Cover Cropping

I’ve gardened this season in the five raised beds that Jim and I built last fall. While we both agreed that raised beds would – and did – produce better results than the in-ground garden we tilled ten years ago or more, we wondered what to do with that garden.

Our first goal was to destroy the weeds! In early summer, we inveigled the grand kids into helping us cover the garden with clear plastic, held in place with bricks. Not an easy task since the garden is about 400 square feet. Laying the plastic in a Kansas wind was quite a sight! Between the wind and rain, the plastic was in shreds by mid-August and the garden once again choked by weeds.

My first inclination? Let’s make more raised beds! But in one of our vegetable gardening classes, I learned about cover crops.

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The approach is simple. Plant something in the garden that acts as an organic mulch, controls both weeds and erosion, and adds nutrients to the soil. Farmers have used cover crops as part of crop rotation cycles for decades.

Once I did a bit of research, choosing a cover crop was easy enough. Legumes add nitrogen to the soil, which I need to add according to my soil test. I picked red clover (Trifolium pratense L) and we planted it in late September.

The Kansas Extension article on cover crops said that legumes work best with summer vegetables (tomatoes, peppers, corn, and melons, among others). Since Jim plans to plant melons – watermelons, cantaloupe, and maybe a few honeydew – I’m sure red clover was the right choice.

We’re planning to use a ‘strip tillage’ approach, leaving the clover as living mulch. Maybe we’ll have weed-free paths through the garden. And although we may be creating a different kind of weed problem, we want to see the clover in bloom! A different kind of crop – my master gardener mentor tells me that red clover tea is soothing and the flowers are good in salads.

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Now my only remaining question is whether to plant a ‘trap crop’ of squash to attract the squash bugs and keep them away from the melons!

Interested in cover crops? My research may be of interest:

http://www.soilandhealth.org/03sov/0302hsted/covercropskansasstate.pdf

http://extension.missouri.edu/p/g4638

The Acid Test

My blueberries are not growing. Surviving not thriving? I’ve used a powdered soil ‘acidifier’ since planting them last fall, but I started to wonder. Was it doing the trick?

Since learning about the need for soil tests, I got out my trusty trowel and dug up soil from that bed. The results? My pH is 7.5 – way on the alkaline side of things. Since I planned to plant hydrangeas on the east side (same bed), I added sulfur pellets to the soil, side-dressing the blueberries.

And while out picking up the sulfur, I found two “pee wee” Hydrangea quercifolia (oakleaf hydrangea) that according to the nursery will not require a highly acid soil. We’ll see.

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I love the burgundy color and leathery look to the leaves, although the red is this plant’s fall color. I imagine the new leaves this coming spring will be dark green.

If you wonder how to amend your soil this fall, you may be interested in soil testing. Here are the how’s and why’s from the Kansas State Research and Extension office. Your State Extension Office may offer free soil testing too!

My House an Example of What Not to Do!

Oh dear!

Yesterday’s afternoon EMG class was all about landscape design. The presenter started off with a photo showing what not to do. And there, on the screen, was a picture similar to the one you see below. That’s my house!

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Now I know those yew hedges flanked by what I think are dwarf Alberta Spruce do not make a particularly imaginative landscape. But does it look THAT bad? Too 1970’s? Too ‘the dreaded’ 1990’s?

Fortunate for me, I can honestly claim that I had nothing to do with that particular landscape design. It was here when I arrived. In fact, I’ve softened it up a bit with a planting around the single hydrangea near the front door.

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So yesterday’s afternoon class was a bit of a downer for me. The morning class on vegetables was much better. I’ve ordered seed to plant a cover crop of red clover for my husband’s garden, which currently sports a nice crop of weeds.

Salve!

I didn’t much care for my fifth grade teacher – let’s call her Miss K. A large woman, Miss K bounced around a classroom making remarks that left a person feeling uncomfortable about herself. She even made the boys cry. Maybe you’ve had a teacher like her.

At that age – for some reason I was a year younger than everyone else – most of her remarks went right over my head. I just knew that Miss K did not like me as much as she liked other kids in the class.

Walking home from school one day (now in the eighth grade and about to enter high school), Miss K stopped and asked if I wanted a ride. I didn’t, but I also didn’t know how to say ‘no.’ So I said yes. Here’s our conversation:

Her: So you’re going to high school.
Me: That’s right.
Her: Are you taking Latin?
Me: No. French and German.
Her: (Sniff). Of course you’re not taking Latin. You will never need it.

Allium Christophii

Allium Christophii

Back then, I had no idea what she meant by that. I did ‘get’ the disrespect.

Now, some 50+ years later, I understand the comment. Thing is, it’s beside the point! As a gardener with a tiny grounding in botany, I sort of need Latin. Here is some.

Zinnia elegans

Zinnia elegans

This is what we learned in last week’s EMG class. Kingdom – Division – Class – Order – Family – Genus – Species. And I have to say, I’m glad I’m not a botanist! But I am using Latin…

Clematis Claire de Lune

Clematis Claire de Lune

Just so reading the Blog won’t be a complete waste of time for you, the more important lesson from our botany class was about matching the plant to the environment.

My example? I have a lovely place under one of my pin oaks that is calling out for hellebores (Helleborus orientalis). I’ve planted several different types from a couple of different nurseries, including one that I know for certain is hardy enough to survive out of my friend Lenora’s garden. As of this morning, they are all dead. Clearly the environment was not right for helebores. I planted some daffodils (Narcissus Icelandic Pink) instead.

