Sunday, February 26, 2017

Tips on Growing Peas

One of the earliest springs crops you can plant are peas.  They have a very specific growing conditions and a short season but are always worth it. They are happiest in cool spring weather and dislike summer heat.  While the plants are frost tolerate the flowers are not so fall plantings are not usually very productive.

  In my garden the majority of peas are eaten fresh out of the pod.  They are a delicious and sweet, healthy snack.  I always try to shell a few batches of peas and cook them for a few meals, but they rarely make it that far.  There is an amazing difference between steamed fresh and frozen peas.  My last option, if any peas are remaining, is to try to freeze some.  Truthfully the majority get eaten fresh. I never seem to have enough peas to preserve so I am always increasing my plantings.


Meet the Pea

Peas are part of a group of plants called legumes.  Legumes bear pods with the seed inside.    Peas are different from their other legume friends in that they can be enjoyed fresh.  Other legumes like lentil, cow-peas, and beans are eaten dried.  

There are Four Types of Peas:

Shelling peas:  Shelling peas have rounded vibrant green pods with starchy, sweet, round peas inside.  These peas are meant to be shelled from the pod.  They can be enjoyed fresh, canned, cooked, or in soups.

Edible pod peas:  These include snow peas which have flat pods with the peas visibly bulging from the pod.  The pods are enjoyed fresh, in stir fry's, and salads.

Snap Peas:  Snap peas have rounded edible pods.  They are best when slightly cooked and eaten fresh.  They develop a string that is easily removed by peeling it back from the pod.

 Dried or Field Peas:  These are allowed to mature in the pod until dry and stored and used in soups or stews.

When choosing a variety consider the maturity date and the height of the plants.  There are bush variety of peas that only grow to 2 feet tall and need very little support and trellising.  These small varieties are usually determinate meaning they produce a set number of flowers and fruits.  

My spring garden.  Snow peas are planted around small round tomato cages.

The vine types vary in size some reaching 4-5 feet tall.  They need  trellising.  Last year I grew Telegraph peas which mature to 5 ft.  The trellis needs to be very sturdy so it will not blow over in the wind.  The vine types are more productive because they a indeterminate meaning they produce flowers and fruit over an extended period.

Tall Telephone peas are a climber reaching 4-5'  and are an heirloom dating back to 1881.

Peas as a Soil Builder

Peas and other legumes belong to the plant family known as the Fabaceae, which is also commonly called the bean family or the pulse family. In fact, commercial production of peas is commonly placed within the category of pulse production, and like its fellow legumes, peas are often referred to as "pulses."

Peas are the garden workhorse.  They produce fruit and improve the soil.  They belong to a unique group of plant called nitrogen fixing crops.  This includes all legumes.  They have a symbiotic relationship with a bacteria that causes them to convert nitrogen gas into a usable form of nitrogen in the soil.  Some gardeners inoculate the soil with the live rhizobial bacteria to further facilitate this process. 

Another benefit is that once picked the pea plants break down quickly and can be worked into the soil.  In order for your soil to benefit from the nitrogen fixing ability of peas always leave the roots to decompose in the soil.  Clip the tops off and put them in the compost pile if you need the space to plant summer crops or incorporate the plant into the soil to decompose.  

I finally broke down puchased pea fences.  They are great.

Planting Guide

As soon as the soil temperature warms to 40 degrees you can plant peas.  That can be in late March or early April.  I reccomend waiting until the soil is a little warmer because they germinate faster.  Those planted too early will germinate but are slow. 

You can make additional plantings through early May.

Plant the seed 3 times the size of the seed and space them 2 inches apart.  I plant a row down both sides of the trellis. Trellises don't have to be vertical.  I have used the small round tomatoes changes which are too flimsy for tomatoes but perfect for peas. 

Peas do not need fertilizer if you properly prepare you beds each season.  That means that each spring and fall you add compost and a dry organic fertilizer.  If your beds are new you will need to work this into the soil but established healthy beds only need this applied to the surface. Preparing you beds in the fall means all you need to do is plant in the spring.  Have a soil thermometer and when soil temps are between 40-50 degrees and your soil can be worked then go ahead and plant.


