Friday, October 26, 2012

Indian Summer

Indian Summer has brought splendid foliage to the Valley, and we have been harvesting our best fall lettuce in years. Warm, sunny days and cool nights have given us all the salad we can eat.  Bak choy is ready to harvest in the greenhouse, and broccoli is producing heads. Cauliflower remains iffy. We may or may not get a crop. I have made a note to start the cauliflower a bit later next year. The late summer weather raised the temperature in the greenhouse into the 80s, which may have adversely affected the plants.
We may get our first frost next week, however. This will slow down lettuce, as well as our other late crops, beets, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, carrots, cilantro, dill, parsley, spinach and Swiss chard, but none of them are likely to be seriously damaged by the light frosts we can expect between now and Thanksgiving. That should be enough time for the crops to mature. The cooler temps may also induce the cauliflower to bloom. We will keep our fingers crossed. In any case, based on historical data, the first frost is arriving about ten days later than usual this year, following the fourth warmest summer in the lower 48 states since record keeping began in 1895. Does this mean we will have a milder winter than usual?
According to the Old Farmer’s Almanac the weather here in the Central South will be cooler and snowier than usual. The entire Southeast, they say, will be “wet and chilly.” Accuweather says essentially the same thing. Here’s the map they posted for the upcoming season. Long term weather prediction is an inexact science, to say the least. Last year, Accuweather made headlines for being wrong.
We will take the mild weather for as long as we can get it. Besides lettuce, we are also harvesting baby beet and spinach greens, and our first crop of arugula is ready to pick today. I will make a delicious fall salad with dinner tonight. Thinning will allow the beets and spinach room to grow, which both will continue to do despite cold weather, as will the carrots. Last winter, we had carrots and spinach all season long from fall sown seeds. We just left the plants in their beds and harvested them as needed.
Protected by the greenhouse, sweet bell peppers, long frying peppers and pimentos continue to yield heavily. Fortunately, peppers are easy to freeze for later use. Just stem, seed, and rinse them. Dry well and pack into freezer containers, label and freeze. That's it. I also can relish made out of the pimentos for making the best pimento cheese you've ever eaten. (The recipe is on our In the Kitchen page.) We have been particularly impressed with the quality of 'Ashe County Pimento', a pepper we obtained from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange to try this year. It produces uniform, deep red, thick walled fruits with a small seed core and almost no blemishes. They look like tomatoes near the top of the image at left, showing part of one day's harvest last week. I have already made all the relish we will use through the winter, but the shape and size makes these peppers ideal for stuffing, also. We will definitely grow this one again next year. Two plants have provided all we need, and they are compact growers into the bargain. All our peppers have done extremely well with protection in the greenhouse.
Winter Garden Tips
As a general rule, the shorter days and colder temperatures of winter greatly reduce plants’ demand for water. Unless you observe potential wilting, you can reduce irrigation in raised beds to about half what it was during the summer, or even less. Cold, soggy soil will damage roots and spoil crops like carrots, beets and turnips. When in doubt, hold off on the water.
Similarly, plants need far less fertilizer now, because growth rates are slow. This is the best time to use organic fertilizers such as cottonseed meal, greensand, and phosphate rock. Their slow breakdown releases soil nutrients in the constant, small amounts plants need at this time of year.
Ideas From “Garden Talk”
I had great fun last Saturday morning on “Garden Talk” with Dr. Sue Hamilton on WNOX 100.3 FM. Our guest was Nancy Schneider from Stanley’s Greenhouse. We had a great discussion about re-blooming azaleas, like the wonderful “Encore” series that blooms three times a year, and likes full sun. One idea that came out of that discussion was to incorporate blueberries into azalea plantings. The two shrubs are in the same family and like the same growing conditions: moist, well-drained, acidic soil in full sun. The autumn coloration of the blueberry foliage compliments the colors of the azalea blooms.
We had several callers with questions and comments covering a range of topics. I’ll be co-hosting “Garden Talk” again tomorrow (October 27th) morning, at 8:05 AM. Join us and call in with your questions.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Edible Pond Plants

As we continue to plan our garden pond, we have noted that many aquatic and semi-aquatic plants are edible or have edible parts.

