Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Farming in the City

My daughter Aimee and her husband Jeremy were mentioned in this article from Minnesota:

Just in case you want to see what people are doing in other parts of the country!


Monday, May 28, 2012

Soil structure for raised beds

Topping off the raised beds (this was for peas).  I put in soil mix, added in some coir,some Miracle Grow Moisture retention mix, some fish fertilizer, and got a wonderful harvest from this box...
This is a post without a lot of pictures - no matter how hard I try, pictures of soil just aren't that compelling.

But I do want to give you an idea about what you need to do to put together the optimum soil mix for your raised beds.

I came from a background of traditional gardening.  sure, I had spent years shoveling chicken and rabbit droppings from the barn to my parents compost pile, and watched my mom and dad "dig it in" in the fall.  In the spring, my dad shoveled in all his fish heads and fish guts ( kept at the ready in the freezer) to enrich the bean rows.  I didn't really know why they did this, just that you needed to if you wanted plants to grow better.

One of the reasons I chose to go with raised beds is that my parents lived in an area where there was a lot of clay in the soil.  I saw them work for over 15 years to amend that soil to get it to where it could reliably produce  vegetables without bringing in a truckload of manure ever fall and putting every dead leaf on the garden.  I didn't want to spend time doing that.

So the first year I filled the beds with soil mix from one of the local bark dust companies - ours is on Portland Road just before you turn onto Silverton Road.  I have also got bulk soil mixes from some of the local nurseries.  this is basically a good quality topsoil with compost mixed into it - and the compost comes from what plant products are collected at the local landfill.  Plants grew like crazy that first year, but perhaps just a bit more leaf then I wanted.  I knew what caused that - too much nitrogen.

In 1992, while living in Tillamook, we had one of our frequent floodings in the spring.  I worked at the time at a business across from Safeway on Hwy 101.  Safeway had just set out pallets of soil amendments - chicken and steer manure, peat moss, etc.  The flooding carried it across the highway and under our building.  Safeway wrote it off on their insurance, and didn't want to come and get under the building and haul wet, heavy bags of manure out from under our building.  So I got my older girls to help me, and we must have pulled out 25-30 bags of fertilizer from under there.  and took it home, and dug it into all the beds surrounding the house.

I had the most enormous nasturtium leaves that summer - hardly any blooms, but the leaves were as big as dinner plates.  I ask my mom, the garden expert, why the leaves were so big, but I didn't get any flowers.  she just laughed and said it was because of all the fertilizer I had put down.  Fertilizer is a good thing, but you have to have moderation.  Also, you want to make sure that you put down amendments that will cause the soil to interact with it - that will break down and cause your soil structure to improve.  You need soil that will be nutritious enough to support your plants and their needs for elements (like we need vitamins).  You need a way for soil to hold onto water and air - but not for too long - it also has to drain well - especially if you live in an area like we do where you get lots of rain.  Some of the plants I planted in nursery pots from that first year were replanted this spring - the soil was dry and extremely hard, crumbled to dust at the touch.   

You couldn't see any evidence of humus - an organic substance made up of partially or wholly decayed vegetable matter that provides nutrients for plants and increases the ability of soil to retain water.

Water flowed through these pots quickly; the drainage was too good.  So the roots didn't have time to suck up the moisture, along with the nutrients.  In the beds where I had dug in some compost I made from the first year, there was humus, along with evidence of healthy earthworm activity.  Partly the earthworms were there because of the compost that had been worked into the soil mix.  In the beds where I had put additional compost, and the worms had additional veggie matter to feed on, I had from 8 - 15 worms per cubic foot.  In the pots that I had just put soil mix in, with no additional humus, I only had 1 to 1.5 worms per cubic foot.

Why are worms important?  They improve soil sturcture, nutrient flow, organic material breakdown, and organic matter formation (worm poop - called castings).  Earthworms bring up soil from the lower depths, bringing up nutrients from below to root systems, and create paths for air and water to get to root systems.

So if you wonder if your soil is healthy, dig out a cubic foot of earth, and count how many worms you have.

Some people just buy a mix and fill their beds with that - but that is really expensive, and I don't like using a standard mix for all my raised beds.  

