Friday, July 28, 2017

How To Have Continual Harvests

 OK, if you are serious about gardening and feeding your family fresh organic produce then you need to get rid of the "retail gardener" mind set.  What is the retail gardener?  Someone who starts their garden in conjunction with retail stores creating a "garden center" and then ending the season when retail stores are replacing gardening supplies with Halloween decorations and candy. Not a good trade off.

1.   Determine your planting zone.
Trust me your garden season has nothing to do with when a retail chain store establishes a "garden center."  To determine your garden season you need to know what your planting zone is and then time your planting around that information.

 Timing is important with cole crops like cauliflower and broccoli.  The best tasting crops will be harvested in the fall. You need to determine the maturity date and plant transplants or start seeds so the the harvest times will be staggered.  Spring plantings give you early summer crops and summer plantings give you a fall crop.

2.  Succession Plant
 Second you need to succession plant. There is not one day or time that you plant all you seeds and then you are done.  Every plant has a season and it just so happens that cool season crops have a very long season beginning in spring and extending into fall and winter depending on your set up.  Only the fair weather summer crops have only one season and one planting time.  The seed packets tell you how many days before the Last Average Frost Date you can START planting. The First Average Frost Dates help you determine the last possible date to plant that crop.  You can then staggering the planting of cool season crops throughout the season so you have early summer harvests and fall harvest.

Direct sow in the garden around  mid summer crops like carrots, beets, lettuce, pak choi for a fall harvest.  Transplants of broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage can also be put out mid summer.  All fall planting should be done before the end of July.

 This is my fall planted broccoli.  I have row covers ready if needed but broccoli enjoys the cool fall weather.  Plus fall harvested broccoli is much better tasting than summer broccoli.
 Summer planted cabbage for fall harvesting.  Baby cabbage or smaller cabbage would be good for a fall crop.  They need to be planted as transplants around the beginning of July.  You can start the seeds indoors early summer or purchase transplants at the nursery.

Pac choi is a great quick growing crop.  Time your plantings so you are harvesting in the fall.  Do that by finding the maturity date on the seed packet and determining when you want to harvest, and then count backwards from the harvest date . Direct seed this crop.

3.  Leave some spring planted crops through the summer

Some crops that many gardeners pull up when the summer heat sets in will perk up and start producing with the cool fall weather.  Broccoli, kale, and chard are examples.  

Spring planted broccoli will give you lots of fall side shoots until your fall broccoli is ready to harvest.  

Kale which complains about summer heat will perk up in the fall.  Just keep picking leaves off through the summer give them to chickens, ducks, goats, or pigs and start eating when the evenings cool off and kale sweetens up. Plant kale where it gets some summer afternoon shade.  Also spray aphids off, remove badly invested leaves, and spray periodically with Neem to control aphids.  With cool fall weather the aphids will no longer be a problem.

Swiss chard does fine through summer and will produce well into the fall. Like kale plant it in an area of the garden that gets afternoon shade. I prefer the taste of it in early summer and fall. The animals get it in mid summer. Chard has few pest issues and is a beautiful and easy crop to grow.  It can also be incorporated into your landscape where it provides stunning color. Just remember to keep removing older leaves.

 Sorrel, which is an perennial,  also perks up in the fall.

 4.  Get to know the cool season crops and learn to cook them.

Get to know the cool season crops.  You may think,  "Well I don't like those foods," but trust me you have not eaten them fresh and in season and you may have not yet learned to prepare them.  So buy some good cookbooks, find a good fresh food cooking blog, or find online recipes.  

These all the vegetables my husband assured me  he, "absolutely" did NOT like: asparagus, rutabagas, mustard greens, cabbage, chard, kale, and squash.  He now eats and loves them all. OK, he's still not a fan of winter squash but he likes the others.

3.  Have a well stock pantry of seasonings and spices.

 Also invest in good seasons and spices or better yet grow herbs. This is what makes fresh produce so delicious.  Learn what spices blend with and enhance what vegetable. 

