A Permanent Emergency

That is how a TV reporter this morning described climate change and the resulting weather issues we are currently experiencing: “a permanent emergency”. His interviewees strongly suggested that extremes of heat, cold, flood and drought are the new normal that we are going to have to learn to live with. While the reduction of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses should be the ultimate goal to return to a historical normal, in the more immediate time frame we have to figure out how to survive the extremes of weather that climate change is bringing.

While not all of us will experience flooded homes or have to flee flash fires, we all have to eat. Growing food crops in this new normal will mandate some new learning for farmers and gardeners. We will have to employ some new growing strategies. The alternating cold of a falling polar vortex and the current heat dome we are struggling with is exactly what the climate scientists have predicted. They also predicted drought; and we are experiencing that too.

Here are a few of the ways I think I might maximize food production from my garden while minimizing irrigation.

Planting ideas:

  • I must remember to only plant as much as I really need and can realistically care for.
  • Choose drought resistant species and varieties. Beans, peppers, determinate tomatoes, tomatillos are all enjoying the heat and doing well with minimal but regular watering. I will look for varieties that are listed as “drought tolerant” and where possible save my own seed from plants that survived and thrived with my gardening practices.
  • Planting each species at its preferred growing time. Cold tolerant lettuces, peas and early seeded brassicas made good use of the soil moisture remaining from the winter snow melt. Later in the season they would not do well without copious amounts of irrigation water.
  • I have better success when planting heat lovers like beans and corn by NOT soaking the seeds ahead of planting. Planting dry seeds into dry ground allows the seed to remain ungerminated until it senses adequate moisture in the soil for its growth.
  • Planting varieties with higher water demands, like celery and carrots, in a trench allows for more targeted watering and keeps the moisture closer to their roots.
  • Plant or thin plantings so each plant has its required amount of space, but not more. Bare soil loses more moisture by evaporation than soil shaded under a canopy of plants.
  • Find shady spots for succession plantings of salad greens.

Some ideas for garden management that help make better use of water:

  • No-till or lo-till gardening systems prevent soil from drying out and discourage weed growth.
  • Add composted organic matter as a soil amendment or use it as a mulch to increase the organic matter content of the soil and its water holding capacity.
  • Wicking planters and Hügelkultur beds involve less frequent watering as the moisture is retained within the growing areas, while still protecting plants from drowning in a flash flood.
  • Situating plants around a leaky pail or barrel creates a ready-made drip irrigation system. It is fast to fill so is an efficient use of my time and the plants get the moisture where they need it at the soil level. Put a rock in the pail so it doesn’t blow around when empty.
  • Keep weeds under control and remove plants that are no longer productive.

Ideas for making good use of the available precipitation.

  • Trap snow on garden sites by leaving some trash out to catch drifts.
  • Harvest the rainwater that falls on buildings.
  • Pre-plant cold tolerant species late in the fall for next year. Consider parsnips, lettuces, and peas.
  • Biennial and perennials can use the winter snow melt to get off to a good start. Asparagus, rhubarb, winter onions, winter grains, perennial herbs and garlic are tolerating the drought because they had snow melt moisture at the start of the season.
  • Prevent evaporation by covering unseeded areas with mulch but be careful what kind of mulch is used. I have found that cardboard wicks moisture away from plants and even black plastic can heat the soil so that roots cook under it. Straw or well rotted compost are my best choices. Chop and drop weeds are OK too.

We can do this. We just have to be smarter about how we try and what we do.

Accidental Discovery

Some of humanity’s most important discoveries happened by accident. I am not going to be so arrogant as to call this a life changing discovery, but it is a neat observation.

The garden spot where I planted carrots this year was home to a healthy stand of dill weed last year. So of course, the carrot seedlings were accompanied by a host of dill seedlings when they both sprouted. Newly sprouted dill and carrot seedlings are very similar in appearance. Not wanting to accidentally remove any of the carrots at the first weeding, I left the dill to grow a bit as well. As a busy summer progressed, they both grew on until one day recently – Oh My – the dill was flowering. 

My accidental discovery was that the dill had served as a sort of nurse crop for the carrots, keeping other weeds from growing. Now that it was flowering it was easy to identify the dill from the carrots and pull it out. Some went into a jar of vinegar to await the possible arrival of pickling cucumbers and a bit was set to dry for winter culinary efforts; but most was just pulled any laid out between the cabbages. I am hoping the scent of the dill will help to confuse and deter the cabbage white butterflies. I’m not sure the butterflies and cabbage moths have any sense of smell, but what the heck, it’s mulch anyway!

Drought!

The weather forecast for the foreseeable future includes clear skies, daytime temperatures above 30C and no chance of rain.

I have made a decision that working to water some of the ever-drier parts of my garden is going to end. It seems that I simply cannot get enough water on the squash plants up in the bean cage to get them to survive. In spite of daily watering, they are wilted every time I come back to them. There is a limited supply of irrigation water that must be shared with more drought tolerant plants like the various bean varieties in the adjacent ground. It is quickly becoming a Darwinian situation where the better adapted will survive and the others must parish. I will persevere watering the adjacent cucumbers but thin them severely so only the most promising plants are watered, and I may create some drip irrigation jugs near them.

I have a couple of experiments that are working well to make use of limited amounts of moisture. Last fall I gathered all the left-over vines and other woodier garden waste into a mound. This spring I covered it with rich soil. At planting time, I noted that it seemed to be maintaining greater soil moisture than the flat areas around it and planted two hills of blue squash into it. I suspect it is working like a mini Hügelkultur bed.

To facilitate watering on top of a hill, I made a little mote around the plants and put a leaky five-gallon pail between them. Watering by filling the pail allows the moisture to drip slowly into the soil and avoids run-off.

The other DIY experiment that is working so far is another drip irrigation system. It amounts to simply two five-gallon pails connected by twenty feet of garden hose with some holes in it. Filling both pails avoids a pressure gradient and allows the water to drip evenly from the holes at either end of the hose.

Melons seeded near each of the holes are watered slowly from the dripping hose. This may not be sufficient if there is no rainfall at all the rest of the summer, but for the time being the plants are surviving and growing slowly.

