Lambsquarters a wild edible bonus from the garden

One of my lushest weeds in the garden right now is lambsquarters. The pure stands coming up in my beds make it look like I purposely planted them there as a crop.

lambsquartersI didn’t plant them but I sure am using them as if I did. Lambsquarters are the most nutritious plant that grows in the garden. It makes the “super-food” kale look like junk food by comparison. Well maybe not junk food, but it is much more dense in most minerals and vitamins on a gram per gram basis than kale. A serving of lambsquarters has more minerals, by far, than a serving of kale. But to be fair, kale has more vitamin C than lambsquarters.

If you like the textures and tastes of a wide variety of salad greens, you’ll enjoy lambsquarters. It sort of reminds me of chard but it has its own texture and taste profile.

Raw lambsquarters has a small amount of oxalic acid but so does kale, spinach, all berries and many other foods including chocolate.

This morning for breakfast I made myself a frittata with lambsquarters and feta cheese. The blueish green leaves turned a bright green after a few seconds of steaming. When added to my deep-yellow, free-range eggs it made an appetizing color combination. The feta cheese added a tasty balance to the earthy flavor of the lambsquarters. It’s my favorite breakfast ingredient this time of year, right behind bacon, sausage and hash browns.

I’ve written about lambsquarters before and will probably will do so again but that is because such a gift from the garden shouldn’t be over-looked just because it is a weed.

Don’t be lulled into a false sense of security though. It is still a weed, a very aggressive weed that’s easy to control when it’s small but can quickly get out of hand if you let it. In a couple of weeks you’ll be wishing you didn’t save that patch to use as a salad green.  Get rid of it as it appears and don’t worry, more will sprout up through the season.

Bob

 

 

Pruning milkweeds

I saw my first Monarch butterfly several days ago. I know they were here much earlier because I found a caterpillar on my milkweed plants. That means there had to be a female butterfly around before that.

It takes around four days for a Monarch egg to hatch. The caterpillar stage lasts around a week and a half to two weeks. Since my caterpillar was almost fully grown, the female Monarch that laid his eggs arrived nearly two weeks ago. How did she sneak into the yard without me seeing her?

This monarch caterpillar has by now formed a chrysalis.

Most of my milkweed plants are on the verge of blooming. The plants are maturing and the leaves and stems are beginning to stiffen and get tougher in order to hold up the flowers and seed pods. Although female Monarchs will lay eggs on any milkweed, they prefer the more tender leaves toward the top of the plant.

A gardener I know suggested that I cut back my some of my milkweed plants to stimulate new growth and leaves. Theoretically, those new leaves would make my plants more attractive to the butteries than others in the area. I just snipped off the plant just above the existing leaves. That caused some milkweed sap to ooze out of the cut. That sap is poisonous and irritating so make sure you don’t in your eye.

Cutting the milkweed just above the leaves allows secondary leaf buds to sprout and grow.

This is the first time I’ve tried this with milkweeds. I’ll let you know how it turns out.

Bob

Don’t plant tomatoes to close together

“You planted your tomatoes too close together.” Have you heard that from visitors to your garden?  Not leaving enough space between tomato plants is one of the most common gardening mistakes. The good news is that it’s probably not too late to move them if you do it right away.

It’s so easy to look at those small tomato plants and forget how big they will get during the summer. Even after all these years of gardening I still have to resist the urge to plant them too close together.

Large commercial farmers who grow tomatoes for canning plant their tomatoes very close together. We often see them in double rows about 18 inches apart with the plants very close together in the row. The double rows are then spaced around four feet apart. Planting them like that allows farmers to get the maximum production from their land. Special varieties have been developed to allow them to be planted so densely. Those varieties also account for the difference in taste between tomato products. It’s why one brand of ketchup tastes different from another.

These young plants look far apart but will eventually grow to fill in the space.