As soon as the pod begin to swell , it is time to harvest.   Check daily.  Peas left too long on the vine turn starchy and the pods become fiberous.  On indeterminant vine types, frequent picking encourages more production.  

Pea Tendrils

The top 6 inches of the pea plant including the pea tendril can be cut and used in salads and stir fry's.  They are sold in bunches at farmer's markets. Cascadia and Oregon Sugar Snaps are good varieties to use as pea tendrils.  Make a specific planting to use in this manner because once you cut the tendrils they are not going to produce flowers and fruit.

Pea Varieties

Snow or edible pods:  Oregon Sugar Pod II (OP), Avalanche

Shelling:   Canoe (OP), Lincoln (OP), Green Arrow (OP), Maestro, Dakota (OP), Tall Telephone (H) 1881 this one is a climber 4-5'

Snap:  Cascadia, (OP), Sugar Ann (OP),

Dried:  Admiral 

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Signs of Spring & How to Warm Your Soil

A beautiful apple blossom with large king bloom in the middle.  Oh how I am looking forward to spring.

Outside the north wind is blowing and I trudge through ice and snow bundled up as I go feed the goats, chickens, and ducks.  But the day before I was 70 miles south visiting family and it was a beautiful 70 degrees.  I meet fellow gardeners in the garden section of the local nursery with dirt already under their fingernails.  I admired the transplants of broccoli, cauliflower, lettuce and kale already in the store and sighed.  Spring has sprung there but sadly not in New Harmony.

Peach trees in bloom.

Deciding when to plant is a perhaps one of the harder decisions especially to a new gardener or if you have moved to a new location.  

Determining when spring has sprung has more to do with observing natural events than a particular date on a calendar.  The official declaration of spring occurs with the vernal equinox which is around March 21 or 22nd.  This date has no bearing on the appearance of spring for the gardener.  In some areas of the north "spring" won't actually make its appearance until May or June and in the south is may already be too late to plant some crops.  

Pear blossoms

So what does the Spring equinox tell us?  On this day the suns rays fall straight down on the equator.  Around the globe the length of daylight and night are equal.  From then on the hours of daylight will increase.  For many that is reason enough to rejoice.  This day does influence the behavior of animals.  Increasing daylight triggers courtship, migration, and other behaviors.

So how do you determine when spring has arrived?  The temperature of the air is less important to plants than the temperature of the soil.  The only dependable thing about spring is that is is fickle.  It toys with your emotions appearing then quickly retreating.  In our part of the country they say, "If you don't like the weather wait 5 minutes and it will change."  To understand planting schedules it is more important to look at nature herself and the observe when certain indicators begin the "spring" forth.

Early spring bulbs

Some signs of spring:

  • Buds swell
  • Sap begins to flow
  • Appearance of certain insects
  • Appearance of certain birds
  • Spring bulbs emerging
  • Emergence of weeds
  • And the smell of the soil warming.

Emerging tulips are a welcome sign of spring.

Warming Soil

I want to focus the last one-  warming soil. Why is soil temperature important?

As the temperature of the air rises and sunlight increases it begins to warm the soil.  This warming of the soil awakens the living organisms in your soil.  Microorganisms like bacteria, fungi, and protozoa come alive and restart the process of decomposing organic matter. This process of decay is what will make your soil rich in nutrients and gives it the earthy smell that gardeners love.  Earth worms migrate up  when the soil is frost free eating there way through soil, aerating as they tunnel, and depositing castings which enrich the soil.  During winter months or drought the earthworm burrows deep in the soil, encases itself in slime, and "hibernates" until the soil warms and there is moisture.

What The Gardener Should Do

This is why I feel it is important to add organic matter in the form of compost and aged manures in the garden in the fall.  You want organic matter available for these organisms in early spring.  It is the food source of soil organisms and combined with the warming sun will awaken the soil food web essential to organic gardening.  I add additional compost again when planting along with and organic dry fertilizer.

