Sunday, February 24, 2013

Community Supported Agriculture in Knoxville

Event Announcement:
Please join me on Saturday, March 2, at 10:30 AM at Stanley's Greenhouse for a special presentation on planning this year's vegetable garden and growing the most popular backyard vegetables.

Garden Talk Radio
I will also be back on the radio, beginning March 2. I will be joining Dr. Sue Hamilton and Andy Pulte from UT Gardens for "Garden Talk" from 8:00 to 9:00 AM on WNOX-FM 100.3. Call in with your gardening questions!

Community Agriculture Fair at Three Rivers Market

On Saturday, February 23, Three Rivers Market looked like Kroger's after Todd and Matt have predicted snow. In other words, it was packed. The event was the 2nd annual Community Supported Agriculture Fair, and by any measure it was a resounding success. One vendor said the crowd was at least triple the size of last year's.

In the parking lot, a large tent held tables with displays and literature for 16 local farms that offer various types of CSA arrangements. I threaded my way through the crowd, picking up literature and speaking with as many of the farmers as possible.

From the snippets of conversation all around me, I could tell that plenty of enthusiasm for local food and local farmers exists in this area.

Inside the store, Knoxville Bread Co-Op, a one woman operation offering CSA-type service for baked goods, was handing out delicious samples, along with other local and regional vendors, including Asheville's Dolci di Maria bakery, Flour Head Bakery, Haze & Co., Magpies Bakery, Roots and Branches, and Yazoo Brewing Company from Nashville.

If you've never tried the Hefeweizen from Yazoo, by the way, you are missing a beer lover's treat. This award winning brew has almost floral undertones and is smooth as silk. Cruze Dairy Farm had their food truck parked along the street, and were selling a remarkably reasonably priced thali meal as fast as they could serve them up. Judging from the looks on the faces of diners at the outdoor tables, the food tasted as good as it smelled to me. I did not sample Cruze's fare, but the Bread Co-Op cinnamon bread and the lemon poppyseed mini-cupcakes from Magpies were standouts. Entertainment was provided by local band Dixieghost. With beautiful sunny weather to remind us that spring is near, everyone appeared to be enjoying themselves immensely.

Here is the list of the participating farms, with web or email addresses where available.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Get Ready For Spring

If you have not already done so, sow your first cool weather salad crops indoors between now and February 24. You could also sow in a coldframe outdoors. I planted 12 varieties of lettuce yesterday. Other early crops like mache, mizuna, tatsoi, scallions and spinach can also be started indoors if you wish. All these latter veggies will germinate in cold soil, and so can be planted outdoors, if you'd prefer. If you go the direct seed route, be especially vigilant for slugs and flea beetles. Cooler temperatures favor the latter, in particular.

The last half of February is also a good time to plant peas. Although we enjoy English, or shelling, peas, we prefer to buy them frozen. When we grow peas, it is always an edible-podded type, as these provide about twice as much food in the same space. We have found Sugar Snap peas to be unsurpassed for flavor, but this year we are trying a new one from Burpee, 'Super Snappy.' This variety produces extra-large peas, which can be shelled if you let them go too long on the vine. An added benefit is the compact growth habit, making them ideal for our raised beds. Burpee suggests this variety does not require a trellis, but in our experience, all peas do better with some support. Tomato cages work fine for the compact types.

Ancient Chinese gardening advice recommends, "When you pull a radish, plant a lettuce." This wraps the essence of succession planting and crop rotation into eight words. Spinach could substitute for lettuce in this scenario. Later in the year, put in tomatoes after the greens have been harvested. The best way to insure a ready supply of plants is to start them yourself from seeds. The best choices are all those mentioned in the first paragraph above, along with leeks, mustards, parsley, cilantro, dill, celery, and chervil.

