Some days, it’s for the birds!

A hedgerow provides a barrier between the neighbor’s field and our yard. One side of the hedgerow borders my garden. Even with a width only of approximately 15 feet, it shelters many animals. We see rabbits, groundhogs, foxes in the nearby field, and birds. So. Many. Birds. It’s peaceful to weed and listen to their chirping.

We’ve seen woodpeckers, pileated and downy, goldfinches, cardinals, bluebirds, hawks, crows, even a bald eagle nearby…not to mention the numerous sparrows, robins, and red-winged black birds. The list goes on…

I love that these creatures share our property, but when I plant food, I want to eat it. I have been known to chase a chicken after she poked a hole in my first red pepper of the season. I wonder how many of my neighbors heard the crazy woman screaming, “Bar-be-que!”

That little experience influenced the installation of my first garden fence.

We now live in a different location, but part of the fence has stayed. I think I’m afraid to take it down, not knowing whether the rabbits will destroy my months of indoor seed-starting during their overnight buffet.

Last year, in addition to a fence, I put bird-netting over my strawberries. It kept most of the birds away, but a few got caught in it. We released the ones we could save. This year, I haven’t put the netting over them…yet.

I left the winter row covers partially attached. They may have deterred birds by hiding the berries. So far, I’ve lost only a few berries to birds. Is the netting worth it? Maybe not for full grown strawberries that have an abundance of leaves to hide the deliciousness.

strawberry covers
Strawberries partially covered with row cover. This way, the bees can work.

But our blueberries told a different story. I experimented last year and didn’t cover our bushes. I thought the birds would get some but leave most of them. The berries hung on the plants, promising our first nice crop since planting them. (Blueberries take several years to mature.) Blue tinged the edges of the berries. Then, just before they were ready to pick and pop in our mouths, the birds ate them. Every. Single. One.

bb net
We reused an old chicken pen to frame and covered these berries. We’ve already been tasting, but the birds have not. 

Conclusion? Cover blueberries unless you want to feed the birds with those plump morsels. I don’t.

Strawberries can go either way.

Fences deter rabbits, groundhogs AND hungry chickens. I keep the back half of my garden fenced because it’s so close to the hedgerow.

fence
Here you can see how close our garden is to the hedgerow. Our chicken wire fence separates the straw covered potatoes and the trellised cucumbers before continuing around the back of the garden. 

What are some of the ways you combat critters in your garden? Please share in the comments below.

Heat vs. water

Summer popped in and said, “Hello!” this week. We spent many hours in the presence of water as temperatures rose into the nineties. It hasn’t been sweltering like summer in August but it still called for a refreshing dip in the pool…or a massive cannonball splash.

Plants feel that way, too. When hot weather hits, they need water. Starting seeds becomes increasingly tricky as the temperatures rise. Most of them germinate faster, but it takes vigilance to keep them moist until they have roots long enough to dip below the top few inches of baked, dry earth to catch a sip of water.

I’ve heard it said that a little watering provides great crop insurance. When I started supplemental watering, I noticed big changes in the amount and quality of my garden produce.

Here are several things I have used in my efforts to retain moisture during hot spells.

  • Constant checking. Morning and night, I check the garden for dryness by scratching the soil with my finger or a short stick. In doing this, I can see how deep I have to go to find moisture. The lighter, dustier soil has less moisture present. The darker, stickier soil has more moisture present. This method shows me when I need to water. During the driest parts of the summer, I may need to water some crops each day. After watering, this is a great way to find out how deep the water soaked into the soil. It should be wet several inches deep following a thorough watering.
  • Good, old hose. For years, I watered my garden with a watering wand attached to a hose. I walked slowly down the rows. My family helped pull it back out so I didn’t flatten any plants. My garden is around 2000 sq. ft. It’s big enough to make watering with a hose very time consuming. With a smaller garden, this can work effectively.
  • Row covers for seed-starting. When starting seeds in the middle of summer, I sometimes use row covers. This buys me a little more time before the sun and wind dry out the soil. I usually fasten my row covers to hoop frames, but some people just lay it right over the rows.
junerowcover
Here is a row cover. They are also great protection against garden pests! This one hides my cabbages and brussel sprouts from cabbage worms. 
  • Sprinklers. I have used a couple of different sprinklers, a small, moveable one and a whole garden one. Sprinklers are a great, cheap way to have hands-off watering. Of the two, I preferred using the whole garden sprinkler. I could set it in one area and trust it to water everything. It stood several feet above the ground, so even tall crops were not a problem. The moveable one only reached a small area and tall crops got in the way of the spray because it sat on the ground.
  • Drip irrigation. Last year, we installed a drip irrigation system. This method is my new favorite. It puts the water right where the plants need it most without watering the weeds too. It requires very little attention from me, leaving me free to work at other things while it waters. AND many places allow drip systems during droughts because they use so little water.

