Archive for May, 2013

Transplanting

Phelan Gardens was packed. Hello, Memorial Day weekend.

Phelan Gardens was packed. Hello, Memorial Day weekend.

As I’ve mentioned before, I got a slow start on prepping my beds and getting things in the ground this year. However, given how unpredictable the weather has been this spring (more so than usual for Colorado), I would rather get my plants in late than risk a late frost. Potatoes will do fine with one, but tomatoes, peppers, and squash will not. I got my Ranch Community Garden bed turned on Friday, and planted it yesterday- Wednesday. I purchased most of the plants on Saturday, but I waited to put them in because I wanted the blood meal to have half a chance to filter through the soil. Also, the straw and a couple of weeds that were turned in will start decomposing. This eats up the available nitrogen that my plants need. While a few days isn’t enough to really get things settled down, it was all the time I had.

These are ready to go in the ground.

These are ready to go in the ground.

I missed the plant sale at the Denver Botanic Gardens, so I went to Phelan Gardens to pick up most of my plants. By going there, instead of to, say, Lowes, or a grocery store, I was able to not only get some heirloom tomatoes, but I knew that many of the plants were grown right here in Colorado in their own greenhouse instead of shipped in from some lush nursery on the west coast. If it’s raised here, then there will be less shock when it deals with having to grow here. The other perk of waiting a couple of days to plant my plants after I bought them is that they were able to sit outside and “harden off” before they went through the shock of being transplanted. All of the frost-sensitive plants were sold from in the greenhouse, so sitting them on the back stoop for a couple of days let them get used to the harsh sun and wind that comes with not being under cover.

The Brandywine tomato (on the right) almost looks more like a potato plant at this stage.

The Brandywine tomato (on the right) almost looks more like a potato plant at this stage.

I’m most excited about my tomatoes. Nothing beats a garden tomato. Even the “vine-ripened” ones that you pay too much for at the grocery store can’t hold a candle to one you actually pick off the vine yourself. I got four plants, two of a size to slice, two of a size to eat whole. Three are heirlooms, and one of the heirlooms is yellow. It’s actually called a pear tomato, so I’m really excited to see what it looks and tastes like a little later this summer. One of the heirlooms even has differently-shaped leaves than the others. Genetic diversity is important. The more identical plants or animals are, the more likely it is that they can all be wiped out by the same disease or weather event. The tomatoes were planted with a pretty purple dwarf basil that contrasts nicely with the orange marigolds. The marigolds are to help attract pollinators, and to reduce the nematode population.

Don't forget to plant for aesthetics, too. Just because I'm planting food, doesn't mean it can't be pretty, too.

Don’t forget to plant for aesthetics, too. Just because I’m planting food, doesn’t mean it can’t be pretty.

For most plants, the general rule is to plant them as deep as they were in the pot you took them out of. However, there are a few exceptions. Tomatoes come in “determinate” and “indeterminate” varieties. The determinate varieties grow to a particular height and then bush out. They can also be called bush tomatoes. They tend to fruit all at once, which means that for a couple of weeks, you are swamped in tomatoes, but that’s it. Indeterminate varieties just keep growing taller, and they tend to fruit fairly constantly from the time they first flower until a frost kills them. All four of mine are indeterminate, so I got to take advantage of another cool thing about them. You can bury them pretty much up to the top. Any buried leaves will become roots. By doing this, you are automatically extending the root system. Strong roots make for strong plants. When you’re buying a plant, you want a short, bushy one. If you ended up with a tall, leggy one, you can also use this to take some height off the plant to help it hold itself up.

That big branch out to the left is at ground level.

That big branch out to the left is at ground level.

The other thing I planted in the RCG bed is peppers. I’m not so big on them, myself, but my roommate loves them, so that gave me an excuse to collect some. I might have gone slightly overboard with picking different varieties, but between freezing and drying the extras, we should be able to keep up with them. The cayenne already has a flower and two buds. She’s taking this reproducing thing seriously, getting a jump on the pollinators before the other peppers start making demands, too.

Hot to trot, baby!

Hot to trot, baby!

I think you can see fairly well that the plants all are each in their own little saucer of earth. The idea, particularly for new transplants, is  to catch all the available water and funnel it directly to the roots. Being transplanted is hard on a plant, so by making sure that they have easily accessible water, I am giving them their best chance at recovering and thriving. That’s also why I moved the drip lines to drip as close to the plants as possible.

That's a lot of peppers for a non-pepper person.

That’s a lot of peppers for a non-pepper person.