It has been interesting (if somewhat depressing) to see which crops have been more able to withstand the drought.

  Not surprisingly those species which are indigenous to central America are doing best: beans, peppers, tomatoes, even potatoes and ground cherries seem to be loving the heat. Even sweet corn is not drying off as quickly as I expected. I have been surprised to see cabbages and collards doing better than chard and beets. Sunflowers are shorter than they should be but are forming flower buds. Calendula is promising but petunias are giving up. Cucurbits are enjoying the sun and heat but need copious amounts of watering to go with it. Early planted peas are surviving and with some continued watering may produce a limited crop, but later planted peas lacking more extensive root systems and not yet past their vegetative stage will not make it.

If this situation is to be our climate change norm, gardeners here will have to find new ways to grow food. Simply dumping more irrigation water on crops and gardens will not be sustainable. No-till or Lo-till planting beds, planting in trenches, and wicking beds, employing drip irrigation, being mindful of plant spacing, using more mulch and planting drought tolerant cultivars are some of the water saving techniques we might employ.

Cover Crops

At this time of year many gardeners in North America are harvesting their “first crops” of spring planted annual veggies. In good time garden information sources all seem to be in love with cover cropping and /or green manuring of gardens and farms, and that might be great for most places. The theory is that keeping the soil covered with plants, even when they are not plants that one will harvest for food, prevents soil erosion and planting a crop that will be cut and worked into the soil eventually provides food for soil biology (invertebrates, microbes, and bugs). 

I must admit I have never, in fifty years of gardening, ever planted a cover crop. The only green manure crops my garden has had have been healthy stands of red root pig weed that I rototilled in. Does that count?

Why have I not taken advantage of these beneficial techniques? Two reasons: 1) I have never had more garden space than I wanted to use during the growing season so there is no “empty” space; and 2) I have always gardened in Zone 1b or something very close to that. If I get one crop grown to harvest in our short growing season, I consider it a great success. There is no time for second crops in previously harvested garden beds. And then there is winter. From November through April my gardens are covered with a heavy layer of snow. Even the soil is frozen solid. The soil life indigenous or adapted to this climate is hibernating.

This climate is the same reason I am not using huge amounts of mulch, other than some compost on top of my garden beds. The mulch is insulating. It keeps the soil cool. In hot climates that is important, but in Zone 1b it is detrimental. I want the soil to warm as soon in the spring as it can and stay warm through the 90-100 frost free days that I have in which to grow my veg.  Occasionally I may put a bit of straw or dead leaves under plants that bear fruit near the soil to keep it clean, but other wise I only use mulches like well rotted manure or finished compost.  These will add nutrients and prevent erosion from wind and rain but will almost immediately become part of the soil with or without tilling them in. Adding a layer in the late fall allows the rain and freeze/thaw cycles of spring and fall to break them down even more and the weight of winter’s snow fuses the new material to the soil surface where it is accessible to the awakening soil life in spring.

There are many gardening techniques that work well in one climate but not in all. Wherever one gardens one must just do what works.

Cut Worms!

A few of the brown moths I have forever erroneously called Miller Moths showed up on the window screen seeking the light of our living room last night. When they were small, my granddaughters were a little afraid of the moths. I told them the moths were “harmless”; they were “just butterflies that didn’t grow up to be pretty.” Little did I know those drab brown moths were the parents of voraciously eating cut worms bent on destroying my garden.

The adult moths lay their eggs in the soil where they suspect there will be sufficient feedstock for the larva that hatch in the spring. The plants in my garden must be especially attractive to the egg laying adults in the fall. I even lost a pot of mung beans in my greenhouse to the vociferous beasts this spring!

There are several species of cut worms indigenous to Zone 1b. The moths come in colors ranging from white to almost black and a few are even a rusty orange-brown. None of them are pretty. The larvae that eat my garden seedlings are variations of grey/brown/green. Their distinctive feature is that they all try to curl into a ball when touched or exposed. Recently I have noticed a large one that I haven’t seen before, so I suspect that climate change has made us capable of hosting an even larger number of species. Sweet? Not!

I have had the most success by using some sort of barrier to limit the larvae’s access to the seedlings. My favorite way to do that is to pot the seedlings on into Styrofoam coffee cups. When I transplant them out to the garden, I just break off the bottom of the cup and leave a sleeve of the cup around the top. Most cut worms seem to be incapable of figuring out how to climb over the edge of the cup. Since the Styrofoam is not porous, it does not wick moisture up and away from the seedling. Of course, there is the issue of disposing of the cups, but if one is careful, they can be reused several times. Other growers have tried mechanical deterrents like eggshell or coffee grounds which are both good for the garden anyway, or Diatomaceous earth which I have always been hesitant to use for fear of harming the beneficial invertebrates like earth worms. High Mowing Seeds included some organic pest control measures in their blog. You can check it out here. Keeping seedlings in pots until they are too large for the cutworms is also an option, but then there is greater risk of transplant shock. It’s a balancing act.

Heat Wave

As the poet wrote,

“The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men

Gang aft agley”

To A Mouse by Robert Burns

or in this case, they are the plans I had made for July gardening tasks that included picking the first fruits of the garden harvest that have gone astray.

Beans and greens should have been ready for a few early feeds. Peas should have been into heavy production to finish up near the end of the month.  Most of Western Canada, including my little part of it, is experiencing an unprecedented heat wave, breaking records for high temperatures. Hot weather and the lack of rain have stalled growth at the seedling stage for most of my outdoor garden spaces.  I am using our scarce water resources sparingly to keep the most-likely-to-produce plants alive and hoping for rains later in the summer.  

It is interesting to note which plants have managed best in these conditions that I suspect are likely to become the norm for us over the next few years. Perennial, biennial and fall pre-seeded veg that made use of the winter snow melt for early growth have been most successful. Asparagus, rhubarb, and strawberry all wintered well and set up good growth early on. Full sized parsnip and the lovely little kral variety were sweet treats early in spring. Biennial flowers are now blooming and feeding pollinators. Spinach and lettuce that grew from fall plantings have filled the salad bowl for several weeks but are bolting now. While spring harvests were sufficient, there is not much to pick right now and we are again looking to the freezer for dinner veggies.  

