the same benefits and problems. But they’re bigger!

Yogurt Cups

00-reuse-containers

Yogurt cups (or similarly sized plastic cups) with holes punched in the bottom make good, reusable seed starters. Plastic doesn’t wick water upward like cardboard or peat does and so they need to be watered with more care. But they also don’t necessarily need to sit in a tray filled with water at the bottom either. If you use a good peat-heavy soil with enough holes in the bottom, you can actually bottom water with them too. If you’re worried about your soil mix falling out the bottom from drilling too many holes, just use a small square of paper towel to keep the dirt in but still allow a good transfer of moisture and air.

 

Butter Boxes

land-o-lakes-butter-coupon

A butter box is just the right size to start seeds in if you trim off the top, or cut it in half. They’re very similar in size to some commercially sold seedling trays. Because they are cardboard, they will wick water like other boxes, but they are covered in a laminate coating, so it will be less effective. This also prohibits mold growth, but can’t be planted into your garden like brown cardboard can. It takes too long to break down.

Similar to this would be pint, half pint and quart dairy (creamer/cream/milk) cartons.

Newspaper Pots

newspaper.png

In 2014 (my god, is that really 3 years ago already???) I tried out these DIY newspaper pots from mother earth news. I hated them. They fell apart constantly. I have since learned about these much more awesome DIY pots that are folded origami-style. Anyone who has ever folded a paper crane will find these to be incredibly simple, but admittedly, they are slightly more difficult than the simple rolled paper ones. However, they hold up SO much better! There are 15 steps in folding this, and it’s no harder than folding a paper airplane. Just give it a try!
DIY folded seed pots!
DIY origami newspaper pots

Make sure your newspaper uses non-toxic ink. Do not use glossed pages or ads, they are often printed by another company and contain different inks/coatings. I get my newspaper from my dad who lives here in Cleveland with me. He gets The Plain Dealer, which uses recycled paper and soy-based ink. Thanks CPD!

These function much like cardboard and peat pots in the way they wick water, but are MUCH more likely to break down rapidly in the soil, and so are much more reasonable to plant in the ground whole if you want a pot you can plant. (Although I still advocate taking the bottoms off.)

Disposable Cups

Red Cups

If you’ve held any big gatherings recently and have all those dirty, old, disposable cups lying around, just give them each a quick rinse in hot water and punch some holes in the bottom. These big cups provide a great place to plant seedlings that might need some extra root space, whether this is due to a long tap root (like corn) or growing a big plant (like mammoth dill), or even leaving extra room on the top for more dirt (like a tomato plant).

 

And that’s it! That’s my top list for DIY and upcycled seed starters! Seed starting can literally happen in any container with drainage at any time, these just happen to be my absolute favorites. Good luck gardening and may your germination rates be high!

300.

300 is how many seedlings I will need to start this year to plant my whole garden. That’s a HUGE number compared to my previous years and doesn’t even cover half the seeds that will be going into the ground, since many of them are direct-sow. For me and most of the people I know, this is some epic-levels of gardening going down.

300garden.png

Ok, I know for some people it’s not that impressive. Most people who do homesteading, hobby farms, farming, etc are planting whole acres. They wield small tractors, horses, or at rolling devices to till and seed. I still do all that by hand. I don’t even have a whole acre to my name, let alone available to plant. But for me, this is a huge step. The kind of step that I am hoping will lead into even larger scale production.

I finally finished the gardening layout. For reals this time. I discussed it with the boys and we agreed that it would be best to just expand the garden beds even further and we came up with the final garden layout below;

Gardenplan3-2017.gif

 

 

 

We added a second path, widened the original path (which is currently only 1′ wide and tedious to walk on) and are planning on expanding it to half again it’s current size. (Everything from the second path on will be new.)

We added carrots to the list of vegetables grown, and swapped out some normal onions for green onions. There’s also been some major improvements to the locations of crops grown. The spinach and regular herbs now reside where the kale once did. This helps mix up the crops a little. Kale and spinach, while both similar leafy greens with similar nutritional needs, are in different plant families. (Spinach is an amaranth, kale is a brassica.) This helps deter pests. The kale has been moved far away into the edge of the sun in front of the peas, still surrounded by dill. The dill may get shuffled a bit more into the sun because dill and carrots are not supposed to grow next to each other and they’re a bit close right now. Surprisingly, in my garden, the locations that have mid-day shade are the ones we have the most competition for. Mid-day summer sun and many plants just don’t mix around here. The carrots are taking up residence where the kale usually lives, in rows along the shadiest spot of my garden bed.

