Starting is Simple, Keeping it Going is the Challenge

>> Friday, January 30, 2009

As the saying goes: “There is no better time to start than the present”. And so it is with home gardening. Many home gardeners grow their own food out of a love of just doing it, some others do it for the peace of mind that comes with knowing the food they take from their garden is not tainted with pesticides and chemical fertilizers. And of course there is the freshness that can come only from picking from your garden and having it on your dinner table the same day.

With our economy going the way it is, tightening everyone’s purse strings typically means more people are going to join us in the gardening world. If this is something you have never done, then the startup can be a bit overwhelming. I think back to when I grew my first vegetable, it was in a typically small space where some previous renter had previously grown something, so I was fortunate, and very grateful, that the soil had already been used for something other than grass. The one thing I did not know for certain was if the previous tenant used chemicals. I set aside my fears by reasoning that up until that point in my life I probably had already been exposed to chemicals in my food so worrying about what might have been was not going to stop me from planting. I knew I wasn’t going to add any chemicals, so off I went.

I was very much like every beginning gardener in that I chose tomatoes as my first crop. And as is typical of a first time gardener, I planted too many. Needless to say the neighborhood had fresh tomatoes for a time. I just know, as I write this, realized that even that long ago, just as today, very few of my neighbors had a home garden. But, as I mentioned previously, that will probably change. I do hope so.

I also grew some strawberries that first year. The crop that was produced exceeded my expectations and I was ecstatic at the sweet juicy berries we picked from those first plants. Ecstatic over the bounty of the strawberries and the tomatoes and ecstatic that I was actually able to succeed. That was a great confidence booster.

Experience, I have found, learned from your own mistakes and successes, will provide you with far better lessons than just reading about others’ mis-adventures.

The best way to start is to put something in the ground, even if it is unproductive the roots from that first growth will provide a starting point for bringing soil nutrients locked below the surface up to where future plants can take advantage of them. The most miraculous thing I have learned from gardening is that a plot of ground that seemingly will never support anything, such as hard packed clay, will grow healthy plants that will produce a monstrous harvest as long as you feed the soil.

Soil will quickly come to life with worms and microbes simply by tilling compost into it. By keeping the soil cool in the summer with mulch and maintaining a steady, somewhat constant temperature through winter, also with mulch, you will already win over half the battle of maintaining a healthy and thriving garden.

Worms work to aerate the soil and breakdown large chunks of compost into smaller ones that serve to keep the soil loose to allow air and water to pass through. This ‘looseness’ of the soil, called friability, will also aid plant roots in their search for nutrients. Worms and microbes basically keep the plot refreshed through their constant churning. As long as you feed them they will be there for you. The thing you don’t want to do goes against what may at first seem natural. You don’t want to over-till the soil. It is more beneficial to ‘work’ compost into the top few inches of soil with a pitch fork by gently turning over the soil. A mechanical tiller will tend to cut up the soil too fine and unfortunately cut up the worms as well.

Even if you will not live in the house you are in for very long, starting a garden will prepare the soil for the next person. Perhaps this will be just the encouragement that next person needs to grow their own food. Imagine for a moment if everyone was to do this with their current yard, before too long, grass won’t be taking up so much acreage on this planet, there will be a decrease in the amount of chemical fertilizers used to feed the lawn, and you will have helped in progressing the natural evolution toward a more organic world. After all, there is far more residential property than commercial property so each of us, when we start a home garden, will be increasing the total amount of farm land. Plus, every little bit you do adds to your knowledge base for when you do have space to grow that dream garden. Every new garden plot helps the global community.

Then, if you would post your results to your very own blog, or leave comments on someone else’s blog describing your experiences, both good and bad, you would be adding to the world’s knowledge pool and that is always much appreciated by the next beginner. Perhaps you will learn of a hidden talent that you can specialize in.

You really do not require a huge farm to grow everything you need. You can grow a surprising amount of plants in a very small space. If you have a neighbor who has a garden, ask if you can offer to help weeding or planting. You will gain valuable advice and perhaps even a few plant starts to get your own garden going. Gardeners are an endless supply of knowledge, some of which you cannot learn from books. And I have never met a gardener who does not want to talk about their garden or share advice.

Dig a hole in the ground, fill it in with store bought garden soil (compost can come later), stick a plant in the soil, feed it with non-synthetic fertilizer and watch it grow. You may not get a huge harvest from this first planting but, like every new undertaking, baby steps count. You will gain confidence to try something bigger next year.

If you don’t have a yard, use a container. Many plants do great in containers, you just need to feed and water them more often and make sure the container has good drainage.