Home garden varieties won’t grow and produce well if grown too close together. Older heirloom varieties will take up much more space than more modern varieties. They’ll keep growing all season long and can get pretty big by the time the first tomato is ready to be picked. That type of growth is referred to as being indeterminate.  I plant those varieties about four apart in cages and up to six feet apart if I let them sprawl over the ground without any support.

Plant breeders have developed tomato plants that will stop growing once they reach a certain size for their variety. Those are referred to as determinate, we used to call them “bush tomatoes”. Determinate types of tomatoes can be planted closer together, around three feet apart in cages.

Good air circulation reduces disease problems and adequate sunlight allows the fruit to grow and develop. I remember hearing a saying many years ago that went something like: “Plenty of air and light, grows tomatoes right”. Giving your tomatoes enough room to grow will provided them with the air and sunlight they need to thrive.

Bob

 

Winter rye cover crop tilled into garden soil

The rye cover crop I planted last fall made tremendous growth this spring. The plan all along was to till it into the soil before planting a week or so before planting.

Timing is important when it comes to tilling under a cover crop like rye. The plants grew and entered the “boot stage” of growth, forming flower/seed heads inside the stalk. This is the ideal time to till rye into the soil. At that stage the plants are about 20-24 inches tall.

 

At mid-May, the rye was nearly two feet tall
At the boot stage you can feel flower/seed head forming inside the stalk.

I thought the garden was quite fertile, and it is, but the spots that received a little heavier application of compost last fall are much greener, taller and are developing seed heads earlier. It’s a good demonstration about the benefits of compost.

The plants were too tall for the rototiller to handle on its own. I had a couple of options, either kill the rye with an herbicide like Roundup, which is what most of the conventional farmers do, or mow it. Since I’m trying to keep it an organic garden, I mowed.

Twenty inches tall sounds like a lot for a mower to handle but rye is very tender and juicy in the boot stage — they are almost all water. If I had mowed it before the boot stage, the plants would have grown back just like a lawn. If I waited too much longer, the plants would have been tougher and drier as they begin to form seeds. That would have made it much more difficult to till and would leave too much coarse plant material in the soil.

The chopped up rye dried and left a fine textured residue that was very easy to till.

Plant growth stage was not the only thing I was checking, I looked at soil moisture too. All the rain we had at that time left the soil temporarily saturated but it dried fairly quickly.  Tilling a garden that is too wet destroys its soil structure negating most of the benefits that a cover crop provides. The rye along with winter freezing and thawing improved the soil structure by forming loose aggregates of soil particles leaving plenty of space for roots to grow.

The rototiller easily handled the rye at this point.

Another very visible advantage to this cover crop was the lack of weeds this spring. By this time the garden would have been full of all kinds of broad leaf weeds and grasses. Dandelions would have come and gone by now. The rye did its job and out-competed virtually all other plants giving me a head start over the weeds this year.

Bob

 

 

 

Mother’s day plant sale at Matthaei Botanical Gardens this weekend

The Matthaei Botanical Gardens – Nichols Arboretum annual Mother’s Day Plant Sale is coming up this weekend, May 13 and 14.

About three weeks ago I visited the Gardens and got a sneak peek at the plants growing in the greenhouse. I can tell you that these are no ordinary, anonymous plants grown by an impersonal factory growing operation. They are lovingly grown and tended by Adrienne O’Brien and her helpers right in the greenhouse at the Botanical Gardens. When I was there, the plants were still young but were growing strong and looked absolutely wonderful.

Horticulturist Adrienne _________ leads team of plant grower at Matthaei Botanical Gardens - Nichols Arboretum
Horticulturist Adrienne O’ Brien leads her team of plant growers at Matthaei Botanical Gardens – Nichols Arboretum.

 

A month ago Adrienne was worried that the plants were ahead of schedule.
A month ago Adrienne was worried that the plants were ahead of schedule.

Now the plants are ready to go home to Mother’s house.

