Friday, January 30, 2015

It doesn't look like spring to me...

At mid-January 2014, some of our gardeners had snow peas (planted the previous fall) coming up.  So, at mid-January 2015, I convinced my long-suffering gardening partner that it was time to plant cool season crops.  Really.

Because he's a good sport, he came out with me and we planted snow peas, sugar snap peas, shelling peas, spinach, broccoli (for his dogs), broccoli rabe, lettuce, chard, kale, and carrots.  It's been over a week with two brief snows and NO plants have come up yet.  I hope I wasn't wrong about this!

So, there's one day left in January but I looked at the Down to Earth calendar for January, thinking that it's never to late to learn what I should have been doing.  They say that January is the coldest month in New Mexico.  It certainly felt like that yesterday.  Low nighttime temperatures in the low 20s.  Check.  Daytime highs in the upper 40s.  Hah!  We've beaten that quite a few times and even reached the low 60s once or twice I think.  They don't think it's actually time to put out vegetables or too much of anything else.  They do recommend getting your tools cleaned, oiled, and sharpened...  What was that expression - gentlemen, start your engines...

More seriously, germinating seeds care more about soil temperature than air temperature.  Although they will care about air temperature once they poke their leaves above the ground.  If you read your seed packets, many will provide information on the required soil temperature and/or the weeks prior to or post frosts.  All of the seeds we planted are what are called cool season crops.  They tend to be able to go out around a month before the last frost and/or when the soil temperatures are above 40F.  Our soil temperatures have been holding pretty steady all winter at about 50F.

The concern, really, with planting this early is when the leaves are up.  These particular vegetables can all stand a bit of frost but it will be necessary for me to keep an eye on any night freezes we have coming up and cover the row for the night if necessary.  To me, that's a small price to pay to have early vegetables!

Surely it's not fall already... or what to plant for your fall and winter garden

Another repost from the previous blog but good for every fall...

Of course not. But it is time to think about planting late summer vegetables. We generally have enough time to get in a quick round of some of the fast growing cool season crops before the soil chills too much and the frosts are too hard.

The Albuquerque Master Gardener's book, Down to Earth, is available online. Or at least the calendar is.

For August, they recommend planting vegetables like "lettuce, spinach, radishes, carrots, onions, broccoli, snow peas, and turnips for harvest before Christmas." And to think I just pulled out my last snow pea today. Guess I'll be starting over in short order!

As late as September, they suggest that you can put out arugula, chard, garlic, fava beans, and leeks as well as the vegetables listed for planting in August. Planting in September should get you an early spring harvest.

As I recall, some of our gardeners put out garlic even later.

If you're planting seeds for a harvest BEFORE it's too cold, check the seed packet for the days to germination and the days to maturity. Different varieties of the same vegetable may have quite different days to maturity.

According to the Master Gardener website, the official average first frost at the Sunport is on Halloween. As they go on to point out, the average is not the actual. Even if the temperatures dip for a night or two, our garden is relatively protected and you can cover plants for some protection.

So, if you wanted to grow a vegetable that germinated in a week and matured in 45 days, you'd want to plant about one and 3/4 months BEFORE 31 October or in early September. Planting too soon risks having your seedlings fry in a heat they don't like. On the other hand, plants being pretty smart about that sort of thing, you might find that even if you plant a bit early, the germination will be slow.

Planting vegetables in the fall to get a jump on spring gardening is very tempting. I should know. I now seem to have perennial collards in my row. And the gardeners of row 13, as I recall, had snow pea plants poking out of the ground in mid-January this year. How cool is that?

On the other hand, giving back to the soil by putting in a cover crop that can be cut and mulched in the spring is a good thing to do. As is simply giving your row a nice thick blanket of mulch and compost for the winter.

No squash in 2015 because we didn't squish the squash bugs in 2014....

This post is copied in from our previous blog and was originally posted on 9 August 2014.  We won't have any squash, melons, or cucumbers in 2015 although we will plant one sentinel/sacrificial squash to determine the extent of our problems for this season.

Many people refuse to grow squash because the squash bugs always win.  I have now lost winter squash two years running to these ... ehmmm.... pests.  People in the garden with me can always tell when I've found a new set by the profanities I mutter.  I'm not a fan of squash bugs and, truthfully, for our community garden, I think we need to have a bit of a break from squash.  I wouldn't go so far as to say the bugs have won but they've certainly woRn me down.

I don't know why but they seem especially fond of winter squash.  I don't think any of our gardeners had summer squash this year so perhaps they were forced to eat winter squash.  But last year (2013), there was a spectacular zucchini with a healthy population of squash bugs that produced prolifically anyway.  The squash, I mean, although the bugs probably reproduced prolifically as well.  "Squash bugs, paaahhh!", that plant seemed to say, with a defiant toss of its head.

But this year (2014)... We have only winter squash.  And, we didn't have a 'bug patrol.'  Everyone, I think, knows what the eggs look like.  And the adults.  But, here's what a totally destroyed plant looks like.  Each LEAF sported on the order of 50 or more bugs.  It was a sad and sobering sight.  As I sprayed soapy water on the bugs they dropped to the ground and hurried off.  They know me now and I can't get close to them any more - they scurry from one to the other side of the leaf - it's rather like playing hide and seek... with pretty high stakes for them.  I suspect that soapy water has somewhere between limited and no effect on the adults but I'm hoping it kills the nymphs...  I don't like to think that I'm a rabid bug hater and go around killing bugs indiscriminately but our squash bugs appear to have no predators who can keep up with their exploding population other than, well, me.

