Archives for posts with tag: mulch

Over breakfast this morning, we discussed a few ideas for the next growing season. It’ll be here sooner than we think.

First, we’ll move the peas and beans to the fence. We have two trellises now and rather than let one lie fallow (as we did this past season), we’ll plant one trellis with cucumbers and the other with legumes. We sow the peas and beans directly into the ground (as opposed to starting them inside, as we do the cucumbers) and I am pretty sure that there will be enough sun to germinate the seeds.

Second, we’ll plant the tomatoes in the ground only, not in a raised bed. I’m a bit surprised that we came to this conclusion because I was sure that the tomatoes in the planter would do better than those in the ground, mainly due to the soil being older and more conditioned in the planters (see June 8, 2014, part 2). Perhaps it was Murphy’s Law or maybe our tomatoes were contrarian by nature, but the vines in the ground grew fuller and produced more fruit. Go figure.

Planting only in the ground will mean fewer tomato plants—and, possibly, fewer tomatoes—but each plant will have more space. And because there will be no tomato plants in the raised beds, we’ll also have more room there to plant other things.

Which leads me to the third idea for next season: garlic. And now is not too soon to be thinking about it.

Because it turns out that garlic wants to vernalize—to spend a winter in the ground before sprouting in the spring. That means it needs to be planted now. Back in November, we purchased two heads of seed garlic (one hard stem, one soft) from one of our favorite market farmers, Jay. (By the way, seed garlic is no different from the garlic we eat as long as it has not been grown with any chemicals to prevent it from sprouting.)

Jay mentioned that he always waits until it is cold enough to make his fingers hurt to plant the garlic (and his garlic is always beautiful so he must be on to something). Today fits the bill, weather-wise, and I went out to plant. I first had to prepare a spot for it in the southwest corner of the west planter. I cleaned up the old mulch and fallen leaves, pulled a few weeds, added a topping of fresh compost, and raked it smooth.

I broke up the heads of garlic and picked the best cloves of each type. Perhaps we waited a bit too long; some of the cloves were starting to dry out. Still, I was able to get eight soft neck and four hard neck cloves and dropped them in one-inch-deep holes (root end down, pointy end up).

I covered the area with fresh mulch and gave it a good watering. If all goes well, we should see sprouts (also called scapes) in early spring.

At last, time to set out the vegetable seedlings (and, at last, time to blog about it). We’re two weeks later than usual (we’ve set out on Memorial Day each of the last three years), mainly due to lingering cool weather.

And it’s more than a little ironic, considering that we sowed seeds for some of the vegetables much earlier than usual. Germinated indoors and then coddled during their early weeks with 16 hours of light per day and continuous heat, the tomatoes, eggplant, bell peppers, summer squash and cucumbers should have been raring to get outdoors a long time ago.

Yet somehow, they knew. They knew that indoors was much nicer, especially at night. I can’t say that I blame them. I wasn’t ready to spend much time outdoors until just recently.

To prepare for the seedlings, I first weeded the beds (see June 8, 2014) and then installed cages for the tomatoes. As in prior years, we’ll have a row of six cages along the north side of the planter; this year, the west planter is up in the rotation. In a departure from past seasons, however, we will plant only one seedling per cage.

To increase our tomato yield, we will also plant another six seedlings in the mounds at ground level, where the squashes mostly thrived last year. In May, we prepped the old mounds by adding fresh soil and mulch (see May 11, 2014). Today, we installed three cages. This exhausted the supply on hand and we will have to make a trip to the garden center for another three (we have some time before the tomatoes will actually need them).

We have four varieties of tomato—Sungold, Black Cherry, Yellow Brandywine and Country Taste Beefsteak—but unequal numbers of each. Because the west planter should be the safest (we’ve spotted evidence of moles or gophers this year; see June 1, 2014), we planted two each there of our favorites, the Sungold and Country Taste. One Yellow Brandywine and one Black Cherry filled out the row.

That left one Sungold, two Yellow Brandywine and three Black Cherry plants in the ground. It will be interesting to see which vines do better, those at ground level or those elevated in the planter. My money is on the planter.

After getting the tomato seedlings transplanted—buried up to their first branches to promote root growth—we moved on to the summer squashes. We set out two Supersett Yellow Crookneck, one Cavili zucchini (the only seedling that germinated) and three pattypans, one of each color (at least, I presume). I noted the location of the plant from each seed color so that we can confirm the color mapping (see May 26, 2014).

