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Archive for March, 2011

Tick, tick, tick, tick.

Every day, it seems, we wake up to the same cold gray skies. The garden, whose early crops were planted in a brief window of improbable warmth, remains to wet and raw to do anything with. The seedlings in the basement grow taller.

It seems like we’re stuck. Will it ever be warm and sunny again?

Last year's lilacs bring back fond memories. Will they be as good this year? Time will tell.

Today seems like an appropriate time to ask what we may be looking forward to for the growing season ahead, according to our experts in the predicting biz.

First up: The Farmers’ Almanac. This publication divides its forecast areas into large regions. Kansas and Missouri are included in Region 4, which also covers Iowa, Minnesota, both Dakotas, Nebraska, Montana, Wyoming and Colorado.

The Farmers’ Almanac has long-range forecasts which cover the regions and also an “outlook” which is a narrative of weather for the whole country through June. Unfortunately, what the editors had in both those forecasts was–well, not too helpful.

Changeable? Unsettled? Showery? Those are all pretty good bets for early spring in the Midwest. The “outlook” told us April will be unsettled and May “clear and pleasant.” For the whole country.

The long-range forecast is broken down into periods of a few days, which is a bit more of a trick. But there’s precious little mention of precipitation or temperature variations from normal. Knowing it will be unsettled April 16-19 in this huge area of the country might help you plan a golf outing, but it doesn’t do much for gardeners.

So on to the next stop: The Old Farmer’s Almanac. I don’t know who this old farmer is, but I like her (his?) prediction system a lot better.   The United States is carved into much smaller pieces more likely to share the same weather. Kansas City is in the “Heartland” along with Topeka, Des Moines, Omaha and St. Louis.

The Old Farmer says we’ll have an average temp of about 52 degrees in April, which is two degrees below normal. The precip will be slightly below normal in the western half of this area.

As for the rest of the growing season,

Summer will be drier and slightly cooler than normal, on average, despite hot spells in mid-June, early July, and mid- to late August.

September and October will be much cooler and drier than normal.

That sounds like an average summer here. Difficult and ill-timed hot spells the rise up to overshadow the fact that the whole summer has been cooler. Nothing too new here.

Of course the various farmers don’t advertise their prediction process. We may assume that some of it involves science. But there’s no guarantee. For science, we go to the Climate Prediction Center of the National Weather Service.

The NWS provides a three-month outlook map for the whole US in the form of a color-coded map. But it looks like a coin toss for our area, with equal odds that it will be normal, above or below average in both temperature and precip.

So it sounds like business as usual. A quick check with some local weather forecasters shows the cold gray should be ending soon. Maybe by this weekend, we can get back out there and put in some beets and carrots.

Until then, we’ll be dreaming of the perfect growing season.

Poster by: Roxie

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A few days ago, we got a note from a high school student in Las Vegas who is doing a project about soil improvement for one of his classes.

Basically, the student wanted to know some specifics on setting up a compost bin, but without using animal waste because he feared it would stink. But the whole discussion of compost piles and types of manure got me thinking–this would be worth sharing with all our readers.

So I’ll try to sort it out.

Mike and I stick with two organic (and cheap) ways of improving the soil–compost and manure. For us, these are two completely separate things. Mike built a compost pile out back for our kitchen and yard waste. That pile gets all our leaves, potato and carrot peelings, eggshells, coffee grounds, cornstalks, pineapple tops. Just not any meat or dairy products.

(The size of your bin will vary with the amount of compostable materials you think you’ll have. But it’s better to err on the large side. Ours is  two sections about 4x4x4 each, but we have a pretty big yard.)

The kitchen waste gets covered with leaves and sometimes a little dirt. It is not in sun so it doesn’t heat up as much as is ideal, but it still works fine. Maybe just a little slower.

We get manure either from a friend with horses or from someone on Craig’s List.

We do not, however, put any manure from our cats and dog into the compost pile. Nor do we use it in any way on the garden.

This is because the horse manure is from a herbivore–a plant eater. And because dogs and cats can carry some fairly harmful things around in their gut, such as roundworm or Toxoplasma gondii, which causes toxoplasmosis.

If you consider using barnyard manure,  it shouldn’t stink. The kind you buy in the garden store will have been composted itself, meaning that it has  sat in a pile long enough to heat up and decompose. The end result–pardon the expression–is fine and crumbly with no smell. If you look on Craig’s List, it’s worth asking a few questions before you buy.

Horse manure

Both the compost and the manure should look a lot like the soil you’re spreading them on. Once you have that, you basically shovel them over the garden and till or otherwise work them in. (We like to do this in the fall or early spring, when there’s nothing else in the garden to get in the way.)

