Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Small Home Gardens I've Seen Recently

I have been traveling around Italy this past month, and in spite of all the great museums, artwork, and historic structures that are pretty much everywhere I look, the little gardening efforts of regular folks are what draws my attention the most.
Looking WAY down on a small veggie garden in Chianciano.
When we have been zooming along in buses, I see a lot of larger gardens that are absolutely amazing, but I have not had a good way to take pictures. In smaller towns, though, especially in non-tourist areas, little food gardens are fairly easy to spot.

Hilltop towns like Chianciano are steep-sided, so I have had to lean out over walls to take pictures of the gardens (Joe makes sure that I am leaning safely!).  They almost all include a few grape vines and an olive tree or two!

Other residents don't have any bare ground for growing anything. One way they make up for that lack is by hanging planters on the walls and then filling them with flowers and herbs. I've seen a few hanging containers with strawberries trailing out of them.

Another hilltop town called Sinalunga has a suburban area on flatter ground outside the walls of the city, and Joe & I saw MANY little food gardens there. It was interesting to see that even small gardens here are planted in rows, while many small gardens in Georgia are planted in blocks, using intensive spacing.

I do not yet know whether the large number of gardens represents tradition or if it reflects on the local tax structure. One Italian guy we met, who had lived in Louisiana for many years, said that taxes here are nearly 60%. Even though that high taxation covers social programs like healthcare, that tax rate could encourage food-growing, since food you grow is not taxed. Every vegetable and bit of olive oil and wine that is produced at home could be seen as un-taxable income. That particular motivation is referred to by some gardeners I've known as "sticking it to the man".

Regardless of the reasons for their existence, all those little food gardens make me smile. Hope that all the gardens back home are doing well, in spite of the super-abundant rainfall of the past several weeks!


Monday, May 22, 2017

Summertime Adventure

Anyone who has been reading this blog for very long may have been wondering when I would get around to telling what I've planted in my garden this year. Usually, I spend most of January and February all in a tizzy over seed catalogs, trying to decide what new crops will go into the garden in spring.

This year, I tried not to look too closely at the seed catalogs that arrived in my mailbox, because I knew that I would be away from home for much of the summer. Reading them could have caused a bit of mental conflict!

My food-garden right now has a lot of herbs in it, the big strawberry patch, garlic and shallots planted in early winter, a few lettuces (unless a neighbor has eaten them)
Plenty of strawberries in the yard this year!

View from where I am writing today.

Container gardens: Not many veggies, mostly herbs and flowers.

Wonderful place not far outside of town!
and flowers for the local pollinators. There are no summer crops in the garden because I am in Italy!

I left an assortment of college students in charge of the house and the lawn-mowing, and the only plants they are tending are two houseplants and the big container/planter by the front door.

When I get home, I can start thinking about the fall garden (and a whole lot of weeding, I expect). It has been weird, though, to not plant any vegetables. I have grown vegetables in my yard in NW Georgia every summer since 1991.

I am looking forward, while I am in Italy, to learning more about gardening here. On a walk outside the city walls this weekend I found a large garden center, and even though my Italian language skills are sketchy and the English language skills of the people at the garden center are only a little better, we managed to communicate well enough.

The garden center features many annual and perennial flowers, but I also saw trays of vegetable transplants and pots of herbs. I will be going back again in the next few weeks to see/learn more.

Already I have seen that anyone with even as little open ground as a 5x10 foot patch is growing at least an olive tree. Larger spaces often include other fruits. I've seen quite a few cherry trees (sweet cherries, that don't do well in the humid Southeastern US), a few other fruit trees, and outside the walls of the town and in parks, there are umbrella pines that produce big pine nuts that are good to eat. It is great to find that so many people grow at least a little food!

The center of the hilltop town I am in, Montepulciano, is very paved, which accounts for the large number of container gardens, but farther down the sloped sides of the town there is more unpaved space, and some homes that have little yards. One yard that I saw on Friday includes a chicken coop, some fencing around a planting of tomatoes, a couple of olive trees, and a peach or apricot.

On another walk, I found the local biodynamic farm, Fattoria San Martino. I am hoping to make an official visit soon, complete with lunch reservation, and I will be reporting back on what I learn there.

Hope that all your gardens are doing well! If garden problems crop up, though, please feel welcome to ask about them through the comments link of this blog.

-Amy







Thursday, May 4, 2017

Supporting Pollinators

Without pollinators, our meals would be a lot less interesting. Fruit and vegetable options, in particular, would be much more limited, and some of those that provide flavor to almost every dinner would be gone from the table. (Unless I am the only one who cooks with carrots and onions pretty much every day?)

