Archive for April, 2009

Lungwort

April 30th, 2009
Funny name - Pretty plant

Funny name - Pretty plant

While you are out and about the plant sellers this spring you might run across this lovely little shade lover.  Lungwort may sound like a ghastly disease, but as you can see it’s a lovely plant.  It thrives and persists in full shade and spreads slowly (that is it does NOT become invasive) – those pretty little (1/2″) pink and blue flowers are one of the first harbingers of spring, and the silver/green foliage looks good all summer long.  Lungwort will thrive right along side your hostas and elephant ears.  Ours is probably 15 years old and requires no care at all, and can be divided yearly if wanted.

Wear Those Gloves!

April 26th, 2009

While building a fence I picked up a post and look what was clinging to the bottom of it…

Yes, that is a Black Widow, no its not photo shopped.  Usually the red marking is shaped like an hour glass - but this one being extrememly large and fat has a heart shaped marking instead.

Yes, that is a Black Widow spider, no it's not photo shopped. Usually the red marking is shaped like an hour glass - but this one being extremely large and fat has a heart shaped marking instead.

Black widow spiders as everyone knows are poisonous, and not at all uncommon in the South East.  You usually don’t find them in houses fortunately, but it isn’t at all uncommon to see them in unheated garages.  Usually they will be under a rock or other debris, but I have seen them nesting 8 feet above the ground in the open – inside of my garage.  Usually you will run across these things in late spring and early summer.

Be careful where you put your hands, and teach children to be careful as well.  If bitten, don’t panic, but seek medical help.  If possible always catch the spider and take it with you (especially if you think you have been bitten by a brown recluse) for positive identification.  However, with it’s distinctive bulbous body and glossy black and red paint job nothing else looks anything like a Black Widow spider.

Usually the red mark will be on the bottom side of the spider and will be shaped somewhat like an hourglass, but as you can see when they get big the markings get stretched out of shape and move around – just like most of those tattoos you see on the young folks nowadays probably will.

6 Months In the Greenhouse

April 16th, 2009
My greenhouse is cram packed in April.

My little greenhouse is cram packed in April.

I built my 50 dollar greenhouse about 6 months ago and I thought some of you might be interested in what I’ve done with it and how it’s performed so far.  I have not used any artificial heat in my greenhouse at all – so it does get cold in there – but the climate in the greenhouse is much more temperate than it is outside. I’ve found that even in the worst weather we have here in zone 6 cold hardy things like spinach and lettuce keep on growing all winter long – although at a slower rate than if it were warmer.

I haven’t installed any kind of automated ventilation system so far – I just watch the weather forecast and if it’s supposed to be a warm sunny day I open one of the doors in the morning, and close it in the evening.  This has worked pretty well, but I must admit that there have been times that it was already in the 90s before I got around to ventilating.  I’ve really been surprised that all of my lettuce hasn’t bolted because of it, but so far (April 15) none of it has.  I must admit that during periods of moderate weather the greenhouse is almost like having livestock in that it requires a little bit of attention every day.  Also, it should be obvious that you have to water in the greenhouse even if it rains outside – however your plants are protected from the trauma of snow, hail, and torrential rain.

In Middle Tennessee (zone 6b) you can’t grow tropical plants or produce fruits like tomatoes through the winter in an unheated greenhouse like this.  There are growers in our area which do grow “hothouse” tomatoes so I know that it’s possible to do it, but I don’t see that as being practical for me.  If you live in a warmer zone however it might be for you – check around to see what other people are doing in their greenhouses.

What I’ve Used My Greenhouse For So Far

Fresh salads all winter – Because I built the greenhouse so late in the fall I didn’t really get the salad greens cranking until after Christmas, but once they did get rolling I’ve had a steady stream of salad greens ever since.  I grew many varieties of lettuce, Teton (F1) spinach, and arugula (planted in mid February – arugula planted outside on the same day failed completely while that in the greenhouse literally grew like weeds) and they have all done great – despite single digit temperatures on multiple occasions these crops continued to grow all winter long, and I’m still picking greens from seeds that were planted in November.  Being able to eat home grown produce all winter long was one of my main goals when I built the greenhouse, and it looks to be easily doable.