When we finished (at about two in the afternoon), the day had turned quite warm and it was time for a swim.

Still playing catch up, we thinned the beets and turnips today. Doing the turnips was easy: we had placed the seeds with one and a half to two inches in between them; to thin, we simply pulled out every other sprout. The remaining turnips, now spaced at three to four inches, should not need to be further thinned.

Thinning the beets required a bit more attention. Their seeds are clustered so even though we used the same initial spacing, each cluster produced multiple tightly-bunched sprouts. Rather than pull them out, which might damage the roots of those left to grow, we used clippers to cut off the extraneous stems and leaves. As it turned out, because the beet seeds did not germinate with the same success as the turnips and radishes, there was less thinning to do.

To wrap up in the garden, we harvested the first of the radishes. And we were just in time, too. Shortly after we went inside to sauté them with the beet and turnip greens, a rainstorm of nearly biblical proportions came crashing through.

These strong summer storms are very exciting and not a little alarming. They arrive with next to no warning—unlike hurricanes and tropical storms which are monitored closely as they track up the Atlantic seaboard—and can dump a huge volume of rain in a very short period. In fact, today’s storm brought a higher precipitation rate than either Hurricane Irene or Hurricane Sandy. Our road nearly washed out.

Luckily, however, the tempest had subsided after an hour or so (unlike the hurricanes which take a day or two before they run out of energy). No real damage had been done but the runoff washed around the raised beds and redistributed the cedar mulch. Still, it underscores the need for more risk analysis (see May 7, 2014).

With climate change clearly in progress, heavy rains such as the one this afternoon have been and will continue to be much more likely. The consequences remain moderate: flooding of the pool and garden area. So far, the impact to the house has been minimal although the long-term exposure to moisture—to the point of saturation—may eventually lead to rotting timbers and a leaky roof.

It is apparent that I need to assess the topography of the yard and devise surface drainage routes to relieve the low-lying areas where rainwater accumulates. The big unknown for us is what exactly to do to mitigate the flow and how much it will cost us.  Because although it is true that I can’t do anything about the weather (despite talking about it a lot), I can do something about its consequences.

The garden has gotten off to a slow start this year. The cold weather has been a big factor, of course. Late-melting snow and lingering cold pushed the date when outdoor activity could commence from mid-March to mid-April. Indoors, even though heating pads and the radiators in the basement help keep the seedlings warm, the continued low temperatures have had a stunting effect of their growth.

And don’t get me started on the chilling effect—literal and figurative—of the weather on us humans.

But we’re starting to catch up and finally, a combination of spring-like weather and re-awakened energy has motivated me to get back outside. We’re almost ready to sow seeds for peas and root vegetables but first, I have to add soil to the planters. After sitting under more than a foot of snow for two months, the soil has settled by two to three inches.

An infusion of organic material won’t hurt, either, so it was off to the Plant Depot for compost. We purchased 16 bags of the stuff—that’s at least 640 pounds—which I schlepped from the car down to the planters, two bags at a time, in a wheelbarrow. Before dumping it into the planters, I raked out last year’s straw mulch along with the leaves and other debris blown there over the previous six months.

Along with the compost, I added about half as much (by volume) of peat moss to balance the soil and lessen its density (bagged compost can be highly compacted). I mixed it around with a steel rake—an operation akin to stirring a cauldron of witch’s brew—and leveled it out. There are just a few more ingredients to add (seeds, mulch, stakes) before the concoction is complete.

Lately, I’ve been concerned about the beets.  The first batch has been sitting in the ground since April.  How can they possibly need more time?  Their leaves are a beautiful, dark green color that signifies their high concentration of iron.  But are they still okay after all of this time in the ground, exposed to the summer heat?

To find out, we pulled up the entire first row.  They range in size from marble to baseball and all of them are firm and dry.  They show no signs of rot or other decay.  Also, the growth patterns of the Chioggia (red) and Touchstone Gold beets appear to be essentially identical.

From this, I conclude that any issues (and perhaps that is too strong a word) have to do with the growing conditions and not with the particular beet variety.  Most likely, our soil had too much Nitrogen (which promotes the growth of the greens) to begin with.  Then, when the weather turned hot and the beets were still in the ground, they went into self-preservation mode.

