Intensive soil improvement

A couple of posts ago I discussed a hands-off style of flower gardening that works sometimes in established gardens. In those cases the soil is usually in pretty good shape after having had plants growing in the same spot for many years. Not everyone is fortunate enough to have such a garden space.

Sometimes the soil in a potential garden spot requires a lot of work before it is fit to grow vigorous plants. Take for example the case of the typical yard of a newly constructed home. It’s not unusual for the builder to remove the existing topsoil and haul it away to be sold. Then, usually, soil excavated for the basement is spread over the new yard area leaving the new homeowner to struggle with the poor soil. The homeowner often ends up buying topsoil (most likely from a different housing project) to add to the yard.

New topsoil may be adequate to grow a lawn but not necessarily good enough to grow flower and vegetable plants. In that case, the laissez-faire method of gardening will have to be put on hold until the garden has built up fertility and the soil structure has improved. That may take years or decades without major help from the gardener.

There’s a way to drastically improve a garden spot so it can be in tip-top shape the first year. It’s a method called “double digging”. Double digging is not for the faint of heart. I did it one time many years ago for a problem area and I can tell you it’s a heck of a lot of work but the results were impressive.

I suggest starting with a small garden bed in case you run out of energy or patience before the project is done.

A sturdy garden fork is an essential tool for double digging and general garden work.
A sturdy garden fork is an essential tool for double digging and general garden work.

Start by digging a trench about a foot wide and the depth of of your shovel along the entire lenght of one side of your new bed. Pile the soil from the trench along side your excavated area. Then insert a garden fork into the soil of the bottom of the trench. Use the tines to break up that layer of dirt and incorporate some compost as deep as you can.

Dig another trench along your original trench, again over the entire length of that same side. Take the soil  that you remove from digging  your second trench and place it into your original excavation, right on top of the loose soil and compost. Once the second trench is done, dig another and another until you eventually reach the far side of the bed. Fill the final trench with the soil that you took out of your very first trench.

The final step is to spread more compost over the entire garden bed and deeply dig it in to the soil with your garden fork. If you plan to add fertilizer, now would be the time.

The soil will be fluffy and full of air-pockets so you’ll need to water the area a few times to help settle the soil before planting.

In some gardens, double digging seem like over-kill but in certain circumstances it’s the ideal way to build a garden bed.

Bob

 

 

 

Spring planted garlic

Garlic is normally planted in the fall. Planting at that time of the year allows the garlic bulb to be exposed to several weeks of cold temperatures which stimulates bulb production. Missing the fall date can be disappointing, it means waiting an entire year before planting a crop.

If you are the type of person who doesn’t mind experimenting a bit, spring planting may be a option. Bulbs grown from spring planted garlic are significantly smaller which is why it is not recommended. Farmers would never be able to make a profit with an undersized crop, but in a garden it is worth having some fun with.

The other thing with spring planted garlic is finding bulbs to plant since most seed companies ship their garlic in the fall. One solution is to plant garlic from the supermarket produce department. You’ll never know what variety you’ll be getting but look at it this way, someone had a good enough crop with them to grow enough to sell.

Even though spring planted bulbs will be smaller, that doesn’t mean they will not be usable. You’ve probably eaten green onions before, you can eat green garlic too. If you’ve never tried fresh green garlic right from the garden, you’re in for a treat. The garlic taste is quite unexpected when your taste buds are expecting an onion flavor.

Don’t let them get too mature though. Green onions or scallions that swell up at the root end as they get older are still quite usable. Green garlic at that stage will start to develop the separations that eventually become cloves. When that happens tough membranes form that eventually become the papery wrappings over each clove that you see in full sized garlic. Those membranes make the young garlic too chewy to enjoy eating. At that point you just let them grow.

Since your spring planted garlic is late, you’ll have to give it every advantage to make growth. The first important thing to remember is garlic hates to be planted on it’s side. It’s critical that you plant the garlic clove with the bottom pointing down, don’t just toss it into a hole otherwise you’ll reduce the size of the mature bulb even more.

These are about the smallest sized garlic cloves that I would plant in the spring.

