Tuesday, February 11, 2014

What I’ll discuss with my garden in 2014

In the previous post I discussed the questions I’m asking my garden soil to answer in 2014. This post discusses what I want to learn from the crops I’ll be growing this year.

Last year’s dialogue with my garden suggested that re-mineralizing the garden soil brought positive results even though I did not make the best choice for materials to use in the fertilizer mix. Most notably, pest and disease pressure seemed less last year. Regarding this year’s re-mineralization effort, I hypothesize that pest and disease pressure will be no worse than in 2013. I also hope that flavor of those varieties whose flavor I know well will show further improvement, and that yields increase, or at least do not decrease, for those varieties I have grown before. If this happens, it will be more evidence that proper soil mineral levels are one of the keys to raising a lot of delicious, nutritious food in the small spaces that Ecology Action’s work claims is possible. I hope that as the garden soil improves it will need little if any added minerals and organic matter beyond the compost I make. However, I think it will be a few years before the soil can answer that question.

In the meantime, last year’s results suggested that I need to make some improvements in my gardening technique. These include ensuring that I plant crops closer to the times when I’ve obtained the highest yields in past years, not shading the peppers and eggplants with taller crops, reducing spacings for some crops in order to boost the yield per unit area to levels in past years, including a control variety for all crops I grow, and reducing weed pressure. I hope that the crimson clover cover crop will help to reduce weed pressure, although I will also have to make sure it does not shade out low crops. For the other goals, I kept each in mind as I drew up the planting plan and seed starting schedule for 2014.

Another change I will make this year is to avoid using triangular spacing. It takes longer to plant this way (at least for me it does), especially when I transition from one crop to another with a different spacing. Also it is harder to determine the exact area planted to each crop. Instead I will allot the various crops about the same amount of space per square foot but use rectilinear spacing. In this way I hope to give each crop the room it needs and have a more accurate knowledge of the area it is using, allowing a more accurate measurement of yield per unit area.

Here’s what I’m planning to grow and how in 2014 to allow the garden to answer some of the questions that last year’s results suggested I ask it this year.

Dry beans, black-eyed peas, and soybeans. Last year I learned that I must trellis the dry beans in order to keep the bean pods off the ground. This year I’ll grow ‘Midnight Black Turtle’, a favorite variety from past years, and trellis it in some fashion. I’ll also trellis the ‘Queen Anne’ blackeyed peas and plant them earlier, hoping to get higher yields. I’ll pre-sprout the ‘Asmara’ soybeans, a variety eaten as edamame (harvested green, boiled in the pod, and squeezed out of the pod to eat), plant them earlier, and trellis if needed.

Beets and carrots. I reduced the area devoted to carrots and am only growing one variety, ‘Danvers 126’, this year as we may have enough carrots remaining from last year’s crop to last through spring. For beets I am growing the same area and varieties, again because the stored crop should last through spring.

Bok choy and spring cabbage. I hope to get these crops sown and transplanted at the proper time so they grow to their full potentials. I plan to trial a different variety of bok choy against ‘Prize Choy’ which I have grown for several years. I will grow the same two spring cabbage varieties.

Broccoli. This year I’ll grow three different open-pollinated broccolis: ‘Green Goliath’, ‘Nutri-Bud’, and ‘Atlantic’ to compare them for yield, flavor, and pest resistance. The first has been the highest-yielding to date, the second is the one I grew last year, and the third is new to me. I’ll grow them in the spring only and strive to get them sown and transplanted at the proper time. If the fall cabbage does well (see below) I will likely try a fall broccoli crop in 2015.

