Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Good Food and Thankfulness

This week, my mind is more focused on "eating good food" than on "growing good food." Of course, it's hard to have the first without the second! All the gardeners fully understand that backward-sounding order, but plenty of other people forget that behind most good food there is thought, and work, and care.

I have been very fortunate in being able to grow good food in my yard. The food is fresh, and our meals are varied. All those vegetables probably contribute a lot of vitamins and minerals to our daily intake. The garden sparks conversations with my neighbors, building my local community. I am thankful for my garden, the good food it provides, and for the physical strength to manage it. Not everyone has the time or a sunny enough or large enough spot to grow their own food.

Not that long ago, much of the western part of the county was an agricultural area. The Old Guys still talk about how Cobb County and sweet potatoes used to be like Vidalia is, now, with onions -- viewed as the prime source of the sweetest and best produce. The fields were plowed using mules, and farming involved a lot of physical labor.

The sweet potatoes that grow in my yard (four varieties this year!) are also some work, and this year the chipmunks ate what I consider to be more than their share, but when we eat the sweet potatoes I was able to harvest, I know how they were grown (organic methods). I know that one variety is part of a line that stretches back more than 100 years in this county. I know that it is easy enough to grow this staple crop that other people can do it, too.

If enough other people give it a try, our whole community can benefit.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

What Survived the Dip into the mid-20s

We had a couple of especially cold (for November) nights last week, and the garden showed it. The leaves of the pepper plants all wilted, the remaining summer annual flowers (marigolds, salvias, cleome) turned to mush, and even the last of the spring-type radishes fared poorly.

In the good news category, the winter radishes are still standing, as are the carrots. The cabbages and broccoli look good, even though they looked very sad on the coldest mornings. All the leaves fell off the Ichi Ki Kei Jiro persimmon, but the big orange fruits are still there, even a couple that have been half-eaten by my aerialist chipmunks.

The very small lettuces and assorted greens that have all struggled to get beyond the "delicious to chipmunks and wild rabbits" stage, also are still vibrantly green. In my dreams, they reach mature size before we get much colder weather.

A couple of stray potato plants had come up from tubers that were missed in the early summer harvest, and the tops of those collapsed in the cold. The good news is that we dug up another pound or so of red potatoes from underneath those wilted tops.

Essentially, last week brought an end to the remaining the summer crops that had been barely hanging on.

At the County Extension Office, we are still getting calls from people who want to know what vegetables they can plant now (gardeners rarely give up, and they aren't deterred by a little frost!). There is still time to put in some garlic and onions, but that's about it. However, this is a good time to start thinking about some winter-sown vegetables.

UGA Cooperative Extension's Vegetable Planting Chart (planting dates for middle Georgia need to be adjusted for Cobb County by 10-14 days) shows traditional planting dates for the most commonly planted garden crops. Alabama Cooperative Extension's Planting Guide for Home Gardening in Alabama offers dates that are similar to those in UGA's publication.

Other than the onion group, neither of these publications lists any crop that can be planted (with the hope of successful harvest) this late in Cobb County. Even the most cold-hardy vegetables are fairly tender when they are very young, and,  at this point, the odds are pretty small of any vegetable growing to a tougher stage before another killing frost occurs.

However, Colorado State's Extension publication Winter Gardening: Planting Vegetables in Early Winter for an Early Spring Crop tells about planting seeds in the ground in late winter, much sooner after the New Year  than many people might usually consider planting. In this publication, author Curtis Swift offers, along with some basic instructions, this list of cool season vegetables that can be winter-sown:
  • lettuce
  • peas
  • spinach
  • broccoli
  • Brussel sprouts
  • carrots
  • radish
  • cauliflower
A website called (not too surprisingly) Wintersown offers a step-by-step guide to an outdoor container-option for sowing seeds in winter.

For the many gardeners who like to keep things moving in the garden, winter-sown crops might provide a nice outlet for that pent-up planting energy.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Baker Creek's Whole Seed Catalog for 2014: IT'S HERE!

Yesterday when I got home from work, I found this really great surprise in my mailbox:

First Seed Catalog of the Year!
It may seem early, but the timing is actually excellent. I've started putting together a presentation on planning the garden for seed saving, to be given in January, and Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds' big catalog full of open-pollinated varieties (no hybrids included!) is going to be helpful.

The catalog includes a basic guide to seed saving -- on pages 352-3 -- which I may be able to reference in my talk, but so far I've mostly used Suzanne Ashworth's Seed to Seed in putting together a chart of some important features and seed-saving guidelines of common garden crops. It probably helps that I save seeds from my own garden for some crops.

Anyone going organic and trying to exclude GM foods from the garden is also going to find useful information in The Whole Seed Catalog. For example, on page 61, in the corn section, there's a somewhat astonishing note:
"Each year we have a harder time getting seeds that test GMO-free. It is getting to the point where most heirloom corn varieties test positive for GMO's; even growers in remote areas are having problems with Monsanto's GMO corn."
And on page 11:
"Our company used to carry up to two dozen varieties of heirloom corn, until we began testing for GMO contamination in 2006. Now, we are barely able to offer half that number, since the remainder have tested positive. That's half these fine old historic varieties -- gone, until or unless we can find clean seed for them!"
It doesn't help that corn is wind pollinated. That pollen can probably travel for miles on a strong enough breeze.

There's an old joke about leaving a tip that ends "plant your corn early." That closing line may need to shift to a more serious version: "order your corn early," for people who want guaranteed GMO-free seeds for their corn patch.