The minimum temperature that seeds of cool season crops can germinate is 40 degrees.

It is possible to assist nature in warming your soil.

Build Your Soil

 A sandy loam soil with organic matter will warm more quickly than a heavy clay soil.  

Raised Beds

Soil in a raised bed warms more quickly than bare ground.

Plastic Mulches

Plastic mulches can be used to warm the soil.  For northern gardeners they can be used to warm the soil to get an earlier start on melons, tomatoes, and peppers.  Stretch the plastic mulch tightly across the bed and secure the edges.  I recommend using a plastic mulch specifically for gardening.  Black or clear plastic do NOT allow for the movement of air and water and are used more for solarizing the soil or killing weed seeds.  

Hoop Houses or Low Tunnels

This is what I use in early spring to get a head start.  Low tunnels increase air temperature during the day and retain heat at night.  An additional row cover can be placed over plants under the low tunnel.  They are inexpensive to build and easy to remove and relocate.

Early spring crops grown under a low tunnel.

You can see row covers in the background and a low tunnel.  Both allow you to plant earlier.

Cold Frames

Cold Frames are a bottomless box of glass or plastic placed over an existing bed.  They are more expensive and you must monitor the inside temperature more closely because they offer more protection from frost and heat up more readily than a row cover.

Hot Caps

Hot caps cover individual plants creating a mini greenhouse.  They are an options if you have only a few plants to protect which is rarely the case in my garden.

Word of Caution

For those of you that are like me and get spring fever in February whenever the sun shines and snow melts and seed packets arrive in the mail, be gentle with spring soils.

Seed packets will say to plant as soon as soil can be worked.  So what does that mean?

Because spring soil has a lot of moisture in it, the soil compacts easily.  Every time you step on your garden soil your weight squeezes out the air and when the moisture evaporates it drys into a hard clod.  Even hoeing or turning a wet soil can compact the soil particles together.  While weed seeds don't seem to mind hard compacted soil, garden seeds are more particular.

So when is it OK to "work the soil?"  Grab a handful of dirt from your garden beds, squeeze it, then open up your hand.  If the ball of soil crumbles on its own or crumbles when you poke it then go ahead and work compost and dry organic fertilizer into the soil.  If you have sticky mud ball then wait for the soil to dry out. 

When working the soil in open ground and if you cannot avoid walking on your soil, lay boards out on the garden soil to distribute your weight.  It is a better option to have specific paths to walk on and avoid walking in your planting areas at all.  

"When a spadeful of earth crumble, the plows may be started, but not while the spade comes out of the ground smeared."  John P. Morton & Co.  Western Farmers' Almanac 1884

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Mucking, Composting, and Seed Starting: A Day on the Farm

Nothing says, "I love you,"  like a new Yanmar 324 tractor.  Best Valentines gift ever!!  It will make our work load a lot lighter.  Previous to having a tractor, we had some hard working boys at home but they are off at college so that just leaves my husband and me to manage everything.  

So todays projects were mucking out the goat barn and starting some more seeds indoors.  New kids are due in March and they will be so happy to have fresh bedding and clean stalls.  We decided to redo the barn so all the stalls are easily removed (my  husband is so good at making my ideas a reality)  The removable panels will make clean up with the loader of my tractor very easy or at least when I get the hang of it, it will be easier.  So there is definitely a learning curve when it comes to scooping out a barn but I have a great teacher and I was doing pretty good by the end of the day.  He makes it looks so easy......

With a clean floor, I limed the stalls.  This kills harmful microbes and fly eggs.  We then laid down some fresh straw and showed the does their new barn arrangement. They were very excited and tested the fencing to see if it was secure and if all options of escape had been prevented. 

Two yearlings and two adults who will be bred this fall.

So I have two large stalls with a smaller kidding pen.  Two of my does are due in March and two in May.  The buck pens are outside behind the barn.  I can't wait for kidding.  I love baby goats.

I am managing my compost piles a little differently.  I recently attended a farm conference and had the pleasure of hearing Bruno Follador from the Nature Institute speak on composting.  I am working on a post to share this info but I was very excited about his approach to composting.

