With the Best of Intentions

Yeah, it’s June and the last time I wrote a Blog here was in April. My bad.

Today I pulled gray shallots out of the ground — a plant I’d never tried before and probably won’t again. My ups and downs with gray shallots would’ve made a good Blog. But, no go.

I’ve had wild success with daylilies this year. Except. The ink on the labels I prepared vanished over the winter. I’ve no idea what’s what. That would’ve made a good Blog. But. Nope.

I’ve noticed a few new folks following in the last couple months, and I had to wonder why. NG-Blues started off as a record of the trials and tribulations of an inexperienced gardener.

In the last four years, I’ve learned … what? That with sunlight, water, weeding, and fertilizer, things that grow in Kansas will grow. That some things don’t grow in Kansas–blueberries, for example–without a degree of dedication and heroism I’m not willing to give. That it’s best to garden early in the morning before the bees arrive. That keeping track of when it rains makes decisions about watering easier.

So there it is.

Meanwhile, I’ve moved on to other projects that take a lot of time. My garden is up-to-date. My Blog, not so much.

A name change for the Blog is in order, and I’m thinking on it.

Meanwhile, here’s my favorite photo from this year’s flower garden. So far.

Looking Back, Moving Forward

What a busy fall it has been, beginning with the run-up to the Miami County garden tour and culminating in garden and home fall clean-up. I planned to begin this Blog with a statement like: “Where did September go?” But in point of fact, where is October going? Today, November is just one week and two days away!

So. Garden catch-up. Here is glimpse at my fall garden, consisting of Sedum Autumn Joy and ‘Profusion’ zinnias bought at a Summer Solstice Sale.

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Melons and big tomatoes did not do well this year. We picked each melon when all the indicators said ‘ripe’ but ended up with green nastiness. Tomatoes just rotted on the vine without ever ripening. That is, except for the grape tomatoes, which were plump and tasty!

And a new experiment for next year – row covers or, as they say in the horticulture biz, low tunnels. Metal piping hand-made at low (okay, lower) cost by my clever Jim. To be covered by 10 x 25 foot spun polypropylene covers that arrived Monday, compliments of Amazon. I plan to try and extend the lettuce season and plant spinach and beets for spring.

Will it work? That remains to be seen. I had high hopes last year for my cover crop experiment. It failed, I believe, due to our unusually wet spring, making a swamp in our garden plot, which led us to add more raised beds.

The row covers will work best if we have a mild winter so, of course, I anticipate temperatures running below zero Fahrenheit on a regular basis.

And that – meaning my pessimistic outlook – brings me to the title of this Blog.

Facing retirement in 2013, I decided to write a gardening Blog because first, I planned to do a lot of gardening and second, I really knew very little about it. At the time, I thought this would be a splendid way to learn how to garden while keeping my writing hand in practice.

As time went on, I found that telling stories about gardening was more rewarding for me as a writer – and I hope for you as a reader – than adding to the amazing number of how-to articles on the web. Looking for how-to? Look no further than your local extension office or do a web search of the extension .edu (university) sites. You’ll get great, research-based information.

Then, as these things go, serendipity took a hand. In 2002 I began writing daily ‘tips’ for clients of a former employer. I had a great time writing them – ten years’ worth! When I announced my retirement, my employer switched to a tip writing service. But suddenly, it seems, they are recycling my old tips.

Since I hadn’t discontinued the service, I had a chance to reread my own tips. It reminded me of all the things I could be writing about. So here’s another experiment – one outside the garden.

I’ll still write about gardening and sometimes about food. In addition, I also plan to write about some other things, issues that touch me day to day and make me think.

Now that my garden is winter-ready and my house organized, I promise to write more faithfully. My hope is that you will continue to read and react!

Lights, Camera, Action… Spring!

After spending January pouring through seed catalogs and making my choices, I arrived at a decision. Yes, I will start seeds inside this winter, last year’s debacle notwithstanding! My problem? I didn’t want to end up in the garage on a single shelf, in a too-cold space, and insufficient light.

To the rescue – gardening and hydroponic supply companies. But good grief, the cost to set up even a small growing station in my basement! I needed to find an inexpensive solution for both shelving and lighting.

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This is the result. For less than half the cost of the least expensive ‘catalog’ option, I have a solution that seems to work. Never mind the pain involved in selecting lights. I spent a long weekend reading articles about LED vs. florescent lights, foot-candles, and lumens.

I read a lot of frankly conflicting information. The article I found most helpful came from the Alaska Extension. Simply put, the article suggested that using florescent lights worked as well as anything and cost less than specialized plant lights. For those who want more information, an in-depth article is available from the University of Missouri Extension.

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Once we set up our shelving and lights – available from a local big box store – I had a minor meltdown over trays. I’m starting seeds in my basement with the proviso that there be no mess, which made waterproof trays essential. I finally found some locally but again, costing more than I wanted to spend. Amazon to the rescue! Ten trays for a couple of dollars each. Nice!

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I mixed up a batch of chamomile tea for watering and put some lettuce seeds in soil rather than seed starter. I have a theory – as yet untested – that since I direct sow in the ground, in soil, I don’t need the added step of seed starter. Makes sense? And it seems to be working. Here’s the start of my early salad.

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I’m waiting for more seed packets to arrive by mail. And I feel like no matter what the calendar says, spring has begun.

