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

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

Holes in tomatoes

It seems like it’s been a tougher season than normal for our tomatoes. First they got a late start because of the cold wet spring. Then we had a blast of heat just when they were blooming, causing the flowers to fall off. Now insects are attacking any tomatoes that have made it this far.

In one of my gardens, well over half of my tomatoes have tomato fruit worm damage. This is the same insect that bores into ears of sweet corn and other vegetables.

On tomatoes the damage shows up as holes or depressions that are clearly caused by something eating them. Tomatoes can look fine one day, then bam! holes in them the next. Often the worms tunnel into the fruit and leave behind frass –worm poo — if nothing is done to stop them.

Typical tomato fruit worm damage.

The problem is you can’t find who doing the eating. You might suspect bird pecking or mice bites or even tomato horn worm damage. Tomato fruit worms are hard to find. I saw one today on a plant and by the time I retrieved my phone to take a picture for you it was gone, or at least I couldn’t find it again.

Holes chewed in the tomato fruit are a passageway for fungus to enter potentially causing serious fruit rot. When the holes are new, you can just cut away the damaged portion and still use the rest of the tomato.

About the only way you can control these critters once they found your garden is to spray an insecticide. I prefer to use the biological insecticide BT since it will not harm pollinators. Other insecticides will control them too.

If you are seeing symptoms of tomato fruit worm on your tomatoes, I suggest getting them under control ASAP before they do any more damage.

Bob

Blemished but usable produce

Gardeners are fortunate to have the opportunity to grow the freshest and highest quality vegetables. Even now when organic produce is widely available, it’s no match for home grown.

When it comes to their own produce, most gardeners disregard one major criterion that defines quality ; that is appearance. Even ahead of taste, nutrition or freshness, appearance is still what matters most to shoppers. You really can’t blame folks for judging produce by how it looks, how else would you know if there was anything wrong with it? You could smell it, squeeze it or knock on it to hear how it sounds I suppose. Over 30 percent of food is wasted each year and much of that waste is because something doesn’t look perfect.

Gardeners on the other know exactly how their produce was grown because they did it themselves. So generally, appearance is less likely to be a factor in judging their produce. For example, some heirloom tomatoes are very prone to cracking or splitting. Selling blemished tomatoes like that would completely out of the question in a produce department and for good reason. Cracks and splits and other kinds of blemishes provide an entry for microorganisms to enter into the fruit. But if a gardener grew it, he would know that some types of tomatoes crack and wouldn’t worry about it. Most likely it would go from the tomato vine directly to the table reducing the chance of spoilage.

Carrots are prone to cosmetic damage too. Any number of things can cause a carrot to become misshapen such as a virus disease, insects, nematodes, soil moisture, soil texture, inadequately prepared soil, a pebble in the soil, even a tiny granule of fertilizer or who knows what else. So many carrots are deformed in a typical field that farmers had to develop a new use for them. They invented baby carrots. Those bagged baby carrots are cut and shaped from crooked carrots that otherwise would end up being thrown away.

These carrots are not perfectly shaped but are just as tasty to eat.

A gardener knows most of the time there is nothing wrong with a misshapen carrot, there are some exceptions. I met a new gardener the other day who was digging carrots and tossed most of his crop into the compost because they were not perfectly carrot shaped. There was no convincing this person otherwise.

I eat all kinds of damaged, deformed, blemish and bruised produce from my garden that I would never pay money for at a grocery store or farmer’s market. I trim around the unusable parts like most gardeners do. The trimmings and any produce that is too far gone gets fed to the chickens. The hens in turn use the nutrition from those garden scraps to produce eggs. With their help, my food waste percentage is close to zero.

Bob

Plan ahead to avoid mildew on cucumbers

Powdery mildew is a serious fungal disease of cucumbers and other related plants. It can completely wipe out an entire crop in a garden if nothing is done to control it. Regular rains, warm temperatures and high humidities this season have come together to make ideal conditions for powdery mildew development.

The standard method of battling this disease is applying fungicides of one type or another. Some are chemical, others are plant derived and there’s even bacterial fungicides. The drawback to each of these fungicides is that you have to apply them early when the plants are young and continue using them through the rest of the season. But there is another way.

Recently I had a chance to compare cucumber plants growing in two nearby gardens. Neither garden had any fungicide applied to them.