In your richest area of your garden, dig your planting hole so that top of the clove is covered by about two inches of soil. Plant the cloves between 3 and six inches apart; the closer spacing for green garlic, the more distant for garlic bulbs.

Early and season long weed control is essential, garlic just doesn’t compete well with weeds. Kill those weeds while they’re still little and keep it up all through the season. Make sure the soil is kept evenly moist but not soaking wet. The object is to try to encourage the garlic to grow as much as it can early in the season so that it will have plenty of green leaf area for photosynthesis.

If you’re going to do this thing, do it now — don’t wait until May. Garlic needs as much cool soil as you can provide during the early stages of growth.

With some care and persistence, you’ll end up with a culinary conversation piece that will surprise your garlic loving friends.

Bob

Self planting garden

A friend of mine once told me his method of flower gardening was to see what comes up then just pull out the weeds. That actually is a viable way to approach it especially you have a personality type that doesn’t mind a bit of disorder.

For a while my friend was moving into a new house every five years or so. In nearly every case he inherited a garden from the previous property owner and his laissez-faire gardening theory worked quite well.

If this sounds appealing, you can help your own garden become more self-sufficient by planting appropriate plants.

One obvious option is to plant perennials that come up every every year. They can be left in place for many years until they get old or big enough that they can be divided and moved occasionally . The problem with perennials is they often don’t provide enough interest through the entire garden season.

Planting annual flowers will add welcome color to an otherwise drab perennial garden. Some annuals will successfully reseed themselves year after year. Because many annuals sold are hybrids, their first year will most likely be their most colorful year. Hybrid plants often don’t come back true to type the second year and beyond. Instead they tend to revert back to their ancestral traits. The color may not be as vibrant, the height or shape may be a little more “wild” but hey, we’re not looking to establish a formal garden.

Cutting off faded flowers, also known as dead-heading, through the summer, is a common management technique to keep annuals producing new, fresh flowers through the season. However, ff you want your annuals to come up next year, keep in mind that the reason plants flower in the first place is to make seeds for reproduction. So near the end of the season stop dead-heading and leave some flowers to complete their life cycle in order to produce seeds.

Wild flowers like verbasum make a wonderful addition to a low maintenance garden.
Wild flowers like verbasum make a wonderful addition to a low maintenance garden.

Here’s a list of annuals that I’ve had come up on their own in my garden through the years: sunflowers, calendula, snapdragons, cosmos, celosia, lamb’s ear, monarda, nicotiana, California poppy, decorative herbs like fennel, portulaca, salvia, nasturtiums, hollyhocks which are biennials, verbascum, cleome, lychnis coronaria a perennial that produces lots of seed, alyssum, sweet pea, baby’s breath, chamomile, morning glory, even petunias.  There are probably more but that’s all I can think of right now off the top of my head.

After a mild winter you may see even more annuals come up during the following spring. One spring after a particularly mild winter, I had a bumper crop of castor plants that had come up on their own.

If you are new to gardening, it may take you a season or two to learn how to tell the difference between a weed and a flower you want to keep. That’s all part of the fun.

Bob

 

 

Divide perennials in early spring

The best time of year to divide perennial flowers is early spring just as their new shoots begin to peek up through the soil. That time is right now.

Gardeners have different reasons why they might want to divide their perennials. Maybe the plant is getting too old or too big for the space they’ve been growing in. Another gardener may want to  build up the number of plants they have to expand their planting. Still another may want to give away hard-to-find plants to friends.

From a practical point of view, dividing perennials is most often done because the plants age and their flower displays start to wane. As a perennial plant grows, it adds new growth to the outer portion of the clump of plants. This works fine for the gardener up to a point. Eventually the clump expands so much with new growth that the center of the clump will turn woody and non-productive.  That’s when dividing needs to be done to revive the plant.

It’s the new growth area of a plant clump that you want to save. You do this by removing the new growth from the old, replanting it and discarding the old portion.

Start by using a garden fork to loosen the soil all the way around the plant before you do any actual digging. Then use a garden spade to cut the clump into pieces small enough to handle, usually in thirds or quarters. If you cut too small of a piece, the new plant may not be able to compete very easy with the other existing plants and you’ll spend extra time nursing it through the season.