For the first third of each raised bed, I lay down a good quality soil mix - topsoil mixed with compost.  Before I put that down, I lay down a layer of materials that need to be composted - leaves, grass, etc. Next two-thirds is soil mixed with a soil amendment like peat moss or coir, into which I have mixed one bag of Miracle Grow with moisture retention beads.  You can get the beads alone, which I have done in the past.  but ACE hardware had such a great buy on their Miracle Gro with the moisture retention beads, I couldn't pass it up.  Over time earthworms will break down the compost materials at the bottom and recycle those nutrients to the top layers.  The bed becomes a dynamic system, as through time you add stuff at the top, and earthworms breakdown those nutrients and cycle them through the bed.

And going forward, I will tell you that I switched over to using Coir about two years ago, instead of peat moss - more on that later.

For my seed starts this year, I mixed my garden soil with Moisture Control, and then some organic compost from FoxFarm - I mixed this in with my garden soil and then sprinkled the surface with coir - and then mixed it all together.  I used this for all my planting medium for seed trays - and for putting over the surface of fine seeds (like lettuce and radishes) and pressing lightly down.

Three soils to mix - regular garden soil, Miracle grow ( on left) and FoxFarm mushroom compost.  Mixed this all together, sprinkled on some coir dust, and this was my potting mix for early peas, romaine, spinach, etc.

For tomatoes, it was important to have a rich soil, high in calcium (to stop blossom end drop), one that would retain water, but also soak up water quickly, and drain well so the roots were not sitting in water.  This is not a natural soil - you have to concoct this soil out of what you have on hand and what amendments you can get.

What type of soil mix you make will depend on what you are growing.  for instance, I have an area in my yard where some day I hope to plant some native plants - some need a mulch that is made up of decomposed tree bark and woody plant debris.  I am saving all that type of material in one pile in the back and letting it slowly decompose - knowing that it will be there for me when I need it.  In the beds where I have plants that can handle the extra nitrogen and higher fertilizer content, I put more compost.  In the areas where I don't want to high nitrogen content to limit my fruit yield, I make sure I mix in more coir to help neutralize the excess nitrogen.

So what is coir?  I can start answering that by explaining why I no longer use peat moss.  

It would take too long to repeat what others have said more eloquently about why using peat moss is a bad idea, so here is a link to one of the "rants" about using peat moss:

Basically, Peat Moss is not a renewable resource
Once dry, it doesn't really absorb water again, making it undesirable as a soil amendment
It breaks down too fast, packing in those small spaces and making it difficult for plants to get air.
"mining" of it is ruining whole ecosystems and wetlands - do you want to be part of that?

So, what else can you use?  For years, I bought bales of hay, shredded them, put them through my leaf shredder and created a mix of dry fluffy stuff that I mixed with soil mix to lighten the soil, put organic matter into it, etc.  but this wasn't a great answer.  I got a lot of hay seeds mixed in there and spent a lot of time pulling grass seeds out of the garden.  And when it started breaking down, it just added nitrogen to the mix. 

I found the answer a couple years ago when cleaning up in the fall, and I had to do something with the coconut fiber mats that lined all my trough and hanging planters.  I paid good money for those, and didn't just want to toss them.  So  shredded them up with a scissors, and made up a soil mix for some pots I was going to use for overwintering some plants.  Six months later I was impressed.  Impressed with the health of my plants, the soil structure, the earth worm presence.  I set out to find some soil amendment that had coconut husk in it.  Fortunately, someone else had this brilliant idea also and it was there in the marketplace waiting for me.  

I have used a couple of different brands that I have found in different gardening centers, but the one I am currently using is:  Du Shoup LLC's i-Coir Coconut Coir Pith, and I get it in the large block.  Here is their website and you can access information on Coir, Coir vs Peat Moss, and also where you can buy it in the Northwest:  (They also belong to the Oregon Association of Nurseries, so I am supporting a local business).