Spring seeded veg that are doing OK include mostly beans and caged brassicas. Bean plants are looking healthy but not setting seed. They are by nature heat loving and somewhat drought tolerant. The brassicas may be benefitting from the relatively shadier environment under their insect screens. Heat loving flea beetles have decimated most of the unprotected brassicas.  Squashes are also heat lovers and are trying hard to continue their process towards fruit production. The summer varieties are struggling for lack of moisture while winter ones are sort of on hold waiting for rain. I suspect that even a small shower would kick them into a high growth spurt, so I won’t give up on them just yet.  Trench planted carrots are rewarding my earlier watering efforts with promising growth.

Peas do not like heat and are either setting very few small pods or abandoning the effort altogether and browning off from the ground upwards. I suspect many will die. The small Tom Thumb variety seems to be doing best, and early seeded snow peas are progressing with a little extra water. Everything else is just sitting there – not dying – but not growing either. The weeds of course are doing quite well, perhaps setting seed on slightly smaller plants and slightly earlier than usual, but they will fulfill their procreative mandate.

The heat wave has affected the gardener as well as the garden. This Grandma is a Northern adapted species and does poorly in hot climates. Consequently, summer garden tasks are just not getting done. Sitting in the shade and sipping lemonade seems to be a more appropriate activity than hoeing weeds.

Summer Garden Tasks

The solstice has passed and so it is officially summer. With all the activities we try to pack into these short weeks of warm weather it seems like a very busy time both in the garden and in the rest of our lives. Sometimes we try to pack just too much into this time of year and don’t have time to actually enjoy it. This might be a good month to ask oneself, “A hundred years from now, will it really matter if I don’t get this or that done?”

New Worm Farm

The pandemic isolation we are in has afforded me much too much time to both shop on-line and plan some new gardening strategies. One I have been thinking about is a new more workable worm box. The one I built several years ago works well, but it’s pretty big and I am finding it a little too heavy to manage when the boxes are full and need to be changed. It is also a little on the ugly side.

I have been online window shopping (is that called screen shopping?) for a new one. I would probably have ordered one already, but I’m cheap. Might as well admit it. The idea of paying hundreds of dollars for a few bucks worth of plastic just won’t compute in my brain or my wallet.

In the meantime, Grandpa has been doing some screen shopping too at the Old Guys Favorite Auto Store and found these black plastic tubs. The price is right. They stack well, and by reversing the stacking side to side they either fit together snugly or solidly sit one on top of the other leaving lots of space between them. I will use 3 of them for my new worm farm to start with and add more layers as needed.

I took two of them out to the greenhouse and drilled small drainage holes in one for the first compost layer. The holes are large enough to allow for leachate to drain easily, but hopefully small enough that not too many of the worms will fall through. I may line it with a layer of paper to start with.

The second box will be the first additional layer once the first one is full. I drilled larger ¾ inch holes in that box to make it easy for the worms to migrate up to the compost in that layer. They will be too busy eating to be inclined to fall out even after the first layer is removed to dump the finished castings. I will set both these boxes on top of an intact box to catch the leachate. I could have installed a tap into this bottom box but decided it would be easy enough to just lift the top boxes off and pour out the leachate when it is necessary.

Now the only thing will be to find something that will make a good lid… Well how about that! It turns out that the lid from a Bankers Box (file storage box) fits just perfectly! Now I just have to install a screen patch for ventilation for the worms.

Growing and Using Herbs in Zone 1b

Last week I got a number of advertising emails from the seed companies I regularly purchase from reminding me that it was “Pollinator Week”. I am all for supporting the continued exitance of pollinators in my garden, but I think this is just another one of those non-event “holidays” designed for improved marketing. However, most of the advertising showed some pictures of bees enjoying the nectar from chive flowers; and since the chives in my garden are all in full bloom, I thought this might be a good time to discuss the growing and use of herbs from a Zone 1b garden.

Lets start with the chives. I grow a couple different ones in my garden. Well really, they grow themselves. The purple-flowered garlic chives are a very pretty plant and extremely hardy. They are also well behaved enough to stay more or less where I planted them.

Onion chives are also pretty when they bloom but are almost invasive. They are threatening to overtake the asparagus bed completely. In deference to the pollinators, I am letting the chives have their way with the asparagus until after the flowers finish. (I wonder if there will be an onion flavour to the honey?) Using chives in summer is easy – just pick and eat. Added to a salad their subtle allium flavours are just right without being overpowering and there is nothing better than fresh chives with potato. Chives can be dried for winter use, but loose much of their flavour. Potted up in fall, the season of use can be extended indoors for a while, but they’ll not likely survive the whole winter.

Invasiveness can be a problem with many herbs that are hardy perennials in Zone 1 b. Mints can be controlled by planting in a large bottomless container buried almost to the top in the garden bed, but left to run freely they will spread like crazy! I occasionally grow lemon balm, which is not hardy here, but no other mints. There is a wild mint that grows in our wetland hay fields. I sometimes forage for it and dry it for winter teas. Grandpa calls it “Slough Hay Tea”.

Lovage is another hardy perennial that I use both in summer and dried for winter use. One plant is enough, but it self-seeds easily and is impossible to remove once established so one has to be mindful of each season’s seedlings. The celery-like flavour of lovage is a lovely addition to soups and stews and, in small amounts, to a garden salad. The hollow stem makes a flavourful straw from which to sip a tomato-based drink. This summer we have also been enjoying the citrus flavoured leaves of a Sorrel that I planted last year and came back in full force this spring.

Parsley is a biennial that can tolerate a lot of cold weather in fall but rarely survives the winter, so I treat it like an annual and reseed it every year. I try to start a few plants early and also direct seed a short row. Sage and oregano are not usually hardy in Zone 1b but can easily be overwintered in pots either in the cold room or as a house plant. Thyme needs lots of light and will not tolerate cold, so a sunny window will keep it happy over winter. However, I have not found it easy to move from garden to pot in fall, so I leave it in a larger pot outdoors for summer and move pot and all inside before the first frost.

