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Archive for April, 2011

It’s time to plant sweet corn in eastern Kansas/western Missouri, according to the experts. And this year, we’re following the experts’ advice — mostly.

Now that’s a change of pace for me (Mike).  Last year I  did virtually nothing by the book, and still had a great corn harvest.

The horticulturalists at Kansas State University Research and Extension say the best time to plant sweet corn in our climate is mid-April to early May. For reasons explained in this post from 2010, I didn’t get last year’s crop in until almost mid- May

The experts claim that you should work 10-10-10 or 12-12-12 fertilizer into the soil before planting at a rate of  1 to 2 pounds per 100 square feet, and also that you should add more fertilizer later.  Uh, but Roxie and I don’t use chemical fertilizers, so that’s something I didn’t do and won’t do this year, either.

Corn needs plenty of water, too, an inch to an inch and a half a week.  If it doesn’t rain, then soak the soil until moisture has penetrated 12 to 18 inches. Yeah, well, whatever. Some weeks we got no rains, but I never once watered my 20’x20′ stand of sweet corn. Despite that,  our crop was bountiful (something like 150 ears)  and came in two weeks ahead of schedule. The seed packets said 88 days to maturity, yet we were eating corn on the cob 70 days after planting.

Who knows why? Maybe the weather conditions were freakishly favorable last summer for tardy and lackadaisical sweet corn growers.  Maybe I  planted during a waning moon, or is a waxing moon better? Like  I can keep that straight.  As Roxie observed in the previous post, who has the time or energy to fool with biodynamics?

(Deer bladder? Really?)

To be on the safe side, I’m chalking up last year’s success to dumb luck. No fooling around in 2011, especially since our satellite plot at the community garden is going to cost us $20 this year as opposed to last year’s price of “free.”

Silver queen is reliable and tasty

So in the next few days I’ll be planting corn. You, too? For best results, plant kernels (soak them first for best germination) 1 to 2 inches deep and as much as a foot a part.  Or plant closer and thin to a foot or  8 inches.

Rows should be 3 feet apart. That right there tells you that corn takes up a lot of space. Some gardeners try to get around that by planting one long row along a border.

Don’t do that. For good pollination (that’s what produces those luscious ears) it’s best to plant corn in blocks of no fewer than four rows.  That way pollen from the tassels has an easier time finding its way to the silks in the leaves along the stalks where the ears are produced.

You might get away with having just a few plants in a long row if you had the patience to hand pollinate. I’ve never tried it and don’t intend to, but see this article in the Lawrence Journal-World for details.

That same article discusses hazards of having two different varieties of corn planted in close proximity. As in closer than 50 feet. Cross pollination can ruin a corn crop, resulting in ears that have a disappointing taste, misshapen kernels and other bad stuff.  Though if the two varieties are on different schedules for pollination, such disasters can be avoided. But why chance it?

So we’re coordinating with a couple of our neighbors in the community garden. Rox and I were open to plant just about any variety that the others wanted to try. Sugar enhanced, super sweet and the new triple sweet varieties are very popular these days.

But based on the success we had last  year with silver queen — a regular sweet hybrid with white kernels — both Ann and Anne Marie said they’ll grow that variety this year, too.

One benefit of having my entire plot given over to corn is that I may try to follow the experts’ advice this year by staggering my planting. Plant four  rows at a time (remember, the minimum block, our vaunted experts say), then wait a week and plant another four. Repeat.  If you’re using seeds with the same days to maturity, this allows for a somewhat continuous harvest, rather than having the whole crop need picking all at once.

Staggered plantings also gets around the dreaded cross-pollination problem discussed above, as long as you time the maturities just right.

Roxie, however, wasn’t particularly  keen on this when I mentioned it to her. She’d just as soon get the corn harvest over at once, she said, rather than have to stretch the processing out over a period of weeks.

Which means, if I’m going to follow through with my plan, it’s only fair for me to volunteer to do that job.  Any corn we can’t eat fresh goes in the freezer. That means blanching the ears,  slicing the kernels off the cobs and stuffing corn into freezer bags.

There, I said it. And somehow I have a feeling that Roxie will remind me of this should I forget between now and July.

Posted by: Mike

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No matter how conscientious and respectful of nature you try to be as a gardener, there’s always going to be someone out there somewhere who’s out-organicking you.

So it is with biodynamic gardeners–those people who plant according to moon phase.

