Sunday, March 9, 2014

2014: The year of the square foot

What do you get when you combine a small suburban lot with massively overgrown pine trees, a neighbor's tree that hangs over the property line, another neighbor's small fur planted directly to the east blocking the first four hours of morning sunlight, and sandy soil that will barely hold moisture and packs as hard as concrete after good rain?

2013 garden freshly tilled

That's why a few friends of mine consistently informed me of Mel Bartholomew's method of gardening known as Square Foot Gardening. Given my rich but sandy soil, raised beds with a homemade soil mixture will eliminate an improper pH balance, it will eliminate my problems of moisture retention (lack thereof), and will stop the massive threat of pesky garden weeds, while giving me the ability to plant all the crops I planted last year with likely a greater yield. That's why this year is the year of the square foot!

I plan to document the process as thoroughly as I can for multiple reasons. First, I know many gardeners - like myself - are new to something every year. Websites that are fresh and seek to incorporate modern trends are appealing; there's just something about a website that hasn't been updated for 3-4 years that keeps me from getting involved. And newbies like me are thumbing through photos on Pinterest and Google images nonstop looking for great space-saving ideas, so if I can share something that's working for me it will likely be here.

My plan includes every single crop I planted last year and several new additions. I will layout multiple beds in various configurations, including two beds that will be 2' x 2', one for each of my kids. They are both very interested in gardening (or at least spending the time outside with me) and as a means to give the gift of knowing how to grow food, they each got to pick out 4 plants to plant and tend. We'll see how this goes.....something tells me I've just added 8 more plants to my task list.

Proposed layout for ISUCG
My gardening itch has also found me signing up for a 10' x 10' plot at a local community garden on the campus of Indiana State University. I lobbied for a sponsor at my office, Garmong Construction Services, and was given the green light, and in just a couple of weeks - pending approval of the plot - I'll be constructing our beds, mixing our Mel's Mix soil, and preparing my cool weather crops for transplanting. The goal is to donate as close to 100% of the harvest to the food pantry at my church, The Life Center.

Stay tuned for frequent updates on both my home gardening as well as our efforts at the community garden.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Dioecious plants and staminate vs pistillate

After only a few months of "gardening" I feel as though it's commonly known what purpose flowers serve as it relates to vegetable-bearing plants. When I think back to my first home grown plant, a bell pepper, I had no idea plants would flower, let alone what happened after they went away.

I began growing a bell pepper plant indoors from some of the seed I removed from a store bought pepper at a local grocer. The plant grew and I continued to transplant and give it time under my CFL lamps all through the night until it was in a 5-gallon bucket filling on top of our dryer. Go ahead, insert "You might be a redneck if...." here.

After what seemed an eternity, little white blossoms began popping out. I was so green to the whole process I started deadheading a couple that had lost their color only to find a pepper had began to bud inside. DOH! To make me feel even more ignorant, I had already gone through the process of hand pollinating the blossoms as I knew there were no bees, ants, or other insects inside that could accomplish this task.

Fast forward to July 2013. My garden is in full bloom: I have well over 300 tomatoes on the vine, I've already harvest zucchinis, potatoes, peppers, and more, and I am finally noticing my spaghetti squash is bearing a few squashes. I didn't know how or when exactly I would see it, but it kind of jumped out at me today just like our zucchini and cucumber plants.

Male flower (staminate)
A squash, zucchini, cucumber, pumpkin, and dozens of other vining plants - as well as trees - are what are known as a dioecious plant. This means that the male flower and the female flower appear on separate individuals and the female must be pollinated by the male in order to produce mature fruit.

The male flower, or staminate, will sit atop a long stem (depending on the plant) and appear like the picture of my spaghetti squash to the right. Once it develops stamen inside the flower it will open and appear in full bloom. This is where the pollen will form and insects will begin their job moving from male blooms to female blooms to complete the pollination process.

