Sunday, June 27, 2010

Jurassic Park?

Good grief, the heat of summer is really upon us. And it's doing a number on all of those spring, cool weather-loving crops. The lettuce and spinach gave in to the sultry weather a couple of weeks ago. Now the fava beans and peas are gasping their last collective breath. Time (and Mother Nature) marches on. But there are some newcomers in the garden that are really soaking up the sun and looking mighty pleased with themselves . . .

Are these strange plants something from the prehistoric history books? Can't you just see the dinosaurs wandering through? Okay, maybe that's just me and my odd imagination. These plants are indeed very contemporary, and I'm sure the dinosaurs never saw them. They're artichokes! This is the very first time I've tried growing them, and even if I don't get something to harvest later, just watching these wonderful monsters grow over the summer will be enough of a treat for me.

But, since I really do like to reap what I've sown, I tried to follow the instructions on the seed packet for these. (Hint: most of the best gardening information you will find anywhere will most likely be on the seed packet and/or the seed catalogue!) Here are the instructions Johnny's gave:

Artichoke, Globe

CULTURE: Sow indoors about 8 weeks before last spring frost date. Sow 1/4" apart and 1/4" deep in lightly moistened soilless mix in a flat or pot. Germinate at 70-80°F (21-27°C). As soon as seedlings can be handled, transplant to 2-4" pots or cell-type containers and grow at 60-70°F (15-21°C) day and 50-60°F (10-15°C) night. Transplant 6-8 week old plants to the garden 2-3' apart. IMPORTANT COLD TREATMENT: Time transplanting so plants get 8-10 days of temperatures around 50°F (10°C) to induce earlier budding. Protect from frost. HARVEST: Clip mature buds midsummer to midfall, depending on location. MILD AREAS: Where winter low is above 14°F (-10°C), sow seeds in fall, harvest in spring. MATURITY: From transplant; add about 20 days if direct seeding. SEED SPECS: SEEDS/LB.: 9,000-12,000 (avg. 10,000). PACKET: 25 seeds.

Hope you read the "IMPORTANT COLD TREATMENT" part. The reason this is crucial is that artichokes are biennials, meaning that under normal circumstances they spend their first year getting large and storing energy. Then they go through a winter, flower the next year, and that's the end of them. And that thing that we call an"artichoke" is actually the immature flower bud of this plant. Artichokes are tender biennials however, meaning that they can't survive a winter that gets below freezing, and as all
of us here in Pittsburgh who survived last winter well know, it certainly does freeze here! So, we need to trick our artichoke plants into thinking they've already gone through a winter: hence the "important cold treatment" statement. I started my artichokes from seed in February under lights in my basement. As soon as the snow thawed I'd put them outside in a cold frame to get their daily chill. There they could be exposed to chilly weather, but also be protected from the cold if the temperatures fell below freezing. (I'd highly recommend getting or building a cold frame for anyone who's as avid a seed-starter as I am!) Once the threat of frost was over I transplanted them to this bed that I'd prepped in my usual way, and mulched with some grass clippings and compost.

So far so good! And no dinosaurs in sight, which is good, because I really wouldn't want this little guy to get hurt.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Summer Snuck Up on Me This Year

Where has the time gone?? It seems like just yesterday I was harvesting tasty lettuce and spinach. Well, the heat took care of that--my beautiful greens turned all ugly and bitter on me. My revenge?? Pull them out and plant some pumpkins!! Winter squash, to be specific. Fairy Squash again, plus a couple of heirlooms just for fun. Galeux D'Exsines is a wonderfully ugly French heirloom that also just happens to be incredibly delicious. Bought one of these hideous beauties at the Farmers' Market last year and saved the seeds to plant this year. (Since it's an heirloom you can do that!! Take THAT, Monsanto!!) The other heirloom is a Boer Squash, the seeds for which were sent to me by my sister who lives in England. Since it seems like I've been running like crazy just to fall behind this year I simply plunked the seeds in the garden instead of starting them under lights.