I was inspired to learn about biodynamics this week mainly because of the weather and my own laziness. You see, the cool weather and threat of rain gave me just enough of an excuse to put off what I consider to be the most tedious of garden chores–transplanting the basement seedlings into the ground.  As a result, I had a full Saturday afternoon to put in around 100 plants, including cauliflower, broccoli, tomatoes, peppers and eggplant. This involves digging the hole, putting in the plant, watering in, protecting for cutworms and then covering with the sawed-off plastic milk and oil jugs we’ve saved.

Normally I would do this a little at a time. But the threat of further rain gave me only a small window this year, so I did it all at once.

So there was a lot of time, as I was digging, to reflect and wonder about gardening ideas I don’t know much about. Such as biodynamics.

This is a system of organic gardening that takes things to the next level.  Before I looked at what it involved, I felt pretty good about my gardening chops. But now? Pfft. We call ourselves organic gardeners? We are unworthy, we are unworthy.

The main idea is this: The earth and living things on your farm are all an interconnected organism. Yes, you compost. But you do it by stuffing specific herbs into the rotting body parts of various dead animals. Yes, you plant, but you do it according to moon phase. And all of this, according to biodynamics founder Rudolf Steiner, imparts cosmic forces into the soil that will improve fertility. (Here’s the Wikipedia article, and another explanation about how it applies to vineyards).

The composting preparations are the trickiest.  Most of them call for the gardener to stuff herbs into a red deer bladder or cattle intestines or the skull of a domesticated animal and bury it for a period of time, after which the decomposed material is used as a spray. One preparation calls for ground quartz buried in a cow’s horn and sprayed later as a fungicide.

There are people out there who swear this works. But as a practical matter, where does a city gardener come up with a deer bladder? An online wizardry site, maybe?

Proponents of this system make a better case for moon phase gardening, in my book, because there’s at least a little whiff of science. The theory here is that the gravitational pull of the moon affects ground water. So as the moonlight increases (waxes) in the first quarter of the month, seeds will absorb the most water and be the most successful. And as the moon wanes later, the gravitational force goes down and the time is better for root crops and root development. The dark of the moon is a so-called resting phase, which is a good time to harvest, prune or mow the lawn. (Proponents say if you mow your lawn at this time, it retards growth and you’ll mow less often.)

Okay, I admit, that sounds sane and reasonable. But skeptics–and there are many–say there isn’t any scientific proof.

Science aside, I’m not sure how you’d balance the ideal moon phase with the many other things you have to consider when planting. What happens if you have a freak cold snap, or five rainy days in a row? And what has more influence on a seed–soil moisture in the top few inches from a good rain or soil moisture brought up from deep underground by the moon’s pull?

How would my planting have been different if I’d used moon phases? Well, Saturday was a waning moon, according to this calendar. All those transplants probably should have been done next week, if I understand correctly. And the spinach I sowed  Palm Sunday weekend should have been done a week earlier. Cucumber and squash should be right with the moon next week. Hope the soil will be warm enough by then.

On one hand, it’s hard to argue with the ideals of biodynamics. I like everything about the idea of getting out in the field and really listening to the rhythms of nature. But on the other hand, all of this business with the cow horns and herbs seems a little…Medieval. (Although I’m pretty sure there’s at least one person who will resolve to try the lawn mowing idea. Eh, Mike?)

As one of those organisms in the holistic universe of our garden, I think my own rhythms count for something, too. And they’re telling me: You don’t have the time and energy to add moon phases and cow horns to your gardening schedule right now.

If you want to read in more detail about biodynamics, try these links:

MoonGrow

Gardening by the Moon

Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Assn.

For skeptics:

Classical Astronomy

Biodynamics is a Hoax

Posted by: Roxie

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Roxie and I are great at growing vegetables and horrible at tending our flower beds. Maybe because, we figure, if you can’t eat what grows there, why bother?

However, this year is going to be different, though it’s not because we’ve suddenly gone all soft and squishy. Here’s the plan: What if we tried growing food alongside the flowers in the beds in the front yard? Maybe that would encourage me to pay more attention to the beds and, therefore,  erase the blight beyond our front door.

Ok, it’s not that awful. But if you paid us a visit, you’d see how pathetic that part of our yard is. If while making your way to the front door you chanced to glance left or right during the height of the growing season, you’d see the appalling state of our flower beds.

“And these people call themselves gardeners?” I imagine people saying.