There are some other herbs that grow well as annuals here but would not live through the winter. We use both basil and fennel fresh from the garden and and dry them for winter use. Dill weed once planted is yours and mine forever, but we love it in pickles, dips and salad dressings so we tolerate its self-sufficient presence in the garden.  Summer savoury is one I have struggled with. As a bedding plant I have not been able to keep it from getting leggy and weak. I tried direct seeding this spring, but so far, no germination.

These few herbs have proven useful in my garden and kitchen as complements to the unbeatable flavours of garden fresh veggies, most of which need very little extra help!

Succession Planting and Capillary Mat Seed Starting Tray

One might think the time for planting is soon coming to an end for this year, but actually the opportunities for succession planting are just getting started. As the first flush of radish and leaf lettuces hit the salad bowl the gaps they leave in the garden are the perfect place to fit in some short season crops like more lettuce or even some bush beans. Having seedlings ready to plant shortens the time these ‘second crops’ need to get growing. At the moment, I have some basil, and lettuce just starting to sprout and I will be seeding some of the fall growing brassicas, like Chinese cabbage this week. By growing these transplants on a capillary mat. I will be able to hold them in the transplant stage a little longer until the garden space is ready for them and the weather conditions favor successful transplanting.

A capillary mat is a way of bringing just a little water on a continuous basis to the bottom of a flower pot. The idea being that through capillary action the soil in the pot will wick up the moisture from the wet matting and create just the right amount of moisture for any plant to thrive while still allowing enough air in the soil for the roots to breath. It is a theory that has proved to work well in practice for me. The only problem is that the set-ups are quite expensive to buy.

This one from Lee Valley is really the Cadillac model, but at $32.50 ….. yeah.

I would love to try the slightly less expensive GrowEase from Gardener’s Supply, but they won’t ship to Canada. Ditto for the Burpee system.

The whole concept is simple enough so last spring I invented a couple to use in my greenhouse. I got this idea from a You Tube video that I can’t seem to find to link to, but the process is simple.

All one needs is a tub of some sort, a piece of 1 or 2 inch Styrofoam slightly smaller than the bottom of the tub and a piece of capillary matting (or even an old towel) that is large enough to cover the foam and wrap around it it with about 2 inches extra on at least one side. Fill the tub about half full of water. Place the matting wrapped foam in the water so it floats mat side up with the extra 2 inches hanging down into the water; and set the seedling pots on top. Water the seedlings the first time from the top to establish a moisture conduit on the soil and that’s it. As long as there is some water in the tub the mat, floating on its Styrofoam raft, will absorb the moisture and water the plants from the bottom. You can tell how much water is left in the tub by the height of pots. Add more water as needed, but it won’t be often.

I used this invention to grow and hold salad green seedlings over several weeks last year and found that they were easily transplanted into spaces that became available in the garden well into the summer.

Back to Basics – Irrigation

Sun. soil and water. Those are the basics that plants need to grow. The hours of sunlight at this latitude in spring and summer are more than adequate. We’ve done all we can to provide nutrient rich soil. So now it is only water that we have to account for. Too much water can be as disastrous as too little since plants also need air in the soil for healthy root development, but that is an infrequent situation on our semi-arid plain.

Rainfall is generally just barely adequate for my garden. I have also found that plants that depend on it and have enough space around themselves to seek moisture usually manage well enough once they are off to a good start. Ah there’s the rub – getting off to a good start. When I seed dry seeds into dry soil, the climatic conditions nature provides allow the resultant seedlings to adapt as they grow, and unless there is a sever drought, they usually manage.

Unfortunately, not everything I want to grow is able to mature in this northern climate without a little head start and so there are several crops I need to seed indoors early, and subsequently water once I transplant them. Almost all the warm season nightshades (tomato, pepper, tomatillo etc.), some long season brassicas like cabbage and broccoli, and many flowers are all transplants needing serious attention, on a daily basis, to their hydration needs.  Some moisture loving plants like celery and even the carrot seed I sprout before planting are the most demanding.

Over the years I have identified several moisture conserving techniques so that even in this location, watering is not an onerous chore. I wrote about most of them in a previous post that can be accessed here. Attention to spacing, weeding and moisture conservation can reduce the time, effort and cost of watering a garden. As with most gardening activities, the most important thing to add to the garden for water management, is the gardener’s foot.

Back to Basics – Composting

Apparently May 29th was National Composting Day. Really? We need a day to celebrate compost? There seems to be a special day to commemorate just about any activity one’s social media could expose, but … whatever. Just to participate I’ll write a few lines about some of the various ways I create compost for my garden.

First of all, composting is a good idea. It is a back-to-basics way to get free fertilizer and probably the best way to feed one’s garden soil. You will note that compost feeds the soil organisms – microbes, invertebrates, etc. – not the plants. Those well-fed organisms will then in turn excrete the nutrients that the plants feed on. As with all biological processes there is a time gap, so don’t expect instant results, but adding compost to a garden annually should negate the need to add much else in the way of soil amendments.

So how to get compost? Just save the garbage. Pretty much anything that was recently alive will turn into compost. There are some rules (suggestions?) about proportions of high nitrogen (green) and higher carbon (brown) components that make for the fastest composting and most appropriate pH etc. but given enough time, pretty much all organic material will decompose. Paper, cardboard, kitchen scraps, manure, grass clipping, leaves and weeds can all go into the compost.  Most sources say to avoid meat and dairy as it can attract varmints, and excrement from carnivores can harbor parasites and pathogens, but other wise, throw it in.

Here are some of the ways I have done it.

Chop and drop is about the simplest and what I often do with immature weeds that I hoe or pull as well as the non-edible portions of harvested veg. They are just left to decompose on the soil surface. Done.  

Piling it up is another easy method. Either in a pit or a pile on the soil surface, the composting organisms will get to work on the pile. Making sure there is some dry brown material on the top of the pile will keep it from attracting flies.