Female flower (pistillate)
The female flower, or pistillate, will appear exactly as the male flower but with one glaring difference -- it is sitting at the end of the fruit the plant is bearing. The unnoticeable difference is that it will not contain stamen.

The first time I realized this and actually saw it was earlier this year on my zucchini plant. I had to wait a couple of days before both the male and female flowers were open but once that occurred it was like some sort of geeky closure in my mind.

In the event you do not notice many bees, you have magically been able to rid your garden of ants, and you have poor fruit production on your plant, you can assist mother nature in the pollination process in a matter of a few seconds. Once both the male and female flowers are open, find the male and lightly swab the inside of the flower with a Q-Tip. The yellowish pollen will coat the tip of the, uh, Q, and you simply swab it on the inside of the female...kind of interesting and the way God intended the whole "process" to work, wouldn't you say?

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Grow time to go time!

Striata D'Italia Squash (Baker Creek Heirloom)
A recent photo from a Facebook friend (and actual real life friend at that) reminded me that it's almost time to begin harvesting and preparing food for the shelf. My friend's ecstatic smile went right along with his huge bowl of freshly picked strawberries ready to be turned into jam.

I have been patiently waiting on more than just lettuce and mustard leaves to pull from the garden. Tomatoes are growing by the dozens weekly but it is still way too early to begin harvesting them. Our pepper plants are blossoming in great numbers, carrots are standing tall, and our potatoes are huge! Still, there's been nothing more than greens to harvest from the crop I planted.

Just this past morning, however, I finally saw our first real zucchini growing. This Italian variety (Striata D'Italia Squash) from Baker Creek is looking very promising and its neighbor (Zucchini-Golden) is also bearing a good deal of pinkie-sized edibles.

Stick around -- much more to come!

Sunday, June 2, 2013

June update: good ideas, bad ideas, and unexpected fun!

Our first rose
It's been nearly one month since I last wrote anything and so far this year the garden has been predominantly my topic of choice. Since transplanting the tomatoes into the garden on May 7, I have made few changes to the garden itself but many additions.

May 7: The tomatoes were laid out and planted. Although I had to adapt my containers as time progressed (as is shown in this picture), I could not have been more pleased with the growth, especially considering this was my first year at this. I started all of my tomato, pepper, and eggplants from seed on March 1. This might have been a bit too early given the size of the seedlings as early as mid June, but I found a few containers that worked quite well.

Transplant time - the last of these goofy containers
For the tomatoes, while an empty Mussleman's (apple sauce) jar turned out to be a veeeery bad idea, an empty 2 liter pop bottle worked great. The Mussleman's jar had many depressions in the design which kept me from removing the root system and dirt. Plus, the plastic itself was so thick that even my heavy duty kitchen shears were nearly outmatched. The 2 liter bottle was a perfect solution; of course I cut the top off so it was as wide as the outer dimensions. The height of the bottle allowed me to prune the lower nodes of the stem and increase root production early (see earlier posts about transplanting techniques), and the wide mouth made it super easy to remove the root system and drop it straight in the ground. As you can see I also used plastic 44oz big gulp cups. These were not as large as the 2 liter bottles, obviously, but they offered plenty of room for root growth and were a snap when it came time to remove the roots.

The only drawback I found was the transparent nature of the bottle -- roots are delicate and the sunlight can damage them. I remedied this by wrapping the bottles in brown kraft paper which worked well. I could easily label the plants and it protected the was a win-win I guess!

California Wonder
My pepper plants didn't go outside and officially into a permanent home for another week or two. I didn't record the exact date, but they seemed to get a much slower start than the tomatoes. Looking back I know I did not provide them with enough warmth and that will definitely be a change I make in the future.

