Archive for May, 2009

My buddy, Mari – she of the hops vines – collared me today with an irresistible invitation: how would I like to accompany her to Stonebridge Farm, the Community Supported Ag outfit where she gets her produce?   solar tractor

“They have chickens,” she said merrily, knowing my fondness for those cluckers, “and great horned owls dropping pellets with the coolest stuff in them. You’ll love it.” She’s right, which is neat, because not many of my friends realize just how fascinated I am by animal droppings.

Off we sailed, west to Lyons, a small, sleepy town upon the foothills in Boulder County. Thank goodness Mari was driving – the quick right into a rutted dirt drive was a turn I’d never seen, despite driving this road most of my 13 years here. Up we bumped into a small field where before us, a modest-seeming farm appeared.

Pickup for the produce was an hour away; we’d arrived early in order to ramble through the fields, past the bee hives, through the greenhouse and over to the barn. The quiet of the day was lovely: sunny skies, cool temps, and a hint of clouds. John Martin, who owns the farm with spouse Kayann Short, was happy to let us wander, encouraging us to see the newly transplanted tomato seedlings in the upper field.

Passing through field after field of young starts, the potential for the season was impressive: though the harvest now is of spring greens and Asian cabbage, walking onions and spinach, soon there will be garlic, Raab, and stir fry veggies, and later raspberries, tomatoes, peppers and potatoes.  scuffle hoes

In the harvest barn where shareholders browsed this week’s crops, questions and conversations ran group to group, who all helped each other decide which produce to pick, or how to use it.

If you know the farmer who grows your food, consider yourself one lucky person. In this day of factory farming, remote controlled combines and global transport of food, the link to the land can be a tenuous one.

It may sound silly to you, but I prefer to put a face to my produce, have a hand to shake and a smile to greet me when I’m contemplating which vegetables I think are good enough for the family. Small conversations on weather, bugs, or new equipment or “hey, how did your family like those salad greens you tried last week?” are as important to me as the freshness of the food. Join a CSA near you for your produce if you aren’t growing enough to meet your family’s needs, or shop at the local farmer’s market. You’ll find the best food comes from people who know your name.  Greenhousebasil seedlings

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Aaahhh, summer.  The lazy days spent clipping the lawn, neatly trimming the edges and grass so that the carpet rolls along in one, smooth swath of green.  Nothing more satisfying than gathering up the tools and locking them away, turning to view the glory that is….

 …a dandelion, popping up like a summer festival tent smack in the center of the turf.  Soon it has friends and family surrounding it, while bindweed and black medic nestle in the turf, and kochia accents the edge.  Henbit

 If you’re struggling with weeds invading your lawn, before you reach for the super-nuclear chemistry, stop and consider: those weeds tell you what the grass can’t about conditions in the yard. 

Stressed lawns have groups of weeds that flourish together under similar conditions.  Some like hot, lean soil; others prefer cool shady spots.   Growing together in the yard, they’re known as indicator weeds, and they help homeowners sort out problem lawn spots.

Before yanking them out, make a list of them to see what type of care your lawn needs.  Here’s a primer on indicator weeds and what they can tell you:

 – Hot, dry soils sport black medic, bindweed, dandelions, kochia, stink grass and yarrow.  If the grass seems thin in spots with these weeds, increase the water to this area, or check the sprinkler heads for coverage.

 – Over watered yards have plenty of weeds.  Annual bluegrass, common chickweed, crabgrass, violets and ground ivy plague chronically wet lawns.  Sprinklers may be running too often or for long periods.

 –  Compacted soil is a favorite of mouse-ear and common chickweeds, goose grass, knotweed, annual bluegrass and prostrate spurge.  Core aeration several times per season over two or three years helps break up compaction.  Common mallow

– Lawns mowed too low have crabgrass, yellow wood sorrel, and white clover.  Increase the height on the mower to keep grass at two to three inches tall.

 – Not fertilizing enough, but over watering?  You’ll see black medic with plantains and white clover.  Cut back on the water, and feed the lawn.

– Over fertilizing?  Curled dock, henbit, yellow wood sorrel and annual bluegrass will pop up.  Fertilize lawns in May, September and November, and calibrate your spreader to drop only what the grass needs.

Recognizing turf weeds takes practice. Two websites can help you discover what’s invading your lawn, the North Carolina State University’s turf files or Michigan State University’s turf weeds.net.  They’ll take you step by step through a key to identifying what weed you have.  Then jump back onto the Colorado State University turf website to check for control tips that work in our area.