And by the way, if you want to know how to pronounce those Latin names, the Missouri Botanical Garden site will let you hear the correct pronounciation online. Just click the microphone to the right of the name!

What I Shoulda Done

This week I ripped out my red and yellow day lilies. After five years of frequent bed cleanups, I decided to plant the bed with my favorite bush, hydrangeas. Of course, I wanted compact hydrangeas instead of the kind that get overgrown and messy.

In addition to reducing the mess and cleanup quotient, I remembered that hydrangeas love acidic soil, much like blueberries. And you guessed it! Last spring I planted blueberries ‘around the corner’ from the bed where I plan to plant hydrangeas. With hydrangeas HERE and blueberries THERE I can acidify the soil to my heart’s content. Easy!

We won’t talk about the clematis already established in that bed. They are doing fine and maybe can stand a little acid.

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But this week, I found out what I didn’t know. Tuesday was our first extension master gardener class. Dennis Patton from the Johnson County Extension Office talked about soil. To digress, once he finished discussing the definitions of ‘soil’ and ‘dirt,’ I thought I should change my Blog tag line from ‘Let’s play in the dirt’ to – yes, indeed! – ‘Let’s play in the soil.’ But it doesn’t pack the same punch.

So, soil. What I shoulda done was get a pH test for the soil in that bed. For two years, I’ve been sprinkling some product that claimed to acidify the soil. I shoulda known the name of the product, what it does, how much to use, those kind of things. But growing plants isn’t like baking a cake, right?

Oh so wrong. I still need to follow the established recipes! My blueberries are not liking their spot. Too little sun? Too little acid? Too wet? I don’t know…

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Tuesday I learned that the Extension Office will do a free soil test once a year. Knowing my pH will help me know what I can do – if anything – to make the soil acidic enough for blueberries and hydrangeas. Although I just read that the real acid-loving hydrangeas are blue.

Sometime in midsummer, I spotted a red hydrangea cultivar outside the grocery store and thought I’d make it my ‘test’ hydrangea for that bed. It’s had brown spots on the leaves since the end of July, and I kept telling myself that it was due to a lack of acid in the soil. But no. What I shoulda done was to Google ‘brown spots on hydrangea leaf.’ I would have learned that I probably have something called cercospora leaf spot, an infectious leaf disease. Since I have more hydrangeas on the way, the question is whether I pull that plant out or try to fix the problem with a fungicide.

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So glad I’m taking these classes. I’m still hoping that the summer of 2015 has fewer blues!

A Creative Moment

We have the ubiquitous “pile of junk” consisting of things like an old heat pump, a broken air compressor, wire, odd pavers – you get the idea. Last week, in the middle of off-loading the last of this year’s topsoil from the trailer, I made an off-hand remark to Jim that FINALLY it was time to get rid of the junk pile.

I guess he thought about it for a couple of days and this past Tuesday, he loaded the junk into the truck, got out one of his trusty paper maps, and off he went into the sunset. I would have thrown the stuff away. He made money. That’s my Jim!

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In the process, he unearthed two old iron bedsteads – headboards and footboards – and what we think is an old car frame. He asks, what do you want to do with all this? The question gave me one of those creative moments. Wouldn’t that car frame be great as a flower or herb garden? And maybe use the headboards and footboards somehow?

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He also unearthed some wheels and what looks like a concrete manhole cover. Hmm…

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Now what would make this creative moment even better? I’d love some ideas from my readers! I know I’ll hear from my regular commenters! And if you’ve never before made a comment, please put on your creativity-hat and help me out!

Should I paint the frames or leave them au naturel?

What to do with the wheels?

And any ideas on what to plant?

Every single one of your thoughts is welcome!!

Summer 2015?

I’ve started fall cleanup, and as I’m digging, hoeing, and raking, I’m already thinking about next year. What will I plant?

A lot depends on what was successful this year!

I had a lot of success with tomatoes. I’ve eaten many sandwiches and salads with my own tomatoes. I made salsa and froze bags of tomatoes for sauce. I’ve also given away more tomatoes than I can count, all from two little plants.

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I’ve not had as much luck with cole plants. Broccoli, sprouts, and kale simply served as food for caterpillars.

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Melons were enormously successful – just not enough of them. My Jim has decided to take over melon production next summer in a giant sized patch of land. Hope it works since we won’t be using raised beds.

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Even the Delicata squash worked well until the dreaded squash bug appeared. I’m moving my tomatoes and maybe my cucumbers to the infested bed next year. Hopefully, the lack of squash for a year or two will discourage these guys!

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My string beans were a total bust – so much so that I don’t have so much as a photo. Next year, I’m going to try my hand at peas and sugar snap peas. I like them both. They’ll go in the bed that right now has tomatoes and cucumbers.

Potatoes were wonderful. Beets and carrots, not so much. The beets were bitter and the carrots woody. Next year I think I’ll try sweet potatoes or yams instead of beets and carrots.

And of course, this year I had a lot of help from Jim and Mother Nature. The moderate, somewhat rainy summer was a real plus. The raised beds, the fence, and the day-to-day help made it all possible. Hoping for more of both in 2015 so I can spend more time chasing butterflies!

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Next week I start Extension Master Gardener classes. Maybe next year I’ll also have fewer gardening blues thanks to increased knowledge!