I bought mine at Ace Hardware on Madrona in South Salem.  It was a lifesaver for me.  I didn't finish getting all the soil out of the back of my truck when we had a thunderstorm last friday night.  My truck bed was full of mud and water.  I unwrapped the brick of coir, put it in the middle of the mess, pulled mud around it, and within an hour, the coir was expanding, pulling the water from the soil.  two hours later I was able to mix the coir in with what had been mud, but was now workable soil.  I mixed it all up, and had some great soil mix to help re-pot my 3-yr old grape vines.

Cosmic Coir from  I can't describe how the soil feels when you mix this with it - you just know that you are doing great things for your soil.  I know that I will water less this year then last year mixing this in - and that means less stress for my plants and higher production.

Now it may be that you don't have a lot of money - I don't either.  So pick up a block of coir a month if that is all you can do, and work as much as you can into your raised beds.  I plan on getting another 10 blocks this summer, and gradually working more into all my beds as I get done harvesting.  That, along with some finished compost, should give me excelled soil structure.

And remember, you don't need to shovel in and mix the dirt around - why disturb the worms who are doing all that hard work 24x7 for free for you? Sprinkle coir and compost, chopped straw, leaves, whatever you have to put on your beds, mix it in gently with the top couple of inches, and just let it go.  The worms will do all the rest of the work.

If you are still getting rain where you live, mixing in coir will help it become lighter and more easily worked.  Good luck in your gardening endeavors.


Sunday, May 27, 2012

Mid-Spring Garden Chores

My list of what needs to be done is so long, but with the weather we have had the last month, slowly things are getting crossed off.  High on my list end of March was getting the bean rows ready to sow:

First part of April I bought some Geraniums, and one ended up here in the planter in front of the bean house.  the other planter was snapdragons and lobelia.  Geraniums are great to have in the garden ( and by your front door) as they help to repel flies.

Yep - I am bad.  I should have pulled down the old vines last fall, but it got so cold and wet, I just got lazy.  Plus, I had to start making Christmas presents - so garden chores were last on the list.  Now here it was late March, early April, and I needed to get the bean house ready to plant!

Down came all the old vines

I'm so glad it was a sunny day when I did this.

Besides cleaning off the old vines, I had to top off the beds - it took about a yard of soil mix to do that.  I had to repair a few boards, dig out a lot of stuff, all the pot marigolds that self seeded from last year were sprouting, so I potted those in peat pots to replant on the north side.  I planted the ends that get shaded by the grapes first so they could get a head start, and tucked them in real well with row cover.

The apple tree was crazy with blooms this year - for those of you new to this blog, I planted this apple tree from a seed of a Gala in 1998.  I never expected it to ever bloom, which it did about 4 years ago.  Last year it produced a handful of apples - this year, it looks like it will produce a lot more!

Still debating on whether or not to prune out some of the apple starts - maybe thinning out some of the bunches to 2-3 per group.  Still thinking about it.

Blueberries are doing good - I was surprised because that late snow we had fell just as they were budding out.  

These are my two elderberries that I have planted so far.  I ordered a bunch of 10, and potted up the rest.  I can't plant any more till the rest of the fence is built -  but they all seem to be doing okay so far.  Next step is to get these mulched for summer to keep the moisture in.

Pyrethrum is finally blooming - snipping off the flower heads every day I can and adding them to the drying trays.  Bugs beware!

I have been tucking in different types of lavender here and there around the beds - to provide habitat for bees and just to have on hand.  I have always wanted to try lavender scones...

All the work I did in March and April in the berry patch has really paid off.  There are so many blooms on the Marionberries this year.  I couldn't walk over in that area for several weeks there were so many bees.  I even saw a raspberry yesterday that looked a couple of sunny days away from being ripe.  I am looking forward to a bumper crop of berries this year.

Ongoing project - mulching.  Every bit of cardboard I get, I lay down and cover with straw or grass clippings.  A lot of organic farmers use cardboard to control weeds between the rows, hold moisture in, and attract worms ( they love the glue in the cardboard).  So far it is working well - I have a lot less grass to deal with this year than last year.

Did I mention I am eating peas and radishes every day?