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Occasionally something disgusting happens in the garden.  When it does, even the bravest gardeners step back with a shudder.  Right now – late May – spinach is getting nailed by leafminers.  spinach leafminer

This tiny fly overwinters in the soil as pupa; once spring arrives they molt to the adult stage and emerge, looking for love.  Females then lay masses of white eggs on the underside of spinach leaves (usually the older leaves). 

 At hatching, larvae tunnel into the leaves, munching their way under protection of the top and lower surfaces of the leaf.  There can be several generations per year until the heat of mid-summer.

Sounds harmless, doesn’t it?  Here’s the catch – those cute little larvae are maggots.  spinach leafminer maggotsNow, I like maggots; they’re misunderstood and often maligned.  But these fellows are in my food and because they’re tunneling between the leaf layers, their frass (a nice way of saying ‘droppings’) stays in the tunnel with them. 


 Before giving up on the spinach bed, nip this in the bud by scouting the leaves, looking for the egg masses.  When you find them, crush them.  If your leaves are already infested, pick, remove, and destroy them.  Don’t make the mistake of thinking that picking the leaves and composting them will help – the maggots will continue to develop in the leaf regardless of whether it is on the plant or off.

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Blogger’s note:  I’ve embarked on a new adventure and stepped Crop To Cuisine  into the world of radio.  Today’s post can be heard on Public radio’s  Crop to Cuisine  May 18 show, hosted by the delightful Dov Hirsch:

For the good of the community and the world around us, we gardeners should have signs on our cars that are honest about our obsession.  Those bumpers stickers with cheerful “honk if you love plant sales” are cute but don’t cut it.  We need signs big enough to hold paragraphs with disclaimers such as “Caution:  this driver makes no sense at all when approaching a plant sale,” or “keep back 50 feet unless you want leaves, petals and twigs pelting your car.”

 Following one of us is risky; the car’s stuffed with foliage, we can’t see out the windows, and the trunk’s bungeed shut because it’s full of bagged compost.  With streamers of plants flapping out windows and the trunk bumping open and closed, we careen down the road looking for nurseries and plant sales.  When we find them, we don’t slow down; we turn into them at high speed like the car’s on rails. 

We can’t help it; it’s getting into late May, and for gardeners, the season is in full swing.  Every weekend is spent tilling, planting, and setting up raised beds.  When those plant sales began, our fever rose to a pitch, because in those few days, thousands of plant lovers gather to elbow each other out of the way of the best bargains.  Long lines

 We’re seduced by hot new Echinaceas, greedy for vegetable seedlings, and lured by blooming annuals.  We’re purchasing bulbs and rhizomes, water plants and seeds.  There’s no reasoning with us, it’s like a weekend in Vegas, where we lose control over what we’re doing. 

And then we wake up on Monday following this feast of overindulgence, to face the fruits of our actions. 

There are 135 bundles of joy sitting on the patio, waiting to be planted.  It’s a crowd of green staring at us when we come home from work, drooping in the sun as if resigned to life at our home.  They’ve got to go in the ground before the weather gets too warm and fries them in their pots, but a plan is needed to keep the honeymoon from turning into a horror show.

There are different ways to do this – you can plant them all at once in a marathon weekend.  In this case a plan is important – it gives you something to abandon once you get tired and start shoving plants wherever there’s room.

 Or you can approach this with a bit of sanity, by sorting the plants into groups of vegetables, perennials and annuals, then popping them into the ground over the course of the week, one group at a time.  Because I garden around a full time job, I like this approach; I don’t want to give up my weekends to hard labor.

 This way, you plant with confidence, moving from bed to bed with speed.  For a while you’re master of your domain, it’s now a controlled chaos, which is the best you can hope for in a garden.  Picking out plants

 Sort through your seedlings, separating vegetables from ornamentals, then break them into groups based on exposure – full sun, dappled shade, or a combination of the two.  Then sort by water requirements.  The tags that came with the plant should tell you what they need.  After this, look at how tall they’re likely to get, grouping them by height and spread. 

Then decide where they’ll go based on what they need to thrive and what you have available; you now have an idea of how many evenings you’ll need to pop all of these in the ground.  Taller plants should be put where they won’t block your view of shorter ones, so give them space at the back of the border or in the center of an island bed. 

 Don’t be fooled when the tag says drought tolerant; this doesn’t mean from the moment you put them in the ground.  You’ll still need to pay attention to watering them their first season, but don’t drown them and rot their roots.