Extra early broccoli – Broccoli is one of our favorite vegetables, so as soon as sets became available at the local farmers co-op I planted some in the greenhouse.  Well, I am getting broccoli extra early, but the plants are also bolting to flower extra quick because of the extra heat units that they are getting.  Next year I’m going to plant the spring broccoli under a simple poly tunnel row cover to get a fast start and then remove the cover when florets start to form.  Broccoli as well as the other members of the cabbage family are not freeze tolerant so wont grow throughout the winter in my greenhouse, but should produce extra late in the fall – I’ll see in a few months.

Extra early tomatoes – I’m still working on this.  I planted out celebrity and early girl tomato plants amongst the greens about March 15 – a month before our traditional last frost date – and they have grown very nicely so far.  I don’t know if I’ll actually get early tomatoes out of this experiment, but I have high hopes that I will.  I’ll let you know in a couple of months. Update – I am getting early tomatoes from the early girl plants that I planted out in the greenhouse, but they are only about a week ahead of others that weren’t in the green house.  However, I removed the cover from the greenhouse in April and a few days later we had a cold front go through that might have been a factor – I think I should have waited a bit longer, but the weather had been really nice.  I’ll try again next year.

Enjoy gardening on a cold winter day – This is one of the few things that you can do with a greenhouse that you can’t do in a cold frame.  Even when the sun isn’t shining the complete shelter from the wind makes a remarkable difference in your comfort level, but when the sun is shining it’s like a trip to the Keys.  I took this picture on a sunny day in January when it was 5 degrees outside –

5 degrees outside - 50 degrees inside.

5 degrees outside - 50 degrees inside.

Notice the ice on the inside of the greenhouse plastic – also notice the 70% relative humidity – on a 5 degree day the humidity outside is like zero.  It’s amazing how good 50 degrees can feel when the sun is shining on you and you’re out of the wind.

Garden when it’s raining or snowing – even if all you want to do is pick some lettuce or plant a few seeds – you are always in out of the weather.

Grow out bedding plants – We grew about 6 flats of pansies from seed last fall, but because we got that bright idea a bit too late they weren’t ready to set out until late winter.  The greenhouse was the perfect environment to grow out the tiny plants to a good size to set out.  By the time we had spring bedding plants that we needed to grow out we were out of room in the greenhouse.  Next year I’m going to try to plan for this a bit better.

Things I haven’t done yet

Extra late tomatoes – With some luck we should be able to pick garden fresh tomatoes until almost Thanksgiving.

New potatoes for Thanksgiving – Potatoes are a cool season crop, and I’ve read that you can have fresh new potatoes for Thanksgiving or even Christmas if you plan right.

Propagation – This year we had great success starting seeds indoors under lights by using a home made bottom heat propogating table.  If you have electric service to your greenhouse (I don’t) you could start your seeds in the greenhouse using bottom heat in a cold frame, and you wouldn’t have to have artificial lights.

Forced flowers – This isn’t something that I’m into, but you should be able to force tulips and other spring bulbs into bloom much earlier than normal by bringing them into the greenhouse.

Force strawberries – This is something that I am into.  Next fall when I transplant strawberry daughter plants I might put a few of them into containers so that I can try this.

Kiln dry lumber – in the heat of the summer, cover the floor to minimize humidity, stack stickered lumber, ventilate to remove humidity while elevating temperatures as much as possible.  If you have electric service in your green house you could also seal it up and run a dehumidifier – almost all of the water will be coming from your lumber.  I doubt if I ever do this, but it sounds like a good idea if you can’t use the greenhouse in the heat of the summer anyway.

I don’t know of anything that I would want to grow in my greenhouse in the heat of the summer (cacti?) and I intend to take the plastic off of the frame once the weather is reliably warm so that I can use the space for regular crops during the summer, and also to make the plastic last longer.

Weeds

It’s turned out to be a good choice to grow in raised beds instead of in containers – containers would require much more frequent watering, and would be much more likely to freeze than the soil in my raised beds.  However, next fall I’m going to add a thick weed free layer of enriched  soil to the top of the greenhouse beds to help suppress weeds.  Weeds haven’t been a huge issue in my greenhouse because it’s relatively small, and fortunately most of them have been chickweed – which is quite tasty.

Pests

Fungus gnats – These little buggers hatched out in early winter for a few weeks every time the weather would warm up for a few days.

Fungus gnats look like tiny mosquitos and hatch out in the soil to feed on organic matter.

Fungus gnats look like tiny mosquitos and hatch out in the soil to feed on organic matter.