Much to my delight there are some brave new shoots coming up already. Will I be harvesting tons of squash come the fall? Only time will tell!!

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Salad Days

Spring is a wonderful time on many levels. New hope after a long gray winter. New flowers to warm the heart. New green leaves that seem to appear on the trees overnight. And these cool days really are the salad days of gardening because the bugs and beasties have yet to really wake up and start munching. And it's in this cool weather that salad greens are at their best: baby spinach, heirloom lettuces, mache, arugula grow nearly care-free. If you're a salad-lover like I am don't miss your spring opportunity to grow some of these for yourself. I sowed these seeds in this bed about a month ago, but you should still have time to grow a few salads before the summer heat really moves in. Then you just cut as much as you want for your salad--these plants just keep growing! And you won't believe how much better your own home-grown salad is compared to what you get in those expensive bags in the supermarket. Just make sure your soil is nicely prepared, then just follow the instructions on your seed packets. For my lettuce patch I sowed Wildfire Lettuce Mix which is as pretty as it is tasty. If you like a bit of peppery bite in your salad add in some arugula.

In the cool spring weather the baby arugula leaves are really quite mild. I also tried out two types of spinach this spring, Emu and Red Cardinal. Both have provided me with lots of baby spinach leaves to mix into my salad bowl. Be creative--there are endless varieties of leaves you can grow for your own salad bowl!

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Bee Happy

By now I'm sure anyone who's interested in gardening and raising a bit of their own food has heard about the plight of the honey bee. Since so much of our food supply depends on these little creatures as pollinators the fact that honey bees are disappearing at an alarming rate should have us all worried on many levels. But honey bees aren't the only bees who are good pollinators. In fact, honey bees aren't even native to this country. Some of the best pollinators don't live in hives or make honey. They're our own native mason bee, also known as the orchard bee. At first glance mason bees look like a small version of a honey bee, but they are very different from honey bees. Mason bees don't build hives, but instead look for holes in trees in which to raise their young. The female mason bee gathers pollen and places it inside a suitable hole. When she has enough she lays an egg, and then seals it off with a plug made of mud (hence the name "mason" bee). She then proceeds to gather more food, lay another egg, seal it off, and so-on until the hole is full. She then plugs the end with mud and starts all over again in a new hole. The eggs hatch and the young feed on the pollen she's provided for them during the summer, then pupate and over-winter in the holes. Come spring they emerge, males first, (who were deposited in the front sections of the hole) then later, the females. They mate, and then start the whole process over again.

Since mason bees don't make their own holes you can encourage them to nest close to your garden by providing suitable nesting holes for them. Many garden supply companies sell mason bee houses. You can also easily make one, and there are good instructions on how to do that here. You can also purchase mason bees, but you really shouldn't need to. As the saying goes, if you build it (or buy it), they will come. I put up my mason bee houses a little over a week ago, and the bees were using them immediately. (Actually they were using them before the houses were put up since I had them sitting on the porch!) You should put your bee house someplace with a bit of protection from rain and other nasty weather (if it doesn't have it's own roof built in), and if it can get morning sun, that's really optimal. You really don't need to worry about having the bees close to where you are. Unlike honey bees, mason bees aren't aggressive at all since they have no honey stores to protect. They can sting, but you pretty much have to squish one to get it to do so. As I was taking the pictures for this post the bees were actually hitting me since I was in their flight path to their nests, and I didn't get stung once. And they really are fascinating to watch as they go about their bee business.

So, if you're planning to grow anything that requires a bit of bee action, I'd really suggest making friends with some of our own orchard bees. They're some of the best friends a gardener can have!

