Archives for posts with tag: Nitrogen

I’m still going through the process of evaluating last year’s plantings to determine what will go into the garden this year.  Last time (see January 15, 2014), I used three criteria:  how much we liked the vegetable; how well it grew; and, if not well, what could be done about it.  So far, I have concluded that all of the cucurbits—summer and winter squashes; cucumbers—are loved, grew reasonably well (with exceptions) and can be encouraged to grow better.

What else did we grow?  Well, lots of root vegetables.  And, I should point out, lots of root vegetable greens.  The radishes, carrots, beets and turnips all sprouted quickly and then produced a full crop of verdant leaves.  This was not at all a bad thing because I have come to enjoy the greens almost more than the roots that generate them.  Whether plucked from the garden early (as part of the thinning process) and thrown into a salad or clipped from the mature roots and sautéed, they are a delicious addition to the table.

Sadly, the roots took a lot longer to develop, if they did at all, and their eventual success was varied.  The radishes did particularly poorly with the first and second plantings yielding a root only about half of the time while the third planting never really reached maturity.  The carrots and beets performed moderately better but were painfully slow (especially the carrots) to ripen.  I don’t think any of them got as big as they could have.  The turnips were the top performers and provided both sizeable roots and plentiful greens through most of the summer.

I think we’ll give them all another chance this year (we still have plenty of seeds) but will make sure to limit their Nitrogen, by which I mean that I will not add any to the soil.  That means using fertilizers that do not contain it (i.e., those with zero as the first number in their N-P-K rating).  I will have to do some research into what might work best but that’s a topic for a future post.

I would prefer to limit the colors of the radishes and the carrots because we found that the purple varieties were the tastiest (I guess I like the flavor of anthocyanins; see October 20, 2013), followed by the red.  However, that would be difficult without buying new seed.  Our current radish and carrot seeds are “rainbow” mixtures and there is no way to determine the root color from the seed’s appearance.  I suppose this is one good reason not to buy seed mixes.

Five of the six tomato varieties we planted last year passed the taste test and for the most part, all of them performed well.  We’ll replant the Country Taste Beefsteak, the Brandywine (although, perhaps, only the yellow), the Black Cherry, and the ever-popular Sungold but we’ll skip the Aunt Ruby’s German Green.  Therefore, we’ll have room for some new varieties.

And speaking of room, I think we will give each tomato plant a bit more this year.  Pruning remains a critical factor for tomato plants and the lack of space (due to the vines’ exuberant growth) compounds the issue.  The first year we gardened, we pruned too little; the next year, we pruned too much.  We’d hoped that last year would be just right and, in the beginning of the season, it was.  But then, at the peak of the summer, the tomatoes’ rapid growth overwhelmed us.

This year, we’ll plant one tomato seedling per cage and keep a closer eye on them.  Each plant will have more space to spread into and will have less impact on its neighbors.  With luck and careful pruning, each vine will remain within the confines of its own cage and will wrap around it rather than spill over the top.

Keeping the tomato plants separate will be also important to prevent the spread of blight which, having made an unwelcome appearance last year, is likely to return this year.  Once it arrived (on the Brandywine or Black Cherry vines), the blight quickly spread to the other plants.

The only vines that did not contract the disease were the Country Taste Beefsteak, which is another reason to replant them.  Even though the beefsteaks were infected by some other disorder (Septoria leaf spot?), it did not really affect their output.  Spraying everything with a bicarbonate of soda solution should also help.

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Having harvested the last of the string beans (see September 25, 2013), we decided it was time to clear out the vines and start readying the west planter for winter.  Some gardeners would chop up the vines and till them into the soil to decompose and add organic matter (so-called green manure or green fertilizer).  Others might cut the stems off at the ground surface and leave the roots in place, hoping that symbiotic bacteria (if present) would continue to fix Nitrogen in the soil.

But neither of these ideas appeals to me.  Even though the planter is not that big (four feet by 12 feet), turning the soil would be a lot of work.  And anyway, we are following the no-till approach, which moderates decomposition, improves drainage and minimizes weed growth by leaving the soil surface undisturbed.  Somewhat ironically, it also maintains better aeration by eliminating compaction and encouraging the earthworm population.  In fact, our soil is essentially turned over several times a year by an abundance of energetic Lumbricidae.

Leaving the roots in place would require less effort—even less than pulling them out.  However, we do not necessarily have Nitrogen-fixing bacteria and it is not clear that they would have enough time to make a significant contribution to the properties of our soil.  Besides, it is more likely that we have too much Nitrogen rather than not enough (see June 22, 2013), as evidenced by our crops of carrots, beets and radishes which produced more leaves than roots.