Learn to make vinaigrette's, sauces, and dressings.  Learn to roast, braise, boil, grill, and bake.  It is very rewarding to grow a vegetable and then preparing it in a way that leaves your family asking for more.  

My 21 year old son is already planning his birthday menu and believe it or not he wants a grilled cabbage recipe as one of the sides.  Yup! It's that good.

5.  Invest in row covers or a frost blanket

You do not need to wait for a greenhouse to extend your season.  Medium weight row covers and a low tunnel can very inexpensively extend your season and allow you to plant earlier.  In low tunnels you can lay a row cover right on the crops and have the additional protection of the tunnel.


6. Never Leave the Ground Bare

Bare ground is not good for the micro organisms which are the basis for good soil and organic gardening.  When you pull up or harvest a plant- replant.  Something.  Just don't leave bare soil.  Carrots, kohlrabi, and beets are great to fill in holes.  No additional fertilizer is need for them. This will give you a continually harvest of these nutritious root crops.

 Golden beets are my favorite.  They are sweeter and milder flavor than red beets.  I love them roasted with other roots crops.

 Another way to avoid bare ground is to plant a late summer cover crop of buckwheat or Austrian peas.  The buckwheat will die with the frost and then can be incorporated into the soil in early spring to decompose.  Peas are more winter hardy and are beneficial nitrogen fixers.

 Buckwheat as a cover crop

 7.  Continue your harvest of summer crops until a freeze.

Don't let a couple of cold days make you give up on your summer crops.  Most of them will continue producing until the first freeze.  

These are some of the summer crops that are still giving great harvests.  This was all harvested on October 20th.  Look at all the food that would not be enjoyed if I had pulled up my garden when the garden centers disappeared from the big chain stores.


 Be sure to pick tomatoes before a rain.  They split with a lot of rain.
 Still harvesting watermelon, muskmelons, cucumbers and lots of peppers. With watermelons you can plant small and large varieties so you have an early and later harvest.
 You can see the broccoli side shoots from spring planted broccoli.  I do two spring plantings of cauliflower to get two harvests.  Cauliflower likes a litter warmer weather than broccoli.

 Just starting to pick winter squash and I still have pumpkins for pies in the garden.

 Caroline are the best raspberries.  They are an everbearing so you get  berries through the summer.  Then another fall crop until the first freeze.   I leave a bowl out to eat fresh then freeze the rest for winter use.

Green zebra heirloom tomato.  So delicious!

 Onions curing under the porch.

8.  Plant early, mid-season, and late varieties when possible 

This works great with potatoes.  Early and mid-season varieties can be enjoyed now and storage potatoes in the late fall and winter.

This is also great when planting tomatoes.  Fourth of July is a great early variety and a mix of heirlooms and hybrids can give you tomatoes until the first freeze.

9.  Prepare you garden beds in the late fall for early spring planting.

When you finally do finish up with a bed, remove all plant debris and weeds and cover with a layer of compost.  Next spring you will just have to add a dry organic fertilizer and you are ready to plant at the right time.

If this seems overwhelming after a couple of seasons it becomes easy.  Just remember you have to reprogram your thinking from a "retail gardener" motivated by marketing strategies to an organic gardener who makes decisions based on the biology of the soil and plants themselves.  
Once you undertake this lifestyle you will eat healthier, enjoy good fresh food, feel better, and enjoy the beauty and bounty of all that a garden has to offer.  You might even enjoy cooking!

Your garden will then feed your family not your frustrations. And in your wildest dreams you would ever want to go back to tasteless store bought produce.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Growing & Harvesting Watermelon

Everybody needs a watermelon patch! The old fashioned varieties are definitely worth the effort. With hybridization, watermelons have become seedless and nearly rind-less. But our great grandparents had the right idea about melons with thick rinds for protection, watermelon pickles and lots of seeds for spitting. Watermelon flesh comes in a rainbow of colors from white, yellow, orange, light pink, to bright red. The patterns on the rinds are just as numerous. A variety of shapes and sizes and maturity dates means there are no excuses for not including this delicious summer treat.

My goats love watermelon!