The plants will be sold in the same greenhouse that they were grown in.
The plants will be sold in the same greenhouse that they were grown in.
Wide variety of beautiful hanging baskets
Wide variety of beautiful hanging baskets
Container plants make a great gift for Mom on Mother's Day.
Container plants make a great gift for Mom on Mother’s Day.
Whimsical planters like these are lots of fun.
Whimsical planters like these are lots of fun.

 

The sale runs from 10:00 am to 4:30 pm both days (9:00 am if you are a member). Matthaei Botanical Gardens is located at 1800 N. Dixboro Road, south of Plymouth Road, Ann Arbor.

Bob

Planting strawberries

Our strawberry plants were delivered last week, I got them into the ground as soon as I could. After a long ride through the postal system, they were glad to be tucked into our new strawberry bed.

Beginning gardeners may not know that nearly all strawberries are grown from not from seed but from transplants. Strawberry plants reproduce naturally by sending out runners that form plantlets called “daughter plants” that quickly take root. Those new daughter plants themselves will send out more shoots and produce even more daughter plants. Eventually you end up with a dense mat of strawberry plants.

Strawberries should be planted in a well-prepared bed, ideally one that was cleared and tilled at least a year in advance. That will eliminate perennial weeds that will choke out your strawberries before they have a chance to get established. It also will greatly reduce the number of root damaging insects like grubs and wire worms. My new bed is in an area that has been part of the vegetable garden for several years now. I’ve also let the chickens run in this area during the off season. They’ve really kept that spot clean.

In a perfect world, we would plant the strawberries about 18 – 24 inches apart with the rows about two to three feet apart. My row spacing was a bit closer than that because I had more plants than I had room.

You can think of the plants as having three basic parts: the leaves; the crown, which is the center, bulky part; and the roots. The leaves grow from the top of the crow while the roots grow from the bottom. It’s very important to plant at the proper depth. The soil should just cover the roots without burying the crown. That is how a new daughter plant grows naturally. On the other hand, no roots should be sticking up above the soil line exposed to the air. It’s a matter of about a half an inch between too deep and not deep enough. Make sure there is plenty of room in the planting hole so that the roots are straight down and not curled up at the bottom.

At this stage strawberry plants are mostly roots, but the crown and a few leaves can be seen too.

Once your newly planted strawberries establish themselves, they will begin to produce runners and daughter plants. You can shuffle the daughter plants around to a more organized configuration to help maintain rows. That will make it easier to weed and pick later on. Or just let them take root wherever they want.

Pluck the flowers off as they appear, that will keep the plants from wasting its energy producing fruit instead of stronger daughter plants. All those new daughter plants will produce your strawberry crop next year. So the stronger they are, the better your harvest will be.

Keep your bed free from weeds and well watered throughout the growing season. Later, at the end of the season they will need to be mulched. We’ll discuss mulching when the time comes.

Bob

Planting homegrown grape cuttings

This is another episode in the grape vine cutting story that began last spring. At that time I took some pieces of grapevine that I cut off the vines during pruning and used them to start new grapevines. You can browse through my older blog posts to find out about those grapes.

I stuck the cuttings into a soil mix and grew them through the summer. Nearly all of the cuttings developed a good set of roots and had nice tops. Then last fall I buried them in a trench in the garden to help protect them from any potential harsh winter weather. As it turned out, this winter was so mild they probably would have done just fine in their pots with some mulch banked up against them.

The best cuttings had strong leaf buds and plenty of roots.

Earlier this spring I dug them out of their trench, set them in a shady spot and made sure they were watered well. I ended up with 15 good plants which was about half of the cuttings I started with.

Last week I planted them into their permanent spots near the edge of the garden. They’re off to a good start in their new location.

Retail prices for grape plants like these can run nine or ten bucks each — before shipping.  Taking grape cuttings can save you lots of money if you’re interested in starting a vineyard. The biggest drawback is that you have to wait a year for the cuttings to turn into plants.

Come to think of it, this grapevine story started way before last year.  Those vines I pruned and took the cuttings from last spring were themselves started from cuttings 15 years ago.