Supposedly they damage your tender young plants by feeding on the roots in the larval stage, but I couldn’t really see any evidence of this.  They mostly just beat their selves to death on the inside of the plastic.

Moles – Our area has been experiencing a biblical type plague of mole for the last few years.  Some areas of my yard are solid with mole tunnels, and they have done some damage in the garden as well.  So far I haven’t found any way to control them that I’m comfortable with.  I’ve  seen plenty of evidence of moles inside of the greenhouse, but so far very little damage to what I’m growing.

That’s it – so far I haven’t really had any problems at all with insects, disease, or vermin in my greenhouse.  I’m probably jinxing it by saying so.

Now that I have a little bit of experience under my belt using my small greenhouse I see that this is a tool that I enjoy using and that can extend the productivity of my garden throughout the entire year.  I wish I had built it sooner.

Square Foot Garden in About an Hour

April 6th, 2009
A 24 square ft garden like this can grow a remarkable amount of food and is easy to build and take care of.

A 24 square ft garden like this can grow a remarkable amount of food and is easy to build and take care of.

Once you have all of the materials gathered up you really can set up a square ft garden like this in about an hour.  As you probably already know “Square Foot Gardening” is a method promoted by Mel Bartholomew.  Basically you grow in a permanent raised bed full of highly enriched soil which is divided into blocks which are 1 foot square – each block is intensively managed and cultivated.  It is an especially effective method for small areas and people who are new to gardening – there is no need whatsoever for roto-tillers or any other expensive equipment.

The bed in this article does not yet have a square foot grid so according to Mr. Bartholomew it isn’t quite a square ft garden.  I guess that will be up to the owner (My Daughter Sharon) who has been reading the book.  Anyway here are the simple steps to building a Square Foot Garden.

The frame for this bed is made out of regular SPF grade construction studs – not pressure treated – and should last 3-5 years before it rots and has to be replaced.  In my opinion treated lumber should not be used to construct garden beds, because of the chance that it will leach nastiness into the soil which could either harm your plants or end up in your food.

For this project we used:

  • 6 – 2 x 4 x 92 5/8″ studs
  • 4 wooden stakes about 14″ long (made out of scraps of 1 x2)
  • 16 – 3 1/2″  screws
  • 10 – 1 1/2″ screws
  • Some newspapers
  • 2.8 cubic foot bale of peat moss
  • 2.8 cubic foot bag of vermiculite
  • 40 gallons of screened yard compost
  • about 5 pounds of rabbit poo

Start out by cutting two of your studs up into 36″ pieces, and then screw them together – Put the 36″ end pieces between the long side boards so that the inside width of the bed is 36″ .  You could go all OCD here and carefully measure, mark, pre-drill, and counter-sink each hole if you like, but consider 2 things first:

  1. You ain’t buildin’ a piano.
  2. It will rot it a few short years.

So, do whatever makes you happy.

Screw the fram together with 2 long screw in each corner.

Screw the frame together with 2 long screws in each corner.

Once you’ve put all of the boards together so that you have two rectangular frames, stack them on top of each other and screw them together.  You can make this easier and neater by first drilling a 3/8″ (more or less – it isn’t critical) hole about 1/4″ deep at all of the locations where you want to angle screw the two frames together.

You can improvise pocket screws by drilling a small hole straight in...

You can improvise pocket screws by drilling a small hole straight in...

Then drive screws downward at an angle through the side of the holes you drilled in the previous step.  This is an improvised pocket screw – it’s just as fast and strong as a “real” pocket screw, but without the expensive pocket jig.  It also looks almost as good if you’re careful.  I used about 10 of these to hold the 2 frames together.

Like this...

Angle the screws in like this...

Fasten the frames together with screw driven at an angle - I call this an improvised pocket screw.

I call this an improvised pocket screw.

Once you have the frame completely assembled place it where you want the finished garden to be – pick a place that is in full sun, near the kitchen, and also near a water supply if at all possible.  A level spot with good soil would be awesome but not really essential.

The spot for this bed had lots of grass growing on it so I used a weedeater to cut it as short as possible – I suppose you could skip this step if you wanted.  Now drive a wooden stake in each corner.  Since our spot isn’t level I leveled the bed by raising the frame and screwing it to the stakes.  If your site is level you can skip this step.

