Saturday, May 30, 2015

Reverse Season Gardening

We have undertaken a new project after enjoying the Memorial Day weekend away from the computer. I have previously alluded to the idea of "reverse season" gardening, that is, growing veggies and herbs that would normally be cool season crops during the warm season. This is accomplished by moving the plants indoors, where the air conditioning keeps temperatures pleasant, and utilizing the same lighting system that we have used earlier in the season for starting plants and producing a few winter crops.

Anyone who uses artificial lighting for growing during the cold days of January and February can get extra use out of their indoor garden by using it as additional growing space in the summertime.

On May 27, we seeded a rectangular plastic planter box with 'Atlas' carrots and 'Cherry Belle' radishes. The carrot strain produces roots about the size of a golf ball, while the radish is harvested with roots the size and color of a Bing cherry. Both are great choices for container growing. We have grown 'Cherry Belle' from several sources and prefer the seed we obtained from our own Mayo Seed Company in Knoxville.

Carrots and radishes are good container companions because their maturity times and other characteristics are complementary. The radishes germinate quickly and will be ready to harvest a month later, at which time the carrots will be large enough to thin, as they will have taken up to three weeks to germinate.

We will keep you posted on this and other container gardening adventures this summer.

Monday, May 18, 2015

The Long Hot Summer

Campaigning for the 2016 presidential nomination has already begun. Most of the interest has been directed toward the Republican Party, which is on track to field some three dozen potential candidates. Over on the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton looks more inevitable as each day goes by.

It should hardly be necessary to point out that this is an extremely important election for those of us who are concerned about sustainability. Although the Clean Air Act and Endangered Species Act were championed by Republicans, most of us realize that today's Republican party is a far cry from what it was in the 1970s.

The most distinctive characteristic of the current GOP is its near-total abandonment of respect for science and scientific inquiry. Climate change is the most egregious case, with creepy James Imhofe leading the Senate committte with the greatest power to influence American climate policy. Imhofe is among those who claim climate change is an organized scientific hoax. (He obviously has little acquaintance with actual scientists, who are less easily herded than cats.) No surprise that he represents a state where fossil fuels fuel the economy.

And this is the problem to which I have previously alluded. Taking your own bags to the grocery and recycling your aluminum cans will not save our planet. The real problems are far more fundamental, and are grounded in our resistance to adopt new ways of doing things. It has certainly not helped that vested financial interests have done everything possible to thwart environmental activists, even as many large corporations spend money to preserve wildlife habitat, promote ecological research, and so forth. All the while, fracking wells continue to sprout, research on battery technology limps along with a few hundred millions in private capital, the Antarctic ice sheet continues to melt, and species continue to slip toward extinction at  rate unprecedented across geologic time.

My point is not that we should stop recycling or taking our own bags to the grocery. Rather, we must not allow the "feel good" aspect of these actions to blind us to the real problems: our overconsumption of fossil fuels, our seeming indifference to obvious and growing ecological problems, and the unfortunate willingness on the part of too many Americans to reject the advice of our best scientific minds. And all of this, most unfortunately, is encouraged on a daily basis by conservative politicians and the right wing echo chamber that now passes for "news media."

It is going to be a long, hot summer.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Time to Plant Summer Vegetables

Mother's Day marks the beginning of the traditional time for planting summer vegetables here in the Valley. All of the favorite summer crops can go in now, although in a couple of cases it is better to wait until the end of the month. Here's the rundown:

Tomatoes
Without a doubt, tomatoes are the most popular backyard vegetable crop. You can find a variety of tomato to meet just about any gardening situation, so there is little excuse not to grow them. We have Tiny Tim, which only reaches about 8 inches in height, just for fun, and Marglobe, an older and reliable cultivar, just for canning. Marglobe is a determinate type, meaning it grows to about five feet tall and then stops, bearing most of its fruit over a short season. This facilitates having a large amount on hand at canning time.

Tomatoes need even moisture, well-drained soil, and a four inch mulch. The biggest problem is foliar diseases. Either grow resistant varieties, or grow your tomatoes in straw bales if you want to grow non-resistant heirlooms like Cherokee Purple and Brandywine. Feed tomatoes at transplant time with a balanced organic fertilizer, but withold fertilizer when blooms appear or you will reduce the crop.

Corn
"Knee high by the Fourth of July" is the goal of the corn grower. Plenty of sunshine, nitrogen and water are needed to achieve that goal. Corn is among the least productive of backyard crops, but the flavor of freshly picked roasting ears is hard to beat.

Plant corn in blocks rather than rows to facilitate pollination. Give it at least an inch of water weekly if rainfall is insufficient. Feed corn with a high-nitrogen fertilizer, such as cottonseed meal, when it is 6 inches tall and again about every two weeks until tassels appear.

