Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Planning the 2015 Garden



Planning for the 2015 garden actually started last year as I observed what worked in the current garden and what did not do well in my garden, given soil and climate conditions. I usually write up a post mortem on the garden but slacked off this year. Still, I know what worked for me and what did poorly. I also keep a list of interesting new varieties to try, influenced by visits to the kitchen garden at Tower Hill Botanical Garden and fellow bloggers and gardeners.


The next step is to finally decide what I am growing next season. I make up a planting list, inventory my seeds, and then decide what I need to purchase. I like to try new things so there are usually several new varieties in the list. For those, I need to find a seed vendor who carries them. A snippet from the 2015 list is shown below and the complete list can be found here. Vendor codes are at the end of the complete list at the link.



The next task is to develop a planting schedule for each plant being grown. This is a multi-pronged, iterative task. Given a fixed amount of gardening space, I have to determine what fits where, how much of each variety to grow, and when to start seeds and when to plant/transplant. For this task I have two tools:

a plot plan of my SFG garden with ruling into one-foot squares, and a planting schedule spreadsheet.


The plot plan looks like this and I can write in year and Spring or Fall  for planting season. I sit down with my planting list and a 0.5mm mechanical pencil and a good eraser and work out a planting arrangement for the year. You can see I am dealing with a fixed amount of space: the plot is 15x22 feet and I have 180 squares to squeeze in everything I want to grow.





The work with the plot plan diagram produces the number of plants or seeds of each variety that must be started/planted. and is transferred to the planting schedule. The schedule is shown below and the online version may be viewed here.  The schedule has the usual columns for planned and actual seed start dates but it also includes number of plants and format (soil block size, etc.). Plants are listed alphabetically, which has the advantage of keeping them together. Sorting by seed starting date might make sense, but might also make a mess since that column has non-date entries. So I just scan the column to see what I need to do next.




I print out copies of the plot plan and planting schedule and put them in sheet protectors to keep them clean. They go with me to the garden and I try to keep them updated with the actual dates. Sometimes I even manage to update the online file with the actual dates and notes. This creates a record of dates, what was planted, and what worked that is then useful in planning the next season. And now as I scan the schedule while writing this, I see I better get to work with my brassica and pepper starts

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Seed Starting Season



Ol’ 67 there is my “mail slot” where the postman delivers my seed orders. It is not mounted in my door, rather it is perched on and frozen into the snow bank, hopefully out of reach of the plows which tore it off the post you see to the left. Fortunately all my seeds are safely inside and seed planning and planting is underway. Last week I planted my Ambition shallot seeds. It’s going to be Ambition this year because Saffron was out of stock/discontinued and then Conservor. Apparently 2014 was a bad year for shallot seed growers while I had a great year. And that is all the allium seeds I have to deal with now because the rest of my onions are transplants coming from Dixondale Farms in April.


In past years I have used a Hydrofarm plant light to start seeds. It is a single, 4 foot/120 cm T5 bulb in a reflector mounted on a support with cords to adjust the lamp height. I used it the past two years but the single bulb is really inadequate to cover the width of the two 1020 trays that fit under it. It would be OK for a single row of pots but not for a tray filled with flats or soil blocks. It was a nuisance to have to rotate and shift trays so plants at the edges of the tray would not get too leggy, and I was limited in the amount of plants I could have under the light. So this season I decided to invest in something more effective and with more capacity.




Most of the commercially available plant racks in the size I was considering were in the $600-1000 USD range and I am far too cheap to indulge in those. So I decided to assemble my own. Rachel of Growing a Good Life had a post on her setup and I set out to do something similar. My goal was not to go as inexpensive as I could but to build something with some quality to it that works well. The basic idea is to acquire a shelving unit and hang lighting units under each shelf. A 36 inch wide shelf unit would best fit my space but the lights come in 2 foot/60 cm and 4 foot/120 com sizes. So I purchased a 4 foot/120 cm bakers rack. I looked locally but could not find the size and features I wanted, so I bought it from Amazon. The unit above is an Alera wire shelving unit with casters and black anthracite finish, about $85. It is high quality construction and the finish is a metallic charcoal color and really attractive. The shelves are 18 inches/46 cm deep so if I had to I can easily arrange four of the 1020 trays you see perpendicular to the shelves without risk of them tipping.