Watermelon are heat loving plants and generally need a long growing season. I am in zone 5 and they do wonderful here. Date to maturity ranges from 70- 105 days. They thrive in a soil rich in organic matter. I direct seed my melons on Mother's Day which is our Last Average Frost Date.

First and Last Frost Dates

Blacktail Mountain (H) good for Northern growers because of early maturity but also heat and drought tolerant.
You want to plant when your soil temperature is 65-80 degrees. Just stick a thermometer a couple of inches down in the dirt to determine soil temperature. Do this in the afternoon. Here's some suggestions to ensure you have happy melon vines whether you direct seed or start seeds indoors.

Direct Seeding:

We are going to amend the soil before we plant the seed. As the plant matures it has a fertile compost rich soil for the roots to grow into. Start by digging a hole about 1'x1'. Fill the hole with compost and a large handful of dry organic fertilizer mix. I included a link to the fertilizer mix I make.

Dry Organic Fertilizer Mix

Prepare to get both hands dirty. Mix the compost, fertilizer, and regular soil together and pat it down. Immediately plant your seeds. I plant two or three. You can thin out to the best two plants. Leave lots of space between plants. Don't over crowd your melon patch. This is one plant I do not put in raised beds. It will take over the bed you plant it in and intrude on nearby neighbors.

Depending on your zone you may want to warm up your soil with black mulch cloth or a row cover. You could also start the melons under a low tunnel and remove the low tunnel as weather warms.

Tom Watson (H) large 20-40 lbs and very productive

Starting Seeds Indoors:

I do not recommend starting watermelon indoors. They have very sensitive roots; however, in some zones it may be necessary. If you start seeds indoors do so 2-3 weeks before the last frost date of your area. Watermelon roots aren't particularly fond of being transplanted. Never buy root bound watermelon. Before transplanting follow the above method to amend your soil.
Watermelon are frost sensitive so be sure to pick a variety that has time to mature. Look up the length of your growing season (number of days from first frost to last frost) and choose a variety whose maturity date is within that range.

Tendersweet Orange very delicious and a favorite with sweet orange flesh

Saving Seeds

Watermelon belongs to the genus Citrullus and the species lanatus. All varieties of watermelon will cross with each other. Muskmelons are a different genus and species so they don't cross with watermelons. You will have to hand pollinate if you plan on saving seeds. Watermelon seeds will remain viable for six years if stored properly. The seeds are ripe when the melon is ripe for eating.

Charleston Grey (H) good for those with warm long growing seasons

Jubilee (H) old time favorite with red flesh

How to tell if a watermelon is ripe?

I think the best indicator is to locate the tendril opposite the stem of the watermelon. When it changes from green to brown it is ripe. Look at the bottom of the melon. There is a light white patch. When it ripens, it turns a pale yellow. Knock on the melon and it should sound someone knocking on the door. Hopefully you have picked a ripe melon because once picked they do not continue to ripen.

Moon and Stars Yellow has incredibly sweet pale yellow fresh

Water the Watermelon:

As the name implies, watermelons need even moisture. How much you water will depend on the type of soil you have. When you poke your finger into the soil, it should feel cool and moist. Mulching around the plants helps keep the soil from drying out.

Moon and Stars red fleshed heirloom

My favorite way to enjoy watermelon is the slice it, cube it, chill it, and eat it fresh. Nothing is more refreshing after working hard in the garden or farm than sitting on the porch eating cold watermelon. We sit outside so my husband and spit his seeds out. Here are a few other refreshing ideas.

Watermelon, Strawberry Lemonade

8 cups cubed seedless watermelon
1 cup strawberries, halved or raspberries
½ cup fresh lemon juice
1 cup sugar or agave (I start with 1/4 to 1/2 cups of sugar; 1/4 would give a tarter drink)
2 cups water
Combine all the ingredients in a blender or mixer and blend until smooth.

Optional add a few mint leaves

This is also delicious frozen and eaten as a slush or add vanilla yogurt for a smoothie

Watermelon wagon

My ducks finishing off the rest of the melon.  Everybody enjoys watermelon!