Friday, November 23, 2007

Thanksgiving Snow on the Cabbages

Here in Kentucky, we got to enjoy a few Thanksgiving snow flurries. For many, it put them into the Christmas spirit and made them want to go shopping early on "Black Friday". For me, it made me want to go see how the garden is doing. While the masses were up early fighting the crowds at the stores, I was taking these pictures of the snow on our cabbages.

Now that it is getting colder, I wish I would have made the cold frames that I planned to. With the aid of cold frames, you can grow keep the garden growing practically all year long. I plan to build many coldframes this winter and be ready to use them for early spring sowing. I will let you know when those are built.

Without the cold frames, I still have broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts and carrots in the garden. Of course, my main crop is still compost.

This pile below has cooled off and is ready to be turned. It is easy to tell since the snow that fell on it didn't melt.

See how the snow didn't stick to the top of this pile:

That's because the top of this pile is made of used bedding from our Guinea Pigs and what's left of the jack-o-lanterns. Both are decaying rapidly and are still warm.

I hope to make another sizable compost pile soon. I have plenty of brown material available and since it hasn't been very cold here for very long, green grass is also still available. If I bag up some grass and mix it with leaves and dead garden plant material, I will have a really hot compost pile in which no snow will stick.

I doubt I'll get that accomplished this weekend. I plan to spend what's left of Thanksgiving weekend with my family actually being thankful for all we have but do not deserve. As for Christmas shopping, I'll do my part by staying out of the way of those frantic shoppers!

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

When is the best time to add compost to your garden?

I don't think I've ever really thought about whether there are good or bad times of the year to add compost to the garden - until this past weekend. I have always focused on how great fresh "home-made" compost is for an organic garden and just added it whenever it became available.

This weekend I was delighted to find that I had a lot of compost ready so I began top dressing some of my garden beds. Much of my pile behind the garden had fully broken down and the batch of organic matter that I put in my new compost tumbler at the beginning of the season was completely ready!

As I happily added my new compost to the garden, I started wondering if I'd be better served to wait until Spring to add it. That way it would still be "fresh" when the tender new plants were ready to be fed. What do you think? Does it matter when you add the compost as long as you do add it? This may be a stupid question, or maybe everyone but me already knows the answer, but here are my initial thoughts:

1. If you garden in raised beds it is okay to add compost anytime, but if your garden is just a flat "field", the nutrients may be leeched away if you add it too soon.

2. If the compost is not fully decomposed you should NOT add it when you plant new young plants because many of the nutrients are "locked up" during the decomposition period and therefore will not be helping the plants.

Are these crazy thoughts? I'm really not sure where I got these ideas and began to ponder it while working in the garden. Sometimes the peace and solitude you get while in the garden can do that. I know this post is a bit unusual but help me out. Any fellow composters out there? Are there right and wrong times to add the wonderful stuff to your garden?

Friday, November 9, 2007

Where do you put your compost piles?

My garden currently contains only a few brassicas and greens but the main crop in my Fall garden is always compost!

I know that compost is not a flower or a vegetable but I think of it as a crop because it is sooooo important to the life of all the other plants.

I could write a whole post (and probably should) on why compost is so vital to the organic garden, but this post is about placement of the compost piles. I always used to keep my compost bins and piles hidden out of site behind the garden. This works fine, but I have had occasion over the years where I would move the pile from one spot to another. I noticed that if I let grass grow over the spot where a compost pile used to be that it would grow three times faster and lusher. This obviously means that the ground under a compost pile also benefits from the compost.

With this in mind, I now locate Fall compost piles IN the garden. This year when I re-organized my garden beds, I purposely made the interior beds four foot square so I could easily convert those beds to compost piles in the off season. Those beds are also easier to plant intensively and successively a la Mel Bartholomew's Square Foot Gardening.

All I do is drive either metal or wood posts in the corners and wrap chicken wire around the posts.

As I clean up all the garden debris, it goes into these new bins. I also put in shredded leaves and some grass clippings to get the piles heated up.

I will turn the piles a few times and by the Spring The debris will be "black gold", and the beds will be revitalized! I am even considering rotating these compost bins throughout the garden beds during the growing season when the organic matter is so plentiful. In past years I still had the bins off to the side or used my tumbler in the Spring and Summer.

