Sunday, July 31, 2011

Garden Update 31 Jul 2011

We had unsettled weather this week. A lot of cloudiness, some rain, cool evenings, but daytime temperatures in the mid-80s. With the occasional rain and my resolution not to over-water my beds, I haven’t done a lot of watering this week, concentrating mainly on watering transplants and the salad box. All the beds are looking good. The peppers, in particular, are greening up and growing. One of the Poblanos has rocketed up about five inches and the Thai chili, while still petite, has set 4-5 fruit (picture below). The rest of the garden update is below the fold.

Thai pepper

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Tomato and Pepper Update 26 Jul 2011

The tomatoes and peppers are looking pretty good. I have been trimming away and disposing of any yellowed or spotted  leaves and spraying with copper once a week. I am trying to prevent wilt disease from hitting the toms, which wiped out most of my heirloom tomatoes last year.
So far the heirlooms look healthy. This year I planted a Mr. Stripey since I couldn't find a German Striped or German Pink. It seems to be climbing straight up without a lot of suckers. Not many fruit yet but it is flowering a lot.

Tomato Mr Stripey

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Building My SFG - Part II, Building the Beds

The next step on my way to Square Foot gardening was to prep the garden plot to ready it for the raised beds. It was a very wet spring and it rained a lot during this preparation work. The soil was saturated and very gummy. I chose not to till the soil. I simply used a hoe, spade and rake to hack away at weeds and to roughly level the plot. Once I had the plot weed free and level, I covered the plot with weed barrier, pinning it down with U-shaped wire staples made for the purpose.

Plot with landscape fabricPlot with landscape fabric

I already had purchased my materials and on rainy days I assembled the 3x6 boxes in the garage. These boxes would fit in my SUV so they were built in the garage and installed in the garden to help anchor down the weed barrier. These boxes needed a little extra consideration, since the material was 5/4 and had channels molded into them. To reinforce the corners and allow material for screws to bite into, I bought composite balusters and cut them into 6 inch pieces. You can see the details below. This method produced sturdy boxes that for a 6 foot length were adequately rigid and did not bow.

Harvest 25 Jul 2011

After the lethal weather of last week (108°F on back porch in the shade), the weather has moderated. We had thunderstorms on Saturday which brought in cooler and cloudier weather. It rained a bit on Sunday and again on Monday, which relieves me of the need to water the raised beds. In fact, the cooler weather has allowed me to transplant some seedlings to replace the Romaine lettuce and the pac choi Shuko which have been harvested, and to add some more Swiss chard (I have terrible luck with chard).

My summer squash are still under floating row cover to ward off the squash bugs and vine borers, but they are starting to produce blossoms. I am reluctant to remove the cover because the squash bugs are now at peak around the community garden, but I have to deal with pollination. On Saturday I tried to hand-pollinate the zucchini by using a piece of jute twine as a swab to transfer pollen from a male flower to my first female flower. Time will tell, but I think I may have succeeded given the dark green color of the fruit, compared to the light green color of the baby fruit to the right below the female flower. Today I used a cotton swab from the pack I am now carrying in my garden basket to hand pollinate two more female zucchini blossoms.

First zucchini

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Garden Update 24 July 2011

On Saturday we had a community garden walk about. Gardeners were invited to show up to walk around and talk about our gardens while looking for weeds and garden pests. We had early morning thunderstorms, so with a short delay of game we started the tour at 9:30. Many of the usual suspects were found: flea beetles, slugs, Japanese beetles, squash bugs and their eggs, and striped cucumber beetles. And lots of weeds. I helped one gardener identify the plants in her “spinach“ bed as actually being common plantain.

The storm watered my beds for me, saving me that trouble. The peppers actually looked a little better after my epiphany that I was probably over-watering them. There is some new, bright green top growth on  the pepper plants, and fruits on the peppers Lady Bell and Cubanelle are developing nicely. I picked more snow peas and four more cucumbers. The bush beans continue to flower but a check shows the beans Provider have small beans that will be ready to pick in a couple of days. The soybeans are starting to flower (see below), with tiny lavender flowers that appear at leaf junctions.


