Saturday, June 20, 2009

Summer Time and the Garden is changing

It's been an interesting Spring. We harvested scores of tomatoes, at least all the ones we could nab before the birds punctured holes in them. I found that if I picked them just as they began to color- we got them, if I waited for them to turn a little more red - the birds got them.

We've probably picked 12 cucumbers off the bush cucumbers I started from seed. I've had to learn to wait until they plumped up a little before picking them, otherwise they tasted a little too green.

The swiss chard is doing well, as is the Malabar spinach - which is actually a vine with edible leaves. It's in it's second year, I bought it last year at the farmer's market and planted it in the half wine barrel with the ailing tomatoes. Just as promised, it reseeded itself and is going to town.

I planted string beans but for some reason only four out of the 9 plants came up. I don't know whether the birds got them or I planted them too deeply or what. It's been wild to watch them grow, they are in their second or third blossom cycle. 4 plants only produce enough green beans to snack on.

I've got a volunteer basil plant growing in the garden near the cucumbers. The birds must have planted it cause I certainly didn't. The parsley is struggling along, I really need to soak the soil, they aren't getting enough water. The stems are rather hard - it is definitely rabbit parsley.

I tried an experiment this year and made my own upside down tomato planter out of a plastic, 5 gallon bucket you can get for free at any bakery. There seems to be natural, circular indentations in the bottom and lid of these buckets - so I drilled those out, sat the bucket on two chairs, put my baby tomato plant upside down through the hole and filled the bucket with potting soil. I put a coffee filter over the hole in the lid, secured the lid and flipped the whole thing over. I left the tomato grow upright for a week or so, then I hung the whole contraption upside down on a securely mounted hook on my patio roof. The plant was determined not to grow upside-down and for awhile it looked like it was heading for the top of the roof. Eventually, as the fruit began to grow, it forced the stem to come down and now reluctantly it's growing down towards the ground. This one seems to be a little trickier for the birds to pick the fruit - I think they must have to dive bomb it, as there is no place to sit and peck daintily at the ripening fruit.

I made a second bucket and placed a basil plant in it. The basil has had not qualms at all about growing upside down. It immediately just turned it's leaves over and has had no quarrel with the pull of gravity. I discovered at the beginning of the project that it was definitely advantageous to use a potting soil mix and not a dirt type mix. Potting soil is lighter, a bag of garden dirt from the garden store is way too heavy. Also, when asking for the buckets be sure to say you want to keep the handles. I had to put rope handles on my buckets but would have much preferred the metal handles that came with the buckets originally. Also, I learned that when purchasing potting soil, smaller is better. It takes less then you think to fill a 5 gallon bucket.

This summer, I've covered the garden bed with several layers of newspapers in an effort to control the weeds. So far it's working. I've planted a few cantaloupes and hope that they trail all over the garden to fill in the empty space. I'm hopeful we can keep the tomatoes alive during the long summer months. I know some people pull them up and start fresh in the fall but if we can keep them going we'll have earlier fall tomatoes. We grow the best fall tomatoes here in South East Texas.

Linear Composting

Thirteen years ago, we constructed three 4 x 16 grow boxes. Two of those boxes are still unused, but this spring, just before the open house reception we pulled up the big weeds and covered them both in a thick layer of hay. Some very determined but easy to pull out grass has poked through and morning glory vines have grown up around the edges but the thick layer of hay compost has successfully stifled anything else from coming up.

I decided I wanted to add more organic matter to at least one of these beds; so I've been using my Vita-mix to chop up every bit of vegetable matter into a mash and pouring it under the hay to rot. Well I thought this seemed to be working quite well until one day, as I pulled up some hay near where only a few days before I'd added the last batch of mash - I discovered that I had created conditions perfect for the production of meal worms. You know the kind, the big fat meal worms they feed to lizards and birds at the pet store and that fishermen use as bait. There squirming in the mash was a large mound of meal worms. Uck!!! Now what!

It took several phone calls to the folks at the cooperative extension service before I was able to find someone who could give me some advice. The recommendation was open the bed up to the air so the birds can get fat and happy and probably don't make mash of the vegetable matter. The only problem was when I pulled the hay back I didn't know where my squirming mass of meal worms had moved on to. Oh well. Maybe the 7 toads I know are living in those garden beds will find them worms or the resulting beetles and have a fine meal and they can get fat and happy.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

New Things to try

Not long ago, a friend sent me a website that showed how to grow potatoes in a bag of dirt.  I'm not much into growing potatoes.  They are cheap enough in the store, but the beauty of this website is it had links to other cool planting ideas.  As I checked through the other links I found one that showed how to make an upside-down tomato planter out of a white bucket you can get for free at any bakery.  On the market these planters, called 'Topsy-turvey tomato planters' cost any where from $10 - $20.  I was so excited about this idea I immediately rummaged through my garage to find a bucket and lid and set to work.  I'll post the website next time I write.  