Here’s this handsome,  century-old home with wraparound front porch. Large yard sprawling beneath the leafy boughs of tall, mature maples. Off in the back a vegetable garden that would be  the envy of any neighborhood. In another corner, a fountain burbles in a fishpond rimmed with limestone and hosta fronds.

If only the people who live in that nice, old house would do something about their dowdy, barren flower beds. See that pitiful rose? Or the pair of  peony bushes whose growth has been  stunted by the hibiscus that is too big for the space. And of course, there are the weeds.

This space is my responsibility.  Over the years, I’ve planted a few flowering perennials near the porch — don’t ask me what kind of plants they are, I couldn’t tell you. One spring I bought several varieties of salvia, an annual, and planted them in the bed near the cedar fence.

Eventually forgot about them. They croaked.

But it’s a new year, and I have vowed to make the space work for us. September is the best time to transplant peonies, so I will wait until then to relocate those bushes. And obviously the tree is staying put.

But in the open space where only weeds and seedum have grown in recent years, I recently sowed a variety of flower and edibles. Along the fence, lupines and poppies. Closer in, spinach, Indian mustard and Italian parsley.

Some basil we have growing in a pot indoors will soon find a new home in the ground near a patch of Swiss chard  and some flower seeds I planted because I liked the picture on the seed packet and the name, Maltese cross.

Swiss chard looks as good as it tastes

Appearance played into my choices of edibles and herbs. Swiss chard’s red stalks and vibrant green leaves look as good as they taste. Spinach is attractive, until it bolts.

Some sweet bell pepper plants might find their way into the “flower” beds, if we have some seedlings left over after Rox is through  planting the main vegetable garden (and we always do have leftovers).

I doubt I’ll plant tomatoes up front  — too big for the space. And the viney vegetables are out, too, for the same reason. Though come fall, I might try planting kale and lettuce in late July (kale) and August (lettuce).

We have similar plans, though not as elaborate, for the tulip bed on the west side of the house (our place faces south). But because of the intense heat of summer, it might be rough.

Still, with luck, water and a modicum of care, all might just work out as planned. Let us know if you’ve tried something similar and we’ll be sure to publish your comments.

Posted by: Mike

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One of the pitfalls of being a long-time gardener with years of experience under your belt is complacency. Things go pretty well, so there’s no need to keep up to date on the latest botanical research. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it–or so the saying goes.

Then, when something does go awry, you find out that half the things you thought you knew are now evidence of just how out of step you are, grandma. Gardening technique theory doesn’t change as fast as, say, cloud computing. But it turns out that it does change some.

Which brings us around to confessing our recent experience with asparagus.

Spears emerging from an asparagus crown

Asparagus is one of those crops that you put in the ground and it keeps coming back year after year with very little trouble. Until one year it doesn’t.

We’d been enjoying delightfully tender spears for years. (And by the way, there’s no comparing garden spears fresh from the ground to even the best grocery store asparagus, which has been held for who knows how long. There just isn’t.) But then, one by one, the crowns produced less and less. Until one year, there was just wasn’t any.

It was a mystery. We hadn’t seen any asparagus beetles, spotted or

Spotted asparagus beetle

otherwise. My belief system, based on what I knew when I first started planting asparagus years ago, was that nothing much bothers them disease-wise. So I didn’t know to look for some yellowing in the fern-like foliage you leave up to grow after picking is over in the early spring. That yellowing is a sign of crown rot, caused by the fusarium pathogen.

There’s not much you can do about crown rot. Experts tell you to abandon the area, because the fusarium is in the soil to stay. But we love asparagus and we don’t have that many places in our yard that it can grow.

So we did the only thing we could. Mike dug down about a foot and took out the old soil, replacing it with a layer of sand for better drainage and some new topsoil.

This year, there are signs of hope. New shoots are up throughout and seem to be robust. So we’ll see.

But as we’ve worked through this, I’ve found a number of other things I thought about asparagus are no longer considered to be true. Here’s a quick list.

*Mary Washington is the top variety to plant. It turns out Mary Washington is now old school. Some new all-male varieties (e.g. Jersey Giant, Jersey King) far out-produce Mary Washington and may have better disease resistance too. (Male asparagus also doesn’t use its energy to produce those cute little red berries that come out in late summer.) Sadly, I didn’t know this when I grabbed a few crowns from an unlabeled bin at my garden center and I have no idea of their pedigree. Oh well. Next time.

*You can’t cut asparagus until three years after you plant it–False, although you probably shouldn’t cut it the first year. The spears will be too thin, anyway. But cutting it the second year is fine and encourages more development underground. Just leave the slenderest stalks and limit your cutting to two weeks the second season, four the third season and 6-8 after that.