Bob

Looking at basic soil test results

You’ve read it here in this blog, you’ve heard it from your neighbor, even your Aunt Bootsie told you to get a soil test for your garden.  I’ve always recommended using the soil testing lab at Michigan State University, it’s the “gold standard” of soil labs in Michigan. For most gardens a basic test will provide you with all the information you’ll need.

In past blogs I’ve described how to properly take a soil sample for testing and what to do with it once you’ve collected it, so we won’t discuss that today. Instead we’ll look at actual soil test results.

Once you’ve rounded up a bag of dirt, sent it to the lab along with your payment, the MSU soil lab will test your sample, processes the results and send you the test results either by email or by mail. That usually happens within ten days.

Let’s take a peek at an actual soil test readout I received last fall.

Results from a soil test
Results from a soil test

The first test result is the soil pH. pH describes how acid or how alkaline your soil is with “7” being neural. In this case the sample result is 7.6 which is somewhat alkaline. So right away we know we won’t have to add any lime to raise the soil pH since most garden plants grow best in a slightly acidic soil.

Next is the result for phosphorus, the “P” in NPK. The result came back at 58 ppm (parts per million) which, according to the graph is well in the optimum range.

Following P we see that is the potassium (K) is 67 ppm which we see is below optimum. Magnesium (Mg) at 202 ppm is above the optimum range.

Calcium(Ca), shown in the additional results section is 2443 ppm which helps to explain the relatively high soil pH reading since calcium will raise soil pH.

The next result is CEC (cation exchange capacity) this tells us how well the soil is able to retain soil nutrients. A reading of 14.1 tells us we can add fertilizer to this garden without having it leach out of the soil. Usually, soil types with a higher percentage of clay in their make-up have a higher CEC and therefore are inherently more fertile because of all the retained nutrients. Very sandy soils have low CEC values. It is very difficult to change the CEC of a soil. On the other hand, we can easily raise the NPK values by simply adding fertilizer.

Those cations (positive-charged ions) that are being described in the CEC reading are mostly K, Mg and Ca. There is a section in the readout providing the percentage of each of those. Phosphorus is not listed there because it exists in the soil as negatively charged anion (PO4 3-).

Nitrogen (N) is not tested for at MSU because soil nitrogen levels change with the temperature and other variables so you would never get an accurate reading.

We don’t have room here to discuss the soil science behind the results. Fortunately, the soil lab boils it all down to some simple recommendations at the bottom of the readout.

The nutrient needs are listed as actual pounds of each element per 1000 square feet. Since fertilizer is not sold as pure nitrogen, phosphorus or potassium, the precise amount of any type of fertilizer must be mathematically calculated. Back in the olden days when I was an MSU Extension Agent and the results were printed with a dot-matrix printer, I made those calculations by hand on hundreds of test results. Nowadays MSU has an online calculator that you can use to figure out how many pounds of fertilizer you would need to apply.

With the planting season rapidly approaching,I suggest you get your soil sample to the lab ASAP. Much like your income tax return; the sooner you send it in the sooner you’ll see your results.

Bob

 

 

 

Gardening in a post-apocalyptic world

“Because survival is insufficient”

Last week I had the pleasure to participate in a panel discussion sponsored by the Agora, the student newspaper at Monroe County Community College. It was part of their “One Book One Community” series in which a book is chosen and as many people as possible read the book, then events such as panel discussions are held.

This time the book was Station Eleven  a post- apocalyptic novel written by Emily St. John Mandel.  The story is set in the not-to-distant future Great Lakes area, so it has a special attraction for those of who live in this area. An extremely virulent influenza virus has abruptly wiped out over 99% of the world’s human population causing complete collapse of civilization. A performance group called the Travelling Symphony wanders about the shores of Lake Michigan and Lake Huron performing Shakespeare for villagers.