The wind may or may not let the straw stay in place, but I re-buried the garden in it to help retain moisture. As of the end of April, we are back to having only half of the expected moisture, year-to-date.  You will see that I planted the plants closer than the recommended distance. The peppers stated 18″ between plants, and I planted them 12″ apart. Once they mature, the plants themselves will do what the straw is doing now. Namely, shading out weeds and keeping the sun from stealing all the moisture from the soil. It also means that I got four peppers in a four-foot space instead of three.

Planting 016

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Losing Topsoil

The other day, I was on a bodybuilding site reading through a comment battle between vegetarians and vegans versus the meat eaters. Yes, this is a form of entertainment for me. One of the commenters pointed out that veganism isn’t the solution since we may well run out of topsoil in 60 years.

WHAT?

Running out of oil makes sense. So does running out of potable water. But soil? Ok, so I guess I knew that it was being degraded, but it’s really scary to think that I might live long enough to see the end of enough topsoil to support agriculture. With only a moment of research, Time magazine supported that assertion for me. The article goes on to point out that what is missing from the soil will be missing from the plants grown in the soil. So even before the soil is considered to be unusable, it’s already being less useful to those of us depending on it. Another point the article makes is that degraded soil doesn’t hold water. The worse the soil is, the less effective irrigation is.

First- why are we destroying our soil? The short answer is, we are taking and not giving. When we do give, it may well be poisoned. On most conventional farms, they’re simply too big to do things like till in nicely decomposed manure in the spring, or spread fresh manure after harvest in the fall. Spring in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania was invariably announced with the smell of manure. The Amish farms would start their field prep by spreading the manure from their cows on their farm fields. Given a choice, Amish fruits and vegetables were the way to go when we were growing up, when we didn’t get enough out of our own garden. However big the Amish farm is, though, it is just a drop in the bucket compared to the operations that supply grocery stores. A family-sized herd of cows won’t give nearly enough manure to replace the organic material carted away to ship to the store. Their animal counterpart, CAFOs, can’t really be used, either, since the waste they produce is pretty much toxic. In short, we are pulling out organic material, vitamins, and minerals, and all we put back is “NPK.” Because, given no other choice, plants can more or less be grown on primarily nitrogen, phosphorus  and potassium. While organics are a step up from conventional produce, if you’re buying them from a big company, they’re probably still guilty of taking without giving. They just leave less poison behind.

Second- how does this affect me? When it comes down to it, I admit that what gets me moving the fastest on an issue is if I know it will have a major impact on me. This will. Already, conventionally grown vegetables (and the meat that is grown on conventionally-raised grains) offers me less vitamins and minerals than it could. Than I need. As the population grows (seriously, enough already, people) and the arable land shrinks, food prices will go up. Which means I will be paying more money for an increasingly inferior product. The more soil we lose, the more potable water we lose, since degraded soil just can’t hold on to it. I think everyone can recognize how bad that is.

So now what? I don’t own a farm that I can convert to something more sustainable. (If you do own a farm, though, that is something to keep in mind.) I do have a back yard, though. Along with the garden, I can build soil in the rest of the yard by creating a place where native plants and grasses can grow and do their thing. Going native generally means fewer chemicals (if any) and once it is established, way less upkeep. Having a healthy lawn also means that when I’ve had it with food prices, it’s much easier to convert to a healthy garden. I will already be working on the topsoil, including encouraging the growth of all the creepy-crawlies that keep a garden healthy. I can also make a more concerted effort to support those that support our soil. Buy local, buy organic, and buy from small producers. 100 acres is much easier to take good care of than 1,000. 10 acres they should know even more intimately. Buy grass-finished meat. Not only is it better for you, but it is a lot better for the environment. If you live in an apartment, ask a friend if you can help in their garden, or hijack a corner of their lawn to start your own. There aren’t many that would turn down help with pulling weeds or free, fresh veggies.

Will any or all of this fix the mess we’ve made of our farmland? Not hardly. But the less we rely on conventional farming, the less affected we will be when it collapses. The more we support responsible and sustainable farming, the more it will be seen as a viable option for those conventional farmers that just can’t do it any more. I doubt there is a single farmer out there that actually wants to destroy their fields. It behooves us to make conventional farming less profitable than sustainable farming. Help the farmers help the soil. We can’t live without it.

Prepping Another Bed

No longer my bed. They're much more on top of these things.

No longer my bed. They’re much more on top of these things.