One way I have chosen to support pollinators, besides gardening organically and avoiding the use of even organic pesticides, is to participate in a group called Monarchs Across Georgia. Even though the group focuses on one special insect, the practices it advocates help a whole lot more pollinators than just Monarch Butterflies.

On Saturday, May 13, the group will be selling native plants that support pollinators at the Wildlife and Rain Garden in Marietta. Naturally, native milkweeds, food of Monarch caterpillars, will be featured. The sale is in conjunction with the Annual Garden Tour of the Master Gardener Volunteers of Cobb County. Buying tickets for the tour is not a requirement for stopping by the Wildlife and Rain Garden to buy some milkweed, but the tour is always great. For information about the tour, see the website of the Cobb Master Gardeners.

Plant sale details:

Cobb County Rain and Wildlife Garden
Saturday, May 13, 2017
10am - 5pm
Cobb County Water System's Wildlife & Rain Garden
662 S Cobb Dr, Marietta, GA 30060

Also, be sure to save the date for a screening of "Flight of the Butterflies". This film shows the annual journey of the millions of Monarch Butterflies, telling how the mystery of where these butterflies go each fall was solved. Reservations for the movie can be made through the Events page of Monarchs Across Georgia.  If you missed the chance to buy native milkweeds in May, there is another chance at this event, in the theater foyer after the showing. 

Details here:

Saturday, June 17, 2017
11am to 12:15pm
Midtown Art Cinema
931 Monroe Drive NE, Atlanta, GA 30808

The movie will be shown  in celebration of National Pollinator Week. Your price of admission is a donation to the Environmental Education Alliance of Georgia. Seating is limited.





Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Planting with Drought in Mind

When I plant my vegetable garden, I follow a modified version of what is often called Intensive Spacing. Square Foot Gardening is one example of a garden method that relies on intensive garden spacing.  It does not use farm-style rows; instead, plants are set into the garden in a grid-pattern, and they often are placed very near to each other. (Note: The Square Foot Garden book has helped a lot of new-gardeners find success in growing food, and in many ways it is pretty awesome.)

My version is modified in that the spacing I use is a bit roomier than in some of the grid-style intensive planting schemes I have seen. There is more than one reason for my spacing plants a bit farther apart than is sometimes recommended.

The intensive planting guide that I started out with, John Jeavons' How to Grow More Vegetables , suggests starting bush beans at a 6-inch spacing, and that is what I tend to use, but for big varieties like 'Provider' bush beans I make the spacing bigger.  The Square Foot Gardening book I read (early edition, so it may be changed now) suggests a shorter distance - fitting as many as 9 bean plants into a square foot of garden. My version fits 4 (or fewer) plants into one square foot of space.

The theory supporting tighter spacing is that even though there may be fewer beans per plant, the overall productivity of the square foot of space will be higher. That makes total sense.

However, when the tops grow to maturity and are making beans galore, the dense tangle of leaves and stems make the beans hard to find. For me, the convenience vs. exasperation factor is a consideration.

This tangle of growth can be a problem for more plants than just the bush beans. Following the suggested spacing for many crops in intensive planting systems can result in a mess.

The second reason for wider spacing is related to drought and the time required to water a garden. When plants are spaced more closely together, their roots cross into each others' soil-space. The roots of several plants will all be pulling nutrients and water from the same chunk of soil.

In a drought, in hot weather, a mature garden with big plants will need a lot of water. If those plants are very close together, all trying to get moisture from the same little bit of soil, they may need to be watered every day. Plants in raised bed gardens (which dry out faster than in-ground gardens) may need to be watered twice a day. Do I have time for that? No.

Steven Solomon, whose book Gardening When it Counts: Growing Food in Hard Times, has a tip for growing food in drought conditions. The tip is to make the plant spacing even wider when rain is scarce.

If the original spacing was fairly close, and the rains have stopped indefinitely, he suggests pulling some of the plants out of the garden. The remaining plants will have less competition for water, and the gardener will need to water a little less often.

My sister in Louisiana plants her bush beans 9 inches apart. Since her area is hotter and drier than mine,  NW of Atlanta, this spacing makes sense for her garden. She doesn't have time to water every day, either.

For gardeners who need high productivity and who can get plenty of water out to the garden in a long, hot, dry spell, the closer spacing patterns will be a better choice.

For the rest of us, if our upcoming summer gets as hot and dry as the last one, and if watering the garden becomes a seemingly endless chore, you might consider pulling up a few plants to see if Steve Solomon is right.



