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Archive for March, 2011

Around 200 varieties of Peruvian potatoes were...

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Reader Leslie asked a great question, hoping for tips on how to grow potatoes in straw.  Digging into the subject has gotten me fired up to try it, because I’m such a brute with the shovel I always end up nicking the spuds.

But growing potatoes in straw is an easy way to get perfect spuds without the hassle of shoveling.  Known as ‘Straw Potatoes,’ you’ll have better size, shape, and color of the tubers than those grown in soil.  Straw has the added benefit of reducing weeds, keeping roots cool, and conserving water. 

Choose an early to mid-season variety, purchasing certified disease-free seed potatoes at garden centers or on-line – DON’T use potatoes from the grocers. That’s not safe gardening ; those potatoes might carry disease into your garden.

Plant seed potatoes (small, whole potatoes) or potatoes cut into 2 ounce pieces. If cutting up potatoes for seed pieces, be sure to leave at least one good eye per piece and let them wait a few days to allow the cut side heal over before planting. 

Plant potatoes soon;  four-to-six weeks before the last frost.  Choose a flat, sunny location out of the wind for your straw patch.  If there is no place in your yard without wind (please stop laughing), encircle the area for planting with a chicken wire cage that can be easily opened for harvesting.  This will keep your straw from flying to Kansas.

Place seed pieces on the soil with the cut side down and eyes up, spacing the spuds 12 inches apart.

Cover the potatoes with six inches of clean, weed-free straw.  The potato will send up a stem, and as it pokes up out of the straw, add another six inch layer.  Repeat a third time. This ensures that you’ll have a long, underground stem from which the tubers will grow. 

During the summer, if the straw compacts down or starts to decompose, add more, tucking it in around the plant.  Check the straw frequently to make sure it’s covering the tubers – if hit with sunlight they turn green and become bitter.

Pay close attention to watering the potatoes over the summer; they should not be allowed to dry out, nor should they become soggy. A soaker hose laid across the surface of the soil will help you irrigate the potatoes evenly.  Pull any weed that makes itself at home in the straw.

Go lightly with fertilizer – you want the potatoes to form tubers, not a lot of foliage.  Give them a shot of balanced liquid fertilizer about six weeks after the first sprout has topped the straw (even if you continue to add layers of straw, mark the date the vine first poked up).

In August, harvest new potatoes – young tubers not fully sized – by carefully pulling back the straw to reveal them.  Pluck out a few new potatoes, then tuck the straw back around the plant, and it will continue to produce for you.  Or wait until the plant dies back to harvest the fully-sized crop.

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Colorado Master Gardener Jackie Buratovich has gotten low tunnels down to an art in her yard.  Take a look at how she protects her plants in this video made with the Boulder Daily Camera newspaper (listen close, and you’ll hear the neighborhood children doing their best to distract the photographer).

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Peas in pods.

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The answer is no.

This pains me, because that answer flies in the face of years of tradition.  But despite the calendar and my family’s full-throated observance of St. Patrick’s Day, I did not plant peas in the garden.

The reason for this is simple:  I’ve become suspicious that the cold shoulder the soil gives those seeds slows their germination.  This delays the peas’ entrance into the world, dashing my hopes to get the season rolling.

Though they’re a cool season crop, perfect for spring and fall gardens, peas are a bit of an anomaly.  The plant likes it chilly, but the seed prefers it warm, with best germination at 50 to 75 degree soil temperatures.  True, they’ll sprout if the soil is as cool as 40-degrees, but at those temperatures, peas take their time.

My soil is registering a flat 50-degrees on the thermometer I shoved into the raised bed, which is why I vowed to wait an extra seven to ten days; to give the soil time to warm before sowing

What it boils down to is an experiment between my desire to plant and my resolve to wait.  At this point, it’s a toss-up as to whether I can fight the urge; like a dieter determined to keep their mind off of food, I’m distracting myself with odd jobs, writing, and reruns of Glee.

If you held onto tradition and planted peas, give them some water and patience.  If they seem a bit slow to start, don’t give up on them.  We’ll compare notes in a month or so, to see whose plants are further along.