I wanted good lighting and looked at shop lights available locally. Most were T8 units. A little online research revealed I probably wanted a T5 setup, so I again went to Amazon. I purchased two Apollo Horticulture four-bulb light fixtures. They are compact (only 2 inches deep) with a dimpled reflector and come with four 54 watt high output F54T5HO bulbs. The T5 bulbs are smaller and higher efficiency than the typical T8 shop light. The T5 bulb has a lifetime of about 20,000 hours and only loses about 5-6% light output towards the end of its life. My fixtures were shipped with bulbs having the 6400 °K phosphor which is best for vegetative growth. Each fixture has dual electronic ballasts and dual switches, so lights can be turned on in banks of two. Each has an outlet on the end so they can be daisy-chained. I got these for about $95 each plus shipping, more expensive than cheap shop lights but far superior in performance. So far I am pleased with these lights.








Next I had to figure a way to suspend the lights below the shelves and adjust the height to accommodate plant growth. It turns out there are lots of options available for exactly this purpose so I did not have to rig something. I chose to buy the Apollo Horticulture 1/8 inch rope hangers, which feature a metal gear and ratchet for durability. These were $12 per pair and work very well. So I now have a seed starting rack with 2 shelves plus a third for storing supplies. It can handle 1-8 1020 trays, rolls around easily, and cost about $320 to buy. I also rationalized that I could use it to grow salad greens and herbs during the winter to justify the cost. So far, I am pleased and the wife has not freaked out over the size of the unit, so on to 2015 and a great gardening season.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

2015 Planting List



What a winter! Historic snow amounts and low temperatures. We have had 7 feet of snow in about three weeks (a foot of that this weekend) and are expecting another 1.5 feet Tuesday. Tonight it is supposed to be –6 °F (-21 °C) with high winds and –30 °F  (-34 °C) wind chill factor. Brrr.


All of  the seed orders are in and mostly delivered and safe inside. For those of you unfamiliar with suburban snow storms, mailboxes on the street are subject to being blown up by the town plows going by at high speed, throwing a plume of heavy snow that rips mailboxes off their supports and deposits them who knows where. The mere fact that my seeds have been safely retrieved and secured inside is a major accomplishment. The hell with the bills, my seeds are safe.


I am now working on the seed starting schedule, which is keeping me positive with all the nasty weather. Meanwhile, here is the planting list for Spring 2015, whenever (if ever ) it arrives. Seed vendor legend: BC=Baker Creek, DF=Dixondale Farms, F=Fedco, HM=High Mowing Seeds, J=Johnny’s, PT=Pinetree, R=Renee’s, SESE=Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, T=Territorial

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Poor Gardening Weather



It is not very good weather for gardening today. 25 inches at 9 AM this morning and supposed to snow until at least 7 PM tonight.




It is even poorer barbeque weather. That’s my poor Weber kettle being engulfed by drifting snow.




While it is a monochrome world outside, it is warm and toasty inside.





Color will have to be provided by the seed catalogs. The storm is giving me a day off work and the chance to finalize my seed orders. To add some more color to the process, I loaded the pen with Noodler’s Apache Sunset ink for an in-your-face color addition and reminder of summer days. So I’m happy. I have my seed catalogs, a warm fire, and a glass of Cabernet. Just hope power stays on long enough for me to post this. Everyone stay safe.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Onion Culture



My onion plant order is placed! The only allium I will have to start from seed this year will be the Saffron shallots. I took other bloggers’ advice and ordered my plants directly from Dixondale Farms. Not only is the price cheaper for the two bundles I was planning to order, but it gets cheaper by the bundle, so it’s hard to resist. In addition to Copra and Red Zeppelin, I wound up ordering the Tropea onions I usually grow as well as a mixed bundle of intermediate day onions (Candy, Red Candy, and Super Star). So I will have 200-280 plants showing up mid-April and just have to figure where I will put them.