Edible Sagittaria also sports atrtractive blooms.
Lotus root, for example, is available in Asian groceries. Although most lotus grow too large for a backyard pond, there are dwarf varieties with stunning large flowers. Like water lilies, they are vigorous, and need dividing periodically. Roots, therefore, will be available for stir fries. Arrowhead (Sagittaria latifolia) is sometimes called “duck potato” because of its edible rootstock. The young leaves and seeds of pickerel rush (Pontederia cordata) can be added to salads, as can duckweed (Lemna minor). Cattail (Typha species) spring shoots and pollen are edible, too. Celery is among the more common vegetables that can be grown in bog conditions. Water chestnut, water spinach, and watercress are all possibilities, too. A few water herbs, for example Bacopa caroliniana and Hottuynia cordata, are used like lemon balm and cilantro, respectively. Mint, of course, is famously vigorous in marshy conditions. Plant with care.
Indeed, this could be said of all water garden plants. If the pond is located in full sun, they can be amazingly productive. Most water gardens need an annual renovation to avoid looking overgrown. Certainly, every three years in all but the largest ponds, it will be necessary to reduce the plant population.
Fish, too, can become overcrowded in a garden pond. Goldfish, the recommended variety for beginning water gardeners, often produce offspring after they are over six inches in length. These can number in the hundreds, and only a few of them will bear the bright coloration of their parents. It is advisable, therefore, to thin the herd on a regular basis. Ponds under 5000 gallons may need this every 5 years.
It is worth mentioning that we have considered the possibility of raising food fish. We rejected this idea because the pond is too small to accommodate a reasonable number of winter hardy fish. (The typical home aquaculture set-up is focused on Tilapia, a tropical fish.) While we could certainly add a few bluegills and/or catfish, the effort would hardly be justified by the meager harvest we could expect. Pond fishery managers tend to think in terms of pounds per acre, not per square foot. Besides, the only way to catch them without disrupting the plantings would be on hook and line. We will probably stock the pond with local fish rather than goldfish, but not for eating. We would emphasize that every garden pond should be home to a few fish for purposes of mosquito control. Otherwise, the pond will require regular treatment for the pesky insects.
A lot of planning has already gone into our pond project, and we have more work to do. We will post updates and images as we have them. It will be next spring before we begin planting, and next summer before the fish will arrive.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

A Look Back on the Season

2012 Cucumber Crop Worst in Years
This past summer was not the season for cucumbers in the Knoxville area. I was overheard last week at the Farmers Market, bemoaning the absence of good cucumbers even in that venue. A lady in line near me turned and said she had had the same problem. Two attempts on our part yielded plants that quickly succumbed to cucumber mosaic virus. Ironically, a plant that came up volunteer in an area we’d amended with compost actually produced a few small cucumbers before it, too, became infected. Heat and humidity at the wrong times probably contributed to the crop failure.  We originally thought perhaps our choice of new varieties to try, ‘Picklebush’ and ‘Boston Pickling’ may have been the issue. But this would not explain the widespread nature of the cucumber shortage.
I have not had the opportunity to discuss this issue with locals who farm for a living. Whatever the reason, we’ll have no homemade pickles this year.
Rare Sweet Corn
Corn on the cob is one of the true pleasures of summer, but finding the genuine article locally has become increasingly difficult as the years roll by. Only a few of the 30 or more vendors at the FARM Farmer’s Market this year have offered corn. One of these was selling corn exclusively for a few weeks, then was seen no more. The only variety I saw offered that was not a sugar-enhanced type was ‘Silver Queen,’ the old standby for a white sweet corn around these parts. Unfortunately, the ears I purchased were picked a bit too late, and the flavor was not as good as it might have been.
All the other varieties we observed on offer were recently developed, high-fructose hybrids like ‘Ambrosia,’ ‘Peaches and Cream,’ and ‘Awesome.’ With all due respect to the plant breeders who have created these types of corn, they are almost too sweet for me. The original idea of sugar-enhanced corn was to increase the shelf life. As soon as it is picked, corn begins converting sugar to starch, so the fresher the ear the sweeter. Hence the old adage about bringing the water to a boil before going out to pick the corn.  Ordinary sweet corn varieties, like ‘IA Chief’ and ‘Golden Bantam’ were great eating, as long as you grew them yourself. If you wanted corn out of season, from someplace like, say, California, it just did not taste as good after its long journey, despite refrigeration. The answer, someone realized, was to grow sweeter corn that would remain sweet longer because it would take more time for enzymes in the ear to convert the sugar to starch.
Ironically, consumers have come to expect the farmer’s market to offer the same type of corn as the supermarket. Yellow and white varieties, like the so, so sweet ‘Honey and Pearl,’ tend to dominate because of their attractive appearance. But all of these lack the genuine, “corny” flavor of the heirlooms, and I wish local farmers would learn to grow them again. Offering ‘Silver Queen’ was a great idea, but you gotta know when to pick it. Burpee's seed catalog offers only three "normal sugar" corn varieties, 'Silver Queen,' 'Golden Bantam,' and 'Early Sunglow.' By contrast they have 10 "sugar enhanced" and 4 "super sweet" cultivars available. Locally, Mayo Seed offers some additional heirlooms, like 'IA Chief.'
We consumers should be dedicated to supporting local farmers who grow good sweet corn, regardless of the variety they offer. Few crops are less well suited to small scale production that corn. If you grow the modern hybrids, seed is expensive and it is often difficult to find seed not treated with chemical pesticides. (Burpee offers only one organically grown corn variety, 'Golden Bantam.') Further, corn is demanding in terms of both soil fertility and sunshine, and needs a lot of water to boot. Each plant will take up about 3 square feet of growing space, making it difficult for many home gardeners to squeeze in a patch. And for all its demands, corn rarely produces more than two ears per stalk. Given that the typical price at the FARM Farmer’s Market is $5 a dozen, it is easy to see why so few growers bother.
So if you are a local vegetable grower and you are reading this, I’ll make you an offer. Grow an heirloom sweet corn next year, pick it at the proper time, and bring it to market.  Let me know ahead of time, and I will do everything I can to encourage consumers to patronize your stand. And we locavores should be willing to pay a dollar an ear for the privilege.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Adding a Pond To Your Garden