In the first garden, the gardener is growing a standard, run-of-the-mill variety of cucumber obtained from a garden department somewhere. The plants in that garden were nearly overwhelmed by mildew.

Infected non-resistant cucumber vine.

In the second garden, the cucumbers show little sign of mildew. That gardener opted to grow a mildew resistant variety from seed that he sowed directly in the soil.

Resistant cucumber vine.

The difference between the two crops is very impressive. If you are one of those gardeners who have given up on growing cucumbers and don’t like to spray fungicides, then planting resistant varieties is the way to go. Really, it’s something every gardener should look for when choosing cucumber seeds. Make a note of it in your garden journal as reminder for next year.

Bob

 

 

Tomato blossoms damaged by hot temperatures

During the past couple of weeks I saw a lot of gardens having problems with tomato plants not producing fruit. When discussing this problem with gardeners, the first thing I hear from them is usually,” I’m growing lots of leaves but no tomatoes”. Then they go on to attribute it to an overabundance of fertilizer of one sort or another.

Nutrient imbalance may cause problems, but this season it is likely due to the extended hot temperatures we had until the break in the weather happened this week.  Temperatures in the mid-nineties can damage tomato blossom causing them to fall off the plant — no blossoms means no tomatoes. This phenomenon is known as “tomato blossom blast”.

Heat damaged tomato blossoms turn brown.

There is really nothing we can do to prevent flower damage when the temperatures are so high except wait it out. Now that the weather has moderated, our tomato plants will start producing more blossoms and setting more fruit.

If another heat wave occurs, it’s likely we’ll see another round of tomato flower blast.

Bob

Almost no-till potatoes

This year I’ve decided to try a minor experiment with my potatoes. I guess you might call it a kind of no-till planting.

There are a couple of reasons I thought it might work well. First, the spot where they’re going was recently an area where some of my older chickens were penned in. I purposely kept them confined to a relatively small area to help clear it from weeds. They did a great job eliminating all of the existing weeds and keeping new ones from getting a foothold. Chickens enjoy grazing on fresh green plants and those wild greens provide plenty of vitamins.

Even though they are small, chickens can disturb a lot of soil in a short period of time. That makes them destructive if they get loose into a flower garden or other valuable spot and start scratching. Believe me, I had plenty of experience shooing chickens out of  flower gardens. It’s that relentless scratching that makes them such good helpers in the garden before planting time.

The area where my no-till potatoes are going there were no visible weeds. Under the surface however, there were thousands of recently germinated seedlings ready to pop up into the sunlight. Instead of using my rototiller, I used my sharpened swan hoe to skim along top half inch or so. I was able to cut off the weed seedlings before they had a chance to get started.

The theory is that while roto-tilling will destroy young weeds, at the same time it also drags up new seeds to the soil surface where they will germinate and grow. Shallow hoeing will kill weeds but not drag up new seeds. That Sounds like a good idea but there are plenty of dormant weed seeds waiting to take the place of their lost cousins. But over time, if done consistently, you can eventually reduce the number of viable seeds.

Back to my potato patch.

The second reason why I feel my quasi-no-till will work is because the soil is a sandy loam that really doesn’t need tilling to provide a good seed bed. If it was a finer textured soil with more clay content, I would probably not plant them without tilling.

Instead of using a trowel or shovel to dig the planing holes, I got out my two-handled post hole digger. That way I was able stand straight up to do the digging and I got a great upper body workout to boot.

The holes are plus or minus a foot apart with the rows around 28 inches apart.  At that planting density, the potato plants should eventually grow together enough to shade the soil surface keeping it cool and shading out weed seedlings.

I made sure the rows were straight and the holes evenly spaced.

I know I’ll have to keep up with my hoeing through the season, “no-till” doesn’t mean “no-work”. I’ve seen many inexperienced gardeners learn that the hard way. Real no-till involves the use of herbicides to control weeds but I’ve never used herbicides in my vegetable garden and plan to keep it that way.

While hoeing will be my main method of weed control, I’ll mulch what I can.

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

Start early to grow your own gourmet onions from seed

Onions are a staple in our kitchen and I’m guessing are in yours too. While homegrown vegetables are always the best, it’s especially true with onions.

Those little onion bulbs, called sets, that you find in the garden center were grown last year from an onion variety selected for good storage characteristics, not flavor. I have to confess that I’ve used them plenty of times in the past during those years when I was not able to grow my own transplants.