Level the square foot garden by screwing the frame to stakes driven in the corners.

Level the square foot garden by screwing the frame to stakes driven in the corners.

I filled the worst of the gaps between the frame and the ground by screwing scraps of chip board to the inside of the frame.  The gap can be dammed up from the outside with soil, grass clippings, or mulch once the bed is finished.

Once the frame is leveled and secured to your satisfaction cover the bottom with several layers (at least 3-4) of newspaper or cardboard,  Then wet it down so that it mats down good.  Lap the newspaper up the sides a bit.  The newspaper will help to kill the grass and keep it from growing up through the bed, but will very quickly decompose.

Cover the bottom with wet newpapers to help kill the grass.

Cover the bottom with wet newpapers to help kill the grass.

Now start adding the soil mix.  If you choose to mix it in the bed like we did don’t just dump all of the materials  in a lump – spread them out in layers and it will make it much easier to mix.  By the way, I can’t think of a single reason not to mix in the actual bed and several reasons why you should.  Anyway, we started with a layer of compost…

The compost inspector is my Grandson - hes been a raised bed gardener since he was a little kid.

The compost inspector is my Grandson - he's been a raised bed gardener since he was a little kid.

Spread that out, then add half of the peat moss…

Half of the vermiculite…

and so forth until you use up all of the soil ingredients.

Add the soil ingredients in layers.

Add the soil ingredients in layers.

Now simply use a hoe or tilling fork to mix it all thoroughly together – with just a little care it isn’t hard to avoid tearing up the newspaper.

Thoroughly mix the soil ingredients right inside of the raised bed.

Thoroughly mix the soil ingredients right inside of the raised bed.

When you’re finished give it all a good watering and wait a day or two before setting out any plants to allow all of the ingredients to absorb the water.  If you have seeds you want to sow there is no reason not to go ahead and do that immediately.

Needless to say you could use different materials and build the bed a different size.  I like 3 foot wide beds because you can reach all the way across without running laps around the bed – the length of the bed is as much a product of the previously used materials that were available as anything.  If I had 10 or 12 foot materials I would probably build beds that size unless there is some compelling reason not to.  Of course you could also build a bed that is only 2′ x 2′ if you want, but at some point you might just want to get a big flower pot.

Even so, the 3′ x 8′ size that we did use is pretty handy because one bag each of vermiculite and peat moss worked out well to fill it – along with our home made compost.  It would also be easy to construct a cold frame or poly tunnel to cover a bed this size.

Of course you could use any number of materials to formulate your soil mix – which is essentially home made potting soil.

So, you’re just a simple afternoon project away from being a square foot gardener.  If you haven’t already tried it, you should .

Happy gardening.

April in the Garden

April 3rd, 2009
The Garden in April is full of potential.

The Garden in April is full of potential - and mud.

Here in middle Tennessee (zone 6b) April is high time to plant the main season garden. Our likely last frost date is about April 15 and by the end of the month even the most conservative gardeners are planting out tomatoes and peppers.

Spring weather can be very frustrating for gardeners – often going from too cold to too wet – be prepared with seeds, bedding plants and other supplies so that you can  jump on it when the opportunity arises.   By the time the weather is reliably dry for garden work it may be well on its way to becoming too dry – seize the day.

If you haven’t already planted  peas, brassicas, lettuce or other cool season crops or you want to do a succession planting you have a window of opportunity early in the month to do so, but the longer you wait the less likely success becomes because hot weather will arrive before many of those can mature.  However you are more likely to be successful if you set out plants instead of trying to propagate from seed.  Potatoes can be planted any time, but earlier is better for this cool season crop as well.

Once the last frost date has passed most things can be planted with a few notable exceptions.

Sweet corn and beans both require warm soil (70 degrees F more or less) for reliable germination.  Too much rain can also cause poor germination rates, because seed can rot.  It’s probably best to wait until the end of April  for these crops.