Also, don’t be afraid to plant vegetables among your flowers. The added dimension and diversity will benefit both types of plants and prevent any bare spots that would otherwise invite weeds.

For more advanced tips on starting and maintaining a garden plot, see here.

I am willing to bet that once you gain a little experience you will want to continue growing your own food, even after the economy gets back on its feet and it is no longer a ‘necessity’ to grow your own food. So, if you do find you enjoy maintaining a garden maybe keeping it going won’t be such a challenge after all.


Started first seeds indoors

>> Sunday, January 25, 2009

I just couldn’t wait, so I started some radishes. These are not going to go outside, though.

These radishes are part of my recent order from John Scheepers, Purple Plum and Helios Yellow.

I started 15-18 each in a rotisserie chicken container from Costco. The coffee cup was used to sprinkle water on the soil, I closed the small opening in the lid so just a little water would come out. I always have a problem with pouring water on the seedlings and washing everything into one corner, so this worked out great.

The Purple Plum radish will be ready in 25-30 days, while the Helios Yellow won’t be ready fro 30-35 days.

I’m so excited. Woo Hoo!


Forgetful Things and What Do I Do Now?

>> Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Since my inner gardening alarm went off the other day, I have been itching to get something going. Since the ground is still frozen and the valley is socked in with an inversion layer to the point that we have all been advised by those who ponder such things against going outside. So, I sit here wondering what can I do.

I already ordered some seeds and have prepared their little pots for their arrival but it just isn’t enough to satisfy my urge.

Then I suddenly remembered some bulbs hanging in the garage. I know, I know, why aren’t they in the ground. Well, to be honest, I had hung them up in a perfectly ‘brilliant’ place last summer after digging them up for dividing and just forgot all about them. Insert heavy disappointed sigh here.

Which leads perfectly into part of the reason for this post. Over the years I have compiled a loose leaf notebook of ideas for garden designs, hardscape plans and the like, and I dig it out every winter once that gardening bug bites me again. The problem is the plans just no longer seem to look as good as when I first discovered them. Their ‘perfectness’ no longer works. Maybe it’s because I don’t follow a ‘master plan’ so my garden design evolves as a result of what works at the time. This is a result of my never staying in one place for more than a couple of years at a time so I never saw any point in a master plan. So, I truly am new at this.

I also collect ideas I find in my travels through cyberspace and those get stored in the bookmarks folder. After a while that folder becomes so overloaded that I give up trying to make any sense of it so I start sifting through it tossing the plans that will never see the light of day in my backyard for whatever reason.

Now I’m wondering should I even collect ideas or should I only concentrate on what makes sense at the time and focus on that until it becomes reality? It seems sort of, I don’t know, myopic, and I will most certainly miss out on other great ideas while focusing on this one.

While pondering this conundrum, I took some of those forgotten bulbs and placed them in some pots I had laying around thinking I would force them to bloom indoors. I have seen other people do it. It can’t be that difficult could it? Besides, some of the bulbs are already sending up shoots, so, I’m practically already there.

It was good to get my hands back into the soil, however briefly, though.

Now I need to find something else to do. I think I’ll double check those peat pots and make sure they really are ready to go.


First seed order of the year

>> Monday, January 19, 2009

I’m determined to fill in every available space in all my beds this year, with anything other than weeds. And in achieving this goal and not putting off paying monthly bills, I placed my first order today.

I’m going to have to order a few seeds with each paycheck until I get all of what I want. Today, I ordered vegetable seeds from John Scheepers Kitchen Garden Seeds.

CarrotParmex Baby Ball: an improvement on the first “baby ball” carrots originating in France, Parmex graces booths in many farmers markets throughout France. Bright orange with silk smooth skin, it does not need peeling. This baby carrot takes up relatively little space, making it ideal for the backyard gardener – you can even grow it in containers. Parmex is loudly crunchy, reliably sweet and in demand by gourmet chefs worldwide. Harvest at around 1” to 2”, by pulling gently. Open pollinator.

CarrotYellowstone: Unusual, yellow Flakkee-type is an extremely productive, adaptable carrot easily grown in many soil types. The yellow roots have a fine taste and strong feathery tops. Pick Yellowstone smaller than its mature size of 10”. Open pollinator.

Bush beansJade green: a classic green bean of the finest quality, it has slender, rounded, 6” to 7” long, dark jade-green pods that are slender, sweet and absolutely delicious. It is the new favorite of demanding market growers. It has a truly great taste; produces high yields of premium beans; is disease resistant and holds the beans well off the ground on large, upright, 24” tall bushes. Open pollinator.