Once I did transplant them, however, I decided to experiment by planting them in two different locations: some in the garden and some in 3 gallon pails. The plants in the pails can be to be moved to the sunniest, warmest locations on my property since I'm a bit worried that my garden is too shady for peppers. Also, I took up the majority of the sunny locations with the tomatoes!
Burpee: Corn, on Deck Hybrid

My other interesting container planting is the Corn, on Deck Hybrid sweet corn. I planted this in a 3 gallon pail with approximately 2/3rd garden soil and a 1/3rd mix of horse manure and potting soil. The specs call for about 9 seeds in a 24" container, but I figured my pail was close enough. This little beauty sprouted in just 4-5 days and after one week things are looking promising. This corn should yield about 2-3 ears at 7"-8" per stalk.

With potatoes standing at just over 18" and nice blossoms beginning to pop, onions with tall, rich green shoots, cucumber, yellow and green zucchini, a spaghetti squash seedling that survived its transplant, and quite a nice selection of lettuce coming up, you would think that's just about it for a first timer like me. But I ended up finding more joy and getting a ton of excitement over my mustard plant than anything to this point.

Mustard Plant
The seeds I purchased were just $1 at a local feed store and I think the only reason I was interested in them was due to my intrigue into the parable Jesus teaches about having faith like a mustard seed. Why is this even mentioned in Scripture? Is there something extremely valuable in mustard that I do not know about? Is there an incredible health benefit to mustard? I don't know, so I thought "why not sow some mustard and see what happens?" 

I have already harvested several leaves and to my surprise they are amazing! They offer a great crispness like a good lettuce leaf, and then when you're least expecting it feels like you've just eaten a spoonful of horseradish, only mustard flavored. The leaf I have pictured here to the right I doubled over on a cheeseburger the other night. I guess there's a new saying: once you go mustard you never go, something like that.

Stay tuned -- lots more to come!

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Welcome to Heritage Farm

I suppose all cool farms have a name. Therefore, I am proclaiming that the final countdown has begun - here at Heritage Farm - regarding the days before our final transplant and many direct sows.

Brown kraft paper & cardboard with bricks as weights
The garden has been tilled and weeded. I laid both cardboard and brown kraft paper over the soil to kill all remaining weeds (by choking out all sunlight) without using any chemicals. After about 2-3 weeks there are few weeds still beneath the barrier and any remnants are easily maintained once a week. Overall the soil looks good and I would say it did a great job.

Brown kraft paper is something I used in lieu of cutting cardboard boxes and sprawling them all over the garden. The alternative to expensive weed fabrics was newspapers which a lot of folks recommend. I don't subscribe to a newspaper and I already had kraft paper, so naturally it made sense.

The benefits of kraft paper:

- Rolls out easily
- Covers a large area fast
- Allows water to drip into the soil
- Blocks the sunlight
- Biodegradable
- Contains no ink or chemicals
- Durable and does not dissolve easily.

Next year I plan to make raised beds to give the garden some character, and kraft paper will be a perfect bottom liner for weed protection.

Overall our crop for this first year will consist of:

Onions (exciting, eh?)
Already in the ground and showing signs of life:
Lettuce (several varieties)

Ready for transplant:
Tomatoes: Black Cherry, Yellow Morning Sun, Money Maker, SuperSauce, Dester, and the last
minute addition was the Kellog's Beefsteak (I couldn't pass up the deal on seeds at Rural King)
Little Fingers Eggplant
Peppers: California Wonder, Carnival Mix, Lipstick, Purple Beauty, and a generic gold bell seed I sowed from a Baesler's pepper. Ironically, it is nearly the largest of all the pepper seedlings thus far.

Direct sow:
Cucumber, Green Zucchini Squash (Striata D'Italia), and Yellow Zucchini Squash, as well as Spaghetti Squash. 

Dester Tomato - Baker Creek Seed Co.
Out of all the vegetables we have slated for season one at Heritage Farm, I think the most anticipated item is the Dester tomato. This pink beefsteak was brought to America from Germany and in the 1970's, an Amish house cleaner named Anna, who was working in Berne, Indiana for a Dr. Herbert Dester, was given some of these cherished seeds. Years later Anna sold a few of the plants to Kathy McFarland, an employee of Baker Creek Seed Co. in Seymour, MO.