You'll recognize some of the vaguely familiar locations in Station Eleven
You’ll recognize some of the vaguely familiar locations in Station Eleven

Our panel discussion addressed hypothetical questions of how would we survive a catastrophic event and the chaos that would follow. On our panel was Micha a sportsman who is an expert hunter and fisherman; Chase, a young, decorated war veteran who gave his thoughts on self-defense; our director of emergency management Mark Hammond representing the government’s point of view; my wife Judy — who is a retired horticulturist from Matthaei Botanical Garden– and myself shared our opinions on growing and preserving food.

A number of possible scenarios were brought up ranging from a natural or man-made electro-magnetic pulse that takes down the electrical grid to a global pandemic much like the one in Mandel’s novel and everything in between. Most agreed that the most probable disaster would be an electrical grid failure that we could recover from in a relatively short period of time. This was not long after the wind storm in March that knocked out electricity to over a million people in Michigan so it was still fresh in everyone’s mind.

What are three things that you should do right now to prepare for a disaster? There are many possibilities but our Mr. Hammond suggested we look at the FEMA website to get started and always have a “bug-out bag” ready.

Learning the rudiments of hunting and fishing would serve you well in the Great Lakes area if you were lucky enough to survive the beginnings of an extreme disaster. Purchasing proper outdoor equipment, including firearms, ahead of time and learning how to use it is critical if you decide to prepare for that kind of eventuality.

In my opinion, subsistence gardening/farming would be the most productive endeavor in a post-apocalyptic world, especially you decide to settle in down in one spot and not travel. My suggestion to the audience was to take up gardening as a new hobby to learn how to grow your own food. Judy reminded the participants that most garden seed is only viable for one to five years, depending on the type of vegetable and open-pollinated, heirloom varieties would be the only workable option for growing food long into the future.

We all agreed that it would be best to have a group of like-minded family and friends who could band together to share their skills to help mitigate the worst aspects of a disaster. Even some form of entertainment would be welcome. Many years ago a group of my friends discussed that very topic: who would be critical to the survival of the group? After all the practical skills were covered, like woodworking, blacksmithing and such, it was decided to include Greg because he was a talented guitar player and wonderful singer.

Even if civilization is not wiped out during our lifetime, gardening is a healthy, enjoyable, productive hobby.

Bob

 

 

 

 

 

 

A drawback to growing heirloom tomatoes

Heirloom tomatoes have been all the rage for years now and they are still gaining in popularity — for good reason. Not only do they offer a wide variety of taste and texture, they also come in a rainbow of colors.

On the other hand, there are several drawbacks to growing heirloom tomatoes, I’m not going to go into all of them here right now. Their biggest shortcoming in my experience, is the comparatively small yields compared to modern tomato varieties.

Most of the heirlooms are more finicky and demand more time, attention and sometimes more space than the newer varieties. With all of the additional work that you have to put in to growing them, you would hope that would translate to more tomatoes, but it doesn’t. Many gardeners would argue that the extra taste makes up for the lack of tomatoes. It’s a legitimate argument but I’m not sure if I entirely agree with it. Just about any tomato, even the commercial ones, can taste wonderful if left to ripen on the vine and is harvested at its peak.

If you are growing tomatoes to stash away to use later in the winter, you would be much better off choosing a modern variety that will give you a much higher yield and a more consistent, dependable tomato crop. With all of the things that can happen during a growing season to reduce a tomato harvest, I like to give my crop any advantage I can.

It not unusual for me to put up 50 or more quarts during a typical fall harvest, that takes a fair number of tomatoes. Later, during the winter. those whole, canned tomatoes get cooked down even more and with a few garden herbs, get transformed into spaghetti sauce, pizza sauce, ketchup  and other yummy things — tomato soup is one of my favorites.

Modern tomato varieties produce more tomatoes than heirloom types.
Modern tomato varieties produce more tomatoes than heirloom types.

I still grow a few different heirloom varieties for eating fresh during the summer. There are always plenty to give away to family and friends too. Then, if there are any left at the end of the season, I’ll toss them into the canning kettle with the rest.

I’ve learned through the years that if I want enough tomatoes for canning, I need to grow modern, dependable varieties for my main tomato crop.

Bob