*You should cut asparagus with a knife just below ground level–It’s fine to snap it off just above ground. The little stump disintegrates.

*You should plant new asparagus very early in spring, as early as mid-March. No. The soil needs to be warmer. Fifty degrees at least.  So April and May are fine times to be putting in some crowns.

We’ll be watching our new crowns and hoping for the best. If you want a more detailed look at growing asparagus, here are two excellent articles. The first one is geared toward people who want to grow it organically to sell. And this one has some great info from the Ohio State University Extension service.

Posted by: Roxie

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Another weather post? You bet.

We gardeners are weather obsessed most times of the year, but especially now as the growing season begins.

Roxie’s post the other day focused on the cold and how some fools (like me) will forget when the temperatures turn balmy  at this time of year that a cold snap could sweep in at any moment.   But with freeze warnings out of the forecast for this weekend, we’re feeling plucky here at the garden paradise.

And what a great day we’ve got going for us on this April 15: gray skies, 52 degrees at noon and a cool drizzle keeping things nice and clammy.

Hey, we needed the rain, or so it seemed to me when I was  hoeing in the garden this week. Merely an impression.  I had no statistics to back that up.

So while sitting here in the reading room of the downtown Kansas City Public Library today, I paid a visit to the source of all climatological wisdom and data:

The National Weather Service website. Specifically the  site for the Pleasant Hill office.

If I’m reading the charts correctly, then things are looking pretty good so far in 2011, moisture-wise, for the Kansas City area. Precip for the first three and a half months of the year is close to normal overall.

We got through January and February slightly above average, and then came in a half inch short for March, at just under 2 inches for the month.

Prior to today’s rain, precipitation for April was right at 1.29 inches, which was just about where we ought to be.

Of course, the official numbers don’t necessarily have any bearing on your own situation.  Rain can be spotty. Kansas City is spread out.  Some days it will  pour like crazy in neighborhoods north of the Missouri River, but stay sunny and dry out south. That’s why Roxie and I depend more on what our rain gauge readings are than what the weatherman says.

But in case you’re interested,  normal annual precipitation for the Kansas City area is 37.98 inches, with normal being the average readings between the years 1971 and 2000. Last year we got above-normal rainfall: 41.91 inches.

Some of you got lots more. That coupled with cooler than normal temperatures early in the growing played havoc with your tomatoes and other crops. Or so you told us at the garden shows this winter.

But no two years are alike. This one’s bound to be better—maybe.

Posted by: Mike

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Do television weather forecasters sense it when gardeners tune in this time of year, nails firmly between their teeth?

Like probably most of you reading this, we’ve been obsessively watching the weather this week, bouncing between channels and the Internet to get a range of what’s going to happen this weekend.

That’s when the predictors said we might expect temperatures at 32 or below and a possible rain/snow mix. It’s a familiar pattern for those of us in the Midwest–outbursts of overly hot weather speed up the blooms and ensuing cold snaps kill them off. Result: Heartbreak all around.  But today’s latest updates have raised the temperatures by a few degrees. No longer does anyone mention frost or snow, although it will still be cooler in Kansas City.

As a family who’s still enjoying bottles of our first-ever sour cherry wine, we breathe a sigh of relief. It would have been a shame if we didn’t have enough fruit to try that again (with perhaps a little less sugar. Last year’s batch seems to be more of a dessert wine).

Spring in the Midwest is full of pitfall for  newbie gardeners. Those record-breaking days in the high 80s cause, in many of us,  a mental condition familiar to most divers–euphoric rapture. How could it ever be cold again when today you are getting a sunburn and turning on the window air conditioner in the upstairs room because it’s unbearable in there?

Even experienced gardeners fall victim. (Little secret: Mike took one of our potted basils–a warm-weather loving herb if ever there was one–and secretly planted it in the ground the other day! What could possibly go wrong, right?)

Sudden freezes aren’t too much of a garden problem if you kept your head and have all your plants still inside or in a cold frame. Most of the things we have in the garden plot now–peas, garlic, onions, etc.–can stand a little light frost.

Apple blossoms from our grafted tree

 

But freezes are more a worry for fruit trees, which start being vulnerable the minute the buds first swell. The bigger the buds or flowers, the less they can stand the cold.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is why gardeners and farmers have a reputation as complainers. That gorgeous 85-degree day in early April did not make them happy because it just speeded things up and brought our fruit trees closer to danger. The buds became bigger than they should be earlier than they should be. And therefore they are more susceptible to the cold snap that inevitably follows.