The worst part, though, was watching the bugs disperse through the mulch, knowing that they can (and no doubt will) winter over and be ready for any squash that we might dare to plant next spring.  I sadly watched about twenty of them burrow under the mulch to find a new, safer home for the winter.  I hope we'll be ready next spring!

First 2014 "Tasting in the Garden" (originally posted on 26 July 2014)

Where to start...  Adjectives would be wonderful, fabulous, awesome ... and could only become more superlative from there.
About 10 rows were represented in the feast.
We had a lovely flat bean reminiscent of an Italian flat bean but Spanish.  Two different types of chard wraps - one filled with mozzarella cheese, basil and tomatoes and roasted on the grill; one stuffed with rice, sushi style.  We harvested a pineapple tomato and sliced it.  It was large enough that everyone had a good sized and delicious sample.  Although I have tons of collards in my row, I didn't prepare anything from them but luckily someone from another row prepared a most tasty dish.  There was a rhubarb crumble, beet salad, whitefish spread (not from the garden but maybe we could have a pond next year????) served with basil and cherry tomatoes from the garden.  Grilled, smoked sausage, Jalapeno poppers wrapped in bacon.  (Bacon and sausage also not from the garden .... maybe we should just have a farm...) Quinoa salad with mango.  Although the quinoa wasn't from the garden, one row has some nearing harvest and we're all looking forward to tasting some home-grown soon.  Fresh grapes.  And the samplers I made and brought: a feta-herb dip, an unripe stone fruit chutney, and a plum compote.  And dried tomatoes from 2013.  I'm sure I've forgotten something.

It was a veritable feast as well as an amazing demonstration of what can be done with simple garden produce.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Plant rotation in the community garden

A caveat, of course, to begin.  This post (which is copied in here from the former blog at my website) focuses on a specific, small area of a particular community garden.  The topic of plant/crop rotation is often found in farming, not community gardening, literature.  And, there are those who would argue that this is way beyond overkill for our garden.  So, if you don't belong to this latter group, then forge ahead, intrepid reader...

Many rotation plans call for three year cycling: year 1 plant, years 2 and 3 fallow to that crop, year 4 plant.  I think this does a lot towards getting rid of pests for that specific crop/crop family.  I imagine that during year 1 the pest moves in and sets up housekeeping big time (if you're not using pesticides).  The pest 'overwinters' in any form from egg to adult and is ready to go come spring and your tender new plants.  But, you have wisely fooled that pest by not providing luxury accommodations in year 2...  Still, a hungry pest will generally make do with what it can find and might survive well enough to overwinter yet again albeit with a smaller population for the spring of year 3...  And now, the famine is serious, and the pest effectively dies out.  Or at least moves on to someone else's garden...  And so, in year 4, you can begin the cycle again.

The happy scenario I have imagined above (which theoretically gets you a good harvest of a particular crop family every 3 years) doesn't address the extent to which a crop has to be removed.  I don't know the answer because a lot of what I've read refers to crops and fields so the plant would be completely gone during the intervening years.  In the smaller garden space where crop diversification is the rule (especially with 20 or so gardeners on about an eighth of an acre), I suspect that the 'infestations' are not likely to be of the magnitude seen in acres of field planted in a single variety of one plant.

And, I don't know how far is far enough for a hungry pest.  Is 'further down the row a piece' or 'the row next door' far enough, or does there need to be an intervening row (or two or three) maybe with some specific plant the pest really hates in there?  I don't know but our experience with squash bugs this year does suggest that the pest situation can get out of control relatively quickly.  The bugs reproduced themselves with discouraging success, moved widely throughout the garden when their host plants were removed, and were willing to settle for cucumbers and melons when squash were unavailable.

Thus far I've focused on above-ground pests, largely because we've had so many this year.  But there are other benefits to plant rotation.  The rest of this post summarizes the information provided in an article I found online.  (Click on the word article in the previous sentence to go to the link - it should appear as a purple underlined text but you never know...)

This article cites (without references but I’m sure they can be found relatively easily) a number of studies of crop rotation suggesting that productivity falls off rapidly when the same crop is planted in successive years. One factor is the ‘nitrogen fixing’ (which is really about mycorrhizal fungi) and another factor is disruption of pests and other pathogens.  And the article mentions other things that just seem weird to me.  Like both snap beans and potatoes should be planted following corn to improve production.

Although the research is for farms, the article argues that even when pulling up plants in a home garden at the end of the season, we never can get all the roots so that pests and pathogens will remain.  Thus, even small scale ‘crops’ can benefit from rotation.  I've addressed above-ground pests extensively because you can see them and so you know what the problem is when your plant is unhappy.  I don't really know anything about the fungal diseases and viruses that always seem to mysteriously discolor, wilt and dry plants.  But the pathogen will often remain in the soil in an anthropomorphic way similar to the one I imagined for the bugs.  So, I think the same sort of temporal and spacial rotation scenario can be imagined.  The only difference I can think of would be that the fungal diseases really are going to be more localized than pests that can sort of 'vote with their feet' (i.e., move).

With the fungal diseases, though, the question of disposal of the diseased plant becomes important.  The material should be carefully removed and never, never, never put in the compost...  Think CDC and infectious diseases for your plants.

The article also provides an 8-crop rotation plan as well as a listing of nine ‘families’ to help rotate among different families and not merely different plants, some of which might have the same or similar susceptibilities.