Pole beansEmerite filet: a true filet bean from France, generously borne in cascading clusters on graceful vines growing to 8’. Produces heavy yields of uniformly slim, ¼” filet beans. Special breeding allows harvest at any stage, from teeny baby filets to mature filet beans at 7” long. Open pollinator.

CucumberArmenian: also known as the Yard-Long Cucumber, Snake Cucumber, Snake Melon or Uri, it is really a melon, but acts like a cucumber. Known as one of the best slicing “cucumbers”, this Armenian heirloom is rarely available for purchase. Thin-skinned, slightly ribbed and matte chartreuse, its crisp, mild flesh has a light citric finish with a unique sweetness. Open pollinator.

RadishHelios yellow: named for the Greek sun god, this uniquely colored heirloom is pale golden-yellow with a plump, olive-like shape. Its white flesh is quite sweet and tasty. Open pollinator.

RadishPurple plum: a plump, round, deep purple radish with firm white flesh. It has a mild, sweet flavor that holds all season without becoming pithy. Open pollinator.

PeasDakota shelling: this easy-to-grow shelling pea produces slender pods with eight to ten plump peas, borne doubly at each node. Dakota requires structural support with strings or netting secured to 2’ to 3’ supports. Good for freezing, they are also pre heaven when steamed and drizzled with butter. Open pollinator. Now how can you go wrong with these?

FennelFino: Fino’s licorice-flavored tender stalks and aromatic verdant-green feathery fronds brightens salads with a fresh, crispy crunch and offer a mild, silky smooth taste when sautéed or baked. A prized bolt-resistant variety, Fino is a more compact plant wit succulent flesh that stays tender without ever becoming woody or tough. Open pollinator.

PotatoRed ruby: an early maturing, brilliantly red-skinned potato with a waxy texture; perfect for salads and fresh eating. Ruby Red keeps well. These gorgeous, all-purpose potatoes are yummy for potato salads, steaming or frying.

PotatoRussian banana fingerling: from Europe’s northwest Baltic Region comes this rich-tasting, “salad” fingerling potato with yellow skin and golden flesh. It is easy and dependable with a smooth, waxy texture, an incredible, sweet flavor, and can be enjoyed after steaming or boiling with no adornment whatsoever – not even salt.

ZucchiniGolden rod: this glossy sunflower-yellow Zucchini is the earliest yellow variety available. It produces long, cylindrical fruit that colors up early. It compact plants are open, making the harvest less of a treasure hunt. Pick Golden Rod when it is just 8” long for the most sweet and tasty flavor and to encourage its productive yield. F1.

SquashBennings green tint pattypan: lovely, little, early 1900s American heirloom, Bennings Green Tint is also known as “scallop squash” due to its round, flattened and scallop-edged shape. The Bennings Green Tint bush is 3’ to 4’ tall with a high yield of glistening, pale green-skinned pattypan. Its flesh matured to creamy white with a hint of sweetness and a tender yet meaty texture when picked at 3” diameter. Harvest this productive plant until frost as long as you pick it regularly and fully all season. These fruits are prized for quick sautés, steamed or served fresh with summer dips. Open pollinator.

PumpkinRouge d’Etampes Cinderella: also called Cinderella, it is a slightly flattened and dramatically lobed member of the Cucurbita family. Rouge d’Etampes is a treasured heirloom from France with an intense auburn-red color. On average, each sprawling vine produces 4 to 6 pumpkins, averaging 15” in diameter and weighing 15 to 20 ponds. It is ideal for cooking the flesh is thick and firm, the seed cavity is small, and it has more flavor than most pumpkins. Open pollinator.

I have never grown any of these varieties so I have no personal experience to impart. I choose to copy the descriptions from the catalog. I must say the descriptions all sound pretty tempting. It was very difficult to narrow my selections to just these.

So far the only plant I buy every year is the Juliet grape tomato. Very profuse breeder and the tomatoes are typically the size of plum tomatoes. Very juicy and delicious. Maybe after growing some of these I will have new favorites to grow every year.


Before you know it, Spring planting will be here

Finally, the gardening bug has bitten me. It might seem surprising that someone, such as myself, who loves to garden would have to wait for something to kick me in the pants to get me going. But it’s not surprising to me. You see, I go through this every year. After a couple of months of down time, that I didn’t ask for, the lull becomes comfortable and familiar. Other things take up my time and, besides, the weather is too dreary to contemplate being in the garden anyway. Oh, how I envy those of you who can garden year round.

Then, one day, in my case yesterday while reading garden blogs, nature’s clock awakens that familiar twitch and itch to get something going. Now I am all gang busters to get it all started.