We HAVE to use raised beds, or everything floods. Most people are concerned about their raised beds drying out quickly, but we need that additional 6+ inches to lift the plants out of standing water. (Cleveland gets near-rainforest levels of precipitation each year.) We’re going to have some issues anyhow because the path is right in the wettest spot on that half of my lawn, so I have some concern about soil erosion if we get a very wet spring. Because of how massive this garden bed addition is going to be, we’re seeking out more organic matter and dirt to put in that spot. On thursday we’re going out to get bags of composted horse manure, as much as we can fit in the wee little car that Dan drives… It’ll be bagged in black plastic, which from a sustainability standpoint is maybe not so good… But I can reuse those plastic bags on the garden bed this spring to help warm my soil, kill weeds and germinate the 128 pea seeds we plan on growing. Afterwards, standard black garbage bags are recyclable. So we’ll get more than one thing out of that carbon footprint.

We’ll also be placing an order for dirt (leaf humus, sand, topsoil and compost mix) and seeking out some fresh woodchips. The woodchips are a desperately needed long-term addition to help break up the clay. A combination of sand (which I bought a few bags of recently) and wood chips do wonders for our dense, mucky orange clay that’s just 6-8 inches down in most areas. Do note, wood chips do take real amounts of time to break down. Typically I am seeing them break down significantly after 2-3 years if they have plants growing on them, a healthy worm population, and some nitrogen mixed in. Some of the bigger chips still remain, but in general they add a large amount of biomass to the soil that is essential for absorbing water, holding it over time, and draining it during floods. A 4′ high pile of woodchips, removed from my chicken pen floor a few years ago, has broken down into a 1′ pile of dirt at this point that weeds can’t resist growing in. This year, I hope to take the wood chips from my chicken pen floor to trench into the garden beds, then replace them with fresh wood chips to help keep the chicken pen cleaner and healthier.

And maybe, if you have been with us for a very, very long time… You will remember this post, showing where I once tried to grow a root garden bed, very deeply embedded in the shade. It was WAY too much shade, and so the plants never grew. But that dirt is still there, contained, waiting to be tilled up, the bed taken out, and the dirt recycled into the newest parts of my garden bed!

So plans to expand the beds, grow enough vegetables to see our needs met from our own land regularly, and have enough to can, are moving forward! I am excited to make big progress on homesteading this year and improving our over-all sustainability.

Garden Layout (Round 1)

This year I did some serious work planning my garden. Usually I just kinda stick things wherever I feel like they’ll do well, but this year I actually made a full-blown honest to goodness map.

I measured my garden bed yesterday and found out it’s much smaller than I thought. I was spot-on with how deep it is (8′) but I thought it spanned nearly 40′ long. In truth it only hit 28′ when including the emergency addition I put in last year, so I called it 26′. That addition worked out sub-par, producing no eggplants and a handful of robust squashes that it took me several months to discover were buttercup squash… Though through no fault of the garden plot, honestly. They just got crowded out.
(Incidentally, those squashes became my go-to vegetarian holiday dish for Yule this year. I stuff them with a stuffing made out of “wild” mushrooms (usually just a mix of shiitake, button, oyster and portabellas), chopped walnuts, onions and basmati rice, all cooked in vegetable stock, butter and wine, seasoned and topped with parmesan. Conveniently, I could sub out the butter and skip the cheese and make it vegan if I wanted… But I’ve never had a need or reason. Still, it’s nice to know that I could prepare something delicious that meets that criteria if I needed to. I like to be accommodating.)

While Yule tides me through the darkest part of the year, I am always thrilled when my seeds come in. And come in they have! They arrived just this morning, right after I finished making my growing chart!

I had some problems last year with my plants. The biggest problem (besides spacing and varieties grown) was the addition of some pests to my garden. I figured they’d crop up eventually but it still sucks. So now crop rotation, companion planting and integrated pest management come into play.

I referenced these pages on companion planting;

http://www.vegetablegardeninglife.com/companion-planting-charts.html
http://www.motherearthnews.com/organic-gardening/companion-planting-guide-zmaz81mjzraw
http://www.almanac.com/content/companion-planting-chart-plant-list-10-top-vegetables
http://www.ufseeds.com/Vegetable-Companion-Planting-Chart.html

I try not to use one source only when I do research so I referenced all four.