As for right now, I'm very glad that it finally rained enough that the grass turned green and started growing. I now can bag my organic grass clippings to add plenty or nitrogen to the piles. As for the carbons, I can add leaves. I too am a thief of other people's bagged leaves when they put them out for the garbage. I enjoyed Tracey's post about hoarding other people's leaves for composting. The only problem with that is that sometimes you get more garbage in the bag than leaves. On my last raid I mistakenly got six bags of pine needles instead of leaves.

I still added a small layer of them to the piles but the rest will become mulch for my blueberries.

Isn't it amazing that people throw stuff like that away? Not me, I'm always looking for more compost ingredients!

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Odd sandwich and late season tomatoes!

Earlier in the month, I had the best tasting and strangest looking BLT ever!

Yes those are green tomatoes, but they are ripe tomatoes. They are slices from the heirloom tomato, Aunt Ruby's German Green and they were delicious! This was the first year for me growing this variety, and it has earned itself a spot in next year's lineup! This first year was hard for me since I never knew when the tomatoes were ripe. I kept waiting too long to pick them and the raccoons and groundhog would get them instead. Finally I was able to harvest some late in the season and made these funny looking but great tasting BLT sandwiches.

The weather has been unusual all of 2007. January and February were warm but then we had a record cold March and April with much snowfall. Since then we've had the worst drought in my lifetime and the hottest Summer and Fall. It was difficult to keep the garden watered, but the tomato plants that made it have still been giving me ripe tomatoes even in October! Here is my most recent Fall tomato assortment:

These are slices from three of my heirlooms; Caspian Pink, Black Krim, and Aunt Ruby's German Green. I planted many heirloom tomatoes this year but not all of them did well. Soon I will post a 2007 report card for each veggie variety I grew. A tomato that I know will get a positive grade is my extra-early Early Girl tomato. Not only did I pick the first ripe tomato on June 15th, but these plants kept producing all year. Today, on October 21st, I was able to pick a few last Early Girls!

Thats over four full months of Early Girl Tomato picking! Maybe I even could have gotten more since frost is still not in the 10-day forecast. The only reason October 21st is the last official day is because I worked in the garden today and cleared out all of the tomato plants. I also built a makeshift compost bin and planted garlic and Kenny's Potato Onions today. I will tell you more about all of that in other posts this week. For now, I am just happy to be back in the garden and back to blogging.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Organic Gardening Techniques Don't Always Work

I have not written about garden insects much this year like I did last year. Largely it is because last year's menaces did not repeat this year. I guess the Tomato Hornworms really were killed by the braconid wasps and the Blister Beetles really were chased away by their dislike of the horseradish plants. In both cases nature ran its course and I benefited from natural organic remedies without using any unnatural chemicals or poisons.

I really do believe in gardening organically. There is no room in my garden for chemical pesticides or fertilizers - Period. However, I'm not one to preach about it and I don't pretend that if you stay organic you will never have any problems. Sometimes it is quite the opposite and you have to be willing to lose an entire crop at times. That was the story this year with my broccoli.

Cabbage worms by the dozens destroyed all of my Spring broccoli, and it looks like my Fall broccoli will suffer the same fate. We only planted two plants this spring since we had so much last year that we couldn't eat it all. Since there were only two plants, I thought I could control the worms by hand-picking every day. After all, if you've ever looked up what to do about insects in an organic gardening book, most of the time it says to simply had pick them and destroy. This seemed easy at first because many of the worms are large and easy to see.

Of course, hand picking them all is easier said than done! The problem is that they start out so small and grow so fast. They are also very good at hiding right in front of you. Here's an example; how many cabbage worms do you think are on these two plants?

Would you believe 15? I know that it is too hard to tell from a little picture so lets zoom in and look at only 1 plant.

Now how many do you see? Seven, right? Does this help you see them?

And this picture was taken after I had already removed five or six worms! I thought I was finished until I looked closer.

Notice that I'm counting one that I already squashed on the raised bed wood on the lower left. I know it is a bit gross to discuss, but it was very interesting to see what happened when I distingished the worms in this way. As soon as I would kill a worm on the wood, an ant would come along and take the body.

It was fascinating to watch. Every cabbage worm carcass was dutifully carried away, each by a single ant.

That is a good illustration as to why I don't want to spray poisons on the plants to kill the pest insects. In this case, the spray would have killed these ants too. Chemical pesticides are not only bad for us to consume, but they kill or drive away earthworms and beneficial insects. To me, even though I lost this battle and got no fresh broccoli, it is worth it to maintain a safe and healthy soil and micro-climate.