Using a container to delineate the pile will keep it looking neater and may help speed the process by keeping heat and moisture in the pile. I have used both a simple metal ring and a bottomless plastic composter. they both worked well.

Garden soil probably already contains all the microbes and invertebrates that are needed to turn organic mater into mature compost. Here are a couple ways I have made use of garden soil as an activator for composting.

The first is called “trench” composting. All the compostable materials are just thrown into a ditch dug into an unused area of the garden and buried. By the next season they have all broken down and have turned into rich soil. Another way I enlist the soil microbes to do the work for me is to dump the compost materials on the garden surface and rototill them into the soil. This works well each spring for the kitchen wastes that have accumulated over the winter. (Remember this is Saskatchewan. The scraps stay frozen all winter.)

Another way to turn organic garbage into super plant food is to feed it to a colony of composting worms. This process is called vermicomposting. It can be an interesting hobby and certainly provides the gardener with high quality, free fertilizer, but like any pet ownership activity, it involves some work and care.

One thing I have never done is use a three-stage bin system that seems to be popular advice from compost ‘experts’. This involves first erecting the appropriately sized bins and then piling layers of brown and green materials in the first bin and then occasionally turning the pile by forking it into the next bin. That’s too much work for this old lady!

So that’s my contribution to National Compost Day!  Happy gardening!

Back to Basics – Weeding

Weeding is one of THE most basic gardening/farming tasks.  It is the one task that demonstrates the extent of human ingenuity. We have invented all sorts of tools from the simple hoe to tractor powered cultivators of all kinds. And then we discovered herbicides! The problem is that none of these inventions has ever completely eliminated weed growth, even for a single season.

So, what are weeds anyway? By strict definition a weed is any plant growing where we don’t want it to. Thus, any plant can be a weed. There are a few problems with invasive species, like the Wonder Berries I experimented with in my garden in 2014 and have been fighting with ever since. But generally, the plants we call weeds are native to our climate zones. As such they are very well adapted to growing wherever their seeds fall. Natural selection has ensured they are hardy and prolific, so they make LOTS of seeds that result in lots of weeds.

The problem with using tillage equipment to kill weeds is that it inevitably turns over the soil exposing the weed seeds to light. Most of the weed species that propagate from seed production evolved without anyone to bury the seeds, so they had to germinate on the surface of the soil. This was good for them since they could make use of solar energy instead of having to use energy stored in the seed itself. This meant that a single parent plant could produce many more, smaller seeds rather than just a few larger ones. Great for the weed plant species, not so good for gardeners. Eventually, I suppose,  these weed species came to require exposure to light in order to germinate. This is the primary reason why no-till gardens tend to have fewer weed problems than tilled ones.

One simple strategy to make use of this situation is to avoid using tillage equipment for weeding. In a home garden, just pulling weeds by hand or using a stirrup hoe to cut them off just below the soil surface prevents the weed seeds deeper in the soil from getting the sunlight they need to germinate. Once planted, a layer of mulch between plants and rows in the garden will help prevent weeds from germinating.

As with most things, prevention is easier/better than cure. Starting with a relatively weed free space is desirable and achievable, but it might be time consuming. Remembering that weeds, like all plants, need light to grow, the easiest way to kill weeds is to cover them with something that excludes light. A dark tarpaulin or sheet of black plastic or even a heavy layer of compost will kill most annual weeds in a few weeks.  Deep rooted perennial weeds like dandelion and Canada thistle may take a whole season to really die from light exclusion and may have to be dug out. Sometimes with a heavy infestation, tillage and subsequent diligence might be needed. Keep in mind that tillage equipment can also spread weeds that propagate through rhizomes. The tiniest piece of quack grass root can regrow a healthy plant almost overnight!

Eternal vigilance is the next step. The difficulty dealing with weeds is directly proportional to the size of the weed, so get them while they are small. This means being observant for weed growth at every visit to the garden.

So once the weeds are out of the garden what do we do with them? They are full of the nutrients that all plants need so it would make sense to compost them. There are several ways of doing that, chop and drop being the easiest. The process is to just pull the weeds out and let them die and decompose where they lay. This works fine if the weeds are immature, and the weather is dry. More mature weeds might have enough strength left in their dying gasps to finish maturing their seeds or dig their root hairs into wet soil and revive themselves.

I like to be sure weeds are dead before they get back into my garden, so I keep a large plastic tote, like this one, near the garden and put the weeds into it. A day or two in the sun in that tote and they are truly dead. There are many ways to make and use compost from garden and kitchen waste, but that is for another post.

However, there is another option. All that nutrition in the weed plants might be just as good for us as it is for our garden plants! Not all weed species are edible, but many are not only edible but delicious, and they definitely are easy to grow! I am anxiously awaiting the first mess-of-greens made from the spring flush of red root pigweed!

Back to Basics – Transplanting

It is another Back to Basics task. Eventually those tender seedlings that we have been babying with careful watering and hardening off so faithfully will be ready to go out into the world of the outdoor garden. The sun has warmed the soil in the prepared beds, there are no gale force winds in the forecast, and the date of the last spring frost has passed, so we decide today is the day.

There are some things to consider. The first is spacing. Just as we did with direct seeding, when we set out our transplants, we have to consider the size of the mature plant. Planting into my arid Zone 1b garden I like to give seedlings a little more distance between them than the size of the mature plant. So, if the plant is, for example, a large determinate tomato with about a 24 inch diameter. I will set the seedlings at least 24-30 inches apart. This may look overly spacious when the seedlings are small, but this distance will allow for adequate airflow around the maturing plant as it sets its fruit and lots of area to send its roots out in search of moisture. By the time it is mature each plant will be rubbing leaves with its nearest neighbor. If space is an issue one could choose to seed smaller cultivars. There are many bred to work well in small space gardens and containers.

The how-to is quite simple. Dig a hole, either with a trowel or a dibbler, big enough to accommodate the diameter of the seedling’s root ball and deep enough to set the seedling in easily up to its crown, then plop the plant into the hole. Try to be careful not to disturb the roots excessively. Ease of transplanting is the main reason I like to seed transplants into plug trays or individual pots rather than flats where their roots can intertwine.

