Sunday, April 3, 2016

Spring is marching along and I'm struggling to keep up as we move into April!

I've been spending the past couple of weeks nurturing what I've put out so far.  The snow peas are about 6 inches tall.  I'm checking daily for flowers.  Not yet, but soon.  The lettuce in the shaded back row that I reported had not survived, in fact, did survive.  Being a red lettuce, I guess it just blended in with the dirt!

The clover planted in the row for the gardener who doesn't really have time to work her row this year is up.  The nice thing about the clover as a cover crop is that the gardener can interplant other vegetables with the clover or simply turn it under if she finds some time to work in her row.  Why clover?  It's a nitrogen fixer and is used as what's often called a green mulch.

The potatoes have lovely green plants showing, about 4 inches tall so we gently dusted them with straw just yesterday to encourage the green leaves to grow upwards and to give the roots the idea that they could spread out and have more baby potatoes....

As for what to plant now, we're just approaching the official average last day of frost in our area (15 April) so all cool season crops can be out from starts (it's too late really for seeds) and it's time to start thinking about some of the vegetables that can handle a bit of chill but not a frost.

One bold gardener has already put out her tomatoes, basil, and peppers!  Since she has been carefully covering the plants during our chilly evenings, they seem to be surviving nicely.  With any look (and persistent attention), she'll have a jump on the rest of us once the warm growing months officially start!

Sunday, March 20, 2016

The garden on 20 March 2016

According to the hardiness maps and the weather predictions, it's early in the growing season, too early for many plants.  However, just look around the garden (and your yard).  The fruit trees are all blossoming, and, in fact, some have moved on to start fruit already.

As for vegetables in the garden, chards and kales that overwintered are just about perfect at the moment.  With young leaves and close to freezing night temperatures, the greens are sweet and tender.  That will change, of course, as soon as it warms up, but it's a nice early season treat for those who have overwintered vegetables.

In my sunny row, I put in some lettuce starts (not very successful - I seem to do better starting from seed than putting in seedlings.)  The seeds I put out earlier - snow peas, spinach, radishes are all up and growing.  For the snow peas, at least, you could say that the clock is ticking - they won't survive the heat very well although I have managed to coax them along until May in the past.  But, as the season progresses, they have a tendancy to provide an early nosh for spider mites and powdery mildew.  So, vigilance becoming increasingly important.

In the shady row I share with another gardener, we put in brussels sprouts, broccoli, and lettuce.  Again, alas, no luck with the lettuce but I'll try yet again.  As for the brussels sprouts and broccoli, they're established but like the snow peas, it will be a race to see if we can bring them to proper eating status before they bolt or simply wilt from our heat.  The potatoes we put out earlier are coming up and it will soon be time to cover them lightly and loosely with some alfalfa to train them ever upward, hopefully, setting tubers along their stems as they reach for the sun.

Friday, March 4, 2016

What I planted today (4 March 2016)

My other garden row, which I share with one of our other gardeners, is in a completely different microclimate in the garden.  Very near the top of the slope that runs from west (high point) to east, this row is in shade much of the day - from evergreens to the north, deciduous trees (that get taller every year) to the south, and the fruit trees of the garden orchard to the west.

With this much shade, this part of the garden stays cooler and therefore has the possibility of retaining more moisture.  Of course, mulch anywhere helps with moisture retention, but limited direct sun also helps!  So, this row is perfect for cool season crops that often bolt before they finish growing in our generally short spring.

What's a cool season crop?  If you're planting from a seed packet, anything that says before last frost and/or soil temperatures over 40F.  Although the official last average frost for Albuquerque is mid-April, the garden is relatively protected by houses on two sides and a high fence on one side.  Soil temperature checks throughout the winter suggested our soils never really went below about 40 although neighbors a block away report the heaving that goes with freezing and thawing.  Never underestimate the power of a microclimate!  We're considered to be in hardiness zone 7 but that really is a general guideline.

