Thursday, April 14, 2011

A weather realted compromise!

Babies in the porch
It's cold and the weather man is calling for snow tomorrow night. Spring is such a struggle, old man winter doesn't want to let go and baby spring keeps pecking away at him! A quick look at the garden journal from 2010 shows the kind of weather that allowed the pepper starts to live outside each day with a trip into the porch for sleeping. This year the peppers are still in the newly expanded sprouting cave. A newly purchased portable greenhouse stands empty as the temperatures are too low at night to leave the tender babies out there at night. A check on the Farmer's Almanac indicates a cooler, wetter spring. What does it all mean?
The Growing Cave

Challenges for the home gardener, close watch of the weather and patience! Spring will come, and we will play outside in the dirt. Never fear, there are seeds that can be planted outside now, despite the chilly temperatures. For an early harvest plant the following cool loving crops: radish, lettuce, carrots, chard, beets, broccoli, cabbage, kale and onions. For those familiar with the walking onion, or Egyptian onion, you will notice how happy they are and the cool temperatures won't hurt them. Garlic sprouts should be happily shooting up now as well, if the cloves were planted in the fall, that is!

For some green therapy, check out your perennial herb garden. Even in Minnesota with the kind of winter we just lived through you should see some sprouts on the oregano, thyme, sage, hyssop, lambs quarters, wormwood and chives. I am constantly amazed in the spring when these little lovelies show up. Such tenacity!

What? Really, a leek!
A quick survey of the garden a couple of weeks ago yielded a few surprises! A garden bed that never got put away last fall (sheer laziness, no plan or thought behind leaving it!) contained a few leek and kale "bodies".  I tried to pull them out, thinking surely they didn't survive, but they were frozen solid into the dirt. Then of course I got busy with starting seeds and generally praying for some sunshine. Low and Behold...the leeks turned green and are very much alive. Huh. The allium family is hearty, but I never would have guessed they would survive! Looks like a bounty of leek seeds for this gardener this year!

So, never fear, the spring will come and the plants promise to amaze you! See you in "The Backyard"!

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Some thoughts on dirt

The snow is melting, and we will soon be in flood season. That's the season that determines just how quickly we get to get out in the garden. When is the right time to get out there and start planting? How do you know if the dirt is in good shape? How do you read a soil test? Does everyone need a soil test? What is going on under there? How much water is too much water? And really, why is it dirt sometimes and soil other times?

This all reminds me of my garden mentor, who has been gardening at her home since 1954, a relentless composter and add-er of organic matter and manure. One day while I was visiting her vast and prolific vegetable garden, she innocently said to me in her exasperation, "You know Sara, the longer I do this the less I know!" Oh, no was all that ran through my mind. It was then that I decided it was time to look into the dirt and see just how does a person know if they have the good stuff?

During my search, I stumbled across an excellent 10 point test for soil quality, called The Willamette Valley Soil Quality Guide, and was developed by the Oregon State University Extension Service. So, here goes an easy way to look at your own dirt (paraphrased, of course):

1. Grab a handful and squeeze it. Does it hold it's shape? Does it crumble into pieces? When you look at it does it have different sized "bits" in it? If it looks pretty uniform and crumbles into pieces or stays in big hard clods, it needs some work.
2. Stick a wire into the soil and measure how far down it will go into the dirt before bending (the utility marking flags are a perfect use for this, after they have come to mark your yard for lines when you plan your next garden expansion project). The farther down it goes the softer the soil, and that makes for easy traveling for the roots.
3. When you till or fork over the garden bed, does it stay in clods? If so, it could mean you have low "workability" which translates into the roots having a difficult time getting water.
4. Life forms are key, dig a 6 inch hole and see how many different species of the shy dirt lovers you have, such as centipedes, spiders, beetles and more. A good number is 10 little critters creeping.
5. Earthworm count! Stick a spade in the ground and pull up a spadeful of dirt and count how many worms you have...3 is good 5 is better.
6. When you use a hand trowel to dig a little hole, say 3-4 inches deep, can you see recognizable plant material in the dirt? It's good if you can, because that is what feeds the life forms in the soil.
7. The easiest, and perhaps most overlooked is how are your plants doing? Are they vigorous? If not, it could be somethings amiss in the ground.
8. Roots tell the tale, pull up a sacraficial plant, is the root ball well developed, does it have fine white hairs? If it's brown and mushy it could mean that your dirt is not draining well. If they look stunted it could mean compacted soil or disease.
9. How does the water run? Take the bottom off an old coffee can, bury it in the dirt, until just 3 inches of the can show above the ground, and fill it with water 2 or 3 times. Fill it once more and time it to see how long it takes to soak into the ground, if it's anything slower than 1/2 to 1 inch per hour the soil is compacted.
10. Water availability, wait for a soaking rain and see how long it takes before your plants start looking wilty. If it seems like this happens quickly it could be the dirt is to blame.