Some fine-rooted perennials like dianthus can be separated just using your hands. For tougher plants you’ll need help from a spade or garden fork. One trick I use is to take two garden forks placed back to back into the root area. Then push against the handles to lever the clump apart.

Two garden forks placed back to back can be used to wedge apart stubborn roots.
Two garden forks placed back to back can be used to wedge apart stubborn roots.

Lift up the cut part of the plant you want to move and clean off all dead leaves and any broken or damaged plant parts. By the way, this would be an excellent time to add compost, fertilizer or any other soil amendments to the area before you set the plants.

For fastest plant recovery, plant the clump right away in your newly prepared spot. Set the plant at the same level it was originally growing and water it in well, don’t skimp on this first watering. Take any left over clumps and pot them up to give away to friends and family. You don’t have to be too picky about potting them if the recipient is going to plant them soon.

Spring dividing is mostly for summer-flowering perennials like asters or sedum.  Those that bloom in the spring, like peonies or columbine are best divided in the fall.

Bob

Using wood ashes in the garden

If you enjoy regularly using your fireplace or wood stove, you know that a fair amount of wood ashes can be accumulated over a heating season. Under the right circumstances, those ashes can be an excellent fertilizer for your garden.

Wood ashes contain about ten percent potassium, one of the three major elements needed by plants to grow and survive. That is a relatively high percentage of potassium for a no-cost,naturally occurring material that is easily available. It doesn’t need to be mined from the ground, packed and shipped long distances to a garden center.

Many natural sources of potassium like greensand release their nutrients very slowly over a period of moths or years. Wood ash potassium is in a form that is very water soluble making it immediately available for plants to use. Because of this high solubility, potassium is quickly lost if the ashes are stored where it can be rained on. The rain water essentially washes away the potassium, so it’s important to store ashes in a dry area.

Calcium, at about sixty percent, is the other major constituent of ashes. It is in the form of calcium carbonate, the same compound that makes up agricultural limestone. When soil pH is too low, the soil chemistry changes to the point where the nutrients are no longer available to the plants. So farmers and gardeners add limestone to raise the pH to the optimum for plant growth.

Ashes contain trace amounts of micro-nutrients too. Those are essential nutrients that are needed for plant growth but only in tiny amounts compered to the three major nutrients of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium.

Depending on soil conditions about thirty to one hundred pounds of limestone is commonly added to a thousand square feet of garden. However, only about three to ten pounds of wood ashes are required to do the same thing, about one-tenth the amount. Why is that so if wood ashes and limestone are both made of calcium carbonate? It’s because the particles of wood ashes are so small that the calcium is immediately  available while even finely ground limestone has to break down even further in order to work.

Wood ashes work so quickly to raise soil pH that there is a danger that the soil pH can quickly get too high and cause other problem for your plants. It’s always a good idea to check your garden’s soil pH to get an idea on how much wood ashes to apply.

Bob

 

Start pruning fruit trees early

It’s tempting to prune fruit trees in early March especially on warm, sunny days when were out in the yard looking for some thing to do. Usually it’s fine to do so, but I like to wait to prune until after the chance of freezing rain has past.

A heavy accumulation of ice during an ice storm is liable to break off branches from fruit trees. That can be a real problem if a major scaffold branch is lost.

In many cases the tree can grow new scaffold branch from existing nearby shoots. It’s the gardeners job to select which shoot would make the best replacement. If you do all your pruning early, you greatly reduce the number of shoots available for growing the replacement branch.

You can however to do part of your pruning now and save the rest for later without losing any potentially valuable wood. Early March is a very good time to prune off all of the water sprouts that have grown from during the previous season.

Water sprouts are those thin branches that grow straight up from the main branches.
Water sprouts are those thin branches that grow straight up from the main branches.

During a severe ice storm, ice can add from ten to one hundred times the weight the weight that branches have to support. High winds make it even more hazardous for the trees. By removing water sprouts you drastically reduce the surface area for ice to collect, lightening the load that fruit trees branches have to bear. One quarter to one half inch of ice can cause small branches to begin breaking. Taking off the sprouts also reduces the amount of area for the wind to push against.