Fall cabbage. I haven’t tried a crop of fall cabbage for storage in the past because harlequin bugs have killed any cabbage-family crops I tried to grow through the entire summer. Instead I have sown kale and collards in August for fall crops. However, I have been dissatisfied with the yields I have obtained, and we have not used them as effectively as we would stored cabbage. Nor do kale or collards survive winter reliably in the open garden. This year I am taking a chance on raising long-season storage cabbage varieties ‘Brunswick’ and ‘Early Flat Dutch’. They will have to be sown into flats or pots in April and transplanted to the garden in early June in order to mature by the end of October, about when the growing season ends here. If we don’t have a summer-long heat wave and associated drought as we did in 2012 and if the harlequin bugs don’t suck the life out of the cabbages before they can mature, we’ll be rewarded with cabbage for sauerkraut, slaw, and stir-fries during at least part of the winter. And if this effort is successful, I’ll probably devote a larger area to fall cabbage in 2015 as cabbage has become our staple winter green vegetable.

Cucumbers and melons. I need to trellis these and plant them earlier to get a better crop. I’m trying three different melons this year to see if I can get a ripe melon out of any of them, a feat that for some reason has remained beyond me.

Parsnips, onions, and leeks. This year I will grow parsnips, onions, and leeks in the same bed as all three are crops that should be planted by early April here. At that time the soil is cool enough that the parsnips should germinate well. I’m trying ‘Andover’ parsnip this year. I’ll grow ‘Giant Musselburg’ leek, the one that has yielded best for me. I’ll grow two intermediate-day onion varieties, ‘Australian Brown’ and ‘Bronze D’Amposta’, to see how they yield, taste, and store. In addition I’ll grow ‘Noir de Russie’ scorzonera in this bed to see how we like this as a root crop.

Lettuces. I don’t plan to try any new lettuces this year, just make sure I get them planted at the right time for both spring and fall. I will also start lettuces in mid-September for an overwintering crop on the glassed-in front porch. Last year’s overwintering crop, started at about the same time, is doing very well (you can see it in the photo above). We’ve already enjoyed some of the crop and I will pick more soon.

Peas and peanuts. For these I am growing the same varieties as last year. However, I will be certain to pre-sprout the peas before planting them, and I will rig up a trellising system for them. I’m devoting more of the space in this bed to peanuts and less to peas since the peanuts store well in ambient conditions.

Popcorn. This year I’ll plant all the beds on the same date so the corn pollinates well. I have diatomaceous dust on hand in case some critter decides to sample the crop before it is ready. Perhaps a mouthful of dust will discourage further pilfering.

Potatoes. I’m planting ‘Elba’ at three different spacings across the bed and will measure the yield for each spacing separately, in order to determine the best spacing for my conditions. I’ll also try some sort of fencing to keep the plants within bounds. I acquired a potato planter and look forward to planting potatoes from a standing position!

Peppers and eggplants. I re-designed the bed with these crops to reduce shading by too-close neighbors. I’ll also increase the space allotted to each eggplant to 2 square feet and trial ‘Rosita’ against last year’s ‘White Beauty’. For peppers, I’ll grow two varieties of sweet peppers and two varieties of hot peppers, ‘Serrano’ and ‘Trinidad Scorpion’. I’ll try wonderberry this year, another crop in the same family that is supposed to grow only about two feet tall, instead of ground cherries. I’ll trial ‘Purple’ tomatillo this year but allot 4 square feet to each plant rather than last year’s 1 square foot.

Winter radishes and turnips. This year I’ll try a daikon radish, ‘Japanese Minowase’, in addition to ‘Red Meat’ and ‘Round Black Spanish’. I’ll also commit to sowing and weeding all of these crops at the proper time to achieve full-sized roots.

Squash. We did not think as highly of the taste of ‘Sweet Meat - Oregon Homestead’ as its re-selector, Carol Deppe of Fertile Valley Seeds, does. We do not find it sweet, rather it tastes bland although the texture is good. I don’t know if this reflects taste differences between her and us or growing conditions that did not bring out the best in this squash. Nor is this squash storing as well as ‘Waltham Butternut’ does in our basement, admittedly a little cooler than Deppe thinks is ideal for squash storage. This year, I’ll try a different maxima, ‘Guatemalan Blue’, and grow the butternut as well, comparing the two for taste, yield, and storage ability. I also plan to start the plants in late May or early June, as most people do in this area, to learn if they can better withstand squash bug attack when grown in a better-balanced soil.