Thursday, April 6, 2017

Fruit for Thought

I read today that some parts of Georgia did not acquire enough "chilling hours" over this past winter to make a good peach crop. The temperature needs to be at or below 45 degrees F to count as being cold enough to provide the kind of rest that many plants, such as peach trees, need for good productivity in spring.

Different fruits, and different varieties of fruits, have different chilling hour requirements, but if the main crop didn't get enough cold weather, we may not get our fill of those smaller, super-flavorful Georgia peaches that make such good preserves.
"Toothpick" evidence of boring ambrosia beetles. PHOTO/AmyGWh

Could be a good year for strawberries. PHOTO/AmyGWh
The after-effects of our warm winter are probably going to cause trouble for more than just the peach growers.

In the orchard of one local community garden, I've already seen a different problem. Some of the trees have become infested by ambrosia beetles.

These beetles bore into the wood of the tree, and they can carry disease-causing organisms on their bodies right into the wood! If the boring activity of the beetles doesn't kill the trees, the other bits might.

The evidence that tells an observant gardener about the presence of ambrosia beetles is the odd protrusions, like toothpicks, sticking out from the trunk of the tree. 

To be honest, before about 2015 I hadn't seen much of this pest at all, but for the past couple of springs it has been abundantly present, attacking all kinds of thin-barked trees. Hint: check your crape myrtles!

The good fruit-news in my yard is that the strawberry patch is producing great masses of flowers. If all goes well, most of the flowers will turn into delicious fruits.

The patch has been fertilized and mulched, and the supports for the bird-netting (that also keeps out the chipmunks) are in place.

When the fruits are further along, I will set that netting out, but for now, it is great to have an unimpeded view of the flowers.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Time for a Quick Crop of Radishes

Plenty of gardeners in North Georgia wait until after mid-April to begin planting vegetable crops, but anyone who is a bit impatient can plant some radish seeds now.
Radishes from last spring's gardening.   PHOTO/AmyGWh

Radishes grow best in the cooler weather of early spring, and they are ready to harvest just 4-5 weeks after they are planted. This makes radishes a great little crop to start the gardening year. Success comes so soon!

It used to be that most radish seeds in the garden centers and catalogues produced radishes that were just round and red.

Now, though, a whole range of colors and shapes are available, which makes pulling the little roots up at harvest time a great adventure. The same patch of garden that grew the pink and white (almost hidden under the pink) radishes in the picture also gave us purple, red, and yellow (!) radishes. All were delicious.

People who are Not From Around Here sometimes refer to radishes as a foolproof crop. I remember, when I first moved to Georgia, reading in more than one book/document, that "anyone can grow radishes." That statement may be true in a sense, but the red-clay soil that is the base of my garden did not make a radish crop for the first couple of years, no matter how many seeds I set into the ground.

If your garden has been thwarting your radish-dreams, do not despair. The yearly addition of composts and other amendments, and having the soil tested to find out exactly what is needed to balance the nutrients for vegetable production, will soon enough bring plenty of these little beauties to your springtime table.




Tuesday, March 14, 2017

'There Never Was a Spring Like This'


Peach flowers opened in February. PHOTO/AmyGWh
The flowers pictured to the right were on a peach tree at the community garden on the grounds of a church in Marietta. I took the picture a couple of weeks ago, at the very end of February.

On warm-enough days, I sometimes take my lunch to eat at a picnic table by that garden. It isn't too far from the office, and it is a beautiful place.

These flowers are beautiful, too, but I was not as happy to see them as I might have been in another spring.

The problem is that the flowers opened too soon, triggered, I would guess, by a February that felt a lot like April. Unfortunately, we are about to have two nights in a row of temperatures around 25 degrees F.

Even though bees and other tiny insects buzzed all around the open flowers, working their pollinator magic, the little fruits forming as a result of that work are at a high risk of damage from the impending cold. Apple and plum trees in my neighborhood have done the same thing, blooming too soon.

This is one of those times when I think of the poet Countee Cullen, and the poem that starts "I cannot hold my peace, John Keats; There never was a spring like this." Of course, he meant it differently, but this is definitely a spring that I have not seen before.



Sunday, February 26, 2017

Georgia Organics Conference, Part 2

Really, the very best parts of attending something like the Georgia Organics conference are meeting new people and hearing those peoples' thoughts about food and our food system. This is probably an example of what is called "confirmation bias," where we seek out and bend information in ways that support our own world view, but I did leave the conference with an upbeat feeling about local food production in Georgia.
Cover of our conference schedule. It is actually green. PHOTO/amygwh

After my friend Electa and I arrived on Saturday morning, we signed in, then went through the breakfast line and looked for a place at a table.

