Saturday, July 31, 2010

Expanding the Garden: Veggie Section

Today I took advantage of the break from the scorching heat and did some heavy work in the garden. I have been scheming for a few months about expanding the garden for next year by getting rid of the useless strip of grass that was in the back yard. I schemed and plotted, and called in a landscaper to rip up the layer of grass so I could get a look at what we were dealing with underneath.

Before... this photo was taken in late June. As you can see, its pretty useless, as far as a grassy area goes. Not enough to play on, and obnoxiously narrow to mow. Its also already nicely boxed in by the cement border lining the driveway... a perfect expansion to the garden.

And after...  I know it doesn't look like much of an improvement, but at least we don't have to mow it! ;)

This is the back area, the farthest part of our property. We planted 2 evergreen bushes in the back that will grow to about 6 feet high for privacy. This, eventually, will be a flower garden with a winding stone pathway, a gliding bench, a trellis running up the side of the garage with flowering vines, thick hydrangea bushes and much more. But for now it remains barren. I'm turning my attention to the expanded veggie garden area first.

The dirt underneath the grass is pretty sad. Mostly clay, very dense and tightly packed. I don't think I'd have much success with a thriving garden in this environment so I did quite a bit of research online and came up with a plaAAAannnnn.... and here it is.

~~~ Fixing the Soil ~~~

Step 1: Add lots and lots of compost. This was much easier than expected. My township offers free compost that can be picked up from a few locations. After a bit of calling around, I found out one of these giant piles of compost was right across the street from my house! I packed up a few giant rubbermaid tubs and a shovel, and drove across the street. It took me 3 trips and god knows how many gallons of compost, but I finally got enough to cover the expanded veggie area only.

I raked the compost evenly over the surface of the sad, sad soil, then proceeded to turn the soil. Working in rows, I dug in a shovel full and flipped it over to the right of me. Get to the end of the row, move to the next, and repeat.  I found quite a few things in there - old plastic bottles, some aluminum siding, lots of rocks, and what I can only imagine are hunks of fence piping so deep in the ground that they decided to saw it off rather than extract it. I worked on one for about 20 minutes and realized why they were still there...and why they would remain so ;)

Step 2: Rake, rake rake. I took my garden rake and went nuts, breaking up thick clods of dirt, throwing out rocks and any weeds I could find. I tossed in some dried leaves that had been hanging around for a little while and leveled it off.  It already looks so much healthier!  All before & after shots are without water. Look how much darker that soil is! But I'm not done.

This area won't be used for veggie gardening until next spring, but I had to get it ready for the cover crop I am going to plant next week.


 Step 3: Plant the cover crop. I searched online and found that many varieties of clover are considered soil fixers - they grow over the autumn, winter and spring - and then they are tilled in to the ground 6 weeks before planting your crops. This does a few important things: Prevents soil erosion over the winter, and adds nitrogen & other nutrients back into the soil.  This isn't just a good thing to do in new areas like this, but its a great thing to do every year when you're done with your garden. Plants take quite a bit out of this soil, and this is an easy, organic way to add it back in without the use of chemicals. I chose Crown Vetch - its a clover that's commonly used for these purposes.

I bought the Crown Vetch Kit from  Silly domain name, but they sold the kit which includes a mix of crown vetch, some rye grass and an innoculant. I'm not entirely sure what the innoculant does... but it is suggested on more than one website when planting this stuff. So there ya go. That's the great plan in all of its glory!

Hopefully I'll get to the flower garden section next weekend, and do the same thing!

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Sunflowers, Carrots, Potatoes...and round 2!

Above is a shot of the first sunflower in the garden to bloom. I had 3, 1 of which fell prey to the recent thunderstorm with strong winds. It snapped at its base. These things are amazing. They're strong, voracious little things. They grow fast and tall.  I'm completely addicted. :)  My friend from work started this particular flower from seed, and now when I stand next to it I feel like I'm standing next to some strange flower alien! :)

I have also been getting the garden ready for the second round. So in preparation, I have been harvesting the potatoes and carrots in order to plant more in their place!  Here are photos of the harvest. First, the carrots.

At first glance, you'd think ... oh! That doesn't look so bad. But it was. Of the nice thick row that I planted, only 4 were viable. All were forked below the 2" point and one (the cute guy in the middle) looks like he's really gotta go. Haha. All in all these were not a big success. I attribute this to a few things:

I didn't till up the soil very well below the 2" point. I'm assuming it was too compact for the carrots to grow easily in - they hit a bump and just forked off.... or just didn't grow at all.  Secondly, I didn't thin them out very well after seeding them. This is one of the crops I am going to re-plant for a fall harvest, so I have a second chance to give these a go.  More practice is not a bad thing. At least my cat Jet enjoyed the greens - as he always does. :)  Nom nom nom.

The potato harvest, I have to say, I was completely blown away by!  I had dug up the first potato plant a few weeks ago to see what I could expect. I came up with 1 decently sized tomato and a handful of puny spuds (shown here being well guarded by Kali, the guard kitty). Considering I didn't hill up the potato plants as well as I should have - and basically neglected the things the whole season, I wasn't expecting much. But to my surprise, I started pulling up the plants to make way for the next round of planting, and look what I found!!!