I shouldn’t be surprised that the beets have survived safely in the ground.  Beets are excellent storage vegetables and can be kept for long periods of time if they are protected from light and moisture.  A farmer friend of ours packs his surplus crop in sand-filled wooden crates in which they pass the winter, stacked in the basement of one of his barns.

We won’t keep ours that long.  One night soon, when it is cool enough to run the oven, we will roast them with olive oil and salt and then chop them into a salad with arugula and goat cheese.  The greens, which we carefully cleaned of mulch and soil (but did not wash so as to keep them dry), we will sauté with garlic and onions.

Anybody keeping track of what’s going on in our garden (and everybody’s keeping track, right?) may have noticed:  No herbs!  (Not counting the basil, of course.)

Why?  Well, for one thing we got a late start with our indoor growing.  Herbs like thyme, oregano and sage, which take a long time to germinate and slowly develop to transplantable size, are best started in early January.  We didn’t plant our first seeds until the end of March (see March 24, 2013).  At that time, we were more concerned about tomatoes, cucumbers and squash than additional herbs.

Since then, with everything else we have been doing—planting, watering, nurturing, potting up, setting out; oh, and removing sod and placing cedar mulch—there just hasn’t been time.  Whenever we stopped to consider planting the herbs, we always concluded that there was something else more pressing that needed to be attended to first.

And there is also the question of where to plant them.  The adjunct herb garden of last year (on the concrete stoop outside one of our house’s doors) is no longer easily accessible.  My office is located just inside the door and my desk blocks it from opening.

The corner of the back porch, where we grew herbs two years ago, is now occupied by a bright yellow hibiscus plant in an intensely deep-blue ceramic pot (a gift from a friend; thank you!).  We tried placing a pot or two of basil beside the hibiscus but decided that it looked too busy and detracted from the flowers’—and the pot’s—simple beauty.

Meanwhile, at the other side of the house, several existing herbs from years gone by are staging a modest comeback.  Two of them—chives and oregano—we planted several years ago and left for dead after their first season; they’ve returned every year since.  Another three—thyme, tarragon and sage—we transplanted from the pots they grew in last year.  This spot, in partial shade all day, is not ideal for herbs but apparently it is good enough.

So, that’s where we’ll grow our herbs this year.  To fill out the space, we added spearmint and rosemary, the only plants we’ve purchased so far this season.  We would have transplanted our spearmint and peppermint from last year, but neither of them survived (which is odd because I consider mint an aggressive and invasive herb).  Finally, we nestled two pots of basil (ones we couldn’t give away) in among the other herbs.

This herb garden makes a pretty picture and, if it is successful, will be much more convenient to the kitchen.

We were treated to a crashing thunderstorm this evening, a summer tradition after a long, hot day.  Up until about six o’clock, it did not feel like impending rain even though the cloud cover had increased to a deep overcast.  Then, it got suddenly darker and, boom!  The thunder commenced.

Storms usually pass by us at a distance of two miles or more (based on the delay between lightning flash and thunder clap) but this one was closer, a mile perhaps.  Consequently, the thunder was very loud and literally shook the windowpanes.  It was dramatic and very exciting.

Like a typical storm, the light and audio show carried on for 15 to 30 minutes before the rain began.  And when it finally started, it was as if the rain were trying to make up for lost time.  It intensified from a light sprinkle to a raging downpour in an instant and then dumped a huge amount of water in a short time.  Deluge is the word that comes to mind.

Such intensity cannot last, however, and soon the rain slowed to a steady fall, eventually tapering to a mist and finally trailing off.  By eight o’clock, the storm was over and the clouds cleared out.  Judging by the rise in the level of the swimming pool, an inch of rain fell in about two hours.  While the storm itself was not unusual (they inevitably occur after heat spells), such a high rate of rainfall is rare.

The good news is that we will not have to water the garden for a few days.  The not-so-good news is that the rain fell much faster than it could drain away from the garden.  When we went down to the pool for a late night swim—and garden inspection—we found that the mulch had been redistributed by the flowing waters.  One of the only downsides to cedar chips is that they float.

The surface runoff did not cause any damage and no mulch or debris ended up in the pool, whose perimeter is higher than the surrounding areas.  As we have learned too many times before, a benefit of raised planters is that the vegetable plants they contain are elevated well above potential floodwaters.  No threat there (not this time, anyway).