Water sprouts need to be pruned off eventually as a regular part of fruit tree pruning. They reduce much needed air circulation making conditions more conducive to diseases. With their rank growth, they also keep sunlight from reaching the fruiting parts of the tree.

During a normal year we can expect four or five days when ice accumulates and usually is not enough to do much damage. But every ten to twenty years or so we get a major ice event and that’s when trees get damaged.  By doing your fruit tree pruning in two stages you can buy yourself a little extra insurance against major tree damage.

Maybe you’ve seen pruning being done in large commercial orchards as early as February. They prune that early because of the sheer number of trees that need to be pruned and don’t have the time to go through the orchard twice.

Bob

Force branches into budding in your home

We still have plenty of winter left to go until spring arrives. In the meantime you can bring a little bit of spring early into your home by forcing shrub and tree branches into budding out of season.

The shrub everyone thinks of first is pussy willows with their irresistible silver, fuzzy buds. There are others that you can force into budding but you have to start now if you want results before spring. Some species of woody plants, such as forsythia, may take only a couple weeks to bloom while other plants may take a month or more.

Fruit trees like apple, cherry and pear can produce showy flowers. Others like maple tree branches are more subtle with their separate male and female flowers.

Magnolia buds will swell as they open and show some color even if they don’t open completely.

Aspen and other poplar trees will often send out a pendulous spray of flowers that remind you of warm days ahead. Many other species will reward you with green leaves that have their own charm when viewed up close. Indoors, some leaves even have a faint spring-like fragrance that is lost in the great outdoors during their normal budding season.

Forcing branches is a great excuse to use your special flower vase that has been sitting empty or that rustic flower container. It’s fun to experiment with forcing different types of trees and shrubs. Here’s a list to help you get started: for flowers try forsythia, dogwood, pear, cherry, plum, quince, apple, crab apple, currants, maple and willow. For leaves: beech, poplar and roses.

It’s important to start early because of the time it takes for the branches to respond to being brought inside where it’s warm. Make sure to use sharp pruning shears to make nice clean cuts with no ragged edges. Change the water in your container from time to time to keep it fresh and free from algae.

Use your artistic eye to arrange your branches in an attractive way since you’ll be looking at them for a few weeks without anything noticeable happening. Keep in mind the buds are very fragile once they start opening and can easily be broken off if you’re not careful.

Bob

A simple germination test for your old seeds

After taking inventory of our seeds last week, we had to decide which seeds we were going to keep and which we needed to throw out. Each year we write the date on the seed containers, that gives us a starting point.

Some seed packs slipped through our system though and had no date on them, just the variety name. Others were getting to be a few years old meaning they were approaching the out side limits of their shelf life.  As seeds get older, their ability to germinate begins to decline. In many cases they still can be used even though they are past their prime. This week we are running germination tests on several types of seeds to see if they are something we would be able to use in the garden.

A simple germination test is easy to do and gives you a pretty good idea if it’s worth keeping a pack of seeds. To do the test,  pick ten seeds at random of one type of plant that we want to test, for example ten tomato seeds or ten onion seeds. Next take a moistened piece of paper towel. Place the seeds on the paper towel  on half of the sheet and fold the sheet over to cover the seeds. The seeds and moist paper towel go in a zip-loc bag and are sealed up. Then put the bag in a warm place to help speed up germination, we use our plant warming mat.

Seedlings are very fragile at this stage.
Seedlings are very fragile at this stage.

Check the seeds every day to see if any are sprouting. If you have the original packet, it usually tells how long it takes for germination. But when you use a warming mat with moist conditions inside the plastic bag, seeds usually sprout much quicker.

The number of sprouted seeds gives you the germination percentage. For example, if eight of the ten seeds sprout, you have an 80% germination rate.

The big surprise for us was an unmarked envelop of ‘Chadwick Cherry’ tomato seeds we found with the rest of our seeds. I don’t know where that envelop came from , maybe someone gave us some seeds a few years ago. We were expecting an low germination percentage but nine out of ten germinated. That was an excellent outcome and we’ll be growing those in the garden this season.  On the other hand, a group of onions we were looking at only had one seed sprout, we’ll toss those into the compost. Too bad because it was a pretty big packet of seeds.