 For those that don't think compost can be so excited you have never piled manure, stray, grass clippings etc and watched it decompose into beautiful fresh smelling compost.  It's an amazing process and allows you to be more sustainable.  I remember once my youngest son was spreading some of our compost around the orchard.  He wanted to know if you could enter compost in the fair because "this is some good looking compost!" 

 We are now composting in windrows. I did pretty good at dumping and making my windrow with the tractor.  When the rains stop I have some more work to do with the compost.

This is my milking/seed starting room in the barn. It has power, water, and is heated so it is perfect for starting seeds.  I spent the morning cleaning it up and cleaning seed starting trays.

I also planted some more seeds indoors.  Peppers, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kale, eggplant, tomatillos, and lettuce.
Start with a well screened seedling mix that is soilless. This prevents soil borne diseases such as damping off. Moisten the mix.

Start with a good soilless seed starting mix.  I like Black Gold.  Do not use a seedling mix with fertilizer added.  Seedlings have all the nutrients they need in the endosperm of the seed.  They don't need a fertilizer until they have true leaves.

These are Speedling trays.  They have different cell size options and clean up nice.  I have had good results with these trays.

The peppers and eggplant like 70 degree soil temperature to germinate so they are on a heating mats.  I will remove the bottom heat when the seedlings emerge.

This is my lighting set up.  An old book rack with shop lights on adjustable chains.  I keep the light 2-3 inches from the plants.  The lights don't need to be turned on until the seedlings emerge.  Lettuce however needs light to germinate so that tray remains under the lights.  I turn the lights off at night.

I felt like we accomplished a lot today.  I still have some work to do on the compost windrow and tomato and  flowers to start indoors.  I love the occasion beautiful winter day that reminds you that spring is not too far away.  Loving life on the farm!

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Tips on Growing Onions

Onions are an ancient crop.  They have both medicinal and culinary uses.  For the cook they are essential.  Dried, raw, or cooked they are versatile and indispensable in so many dishes.  They are easy to grow and a great storage crop.

The formation of the onion bulb is dependent on day length.  When browsing the catalogs you when notice that onion varieties are classified according to the photoperiod or day length required for that particular variety to bulb up.  They grow vegetatively or develop top green growth until the required number of daylight hours is reached and then the bulb begins to swell and grow.

Short Day Varieties require 10-12 hours of daylight and do well in Southern regions.  They can be grown in the North but do not get very large.

Long Day Varieties require 14-16 hours of daylight and do well in Northern regions

Day Neutral of Intermediate Varieties start bulking with 12-14 daylight hours.  These can be grown with success anywhere.

If you are north of the Oklahoma/Kansas border or 36 degrees latitude plant long day or day nuetral varieties. If south of that plant short day or day neutral varieties.

Onions interplanted with Merlot lettuce.


Onions require a sandy loam soil amended with plenty of organic matter and a dry organic fertilizer incorporated shallowly into the soil before planting.  They have shallow roots and need to have plenty of water to do well near field capacity. Even moisture is the key. the bulb is not part of the roots but a swollen stem. The roots extend from the base of the bulb and are very shallow. Onion seed has low germination rates and should be replaced every two years.

Onions interplanted with cauliflower.

Planting Options

You have different options when it comes to growing onions.  They can be started from seed, planted as sets, or transplant plants.  All of which can be purchased from the nursery or garden catalogs.

I have the best result using seed. You need a good 5 months to grow from seed.   I start them indoors from Feb 1st - mid February and plant them out in April.  I direct seed green onion or scallions in April.  The seedlings can be transplanted in the garden 4-6 weeks before the last frost when they are about 2-3 inches tall.  They like cool weather for top growth and warm weather to  produce  the bulb.

Onion sets are immature bulbs grown the previous season.  They are usually labeled only by color:  red, yellow, or white.  Bulbs that are the size of a dime produce the best bulbs.  Anything larger may go to seed before producing decent sized bulbs.  Bulbs smaller than a dime can be used are green onions or scallions.