Dixondale has a lot of growing information and I learned a lot just by watching a couple of their videos. I already knew that up North here I plant long-day onions so that after the solstice when days grow shorter, the onions are triggered to start forming bulbs. But there are some tricks to getting the largest bulbs that’s probably obvious to everyone else, but wasn’t to me.


Supposedly an ideal onion will have about 13 layers or rings (ideal meaning that’s about as much as you can expect to get in a growing season). Each ring in the bulb corresponds to one leaf of the foliage. When daylight triggers bulb formation, the layers start expanding, so the more layers (i.e., the more leaves), the bigger the onion bulb will be. A healthy, rapidly growing onion can grow a new leaf about every two weeks. The plants from Dixondale will have 4-5 leaves and a healthy root structure (versus the 2 leaves that my own transplants have). To get to 13 leaves, it will take another 16-18 weeks after transplant, given ideal conditions. Onions are heavy feeders and require a lot of nitrogen to encourage foliage growth.


So the formula for big onions is:

  • Plant as early as you safely can. The clock is ticking and you want as much foliage as you can grow before bulb formation commences. Once the bulb starts forming there will be no more foliage growth.
  • Buy plants. Ignore the cost, the extra 2-3 leaves they have over homegrown transplants is worth 4-6 weeks of time in your garden.
  • Space onions 4 inches apart in the row, with rows 16 inches apart. Plant onion plants no more than 1 inch deep. The reason for the row spacing is that while onions are shallow rooted, they do develop extensive side roots. In raised beds, they recommend a minimum 4” x 8” spacing. I am going to have to play with the geometry of this for my raised beds. And there is the question of, would I like to have more, smaller onions or fewer but larger?
  • Use a general purpose fertilizer with lots of phosphorus (something like 10-20-10) for good root development when planting. Maybe add bone meal to get the extra P. If you are pushing the limit and planting very early, Dixondale has found that high potassium levels in the soil help protect against freeze damage. In addition to NPK, onions require a lot of micro-nutrients for healthy growth, including magnesium, zinc, boron, copper, iron, manganese and molybdenum, so make sure they are in your fertilizer (or throw in a handful of rock dust).
  • Then starting at two weeks after planting once roots have established, use a nitrogen fertilizer every two weeks. Stop fertilizing when bulb formation starts.
  • When bulb formation starts, make sure the onions have plenty of water. Stop watering when foliage falls over and let the soil dry out before harvesting.
  • Watch for onion pests like thrips and spray if needed.
  • Use a preventative organic  fungicide regularly. Even if fungus disease is not visible, any spores present may increase spoilage and reduce storage time.


The nitrogen fertilizer they recommend is ammonium sulfate, which is a chemical fertilizer and not suited for organic gardens. I will most likely use blood meal. If you have a blood meal rated 13-0-0, you apply a cup per 20 foot of row. I will also be amending the beds with the onions with rock dust and kelp meal to get the micronutrients into the soil.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

RE-Mineralization 1



I recently encountered the new phenomenon (now a fad) of re-mineralization, while looking up some information (see That led to my purchasing Steve Solomon’s new book, The Intelligent Gardener: Growing Nutrient-Dense Food, which I am in the process of reading. The topic interested me because of my two gardening situations. I currently use raised beds filled with a soilless mix following Mel Bartholomew’s recipe: 1/3 peat moss, 1/3 vermiculite, 1/3 compost. Mel claims a scoop of compost is all you need to garden, but of course he insists that scoop of magical compost has to have all needed nutrients in it. Does it really? If it doesn’t that’s your failing, not his method. I have had mixed results with the soilless mix in my beds. Mechanically, it is great. It thaws early, drains well while retaining moisture, it has a light and fluffy texture that many plants love. But some plants (usually the heavy feeders) have not done well and that makes me wonder why. Are some essential nutrients missing? That is a complicated topic I have been thinking about for awhile and will be the subject of another post.