As for the Fall broccoli, they too are infested with cabbage worms. Usually Fall broccoli is safe from the cabbage butterfly and worm but this year it is still hot in October - a record high 90 degrees as I write this! Next year I will cover all of my brassicas with poly-spun row covers to keep out the butterflies. This year I will continue to fight a losing battle and keep hand-picking the worms. At least it feeds the ants I guess.

It's really too bad that I have to kill these worms. They are actually kind of cute.

What am I saying?! They are garden pests and they are killing MY organic broccoli! That is a punishable offense indeed.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Finally working outside again

It has been difficult getting things done at work since I was off so much because of my dad. I still haven't been able to work much in the garden, but I finally did get to work outside this weekend. Instead of working in the garden though, my family and I worked in the woods behind our yard. We had to do this because during the week when I was going back and forth to the hospice unit, the electric company decided that they needed to upgrade the power lines that go through there. They had some of our trees cut down and many more trees trimmed. Unfortunately they left ALL of the debris for us to deal with. We finally started cleaning it up.

I used the chainsaw to cut the big pieces to be split later and cut up the limbs to carry out. My wife and daughters also carried out limbs and smaller logs. What made this difficult is that the whole wooded area is a pretty steep hill and the downed trees are at the bottom, next to the creek. We planned to use our chipper/shredder to mulch up all of the branches, but we discovered that we have a lot of branches that are too big for it.

Plan B is that we need to burn much of it. We used to have a small fire ring behind the garden, but that disappeared with the garden expansion this year. We were tired of dragging out wood anyway, so we decided to carry up rocks from the creek instead - much easier, right?

After a great deal of effort, we had enough rocks to make a bigger new fire ring. We dug out a hole and built the ring. I concreted the rocks together, so this ring is a bit more permanent than our last one.

You can see the garden in the background of the above picture.

Now we just need to wait for the drought and the burn ban to end so we can have our first official camp fire in it. I can just taste the marshmallows! We still have a lot of work to do with the woods, as well as many other outdoor projects. I need to finish building the deck railings and the pergola.

As for the garden, I want to build new compost bins and cold frames and fence the garden in. Before all of that, I need to plant garlic and Kenny's Potato Onions.

Good thing we built that fire ring. To get everything done this fall, I will be needing it to stay warm because by the time I finish everything, there will be snow on the ground!

Friday, September 14, 2007

My personal Giant and Backyard Giants

I apologize that it has been three long weeks since I have blogged here or added anything to Veggie Garden Info. As some of you already knew, for the past three years my dad had been battling prostate cancer, bone cancer and eventually even brain cancer. I had to take this time off from blogging and from work to be with him in his last days. His body finally gave up the fight last Friday, September 7th.

Although he is now absent from this earth, he is present with the Lord in heaven! I rejoice in that fact but even still it has been a sad time for me and my family.

I have always looked up to my dad. Even though he wasn't much taller than me, I've always thought of him as a giant with a giant heart. He was always an avid non-fiction reader and always said that you could learn how to do anything from reading. Almost 20 years ago, I took his advice and decided to learn about something I knew nothing about - organic gardening.

My mom had introduced me to vegetable gardening as a boy, but at that time I viewed it as all work and no fun. Just after college, I began reading every gardening book the library had and then put into practice what I learned. So now, I will think of my dad when I'm out in the garden.

Speaking of the love of reading, the love of gardening and of giants - I want to mention the new book by Susan Warren called "Backyard Giants: The Passionate, Heartbreaking, and Glorious Quest to Grow the Biggest Pumpkin Ever."

I was thrilled to receive an advanced reading copy a few weeks ago to review, but I haven't been able to finish the book or to write the review yet. I love the book so far and I can't wait to learn the outcome.

I feel bad about not posting a review like I promised, so for now I will direct you to Backyard Giants reviews by some of my favorite bloggers: Michelle at My Grandpa's Garden Stuart at Gardening Tips 'n' Ideas Steven at Dirt Sun Rain Emma at Garden-Ideas Colleen at In The Garden Online Hannah at This Garden is Illegal Genie at The Inadvertent Gardener Carol at May Dreams Gardens (Her comments about the book are at the end of this post)

Kenny from Veggie Gardening Tips went one step further and actually had the author, Susan Warren, as a guest writer. She discusses her own attempt to grow giant pumpkins.

I look forward to finishing the book. Pumpkins of any size are indeed fun! I think my pumpkins are too far behind thanks to my groundhog (still at large, by the way). Even though I probably won't get ripe pumpkins this year, I am enjoying the big blooms - the only thing blooming right now.