If you start seeds indoors for early planting, you will require artificial lighting. A windowsill, even a south-facing one, will produce pale, elongated seedlings that lean toward the sun. To produce straight, stocky seedlings that transplant well, you need more light. We can go on all day about lumens and PAR values, if one wants to get technical, but the simplest approach to plant lighting recommendations is to talk about watts of fluorescent lighting per square foot of growing space. For vegetable crops, I recommend using six 40-watt T8 fluorescent lamps over a space 18 by 48 inches. The T8 (8-tenths of an inch in diameter) is the most common and least expensive lamp type, and is often supplied when you buy an inexpensive hanging "shoplight" fixture at one of the big box stores. Three shoplights, for a total of six lamps, will illuminate two standard 10 X 20 flats of plants, with a little room at the back for rooting herb cuttings.

You can buy brighter lighting sources that will illuminate a larger area or allow you to grow plants that need more light than lettuce and spinach, such as broccoli or chard. Among the choices are T5 fluorescents (only 5/10 inches in diameter, so you can squeeze more into the same space), high-output fluorescents, metal halide, and LED lighting systems. All cost more and offer various advantages and disadvantages over shoplights. For the hobby gardener needing only a few dozen plants per season, shoplights should do the trick. If you only use the lights for a couple of months each year, the lamps will last about 5 years, assuming you run them for twelve to sixteen hours per day. Twelve hours is sufficient for spring greens. Members of the onion and celery families will appreciate the longer days.

Two flats will supply you with anywhere from 18 to 72 plants, depending upon what size cell insert you place in the tray. For lettuce, greens, scallions or spinach that will be promptly transplanted, we use 72-cell trays. Later in the season, when we may reasonably expect to hold the lettuce a little longer, we will start them in larger cells. Leeks do better in 36-cell trays. Members of the celery family need to spend a longer time in the flat, and should be grown in 18-cell trays or small nursery pots.

Fill trays with seed starting mix and wet them down the day before you intend to plant. Use a drainless flat to support the cell trays. You can fill the flat with about an inch of water and float the prepared tray on top. This will allow the starting mix to soak up as much water as possible before you plant. The mix can be difficult to wet initially. After sowing your seeds, cover the tray with a clear plastic germination cover to maintain 100 percent humidity and to allow you to observe the seedlings. They need to remain under the cover only until all cells are showing green. As soon as all the seedlings have emerged, remove the cover, but take care that your seedlings do not dry out. This usually spells disaster if they are small. To keep them growing as rapidly as possible, add timed-release fertilizer, or a complete organic formulation, to the starting mix. You can also water with compost tea or kelp extract, but I find this more trouble than adding fertilizer to the mix.

Early lettuces thrive in a cold frame.
Most of the crops mentioned will require about two weeks to reach transplantable size, after they emerge. Thin to one plant per cell as soon as true leaves start to appear. Simply clip off the losers at soil level with a pair of nail scissors. Transplant them to the garden when you see the first roots emerging from the drainage hole in the bottom of the cell.

It is not necessary to plant an entire flat at once. You can save some cells for succession plantings. Thomas Jefferson wrote in his garden journal that lettuce seed should be planted by the "thimbleful" and "weekly." Most modern households will need far less than a thimbleful, more like a pinch, for a weekly supply. If you plant in succession, you may find it convenient to start new seeds under the germination cover as soon as the first trays are removed. The older trays need to adjust to cooler temperatures and lower humidity, anyway. As a rule, you should not grow plants with markedly different germination times in the same flat. Celery, dill, cilantro, parsley and chervil all take up to three weeks to germinate. By then, lettuce, which germinates in a day or three, will be ready to transplant.

We find it helpful to rotate the flats underneath the lights, because the intensity of illumination is far less near the ends of the lamps than it is in the center. Rotating the flats helps insure all plants grow at the same rate, and that none wastes energy stretching toward the light.