We do have squash and cucumber plants on the ground this year, though, and they are a bit more exposed.  Fortunately, the squash plants were completely undisturbed; apparently, the water drained through the fence and out onto the lawn.  There was some impact to the cucumbers (they are located along the fence) but the soaker hose that waters them acted as a barrier; the plants look to be okay.  Still, the mounds of soil and mulch will have to be replaced.

Luckily, storms of such intensity occur infrequently.  Nonetheless, we will have to take another look at possible drainage improvements.

We’re running behind with the cucumbers which should have been in the ground over a week ago.  With plans for the weekend, we decided to make time during the working week to get caught up.

The cucumbers, like the squash, are moving out of the box.  Specifically, we are locating them along the fence behind the west planter, safely distant (we hope) from the east planter where they grew last year.  Next year, we will move the cucumbers to that portion of the fence.

I briefly considered putting the cucumbers behind (i.e., north of) the squashes where there would be no danger of their being shaded.  But that would be putting all of our cucurbits in one basket.  Because they are susceptible to the same harmful insects (e.g., the ubiquitous cucumber beetles) and diseases (such as the seemingly omnipresent powdery mildew), the cucumbers and squashes will be better off if kept as separate as possible.  Besides, at this time of the year, the sun casts a very shallow shadow.

We measured six locations, spaced at two feet on center, and brushed away the cedar mulch.  Rachel used a standard shovel and I used a spade to dig holes about six inches deep.  It is interesting that a standard shovel is best suited to a hemispherical hole while a spade, with its flat, rectangular blade is better for cubical excavations.  The shoveled holes were about eight inches in diameter; the spade-dug holes were approximately six inches square.

Once the holes were completed, we mixed up two batches of soil (each batch consisting of one 40-pound bag of compost and an equal volume of peat moss) and filled the holes.  We kept the mounds small in diameter (especially compared to the squash mounds) because they are located along an access aisle.  We want the cucumbers to be as tight against the fence as possible.

We expect that the cucumbers will grow high and wide.  To support their wandering branches we installed a chicken wire trellis along the fence.  We marked locations for six cedar posts (seven might have been better but we were short by one) and, using an old steel chisel and a sledge hammer, formed pilot holes.  This step is necessary due to our rocky soil.

Then, we pounded in the stakes.  I had originally planned to embed the six-foot stakes by 18 inches but had to stop at a foot (the depth of the pilot holes).  Once a stake encounters a rock, there is a risk of splitting or crushing it with further pounding.  Using our trusty Velcro tape, we tied each of the stakes to the top rail of the pool fence.  The stakes have a slight backwards rake to them (their bases are about three inches outboard of the fence) which will both stabilize the trellis and prevent it from feeling too imposing.

To form the trellis, we unrolled a 12-foot length of four-foot-high chicken wire and stapled it to the stakes using an electric staple gun.  (We acquired this tool many years ago for reasons I can no longer recall.  It always strikes me at first as silly—like an electric carving knife—and yet it is very useful and practical.  Although it delivers a staple with great force it does not otherwise disturb the work and requires very little effort.  In that regard, it is more akin to a pneumatic nailer.)  We held the bottom of the chicken wire eight inches above grade to give the young cucumber plants room to sort themselves out.

After that, we set out the cucumber seedlings, alternating the slicing and pickling varieties for visual interest.  On a leaf of one of the pickling cucumbers, I noticed a small white spot that might—I say, might—have been the beginning of a powdery mildew infection.  Just to be on the safe side, we tossed the seedling on the refuse pile and chose another.  Powdery mildew on the cucumbers is almost inevitable (we’ve had it every year) but we certainly don’t need it this early in the season.

To wrap up the planting (literally and figuratively), we dressed the soil mounds with straw mulch.  In addition to all of its other advantages—moisture retention, weed control, erosion prevention—the mulch will act as a visual marker of the cucumbers presence, just like the yellow tiles on the edge of a subway platform.  While installing the trellis, we found that it was easy to accidentally step on the mounds and now that the cucumbers are resident, we don’t want that happening again.

Due to the trellis’ location, I had to remove the hose rack and then reinstall it on the fence, two pickets to the right (east).  Eventually, we will install a timer-controlled soaker hose to irrigate the cucumbers but today, I gave them a bucketful of water (laced with fish emulsion).  Tomorrow, rain is forecast (as Tropical Storm Andrea makes its way up the Atlantic coast) so the cucumbers should get plenty of water.

