Sunday, July 27, 2014

Our Living Deck Canopy

Way back in 2011, we bought one of those deck canopies with the nylon roof and mosquito netting all around from a big box retailer for whom one of us worked at the time. With employee and other discounts, I think the cost was about $200. The very first winter, we left the nylon roof in place and it was destroyed by snow load. Such is life. We should have taken it down, as the instructions warned us.

So the following year, we searched and searched and searched for the replacement roof. We still had the mosquito netting curtains, and we were certainly not going to toss out the steel frame. We managed to find a less-than-satisfactory replacement roof. It fit, kind of, and would keep us from getting wet. Trouble is, the replacement roof was not treated to withstand ultraviolet light, as the first one had been. Thus, by fall, it was looking faded and had begun to develop small tears here and there. We had to toss it, and by this time the cats had taken a toll on the curtains, too We were left with only the black steel skeleton. We tried hanging baskets and shelves full of potted plants during 2013, and darn near ruined our deck with all the watering and fertilizer.

Faced with the prospect of having to dismantle and discard the entire thing, we decided to give it one last chance. Jerry made a string trellis by attaching sisal twine to the edges of the deck, and running it up to the top of the canopy frame. He also criss-crossed the roof supports with twine. This was done back in April. As soon as the weather was warm and settled, in early May, I planted seeds of two types of gourds in the soil at the edges of the deck. Along one side I planted three hills of "martin" gourds. These make a pear-shaped fruit just right for conversion to a purple martin house by cutting a hole in one side. Along the other side, I placed two hills of luffa gourds. These are the source of the all-natural luffa bath "sponge."  The accompanying photos show the "roof" from above and below, last Friday. The foliage is dense enough to prevent light rain from hitting us, and the shade is dense, cool and perfect for the miserable, muggy July weather around here. You can see, if you look closely, that fruits are beginning to form. They will hang down inside the canopy like Chinese lanterns. So far, we have had no luffa gourds, although their bright yellow male flowers have appeared in abundance. As you can see from the photo, the martin gourd flowers are white. The majority of the flowers open at night, leading us to suspect they are pollinated by moths, as well as the small bees we see on them during the daytime.

The gourds have made such an interesting and beautiful canopy, we plan to try other vines next year. It would be unwise to grow gourds repeatedly in the same spot, so next year we will try runner beans and/or hyacinth beans, to help restore the soil fertility. Gourds need heat, water, and rich soil to create that huge mass of foliage. For the earliest possible start on the season, plant the seeds indoors in peat pots. They will need about 30 days after germination to get large enough to transplant. The plants should go in the ground in early to mid-May, when the soil is warm and the weather is settled. Leave them until frost kills the vines, at which time the ripened gourds can be harvested. Martin gourds will keep all winter in a warm, dry location, and can be used for all sorts of craft projects, not just birdhouses.

We are learning about luffa and will have more to day about this gourd as our experience increases.

One of the best things about this canopy is the cost. The ill-fitting replaccement roof we ordered was about $75. Two packets of gourd seed set us back less than three bucks, and I still have seeds left for next year.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Rain, Finally

Finally! Some serious rain. According to the National Weather Service, our area has had a deficit of about six inches for the year. It appears we may be on track to make up much of that deficit during the current rain event. This could not have come at a better time for many crops, such as cucumbers, melons, and squash. These vegetables are about 90 percent water, so having enough soil moisture as the fruits are maturing is important.

The downside of the rain is the greater tendency for many of our warm weather crops to develop problems with fungal disease. Cloudy, wet weather favors mildew, blights, and other problems. If plants have been spaced properly to allow for good air circulation, you have the best defense against these problems. We can also hope that the rain will let up for a while and a period of sunshine will ensue. This is the ideal situation, allowing foliage to dry off and the pace of photosynthesis to increase.

From now until about the end of August, vegetable gardens around the region should be at their peak of variety, abundance and flavor. If you plan on doing some home canning with produce from the farmer's market, this is a great time to stock up. We have regional markets every day of the week, and the big market in Knoxville takes place on Wednesdays and Saturdays at Market Square.

Backyard gardeners will be harvesting everything from late beets to early corn. Just about the only crop that won't be ready yet is okra, which usually waits until August to make its debut. We have had great success with heat tolerant lettuce varieties this year, and as a result we still have a couple of heads in the refrigerator for dressing sandwiches. Having lettuce past the Fourth of July has been a real treat. In case you missed the earlier post, the variety we like best is 'Jericho.' It is sort of a cross between romaine and butterhead, and remains sweet and tender despite the punishing heat we had in early July. We will definitely plant more of this one next year.

As long as the rain hold up, about the only chore you have in the garden at this time of year is weeding, which the rain actually facilitates.

And don't forget, it's time to start thinking about fall planting. If you intend on growing cabbage, broccoli or another member of that group, July 20 is the date for starting seeds. This gives you plants ready for the garden by August 20, and allows 90 days of growth before the first freeze, expected around November 20. The average first frost date for this area is October 20, so frost-tender crops will need to mature in under 90 days if they are planted now. Cucumbers and summer squash are a possibility. Virtually all the cool season crops can be planted between now and August 20. Top choices are beets, carrots, leeks, peas, and turnips. Fast maturing leafy greens, such as spinach and mustards, should wait until mid-August or the seedlings may die from summer heat.