But all that got me thinking: What can you do with dog poo? You have to pick it up, but the garbage haulers don’t want to handle it. And you hate to add more little plastic bags to the environment.

A little Internet research reveals that it is possible to compost dog poo, but you have to be careful. You have to get yourself a thermometer and be sure the inside of the pile heats to at least 140 degrees Farenheit, to kill the bacteria.  This has been researched in Alaska, because of all the dog sled teams. Here are the basic steps:

  1. Take and old garbage can and drill a dozen or so holes in the side.
  2. Cut out the bottom (A keyhole saw works great for this.)
  3. Dig a hole in the ground, deep enough for the garbage can.
  4. Toss some rocks or gravel in the hole for drainage and position the garbage can so it’s a little higher than the soil level.
  5. Place the lid on top (you might want to paint it with something like Dog Waste Composter.)
  6. When you scoop some poop, put it in the hole and sprinkle in some septic starter (available at hardware stores) and add some water.

Even after all this, you should not put the composted dog waste onto your vegetable garden. And cat poo doesn’t work.

Here’s a video clip of someone doing this very project:

There, Jonathan. Hope that helps.

Posted by: Roxie

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And they’re off!

On a beautiful St. Patrick’s Day–startlingly and unseasonably warm–there’s one universal question gardeners are asking themselves.

“Do I feel lucky?”

Well, do ya, punk?

Few things make us so giddy as the beginning of a new gardening year (except, perhaps, a garden post that begins with a Dirty Harry quote). The fact of the matter is, yes, we do feel lucky. From my perch up in the clouds as the gardening season begins, I predict that this will be the best gardening year ever.

Although our bedding plants have already been started down in the basement, today was the first day of planting out in the garden itself.

Today we put out seed potatoes, peas and snow peas, onion sets and Swiss chard. I would have put in some shallots, but it my garden store was out when I went to buy the other things a couple of days ago.

There are several ways to go on both the potatoes and onions. Potatoes sprout from “eyes” which are  little indentations, occasionally with a bump in the middle. You could just stick a potato in the ground and plants would grow from these eyes.

The problem with using a potato from the store is that you don’t know what variety it is, how disease resistant it is or whether it will grow well here. For that reason I usually go with seed potatoes from a garden store.

Now, to do this really well, you’d need to have bought the potatoes two or three weeks ago–and good luck with that, considering many garden stores are only just restocking their shelves at that time of year. Once you got the potatoes home, you would have put them in some sun and waited for some sprouts and then you would have cut a piece out around each sprout and waited for the cut ends to dry and callous over. Then you would plant them.

Here’s how I usually do it: I go to the store just before planting and look in the open bins for the tiniest seed potatoes possible, because I want no part of cutting them and then leaving them out to dry before planting.

The day's planting

Then, I just put them straight into the ground, about 10 inches apart.

You can also plant good potatoes by dropping them on top of the soil and then covering them with straw 4-6 inches deep. I’ve heard this produces great potatoes, but have yet to try it because we never seem to have any straw sources handy. And year after year, we talk about but never seem to try the potatoes-in-a-tire method. Several people have told us you do this by filling an empty tire with dirt, putting in the potato and then adding tires and layers as the season goes on.

Maybe one day we’ll do this, if we ever get hold of an old tire.

Onions also have several planting methods. You can grow them from seed–but it’s a pain. I did this one year. You have to plant the seed early–say February. By planting time, you have a wispy, delicate blade to go into the earth. Then you pray a lot that it will survive the wind, critters and occasional errant footstep, because they are impossible to see.

My garden store has sets, which are little onion bulbs, and plants. The plants look like thick, chopped-off grass. But they were only available for the super-sweet varieties, which I didn’t want. So once again I’m sticking with sets of yellow onions.

Peas can stand a little cold weather, so they went out today as well. One year, it snowed on my already-sprouted peas. They were fine.

Maybe it’s the intoxicating smell of the new-turned earth. Or maybe it’s the unusual warmth of the day (76 degrees, as I write). Or perhaps it’s my Irish blood. But I feel this St. Patrick’s Day planting will be the luckiest in a long time.

Posted by: Roxie

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Like many people, I’m fighting lethargy this week. The cold,cold,cold and the wet, wet, wet and the gray, gray, gray don’t make me feel like jumping up and doing the things I should. I’d much rather stay under some blankets reading a good book (Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen, thank you very much)

The garden, though, isn’t taking any breaks. While we’ve been lying on the couch, watching football and overeating, the garlic we planted late last fall has been hard at work. At this point, it’s tall enough that its rows are the first sign of life in our garden.

 

Here's the spring's first growth. Alas, the white rock will always be with us.

 

This is a problematic time of year if you grow garlic. That’s not because of any worry about these new shoots. They can withstand the average amount of cold the Kansas City area can throw at them.