Of course, if the seedling is grown in a peat or paper pot, the whole pot gets put into the planting hole. In that case be sure to get the whole pot buried or the exposed part will wick moisture up and away from the plant’s roots.

Now the second big consideration: Watering. I like to water the seedlings well before I start the transplanting event. I also fill the planting hole with water and let it soak away before I set the seedling into the hole. Then I fill the space around the seedling in the hole with water and let that soak away, back fill the hole around the seedling and firm it in, but don’t compact the soil, and water again. Another option I have used successfully is to do all the transplanting on the third day of a three-day rain when the garden is totally saturated with water. It is a messy, barefoot, mud-up-to-your-knees-and-elbows procedure but does save a lot of work!

Spacing and watering are appropriate for all transplants but there are a couple of species that have some special needs. While most veg like to be planted so the crown remains at the soil surface, tomatoes will grow roots from the areas of their stems that are below the soil surface. More roots means more tomatoes, so plant them deeply. A neat trick to accomplish this if the topsoil is not sufficiently deep to allow deep planting or the tomato seedling is just too tall, is to position the plant at an angle in the soil so the root ball and much of the stem are buried and just the upper stem and leaves are exposed.

Brassicas, especially cabbages, present another problem. The fly that is the mother of cabbage root maggots is attracted to lay her eggs in the moist soil that is created in the transplanting process. This is becoming more of a problem every year, so now I am taking a length of row cover with me to the garden at transplanting time and immediately covering each plant as I move down the row. Once the row is completed, I trade the row cover for a permanent screen box that will keep out all the many insects that love to feed on brassicas.

Another note on making life easier is that in the last few years I have been doing transplanting using a dibbler made from the handle of an old garden fork. It has made the whole process incredibly less difficult. So much so that I now prefer to transplant seedlings than to direct sow many things.

I tried to find a video that shows how to use a dibbler but the best I could find includes some information about bed preparation and using other tools. (The notes below the video do give the option of going directly to the dibbler section at 14:18 minutes.)  The gardener in the video is working in a very different climate than my Zone 1b prairie garden, so his “winter” is much milder. We can’t all be fortunate enough to have snow for 8 months of the year!

Aftercare for transplants includes more watering if dry and keeping an eye on the weather forecast. Covering the plants with an old sheet or blanket if frost threatens will save many plants and all your hard work. Note: plastic sheeting, even plastic tarps,  will not protect plants from frost.

A Prairie Alphabet Collection – Illustrated by Yvette Moore

Growing Stevia

Stevia is a wonderful little plant. It grows into a miniature bush whose leaves are packed with sweetness but precious few calories. It can be used as a natural sugar replacement for anyone with a sweet tooth who wishes to avoid both the calories of sugar and the scary aspects of artificial sweeteners.

Once growing, the little plants are quite resilient to both sun and shade and survive both hot and cold weather, although they cannot tolerate freezing temperatures. The only problem I have with stevia is that I have found it incredibly hard to get the seeds to germinate. The seed is somewhat narrower than a human hair, less than a millimeter long, and exceptionally expensive. Last year after three trials, I decided to save money and bought six plants from a nursery.

In a further attempt to be economical, I tried to take some slips from those plants last fall and brought 2 of the plants indoors for the winter. The whole process was only partially successful. All the slips died without rooting even though I tried every imaginable way of starting them: in soil in potting mix, in water, with and without rooting hormone, with and without plant food. Additionally, only one potted plant lived through the winter. That one however is healthy and happy, so I decided to try the slips again.

I cut three and planted 2 directly into cells in a capillary mat seeding tray. The third one I put in water in a small vase and set it at the back of my kitchen sink so I would remember to refill the water as needed. The soil planted slips failed to root well enough to thrive. They are both wilted and probably dying. However, the one in plain water on the kitchen sink that only gets a little florescent light each day, rooted very well. It has since been transplanted into a cell in the cap mat tray and is doing well.  (Centre cell.) So what is going one here? Difference in lighting? Water vs. soil? Temperature? Who knows? But not to mess with success, I cut two more slips from the mother plant to repeat the experiment and they are both starting to form some roots as well. (jpg 4)

Perhaps it is just the season and now that it is spring, plants just are wanting to grow.

To everything there is a season,
A time for every purpose under heaven:

Back to Basics – Direct Seeding the Heat Loving Veggies

A couple weeks ago Back to Basics looked at direct seeding cold tolerant species. The other bunch of veg that can be direct sown are those that don’t have to really mature before we use them.

Beans of all kinds cannot tolerate frost (although fava varieties will give it a good try). It is best not to plant bean seeds until the soil is warm enough. How warm? If you can comfortably put your bare foot into the garden, it will be fine to seed beans, corn, carrots, and cucumbers.

We can get away with direct seeding these heat lovers even in our short season because we are going to pick and eat their fruits long before they are mature. Caveat: If one wishes to grow beans for dried beans one must choose a short season variety and be prepared to cover them through a few early frosts in the fall.

I also direct seed squash seeds once the soil is warm. I can count of getting some summer squash like zucchini and hook-neck, but the winter squash are always a little of a gamble. Perhaps that makes then all the more enjoyable when they do come through. I have tried starting them early indoors and transplanting them but have not found that they matured any sooner. All cucurbits are susceptible to transplant shock.

I find it best not to plant the warm-soil seeds until the first week of June. By waiting until the soil is warm the seeds can sprout and grow enthusiastically without any likelihood of rotting in cold wet soil or any set back due to overly cold nights This gives me an opportunity to hoe off the first flush of annual weeds at the same time as seeding the vegetables.

