Late digging potatoes

Earlier this week I was out working in my vegetable garden. I finished off the season by digging the last of my potatoes.

Since we’ve had a cold November,  I was somewhat concerned about the shape they might be in. Now, I have occasionally found potatoes in the spring that have gone through an entire winter with no apparent damage so my concerns were not that great. On the other hand, I’ve had potatoes freeze over winter and ended up frost damaged tubers that were completely unusable. I debated whether or not to even bother with them since I had so many other things on my plate with the Holiday season ramping up.

On Sunday the weather was more seasonal so I got out my garden fork and dug into the first row. The potatoes were in perfect shape and the yield looked promising too. This was the patch of “near no-till” potatoes I blogged about this spring.

My first bucket of potatoes from this patch.
My first bucket of potatoes from this patch.

The ground had a covering of tree leaves that I’m sure helped insulate the soil. There must have been enough residual heat stored in the ground to keep the soil around the potatoes from solidly freezing despite the fact we had temperatures down into the teens and frozen soil at the surface. I didn’t check the soil temperature but it was probably in the mid to upper thirties which is close to the ideal storage temperature for potatoes.

The yield was halfway decent, maybe a little on the low side, but that was because of nearby trees competing with the potatoes for light and water. Plus, I never irrigated this patch but it did have a layer of dried grass mulch that helped conserve the soil moisture.

All in all, I call it a successful experiment. My “no-till plus mulch” combination along with an inadvertent late harvest worked out well.  If you are thinking the potatoes you left out in the garden are a lost cause, I suggest you try digging them even though these’s snow on the ground, you may be pleasantly surprised by what you find.

Bob

Burning tree leaves

A couple of weeks ago I was running behind in my fall garden projects including taking care of the fallen leaves all over my lawn. The early snow we had back then didn’t help either.

One weekend while driving back from up north, I spotted several people catching up on their fall tree leaf clean up. They were easy to spot because of the plumes of smoke rising up from their lawns and ditches. By the way, this was happening out in the countryside where leaf burning is still fairly common.

I enjoy the smell of burning leaves as much as the next guy. When I smell leaf smoke, it reminds me of my childhood when nearly everyone in the neighborhood burned their leaves. It actually was a pretty good tactic to get the kids out of the house. As a matter of fact, the neighborhood kids looked forward to raking the lawn because of the fire afterward.

Of course nowadays most communities have ordinances restricting leaf burning. And Michigan has a state law regulating open burning of leaves so we don’t see or smell much of it anymore.

As much as I enjoy it, as a gardener I wouldn’t burn leaves even if it were allowed. They are just too valuable as a soil amendment to let them just go up in smoke.

Burning destroys valuable soil builders.

I you think about it for a bit, trees have huge root systems that absorb soil minerals from a deep and wide area, nutrients that may not be available to other kinds of plants. Those soil nutrients, along with carbon from the atmosphere, are used by trees to make their leaves. That’s a lot of plant nutrients that trees make for us when you consider the shear volume of leaves each tree produces every year.

The mineral components of the leaves quite are valuable, providing much more fertilizer value than manure. Even more valuable than the mineral elements are the carbon compounds that make up the bulk of a leaf. When leaves break down in the soil they provide humus, that magical ingredient that experienced gardeners know is the secrete to a flourishing garden.

I remember several years ago a friend of mine used to pick up bagged up leaves from the curbside in the city and take them home to use because she didn’t have access to enough leaves. One day just as my friend was about to depart with a van full of bagged leaves, the homeowner came running out of the house shaking her fist and yelling, “put those leaves back!”  The funny thing is those leaves were about to be picked up by the trash collectors and taken to the landfill.

The biggest drawback to leaves is their tendency to blow around and not stay put where they are needed. That can easily be taken care of by cutting them up into smaller pieces. I use a leaf vac with a collection bag to shred and collect most of my leaves. Some of the heavier and tougher leaves like cottonwood, I run over with a lawn mower first to make them easier to vacuum up. Then they either go right into the garden as a mulch or into to the compost pile if there are any left over.

Instead of looking at leaves as trash that needs to be bagged up and hauled away, I like to consider them free soil builders provided by mother nature every year. In case you were wondering, my friend did manage to escape with her misbegotten load of contraband.

Bob

What side of the debate were you on this fall?

While much of the country is focused on the mid-term elections, two opposing camps of gardeners are lining up this fall.  Each side has compelling reasons why they are right and the other side is wrong. There doesn’t seem to be much middle ground.

One side is more, you might say, traditional in their approach to preparing perennial beds for winter. Those gardeners remove all of this year’s dead plant material from the garden and dispose of it by composting or other means. They claim that removing dead material now, in the fall, creates a clean slate for new growth in the spring. Tender new growth will less likely be damaged than if you try to remove last year’s growth when the plant is actively growing in the spring.

Some gardeners prefer to clear the debris from their garden in the fall.
Some gardeners prefer to clear the debris from their garden in the fall.

The other group says, “We care about birds”. They leave all of their plant growth untouched in the fall. All of that tangled up mass of plant stems provides valuable cover for wild song birds that over-winter. This group feels they have a responsibility to the wider ecological community when gardening. Many perennials produce seeds each fall. Leaving those old flower stalks up, they say, provides an addition food source for birds.

Some gardeners prefer to leave garden debris alone until spring.
Some gardeners prefer to leave garden debris alone until spring.

Leaving the garden alone in the fall has some other, less tangible benefits. All of that debris tends to collect and hold snow in place providing a natural insulating blanket. The protective snow cover can reduce the chance of freeze damage or frost heaving in some years. Not only that, the stalks provide an attractive visual element to the winter landscape as well, claims the leave-it-be group.

Gardeners on the other side counter those arguments claiming by the time they start clearing their gardens, the birds have already eaten virtually all of the seeds. Their small plot of flowers would not provide any really usable cover for birds either, they say. And who wants to look at a messy garden area all winter anyway? Not only that, spring is busy enough without having to do all the work you should have done last fall.

So every fall die-hard gardeners endlessly debate the merits of their position. I’m not really sure how often one breaks ranks and joins the other side, probably not very often.

Bob

 

 

 

 

Planting garlic

 

Since I ordered my garlic bulbs way back in the spring, I was not thinking of them at all when they arrived in the mail several days ago.

I got those garlic cloves into the ground right away even though they could have been planted anytime from October through November. Getting them earlier gives them a chance to put down some roots and get nestled in for the winter.

In the past, I’ve had to postpone my garlic planting until well into November and the crop seemed to do quite well despite the delay.

Garlic for planting looks just like a bulb from the grocery store produce department.
Garlic for planting looks just like a bulb from the grocery store produce department.
Cover the cloves with one  to two inches of soil.
Cover the cloves with one to two inches of soil.
Before planting you need to separate the cloves yourself.
Before planting you need to separate the cloves yourself.
Always place the garlic clove with the root end down.
Always place the garlic clove with the root end down.

You have to plan ahead if you want to grow garlic because when planting time rolls around, you very likely will not be able to find cloves to plant. So put it in your calendar for next spring as a reminder to yourself to place your order.

Bob