You know how it is through the summertime and all throughout the fall, when things in the garden are humming along smoothly it is easy to get caught up in that perfect synchronization that is nature. When the daily machinations of doing something you truly enjoy, when all is right with the world, when zen has a tight grip on you and refuses to let go, you are suddenly faced with something else you have no control over, something you knew was coming but nonetheless are never completely prepared for, like winter, breaks up the party. The high that sustained you for several months, performing all those glorious garden chores like growing, cultivating, pruning, harvesting, and, yes, even weeding, comes to an abrupt end and suddenly there is nothing to do.

So, now that my internal alarm has gone off and I realize that I have had enough rest, next years party can’t come soon enough. I cozy up to that forever-growing stack of garden catalogs that seems to produce two new ones for every one I open, and with my trusty yellow highlighter, start building my seed dream list.

Without regard to the amount of space I have available, and without even considering my lack of money to afford it all, I feed my ravenous garden junkie and allow my ‘dream list’ to grow until I contemplate taking out a second mortgage to afford it all. I mean, I could start a seed catalog business just from my own selections! After toning down my indulgence and curbing my enthusiasm, I begin the daunting task of matching my list with reality. Seriously, I don’t really need eight varieties of tomato, and I simply don’t have the space for six varieties of pepper plants and ten varieties of basil. I don’t even have a grape arbor for the three varieties of grapes I have chosen! I need help.

Switching gears, I begin compiling a list of ways to support my habit. No, I’m not talking about selling my car or offering my, um, services at an hourly rate. Of course, I could…, out the question. By support, I mean that grape arbor my wife has been itching for, a cold frame or two to get the season off to an earlier start, various trellises for squash, cucumbers and melons. I saw, in a magazine, a strawberry post and thought I could do that. So one strawberry post has been added to my to do list.

Also, I want to create a butterfly garden using containers on my deck and I will add insectary plants to attract more beneficial insects.

Plastic milk jugs have been collected, peat pots have been bought, the heating pad and grow lights are ready to be plugged in, and liquid fertilizer has been prepared.

Let the season begin.


My chain link fence is ugly! I need some vines

>> Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Our backyard is completely fenced in. On two sides is chain link fence. Let me emphatically state right up front that I hate chain link fence. It was here when we moved in and I cannot afford to replace it. In order to help me live with this unnatural abomination, and maintain my usual sunny, positive disposition, I have decided to accept the only positive aspect of it and that is that it provides a wonderful opportunity for climbing vines with which to cover it up.

Most of the eighty feet along the back has these hideous vinyl slats stuck vertically to form a lame attempt at relief from having to look into that neighbors weed-filled yard. Weeds that, as you might imagine, mount a never-ending assault on my yard. I can feel some of you shudder at the very thought. These ‘privacy-slats’ are what I would charitably call ‘earth-tone’ tan. The section of fence that does not have these slats is covered at one end by a 9’ x 12’ shed (mercifully the longest side is against the fence) and at the other end by what used to be a 10’ x 10’ dog pen complete with a concrete pad. Why anyone would subject their dog to a concrete pad is beyond me, but, there it is. I currently use the ex-dog pen area for a compost pile and to store rocks I dig up out of the garden plots and tree trimmings I might find useful in building trellises, etc.

Part of this back fence is also blocked from view by a Plum tree that may or may not be replaced by some other ‘huge’ shrub to cover up as much fence as possible. It’s a wild plum tree native to Utah and produces wonderfully sweet fruit. We and the birds love these plums but the tree is getting old and is dying.

With these sections of fence already covered up, the total remaining section amounts to roughly fifty feet of empty space that needs to be ‘decorated’. In front of this fifty feet is a raised bed that reaches out two feet. Two feet is not much space to grow anything that has anything width to it, so I have planted bulbs, hollyhocks perennial alyssum and violas. With the exception of the hollyhocks, very little fence is being covered. Vines to the rescue.

Vines always bring to mind voracious, space-grabbing plants that seem to outrun the most dedicated attempts at pruning. I am not one to invite that kind of workload into my garden. And some vines make you wonder how the poor fence they are growing on is able to withstand the weight.

The vines I want will have to do more than satisfy my sense of aesthetics, they will also need to provide something for beneficial insects and the many birds that I have been able to attract to my yard without turning my garden into a jungle able to support lions, tigers and bears, oh my. Of course coaxing a jungle out of my backyard would require talents that I am pretty sure I don’t possess, so not too much to worry about there.

Another limiting factor for choosing vines are those that will survive our zone 5 winters.

With these goals in mind, my research has happily uncovered some beautiful possibilities.