 While the plants are getting established, the easiest way to tell if they need water is to feel the soil at their base; poke your finger in the soil up to the first knuckle to test for moisture.  If the ground is damp, don’t water.

Heirloom tomatoes are popular for “old fashioned” flavor many people remember from their childhood. But be warned – these plants are vigorous growers and need a lot of space, unlike their hybrid cousins.  Heirlooms want to grow wild and free; they’ll quickly smother other plants in the area.  Give them room before they declare manifest destiny and take over your garden. 

Vines such as melons or squash should be given room to ramble in locations that won’t interfere with the walkways.  These plants are fussy about having their vines moved, so put them in a sunny, out of the way area where they can creep at will.  Once they get larger, if it’s a windy spot, loosely stake the vines to the ground with a few earth staples so the vines won’t roll in the breeze.

Use your plants to develop communities of comfort in the garden.  Corn and other tall plants should be placed to the north of other vegetables so they don’t shade them, but if you have tender plants that need a buffer from heat and sun, nestle them up near the stalks once the corn is taller.  Let pole beans climb teepees and plant lettuce, spinach and other greens underneath in their shade.

 If you’re planning to mulch your vegetable garden, wait a couple of weeks for the soil to warm.  If you live in the northern Front Range can find soil temperature information on the Northern Colorado Water Conservation District website.  Updated daily, this handy link was sent in by blog follower Frank Pratte.  People living in other areas of the country can check their soil temperatures by going to greencastonline.com.

 Whether you work a little at a time or opt for the one-weekend makeover, putting your plants in the right place will ensure that your foliage is healthy and productive all season long.

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A few posts ago I gave some advice to gardeners on rooftops in Boston.  Here they introduce themselves:

Hi there!  Welcome to Harvard Business Publishing’s rooftop garden project.  This is the second year of the project and we have a scrappy team of enthusiastic gardeners who are eager to share our experience with you.  So, come on—let me show you around and introduce the team.

 We are located in the old arsenal near Boston which has been converted to office buildings and restaurants.   IMG_0304

 Ours is a ballasted roof that has some kind of membrane underneath which prevents us from walking directly on the roof (we’d puncture it and that wouldn’t be good).  Therefore, the tiles you see in the picture are where we must walk.  The containers can be on the stones but we need to stay on the tiles.  We are positioning the containers to run along the sides of the walking tiles.  May 08 584

 The Team:  From front to back, Matt, Tara, Suzi, Martha, Matt and Zach.  Not shown: Roisin and Doug.

We are on a very small budget, so many of us have donated containers for our garden and are bringing in our own tools.  We do have access to some cedar planters that were bought last year as well as some tools and watering cans.  We don’t have a hose, at least not yet but there is talk of getting one up to the roof.  I’m not sure where it will get the water from.  I didn’t see a spigot up there.

 We started a lot of different seeds indoors about a month ago.  We may be a bit over-enthusiastic about what we are going to grow.  We had a lot of fun in the store looking at various seeds and imagining our garden and we may have undertaken a lot more than we realize but hey!  We’ll figure this out and learn from our mistakes.  At least they should be fun mistakes! 

 We’ve been germinating and growing the seeds in our cubicles.  They make for great conversation and distraction pieces.  If someone is trying to get information, data or work out of me, they see the plants and it always side-tracks them.  (Now you know my secret to less work and more play.)  I’ve got cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, melons, eggplant and ornamental gourds all growing in containers in my cubicle.  Suzi is germinating several varieties of herbs including basil, cilantro, dill, parsley, sage and tarragon.  Matt has started peas, edemame and several types of tomatoes.  Tara started lettuce at home outside.  Unfortunately, the birds got the first plantings so she replanted and covered with netting.  Roots of their obsession

 We planted outside for the first time last week.  We have lettuce started along with peas and radishes.  We started the peas inside which I don’t think was necessary but considering it took us so long to get going on the roof and we were just anxious to plant something and watch it grow, we started them anyway.  After 5 days, the radishes look pretty good and the lettuce is growing nicely.  The peas and edamame need a trellis which we hope to get up this week.  Starting next Monday, we will start to harden off the rest of the plants for planting the week after Memorial Day. 

 So, that’s who we are and what we are growing.  We’ll check in periodically to let you know how things are growing and the challenges we are facing.  Feel free to drop by anytime!  We like showing off our project.