Sweet potatoes. This year I’m devoting an entire 100 square foot bed to this crop. Half I’ll plant to ‘O’Henry’ assuming I get sprouts off some of my stored crop. I’ll trial two different kinds of orange sweet potato against it for taste, yield, and ease of growth and harvest.

Tomatoes. This year I’m trialing one new tomato variety, ‘Pale Perfect Purple’, against ‘Rose’ and ‘Arkansas Traveler’. ‘Rose’ is much like ‘Brandywine’ in size, shape, and taste but more productive for me. I don’t grow it every year because its tomatoes can be hard to get off the vine and can split but I like it well enough to grow it once in awhile. I’ll grow ‘Hungarian Italian Paste’ for paste tomatoes.

Watermelon and luffa gourd. I’ve been wanting to try ‘Blacktail Mountain’, a small, early watermelon, for years and decided this year is as good as any. I also will try growing luffa gourds and making sponges from them.

With a garden plan and seed starting schedule in hand and onion seeds already started in flats, spring is not all that far away -- snow on the ground and a low of -1F this morning notwithstanding. I hope this year brings a good harvest for all gardeners!


  1. You are still using too much energy to plant potatoes. Try this.
    1) Lay out your rows with stakes. Mine are 75 feet long and 3 feet apart.
    2) Mark your rows with your dry fertilizer mix. Don't bother with a string. Walk down one row and back on the other so you always end up on the same side of the plot.
    3) Walk down a row making a trench with your Warren hoe (look it up if you don't know what it is). Come back on the next row.
    4) Walk along the row dropping cut pieces from a collander or bucket about 8-12 inches apart. If they don't fall straight, don't worry about it. Come back on the next row.
    5) Walk down the row pulling the soil over the potatoes with your Warren hoe. Come back on the other row. This is the time when you flick any outliers back into the row. Do not obsess about spacing. It will be good enough.
    6) Walk down and back on the rows heel-and-toeing it and with your weight partially supported by leaning on your Warren hoe.
    7) Voila. You have not bent over once. I do this every year and I am 64. I also hill with a bow rake without bending over.
    8) Get good with your hand tools. You should be able to flick things around with your hoe.

    1. You make a good point, and I appreciate your sharing your experience with me. I'm reminded that the orderliness that I like in the vegetable garden tends to be somewhat inefficient in terms of the time required to achieve it. That's one of the things I plan to pay attention to as I work in the garden this year.

  2. Hi Claire,

    Quote: "I hope that as the garden soil improves it will need little if any added minerals and organic matter beyond the compost I make."

    I wonder about this issue here too. As a thought experiment, if you are currently bringing in food from elsewhere and some parts of those plants end up in your compost, then you are probably OK. If however, you eat some of the produce from your garden and then your manure ends up in the municipal wastewater treatment plant, then you'd most certainly be losing nutrients from your garden that way.

    Being honest, I haven't gotten my head around this issue, even though my own wastes are all processed and returned to the soil via a worm farm. It is really complex and leaves me wondering about it.

    Have you considered planting nitrogen fixing plants? You probably are doing this by default anyway if your garden (beautiful photos by the way) contains a large enough diversity. There are also deep rooted mineral miners such as the comfrey and borage family too.

    Acting on your last year’s observations is very insightful.

    I wonder about the spacing issue too. Your strategy of acting and observing is very sound. Here, it depends on the season and availability of water. Sometimes, very hot summers where water is readily available will mean that close spacing can be used as it reduces evaporation. Wetter summers are the exact opposite as close spacing encourages disease and provides hiding spots for leaf munching insects. What sort of summer are you expecting?

    With your beets, do you also eat the leaves as a salad green?

    Carrots are self-seeding here. Have you thought about trying non hybrid varieties?