These 10 steps won't tell you what is actually in your soil and a soil test from the local extension is a good idea to know where you are and help determine where you want your dirt to be. I always recommend a lead test in urban or suburban areas, because we just don't know what may have been dumped or spilled in the area where we dream of putting a garden.

To put things more simply, it can be boiled down to organic matter, the more plant-y type stuff mixed in with the dirt particles the better. What a garden does to enhance the area where the roots are is the real home work, the appearance, vigor, beauty and yield of the plant is simply the grade on the work done below. The level of organic matter be the deciding factor in how quickly you get to start playing in the dirt without risking season long struggles with dried mud balls, organic matter determines how much life your dirt supports, it will determine how much watering you have to do and this is what ultimately determines if you have dirt or if you have soil.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Cuttings...a success story!

The great willow experiment is now in phase 2, with great success. The sweet bay laurel and rosemary cuttings have been transferred to a more permanent home. The cuttings sat in the kitchen window marinating in a hormonal tea created using the heart wood from a branch of a willow tree. The picture on the left illustrates the hearty growth of the roots from one of the jars of rosemary cuttings. During the first stage of rooting a slimy clump can be seen at the base of the cuttings, it is from this goo that the roots start emerging, demonstrated by the bay on the right.

My impatience for dirty fingers, spring fever and a snow storm yesterday brewed up the perfect situation for transplanting the cuttings. I used a seed starting mix with beneficial bacteria and fungi add to facilitate strong growth. When transplanting any plant, make sure that you have all the supplies readily at hand. I soak the planting medium in warm water for about an hour before starting to make sure that the root fibers have a ready supply of water as soon as they are plucked from the jar. Make sure you have enough pots for the cuttings and you are ready to go!

Each cutting with attached root goo and root fibers are carefully lifted out of the jar and gently placed in a 3" pot filled with medium 1" from the top. When transplanting these tender babies, carefully lay the root fibers in a hole you have made in the medium trying not to tangle or break them. Then carefully fill in the hole and press gently to make sure there is good contact between the root fibers and the medium. Then pour a bit of the willow water into the pot. Using a tray under the pots to catch any water will make for a hassle free indoor garden. To further pamper your new plants, you can create the perfect conditions for strong root growth by using a heating mat to keep the root zone toasty warm.

When starting any new plantings in the house during the cold winter months, make sure that you check on them at least every other day, they will be happy to see you. Your biggest concern will be watering, keep them damp, but don't drown them by leaving the tender roots to wallow in water. 

Monday, February 7, 2011

Thoughts on Garlic

Did you plant garlic last fall? Are you wondering what's happening down there when the weather is cold, the ground is frozen and covered with snow? It's simply miraculous, not to mention delicious. Garlic prefers the security of it's underground home.

Properly planted garlic is in the ground in the fall, thus giving it time to establish roots before a long winter nap. When the ground starts to thaw, that hearty little plant gets going. Often showing green shoots before anything else in the garden wakes up. There are two types of garlic (and possibly thousands of varieties!), hard and soft neck. The hard necks tend to be stronger and more vigorous and perhaps better suited to northern climates. Soft neck varieties are thought to store better and may not emerge in the spring with as much enthusiasm.

So, the plant grows and the leaves emerge and get full and beautiful. Each of those leaves indicates a layer of the papery skin that covers the bulb that is developing underground. Right through the center of those leaves a tall funny flower stem will emerge that will eventually form a curly cue flower on the end, this is called a scape. An often overlooked delicacy that your garlic plant provides.