The cherry tomato Sungold has a couple of fruits starting to ripen, so I will be able to taste them soon, my first tomatoes! The salad garden continues to crank out more salad greens than the family can consume. I finally harvested a couple of the pac choi Shuko, which will go into a stir fry this week. Picture is below, complete with some flea beetle damage. At least no cabbage caterpillar or slug damage.

pac choi Shuko

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Building My SFG - Part I, Planning

The very first step, of course, was to plan the layout of the garden: the size and numbers of the boxes and the width of the paths. I measured the dimensions of the plot, then did the  planning at home on graph paper. I used the New Square Foot Gardening scheme devised by Mel Bartholomew in the book of the same name. Mel recommends 4’ wide paths between boxes, which would be nice if I had the space. But with a 15’ by 22’ plot, I had to make some compromises to fit in the number of boxes I wanted.

I took advantage of the particular location of my plot to maximize the amount of space for beds. Since I had wide community garden paths on three sides of my plot, I positioned the boxes 6 inches from the edges of those paths and planned to use the garden paths for access to my raised beds. On the fourth side, where I abut another garden plot, I also positioned the beds 6 inches from the neighboring plot. I figured I could use the paths within my plot to access the beds.

The first row contains two 3x6 boxes. The idea was to use these boxes for plants that take more space than a single square, such as summer squash, broccoli,and Brussels sprouts. These boxes were positioned 6 inches from the borders of the gardens, with two feet between them (rather than Mel’s recommended four). So far, this is workable while not ideal.

Next were two rows of 3 4x4 boxes. I skimped a bit (actually, a lot) on the spacing for these boxes. The plot is only 15’ wide, so paths between the boxes are only 12 inches. I figured I would be able to access squares in the boxes from the sides and only use the paths between boxes to get from row to row. What I didn’t consider is the vertical space taken by hoops for row cover and the trellises. When trying to squeeze between beds, my feet can traverse the foot wide space but my shoulders collide with the trellis supports. So I would recommend at least 2 feet between boxes if you can’t meet Mel’s 4 foot specification.

The last row will eventually contain two 4x6 boxes with 2 feet of spacing between them. These will be built next year and used for tomatoes trained up trellises. This year I just tilled the soil and used row cover to plant my tomatoes. So far they are doing great. Hmmm, should I really build the raised beds?

The next step was to look for suitable material to use for the boxes. The choices I considered were cedar or redwood dimension lumber, composite decking material, and standard framing lumber. Pressure treated lumber was ruled out. I did a tour of my local Lowes and Home Depot stores but found no cedar or redwood. I suspect they carry it or can order it, but I didn’t find anyone to ask. I found Lowes has its own brand of composite decking lumber that is fairly cheap if grey color is OK. I also considered pre-fabricated beds from various sources, but they were too expensive for my budget.

My final decision was to build the 3x6 boxes from composite decking, which comes in 12’ lengths. Three 12’ pieces are required to build the two boxes, for a cost of about $32 per box. Five of the 4x4 boxes were built from fir framing lumber at a cost of about $9 per box. I also purchased one 4x4 Suncast resin plastic raised bed from Lowes for $44 to give it a try.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Wilted Lettuce Salad

I planted a couple of squares of leaf lettuce Black Seeded Simpson again this year. When I was a child, my family grew large beds of this lettuce, which was used in salads. The leaves are light green and frilly. It adds a nice color and texture variety to salads. This year with the cooler, rainy weather the lettuces have been growing well.

Black seeded Simpson  leaf lettuce

My favorite use for this leaf lettuce is Wilted Lettuce Salad. It sounds strange but it tastes great. Wash the lettuce and place in a bowl. Cook 2-3 slices of bacon in a non-reactive skillet until crisp. Drain the bacon on paper towels and crumble. To the bacon fat in the skillet add 1/4 cup cider vinegar, 1 Tbsp. water, 1 tsp. sugar or Splenda, salt and pepper to taste. Heat the dressing and then drizzle the hot dressing evenly over the lettuce, tossing to coat. Sprinkle the bacon over the salad and serve immediately. Some add sliced green onions and/or chopped hard boiled egg, but my family never did.

wilted lettuce  salad

Monday, July 18, 2011

Collard Greens


I planted collards last year and had a good yield, once I got control of the cabbage caterpillars and loopers. The plants produced greens throughout our zone 6A summer season, right into late fall. Finally facing a hard freeze, I harvested the remaining leaves for a final pot of greens. Given the poor quality and high price of supermarket collards up here in New England, I considered my collards effort a great success and collards were on my planting list for 2011.