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Early Spring Harvest

The peas are officially in the ground, just-in-time for those forsythia blooms! And I've planted seeds for lettuce, spinach, carrots, parsnips, and beets. There are a few brave little shoots coming up, but they're still tiny. But we still managed to have an early spring harvest of parsnips, salsify, leeks, spinach and mache. How, you might ask? They're actually from last season and they over-wintered in the garden. Root crops like parsnips and salsify are actually biennials. As the weather cools in the fall these plants store their energy in the form of sugar in that big root that we normally eat. These survive in the ground over the winter and when the soil warms up again they begin to sprout new greens and grow, and eventually produce a flower and seeds. If you harvest them as soon as the soil is warm enough to dig you'll find that your parsnips are at their sweetest. Leave them to grow more and those stored sugars wind up fueling the new growth, so nab them when the new leaves just start to show! As for spinach and mache, these greens are very cold-hardy. As long as they have some growth before the true winter comes they survive, and in spring they're raring to go before any new seeds are even germinating.

I wish I could attribute this early harvest to some garden planning genius on my part. In reality I HAD planned on having the parsnips and leeks over the winter, but stupidly forgot that if the ground is FROZEN, you can't dig them out! As for the spinach and mache, I'd hoped to be able to sneak a few leaves during the winter since I'd covered them with fabric for a bit of protection. That really didn't work because for most of the winter the plants were still too small to bother with. And then they got buried under our 2-foot snow fall, and there they stayed! Luckily I don't have to rely on my garden planning for winter survival! But it is nice when you can still reap something of value despite your own poor planning. And guess what? Leaving a few hardy vegetables in the ground over the winter to provide an early spring feast is going to be part of my garden plan from now on!

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Plant Peas When Daffodils and Forsythia Bloom

I'm a little bit behind this year. Happily I do have a few green things making appearances on the shelves in the basement. And yesterday I actually planted some spinach, lettuce, carrots and parsnips in some of our beds. It was wonderful to get my hands dirty once again! One thing I still haven't managed to plant yet are peas. Saint Patrick's Day has come and gone, and still the peas are in their seed packets. Well, lucky for me I have an excuse: my forsythia isn't blooming yet! Nor are my daffodils. Those beauties pictured at the top are from last year. What's this got
to do with peas? Well, according to the science of phenology, forsythia and daffodil blooms indicate when the soil is the perfect temperature for peas to germinate. Phenology uses nature's own indicators as a timetable for when to plant instead of just sticking to a calendar. There are a few nice web sites here, here, and here that talk about phenology in more detail. There are even sites where you can participate by logging in your own observations, here for example. If you believe, as I do, that our climate is changing this would be an important project to participate in. And it sounds like it would be fun!

I plan to try and pay a bit more attention to Mother Nature's signals when I'm gardening this year. After all, Mother usually knows best!

Friday, March 12, 2010

Garden Planning Part 2 (or Plan B as the Case May Be!)

I (almost) had my crayons poised over my graph paper, ready to plan away. I had my organic gardening books out open to their sections on crop-rotation and planting timetables. Visions of well-organized garden bed layouts flitted across my brain. My intentions were good, they really were! So, then, you might ask, where ARE all these wonderful, colorful garden plans for the upcoming season, huh?? Where's that brilliant, fool-proof crop rotation scheme that'll yieldbushels of blight-free tomatoes, huh? We're waiting . . .

Well, life kind of got in the way in the form of a job search, sick kitty, and, well, just life! So I guess it's time for Plan B. What's Plan B? Just try to get SOME early plants started under my lights in the basement, and IMPROVISE! It's amazing that last year by this time I already had cabbage, kale, broccoli, cauliflower, and leeks going strong. I guess it didn't help that up until just a couple of days ago the ground was still hidden under layers of snow. I know, excuses, excuses! But it was hard to believe that spring would ever really get here. Now I'm scrambling to catch up and already thinking of planting peas. Sigh.

Just goes to show you, there are the "best laid plans", and then there's gardening! When it comes to growing your own sometimes the best plan is to just do it!