So.  Today. we put out potatoes and onions.  As an experiment, we put the potatoes in a cage and we're going to add alfalfa as the season progresses.  The idea is that as the plants grow up, up gets further away.  So, rather than dig roots ever deeper into the soil, they should be making potatoes along the way as they reach for the sun.  I've read mixed reviews about the success of this method, so we'll see.

We were also able to get some seed starts for broccoli, brussels sprouts, and lettuce.  They'll spend a few days hardening off and then, out they go.  Both broccoli and brussels sprouts tend to have a hard time in our garden but I'm hopeful that with as much shade as I anticipate they'll have, they'll stay cool enough to develop properly.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

What I've been planting in February and why

We struggle with gardening in a harsh climate.  Part of the struggle is that we want to grow vegetables that require extra effort but we don't always have the time to put in that effort.  Puebloan people have been 'dry farming' in the southwest for hundreds if not thousands of years.  Without the benefit of irrigation at the turn of a spigot.  Although admittedly closer to natural sources of water or in small areas sited for maximum benefit from whatever rainfall there was.  And without the benefit of soil tests and store-bought compost and mulch.  Which is all to say that we can be productive gardeners here.

I want to describe some of my strategies over the course of the season.

In our community garden, I have a row near the front of the garden.  Evergreens and deciduous trees provide some shade on the north end of my row in the morning but for most of the day, my row 'bakes' in the New Mexico sun.  Depending on what the gardeners in the row east of me grow, I might have some or even too much shade from their plants.  I have no control on what happens or even what to expect since we don't determine jointly what we'll grow.  The garden is sloped and my row is closer to the bottom of the slope than the top but far up enough that heavy rains tend to roll right off (even if I have my row well mulched.)  I have put up about a 6 inch 'retaining wall' which helps hold in surface water but any water under the ground will, of couse, carry on on its way downhill to the river.

As I write this on 2 March, the weather is a balmy spring day.  In fickle New Mexico, this doesn't mean winter is over and we can still expect some frosts and even snow.  Still, it's past time to plant snow peas.  I put out snow peas three separate times:  Late January (up about a week ago), early February (up about a day ago), and mid-February (up any moment now, I suspect!)

Why peas?  Well, mostly because I like them.  But also because they fix nitrogen.  This will improve my soil naturally for whatever I plant later this year.

And, a note, I did not have peas last year in the interests of crop rotation.  Crop rotation, even in a small space such as our community garden is helpful for two reasons:  1)  Viruses and bacteria and some bugs will winter over in the soil.  If their host plant isn't available, their populations can be substantially reduced, if not eliminated; 2) plants use particular nutrients and can deplete them locally in the soil.  Of course, if you want to plant the same vegetable year after year, you can fertilize to ensure appropriate nutrients for particular plants.

As scientists' understanding of soil increases, it is becoming increasingly clear that the soil is a living organism (or at least filled with teaming, thriving communities of organisms) and is best left alone.  This is good news for us who did not get the double digging and heavy tilling genes.  Leaving the soil generally alone, you can poke your finger into the ground to the depth appropriate to plant your seeds and put them in their own holes.  And, all in all, the living organisms in the soil are happier with what you might think of as a home cooked meal - compost (the latest thought is partially finished so they can help too!), manure, and mulch.  There certainly is still a place for chemical fertilizer on occasion but more when the soil is being prepared initially or there's some deadline that requires fast growth and production.  At the Master Gardeners we heard of the case where a football field had been denuded of grass and had to be reseeded and grown in six weeks.  But back to my peas.  I poked little holes about 2 inches deep and dropped the seeds in.  I tamped the earth very gently.

Other seeds I've put out during these late winter months include root vegetables:  radish, carrots, parsnips, and turnips.  And some greens:  spinach and chard.  I've tried starting lettuces in seed trays at home and just put them out this week.  They're a bit more sensitive than the other vegetables I've mentioned although they also are a cool season crop.  As quickly as it heats up here, lettuces will often bolt before they've formed nice heads.  I have to confess, I don't think I've been very successful with this first attempt but we'll see.  If nothing else, gardening is a continual experiment!