So now we know what to seed and when, how does one actually do it? Seed placement depends on the species. Most seed packages will include information about how deep to plant seeds, how far apart and what distance the rows should be from each other.  Those instructions are great for ideal conditions, but one has to work with the soil and climatic conditions one has. My garden is usually dry and I mostly depend on the rain to water it.  I try to plant the seeds into moist soil even if I have to dig a little deeper that the recommended depth to find moisture. I also make sure there is adequate spacing between both the rows and the plants within the row so plants have plenty of soil from which to seek moisture. Centering the plants at about the same distance apart as the diameter of the mature plant is usually fine. (E.g., bush beans need to be 4-6 inches apart and potatoes about 18 – 24 inches apart.) There are 2 ways to achieve the spacing within the row. One can either be very careful about seed placement and then hope all the planted seeds germinate or place the seeds more closely and then thin out the resulting excess plants. I do both depending on the variety. I don’t mind thinning varieties when I can eat the baby greens – things like beets and lettuce. But I try to be careful about how I seed some of the things that are not too good in the salad bowl.

I should also mention the ancient and accepted practice of soaking seeds to speed germination – I don’t – for 2 reasons. First, some research has found the soaking seeds may cause the seeds to over swell causing the seed coating to breech prematurely, This exposes the seed to disease organisms. Second, I am planting into a dry soil. If I soak the seed, I may have caused it to begin to sprout when there is not enough moisture in the soil to sustain it. Dry seeds seeded into dry soil will wait for the moisture to come to them either by rainfall or capillary action in the soil. In very dry conditions I do sometimes fill the row with water and allow it to soak in before seeding.

Sowing seeds is always a gamble with the weather and the season and the soil. We are betting against drought, flood, frost and bugs but one thing is sure: Seeds won’t grow if we don’t put them in the ground.  Go plant something!

Perennial Favorites

It seems like once again we have simply skipped the spring season here in Zone 1b and gone from winter cold to summer heat in a couple days. With the warmer temperatures have come some welcome appearances in the garden. These are the plants that provide some early summer freshness in what some places call the “hungry gap”. That is the time when winter stored supplies are exhausted and spring plantings are far from harvest.

In the last week we have been enjoying spears from our faithful, forty-year-old asparagus patch. After one generous watering it has responded with joyful spring abandon.

Rhubarb is popping up strongly. I have already snitched a few small stems to eat raw, and there might be enough for a crisp for tonight’s dessert. We have an old green variety that is no more sour than a grapefruit. In our patch the red rhubarb is redder, but the green one is sweeter!

And of course, the Egyptian onions are ready for harvesting. I planted a few of the bulbils last fall to have a row to pull this spring. Keeping one “mother plant” in the herb garden provides enough bulbils to plant in fall that we have fresh green onions almost from the time the snow melts until the multipliers are ready.

Those are about the only 3 perennial veg that one can really count on in Zone 1b, but there are a few other options.

Some spinach that I seeded late last fall has germinated and is almost salad size, as is some volunteer

Black Seeded Simpson lettuce growing where last year I grew out one plant for seed saving.

There was a short row of parsnips that were just too difficult to dig out of last fall’s hard dry soil. It was a good thing because this spring they were so much more delicious! I have planned for planting a row this spring with the intention of leaving them in the ground over winter!

Fall-planted garlic is also sprouting and while it won’t be ready for harvest until late in the summer, we can snitch a few greens to spice up the salad.

But of course, this is Saskatchewan. If you don’t like the weather, just wait a minute. It will change. After 2 days in the 30’s (Celsius) there are freezing nights and possibly some snow in the forecast!  Yeah…

Back to Basics – Food Production

Flowers, landscaping and communing with nature are all great reasons for starting a garden but if basic food production is the goal there are a few species that we should think about. Let’s make easy predictable growth, space saving, great nutrition, and easy storage of the produce the objectives.

So what have we got?

Salad greens including lettuces, mustards, Asian greens, spinach, and other leafy greens are quick growing crops that provide some serious vitamins and minerals. Check out Carol Deppe’s Eat All Greens idea for small gardens that need to produce a lot of food really quickly. Most of these crops are also amenable to containers or succession plantings through the growing season and can be started early indoors for an even earlier crop.  

Swiss Chard is another ‘green’ staple in our house. It is probably the mildest of the cooking greens. It takes awhile to mature to a usable size in the garden, but once grown is usable for a long time since it is quite frost tolerant. I am not crazy about kale, but if you like it that is another frost tolerant green that can stay in the garden late in the fall extending the production period.

Bush beans are another crop that fits comfortably into a container or a small garden bed. Try planting them along the very edge of the bed where they can hang over the edge when they and their neighboring veg get bigger. Many varieties of bush beans will be ready to pick in less than a couple months as tasty pods or can be left on the plants to dry for winter storage of the beans. Although some bean cultivars are grown mainly for fresh eating and some for dried beans, any can be used for either purpose. My suggestion: choose a variety for green beans and leave the pods that get overmature before picking to mature for dried beans (or next year’s seed!)

Potatoes are a maybe. They provide a whopping amount of food for the garden space they use, but they are also relatively inexpensive to purchase. If garden space is not limited plant some spuds. They are easy to grow, compete well with weeds and tolerate quite a variety of climatic conditions. Potatoes store well in any cold dark place or make really tasty meals when young.

There are a number of other root crops that can produce a lot of food in very little garden space. White or summer turnips grow easily from direct seeding even in a deep planter. They are another quick easy veg for fresh summer eating and can be cooked when larger but are not as tasty cooked as Rutabaga. The winter storage rutabaga take longer to mature but are also easy to grow and can stay in the garden for late fall use getting even sweeter after some frost.

Beets can be direct seeded and are quite faithful producers. Baby beets can be ready quite early in the season or left to grow into large roots later on. Beets are like getting a two-for-one deal. The leafy tops are one of the tastiest greens one can grow. As salad leaves when young or cooked greens when larger, they are practically a nutritional super food. Beets will keep for a few months in cold storage, but I prefer to freeze them because it is just so easy.

Carrots can be a little tricky to germinate but once established are pretty easy to grow and can stay in the ground almost until the snow comes or be pulled to eat as tasty baby veg. Even the tops are edible and can be used in soups and stews like parsley. Taste a bit first to see if you like it. Carrots can be stored in a cold room for months. If no cold room is available, washed grated and frozen carrot root is handy to add to warm winter soups.