Spud central!  These are all a great size - 16 of them in total. That's an average of 4/plant. As with almost every other veggie, I have great plans for next year to improve on the harvest, but this is a win in my books! I was not expecting this at all. Completely made my day. :)

Add to this well over 200 green beans, and well over 200 tomatoes, some thriving herbs - we've had a pretty good turn out so far. I'm not done, though. As I said, all of this pulling was in preparation for a second go round before autumn. On the list are:

  • Green beans: I found out I have bush beans, not pole beans!  And here I am all summer trying to tie these crazy things to a stake!
  • Carrots: I am trying a wildly different planting method for this next round.
  • Broccoli:  Have had NO success with my first round because I planted them too late. They're massive trees at this point and little else. I started bouncing around when I read I could plant in late summer for a winter harvest. Hopefully better luck comes with the cooler weather. :)
And that is all for now. I will certainly post when round 2 is in place!

Monday, July 12, 2010

Tomatoes! They live!!!

I have been keeping a close eye on the tomato plants, and while the crunchy leaves haven't regained their liveliness, they haven't seem to have gotten worse. The stems themselves are healthy and green, and this gives me hope!

But this post isn't about the crunchy leaves, this post is about tomatoes! They've started to ripen! Woohoo!

I've harvested 30 tomatoes so far with at least another 30 ready in the next week. I took a little advice from a random forum post on You Grow Girl, and I have been pulling the tomatoes from the vine JUST before they fully ripen.This helps keep the pests from eating the fruit. I've been placing them in a paper bag to ripen the rest of the way, and it only takes 3 or 4 days.

Here's the harvest so far, overseen by the guard case one of them tries to make a break for it. I pull them generally when they're the color of the middle pile. Fully orange and showing a decent amount of red blush.  The small pile on the far right were the few tomatoes that fell to the ground a little too early, but they're still salvageable. They'll just need a few extra days in the bag. On the left, they're more or less ready for sauce making. :)

I'm starting to learn a few things about buying transplants. The two tomato plants were bought at the same time. They were the same size and the same variety. The only difference between the two was that the one on the right already had some blossoms on it when I bought it.  It started to grow fruit a week or two after planting it.

I think when the plants start flowering, or growing fruit, they stop concentrating on developing stems and leaves, and focus on creating fruit. Seems plants can only focus on one or the other.  I could be wrong, this is only observational, but it also happened with my two strawberry plants. The one that didn't have any blossoms on it when I bought it grew large. I got very early fruit off of the other, but it was a puny little thing and never got any larger.

I'll keep this in mind going forward...but I also wonder, if a tomato transplant has blossoms when I buy it, can I prune them away to keep the plant growing a while longer?

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Problem Solving and Bird Butts!

I have hit that inevitable point in my first garden's lifespan where I'm running into pretty obvious problems. I have been seeking help from some more seasoned gardeners regarding these problems. I don't have solid answers on any of them yet, but here are the issues:
Broccoli: My broccoli plants will not form florets - basically, all leaves and no broccoli. These beasts are getting to be about 3 feet high and not a bud in sight. They look otherwise healthy. Removed a few low lying leaves that appeared to be a bit crunchy, water them regularly...and .. just nothing.

All of the research I have been able to find online pertains to broccoli heads forming too quickly when the weather gets warm. This has not been a problem.  EG, over at Our Engineered Garden, suggests they might form heads when the weather cools down again. By that time they will truly be broccoli trees, but I'll tough it out and see if I get anything.

Green Beans: My green bean leaves are looking a little speckly, and have begun to form small translucent spots. My research on the internet says this is most likely a fungal issue, having to do with the frequent rain we've been having, and my hitting the leaves when I water them.

I've switched to watering at the base, trying to avoid the leaves. I also sprayed with an anti fungal plant spray, non organic - just something I picked up at home depot. Keeping a close eye on these guys.

They've given us just under 200 beans so far this season and through parties, and lots of side dishes, we've gone through all of them. Despite the leafy fuzziez, I do see new flowers forming for more beans, so this gives me hope.

Tomatoes: - The most worrisome of my problems. The leaves are getting a little yellow - a little brown around the edges. Top leaves and bottom leaves - across the board. The list of things that could be wrong:

* Poor soil drainage
* Sun scorch (been over 100 degrees all week)
* Some form of root rot because I planted where tomatoes were planted before?
* Nutritional deficiency?
* Under watering?
* Over watering?

These guys have me completely confused. I'm not sure why this is happening. I don't think its fungal, but to be sure I sprayed with the anti fungal spray. The fruit looks happy enough, growing bigger every day and 3 have turned orange. They do tend to drop off pretty easily so I handle the plant as gently as I can. I read to pick them slightly under ripe and let them fully ripen in a paper bag - to avoid pest damage to the fruit itself, so I have been doing that - and its worked out well. I'm going to look into adding tomato food (either in liquid or dry form) to them as soon as possible. I will be so completely bummed if I lose these plants!!!

In other news, there are 2 bird's nests in our grape trellis. I managed to catch the mama bird in her nest, albeit not at a flattering angle. I was out watering the garden this afternoon when I heard little peeps. Apparently, she's got little babies in there. She couldn't have picked a better nesting place. Its like living right next to the grocery store. :)  They're welcome to stay - as long as she doesn't get all aggro mom on me and start pecking my head when I go outside to water the garden.