And then I used these pages for pest prevention;
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_pest-repelling_plants
http://www.mnn.com/your-home/organic-farming-gardening/stories/12-plants-that-repel-unwanted-insects
The wiki list is very good and I generally consider Wiki to be well managed.

And with the additional few feet we want to expand, ultimately, I came up with a yard layout that looks like this;

gardenplan2-2017

I made this in a free open-source art program, similar to photoshop, called GIMP. This shows all the features of the left wall of my lawn, including our trenches for run-off, and the mixed flower bed surrounded by rocks that we’re planning on putting the bees in.

The key is;
Green BB = Beans
pppp = Peas
Pale Green B = broccoli
green LL = lettuce
green SS = spinach
grey H = herbs (various)
yellow D = dill
red RRRR = radish
Yellow C = Corn
Purple P = Purple Beauty bell pepper
Red A = Anahiem
green J = Jalapeno
gold S = acorn squash
pink W = watermelon
red T = tomato (our new tomato variety has smaller plants than last years)
peach O = onion (we’ll be buying onion sets)
dk green/black Z = zucchini
The grid is square feet, and some plants are supposed to grow in the same spots as the corn. Radish is harvested before the corn grows and the squash uses the corn plants as a trellis. Herbs are spread out to help deter bugs on susceptible plants. Dill is separate from herbs because it’s mammoth dill and grows several feet. Clustered letters indicate how many plants we’ll be planting in a specific spot, whereas the big letters show the amount of space those plants are projected to take up. The letters that take up a single space on their own are just that, one plant per square foot.
I would also like to set up 2-4 potato bins for seed potatoes against the fence, between the garden bed and the chicken pen and grow radishes there as well a little later in the year.
Also marked is our shady spot (left) which is shaded by trees in the spring/summer, and unshaded in the winter/early spring, and our ultra-wet spot (bottom) that floods next to the garden bed with 1-3 inches of standing water. East is 1/4 of the way down on the right wall of the bed image.
There’s a few glaringly huge problems with this layout…
1. Crop rotation. It’s hard to do when you only have a few hundred square feet and the same areas of the lawn have the same conditions from year to year. For example, the leftmost garden squares that are shaded. The summer sun scorches us with 90*F+ for a week or two every summer, and that shade is critical to protecting leafy greens, peas and other plants that are easily scorched. Even in spring it can be overwhelming and the ground cracks. On the left, currently it’s marked with “herbs” but last year that’s where we grew kale. Similarly, the leftmost beans are where peas were last year (legumes on legumes). We can’t plant things like peppers or tomatoes in that space because they won’t get enough sun. So plants that have specific requirements for growth like the watermelons, kale, other leafy greens, beans and peas are all in unfortunately similar areas to where they were planted just last year. (And the year before that.) And there’s not much I can do about it.
2. The bottom of the bed is 7′ deep. Now, in theory I can reach in the 3.5′ from each side to weed and harvest… I have long arms and tools. But in reality I suspect that’s too wide for me to manage without stepping on the beds (which as we all know is bad juju). This could be a serious problem, or I could us boards to step on.
3. That’s my working location for the bees… Sunny in the winter, shaded in the summer, protected from rain and wind by trees and a fence line, easy to access but not somewhere I use… But it’s uncomfortably close to the garden beds, and I want to keep the dogs out of it… So I theorized putting a small stick fence around it. It could still be a big problem because bees don’t like things in their flight path. I’m working on that one.
4. Soil erosion at the bottom part of the bed where the standing water is. This has been a consistent problem, yearly, since we moved in. That land needs to be built up with organic materials that can absorb to water and a way for it to drain into the irrigation ditch needs to be considered. Something has to be drastically different soil-wise.
In reality, I might spend much of today retooling this layout. We also may be expanding beyond this point by bringing in manure from local horse farms for free and adding more onto it. But as it stands, this is how I’m growing plants. In addition to this, I have a 4’X4′ bed of everbearing strawberries that overwintered from last year and about a 3’x3′ bed of flowers out front I’ll be trying to plant up a little better this year.
One way or another, in total I will be gardening at least 300 square feet this year, some of which will be vertical (beans and peas on trellises, potatoes in boxes).Not too shabby, but a long way to go still. Hopefully, with a little luck, we’ll be able to expand further than that this year and do a much better job.