Phenology For April

  • “Plant corn when the oak leaves are the size of a squirrels ear, or when apple blossoms start to fall.” Consider that a squirrels ear is about 3/4 inch more or less – This old saying is probably a great guideline for field, dent, and heirloom varieties, but you might want to wait a little longer before planting hybrid sweet corn.
  • “Set out tomatoes when dogwood winter has passed, or when wild day lilies start to bloom.” Dogwood Winter is a cold front which often passes while dogwoods are in bloom or may actually trigger them to bloom. This year – 2009 –  dogwood winter was April 6 – 7 and featured overnight lows around 30 F daytime highs around 40  and a rain/snow mix all day on the 6th.
  • “Plant peppers and eggplant outside when bearded iris is in bloom.” This one probably applies to all manor of cucurbita,  cucumbers, melons, and squash.
  • Watch out for “Blackberry Winter” – A cold front associated with the flowering of wild blackberrys – often the last wide spread frost of the year occurs during blackberry winter.

Strawberries will be flowering soon (or already) and – along with other tender plants – will need to be protected from frost once you see blooms.  When berries start to ripen later in the season they will need protection from birds and other berry eatin’ varmints.  Plan ahead to have horticultural fleece, wire mesh or floating row covers ready to deploy if you plan on getting any fruit.  Those same materials can also be used later to protect young squash plants from egg laying vine borer moths.

April is not a bad time to plant strawberries as long as you have realistic expectations.  Strawberries set out in April will yield very little if any fruit this year, but by September they will each produce many daughter plants which can be transplanted at that time for a crop next year, and a great crop the next spring.  A six pack of plants started now in rich soil will be a nice little berry patch by next year if you play your cards right.

It’s Almost Slug Season – Joyous Joy.  Warming wet weather along with tender plants = slug paradise.  Watch for the tell tale holes in vegetation and take prompt swift measures – I favor jar lids full of beer for the slimy little lushes to drink their selves to death in.   Giving the kids each a flashlight and salt shaker could also be an effective – if less politically correct – form of slug based entertainment.  Mulch, rocks, boards and other rubbish provide hiding places so consider removing those things from problem areas if possible.  Also avoid over watering.

Get a Bird House! – While you are at the garden center consider stimulating the economy by buying a bird house.  But, don’t buy one of the cutesy gingerbread looking houses that are more for decoration than for the birds – instead get one which is specifically made for a particular bird – bluebirds and wrens are particularly receptive.  Birds might nest in an ornamental birdhouse, but the poor bird ergonomics can leave them vulnerable to nest predation.   If you put up a bird house now it might have occupants in just a few days.  Getting to see babies in the nest is a great treat for children – and adults.  Educate yourself a bit by Googling for the targeted species to learn about nest box location needs.

In April the greenhouse is full to over flowing.

In April the greenhouse is full to over flowing.

In the GreenHouse

Late this month I will probably remove the plastic covering from my 50 Dollar greenhouse or at least remove the doors.  Right now it is completely full of salad greens of all kinds, container plants, tomatoes trying to get an early start, early broccoli and cauliflower that is just starting to form heads, and tons of chick weed.  However I don’t foresee a lot of use for it once the weather turns reliably warm, and the plastic will be more likely to serve another year if I don’t leave it in the hot sun all summer.  I consider the greenhouse to be a great success so far – well worth the effort and small cash outlay – and I have high hopes that as I learn more about how to manage it, that it (along with cold frames) will become a key part of sustainable year around food production for my family.

The Thing About Strawberries

April 2nd, 2009
Each of those flowers will soon be a sweet juicy strawberry.

Each flower will soon be a sweet juicy strawberry.

When you visit the nursery or garden center in the Spring you will probably see potted strawberry plants for sale – some already with berries starting to form.  The thing is, Spring is too late to grow any strawberries. However, it’s the perfect time to grow strawberry plants – then you can get lots of fresh sweet strawberries out of your garden next spring.

Go ahead and buy a few of those plants this spring, and set them out 16″-24″ apart in a more or less permanent location in your garden.  If you can bring yourself to do it pluck off those berries as soon as possible – they won’t amount to much anyway – let the plants concentrate on growing.  Keep them weeded and watered, and fertilized this summer, and by fall you will have lots and lots of these…

One strawberry Mother will spread by runners to form many daughter plants.  If not thinned in the fall, very few strawberries will form, but each of those daughter plants can be transplanted in the fall and will bear fruit the following spring.

One strawberry Mother will spread by runners to form many daughter plants. If not thinned in the fall, very few strawberries will form, but each of those daughter plants can be transplanted in September or October and will bear fruit the following spring.

In September, transplant those into your “real” strawberry patch.  You could easily get a dozen daughter plants from each of the originals that you purchased this spring.  Next spring you will be rewarded for your efforts.