Are you a parsnip lover? These are the easiest to grow and require no special storage at all. Direct seed in late fall or early spring. Ignore them all summer and dig large roots for fall meals or leave them in the ground to dig early the next spring when they are even tastier!

If I had to choose only one variety of onions and I had only a pot of soil to grow them in, I would grow multiplier onions. The bulbs or “sets” can be a bit pricy, but you only have to buy them once. They provide quick tasty green onions early in the season. You can even trim the leaves off a couple times to spice up the salad bowl before the actual onions are ready to use. Each of the bulbs that are planted will divide into a bunch of several green onions. Any bunch is left to mature can be dug up in the fall, separated and stored to replant next year or even started in a flowerpot indoors for a fresh onion treat in the winter.  If there is adequate garden space a few onion sets of a bulbing variety are an easy option for producing some food. They are simple to plant directly into the garden and grow well but, like potatoes, are one of the more affordable veg to purchase; so you might not to want to give them garden space. If you have some permanent garden space, try to get a few Egyptian Walking onions from someone who has some. (They are insanely easy to grow and insanely expensive to buy!) This perennial onion will give you fresh green onions almost as soon as the snow is gone or let you cut onion “greens” all summer long.

Tomatoes are another good choice for small gardens. There are cultivars available to suit any garden situation and any gardener’s taste. For small gardens and containers look for determinate (non-staking) varieties advertised as “patio” or “dwarf”. If the fruits are not ripened before frost threatens in the fall, they can be picked green and ripened indoors.

Winter squash are large ranging plants but only the root needs to be in the garden. If there is a spot adjacent to the garden bed where the vines can roam, or climb, winter squash can grow out some tasty nutritious fruits. The bonus is they are easy to store indoors over several months. Summer squash like zucchini are more compact but still a large plant. However, they can produce copious amounts of fruit so might justify the garden space they will occupy.

What about the other old garden staples, peas and corn? Both take a lot of space for the amount of food they actually produce. Sweet corn is really only a treat when it is in season and then it is cheap to buy. Snap peas with their edible pods could be grown on a trellis so would not take as much space, but shelling peas are a lot of work for precious little return.  

All this is not really basic as far as the actual planting and growing tasks of maintaining a vegetable garden, but choosing how to use the limited real estate of the garden bed can seriously enhance its effectiveness in producing food. Happy gardening!

Back to Basics – Avoiding Transplant Shock

Hardening off the transplants is one of the Back to Basics rituals that all gardeners have to observe. We’ve cared for our little baby seedlings with lots of TLC, are we now we are going to toss out into the wind and weather and forget them? No. The transition from indoor to outdoor life can be devastating for tender seedlings. If we don’t want the shock to kill them or permanently weaken them, we have to make it a gradual transition. Even the life-giving sun can be too much for tender seedlings.

Once the weather is approaching the point in spring that you are about a week away from moving the plants outdoors for the season, they need to start getting acclimatized to the outdoors. Your little baby plants have led a sheltered life. Either in your own care or even if you bought them from a nursery’s greenhouse, they have had little exposure to direct sunshine and no exposure to the wind.

They need to overnight indoors, out of danger of frost, then be moved out into the daylight again each morning. You might start by putting them in the shade for a day or two and gradually moving them to sunnier locations if they are sun loving plants. Even a cactus can get sunburned if it has been living in the shade and suddenly gets put out in bright hot sunshine. If one has a wheeled tray or wheelbarrow that they can sit in, it makes it easier to roll them in and out of a garage or shed. A children’s wagon works well. One crucial point in this process is to make sure the plants have adequate water and drainage. Sitting out in the sun and wind they will dry out faster than they would indoors. They may need a midday watering.

Hardening-off is one gardening task that can be made easier with the use of a cold frame. Plants can be transitioned to outdoor conditions with the frame open in the day time and protected from colder temperatures by closing it up at night. I get away with some laxity in hardening off plants in my small greenhouse by just opening the doors on both the east and west ends and letting the wind blow through during the day, closing up at night; then planting out the transplants when the weather forecast is for a few days of heavy cloud cover. I really like to set out my transplants on a rainy day when the ground is well saturated. It is muddy and messy – but effective. We do what works!

That’s about all there is to it. In a week or so seedlings will be all toughened up and ready to go out to the garden and GROW!

Back to Basics – Direct Seeding the Cold Tolerant Veggies

Direct seeding is about as Back to Basics as one can get and about the easiest way to plant a garden. Direct seeding means actually putting the seeds in the ground in the same place where the resulting plants will grow to maturity. So why do all the extra work of fussing around with seed starting and transplanting? Because this is Zone 1b. We have to be lucky to get more than 90 frost free days in a year, and many species of veg need a lot more than that to get to the point where they have grown anything we would consider food.  Many, but not all, and those that can either stand a little cold or grow quickly can be direct seeded.

Let’s look at the tough guys first. Plants that originated in cooler climates will generally do well when direct seeded. Most annual brassicas like radish, turnip, mustard greens, rapini and the Asian greens like tatsoi and even bok choy will do fine going straight into the garden. Biennial brassicas like cabbage and rutabaga and broccoli and kale can be direct seeded but will do better with a little head start in a seed starting tray. Peas are also a good candidate for early planting into cool soil as are all the beet, chard and spinach crops and most salad greens. They may take a little longer than expected to germinate if the soil is very cold, but they seem to know when it is a good time to sprout. I can usually plant these hardy species in mid to late May.  Mature carrots can tolerate some cold in the fall for sure, but I have never had much success planting them too early in the spring.

I also plant potatoes in that same time frame. The long weekend in May is the traditional time for this and always seems to work out well. Potatoes are not a frost tolerant plant but even if the first leaves are frost-killed the tubers deep in the soil are usually fine and will regrow some new leaves and stems. If one is aware of pending frost one can hoe a little loose soil over the emerging greenery to protect potato plants. This is also when I plant onion sets. I cover them with soil to protect them from cold nights and by the time the weather has warmed, the wind and rain have uncovered them a bit. They like to have their shoulders out of the covers!

We have to wait a little longer to seed the heat lovers like beans, corn, cukes and pun’kins!