My beds are also located in a community garden where last year I had the opportunity to share half of an unclaimed plot for a garden. I used it for tomatoes, peppers and summer squash planted in-ground. The community garden was recently reclaimed from sodded fields whose history is vague to me. I doubt the field was ever tilled because of the large amount of ledge showing through in places. Maybe it was pasturage or hay field. At any rate, during the ice age it was under a mile thick layer of ice and the soil is some unknown mixture of silt, sand and gravel deposited by the glacier. So its fertility has always been in doubt in my mind, although fellow gardeners and myself have gotten decent crops from their gardens. I am curious to see how the soil tests out at and what could be done to improve yields for our gardeners using Solomon’s advice.


It all starts with a soil test.The photo above is a picture of a dried sample of the soil from the community garden that has been sent to Logan Labs in Ohio and to the UMass Extension service for testing. When dried, it crumbles easily and looks fairly sandy, but when we get our frequent heavy rains it compacts easily and becomes anaerobic. I have no idea of its actual soil type or composition. The worksheets Solomon uses assumes that the soil test used the Mehlich-3 extractant method, which is the method used by Logan Labs which he recommends. I also sent some of the same sample to the soil lab at UMass Extension, which uses a Modified Morgan method that includes micronutrients and is better suited to Northeast soils. The two tests will undoubtedly produce different numbers for nutrient concentrations and their target values will be different as well, so I am wondering how different the suggestions will be.


I called re-mineralization a fad because a lot of people have simplified it to just tossing a handful of rock dust around the garden. It has gotten so popular that many stores are encountering a large demand for rock dusts (I know, I just bought mine and got the last bag). Solomon's emphasis is much larger, however, trying to balance all the factors that make up the soil (pH, organic matter, minerals) so plants are given maximum opportunity to thrive and produce nutrient dense food. He talks about rebalancing the soil and that is the central theme of his book, not just mineralization. Using soil test results and the worksheets in the book, a prescription for supplements is developed to bring the soil into the right balance of pH, organic matter and ratios of minerals.


First step is to adjust the pH of the soil. The use of lime has been overemphasized in the past, and the recommended use of dolomitic lime can actually cause an excess of magnesium which tightens up the soil. Most vegetables prefer a slightly acidic soil, in the range 6.0 to 7.0. Solomon uses a target pH of 6.4. This target pH will actually be achieved when the four major cations (Ca, Mg, K, Na) are in the proper proportions. If you look again at the soil sample above, I am afraid that the white flecks you see are bits of lime from an over-eager distribution of lime early in the garden’s history. The last soil test in 2011 showed the soil to be alkaline with a pH of 7.6 with a very large Calcium content.


The next step is to address the amount of organic matter in the soil. Besides the usual mechanical improvement of the soil from adding organic matter and encouraging the growth of micro-organisms, the humus increases the ability of the soil to buffer not only cations (positively charged ions) but also anions (negative ions) so they are not leached away by rain and irrigation. There is no point in adding nutrients if the soil cannot retain them. The total ability of the soil to buffer/retain cations is called the Total Cation Exchange Capacity (TCEC) and is the key factor in rebalancing. Light (typically Southern) soils will have 2-4% organic matter and will have a TCEC less than 10. Heavier (typically Northern) soils will have 7-10% organic matter and a TCEC greater than 10. Solomon uses 7% organic matter as the target for northern acidic soils. He points out large additions of compost are not required once the soil reaches the desired level of organic matter and TCEC. The soil in the community garden in 2011 had a TCEC of 51.3 with 10.3% organic matter.


Next is balancing the major cations, Calcium (Ca), Magnesium (Mg), Potassium (K) and Sodium (Na). The target proportions are 68% of the ions buffered by TCEC should be Calcium ions, with 12%  Magnesium ions. Soils having this 68:12 ratio will be loose and friable soils. Higher amounts of Magnesium will cause soils to tighten and clump. Potassium should occupy 4% of TCEC capacity, with Sodium at 2%. If a soil has this 68:12:4:2 cation ratio, its pH should be at the target 6.4. It may take several years to reach target ratios if you have an excess of one mineral, so the prescription may be more involved than just adding supplements. The community garden test from 2011 (Morgan method) had a TCEC of 51.3, of which 98% was saturated with Ca, leaving only 1.5% Mg and 0.6 % K, definitely not a balanced soil.