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With perennials waking and buds swelling, we feel the call to get outside and reconnect with the earth. Each warm weekend we linger longer in the yard, reveling in the emergence of bulbs and blossoms. Yet, just as we feel the season’s change, so do others in the landscape. They’re out there now, getting busy and quietly enacting plans to take over more territory in your yard.

March is the mitiest month, not because it comes in like a lion, but because it heralds the climax of the smallest nuisances in the yard: Grass mites. And between feeding on the lawn and entering our homes, they’ve launched a campaign of annoyance.

Perhaps the most startling natural phenomenon that happens to many of us in the Front Range is the annual migration of clover mites into our homes. Moving by the hundreds, the tiny, bright orange arachnids clamber walls and slide in around windows.

The first appearance doesn’t raise more than an eyebrow, as one or two crawl across the desk. But then two becomes 10 and slowly that number creeps upward, until the warm day dawns when the mass moves indoors, teeming along the windowsill and streaming to the floor.

Normally, I’m not given to fear-mongering, especially about bugs and arachnids. Clover mites won’t cart off the cat for a luau on the deck. But they leave a red-orange smear once squished, and like a chalk outline around the carcass, reminds me of the crawler each time I see it on paper, book, or curtain. Creepy.

Outside, clover mites feed on turf grass or other plants. They’re unremarkable in the landscape; they don’t damage a lot of the lawn. But when lawns are nestled up against the house, the trouble starts, so plan your landscape to leave a barrier between plants and walls.

Within, controlling these mites is fairly simple. Simply place a quarter inch wide line of powder along the window-sill from side to side, being certain that the powder touches the side walls. This barrier, according to Dr. Whitney Cranshaw, state entomologist and professor at Colorado State University, is enough to stop them in their tracks. Any powder works, such as baby powder, corn starch, or baking powder. As the mites crawl into it, they’re rapidly incapacitated and dry out.

When the powder has gotten filled with mites it will turn a light orange color, a sure sign that it’s time to vacuum it up and apply a fresh barrier. Continue this until May, after the mites are actively entering homes.

As you’re battling mites in the home, keep an eye on the lawn, since more damaging mites are at the peak of feeding for the winter. During warm winters, such as what we’ve had, mite populations explode.

Hatched in October, mite numbers increase into winter. As they feed, rasping off the leaf surface and sucking up tender, interior cells, the damage appears as small yellow speckles on the grass blades. As feeding intensifies, the grass becomes straw colored and eventually dies, leaving large patches that don’t green up in spring. Balmy winter temperatures sets mite metabolisms into overdrive, and by this time of year, populations can reach several thousand per square foot.

This damage is often mis-diagnosed as winterkill or desiccation. If you’ve had mite damaged lawn, take a quick look to see if they’ve returned. Check the base of the plant for congregations of them during the day.

If you see them, irrigate the lawn to raise humidity or check with a local lawn care company for stronger treatments. Snow cover doesn’t put a stop to their feeding, since it provides protection, but as it melts, the moisture helps drive off the mites.

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It is with pleasure that Gardening After Five announces the emergence of our first seedlings of the year

New seedling

 

Caraflex Cabbage

 nosed their way into the world sometime during the night of March 9, 2011.

 

 

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 When you pick up a perennial this spring, check the tag to see where it was grown.  If it came from Oregon, chances are it was watched over by Jeff Stoven, who’s keeping a watchful eye on his charges during a cold snap that has tender plants at risk of freezing their buds off.

As the Head Grower for Bailey Nurseries in Yamhill, Stoven is responsible for over 100,000 potted plants.  As temperatures plunged to 18 degrees at the end of February, he sprang into action to keep the quarter-million dollar crop protected, not with row covers or tarps.  Instead, the blanket he swaddled them in was a coating of ice.

“Because our spring was so early and warm in February, the plants started to grow,” he said, “and now we’re at a critical time because it got really cold and we have to protect the new growth.”