Even if your seeds have a low germination percentage you can still use them, just plant extra seeds to make up the difference. For example if only half of your seeds germinate,  plant double the amount.

It’s true that you can buy fresh seeds of common varieties very cheaply. However, in our case we save quite a few heirloom and open-pollinated seeds that are not available anywhere else.Plus we don’t like to waste anything if it is still usable.

Bob

Taking inventory of seeds

Seed catalogs have been showing up in our mailbox since before the beginning of the new year. Most of the catalogs that we regularly order from have arrived. We’re still getting a few duplicates and reminders from impatient seed sellers and some catalogs from new outfits.

I’d rather go to mailbox and see what catalog came that day than check my email and go to an online link. I realize that seed companies are so big nowadays that it’s hard for them to list everything they offer in their paper catalogs. Printed catalogs seem to get me more enthused than virtual catalogs, but that may be a generational thing.

Before finalizing our seed orders, we first like to take an inventory of what we have in storage. It’s very easy to get carried away looking through the catalogs and order things we already have on hand. And since there’s nothing much happening gardening wise right now but we’re still itching to do something, taking inventory seems to help fill that gardening urge we have right now. Maybe that’s where the expression “bean counters” came from.

Judy and I spent some time going through our pile of seed packets left over from last year. Some were not even opened, we either ran out of room or time and they never got planted. Most of the packets are partially used and contain seeds that are still viable and can planted in the garden this year. We always make sure the leftover seeds go into an air-tight container right away after we’re done planting.

Part of our seeds list
Part of our seeds list

While we were at it, we took the time to reduce the sheer volume of seeds that we had squirreled away. It wasn’t long ago that I had two large storage tubs of seeds that had accumulated from various people, places and projects — I’m talking about fifteen or twenty pounds of seeds in each tub.  Fortunately it doesn’t get that far out of hand anymore now that I’m culling seeds every winter.

We also have a sizable collection of heirloom seeds that were passed down to use through the years. Most of those are not available anywhere, we are part of a small handful of people keeping those varieties going. Those seeds are included in our inventory as well. We’re slowly building up the number of  those rare heirloom seeds we have. The word “rare” is often used as a marketing ploy to get folks to buy things but in this case these seeds truly are rare.

We may not be able to get into the garden yet but physically handling seeds and seed packets is a satisfying, temporary antidote to the mid-winter gardening lull.

Bob

 

 

 

 

One local interpretation of Groundhog Day

Growing up in a rural area of Monroe County Michigan, I had a chance to absorb a lot of our local farm culture. Back them there were plenty of old-timers who, in their younger days,  had farmed their acreage with teams of horses. Those gray-haired farmers had plenty of advice and time-worn proverbs to pass along. One that stands out for me is the meaning of Groundhog Day.

I don’t know the history of  Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney but the town has so successfully managed to turn Groundhog Day into its own event that many people don’t even know, or care, that this minor holiday has been around way before weatherman Phil Connors got caught in that time-loop in Pennsylvania. The first time I ever heard of the town of Punxsutawney was on an episode of  The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. I’m not sure in what context it was, I just thought it was funny to hear a cartoon character say “Punxsuatawney Pennsylvania”.

Most of the farmers in our area had some sort of livestock, often it was dairy cows. They would grow corn and hay as feed for their animals rather than purchase it off site from somewhere else. That meant storing feed on the farm; dried corn, still on the cobs, in corn-cribs and hay up in the second story hay mows above the livestock area on the ground floor. Farmers could easily judge by eye how much their livestock were eating.

Feeding livestock through the winter could be a challenge if the previous growing season’s harvest was below normal. Groundhog Day was, according to those farmers I knew, the half-way point of winter. By that they meant, if you still had half of your feed or more left in storage by Groundhog Day, you will make it through to spring. If not, then potentially you would run short of feed.

In our rural elementary school, Groundhogs Day was a fairly big deal. Our teachers never mentioned the practical side of the day but we did learn about the whole six weeks before spring thing. My classmates would come in to school on the morning of February second and excitedly report if they thought there was enough sunlight for a groundhog to cast a shadow.

I still use this day as reminder when I look in my deep-freezer and estimate how much frozen garden produce I have left from last year’s harvest.

Bob