How much should I have worried about the predicted lows of 30 or 32? Not as much as I did, it turns out.

A little research turned up this useful chart (with pictures) from the University of Utah extension service of the temperatures that cause damage at various stages of fruit tree blossoming. The two types of trees at our house–tart cherry and apple–sustain damage to about 10 percent of their flowers at 28 degrees, but 90 percent at 25 degrees. No one predicted a freeze that severe.

But then again, no one wants to lose even a few of those precious fruits.

The water situation–We only just put our gauge out so we don’t have any data, but we sense that things are drier now than they should be. There’ve been a lot of clouds and light rain, but not enough to make much mud.

So we’ll be putting a little straw lightly over the carrots and beets. Carrots are such small seeds that they dry out quickly and you lose them. We’ve had better luck strewing a little straw (but not so much that it blocks out the sun) and even watering them frequently if the rain doesn’t come often. The soil has to stay moist through that crucial period when they’re the size of eyelashes.

Posted by: Roxie

 

 

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Now that daytime temperatures are solidly in the 50-70 degree range and nighttime is routinely above freezing, it’s time to begin getting things into the cold frame.

We put ours out a couple of weeks ago, but only started using it yesterday, when I put a few replacement strawberry plants in there. In another week, we’ll bring up some of the seedlings that have been growing in our basement before finally planting them in the ground.

Cold frame season doesn’t last much more than three weeks. So today seems like a good time for a little Q and A on the subject.

What is a cold frame? Basically, it’s a tiny greenhouse for small plants.

Why use one? There are couple of answers to that. We use ours to help our indoor-grown seedlings make the transition from their coddled existence in our basement to the Kansas outdoors in springtime. It can be quite a shock to be resting on a warm grow-mat, soaking up hours of light and even

This is from a year ago

temperatures one day, then go outdoors the next, where winds blow and temperatures shift wildly. The cold frame protects them from the wind and moderates the temperatures a bit (you can open the top during the day and close it at night). This is called “hardening off” your plants. This way they get the benefit of outdoor sun, yet we’re able to grab them and bring them indoors if there’s an unexpected cold snap.

 

But if your cold frame is bigger, you can also use it to grow smaller things like lettuce and spinach earlier than you would get them normally. You just keep the lid down more, so it stays warmer. In this case, you would put your frame over soil–not in the driveway like ours–and plant the greens directly in it.

Can I grow vegetables without a cold frame? Yes, but they’re sure nice to have.

Are they expensive to build? Only if you buy some kind of ready-made one or a kit. If you’re imaginative and you have access to a few building scraps, you can make one on the cheap.

What’s the best way to build one? We have our favorite style, which is included with instructions in our book (see the ad on the rail). We like it because it has hinges and is collapsible for storage when we’re not using it. But of course, this is not the only way to build a cold frame.

The basics you need are: Sun, some way to contain it or wall it off, and a lid that lets in the sun and air. You’ll need to be able to open and close the lid.

First check where you want the frame to be. You need it to be in a sunny spot for warmth.

Your size and the type of walls are up to you. You can use scrap lumber, old bricks or pavers, even cinder blocks. The point is to separate your plants from the rest of the garden and protect them from wind and critters.

There are a lot of ways to do the lid. Ours is a wood frame with some wire fencing to support clear plastic sheeting. (We find 2 ml is about the minimum strength you need. Still, we have to replace it fairly often.) You can also use opaque plastic panes or rig up something with plastic pipe and row cover material. Glass would work if you’re careful, but if your frame is large, it will be heavy and you’ll need panes to support it.

You also will need a piece of board or something to prop the lid when you’re taking things out or the day is unexpectedly hot.

Is there a down side to cold frames? Well, they’re usually ugly–at least by the second or third year. And if they’re out of sight with the lid shut it can be easy to forget to water your plants.

Cold frame plants will need to be watered, even though they’re outside in the rain, because the warmth and sun cause them to use water more quickly. And you can’t trust that every rain will seep in enough to water your plants. I’ve lost plenty of plants over the years by forgetting that.

But on the whole, there are more pros than cons. Our seedlings last much better after transplanting because we put them in the cold frame for a few days first.

Hope this helps convince you to get out there and get those seeds going. April is ticking by.

Posted by: Roxie

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