Please share your watering methods and tips in the comments below!

Happy watering!

Weed Less Gardening

I love to garden and taste its deliciousness, but life isn’t all gardening. So I like to look for ways to keep things simple rather than overwhelming. One way to cut down on garden maintenance is to weed less. A small amount of mulch helps in a big way.

My garden gets a variety of mulch…cardboard, newspaper, mushroom soil, and straw. Most crops benefit from mulching, but tomatoes and peppers, especially, thrive when grown under a layer of mulch.

I collect boxes all year to use in my summer garden. I could recycle the boxes along with our other recycled items, but I love to use them in the garden. (I don’t use any with glossy pictures. They don’t break down as nicely, and I don’t want all of the extra ink in my soil.)

I used to weed the paths between veggies. Piles and piles of weeds grew there, until I realized that I could put cardboard between my wide growing beds. The cardboard snuffs out the light, killing the weeds and any potential weeds hidden in seeds. It also keeps the paths from getting too muddy after a good rain.  It works for an entire season before the cardboard breaks down into the soil.

Newspaper comes in handy between plants because it’s easier to bend around them. Several layers of it effectively keeps the weeds down while holding in moisture just where I want it, at my plants’ roots. I top the newspaper with mushroom soil for an additional nutrient boost. This combination creates those thriving tomatoes and peppers.

June2017GH
A peek inside the greenhouse at those fast growing tomatoes. I will put that layer of mushroom soil around their roots in the next week or two, giving them another boost of nutrients.

No more thin-walled peppers and average tomatoes for this house!

Mushroom soil feeds them for most of the summer with very little need to weed. Though weeding can be therapeutic, I still prefer to weed less.

Remember, though, these crops like hot weather, so don’t mulch when the weather is still averaging 50 degree temperatures. It will retain the cold soil temperatures rather than just the moisture.

Straw works great for strawberries in the winter. I cover them with a couple of inches of loose straw to keep them from freezing too hard. Then, in the spring, I uncover the plants and use the straw for mulch. This protects the berries from the dirt (and bugs that dwell there). They lay bright and beautiful on top.

This year, I have a lot of extra straw from my straw cold frame, so I will cover my cardboard paths with straw and use it to mulch other crops that might not need as many nutrients, like carrots. It will also work well through next winter to overwinter those sweet winter carrots, potatoes, and onions.

What are your experiences with or without mulch?

Strawberries!

This post is a little about gardening and more about eating because…strawberries. Need I say more?

Judging by the berries I picked this morning, it’s shaping up to be a good spring for strawberries.

Can’t say I’m disappointed. I wait all year for those fresh picked beauties warmed in the sun.

I can’t believe how I have to remind my son to keep his fingers off of them before they’re fully ripe. I guess he’s been waiting all year, too. Soon, they’ll grow so thickly it won’t matter, but that first week…when we’re all longing for a taste…only to find his fingers dyed red and his face covered in sticky splotches. My mouth waters for a taste…even if I’m secretly laughing at his sneaky snitching.

Part of the joy of a garden is the satisfaction that something tastes good enough to make a child sneak a taste. As the summer progresses, I’ll find my children avoiding chores deep in the lush vegetation of the rows, feeding their hungry spots. And…I plant for that. We still have enough for the rest of us.

I grow several varieties of strawberries.

My goal? I want to grow enough strawberries to supply us for a year. No small task. I usually go to a local strawberry farm to pick berries for freezing. For years, the ones I grew disappeared so fast that we didn’t have many left to freeze. Why? When they’re right outside the back door, we eat them. Fresh berries are the best, but in the dead of winter when only apples are left, it’s nice to have a smoothie from leftover summer abundance.

Strawberries come in several forms. Here, I grow alpine strawberries, June bearers, and day-neutral strawberries.