One reason I never toss out scraps of wood - these are little boxes for my acorn squash.  A couple of years ago I put plants in my onion box, and the vines went down the box and onto the grassy area between the grape arbor and the raised beds, but the vines also took over the raised beds.  This way, I have a way to keep starts safe, give them some good soil to take root in, and keep them out of my raised beds.  I put in two types of acorn squash yesterday - carnical and the Danish Green acorn squash.  I didn't get pics, because i was so tired and sore after working for two days in the garden, I could barely move.  I really hate having fibromyalgia, and often push myself too much and then I have to sit and rest.  But at least that means I have finally been able to update my blog!

The day I look forward to all year - the first bowl of strawberries from my yard.  they are not the huge, on steroids, sour ones you get from the store that are grown far south of here.  These are smaller, but sweet and delicious.  Had to run out and pick them before a thunderstorm moved into the area Friday night.  Actually, I had my first ripe strawberry a couple of days before this.  Can't wait for the raspberries!

What you don't see:

Potatoes - I have two beds, that as soon as the vines get a little height, get a straw/soil mix around them, or some chopped up hay - whatever I have handy.  Both beds are at about 3 feet right now, and ready to add another row of boards to them.

Grapes - in the middle of re-potting the table grape starts that I started in 2009.  they are doing great.  I don't think they will bear any this year, so can't sell them yet.  Maybe next year.

Almost have the fence down along the driveway - west of the tomatoes, so that I can plan my bush beans ( for dry beans).  working also on the fence along the front of the property.

And mowing what little grass I have, and working on getting the area for the chicken coop to be built ready.

So if  you don't see a posting from me for a couple of weeks, it is because I am really swamped!

Good luck in your gardening endeavors - if you have a question, ask away!  All questions do go to my email so I will try to get back to you as soon as I can.


Cucumbers - 2012

I spend a lot of time going through gardening catalogs - looking for ideas that I can adopt for my garden.  I really liked the idea of a trellis for cucumbers to grow up where the trellis is at an angle so the cukes hang down and are easier to pick.  I have always grown my cukes on a trellis, but even so, there are always a few that hide and then when you find them, they are too big to eat.  So I am trying this out for 2012, and will be interested to see how it works.  this is the bed that had the heating coil in it - so I kept that on, since cukes are warm weather plants and don't like cold roots.  Pyrethurm is in front - still waiting to bloom.  But this bed gets a lot of sun so the tallness of the plants in front shouldn't make a difference.

I added row cover to the back part to keep the heavy cold rains off the seedlings.  Had to keep the front open because the pyrethrum was growing so heavily and I just couldn't cover it up safely.  

Planting cucumber seeds - and I did buy a couple of plants just to make sure.  I don't have a picture of the seedlings, but they have about 4-6 leaves now, so are doing well.  We have had some really cold weeks since I planted them, so they are not growing really fast.  And one of the cats found a way in despite all the wrapping, because it is just so much fun to walk in all that nice soft dirt.  So a few seeds were disturbed.  But mostly they are coming along ok.

Tomatoes - 2012

If you live in the Northern United States, you are just now seriously working at getting your tomatoes in.  If you didn't grow starts from seed, you should be able to still find a good variety of starts at your local nurseries.  don't forget to check your local feed stores, as they often bring in organic, heirloom varieties just for this time of year.

Tomato Nursery - inspected by my cat Macie (this is her first year ever being outside).  I ordered a flat of Amish Paste from 13th Street Nursery - wanted to make sure I got as many as I needed.  I also bought some Sweet 100, a yellow pear, a couple of small red slicers and one heirloom I wanted to try.  I had to put them somewhere since I wasn't ready to plant them, and it was still dipping down below forty degrees in April, so put them in my future pepper bed and kept them covered.  some of the tomatoes were a bit leggy, so had to use bamboo to keep them upright.

This is the area last year where I grew corn and sunflowers - and since I put the herb bed in, all the rows were in the wrong place.  Layers of mulch from last year were in the area where I needed the raised beds to be.  So, I had to move everything.  Scrape back all the mulch I had put down, and move the dirt over some.  Added to it some fresh soil mix from my supplier, but I was worried that I was putting in too much nitrogen with all the compost that is in the soil mix, so added in some coir ( more about that latter). 