I finally got my butt in gear and went to visit my bed at the Ranch Community Garden yesterday. I had two last year, but there was a waiting list for new gardeners, so I gave one back. After all, I’m getting a mighty slow start, and there’s only one of me, so it’s not like I really need two beds. I can feel good, though, that the person that has my bed got one that was worked correctly last year (if a bit neglectfully) and put to bed for the winter in a way that would set them up for a successful year. They, also, are clearly more on top of things than I am.

My bed. Still snugly covered up from the winter.

My bed. Still snugly covered up from the winter.

Giving up a bed also means that I only had to double-dig one four-by-eight plot. I didn’t do it last year- the beds were brand new and the soil hadn’t settled, yet, so it wasn’t really necessary. “I get why you double-dug the potatoes,” you’re thinking. “They need lots of vertical growing space underground. But why are you double-digging the bed that’s getting tomatoes and peppers?” Good question. Several reasons. The first being- I didn’t do it last year. I didn’t know the soil two shovel-lengths deep. Now I know that it’s lovely and even, without any of the crazy sand or clay patches that you can expect to find in urban soil. The fact that it has been an empty lot some ways away from the building of the church that owns the land would explain it. It is essentially un-touched soil. Now I know that under the first layer, I don’t run into rock-hard, compacted soil. It was pretty easy to dig through.

Hello, there. Don't you look healthy.

Hello, there. Don’t you look healthy.

When I was digging through, I also met enough worms that I kidnapped three to keep Herman company in Showcase 2. I was very happy to see that the decomposer population, at least the big ones, is in good shape. I don’t think that you should populate your garden with lots of imported critters. Most won’t survive Colorado, and those that do might become an invasive species. However, moving worms three blocks away from their home works fine. If you are establishing a new garden, ask a gardener friend if they have any worms to spare so you can jump-start your own population.

Before.

Before.

The last benefit is adding loft to the soil. It started out about a quarter of an inch below the top of the 2×6 board edging. It ended being an average of two inches higher than the board. Since the only thing I added was a handful of blood meal to help the nitrogen levels, that lift came from all the space that air and water now has for wending its way around the roots of the plants. I also know that my plants will be able to get their roots well below the bottom of the board edging. Raised beds are pretty and, in a public garden, useful for making sure that you stick with just the plot you paid for. However, they dry out more easily than beds that are flush with the ground. In wet areas, this is good. In the South West, though, there are some Native Americans that actually garden in lowered garden beds due to the need to preserve every drop of water we have. The deeper the plant roots go, the more water-efficient they are. This is good for both gardeners that forget to water, and ones that are on water restrictions, as we will be this summer.

After.

After.

What about no-till techniques? I think there’s a lot to be said for them. Particularly when farming on a massive scale, since plowing exposes a lot of topsoil to potential erosion. However, unless you have lucked into perfect soil, I think that for at least the first year or two, really getting down and dirty in your garden is a good idea. Will I go with a more minimal turnover for my RCG bed next year? Quite possibly. I now have the information that it is good soil, and no one will be walking on it to compact it. Will I be going with a more minimal technique for Showcase 2 next year? No. I walk on it, sometimes, and so does the dog when she’s being a monster. Also, it does have those sand patches that still need to be mixed into the rest of the bed for a more even texture. That one probably needs to double-dug for at least two more years before it’s even enough to go for a more minimal digging-over. That might be enough time to train myself and the dog to stop walking on it. Maybe.

Re-covered with the old straw to preserve moisture until I put plants in. Since I'm mostly transplanting into this bed, the straw may well stay all summer, since seedlings won't need to grow through it.

Re-covered with the old straw to preserve moisture until I put plants in. Since I’m mostly transplanting into this bed, the straw may well stay all summer, since seedlings won’t need to grow through it.

Double-digging, again

Gathering the tools.

Gathering the tools.

It’s raining. The horizon-to-horizon grey is doing my vitamin D level no favors, but it is a lovely, soaking rain, rather than the kind that pounds down and just runs off the surface, so it is good for my freshly-planted potatoes. If we can’t have it all, we need to be happy with what we’ve got.

It's fluffing up nicely.

It’s fluffing up nicely.

We were slow to order the potatoes this year for Showcase 2, but with as miserable as the weather was for much of April, I wouldn’t have gotten them in the ground at the “right” time anyway. I would have preferred to turn the potato bed at least a few days before I planted, but I really needed to get the seed potatoes in the ground before I totally missed the planting window. Therefore, I dug the bed over and planted on the same day.

This spot may well have been where they dumped the sand needed for construction when the house was built.

This spot may well have been where they dumped the sand needed for construction when the house was built.