This year I have raised beds, so I had to consider the size of collard plants in my planning. I decided to devote a 4x4 box to collards and kale, 4 of each to 16 squares,alternating the plants. I inter-planted the brassicas with lettuces and onions and flowers which I hoped to harvest before the kale and collards got big. I also covered the box with floating row cover to hopefully ward off the cabbage moths. So far, it’s working. I just harvested my first “mess of greens” today for dinner, a treat for my mother-in-law visiting from Mississippi. See the details below the fold.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Interesting Plant Supports

At Tower Hill Botanic Gardens in Boylston, MA yesterday I spent a lot of my time staring at the ground, intrigued with the varieties of garden plants, and wondering how their eggplants seemed to be untouched by flea beetles. Not even one hole in the leaves. How do they do that? It took me a while to look up and realize there was an interesting variety of innovative and attractive plant supports in the garden. Below are some pictures and descriptions that might give you some ideas for your garden.

Black Pearl Pepper

Black Pearl pepper

We did a trip to Tower Hill Botanical Gardens in Worcester yesterday. Of course, my biggest interest was in the displays of vegetable plants, both in the kitchen garden behind the Farmhouse and in the Systematic gardens. One particular plant caught my eye because it was such a knockout. It was the Black Pearl hot pepper, useful as both an ornamental and edible pepper.

The leaves of the plant are broad and flat. New growth starts green but the turns black and shiny when mature. The pods appear in clusters of small, round fruits that are shiny black when immature and cherry red when mature. Apparently the flavor is very good as well. Plants are also said to be vigorous, fairly disease and drought resistant, and heavy producers. The plant is OP and was bred by the USDA. It was an AAS selection in 2006. I didn’t see plants of this variety at any of the local garden centers I visited this year, so this one is going on my seed list for next year. Seeds are available from Johnny’s and Pine Tree among others. You can also read a discussion on the pepper on the GardenWeb forum.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Going Vertical with Cucumbers

In past gardens I have used the traditional hill method for my cucumbers, planting cucumber seeds in a ring around the top of a mound of soil. The mound was then enclosed with a cylinder of 4” plastic coated metal wire to act as a trellis and to contain the vines. This worked OK but made it hard to work inside the fencing.

For my raised beds I am using a trellis attached to the ends of the boxes. The trellises are constructed of 1/2 inch metal conduit connected with 90 degree ells. The bottoms are attached to each side of the box with a pair of conduit clamps screwed to the box. I attached 5’ wide nylon garden netting to the conduit using cable ties.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Garden Update week of 5-11 Jul 2011


Because of the time taken to build and fill the beds and our trip to St. Louis,the garden was planted fairly late this year. Then add in many days of cold, rainy weather with no sun and the garden was looking poorly. Lately, after some stretches of warmer, sunnier weather, plants are starting to green up and grow. Of course, the lettuces have loved the weather and we have been having salads almost every night. Overall, the garden is looking good and is starting to catch up with the neighbors.

As you can see, the tomatoes (the only plants not in raised beds) are looking great. The Brandywine is growing well and already has a fairly large fruit. The Cherokee Purple and Sun Gold are also growing strongly and setting fruit. Several of the Jet Stars are also flowering and have small fruit. The Romas in the cages look healthy but are taking their time while hopefully developing a good root structure.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

A Butterfly and Garden Soil

This is a Red-spotted Purple butterfly (Limenitis arthemis), photographed in early May. It’s apparently on the ground trying to extract some moisture from the “soil.” Note the quality of the soil. The land where the community garden is located was formerly under a drumlin and was mined for fill for Interstate 495. It’s a mix of pebbles, sand and clay,  lacking any organic matter, and when wet it compacts seriously and smells of swamp. The water table is 6-12 inches down so drainage is poor. This plot shows what the original soil looked like, without supplementation. My plot had a couple of bales of peat moss and many bags of composted manure added last year, so was not quite as bad. But I decided I would rather put the money into Mel’s Mix than continue to add it to the garden soil.