I am waiting for the plants to get themselves established before I flipped them upside down.  I can hardly wait.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Wow, It's working!!!

I am pleased to say the experts are WRONG! We don't have to wait til March to plant our summer vegetables. I will be picking tomatoes off one of my plants by the end of March. Dad would be proud.

The plants I've put in the garden are doing well, the seeds I started are a little slow. It seems to have taken eons for the parsley to finally break through the ground but I have 4 little baby plants in the area I planted the seeds. Probably lack of water had a little bit to do with that. I really must do better in that department.

I have started hauling the hose out to the garden rather than use the watering can to soak the soil. I seem to have an easier time controlling the force of the water with the spray nozzle rather than the end of the watering can, PLUS I'm not hauling bucket after bucket of water around the house to the garden.

I was reading in the "Square Foot Gardening" book that it's easier to maintain the square foot effect if you actually make a 12" x 12" grid with strips of lathing and lay it over the garden bed. I've had the wood for a couple of weeks now but I haven't done anything with it. I can see the point, as I got really creative with the square foot concept when I put in the parsley. Since so much of it didn't come up I'm thinking of digging the baby plants up and moving them around inside the frame work of the 12"x 12" grid.

I'm going to soak 9 bush bean seeds today and begin planting them tomorrow. My dad always soaked his beans before planting. It ensured they came up faster. 9 bean plants will fit in a square foot. I don't want to can bush beans, I just want to eat them so I'll stagger the planting a week or so apart to I'll get a continual harvest over a longer period of time.

I saw bush cucumbers in the store last month and decided to try them instead of the standard vining type. 3 out of the 6 seeds I planted have sprouted in my little peat pot greenhouse and two of the plants I've put in the garden already. I wonder how much space they are going to take up? I'm assuming that the two plants (which are planted side by side) will probably take up the same amount of space as a zucchini plant which is a 3' x 3' space. I'll have to make a note of it.

It's time to begin tying my tomatoes up. The one with the ripening tomatoes is getting big and needs to be trained to grow upward and not spread out all over the garden. I've had galvanized 1" pipe stacked along the edge of the garage for years from the last time I tried gardening in Texas. I'm confident the pieces for the cross bars are still there.

When I get a decent looking garden in another month I'm going to take a picture of it and post it on this blog. God bless the man who invented digital cameras.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

It's Rainig, finally!

Well, it's sort of raining. What we really need is a good, old fashioned gentle shower that lasts all afternoon and soaks in really deep.

Monday, February 9, 2009

How does the garden grow

It's beginning to look a lot like a real garden. The tomatoes are beginning to get taller, the Swiss chard is developing more leaves and the 18 lettuce plants (9 - buttercrunch and 9 - romaine) are standing a little straighter.

I'm a little frustrated by the fact that a local feline has decided my nice soft, newly turned garden soil is the perfect place to do his business. It so happened that I wanted to put the lettuce in the exact same place the latest deposit was made. I carefully dug up the donation and threw it into the bed behind me or at least I thought I'd thrown it into the bed behind me. For the rest of the time I worked in the garden the smell of cat poop followed me around. Every time I bent down to work in the soil the smell followed.

I took my shoes off on the mat inside the door of the kitchen and thought that finally the smell would be gone, but no - I was wrong. After returning to the kitchen the smell was still there. After carefully examining the bottom of my shoe I discovered a gift was wedged into the deep crevices of my gardening shoes, Yuck! Those were quickly thrown outside.

I am waiting, somewhat impatiently, for the seeds I planted last week to break through the soil. I planted parsley, nasturtium, and lemon basil. I'm so worried my seeds won't sprout as the packaging promises that I have invested in a 24 count little seed sprouting contraption. It came with 24 peat disks you soak in warm water that fit neatly in the tray with a clear plastic domed cover. I've planted parsley, nasturtium, two kinds of basil and chamomile in the little peat pots. What'd you want to bet every seed I planted in the garden will break through any day now and I'll be stuck with either giving the parsley and nasturtiums away or be reduced to committing herbicide (baby plant murder - i.e. pulling the plants up and throwing them away.)

Saturday, January 31, 2009

The grand experiment begins

Well, it has been a few weeks since the last post. Last week DH and I finished double digging the middle grow box. The roots from the chinese elms that had been in growing happily in the box were a lot of work to dig out but we were successful in pulling everything out that wasn't growing down into the gumbo at the bottom of the box.

I went to Lowe's on Monday, originally to look at kitchen faucets but I decided I could probably use some nylon fencing and a roll of weed blocker, so I detoured through the garden center. They had the stockiest tomato plants I had ever seen - so I bought 5 plants. 2 - Romas, 1 - cherry tomato, 1- Early Girl, and 1 - (?). I bought the weed block and the nylon fencing only to discover when I got home that I already had some in the garage.