Using ice to protect citrus crops in Florida and Georgia is common practice, but many don’t realize that the technique is widely used in the nursery industry as well.  As water changes to ice, heat is released and protects the plant from cold.  The trick is to keep the conversion of water to ice going for as long as you have cold temperatures.

“We come in just before the freezing temperatures and turn on the sprinklers a little at a time,” Stoven said.  “We get them a little wet, and ice forms around stems and buds.  We’ll continue to the water on and off for the next few hours, but we don’t want to overdo the amount of water, because we don’t want a huge glob of ice to form.”

Other techniques for plant protection vary, including lighting fires and moving the warm air with fans, or flying a helicopter low and slow over the field to move the air, but Stoven sticks to the proven method of icing in the plants.  You’ll see the results this spring in the garden centers.

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A growing onion Allium cepa in a neutral backg...

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Today’s post can be heard on the public radio show Crop to Cuisine, hosted by Dov Hirsch.

Crop To Cuisine

As you’re planting your spring kitchen garden, leave room for one of cooking’s basics that’s delicious enough to bring tears to your eyes.  Growing onions in Colorado is easy, and if you want to add this allium to your vegetable plot, the time to get planting is now.

Seeds, seedlings and sets are available to the home gardener, so here’s a quick primer on the difference: seeds are directly sown into the garden from mid-March through the end of April and are very successful in Colorado.  Sow them shallowly, about three-eighths of an inch deep. 

Seedlings are started plants, grown this season and not yet mature enough to begin forming bulbs.  Locally, onion seedlings are readily available in small clumps that you tease apart upon planting.  Plant them one inch deep and slightly later than seeds, so any time in April will do.   

Sets are onion bulbs that are about one inch in diameter and planted as you would a tulip or daffodil.  Both seeds and seedlings can be used for green onions, often called scallion-stage, or for sizing up into storage bulbs.  But if you use sets, keep in mind that they’re best if you want bulb onions

 Look for long-day varieties that form bulbs once we have 14 or more hours of sunlight daily; in our area, onions will begin producing pungent, sweet bulbs beginning in July.  

 Onions prefer fertile, well-draining soil liberally amended with organic material.  Spread compost one to one-and-a-half inches deep across the bed, then till it in, working it eight inches into the soil. 

 If you’ve sown seeds, thin them once the seedlings have five leaves.  For best bulb production, thin to three inches apart.  Pulled seedlings are delicious as fresh or grilled; eat them as you would a scallion.  As your onions grow, each leaf they put on represents a ring in the bulb itself, and size matters: larger leaves mean bigger rings.

Water them frequently, never allowing their shallow roots to dry, which can cause bulbs to be stunted and tough.  Onions are nitrogen-greedy during the first part of the season, so fertilize until mid-July, then put them on a diet – onions don’t need much nitrogen past that point. 

As onions bulb, they often push themselves out of the soil; this is normal and your plant will be fine.  Avoid giving in to the urge to “hill-up” your onions; hiding the beautiful bulb will work against the plant’s desire to plump it and you won’t get good production.  As the plant prepares to bulb (the neck will feel a little soft), if your soil is hard from the summer sun, gently loosen it to let the plant expand.

Keep weeds to a minimum, since they rapidly crowd out the less-vigorous onion.  Careful, shallow hoeing around the plants is a must to avoid damaging the developing bulb, so if you’re a bit of a brute with the hoe, mulch is a good option for your onions.

Thrips are common insects in our area, rasping off the surface of the onion leaf, leaving a tell-tale trail of silver.  They hide out on weeds, so weed suppression is key to control.

You can tell if your onion is mature by its floppy tops, which start laying over in mid-August.  Hold off on watering at this point and when most of the tops have fallen, gently lift the onions from the ground. Let them rest on top of the ground for up to two days, trying to keep them oriented the same way they grew in the ground to prevent sunburn.

After two or three days, take the onions into a warm, dry location to cure for several weeks until the necks are completely dry.  Trim the tops, then store the bulbs in a mesh bag out of sunlight in a cool location.

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