Ghost of Gardens Past

This garden is not my first experience with raised bed gardening. Back in 1986 I built some raised beds in my “back yard”, which is really just a clearing in a stand of Eastern white pine. Since the “soil” was a few inches of forest duff on top of a dense mixture of clay and pebbles left by the glaciers, I had to go with raised beds filled with peat and bagged top soil. With a half day of sun, these beds actually were pretty productive for about five years. Then the tree roots found the boxes and invaded. They sucked the moisture right out of the boxes and stunted my plants, so I abandoned the boxes.
This picture shows the abandoned boxes being reclaimed by forest. Note that I built trellises using 2x4s and strung them with either the 7” nylon garden netting (for peas and cucumbers) or with nylon cords that I twisted tomatoes around. I also installed white plastic tube in which I inserted hoops of plastic tubing to serve as supports for row cover or plastic. The black plastic hoops have been recycled for use in my new garden.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

What is Square Foot Gardening?

Square Foot Gardening is a concept developed by Mel Bartholomew and first published in his book of theSFG_1981 same title in 1981. In the 1981 book, Mel proposed a garden layout consisting of 4’ by 4’ beds with walkways between, a variant of wide bed gardening. Each 4’ square bed was divided into 16 squares which were the basis for planning the planting of the bed. Mel provided planting guides for different vegetables, based on the number of plants or seeds per square (foot). For example, beans were planted 9 seeds per square, but peppers were 1 per square.
Maybe it was just my engineering training, but in 1986 I found Mel’s book intriguing. It was an organized, highly efficient method for growing vegetables in small spaces. And since I was planning to build raised beds so I could garden on top of ledge, I was able to adapt his 4’ squares to 4’ by 4’ raised beds built from 2x8 lumber. I also added trellises at the sides of the boxes so I could train tomatoes, cucumbers, and pole beans to grow vertically. I had great success with the garden until I had to abandon it (the subject of another post).

So I have years of positive experience with “square foot gardening” and raised beds. When I started thinking about it for my community garden plot, I picked up Mel’s new book, All New Square Foot Gardening. The “new” concepts are raised beds (already there) and the use of a special soil mix, called Mel’s Mix. I did a lot of internet research and there seems to be widespread consensus that Square Foot Gardening is the way to go. It was definitely an investment of effort and cash to go with square foot gardening and I hope I’m right. I’ll let you know.

For more about Square Foot Gardening, see here.

2011 Planting List

This is a list of what I planted in the eight raised beds and in the strip of garden allotted to tomatoes.

Box 1 (3x6)
  • 1 zucchini Raven (9 sq)
  • 1 pattypan squash Sunburst (9 sq)
  • 4 lettuce red leaf (1 in each corner)
Box 2 (3x6)

  • 5 broccoli Green Comet
  • 2 Brussels sprouts Jade Cross
  • nasturtium Alaska
Broccoli and Brussels sprouts

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

My Square Foot Garden

My garden plot is located in the Bolton Community Garden (zone 6a). Plots are 15' by 22', there is a well with a hand pump for watering, and the garden is surrounded by a 7' deer fence with chicken wire buried 18" below ground. The garden opened three years ago, during that very wet spring. My plot was sodden and every time I tilled the soil to dry it out, we got a week of rain. Last year I moved to a drier and sunnier spot and had a good year. 

This spring, however, started to look like two years ago. In early May the garden was soggy and we had a lot of rain. Actually, the whole Eastern US was getting soaked. On our trip to St. Louis in mid-May, we saw flooded fields everywhere with the plant stubble from last year still unplowed. So I can't complain but I suspect food prices will be going up. That's all the more reason to have our own gardens to provide our families with fresh produce. 

Faced with the prospect of another possible wash out, I decided to go to raised beds in my garden plot. I used Mel Bartholomew's New Square Gardening design, based on 6" depth raised bed filled with "Mel's Mix," a synthetic mix of peat moss, vermiculite and compost. Most of the garden plot was covered with a polyester landscape fabric and the boxes were arranged on top, and then filled with the mix. 
Template developed by Confluent Forms LLC