We wound our way through the big breakfast area to a table that had only one woman and her young son seated there. Over breakfast we learned that they both had completed a growers bootcamp put on by Habesha Atlanta (but held in Augusta), and they were starting their own small food-growing operation.

While we ate and talked, more people who had participated in the same bootcamp, and who had begun working to grow some good food, joined us. This was a GREAT way to start the conference!

Throughout the day, we met and spoke with other people who had established small (1/2 acre or less) orchards and veggie farms and small chicken production operations in urban and suburban areas throughout Georgia.

Then one speaker (could have been GA's Ag commissioner Gary Black; my notes are sketchy here), in talking about Georgia's food system, listed big farms, medium farms, small farms, and home gardens as all contributing to our food system.

Home gardens! It was so great to hear these recognized as an important element of food production in the state.

My dream, of course, is that everyone finds a way to grow at least a little food. Our individual production may be small, but it all adds together.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Georgia Organics Conference, Part 1

Yesterday, early in the morning, I drove across Atlanta with my friend Electa to the Georgia Organics Conference, which was being held at a convention center near the airport. We had a fun day, met people who grow and love good food, and learned lots.
Cover of the Conference Schedule. In real life, it is green.

Eight different topics were presented in each time slot during the day, and they pretty much all looked interesting and potentially useful. However, picking the topic to see for our first session easy, because my friend Terri Carter was presenting about Food History in the South.

I was especially interested in the maps of trade routes she showed us and in the role of failing economies in influencing which foods were adopted into the "mainstream" diet. 

At other presentations during the day, I wrote down ideas/thoughts that could help home gardeners. This is a not-so-short list:
  • Sustainability starts with the seed. Choose varieties that are disease resistant and that don't need pesticides.
  • In a small farm or garden, "diversification hedges your bets." Grow more than one variety of each vegetable.
  • In a small space, 'Georgia Rattlesnake' watermelon, which produces Very Large Fruits, might not be the best choice, even though its flavor is spectacular. The plant covers a lot of ground to make those enormous fruits.'Ice Box' and 'Moon and Stars' have a much lower brix reading than 'Georgia Rattlesnake'. You might want to try different smaller varieties than those two.
  • Look for open pollinated varieties when you can, since these tend to have a diverse genetic background. Even in bad years, some of these may survive and produce food.
  • Trellising saves a lot of space and can reduce fungal diseases on leaves and fruits by getting them up off the ground.
  • In trials looking at yields of tomatoes on different trellising systems, cages gave the most pounds of tomatoes per plant. 
  • For blackberries, our farmer-presenter got higher yields on North-South trellis rows than on East-West trellis rows.
  • The same guy shears off the tops of his tomato plants about a foot above his trellis system (he uses a fence system, of wire fencing on T-posts, for his tomatoes).
  • There are no effective sprays to stop diseases in organic systems. Serenade and Sonata sprays may slow down the mildews, but getting good coverage of the leaves is not easy, and these products need to be re-applied every 7-10 days.
  • Neem is not helpful for squash bugs.
  • Avoid composting plants that have root diseases, but composting plants that have leaf diseases is okay. 
More thoughts prompted by the conference will be in my next post. Meanwhile, I have completely ignored my own good advice and planted out some lettuce seeds. The weather is seductively warm, and I am ready for spring!





 


Sunday, February 12, 2017

Aphids on the Arugula?

One of my friends brought some arugula leaves to the office last week, to show me the many hundreds of aphids that were on them. The arugula is growing at a community garden that she had visited, and she had permission from the gardener to pick a few leaves.
Aphids on arugula from local community garden. PHOTO/Amygwh

We slid the leaves under the microscope and could see that, while a whole lot of the aphids are alive and active (the green ones in the picture), some had been "parasitized" by a wasp.

That means that a little wasp had laid an egg inside the aphid, and the egg was developing into a new wasp.

The aphids that have a baby wasp inside are the puffed-up golden ones in the picture.

When each wasp-baby is mature, it will bust out of the aphid body, leaving behind an empty aphid shell.

Are images from "The Alien" movie flashing through your mind yet? Sometimes, real life is just as weird as science-fiction movies. This is part of what keeps gardening so engaging.

In organic gardening, knowing that there are predators and parasitic wasps around, waiting to take care of a pest problem, provides an odd kind of comfort. Unfortunately, though, even if a swarm of ladybugs (surprisingly effective predators on aphids) moves in to help the wasps clear up the aphid problem, this arugula is going to need a lot of washing before it is added to a salad.