Being completely honest, it probably wouldn’t matter if either alternative had a scientific justification because pulling the vines out is more in keeping with my nature.  I have been described as a neatnik and it is a characterization I do not deny.  At a certain level, getting the planter tidied up for its long winter nap is much more important to me than ensuring that the soil has a proper concentration of Nitrogen.  Our soil’s nutrient distribution can be adjusted in other ways and at other times but I have to look at the empty planter all winter long.

What I’ve learned about beets:  First, they need less Nitrogen than flowering plants and relatively low soil pH (i.e., slight acidity).  Our soil is at the high end (6.78) of the preferred range (6.2 to 7.0), based on last fall’s soil report (see October 4, 2012), and I infer that our Nitrogen level is also high (last year’s report recommended adding only nominal amounts).

Second, beet seeds are clustered.  What looks outwardly like a single seed is actually a seedball consisting of three or four seeds held together by an outer layer.  This redundancy helps insure that the plants successfully reproduce—each seedball is three or four times more likely to produce a new plant—but for the gardener, it can be too much of a good thing.  Under favorable conditions, all of the seeds will germinate and if all of the seedlings are left to mature, the result will be plants that are so closely spaced that there is no room for the roots to develop.  Even with careful sowing, therefore, thinning will be required.

Third, while the beet greens can grow quite quickly, the beet roots will sometimes grow very slowly.  This condition arises in part from the higher Nitrogen concentration in the soil—which promotes vegetative growth—and is dependent on temperature as well.  We had a cool spring during which the beet seeds rapidly germinated and produced lovely heads of dark green leaves.

Then, before the roots could catch up, the weather turned warm and the beets’ development slowed.  We kept them well hydrated, so they were not permanently damaged by the heat, but their growth was stunted.  I will do some research into how to minimize the Nitrogen effect (it is not clear what nutrients would promote root growth) and with luck, next year’s beet roots will develop earlier, before the hot weather arrives.

Fourth, beet roots can go a long time unharvested, even in high heat, with no detrimental effects.  We discovered this when we pulled out the first row (see July 28, 2013) and found the beets to be in good condition even though they had been in the ground for months.  It makes sense, botanically:  The roots store solar energy collected during the beets’ first year of growth in order to produce flowers and seeds during their second year.  It makes beets a good choice for busy people.  Unlike more delicate vegetables like tomatoes, which will rot if left unpicked for too long, beets will wait patiently in the garden with no ill effects until their grower is ready for them.

What I already knew about beets:  They are absolutely delicious, especially when roasted, which intensifies their flavor.  And the greens might be more delicious than the roots (they are certainly more nutritious).  Beet greens make a fine addition to salads when they are young and hold up as well as, if not better than, spinach when sautéed.

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.

This year’s success story, in the early season at least, is the turnips.  They have been happily and exuberantly growing, providing us with tasty bitter greens and piquant roots.  Despite being crowded together, the roots have grown to diameters up to two inches.

The radishes and carrots have been doing moderately well even if they are slower to develop than we would like.  The first two rows of radishes are now mostly gone—eaten—but we are still working on the first row of carrots.  So far, only a few have grown to what I would consider normal size.

At the other end of the scale, the beets have not been performing well at all.  Even those seeded first—longer than two months ago—have not yet produced more than a few small leaves and there has been no enlargement of the roots.  We have been fertilized them monthly but that hasn’t seemed to help.

In fact, it might have hurt.  Doing a little research online, I found that a likely reason the roots haven’t grown is that the beets’ environment is too rich in Nitrogen.  This macronutrient is crucial for flowering plants and promotes the growth of the greens.  And because a plant has only so much energy available to it, what has gone into the leaves has not been available for root development.

That might also explain the slow growth of the radishes and carrots, both of which have towering greens but small roots.  Also, some of the radishes have bolted (gone to flower) which makes sense in a Nitrogen-rich environment.

Talking to our farmer friend, Jay, at the market this morning, we learned further that thinning might be even more critical than we thought.  We’ve been diligently thinning the radishes and turnips, motivated by our predilection for the greens in salads or sautéed as a side dish, but have been less attentive to the carrots.  Their greens are less attractive as a vegetable in their own right.

And I discovered that I had seriously neglected the second row of carrots.  It is sandwiched by two rows of turnips whose bushy greens almost completely obscure them.  I’m not sure I have ever thinned this row and spent a half-hour this afternoon catching up.

Jay also told us that beet seeds are actually seed clusters.  This means that even if they are carefully sown with ample space between them, thinning will still be necessary if and when all of the individual seeds germinate.  There’s no getting around it.