Next is to balance the anions, the negatively charged ions. Any clay in the soil will only buffer cations. You need sufficient humus in the soil to buffer your anions or they will be easily leached away by rain or irrigation water. The trick is to build up and retain the anions to adequate levels, starting with Phosphorus. Phosphorus is an essential element and low levels of P will reduce plant growth long before symptoms of deficiency evident themselves. The goal for Phosphorus levels is P=K, a level equal to the Potassium content of the soil. Our old 2011 soil test showed a P level of 4 ppm compared to a K level of 108, a very low level of Phosphorus and far from the prescribed balance.


The other key anions are Sulfur, Boron and Nitrogen. Sulfur is an essential element used in building many amino acids. If elemental Sulfur is added to the soil, microorganism will readily convert it to the sulfate anion. In balanced soils, the goal is S= 1/3 P, or one third of Phosphorus levels. Higher levels of Sulfur equal to 1/2 Mg can leach cations from the soil, which can be an advantage if you have an excess of a cation such as Calcium or Magnesium. The sulfates of most cations are water soluble and will then be washed from the soil by rain. For Boron in light soils, Solomon recommends levels about 1 ppm and in heavy soils, 2 ppm. Nitrogen is heavily used by plants and easily leached from the soil so its amount varies so widely that the standard soil test does not test for it. Usually it is added when planting and as needed during crop growth and is not a permanent fixture of soil fertility.


So my soil tests for the community garden have been sent off and it will be a week or two before I get results. Then I will use the worksheets to calculate recommended supplements. The problem I have, which is probably beyond my capabilities, is dealing with the excess Ca and high pH of the soil. The Ca saturation percentage on the 2011 soil test was 98%, leaving little room for the other cations. Adding Sulfur would seem like a possible solution for both the Ca excess and the pH, but the soil already has a very high S content, equal to 2x Mg. I have no clue why that is. Hopefully, the new soil test will be more encouraging and these anomalies will disappear, maybe just the result of a bad sample in 2011.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Things I May Try in 2015


I have been thinking of some things I may want to do differently in the garden in 2015. I use the word “may” because I reserve the right to bail out on any or all of this. This is not my New Year’s resolution list.


Purchase Onion Plants

The last three years I have been growing storage onions  in my garden. I use seedlings because the results are much better than sets. After all, alliums are biennial and there is a risk with sets that the plants will bolt, plus you are severely limited in your choice of onion varieties. Starting onions from seeds is really not hard. They take a while to germinate and here you have to start them in February, but they do well in cool conditions (the definition of conditions in my house in February with $4 heating oil). But I did manage to do a bad job last year. Trying to plant black seed in black potting mix is difficult, so I just sprinkled the whole packet in a 4” pot. The seedlings were crowded and too difficult to thin, resulting in weak transplants, many of which died from transplant shock.


This year, I am going to try using purchased onion transplants, at least for the yellow and red storage onions. I will still have to start seed for the shallots and specialty onions This is an expensive  proposition, about twice as expensive as purchasing seeds and starting you own. What I am hoping to achieve is a much higher (more and bigger bulbs) and more reliable yield from the same garden space because I will be planting robust and healthy transplants grown by professionals. A lot of seed vendors sell onion plants and most seem to be grown and shipped  by suppliers in Texas (Dixondale Farms being one of the most prominent). And most of those seed vendors get about $15-16 for a bunch of 50-70 plants. Fortunately, Pinetree Seeds in Maine sells two bunches for $15.49 and you can mix and match. So, one bunch of Copra and one of Red Zeppelin for me. One of the many reasons I really like Pinetree.


Total War on Cucumber (and Flea) Beetles

OK, I have had it. This year, once again, my cucumbers were decimated by bacterial wilt spread by cucumber beetles. These pests feed on the leaves of cucumbers and their larvae feed on the roots. The leaf damage is not that bad, and cucumber plants can usually recover. What is worse is the beetles carry bacterial wilt disease in their guts and spread it to the plants. Once infected, the plant wilts and dies in just a couple of days. The little buggers are small and fast, and they like to hang out inside the flowers, so they are difficult to hand pick.