My venerable copy of Rodale's "The Organic Handbook of Natural Insect and Disease Control" (my copy is from 1996) offers some help for aphid infestations. The first suggestion is to wait for the predators to take care of the problem. Usually, in my garden, "waiting" is enough.

This is an odd year weatherwise, though, so it looks as though more active steps will be needed in some gardens. The next suggestion is to blast the little plants with strong spray from a hose to knock the aphids off. The next after that is to try an insecticidal soap spray. In a dire emergency, try a veg-garden-pest spray that contains neem.

Of course, the very first thing to have done, if anyone could have foreseen the aphid disaster looming from back in the fall, would have been to cover the little crop with a spun rowcover to keep the aphids out completely.

Hoping that other gardens are relatively aphid-free!


Monday, February 6, 2017

Now You See Them, Now You Don't: Perennials in the Garden

Do you remember when you first figured out that some plants look great for only part of the year before looking as though they had died, but then they popped back up the very next year looking like nothing unusual had happened?
Daffodils in my yard.   PHOTO/Amygwh

When I see daffodils, which do exactly that magic act, I remember talking (maybe 15 years ago) with a young guy about his new home and its great yard. He was very concerned that he had already killed some of his beautiful flowers.

We eventually figured out that his flowers were daffodils.  The guy just had not yet learned that some flowers (like daffodils) come up early, bloom for a couple of weeks, and then begin to die back for the year.

It was a moment of revelation! I do not remember the exact moment when I learned about the "hibernation stage" of bulbs and the plants known as "herbaceous perennials", but I certainly remember when that guy learned. We talked some more about the strange ways of plants, and he was relieved to know that he had not killed his beautiful flowers.

Plenty of other flowers follow a similar life pattern. All of the spring bulbs (tulip, hyacinth, crocus, for example), Bee Balm, Anise Hyssop, Phlox, Bleeding Hearts, Trout Lily, Blood Root, and many more beautiful flowering plants do the same disappearing act for at least part of the year.

However, not many of our commonly grown food plants are herbaceous perennials, disappearing for awhile before returning. Asparagus is one. Horseradish is another. Fennel does that same magic act, too. A few weeks ago, all you could see of my fennel plants was some bare, brown sticks poking out of the ground. Right now, in the garden, the fennel is starting to show some dense feathery growth around the base of those sticks. They are reborn! Magic.


Sunday, January 29, 2017

When Can I Start Seeds for My Spring Garden?

The answer to “when can I start seeds for my spring garden” depends a lot on how much of a gambler you are. If you have seeds, seed-starting materials, and space with lighting galore, then anytime is probably a good time.

Basil seedling started at end of March, 2016, for sharing in May. PHOTO/Amygwh
If, like me, you have limited space, lighting, and materials, following a more conservative schedule may be a better choice.

For spring veggies and early flowers, my first planting usually begins in mid-to late February. That is when I plant seeds for English peas (and sugar-snaps), spinach, dill, and early flowers like larkspur outdoors in the garden. That is also usually when I set some seed potatoes in a single layer in a lighted space  indoors (sunny window can work) so they begin to sprout for mid-March planting.

The problem with planting earlier is that some seeds, peas especially, will rot in the ground if they are too cold and damp for too long. When they do come up, though, they can survive some very cold weather. So can little spinach seedlings. The dill and larkspur won’t come up until later, but they do better when planted early outdoors. That is just their way.

Seeds for other spring crops may come up in a stretch of warmish weather if planted outside very early, but if we get a return to actual winter, with temperatures dropping below 20 degrees F for more than a couple of hours, the little seedlings are not likely to survive. Spinach seedlings can take the cold, and it is possible that kale and collards can, too, but lettuces are sometimes less happy with such very cold nights, and new carrot seedlings might not make it, either.

Since the weather can still turn very cold in February, I keep an eye on the forecasts before planting even the most cold-hardy of veggies outside.

For most of my spring veggies, I wait until the first of March to start seeds indoors. That list usually includes lettuces, parsley, and beets. When these little plants are big enough, I move them outside for a few hours each day to help them adjust to life out-of-doors before transplanting them into the garden. By the end of March, they should be ready for that move.

Seeds for peppers often are slow to come up, and I tend to start some peppers, for summer, in the first or second week of March, too. Carrots can be planted outside at around the same time.

Tomatoes are a lot speedier to develop than peppers, so I wait an extra week or two before starting any of those.

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