Thank you to all of you who have been worrying about me in my absence. Special thanks to Kenny, Curtis and Emma for the emails (which I have just got).

I will try to get back to posting regularly and managing Veggie Garden Info as well. It is still difficult to focus on things other than family right now, so bear with me if I'm slow in getting back to it. :)

Friday, August 24, 2007

Now it's personal; Waging war on the groundhog!

I was feeling sorry for the groundhog because of the drought and heatwave that we are suffering with. There is very little water or food available in the wild. I had almost even forgiven him for eating all of our bean leaves, all of the cucumber leaves, some tomatoes and zucchini and all of the zucchini leaves. But now he has gone too far. He has crossed the line! He has begun eating my beautiful pumpkin plants!

Come on Mr. Woodchuck, at least let a man grow some big pumpkins for his children to enjoy at Halloween. I haven't even gotten around to putting a post on about the pumpkins.

I purposely started them late so they wouldn't get too big too soon. They are at the end of the garden and I am letting them grow out onto old carpet and tarps.

Things were growing along great and we had a dozen or so baby pumpkins.

Many of them had grown much bigger that that photo, but now Mr. Groundhog has eaten them and some of the leaves! It's time to declare war. My Have-a-heart trap was loaned to my in laws and I am getting it back tomorrow night. At the rate the groundhog is going though, that's too long to wait.

Sometimes a gardener has got to do what a gardener has got to do. I must sit out in the garden all night and all day tomorrow and make sure the groundhog doesn't eat anything else!

Of course I can't really do that, so my daughters and I whipped up a quick likeness of me, set it next to the pumpkins with a 24-hour-a-day talk radio station loudly playing. My wife added soap to the scarecrow to add more "human smell". I hope it works.

Tomorrow night we will set the Have-a-heart trap and hopefully on Sunday Mr. Groundhog and I will take a nice long drive to his new home.

Get ready Mr. Hog, soon it will be moving day!

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

More Garden Destruction; The Culprit?

More and more of my beloved veggies have disappeared! The beans, sweet potatoes and cucumbers have lost ALL of their leaves. Tomatoes and zucchinis have been munched, along with all of the watermelons and cantaloupe. The only thing that hasn't been eaten is the squash from my last post!

I correctly blamed the melon destruction on the raccoons, but now I know that THIS is who ate the rest!

In this picture, he is eating clover but I can safely say that a groundhog's favorite food is anything from the vegetable garden! From the looks of the one we saw in our garden, they can get pretty fat on veggies!

This weekend we were making more salsa and needed a few more tomatoes to finish the batch. So my daughter and I walked up to the garden to pick some where we saw the fattest groundhog of all time finishing off the last of the bean leaves.

"Hey! What are you doing? Get out of here!" I yelled at him. He seemed to understand me perfectly and ran as fast as his little legs could take his big fat body in to the woods.

I don't usually talk to (or yell at) animals like this. Groundhogs are easy to talk to I guess. Now I understand the post that Kenny from Veggie Gardening Tips wrote about his groundhog. It is titled Conversations with a Woodchuck, and is one of the funniest bit of writing I've seen in a while.

Kenny caught his culprit. I hope I can do the same!

Thursday, August 16, 2007

What kind of squash is this?

One of the things that I listed on my 2007 Garden To Do List was to grow some vegetables that I haven't grown before. One such veggie was sweet potatoes which got destroyed by the critters. Another new addition was supposed to be spaghetti squash. I had planned on starting the seeds indoors under lights but unfortunately I never got around to doing it. Moving to plan B, I bought a container of spaghetti squash at the garden center which had two plants in it. They have been the biggest and healthiest plants in the garden and I thought all was well. We began finding recipes for cooking it and was excited to see if it actually looked like spaghetti. Once the fruits started to develop, I noticed that something was terribly wrong. These aren't spaghetti squash plants! I can't even figure out what kind of squash this is.

I also don't know when they should be picked. Here is one that I picked small shown next to the spaghetti squash tag that came in the pot. It is obviously NOT going to change into the squash pictured.

I thought maybe it was a Patty Pan squash, so I bought one at the Farmers' Market to compare to.

Similar, but not as flat and wrong color. These pictures were taken a month ago and I have left more squashes on the vine to see if they change color. They have stayed green and just grown larger.

This is just another reason why it is better to start your own seeds instead of trusting plants from a garden center.

So please, if any of you recognize this squash, I would love to know what its name is and what to do with it. Even if you just have a guess I would love to hear from you.

Thanks in advance!

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