Gardening Resolutions

A former boss, one of my favorites, announced in late December of 2002 that he planned to be a better person in 2003. A bit vague as far as goals go, but similar to mine for 2015. My resolution is to be a better gardener.

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Does the goal stump me? Well, sort of. Coming up with how to operationalize “better gardener” – making the steps concrete and achievable – means, first and foremost, admitting my gardening faults.

I confess it. My besetting sin as a gardener is haphazardness. My intentions are good. My follow-through, not so much. Thankfully, the master gardener classes this year taught me much of what I should be doing. Now I have to up my game.

To become a better gardener in 2015, here are my five resolutions:

Resolution #1: Read the how-to instructions in the seed catalogs and make choices based on two criteria: First, will I eat that vegetable? Second, will I follow the planting directions?

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Resolution #2: Know where my seeds come from. My miserable crop of virus-infected beans taught me that!

Resolution #3: Draw a garden plan that includes rotating crops, which means actually reading the how-to instructions in the seed catalogs and figuring out when to plant which veggie. Sort of a #1 redux, true. But I need lots of repetition!

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Resolution #4: Keep the how-to instructions and the plan where I can find them.

Resolution #5: When spring comes, follow the plan!

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Now the only thing left to decide is whether to try growing from seed again.

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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

Cantaloupe!

One of my favorite meals is half a cantaloupe with a scoop of cottage cheese. Even though a favorite, I haven’t indulged for years. I’m lactose intolerant, so nix the cottage cheese. And I’ve been ‘off’ cantaloupe since the listeria deaths in 2011.

Recently, I discovered that Lactaid – a company that manufactures a lactose free milk – now makes a 1 percent lactose free cottage cheese. Heaven! And pretty good melons have been showing up in the grocery stores this year. Not as good as you’d expect to find at the Farmer’s Market, but pretty good.

Yummy!

Yummy!

As I put together plans for this year’s garden, I thought to grow some melons, both cantaloupe and watermelon. The seeds for both melons were a total bust. Nothing grew. But one day, as I was running through Walmart looking for shampoo, I spied both cantaloupe and watermelon plants. I bought two of the first and one of the second.

Today I have three cantaloupe vines – one of my seeds actually ‘took’ – and the one watermelon. They take up a huge amount of space in one of my raised beds, along with two rows of Delicata squash plants.

Thanks to the manure put down last fall and our recent, just-in-the-nick-of-time seven inches of rain, I have a profusion of squash and melon vines that have outgrown the confines of my raised bed.

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Now comes the part that I’m learning is somewhat problematic for all my vegetables. How and when to harvest.

I recall about four or five years ago, I went to a party given by some golf buddy friends of my husband. They had an enormous garden with lovely looking melons, each on its own little blanket. And indeed, the instructions I’ve found online suggest placing the fruit on some sort of cover over the soil – either paper or organic mulch.

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Fortunately, this is the one bed where I put down cypress mulch.

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As of today, my cantaloupe plants have blossomed, but I don’t know whether these are male or female flowers. According to http://www.organicgardening.com, only the female flowers produce fruit. And while I may have many female flowers, each vine will produce only three or four melons. The rest are supposed to send nutrients back to the vines.

Again, according to what I’ve read, I need to soon give the plants a drink of compost tea. You can find a recipe at http://www.organicgardening.com/learn-and-grow/compost-tea.

And gardeners living in zones colder than Zone 7 are supposed to pick off flowers and smaller fruits after ‘midsummer.’

Midsummer. When is that exactly? According to most articles I’ve read, midsummer is the summer solstice, which has come and gone without fruits per se. And I’m uncertain which flowers to cull. Hmmm… I did read one article that said that midsummer was July 5. I guess I’ll be waiting to see if I have fruit in the next couple of weeks.

As for harvesting, my research has led to similarly vague instructions: “The stem of a vine-ripened fruit should break cleanly with no pressure at all on the stem; just picking up the fruit should be sufficient.” I imagine myself lifting the fruit up from the ground every day once I think it’s big enough just to see if it breaks off.

Next week I’m going to a class on bugs … excuse me, insects and other pests. I hope I can sit through it. I have to admit that I skipped the copious research on possible melon bugs.

Gross. But okay, baby steps…

Six Inches of Rain Later

We’ve had about six inches of rain in the last week, at least two yesterday. Whew! The only word to use for the garden is “burgeoning!”

For regular followers of my blues Blog, you remember what my raised beds looked like last fall. They were in development!

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Today, they look like this:

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A bit of soil, a few seeds or seedlings and boom! Groceries.

At least we hope so. I’m a little worried about my blueberries. Something is eating at the leaves. If anyone knows what to spray them with, please leave a comment!

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But my beets, which I’ve worried over incessantly, have produced a first baby crop.

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For some reason, my nice straight row of beets turned into a clump. I thinned them out, but I don’t think I was ruthless enough. Today, I pulled the ones that had pushed their way above ground. I hope that gives the remaining beets more room to grow. Dinner tonight? Baby roasted beets. Yum.

I’ve also worried about my Delicata squash. They’ve produced huge plants and humongous leaves, but no flowers. Today, I found several lovely squash blossoms under the leaves.

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And finally, my bit of whimsy in the garden. I had no room for beans. I found some hanging frog planters at the Dollar Store, hung them on my fence and threw in some bean seeds. I didn’t think I’d get anything, but look!

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Maybe I’ll actually grow some beans!

And the plus of it all? I haven’t had to haul hose for a week. Thank you Mother Nature.