One of the most exciting projects we have going this fall is completing our garden pond. It all started when we decided to remove a pine tree that had been inconveniently placed by a previous owner of our home. When the stump came out, we were left with a hole in the ground. My partner loves to dig so much you’d think he was a badger, so he has enlarged the excavation bit by bit over the past couple of years. (At our age, shovel and wheelbarrow work has to be done in small episodes.) To begin constuction, we first establish the highest water level, then we work outward in opposite directions from that point, laying a row of cinder block to form the top edge of the pond. We have seen photos of pond construction in which the soil itself was cut and contoured. Not only is this hard work, it is difficult on a sloping site. Using cinder blocks makes the job much easier. These are "FHA" blocks, with a solid concrete bottom. Once leveled on compacted soil, they stay in place better than standard blocks.
(As the image illustrates, all construction work on the property is overseen by PJ, our Boston terrier.) It is essential to the appearance of the finished pond that the top rim be as level as you can make it all the way around. Otherwise, the liner will be visible above the water line if you leave a low spot, and this will ruin the "natural" effect. Once the top course of blocks is in place, the remaining levels can be installed using the top course as a reference.
The pond will have three levels when completed. The deepest area in the center will be kept free of plantings, and will hold the pump for a planned small waterfall. The waterfall serves not only a decorative function, but also oxygenates the water.
The second level will hold tubs planted with water lilies. We plan on using only two or three compact-sized varieties. Otherwise, the pond can become overcrowded in too short a time frame. As a rule, water lilies should be divided and repotted every three years. This can be a daunting task, as they can grow profusely in that time. On the other hand, lily pads shade the pond, which helps keep the water cool for the fish and lessens algae growth. We recommend that about two thirds of the surface be covered. The upper level is for emergent plants. These are species, such as cattails, that like wet feet but grow up from the water surface. We have dozens of varieties of such plants to choose from, and our research is ongoing. We will be posting a complete planting list here, once we have our plans completed.
The current grade slopes slightly, so we have constructed a retaining wall on the uphill side of the pond. The surrounding area will be brought up to the level of this wall and re-paved.  We are using precast concrete pavers set on a gravel base. Pavers are not only easy to install without heavy equipment, they are also pervious to rainfall, and don’t interfere with natural drainage. Posts for a guardrail will be installed before paving. The wooden arch bridge in the lower right corner of the image will be replaced with a new bridge. Up to this point, it has served to get across the French drain that carries water away from this side of the house. This water will now be stored in the pond. We can re-direct the flow into another French drain when needed by means of a water gate. The excavation for the overflow is barely visible at the right of the image. It will have the appearance of a creek bed when completed and will direct water to a bed of moisture loving plants, such as cardinal flower.
The pond will now be allowed to settle for a few weeks before we install the liner. Once the liner is in place the pond will be filled with water and again allowed to settle before we begin the fun part: installing the natural stone coping and rock work. The finishing touches will allow the pond to blend with the rest of the nature inspired landscape in our back yard. We will also have "planting pockets" here and there in the rock work.
We will have more to say about garden pond construction and maintenance in future posts. A small pond is a great way to put into practice the permaculture principle of increasing diversity in the landscape. Besides plants both edible and ornamental, and fish, a pond offers habitat for dozens of varieties of insects and amphibians, along with countless micro-organisms and tiny invertebrates. Properly sited, a pond can assist with water management and make great use of an otherwise marginally productive area. Using marginal areas is another principle of permaculture.