Alpine strawberries aren’t much bigger than wild strawberries. Mine are white, but they come in reds, too. These plants don’t shoot runners. They grow in clumps that keep getting bigger from year to year. This makes them easy to grow in flowerbeds. Our alpine strawberries rarely make it to the house.

June bearers are strawberries that produce berries in June and stop. We grow Jewel for its sweetness. June bearers and day-neutral berries reproduce through runners, small vines sent from the mother plant to root a new plant in a spot nearby.

We have several varieties of day-neutral strawberries, Albion (a large, dessert berry), Tribute (good flavor with high yields), and Pineberry (white with red seeds). Day-neutral strawberries produce three crops of berries, one in June, one in mid- to late-summer, and one in late October/early November. In fact, sometimes we pick our most flavorful berries just as frost takes them away. A good reason to do a little winter garden coverage.

On to those delicious ideas.

We love fresh berries on granola

in pie and shortcake… 

berry recipes

in jam

And dipped in chocolate…

berries and quarter
Perfect shape and size for dipping in chocolate.

How do you like your berries?

Vining, Climbing Crops

Over the years, trellises have become some of my greatest garden tools. I love growing things that climb. Not only do they look neat, but they also save space, prevent rotting fruit, and deter pests. Don’t forget…veggies are easier to pick on trellises, too!

What kinds of things grow up? Well, everything matures, but what climbs? Typical vining crops include peas, cucumbers, winter squash, indeterminate tomatoes, melons, and pumpkins. Some people grow pole beans, too (I prefer bush beans).

Most of these will climb a trellis without much help. Lean a pea plant or a cucumber against a trellis, and it will climb with its curly fingers. I check once in a while to make sure the plant doesn’t do a nose-dive, but usually, they are fine on their own.

Tomatoes need a little encouragement. They don’t have tendrils like the rest.

In my garden, I support plants with stakes, tomato cages, trellises with string, and A-frame trellises.

I use stakes for determinate type tomatoes. These tomatoes grow for a while and stop, like a bush. Roma tomatoes are the only determinate tomatoes in my garden. My four foot high stakes provide just the right stability for their needs. Occasionally, I’ll stake peppers. They get top heavy as the summer progresses.

Tomato cages also work well for determinate tomatoes, but they hold up to the indeterminate tomatoes, too, if you don’t mind them tumbling over the top. Indeterminate tomatoes vine. Well taken care of, they will reap rewards until frost kills them.

Trellises with string are my new favorite method of growing tomatoes that vine. Here are some pictures at the beginning and middle of the summer last year. You can see how the tomatoes grow up the string.

string trellis
A trellis before strings
2016 young trellised tomatoes
2016 tomatoes, one string per plant
2016 trellised tomatoes
2016 indeterminate tomatoes growing over the top of the trellis

Our A-frame trellises are new, too. My husband fashioned them out of some old goat fencing. He cut the fence pieces in half and wired the tops together, making great moveable trellises, perfect for peas, cucumbers, and butternuts. When I use them outside in the garden, I tie the corners to small stakes. That way, when the squash vines cover them the trellises stay in place. I can make them low and wide or tall and thin, like pictured here. And plants can grow up both sides.

A-style trellis

This year, I’ll experiment with growing larger pumpkins on a trellis. I’ve read that it’s possible if you support the growing fruit, providing it a little hammock to help hold the weight.

Butternut squash get pretty big sometimes, but mine hang from a trellis without extra support. Pumpkins are another story. I doubt the stems will hold fruit weighing over ten pounds.

How much space do you save using trellises? Here are some approximate examples.

Crop Planting distance with trellis Planting distance without trellis
Tomato 15” 36”
Cucumber 18” 36”
Pumpkin/winter squash 12” Same, but on the ground, these plants sprawl over great areas, shading out all other plants. I’ve had pumpkins travel over 15’ in several directions from one plant.

Do you use trellises? What kind?

Feel free to share in the comments below. I’d love to hear from you.

Time to plan…again…

yet, still.

 

first blooming cosmos
First blooming cosmos. I know, not really related to the post, except it shows that gorgeous sun!

 

I think the cold, rainy weather of this spring has passed. Shhh…let’s not say it too loudly yet.

The green of the trees and grass (and weeds!) looks brilliant against the blue of the sky. Clean and fresh. The rolling mountain outside my window turns greener by the day.