We purchase flats, cell trays, germination covers, growing mixes and much of our seed at Knoxville Seed and Greenhouse Supply on Rutledge Pike. Even though this is a large wholesale/retail company, you can purchase only one or two trays at a time if that's all you need, and the friendly staff will answer all your questions. They offer a good selection of organic fertilizer and pest control products. Plus, it is an independently owned, local company.

And speaking of great local companies, I will be giving a presentation on vegetable garden planning and starting seeds at Stanley's Greenhouse on Saturday, March 2. The public is invited to attend free of charge. I will have copies of The New American Homestead available for purchase. (The book is specially priced at $20, tax included. Cash, checks and all major credit cards are gratefully accepted.)

Friday, February 8, 2013

Grasses and the Food Garden

Backyard food gardeners seldom give much thought to grasses, unless they are struggling to keep Bermuda grass from invading a bed, or pulling up crabgrass seedlings. Nevertheless, it is fair to say that human civilization was built on a foundation of grass. In Mesopotamia, the ancestors of wheat were first domesticated. Rice was cultivated in Southeast Asia, and in Central America, the important grass was corn (or its ancestor). In Africa, the grass that provided needed nutrition was sugar cane. Domestication of all these crops, interestingly, occurred almost simultaneously, around 10,000 years ago. Humans have been utilizing grains for much longer, with evidence of flour production going back about 30,000 years.

Although it is theoretically possible to produce other grain crops on a small plot, the grain of most interest to backyard growers is undoubtedly corn. And we generally do not have room to produce anything but sweet corn for corn on the cob in the summer. Growing enough field corn to produce a worthwhile amount of cornmeal would be a challenge without additional space. Growing sugar cane or sorghum presents a similar problem. Except for a sweet corn patch, we won't be growing any grain crops.

While relying on commercial sources for our grain products, we nevertheless cultivate a substantial amount of grass in the form of hedges. When we first bought the house, there were two clumps of Japanese maiden grass (Miscanthus sinensis) standing sentinel at the front entrance. They were removed, divided and replanted elsewhere, mostly along the property lines, and over the intervening decade have increased in number to nearly 100 clumps. These are complemented by several clumps of pampas grass (Cortaderia selloana) here and there on the property. We love their towering plumes in autumn, and in spring before we harvest the plumes, they are much appreciated by nest-building birds as a source of lining material. Neither of these grasses sets viable seed in our climate. Over the course of ten years, we have discovered perhaps 20 Miscanthus seedlings and no Cortaderia. Given the large number of plants and the potential for seed production each plant offers, the number of Miscanthus seedlings is trivial. The plant is unlikely to become a pest, unless of course the climate gets a bit warmer.

In late January or February each year, it is necessary to cut the clumps of maiden grass to a height of about 18 inches. Trimming mimics the effects of dry season wildfires, removing old growth the make way for the new shoots pushing up in spring. In the case of the pampas grass, such pruning sets the plants back and prevents blooming the following season, so we now remove only the plumes. Our signal when the time has arrived to do this is that the plant begins to drop the plumes of its own accord. It is also worth mentioning that the blades of pampas grass have sharp, serrated edges, making it an excellent, nearly impenetrable hedge, but requiring caution and protective clothing when working with the plants.

Pampas grass plumes make excellent tinder for starting a fire. Most of the maiden grass we harvest we save as hay. Hay has multiple uses in a food garden. It provides a clean, weed-free source of mulch, and can easily be chopped into small pieces with a lawn mower to incorporate into the soil or compost. We constructed a holding bin out of pressure-treated deck railing to contain a supply of hay for adding to the composter. (Generally, when you add an inch of kitchen scraps, you should add a couple of inches of loose, dry material to your compost.)