I used a 2x6 to help me line up the rows - once I had a raised row of soil mix (soil mix, coir, and bone meal mixed in) - I covered it with weed block fabric ( not the plastic stuff, but the fabric).  then I returned the mulch to between the rows.

Here I am ready to put in the next raised bed portion.  first I put down the fabric and put some mulch over it, then put down the board at the edge f where I wanted the raised bed.  When the mulch was down, I folded back the fabric over the board, and built up my raised bed, covered it with the fabric, and then put down the next row of mulch.  One of the benefits of doing this was the black fabric helped to raise the soil temperature, and while it let in some rain, the soil didn't become a quagmire of mud from all the heavy rain we were having in April.

The beds for the Amish Paste are done - and the supports are in.  (Second potato bed in upper right of photo).

This idea was from one of those aha moments that you get in the middle of the night.  I had all the short tubing left over from covering the corn last year.  I took it, sometimes cutting it up as needed, and threaded it over the supports for the tomatoes.  Now, I can attach my row cover to keep the wind and rain from pounding my poor plants.

Tomatoes are in - these are all Amish Paste

With row cover on.  It is important to keep row cover on during cold, rainy, windy days, and some of the cold nights that we are having - still into May.  Last two years we have had lots of rain even in June, so I am prepared for that if we get that again.

Watering - I had originally planned on putting in a drip line under the fabric, but just didn't have the time and money.   I have seen in gardening catalogs these cones that you can put into the ground next to a plant, where you screw in a 2-liter bottle of water, and it waters just the roots.  I liked that idea, but didn't want to spend $100 for all the cones I would need for each tomato plant, and there was no way I could drink enough pop, water, etc to come up with that many 2-liter bottles.  Plus, I didn't like the idea of filling the bottles, and then screwing them in to each cone for all 26+ tomato plants.  I went to the local builders supply, and came up with some slotted drain pipe - about 2.5 - 3 inches across ( and the fabric sleeves for it that keep roots from growing into the slots and keeping it from draining).  I cut them at about 7 - 9 inches, covered them with the fabric sleeve, and the dug a hole between every two plants and put them in.

Here is what they look like all set up.  I can take my hose and put in about 2-3 gallons of water before it stops absorbing - all the water is going to the roots, and there is no splashing of soil onto the leaves.  I am hoping this reduces the amount of watering I have to do. It will be interesting to see how this method produces - I will be sure to keep you up to date on how it is going.  Tomatoes are starting to bloom now and getting taller!

Eating out of the garden

Mid-spring is a wonderful time in the garden.  Every time I go out, there is something else I can bring in the house to make something tasty.

By now, I have been eating spinach, romaine, chard, radishes, peas, young borage leaves, and chive blossoms in tossed salad.  Just started to eat mesclun ( mixed salad greens).  I have planted my third planting of radishes, bok choy is coming up, and carrots are looking good.  Remember if you are planting salad greens, you don't want to plant them all at once!  Stagger your plantings so that you always have something ready throughout the season.

Broccoli Raab is one of my favorite veggies to grow.  The young stems almost taste like asparagus, and the heads are small but have that broccoli taste - even the steamed, chopped leaves are good.  You keep picking this off side shoots for as long as they keep bearing.  Our early warm weather caused it to bolt, so I have to keep up with cutting off all the flowering heads.

First picking - ready to steam and eat!

Broccoli Raab with Italian Sausage, Parmesan cheese and pasta

First Radishes

More radishes, with the first snow peas

A lot of people cut off their chive blossoms, but honestly, how can you eat all the chives you will eventually have?  I let the bees get all over the blossoms, so that they get the good stuff from them, let some blossoms go to seed for more chive plants, and the rest, I break up and eat in salad (or just a pick me up when out in the garden).  Chive blossoms have a great peppery, oniony flavor that will wake you up!

I learned a lot about gardening from my mom, who was Danish.  She told me that Danes always had flowers and herbs mixed throughout their garden.  I asked why when I was younger, and she said, that was just the Danish way!  Of course now, we understand the importance of an eco system - that you have something continually blooming so that you attract the bees and insects that will partner with you to grow good crops.  I think it is important to mix a lot of herbs in your vegetable garden - even if you don't use them yourself.  Herbs have medicinal properties not just for humans, but for insects as well - planting a variety allows these insects to get what they need - especially important during a time when they are being traumatized by habitat loss and insecticide use.  So make sure you plant plenty of beneficial flowers and herbs around your veggies!