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Lilac ash borers are putting on their yearly horror show, emerging from tree trunks to fly about looking for mates.  Not content to upset homeowners by leaving their tree riddled with holes, they also leave a gruesome calling card:  their exoskeletons from the last molt, sticking half-in, half-out of the tree.  Lilac Ash borer pupal skin

 Talk about alarming; ash trees now appear as if they’re characters in the movie Alien, but then, Hollywood has long taken its cues from nature.  After spending the winter as larvae in ash trees or lilac stems, the adults – a clearwing moth that looks like a wasp – exit and begin searching for love.

 If successful, the pairing can result in up to 400 eggs laid on the bark by a female in one week before she drops from exhaustion.  Let Tinsel Town write that into a script, and they’ll have mothers everywhere running from the theater screaming.

It doesn’t take long for the eggs to hatch and tunnel into the trunk, first feeding just under the bark, then moving deeper into the sapwood.  The damage this borer can do is severe enough that, should you tree fall victim to it, a licensed tree care company should be called to help you treat the problem.

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This spring has brought a new level of anticipation to the garden, one that has me impatient for fall.  No, it’s not the delectable tomatoes or sweet melons from the vegetable garden – though I’m looking forward to them, too.

 This year, the adventure lies in growing hops.  Cascade beer hops to be exact; not the ornamental Golden or native vines.  My garden is a working one, where few plants are allowed to just sit and look pretty.  Food, flowers for vases, shade for the seating area, or keeping beneficial insects around – everyone has a job in this landscape.  spring hops

 So do these vines. Early on they help screen the neighbors, rambling along fence tops and sides.  Later they’ll be picked, dried, and taken down to the local brewery where my buddy Mari has arranged to trade them for beer.

 Mari, a gardener, beekeeper, and dynamite photographer, connected with the local brewpub a few years ago when hops prices started soaring world-wide.  Having hops as a novelty in her garden, she hatched a brilliant plan.  The result is a few frosty bottles of brew after a summer of beauty in the yard.

 Gardeners swap all the time, so this barter of hops for beer fits perfectly with our lifestyle; Mari also shares cutting from her plant to get others started for low cost.  Yes, hops need water the first season to get established, but not in huge gulps.  Instead, frequent light watering and mulch to keep their roots consistently moist the first year is best.   young hops

 After that, a dripline to provide deep, infrequent water is all you need.  Mine are planted behind the roses and perennials they seem happy enough with no extra fuss.

But you have to trellis them or they’ll quickly run over the ground, wind around plants and start snatching small pets from the street – put a trellis (in my case a folded tomato cage) behind them and firmly direct them in their growth.  You need to thin them too, taking off weaker vines and keeping only the three most vigorous ones.  This pushes energy into the development of the best vines and a much better crop.

Watch out for aphids, a chronic problem on hops, but don’t worry about using more than a spritz or two of soapy water to control them.  You’ll soon find lady bugs and other predators working the plants to keep the aphids in check.   nearing ripenes

 Pick your hops from the top of the plant down; those growing highest ripen first.  You’ll know when they’re ripe by feel and smell. Green cones feel a little moist and soft, and stay compressed if you squeeze it. Ripe cones feel light and dry, and may look a little lighter in color. 

 Dry the hops on a mesh screen in the shade and out of wind for several days, turning the cones daily to keep drying even.  They’re perfect when the stem breaks easily if bent.  Then trot them down to your local brewpub to bargain for beer.  drying cones

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Ok, I’ll admit it:  I rush the season.  When the weather warms and eagerness overcomes my better sense, I push seedlings and seeds into the soil, tucking them in at the first hint of spring. 

 Because of this I wait as days turn to weeks, wondering if the seeds rotted in the soil.  I wait with impatience as seedlings sit and sulk, unimpressed by their new home.  They’re not dead; I check – those seeds just lay in the ground doing nothing as I put up trellises and string, ready sun shades and mulch.  Clearly one of us is slacking.

Turns out it’s the soil.  If your ground isn’t warm and cozy, the plants won’t thrive, and the jump start I gave the season will fizzle  until that soil heats up.   freckles lettuce

Fortunately for us there’s a nifty website you can go to, to check the soil temperatures in your area.  Check out greencastonline.com, a site run by a major company who likes to make sure its seed succeeds.  I’m not endorsing anything here – I just like their soil temp site.   It’s under agronomic crops, should you decide you’d like to click over to weather, then back again. 

Boy, this is fast – currently our soil is 48F, good for planting kale, lettuce, pak choi, parsnips, peas, and spinach.  But days to maturity come into play too, so think ahead to conditions that will be in play once the plant starts producing.  Peas may fry and lettuce bolt in our balmy 90F summer.  But a few more degrees and I can plant the chard or leeks.