We would encourage anyone with sufficient space to add a row of two maiden grass to the garden. The same plant can provide a privacy screen, a windbreak, a fall display and a supply of hay, depending upon the season. While it thrives on moisture and rich soil, maiden grass is adaptable and, once established, drought tolerant. Numerous cultivars are available, too. We like 'Zebrinus' which grows to about eight feet in height and has lime green stems with yellow markings. Importantly, maiden grass does not produce runners, forming only clumps that increase in diameter with each season's passing. It can therefore be grown in close proximity to crops without concerns about invasiveness.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Notes on Growing Ginger

I have made an interesting observation this season regarding ginger. Back in November, I was excited to find fresh ginger root in the local market. The source was identified as “Mobile, AL.” I grabbed a piece and a couple of days later planted it in a pot. I blogged about it here.

Unfortunately, within about a month that piece of ginger root had rotted in the pot. The holiday season was in full swing, and I did not think about ginger again until January. I bought another piece of root, this time at my local supermarket. My best guess for the source is Hawaii. Unlike the fresh ginger, which has pale yellow skin with deep purple markings (see image at left), this was an older, drier rhizome, with the more familiar brown skin. Nevertheless, I could see several pale green “eyes” telling me it was still very much alive. I planted it in the same pot as the previous specimen, on January 5, 2013. Today I noticed the first green shoot protruding above the soil line.

One would have thought the much fresher specimen from Alabama would have been the better bet, but it occurred to me that ginger typically goes through a dormant period at the end of the growing season, which corresponds to the dry season in its native habitat. The rhizomes need a cool, dry rest period in order to resume growth when water is again available. I should have left the fresh ginger on the shelf for a few weeks before planting. A dry rest would also have allowed the skin to toughen, reducing the likelihood of access to rot-causing bacteria. I’m guessing the Hawaiian product was dug in September and allowed to cure in order to enhance its keeping qualities. 

It is also possible the first batch of ginger was exposed to temperatures too cold for survival. Ginger, like onions, stores best under dry and cool, but not frigid, conditions.

Whatever the reason for my original failure, if you’ve had a similar experience, now is the time to try, try again. We should still be able to get a decent crop before next fall if rhizomes are started indoors now.  But time is, of course, running out.

February Planting Tips
Before we know it, it will be time to plant peas. I absolutely adore sugar snap peas, and typically eat about half of them right off the vine. One planting with good care will produce an abundance of delicious pods for several weeks in late spring. Look for the traditional 'Sugar Snap' for best flavor. The vines grow really tall, so be sure to provide a suitable trellis. Peas climb with tendrils, and like relatively narrow supports, a quarter inch or less in diameter. Trellises made of string or wire work best. A trellis net with 6-inch openings works well. You can find nylon ones at most garden centers, or you can order a jute trellis online from Gardener's Supply. The advantage of the jute is that it can be cut down and composted at the end of the season. The alternative is tediously removing the plants from the nylon trellis without snapping one of the strands. If you are up to that task, however, the nylon will last several seasons.

Mid-February is also the time to plant beets, chard, carrots, onions and brassica transplants in Zone 7. If you live in Zone 6, wait a couple of weeks longer.

Asparagus crowns should also be planted in February. This ancient and delicious crop needs deep, rich, well-drained soil in full sun. Look for an all male variety to avoid seedlings, which can crowd out their parents. Because they invest no energy in seed production, male plants yield a bigger harvest than their female counterparts. Asparagus is hardy and relatively easy to grow in east Tennessee, and I am always surprised that more people don’t try it. I am looking forward to planting our first patch this season. We have not grown asparagus for over a decade, and decided to make room in our latest landscape plan for an asparagus bed. Park Seed Company offers ‘Jersey Knight’, a hybrid, all-male cultivar with multiple disease resistance, and ‘Jersey Supreme’ a similar strain with the added benefit of rapid growth. As a rule, asparagus can be harvested during the third spring from planting. Jersey Supreme can be harvested a year earlier, and so is the best choice for the impatient gardener. Plant this season, harvest in 2014 and thereafter.

You can find a complete vegetable planting schedule for Zones 5 through 8, by yours truly, in the February issue of Tennessee Gardener magazine.