So in 2015 I am going to try using Surround for the cucumbers and eggplant, spread DT on the soil around the plants, and spray weekly with an organic spray like pyrethrin or Spinosad (I usually alternate these). Surround is an interesting material and it will be a challenge to use it. Surround is a finely ground kaolin clay produced in a magnetic centrifuge in Georgia by one company. It’s a patented process using fancy and expensive equipment, so the product is fairly pricey. Both Johnny’s and Fedco carry it, but Fedco is about $5 cheaper for a 25 pound bag. Shipping is another matter so I may try to find a local source.


The way Surround is used is a slurry is made with water and the plants are either dipped in it before transplanting, or you use a sprayer to apply it. I will probably try dipping the transplants and then use a sprayer to cover new foliage and touch up spots that are washed off. The film left by the clay apparently doesn’t affect the plant and transmits light. There are various theories on how it works, such as the beetles don’t see the plants, they don’t like the feel of it, they spend their time cleaning their little feet rather than feeding, but it apparently does work and is used by commercial growers. An option is to mix a pyrethrin with the clay slurry when applying, but there is no evidence that improves effectiveness.


Row cover for Brassicas and Eggplant

Obviously, row cover for brassicas, eggplant and squash makes a lot of sense, given  the plethora of pests they face. I have used squares of the stuff in my square foot garden, supported by arches of plastic tubing. Last year I had access to one of the unused plots in our community garden and reverted back to traditional, in-ground row gardening. I may have that privilege again and want to try planting brassicas and eggplant in-ground, so a row covering makes sense.


I ran across an article on the Grow Abundant Gardens blog with a nifty way to implement a floating row cover. Turns out Johnny’s sells a 10 foot wide Agribon AG-19 in rolls. This is wide enough that if you use, say, 10 foot sections of 1/2 inch plastic conduit as supports, you can create a tunnel high enough to grow broccoli, Brussels sprouts, eggplant and summer bush squash under it. The row cover helps with cool Spring weather for the eggplant and squash and repels the nasties for anything you plant under it. I’m going to give this a try.


Grow Peas on a Trellis

I am getting tired of the results achieved from my patented technique for growing snow and snap peas in a block. I have tried to select varieties that are short vined, such as Oregon Sugar Pod II. I plant them in a block surrounded by a low fence and hope they support each other as they grow. Good theory, but in practice they usually grow taller than the catalog claims and flop over. I get a big mess and it is hard to find the peas to harvest them


So next year I am going to try growing them on a trellis. In fact, they are going to get the 8 foot trellis I grew the Musica beans on. I think I will select a tall variety like Green Beauty from Fedco, which is supposed to grow to 8 foot and produce heavily. Instead of an occasional handful for a stir fry, I envision bags and bags of snow peas in the freezer next summer.



This is a topic somewhat new to me and big enough that I may save it for another post. Obviously, if we are eating our own garden produce, we want food that is “nutrient dense” and healthful. That’s why we garden. A key to producing nutrient dense food is having garden soil that has the right mix of macro and micro nutrients. According to Mel Bartholomew, all you need is a trowel full of “perfect” compost per square to produce healthful food. Of course, no one can define what “perfect” compost is and even Mel himself has admitted that sometimes supplements help. For example, he acknowledges that broccoli and beets are boron dependent and supplying a boron boost can increase productivity and eliminate hollow stems. I will write more later but mineralization will get increased attention from me in 2015.


Tomato choices

As I have said, I had access to an extra plot in the community garden and planted a double row of tomatoes. I am more careful what I plant in my square foot garden because of its limited space. So I took advantage of the additional space and planted some heirlooms. I planted four Brandywine, four Pineapple, and a Cherokee Purple, all heirlooms. At first, results were great and I got a heavy set of fruit, but they took their good old time ripening. Unfortunately, by late summer, most of the fruit cracked and anthracnose rot infected the cracks before the fruits ripened. I lost a large amount of fruit because of that. So next year I will put a bigger emphasis on selecting full size tomatoes that are more crack resistant. It doesn’t matter what the flavor is if the fruit rots before you can eat it.




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