No, it’s the garlic still hanging in the bag from last year that can pose a problem.

Last year was a great garlic year for us, so we still have quite a lot of bulbs hanging up in a plastic mesh bag we saved from some onions we bought. Trouble is, spring is calling and every garlic bulb out there wants to answer.

This is the time of year that garlic sprouts. Even if you buy it at the store, you’ll find this to be true. So now when we go down to replenish our kitchen supply, we may come back with bulbs with that telltale green in the middle. They’re not the best eating.

Another thing we’ve accidentally found out is that hanging up your garlic in a well-ventilated area is an excellent way to dry it. Lately, we’ve come across more and more little yellowed cloves that are light as a feather and hard as rock. Exhibit A:

As the picture suggests, you can grate these guys. I’ve used the handy kitchen Microplane, but this year we seem to have more of them. So I may experiment with our old baby food grinder or the coffee/spice grinder.

When you do this, the product you end up with is granulated garlic, which is apparently a favorite ingredient in diners, if you watch the Food Network.

There are other ways to store garlic. Some people like the garlic in oil that comes in the store. However, it carries a higher botulism risk so that’s one thing I won’t try at home.

And here’s something new. Black garlic. It looks fairly shocking–like something rotten. Well, here’s a pic, you be the judge.

Black garlic is the new darling of foodies and chefs, and has a lot of buzz about it’s antioxidant powers. (read more here and here) This makes me kind of curious. After all, if we’d eat corn fungus…

But it’s expensive–a bulb costs more than $9 at Amazon. Hmmm…maybe I should try making this stuff at home.

But whoa! According to this article in eHow, you have to set your oven to 150 and put your garlic in for 40 days, and even then you’ll be throwing away some that get moldy. Sounds like a deal killer.

Unless…maybe I should check the temperature a heating pad would bring it to. Hmmm….

Posted by: Roxie

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Winter might not be completely over here, but spring is definitely closing in. I can feel it in the sense of urgency about gardening chores that have to be completed before the growing season gets going in just a couple of weeks.

If you’re getting ready to start your own seeds for the first time this year–and we strongly recommend that you do–then you are in the throes of decision about what’s best to buy.  We got a lot of questions about this after our recent talks at the Johnson County Home and Garden Show last weekend. So today, we’ll give you a quick rundown on some terms you may come across.

Hybrid seeds–These are seeds that result from cross-pollination between two different varieties of parents. If you grow a hybrid plant and then collect and plant the seed, you will not get exactly the same type of plant because hybrids cannot reproduce in true form.

F3 hybrids–Sometimes you’ll see references to different F numbers of hybrid seed. This just refers to how far the hybrid is genetically removed from the original pair. F1 is first generation, F2 is grandchildren and F3 is great-grandchildren and so on. (The F stands for “filial generation.”) If you are looking at an F3, it means someone has put a lot of work and effort into producing this plant–and likely wants reimbursement, if you know what I’m saying.

Open-pollinated or “standard” seed–These are simply non-hybrids. You can save the seed and grow these year after year and you’ll still have the same plant. Unless you plant another variety too close, in which case you’re making your own cross-pollinated hybrid of sorts.

Heirloom–All the rage, “heirloom” is more of a marketing word than a scientific definition. Heirlooms are open-pollinated seed that are not used in wide-scale agriculture. The name also implies the variety is an old-timer.

Genetically modified–You aren’t too likely to run into this unless you also have 100 acres, a combine and several hundred thousand dollars of bank loans. Genetically modified seeds have been changed by recombining the DNA, not through cross-pollination.  Here’s more on the subject. As I was looking up info on this, I ran across the following simple explanation from this site:

For example, the gene from a fish that lives in very cold seas has been inserted into a strawberry, allowing the fruit to be frost-tolerant.

Mmmm. Sounds great, doesn’t it?

Organic seed–These are seeds from plants that have been certified as having been grown without the use of synthetic chemical applications, according to the USDA. (Here is the official document on that.) A word of caution here: If you put organic seeds in the ground and then load up on pesticides and synthetic weed killer, you will NOT have organic vegetables to show for it. The seed certification is about the plant’s past. You alone are responsible for its organic future.

Several people at the show also asked us about seed catalogs, so I thought I’d mention a few that offer choices suited to Kansas City and the region. Remember to check the zone hardiness map and read the descriptions to see if what you order will work here.

Park Seed, Shumway, Burpee, Totally Tomatoes, Seed Savers Exchange (you have to request a catalog from them to get it sent) Jung and Henry Field. That ought to get you started.

Odds and ends

We’d like to thank everyone who came out last weekend in the dismal weather. It was a great time.

I’ll just close with this funny/scary commercial I saw for another home and garden show.


Posted by: Roxie

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