Both the east and west planters are now completely occupied but we’re not done for the day.  This year we are thinking (and moving) outside the boxes and planting vegetables directly in the ground.

Yesterday, we removed the sod (see May 26, 2013) from the now-sunny area west of the west planter and covered it with mulch.  Today, we laid out the locations for the six mounds on which the squashes will grow.  A week ago, we had figured three-foot-diameter mounds spaced at three feet on center (see May 19, 2013) but looking at my sketch today, I noticed that I didn’t leave any walking space at the far end.

As I reconsidered the layout, I realized that because we are staggering the mounds, they can be spaced closer together.  We adjusted the west walkway from 2’-0” to 1’-9” and the spacing from 3’-0” to 2’-9” and were able to gain 1’-9” at the west end (I find the symmetry to be pleasantly reassuring).  This will be very helpful because the grade drops off steeply just beyond the garden area.

We extended a measuring tape along the ground longitudinally to form a baseline and then used a carpenter’s rule to measure the offsets in the short direction.  At the center of each mound, we pounded in a wooden stake.  After setting each stake, we checked our spacing both longitudinally and diagonally (we calculated that each mound should be about 3’-10 1/2” from its kitty-corner neighbor) and everything checked out.

When we got to the end, however, the final dimension looked a little short.  In fact, after measuring it I found that it was off by 3 inches.  In setting out the stakes, I had forgotten to reduce the first dimension (measuring twice doesn’t help if you are using the wrong number!).  We could have moved all of the stakes but decided that what we had was good enough.  Plus, having more clearance next to the planter is probably better than having symmetrical edges.

Next, we set our tape measure and rule to 18” and, placing one end against each stake, slowly rotated around it, removing the mulch to create a three-foot-diameter clearing.  We redistributed the mulch to the surrounding areas and were left with what looked like a small set of crop circles (we’ll keep an eye out for alien invaders).

Then, we dug.  Or, more accurately, we picked at the soil with shovels.  As I have noted many times before, the soil in this part of the yard is fill brought in during the pool renovation many years ago.  It is not of very high quality (from a gardening point of view) and is composed primarily of clay and rock.  Digging it is a slow, tedious project (the kind of task usually given to prison inmates).

After an hour of hacking away, each of us had dug one hole about 16 inches in diameter and six inches deep.  A large rock protruded into the hole I was digging and even with both of us working on it, we could not get it to budge; the squash plant who will live here will just have to work its roots around it.  Because it was getting late in the afternoon, we opted to plant these two locations and come back to the others later.

To fill the hole and create mounds (to elevate the plants above grade), we combined equal parts (roughly) of compost and peat moss, using the wheelbarrow as a mixing bowl.  I dumped the soil into the holes and Rachel formed it into mounds.  At the top of each mound, we dug a small hole into which we placed a summer squash seedling.

Finally, we covered the mounds with straw mulch.  In addition to helping the soil to retain moisture and discouraging the growth of weeds, the mulch should prevent the soil from washing away in a heavy rainfall (of which we can expect many over the course of the summer).

It is Memorial Day weekend and we are looking forward to setting out as many plants as possible before the holiday is over.  It might be my favorite gardening task.

But first, I had to face what is easily my least favorite.  In preparation for setting out the summer squash seedlings and sowing seeds for the winter squash (see May 19, 2013), we needed to remove the sod that is west of the west planter.

I’ve described—and complained about—this process several times already, so I will skip the details and the griping.  I will say, however, that due to yesterday’s rain and the sparsity of grass, the weedy sod (well, mostly it was loose soil) came up with much less effort than ever before.  I’m not saying that it was easy but it didn’t hurt quite so much.

Even so, it took us about two hours to finish the first half.  After a quick break for lunch, we cleared the remaining half in another hour and a half.  Then, we spread, raked and tamped eight bags of cedar mulch.  Now, almost the entire area north of the pool deck—a length of 50 feet—is devoted to garden.  It is a much better use of the space than lawn.

This should be the last sod removal of the year.  I’d like to say it is the last ever but given our tendency to expand, I know that eventually we’ll be removing more.

Future home of the summer and winter squashes (time for a swim!)