Today Baker Creek, Seed Savers Exchange, and other retailers, sell the Dester tomato - a juicy one and a half pound indeterminate heirloom that won 1st place in the 2011 and 2nd place in the 2012 SSE TomatoTasting Awards. While it is technically not considered a "Hoosier variety", it does have some Hoosier roots in its background, and therefore it shall have a nice sunny spot at Heritage Farm.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Surburban redneck

Suburban Redneck
You might think that's the title to the newest country song topping the charts - and don't get me wrong, I think it would fly in Nashville - but it's not. I feel as though I have entered a new stage in life.

As the picture to the right so elegantly shows, this was my driveway last weekend while continuing some remodeling on my garage. The canoe was a free gift (best kind!) I felt the trash hopper served as a great platform upon which my tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants could boast to the entire neighborhood their great growth thus far. This was after all their first real day outside in full sun and wind. Not bad for our first year at this!

The tomatoes have undergone one transplant from their self-watering seed tray. I read from several folks that once they grow their first set of true leaves it is time to move them to a larger container. I followed that advice for the eggplants and peppers as well, and so far things are doing nicely.

2013 Mystery Tomato
As for my tomatoes, I forgot to label one of them. That's kind of a bad thing since I am planning on arranging them with some form of similarity in the garden. Still, I can tell from the leaf patterns and that it is probably going to be a smaller cherry-style producer, so I went ahead and potted it. I followed the conventional wisdom of the online community and lopped-off all branches up to the top 2-3 and buried it deep. This pot is about 12" so I've experienced some great growth in just the last 3 weeks. On March 26 I updated that I had moved the grow lights about 6" -- since that time the plants have nearly doubled in size from about 8" with most of the stalks maturing to a good 1/4" in diameter.

Ollie with the chicks at Rural King
This spring has also been fun with the kids. Not only have they been helping out in garden (as much as a 5 and 3 year old can) but we've also spent several afternoons and evenings together strolling the aisles of Rural King and "seeing the chicks" as they like to say. Here is Ollie, our youngest, in a rare moment of calmness -- usually he is running the aisles calling out "here chicky chicky" and getting them to make their little chicky sounds.

Other than that our lettuce varieties are beginning to show signs of life and our onions are sporting some nice sprouts as well. Soon we should be seeing some potato leaves and carrots...we can't wait!

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Lights, camera, GROW!

Grow light: high output fluorescent light, insulated base, surrounding blanket
What an absolute difference the PROPER elements make in growing seeds. As I posted in my previous entry, temperature - meaning soil temperature, not room temperature - is the key to growing.

My previous location was an old bookshelf in the kitchen. Aside from the hideous 1964 wallpaper backdrop, I noticed the base cups in which my plants are growing was cool to the touch. One seed distributor actually a warming mat designed for the indoor growers like myself, and I of course scoffed at what a wast of money that must be.

However, last week, with transplants successfully growing but not at the rate I would have imagined, much slower in fact, I realized that I had missed the importance on soil temperature and both my transplants and yet-to-emerge seedlings were paying the price.

I set-up a new location (pictured above). With a few scrap 2x4's to support the cross piece, I mounted a high output fluorescent shop light over my plants, and the results were exactly what I was hoping for. What you see above is after one week in this new home: the cups house a variety of tomatoes and by the sixth day had grown into the light bulbs, one leaf was literally extending and making contact with it. The bulb was initially placed approximately 4" above the highest leaf, so I can conclude that I witnessed approximately 4" of growth, from one plant at least, in just one week.

The tray on the right-hand side of this image shows several seedlings that have emerged as well. There you see a combination of tomatoes that had not yet broken the surface or just barely, as well as my peppers (CA Wonder & Lipstick) that have not only sprouted but are showing a second set of leaves and great color.