    It will be interesting to see how your fall broccoli crop goes. Summer is hard on brassicas here because of the cabbage moth. As an interesting side note, I've noticed that the predation from these moths is less every year as predator populations are building up. A parasitic wasp has recently moved in here which devours the cabbage moth larvae in a most unpleasant way.

    haha! A local guy who has a delightful French accent at the seed savers group who has been growing in this area for 30 years, laughed in my face when I mentioned my ambitions of growing melons. I can see him now thinking, "ahh, you Anglos are soo stupid". hehe. Sorry for that departure into silly land. I reckon it may be possible if you started the cold tolerant variety plants inside during the winter and then selected the earliest growing fruit of that particular for a few years in a row. I've shaved 1 month off my tomato harvest over the past few years through selection.

    Good to see an Aussie in your onion selection. I recommend tree onions (or also called Egyptian tree onions) as they are real givers in low soil fertility and very low water requirements.

    I'll be interested to see how your peanuts grow. Predation from the local wildlife (and my dogs) for peanuts is intense so it is hard to get a crop. They are reputed to be excellent atmospheric nitrogen fixing into the soil plants.

    With your potatoes, do you mound soil over them as the plant grows? That is the done thing here. It is interesting as this year, some of the potatoes have set seed which a local guy tells me that you can also plant and get a slightly different variety. The potatoes are currently in flower here (which I'm told means they are producing tubers and seed).

    Yeah, peppers and eggplants require full sun and lots of it. Surprisingly the fruit is quite small here because of the variability of the climate. Do you start your plants indoors?

    Have you tried summer radishes such as horseradish?

    Blacktail mountain is a common variety promoted by organic seed suppliers here. Watermelon is a tough school as it requires adequate watering which I can't provide.

    Do you grow zucchinis or cucumbers?

    It is really interesting the similar plants growing in your area. I wonder if this is a product of culture or whether we just have similar climatic conditions?



    1. Finally time to respond to your thoughtful comment!

      Our wastes go to a sewage treatment plant, so we are certainly losing minerals to it. We have to be hooked up to it. I have a book on composting humanure but am not ready to try it yet.

      If El Nino materializes we would be more likely than not to have an average to slightly cooler and wetter than average summer. Either way would improve growing conditions versus the last few summers.

      I have some nitrogen fixers: crimson clover as a ground cover in the veggie beds (experimenting with this); a native shrub called indigo bush, Amorpha fruticosa, planted near most of the fruit and nut trees; and white clover which is filling into the mowed lawn areas. But I can use more and will be working toward doing so.

      The wide swings in winter temperatures make it difficult to overwinter biennials like beets and carrots in the ground. If I don't mulch them, the freeze/thaw cycles kill them. If I do mulch them, small mammals feed on them and thus kill them. So I have not been saving seeds from them to date. This year I do plan to replant some of the remaining carrots from the ones I've kept in the root cellar and save seed as I grow non-hybrid varieties. My husband eats beet greens sometimes but he cooks them. I don't much like their taste, either raw or cooked.

      I was surprised that the peanuts didn't get predated on. Though the vegetable beds are fenced, it's minimal. Rabbits can and sometimes do get in, but they don't seem to damage much. An advantage of being in inner suburbia is no deer or other large herbivores to feed on the vegetables. Folks who live a little farther out have serious problems with deer.

      I have been mounding the potatoes - we call it hilling them up. This year I'll try it both ways in different parts of the bed to see how it affects yield.

      Horseradish is a spring or fall crop here. I've had some in the past but I had to remove it - it spread too much - and haven't decided on the best location for the new crop. But I expect to grow it again.

      Yes, I start peppers, eggplants, and tomatoes indoors in order to extend the season. In fact they are in the process of germinating now. I grow both zucchinis and cucumbers, not always in the same year however, depends on what else I want to grow.