Beans typically need soils to be warmer than 60F, ideally 68 – 70F; all of the truly tender crops – tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, cucumbers, squash, pumpkins, corn and melons need the soil to be 70F.  Otherwise they sit there, brooding over the fate that left them in the hands of a rude, thoughtless gardener who plops their bottoms into chilly soil.  Fedco has a great chart for crops and the soil temps they need for planting.

With these two tools you can click on your area to get information on your soil, precipitation, weather, etc.  And this year I intend to use them, so that when I pop my plants in, they’ll leap from the ground and I can get down to the business of gardening, not waiting.

 **Yes, you can warm the soil with plastic, walls o water or cold frames.  Take your soil temp after five days to see how far your temps have increased.

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Feel your sap rising but don’t have a place to get down in the dirt? Are you quietly pining for a swatch of land to grow a few sweet tomatoes or crunchy-crisp lettuce?

Coworkers at Harvard Business Publishing in Boston are and, eager for the chaos only Mother Nature can bring, bravely launched into the second year of their rooftop garden. Any time we have the opportunity to turn white collars green, we’ll take it – so let’s celebrate the efforts of Martha, Matt, Susie, Matt, Doug, Zach, Tara, and Roisin with a bit of advice on container gardening.

Ok, you’re on a roof; it’s accessorized with air conditioning units, pipe stacks and other roof things. So, a few ground rules:

1) Keep your plants away from intake fans. Though the screens might have you thinking “hey, what a great trellis!” do not give in to temptation. These fans provide persistent suction, pulling air into offices below; chopped plant parts sailing through the building are not a pretty sight, and no, it is not a way to freshen the air.

2) See the gutters? They’re for channeling water away from the building, not for bordering your garden with pretty posies (you’re in the Northeast, you get rain!  We don’t in Colorado, at least not much. Do not do as we do and reinforce the supports, fill them with potting soil and plant low growing flowers (see photo). We’re crazy; you’re not). gutter garden

3) Get to know your facilities people; invite them to visit your garden. Chances are there will be muddy shoe prints, a few bits of plants dragged indoors, and the odd leak or two. You need these fine people on your side.

4) Get ready for birds. Eventually they will believe that the garden is there for them, not for you. Plan on protection such as netting, flashing mylar strips, or one of the executives that really doesn’t have anything better to do. Cover your seating area when you leave to go back to the office.

5)  Bugs fly. They’ll find your crop tasty too. Check with your group to get a consensus on pest management. Don’t automatically assume you can spray whatever you want to around intake fans (see item number 1, and add a floating cloud of…well, you get my drift).

OK, now for a bit of advice. When choosing pots for your plants, make certain you have drainage holes. To avoid problems from lead leaching into your soil, go with pots that don’t have a glaze on the inside. Clay, plastic, metal, wood – the choice is yours, but be aware that you’ll need to pay closer attention to watering plants that are in porous pots which wick moisture away faster than plastic, metal or glass.  Anything can be a container.  cactus in chair

Don’t be boring – mix up the size and colors of your containers. Group plants together in nice communities, varying the number of plants in the groups and occasionally placing a few singly around the area.

Keep in mind that vegetables need plenty of root space to be productive.  There’s a great list of pot sizes and soil volume per plant type in The Ohio State University factsheet on container vegetable gardening. Clean potting soil is best; don’t reuse soil left over from last year.

Once you’ve planted your garden, remember that those plants are now dependent upon you to provide for their nutritional needs. In other words: fertilize them. Container plants need extra care, since they can’t access naturally occurring nutrients. Balanced fertilizers are best; if you’d like to add a timed release into your soil mix, blend it in well before planting. Follow the ratios for mixing on the label.

What varieties should you plant? Depending on the size of your containers, look for compact plants to do better in containers. Several All America Selections are wonderful for this: Carmen pepper (most peppers work well in containers), purple Hansel and white Gretel eggplants, which provide sweet, tender fingers of fruit; or Honey Bear acorn squash.

Bush beans do well, but you’ll get more production from a deeper pot and pole beans running up a trellis, or try letting melons ramble across the roof. I love Charantais, the small, succulent cantaloupe from France. But you need a bit of experience to tell when it’s ripe, otherwise it has the bad habit of exploding – a drawback if you’re sitting near one in your business clothes.

Plenty of tomatoes do well in containers. Try Early Girl or Celebrity for slicers, Sweet 100 or Tomatoberry for cherries. The list for tomatoes in containers is a long one; it’s best to check out the habit of the plant before you buy it. Go with compact plants and provide a cage for them.

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