Meanwhile, I will keep working on handouts for my talk, enjoying the great catalog, and planning my garden to allow for saving a few more kinds of seeds.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Where the Pollinators and Predators Hang Out

The picture below isn't from my yard. Joe and I walked around our local park last Saturday, and there were butterflies, bees, wasps, and other great insects on all the flowering weeds.

Not my yard, but great to see a Monarch butterfly near home
It made me wonder how much my own garden's success depends on the city's not mowing edge-to-edge in my local parks.

When food gardens have a problem with low productivity, it sometimes can be traced to a scarcity of pollinators. A lot of newer neighborhoods are border-to-border monoculture lawns. These yards are pretty low on habitat that would support useful populations of pollinators and other beneficial insects.

Most gardeners understand that this is a problem, and they follow guidelines like those in  UGA's publication Beyond Butterflies: Gardening for Native Pollinators to plant small-flowered herbs and other pollen-and nectar-rich flowers that attract pollinators and useful predators, but if the insects don't have a good place to reproduce and to survive the winter, there might never be an abundance of these useful critters.

My garden crops typically don't have a problem with lack of pollination, and there seem to be plenty of great predatory insects, too, but, like all those other gardeners, I do what I can to attract a diverse community of insects and other small creatures to my own yard. Also, I am lucky in that my yard backs up to a small patch of woods and that it has a creek -- with associated native vegetation -- running along one side. I am sure that all helps.

According to a recent article posted at Southern Region IPM News, The Right Habitat and Food Source Key for Beneficial Insects, that describes findings of entomologists at North Carolina State University, the parasitic wasp Telemonus podisi (it kills stink bug embryos) overwinters more often in leaf litter than in cracks of tree bark:
“The number of parasitic wasps, for example, was four times greater in leaf litter than those overwintering in tree bark,” said Lahiri. “This data, combined with lab studies, suggest the importance of woodland field borders with leaf litter from hardwood trees as a refuge area during winter for the parasitoids.”
I do have some woodland edge, but -- even combined with the right garden flowers -- the wild spaces in my one yard may not be enough to support all the beneficial insects that help out in my garden.

Wouldn't it be something if the unmowed and uncleared edges of city and county parks were the best refuges for our beneficial insect populations?

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

About Those Falling Leaves

It's really autumn now. Days are shorter and cooler, and leaves on the trees are changing from green to various shades of yellow, orange, red, and brown. In my neighborhood, leaf blowers and rakes have already been pressed into service to remove the first round of dropped leaves.

I am pretty sure that most gardeners can figure out, without any trouble or help from me, that all those falling  leaves blanketing their lawns would make great mulch and/or compost, but awhile back (ten years?) I wrote a poem about those leaves. I do not have any delusions about being a good enough poet that great hoards of people would want to read what I have written, but I'm going to post it here anyway.

Last year, a week after my house was smashed by an oak tree, my father died. He had been suffering from pancreatic cancer, so his passing was not a huge surprise. However, I remember his telling me once that he really liked this particular poem. That may have something to do with the return of the poem to my mind this year, even though he died in summer.


They fall -- yellow stars
and tulips of sweetgum and poplar,
the red and orange of maple,
dogwood's burgundy.
My neighbor looks out
across the bright mosaic
of her yard and goes
to fetch the rake.
She shifts the luminous host
into plastic, scowls
as rags of color twirl
away, across her tidy lawn.
At night, I remove
the black bags from the curb,
take them to my yard,
set autumn free.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

A Walk Around the Yard

Right now, the garden says that we have not yet had a hard frost, but that it's been too cool for most of the warm-weather plants. A few Zinnias and my friend Electa's Heirloom Pink Salvia are still blooming. The salvia re-seed all over the place, which mostly is fine because they attract lots of little pollinators.

This year's carrot and radish bed.
The carrots and winter radishes (to the right of the carrots) won't be too fussed about cold weather when it finally gets here, but both crops (and the rogue bok choy that somehow ended up in the same bed) have flourished in the warmth we've had so far.

I had hoped that last year's carrot success wasn't a once-in-a-lifetime event, and it looks as though the hope was not in vain. The carrot tops all look good, and the one carrot I pulled a few days ago (just to check on how things were going underground) was big enough that I think homegrown carrots will be part of our Thanksgiving dinner.

Winter radishes are getting big, a few at a time, and we have already been enjoying them as before-dinner snacks, sliced thin and lightly salted. They are our "healthy alternative" to the kinds of fried salty chips that come in bags at the store.
Ichi ki ke jiro persimmons

Broccoli patch

The broccoli is coming along, too. If I look straight down the center of each plant, I can see tiny heads beginning to form. At this point, it's too soon to guess when they will be ready to bring in for dinner, but it may be before the end of the month.

Ichi ki ke jiro persimmons will start coming in soon, too. In theory, they are edible while still as hard as apples (like now), but we learned last year that the flavor improves if they have more time on the tree to get a little bit soft.

Marigolds are still in bloom, and I've been bringing in some of the old, dried flowers to save the seed. This is one of the French marigolds that is supposed to be good for reducing nematode populations in the soil, when planted in a solid block to grow for several weeks (at least). I never grow them that way because the nematode problem hasn't been severe enough to warrant giving up a planting bed for so long in summer, but I like to be ready, just in case.
Still some peppers, in November

When we had our big "freeze forecast" scare more than a week ago, I harvested all of the larger peppers. There were still some smaller peppers out on the plants, and the tinies are beginning to get bigger. If we have another week or so of sunny afternoons in the high 60s-to-low-70s (degrees Fahrenheit), I may be able to fill the dehydrator one last time.

The garden is saying, essentially, that all is as it should be.

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