With several early crops growing, I started looking ahead to plan my next plantings. I hope to grow intensively in my garden this year, making plantings one after another throughout the year as much as possible. To time them correctly, I must plan ahead. Otherwise, I might have mercy on my nearly dead plants and leave them in the ground too long waiting for just one more handful of peas. Then, the time for another crop to produce before the big slowdown of fall and winter vanishes.

I pulled out my seed packets and made a list of the crops in the ground: carrots, peas, lettuces, spinach, beets, brussel sprouts, cabbages, leeks, onions, scallions, shallots, and a few beans, peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, nasturtiums with one yellow summer squash.

Wow! More than I thought!

Some of the warm weather crops are out early because I want to experiment with timing. How early can I get them into the garden and still produce a decent yield? Or will I find out that those started in colder weather grow as quickly as those started a couple of weeks later when the weather warms up a notch?

On the list of crops, I also noted the number of days until harvest and the expected harvest dates. Keep in mind, though, that harvest dates are an estimate based on ideal growing conditions.

The finicky conditions of spring are far from ideal. By this, I mean that sometimes, it feels like June in March. Then, the weather remembers it’s early and goes back to bed, struggling to move past April. And sometimes, April heats up like June followed by May touting April temperatures (did you follow that?)…like this year. One day, I wore shorts. A week later, I huddled in a blanket at the sidelines of several soccer games wishing for a hot cup of coffee.

And yes, just as I thought frost was a memory, night time temps dropped to the low 30s. We didn’t have frost (I don’t know how!), but I covered everything I could in a mad rush. Phew! No repeat of last year when our apple blossoms froze. Too big to cover.

Back to that chart. See how much I avoid planning sometimes?

Once I had the harvest dates, I looked at my summer crops and compared them with my garden beds, asking myself, where will I have room and when?

It turns out, I’ll have lots of room.

Peas, scallions, cabbage crops, early carrots and beets will all be out by July, and July leaves a whopping 90+ days until our first frost date. Should I plant beans or corn (that might be tight) or fall/winter carrots or kohlrabi or onions or cucumbers or…

What is your favorite spring veggie, and what would you replace it with for summer?

It’s like looking for a potato in a straw stack…

Isn’t that how the saying goes? Never mind.

Years ago, I knew someone who grew potatoes under straw. It amazed me to see them reach under the straw and pull out clean potatoes. They’re wet, if the weather has cooperated, but totally dirt-free. I don’t mind hosing a few pieces of straw off my potatoes before taking them into the house. It sure beats scrubbing the dirt out of each little crevice.

potsunderstraw.jpg
I started a new garden bed for my potatoes this year. After killing most of the weeds with black plastic (see it by the chicken coop?), I dug the shallow trench for planting potatoes. The rows between are layered with newspaper (to keep the weeds from growing) and straw.

Last year, I decided to try it.

Through the winter, I tend to grab the big potatoes first. By early to mid-winter, the small potatoes have sprouted eyes. When spring comes, those eyes reach nearly a foot long.

Now what? I have eyes peeping out and around every slat in my potato crate.

Put them in the ground anyway. Plant small potatoes whole, even with overgrown eyes.

I used to do the hill-up-dirt, wait, hill-up-more-dirt, wait, dig-up-potatoes method. It worked. I grew nice potatoes. My kids loved finding the buried treasures hidden with the worms. But my back ached when I finished.

Using straw (especially if you have it accessible from an overwinter cold frame) saves my back a lot of pain. I dig a shallow trench, mix in a little compost, space the leftover potatoes about a foot apart, and cover them lightly with soil before heaping 4-6” of straw on top. When the green tops poke through, I add more straw. After piling straw around the plants a couple of times, I wait for potatoes.

When that new potato urge comes, just pull back some of the straw to check for the little morsels. The potatoes lie right on top of the dirt, much cleaner than when I brushed crusted dirt off of them.

As I plant my summer garden, I’m already thinking of winter growing. Do you remember those carrots I dug out of the ground during the coldest months? The roots were crisp and delicious. I think I’ll leave some of my potatoes in the garden to harvest when the snow flies. Will the ground and straw act like a root cellar for me, or will the tubers turn to mush? I’m curious to find out.

The only bummer? I won’t have foot-long eyes on my potatoes if it works.

Here’s one of our favorite tuber recipes: smashed potatoes.

How do you like your potatoes?