Foliage type vines
Boston Ivy, Parthenocissus tricuspidata, the vine you see growing up the sides of buildings, has maple shaped deep green leaves and also provides blue-black berries favored by birds. Very attractive, its growth rate is slow and its tendrils will creep along the fence without my help. I personally would never allow this vine to attach to my house or shed because its tendrils drill through brick mortar and will eventually cause the bricks to crumble. Aluminum siding would be ripped from its supports.

Ornamental Sweet Potato Vine, Ipomoea batatas, eye-poe-MEE-ah bah-TAH-tass. This plant is a perennial in the warmest USDA zones and needs to be considered an annual in my neck of the woods. Its light-green foliage is a beautiful contrast to almost any other plant. It is considered to be low-maintenance but doesn’t provide any berries for birds and I don’t know if it attracts beneficial insects. The cost of replacing it every year could be a major drawback.

Flowering Vines
Clematis vine. This has always been one of my favorite flowers. I have had limited success growing clematis in the past, they have all succumbed to our summer heat, except for one, Jackmanii. It is written that this is the easiest clematis to grow and since it is the only one to survive my attempts, I tend to agree. Ours is beginning its third year of life in our garden so I emboldened to try again. I haven’t noticed any birds or beneficial insects hanging around them but they are just to beautiful not to have them.

Trumpet Honeysuckle, Lonicera Sempervirens, is an evergreen offering a showy bloom that provides nectar for hummingbirds and butterflies. Bright red berries appear in the fall after bloom ceases. It’s dense evergreen habitat, often reaching lengths of 20 feet per tendril, also provides cover throughout the seasons.

Two pictures come to mind when I think of honeysuckle, actually three. 1) they are invasive; 2) older honeysuckle have unsightly bare trunks; 3) you can pluck a flower, grasp the lower end and pull the stamen out and be rewarded with a dollop of honey on the end, very sweet. Let’s address the invasiveness character. Japanese honeysuckle is the offending vine. There are many other species of honeysuckles that are non invasive, such as Gold flame and Brown’s. Each of these is suited for zones 3-9.

Black-eyed Susan vine, Thunbergia alata, This vine grows quickly and easily, as most annual do, duh, it can easily reach 10 to 12 feet. The flowers on this thing are amazing. Petite but colorful with dark brown ‘eyes’, just like their namesake, but no relation to rudbeckia. They need additional support on walls but they might be okay alone on a chain link fence. The one drawback I see here in Utah is that they don’t like very hot, dry conditions. I think I’m going to try them anyway just so I know for sure. There are two varieties Sunny Orange Wonder and Sunny Lemon Star I will probably try.

Winter jasmine, Jasminum polyanthum, is more of a viny shrub which reach four feet in height and about seven feet wide. This should cover my fence pretty well, except I fear it being too wide as to cover the pathway near the fence. The blooms appear in late winter/early spring prior to leaves but are not fragrant. The big drawback is that the stems put out roots wherever they touch the soil, but if trained as vines this should not be a problem.

Edible Vines
Melons and squash. I’m going to place a couple trellises against the fence in a lean-to fashion and train squash and melons to grow up. The fruit can hang down in their own little hammocks made of nylon stockings, or silk scarves or any old rags. I probably wont use silk, but it is a pleasing image.

Grapes. My wife wants a grape arbor in our yard. So, with this simple request we are going to embark on a new quest. My grandmother had one in her backyard, my wife’s mother has one in her backyard. Neither of us helped much in maintaining these vines, but we both have enjoyed their fruit. Granted this isn’t something you would normally find on a chain link fence but I’m thinking one end of the arbor might go up against the fence to help hide part of it.

I am planning a separate post series to follow the progress of this quest so stay tuned. All I can say right now is: it is going to be interesting to see how this turns out.

Beans and Peas. I figure why not use the fence as a trellis.

Espalier fruit trees. This is something I have always found interesting. Training a fruit tree to grow into a form it is not meant to do sounds like something I want to try. The minimal space requirements coupled with the productivity is well worth the effort. There are three techniques of espaliering (is-`pal-yer-ing) so determining which is the easiest for a beginner is the first step.

What ever vines we decide on using, I hope the added dimension of height will greatly add to the overall look of the garden.

Oh, and about the other two sides of my yard, one side has eighty feet of chain link with an unobstructed view of my other neighbors ugly junk pile. How charming. The third side is a wooden fence with three fruit trees, raspberries and the 9’ side of that shed I mentioned earlier to break up its monotony. Perhaps I can hang some planters or bird houses on it to ‘spruce’ it up. Maybe later.


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