Cucurbits
Cucumbers, squash and melons may all be planted now, although melons and winter squash may not grow very rapidly until nighttime temperatures are quite warm. All these vegetables are subject to foliar disease problems. Grow resistant varieties, keep them mulched to prevent soil from reaching the foliage, and make sure the plants have good air circulation around them. Growing cucurbits on a trellis results in fewer problems with foliar disease.

Summer squash typically do not climb, and their primary enemy is the squash vine borer. The only sure way to prevent an attack by this pest is to keep the plants covered with fabric until flowers appear. Insect barrier fabric is available at most garden centers.

Beans
Continue planting beans every two weeks if you want a steady supply. Bush beans are easier than pole beans and need no trellis. Try something different from the standard "green beans." Yellow wax beans are tender and delicious, and filet beans are ideal for quick cooking. Big, flat Italian beans have rich flavor and are better for long-cooked bean dishes. With so many types to choose from, you should be able to have beans on a regular basis without getting tired of them.

Blue Lake beans, although certainly an older cultivar, were developed with the needs of commercial harvesting equipment in mind. They are stringier, and tougher, than many other beans. They tend to appear on numerous seed racks, probably because they are produced in huge quantities, but they are not the best bean for home growers.

Okra and Sweet Potatoes
These two Southern favorites can be planted together. Neither needs especially rich soil, and the potatoes provide a good mulch over the roots of the okra. Plant them any time between now and the middle of June.

Peppers
All types of peppers can be planted now. They need the same attention as tomatoes, and should be planted in blocks of four plants. Doing so keeps the humidity high around the leaves, a condition that peppers thrive upon. Most pepper varieties avoid the foliar disease problems that plague tomatoes, and are thus among the easiest and most productive of summer vegetable crops. The do need heat, however, so later plantings will have the best chance of success. Transplant peppers any time between now and the end of June.

Many thanks to everyone who came by our tent at UT Gardens' Bloomsdays event last Saturday. We had a wonderful time and answered a ton of questions for aspiring backyard farmers. It is very encouraging to see so many people taking an interest in growing food.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Container Vegetable Gardening

Growing food in containers is becoming commonplace. From a collection of potted herbs decorating a patio to hydroponic indoor gardens under artificial light, container food production offers several benefits over traditional, in-ground gardening. But first, consider the drawbacks.

Plants in containers need more attention than those in the ground. Containers dry out rapidly, and frequent watering washes out nutrients that plants need to grow. Thus, container vegetable gardens need daily watering and bi-weekly fertilization. Weekly fertilization may be needed for fast-growing greens that are harvested more than once.

The size of any container limits the root space available to the plants. For vegetables with vigorous root systems, containers of at least five gallons capacity are needed for reasonable production.

Despite these issues, container gardens flourish on patios, kitchen counters and decks. Container gardens are mobile. They can be moved indoors or out to take advantage of weather conditions. They can also be moved around during the season to accommodate changing patterns of sun and shadow.

Container-grown vegetables remain cleaner and seldom require as much effort to wash as soil-grown crops do. The image shows the arugula harvest from one 4-inch square container grown under LED lights.

Well-tended container gardens rarely have pests, as the plants are under minimal stress.

Because container vegetables are typically grown in a soil-less sterile potting mix, soil borne diseases and insects are eliminated.

Once you start looking, you will find that numerous compact or dwarf varieties of vegetables exist, and more seem to be appearing every year. A few examples: Tom Thumb snow peas, Tiny Tim tomato, Tumblin' Tom tomato, Cayenetta hot pepper, Atlas carrots, Cherry Belle radish, Tom Thumb lettuce, Bush Spicy Globe basil, Boxwood basil, Patio tomato, On Deck sweet corn, Rougette de Montpelier lettuce, and many more. Add these to the various herbs and veggies that are normally small enough for pots, such as corn salad, scallions, and curly parsley, and you have the makings of a sensational vegetable garden that can be accommodated on a table top.

Growing in containers also means that plants will likely be close at hand when you are cooking. Including perfectly grown vegetables and herbs in your kitchen creations becomes almost effortless, and it does not get any fresher than "picked five minutes ago."

This year, we are trying something different with our indoor garden. During winter and early spring, we grew a variety of greens and herbs in plastic planters illuminated with a high-output LED light. It recently occurred to us, as the cool spring season is beginning to wind down, that we could use this growing system during hot weather to produce cool season veggies indoors. We already have planters with basil, parsley, cilantro and miniature tomatoes sitting under the lights. We plan to try radishes, carrots, corn salad, spinach, and lettuce later in the season, when these crops would do poorly outdoors.

We will keep you posted on our efforts to produce cool season veggies in our indoor garden space.