In an effort to rotate crops as much as possible in our two-bed garden, the potatoes are going in the bigger bed this year, and other things will be going in what was the potato bed last year. But, whether we are planting potatoes or anything else, we need to prep the bed. For me, that means double-digging. We did this last year, so why do we have to do it again? In part, it is because I was walking on the garden bed during the winter when I was taking things to the compost pile. However, there’s more to it. Double-digging last year started to improve the structure of the soil. We want soil clumps interspersed with spaces big enough for air and water to circulate to the roots. Double-digging this year will help fluff up the soil again, to encourage this structure. Digging by hand, as I mentioned last year, does less damage to any existing structure the soil has. If your garden is small enough, try to do it that way instead of using something like a rototiller. You can even skip the gym, that day, since you’ll be getting a workout.

These are not helpful in a root-vegetable plot.

These are not helpful in a root-vegetable plot.

There are other benefits as well. I dug out a few more rocks that I hadn’t gotten last year. Rocks, and most everything else, migrate through the soil. Long-time gardeners can tell you that you might think you’ve de-rocked a garden or field, but you never really do. I also ran across several serious sand patches. The more this garden gets dug over, the more the sand will be mixed in with the rest of the soil, leading to a more even texture throughout the garden. Untouched soil will change from place to place, but soil in urban areas may well have a sand pit smack beside a solid patch of clay. Modern building techniques don’t generally take into account saving topsoil and not disturbing the underlying layers more than necessary. It is an unfortunate fact of life that if you are in a house, you are probably going to be restoring soil rather than just improving on a good thing. The last perk is that I’m re-introducing myself to my soil and the things that live in it. Because I’m not trotting across the surface following a machine, I have the time to see that there aren’t many worms, still, but one of them is an absolute monster.

I'm naming him Herman.

I’m naming him Herman.

Once it was dug over, I laid out the seed potatoes in four quadrants to see which ones needed to be cut in pieces to fill up their quadrant. Last year I cut first and measured later, forgetting that seed potatoes aren’t as willing to be held for a second year as other seeds. They got buried about 6 or 8 inches deep in the nice, loose soil. I then re-covered the patch with straw to help preserve the moisture in the soil, and gave it a good watering. I am planning on using more straw this year than I did last year, in an effort to make the most of the water I do put in the garden.

Plotting one's plot is a good idea.

Plotting one’s plot is a good idea.

 

 

It's kinda surprising how easy it is to hide all that work.

It’s kinda surprising how easy it is to hide all that work.

Thank you, Colorado

I haven’t had much to say since my last post. Shortly after I put it up, I heard on the radio that due to lack of snowpack, we would still be in drought conditions with water restrictions come summer. I think it was the next day that the clouds moved in. Since then, it’s been overcast more often than not and it kinda feels like it snowed as many days in April as it did during the rest of the winter combined. We also got an inch or two on May Day. You know, the traditional day to celebrate spring?

As inconvenient as it is to be getting our snow when I should be turning over garden beds and planting my early plants, we do need the moisture. Naturally, I forgot to save the link, but I recently came across a local seed producer that closed their doors in 2011 due to lack of water. They were a small-scale grower, and working off of a house-sized well. The note they had up indicated that while the surrounding farms could still reach water with their farm-sized wells, there just wasn’t any water left at their level. Since I came across this note in early 2013, I think it’s safe to assume that they haven’t been able to resume operation.

Well, it sucks to be them, but as long as the big farms are still getting water, we’re cool, right? Not really. According to the UN, there’s enough water for 6 billion people. Well, we overshot that one. We are also in the habit of misusing and abusing the water that we do have. There are already places that are using oil wells to drill into “fossil aquifers.” I don’t believe we’re doing this in America, yet, but we just have to look to the Middle East and Africa to see what will happen if we run out of renewable sources of water. Once the fossil water is gone, it won’t be renewed within a human time-frame, if ever.

What does this actually mean? Humans, and most plants and animals, can not live without clean, unsalted water. That means that we need to figure out how to keep what we have and maybe how to make more. There are lots of ideas out there, and I am sure I’ll be looking into many of them more in-depth because water is such a big deal in the West. The idea for the moment, though, is to encourage water that falls in your yard to soak into the ground, instead of running off the surface. Dig holes, plant grass, plant trees. Anything to make the water stop long enough to soak in. If enough of us do this, we can affect the groundwater levels in a positive way, instead of a negative one.

The snow is nice, but it would be so much nicer against a properly blue sky.

The snow is nice, but it would be so much nicer against a properly blue sky.