      I think the similarity of plants is more due to cultural similarity than climate similarity since our winters are much more severe. How often and how much do your lows drop below 0C? Our lowest temp this past winter was -22C. Early this month, which is the beginning of our spring, the low dropped to -15C. I'm not sure how our summers compare in normal years.

  3. Hi Claire,

    Had to interrupt the comment to let the chooks run around the orchard. They get a bit grumpy - despite their spacious deep litter enclosure - if they don't get a run in the orchard.

    Good to see that you do random experiments in the garden as you just never know what the results may be. I reckon a lot of the advice we all receive is based on commercial best practice, rather than what can actually be achieved.

    Ah. You do use Egyptian Onions. I see. The traditional use for them here - because of their size - is for pickling which is why I produce the apple cider vinegar. Yeah, they are a bit small compared to the Australian brown onion (the standard onion here) for everyday use.

    Thanks for the tip re potato onions, I'll check them out. Interesting.

    It is usually frost free here, but if there is ever a light frost then it settles on the mulch. It is definitely a frost attractor. Do you get frost forming under your trees drip line? I suppose with your description of the ground freezing means that it is probably quite all encompassing.

    Thinking about your half a metre of frozen soil (thanks for the metric), have you ever tried raised beds using rocks to stabilise the soil. The rocks provide thermal mass and the raised soil which is exposed to the sunlight heats up far quicker in the spring giving you a few weeks extra of the growth season. I use these here and have several hundred metres of rock walls (of course rocks are only becoming in short supply in recent times. I coined the phrase "peak rocks" in an article here!). I also grow a few tropical plants next to huge rocks and this seems to give them an edge, although they are still very slow growing.

    Fair enough about the decomposition. Interesting about your location being 39N. I'm at 37.5S but at 700m altitude and have the same issue (although winters sound relatively mild here compared to your location) about spring and autumn being short. You just don't seem to get the in-between seasons here, but tomatoes will ripen fruit outdoors until late May - early June even though it is cold.

    The old timers up this way used to (and some still do) have ornate glass houses - some of which used to be heated. Some of the people I know use hoop houses. You are correct when you say that it extends the growing season, but the downside here at least is that they require watering. I reckon, they'd also build up diseases too and over summer here they have to be shaded otherwise the plants cook, despite opening either ends of the hoop house. The old style glass houses had panes at the top that could open thus letting out the warm air.

    A guy I know about 60km to the west of here has his aquaponics - fish and plant - systems in a hoop house and despite shading has to run an air conditioner in the hoop house to avoid everything dying on extreme weather days. Last weekend he was telling me about a week or two before that when it was about 44.5C outside and 37C water temperature. There are downsides to hoop houses, as well as the upsides. My gut feel is that good selection of plant varieties and the availability of water on extreme days trumps the advantages of a hoop house here though. I have no idea how they would work in your conditions though?

    Would you consider a hoop house?

    1. It'll be interesting to see how the Australian Brown onions do here! I bought the seed from an heirloom seed company. I chose them because they are intermediate day, thinking that is more appropriate for our latitude.

      No rocks here - yes, that sounds weird, but it's thanks to glacial processes. The bedrock is a meter or more below the surface of our soil! I find more human artifacts, like nails and parts of glass and ceramic items, than pebbles when I dig in the soil. So no chance to use local rock to warm up the soil or collect moisture.

      With frost I find that the vegetable garden frosts before anyplace else. Under the trees it stays a few degrees warmer. Must be due to differences in the sorts of microclimates that you have versus what I have.

      Lots of farmers use hoop houses here. At their scale they can make good profits from the crops they grow in them. I don't but I am growing some lettuce on the glassed-in front porch, using it as a glass house (greenhouse is our word for it). Besides the issues you mentioned (watering, diseases) which I also see as problems, others for me are our severe thunderstorms and snow in winter. It's more effort and cost to make them so they can withstand wind and snow load issues. Rather than a hoop house, I plan to grow more food crops on the front porch next winter. Lettuce and dill have done very well this winter.