Several weeks ago while at the organic gardening store I had picked up two Swiss Chard and a chocolate mint that DH had been keeping alive on the kitchen counter. After bringing the tomatoes home, I gathered everybody up and took them out to the garden. Mint is known for it's spreading habit, so he was put into a pot and joined the rest of the crowd in the container garden. 80% of each tomato plant was buried in the ground - supposedly to promote better growth.

I am a student of square foot or intensive gardening - so the plants are about 1 foot apart. This afternoon I put in 8 Nasturtium seed in two square foot blocks, a small bunch of Lemon Basil
seed in 1 square foot block (I took from the lemon basil plant going to seed in the container garden) and about 12 - clumps of parsley in a 2 ft by 1 ft square.

I think I've missed the window of opportunity for planting peas this year. They were suppose to go in at the beginning of January and here it is the beginning of February.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

This week's progress

It has been at least 10 years since I last did any active gardening in my three 16' x 4' gardens. The landscape timbers on some of the boxes are disintegrating. One box has been the repository of soiled hay and rabbit droppings which have been left to decompose on top of the soil. All of the boxes have been infested with Chinese elm saplings which I had managed to kill off to some extent last summer. My husband cut down the trees during the winter and spread out the mounds of old rabbit litter.

In November 2008, while visiting the Farmers Market hosted by Urban Harvest I purchased their gardening book for gardening in the metro Houston area. It is really a gardening Bible for the Houston area and is a wealth of information. The chart of what to plant when indicated that the beginning of January was a great time to plant peas, especially snow peas. With that in mind I visited the Enchanted Forest and purchased some snow pea, lettuce and parsley seeds. That afternoon I began double digging the second bed, as it seemed to have the most potential, beings how this was the bed the rabbit droppings had been dumped in over the years.

Double digging is quite a job, especially when with very other shovelful you hit a root from a now cut down Chinese Elm sapling. I was pleased to discover that when I wasn't hitting roots the soil was still friable and I could see wild life - cutworms, red worms, black cockroaches, small garden snakes to name a few.

I'm about half way through double digging that first box and I hope to finish it up early this week so I can put the seeds in. I was concerned that the roots I wasn't able to get out of the garden might act like hydras and come back with a vengeance, sprouting 3 or more new plants each. I called the Co-operative extension to ask what they thought I should do but they only suggested using "Round-up" on them. When I went to the Farmers Market, yesterday, I asked one of the gardeners for Urban Harvest what they would suggest and they recommended commercial strength vinegar. It would kill the root but not harm the soil. I like these urban harvest people, they speak my language.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Of times past

I grew up in southern New Hampshire watching my father put in 100 by 50 foot gardens. I would ride behind the tractor, adding my weight to whatever implement was attached which would tame the soil and prepare it for planting. Dad did things on a large scale; I remember one year when we maintained five 50 x 100 foot gardens. We canned much of what we grew and it was more common that we went down to the cellar or up to the attic for the vegetables we ate daily, then that we bought them at the store.

As my dad grew older, he still kept a garden but they were closer to the house and not spread all over the fields across the road. He used a rototiller to turn the soil each year instead of a farm tractor and still kept to the concept of long rows of a single vegetable. I remember there was always lots of weeding to be done. It was hot, labor intensive work and if not done consistently the weeds would take over and obscure the vegetable plants.

When I got married I wanted to keep the gardening tradition my father had begun but I didn't have the land or the equipment he used and I certainly didn't have the time to dedicated to weeding that he did. It was about this time, in the early 1980's that I discovered a book by Mel Bartholomew called Square Foot Gardening. It was a remarkable book which promised high yields in small spaces with easy to manage raised beds that practically made weeding a thing of the past.

While living in southern New Jersey, I became a very successful square foot gardener. My gardens were lush, with nary a weed or bug insight. The method was all that it promised to be.

In 1995 we moved to southeast Texas, 22 miles southwest of Houston, into zone 9 A/B. Because we were so far south I soon discovered the summers were brutal. Tomatoes just wilted in the blazing heat and no one really wanted to be outside anyway. I tried for several years to garden as I had always done in the northeast but to no avail everything burnt up and died except the weeds. It seemed like the only way to garden as I was used to was to start in January or even September, certainly not in the summer it was too hot; but who had time to with kids in school and volunteer work and all the other things one is involved with during the school year.

Well life has come full circle. The kids are all in college now, in fact one is getting married this spring. My own educational goals have been scaled back so that I will have time to prepare for the wedding and I am currently unemployed, even on a part-time basis. There is now time to really learn how to garden in southeast Texas. I invite you to join me in my journey of discovery.