Peas and Salad stuff

This is the bed with the chard, spinach and romaine - and a stray garlic or two from last fall - I also put copper tape around this bed, and I will say that the slugs are less then the other bed - the ones I have found ( with my potato slice traps) are really tiny, so clearly the eggs are in the soil. Oh, and beds are wrapped in bird netting - mainly to keep cats and squirrels out.

This is the bed with the broccoli raab, romaine, and radishes

Same bed as above - only two weeks later.  Starting to harvest broccoli raab, lettuce and  radishes.

You can see the chard is already starting to bolt - due to our unseasonably warm weather - but still, lots of spinach salads, love spinach in Italian Wedding Soup - and of course, waiting for the first pea blooms.

If you remember, I planted my peas in peat grow pots under cover end of February - then transplanted them to two beds.  I had everything neatly marked, but then the marks faded - so kind of knew what I had, but had to wait till the bloomed before I knew which kind was what.

First Bloom - Schweizer Riesen

Schweizer Riesen are a heirloom snow pea native to Switzerland.  I figured anything that grew well there would work in Oregon with our cold springs.  The blooms have been prolific, and the pods very tasty.

People ask me all the time if it is too late to "garden" - as if there was only one time to plant seeds, and if you missed that date, it is too late for this year.  While it is probably too late to plant early peas, you can plan on planting peas for fall.  You need to make sure they are maturing when it is cooler (otherwise pods can be starchy and tough).  Since these are 65-70 days, and you want to allow at least a month for production and picking, I would say you can plant again the third week of July.

I have a perfect spot for peas - they get the morning to early afternoon sun, but in the real heat of the day, they are in the shade.  If I plant late July, they will start blooming end of September so I should get another batch of peas then.  Now, that is for snow peas, where you just eat the pod.  Keep an eye on soil temp also - peas like soil temps to be 50 - 75 degrees - you might have to mulch to keep the soil cool enough.

2012 Garden Update - April & May

I know, it has been awhile since I have done a post.  Western Oregon went from torrential rainfall where you could hardly do anything in the garden, to warm weather and sunshine.  I was so busy in the garden trying to catch up, that I really didn't have time to post anything.  My daughter says my posts are too long, so I will try to update you on where the garden is at by topic.  then you can pick and choose what you are interested in.

I do want to say that besides the monetary and health benefits of growing and eating your own food, there is no price you can put on those esoteric moments in the garden.  Being outside in all weathers, you develop a relationship with the plants, the animals, the birds.  You feel first hand the onset of a thunder storm - hear the first chirping of the baby birds in the hedge - startle two baby possums on your wood pile.  These are the serendipitous moments that are icing on the cake.

I have a female hummer that has a nest somewhere in the neighborhood - I think in the Sweet Gum Tree.  She comes up all the time and just hovers in front of me, tilting her head at me, watching me.  She feeds off the rosemary blossoms, the trumpet vine, chive and apple blossoms - anything she thinks will have nectar.  she has no fear - even tormenting the cats in the window - hovering in front of them and going back and forth - watching them do their crazy dance.  However, get a camera out, and she is gone!

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

What is a home garden worth?

Even though this is from a couple years ago, it is still valid:

My youngest daughter, her husband and my granddaughter moved into family housing at Oregon State about 6 weeks ago - I know they miss the easy access to herbs from our garden.  So I potted up some chives and chocolate peppermint - a pot of rosemary to follow soon.  There is a spot of sun right outside their door where this will do quite well.

Chives and chocolate peppermint 
There is tremendous value even in a small planting of herbs like this.  I don't know if you have priced fresh chives in the store lately, but they add up!  So even if you live in an apartment, a dorm room, a small space, you can find the room to grow a few herbs, some salad fixings, maybe a tomato plant?

More pics of the garden soon - took me a few hours to edit all of them for the blog.