Not only do homegrown onions in general taste better, you can pick and choose the variety you want without having to depend on what the local garden center has to offer. There are all kinds of gourmet onions available that you can only get if you grow them yourself. Just stay away from short-day varieties, they are not adapted to our latitude.

The secrete to growing onions from scratch is to get started early. I try to sow my onion seeds indoors sometime during January.

Onion seeds are fairly easy to grow. Compared to many vegetables such as tomatoes, peppers and others, onions don’t require as much attention. With most other vegetable seedling, transplanting from a crowded container into individual pots or cells is absolutely necessary, that’s not so critical with onions. They do quite well growing close together like a clump of grass during the early stage of their life cycle.

To get started, sow onion seeds into clean containers, I use six inch plastic flower pots. They’re easy to wash and sterilize and can be used year after year.

Fill your growing container an inch or so from the top with a good starting mix, other types of potting mixes may be used if the manufacturer didn’t add too much fertilizer.  Gently firm the soil down and moisten it.  Sprinkle your onion seeds evenly over the surface of the soil –about 50 -60 seeds will fit nicely in a six inch pot. Cover the seeds with about a quarter inch of the starting mix and firm it down so it makes good contact with the seeds. Lightly water the pot.

Onion seeds are fairly small so don’t cover them too deeply.

You should start to see the tiny seedlings begin to emerge in about a week to ten days at 70 degrees F. Once they’ve emerged, place the pot in a sunny area and drop the growing temperature to the lower 60’s during the day and upper 50’s during the night. If you grow your seedlings under artificial light only, give them ten hours of light a day. Keep them moist but not soaking wet.

Occasionally fertilize your growing plants according to directions on the fertilizer package. The onions will sometimes grow so much that they will fall over. If that happens l cut back the tops a little bit with  a pair of scissors. Our goal is to get the plants about a quarter inch wide at garden planting time.

Since onion transplants can tolerate frost and cold soil temperatures, you can plant them into the ground as early as April. That will give them plenty of time to grow lots of leaves. The larger the onion plant is when it begins to form bulbs, the larger the onion will be. At planting time you just knock the plants out of the pot all together in one clump and pull them apart as you plant.

If you haven’t done so, order your onion seeds now so you can get them started soon.

Bob

Three interesting tomato varieties

Earlier in this past growing season I took an informal survey of how a number of tomato varieties were responding to leaf spot diseases. You can go back and read the post to find out how things were going for them at that time.

I kept an eye on them through the season and watched their progress. In one garden I applied a couple of sprays of an organic fungicide, that didn’t seem to make much difference; it may have helped if I kept it up. As expected, on all of the plants, sprayed or not,  the leaf spot symptoms got progressively worse as the fruit on the plants began to grow and develop. It takes a lot of plant energy to produce a crop of tomatoes.

A curious thing happened on one variety at the end of the season. The heirloom variety, Granny Cantrell, began to shake off the fungal infection. While the other tomato plants lost pretty much all of their leaves and most of them actually died back, the Granny Cantrell plants shed their infected leaves and grew very healthy looking replacement leaves. That was something I’ve never seen in a tomato plant. Sure, many varieties struggle to send out more leaves but they never seem to amount to much. Not only were they growing leaves but they were also ripening existing fruit and producing new tomatoes to boot! Our growing season is too short for the plants to continue to grow so I’ll never know if the new shoots would have continued to grow without leaf spot symptoms. It may be a useful trait that tomato breeders could use to develop a new variety.

Notice the green foliage on the Granny Cantrell on the right compared to the defoliated tomato plant next to it.

Juliet was another noteworthy tomato. They had good resistance to the diseases throughout the growing season and produced a huge crop of tomatoes, far out pacing any variety I grew this year.

All of the tomatoes I grew were tasty, how could they not be? since they were vine-ripened and eaten right after picking. All the people who tasted the tomatoes; and there were quite a few, agreed that Cherokee Purple was their hands down favorite. Cherokee Purple however,  had little disease resistance and didn’t produce very many tomatoes at all. They also have very thin skin making the very hard to handle without damaging them. They are not a typical red tomato so their coloring made it harder to distinguish when they were ripe. Also their flesh inside has a distinctive purple hue that, along with their taste makes the quite memorable.

Bob