The scape can be cut off, providing more energy to the plant to make a bigger bulb. The flavor burst from this harvest is an excellent addition to pasta, can be grilled, pickled, made into pesto or sauteed. It is not a typical "dead head", it is a harvest to be sure. A quick pickle recipe would be to throw a few whole peppercorns into a clean glass jar, along with a hot pepper perhaps and the very clean scapes (which can be cut up to better fit into the jar). Make a brine with salt, vinegar and water, bring it to a boil and fill the jar. Refrigerate for 4 weeks and you have a super treat to add to salads, soups or to eat straight from the jar.

Back to the leaves. They are important, because they are the gardeners only indication of maturity without digging up a bulb. The general rule of thumb is wait until the bottom few leaves are dying back, this is an indication of the plant nearing the end of it's life cycle. When digging garlic, be careful, they are tender and thin skinned and can be easily damaged with a careless shovel. Remember that for the garlic plant, it's a bit like birth at this stage, so go easy with them. This is the stage where I receive many a phone call...Why is my garlic dying? It's not, it's ready!

Now what, you have this pile of leaves, bulbs and dirt? Garlic needs curing for a bit. It is really delicious at this stage and can be eaten, but it stores best for future use with a little "hanging out"! Simply bundle the garlic together in bunches of about 15-20 plants and hang them in an area away from direct sun and let them dry (a little breeze is great too). When the skin feels papery, trim off the tops, knock off the dirt and enjoy. It is at this point that I advise selecting those bulbs that will be held back for replanting in the fall. Chose the largest bulbs and remember that each clove will bring you a whole bulb next year.

One of the most rewarding crops in my mind, I have a fascination with it. The tenacity and simplicity the adaptability and the taste, what could be better? An ancient plant that has evolved and adapted based on human intervention and desire, what a treat! If you have never planted garlic, I suggest giving it a try. Start with organic garlic, preferably grown in your area by a reputable farmer or friend. Plant it sometime in early October, about 3-4 inches deep, pointed end of the clove goes up, cover with about 3-4 inches of mulch and wait for the show!

 Happy Gardening! See you in "The Backyard"!

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

A New Year and a New Method

Happiest of New Years to you! The snow is deep now, like a snuggly winter blanket for the garden, allowing us gardeners to dream of the coming season. It's time already for such things as seed catalogs, endless garden plot maps and reviewing last year's garden journal. I wanted to write about rooting plants today, as I recently learned a new process for success. The willow tree is naturally prolific in the wild, many people find them somewhat invasive. There is a way to utilize these plants to promote growth in your cuttings, plant starts and the garden itself. The willow tree possesses natural rooting hormones and can be utilized for such uses.

The process is quite simple, essentially like making tea. Trim a green branch that is about the width of a pencil and smash it with a hammer to expose the tender inside. Cut the smashed branch into one inch sections and drop them in boiling water. Turn off the heat as soon as you drop the willow sections in the water and let them steep until the "tea" is cooled. Strain the water and you have a powerful rooting compound. To use simply dip the end of a 4 inch cutting, with the bottom leaves removed, into the willow water and place in a container. Cuttings can be rooted in water or soil. If water is your preferred method, steer away from clear glass containers as the light that comes through the glass can slow root growth. Another way around this is to wrap a bag or cloth around the jar to keep the light out. This powerful root accelerant can be used for young transplants to encourage root growth as well!

I am using this method, for the first time, on these cold winter days to root rosemary and bay trees for the coming season. Both of these herbs are tender perennials and will not survive winters outside here in Minnesota, so they come inside and spend the winter in my only appropriate south facing window. Currently, my rosemary and bay tree look a little "Dr. Seussian" as they are are the yearly donors for the next season's crop. Both of my rosemary and bay plants have survived for 5 years now and seem to thrive as a result of their yearly pruning. I have rooted both of these plants in the past using no rooting medium. The success rate was not as high as I would have liked, and in fact last year 25% of the cuttings did not take.

Why should you root plants? First, plants are often expensive to replace and starting your own in the midst of the winter's chilly grip allows the fervent gardener to play with plants in a way that feels like cheating winter! If the cuttings are taken from a healthy plant, you are making clones that perhaps are more suited to the environment in which they will thrive. Plants also make great gifts and when edible provide gifts to the gardener beyond their intrinsic beauty.

I will be tracking the progress of my little herb forest and report back! In the meantime, dream wildly of your garden for the coming season! See you in the backyard!