Onion transplants.  Those the size of a pencil do the best.  Smaller ones can be used are green onions.

You can also purchase onion transplants.  They are seedlings grown the previous year.  They are dormant when you receive them and will look dry.  Soak the roots in a little water and plant about 1 inch deep.  This will cover the roots and not bury the neck too deeply.  This is a good option if you do not want to grow your own transplants.

You can fertilize with fish emulsion but once they start to bulb up do not fertilize.  Top growth will stop when the plant focuses its energy on developing a bulb.

Plant  in rows or use the square foot method.  Scallions can be 2" apart or 16/square foot.  Larger onions need to be about 3-4 inches apart or 9/square foot.  Be sure to mulch around onions it helps to hold moisture in the soil.

Ok so I don't take many pictures of the under appreciated onion, but they are one crop I use the most in cooking and canning. They probably deserve more attention when I have the camera out. 

Types of Onions

Scallions or Green Onions:  
Most onions can be pulled when young and used as green onions.  There are specific bunching onions grown specifically for green onions.  There are both green and purple varieties.  Pickling onions are also available.

Sweet Onions 

Sweet onions are not astringent or as sharp as other onions.  They are sweet and frequently used raw.  They do not store well. Walls Walla and Vivaldi are wonderful sweet onions. Sweet onions do not store well.  Plan on using them first.

Multiplier Onion or Potato Onions:
These are similar in growing patterns to garlic.  They are planted in the fall with the tip of the onion even with the soil level.  They send up leaves the following spring.  Remove any seed heads that develop.  They produce a cluster of bulbs from the one bulb that you plant.  Harvest in July or August just like garlic and cure.  Save some bulbs for next years planting.

Walking Onions or Egyptian Onions

These are fun to grow.  They form small bulbs underground and a cluster of bulbets on the seed head instead of a flower.  You can harvest and cook the underground bulbs and replant the bulbets on the top of the stalk.  If you leave them unharvested the top of the plant tips over or "walks" on the ground and reroots itself.


Shallots are a small, mild allium prized by chefs.  The are elongated with reddish skins.  When peeled they separate into cloves like garlic.

Onions citing under a porch.

Storage Onions

This is the onion most are familiar with. There are red, yellow, and white storage onions. Each varies in its storage length but generally if stored properly they can last from 3-6 months.

Yellow onions are consider to be an all purpose onion.  They are used most often in cooking with a good balance of flavor.  They become sweeter the longer they cook.  Spanish onions are a sweet yellow onion.

White Onions are more pungent.  They are more tender and have a thinner pappery skin.  They are used just like yellow onions.

Red Onions are similar to yellow but milder.  They are used raw in salads and salsas.  When cooked the color fades.  If they seem too strong raw, then soak slices in water ahead of time.

Onions interplanted with broccoli and celery.


You can harvest an onion at any stage.  If you want large bulbs then wait for the tops to turn yellow.  Bend the tops over with a rake and leave for a week.  This will direct more energy to maturing the bulb.  When leaves turn brown pull the onions.  Do not wash the onion just brush off the dirt.  Cure them in the shade with good air circulation for 7-10 days.  This allows the papery skin to dry and provide protection during storage.  When they are done curing brush off the loose soil, clip the tops down to 1 inch and trim the roots.  Those with thin necks will store the longest so use the thicker necked onions first.


Most onions store for 3-6 month at 32-45 degrees with 65-70% humidity.  If you don't have a root cellar a vegetable bin  in the refrigerator will work.  They will not last as long at room temperature. Check your storage onions frequently and remove those that sprout or are rotting.

Onions are a good companion crop with lettuce, cole crops and carrots.

Diseases and Pests

Onions are generally disease and pest free.  They are considered pest deterrents when planted among lettuce, cole crops, and carrots.

Thrips can be a problem.  They  are visible with a hand lens. They have elongated bodies and large dark eyes.  They cause silvery lesions on the leaves.  They suck plant juices and can cause deformed bulbs.  Neem or pyrethrin is effective on thrips.

Leeks have similar cultivation requirements.