Archives for posts with tag: soil

It would be hard to tell from this blog (because I have posted so few real-time entries since mid-fall, 2014) but I decided not to send any soil out for testing this year (well, technically speaking, last year).

During the previous three seasons (2011, 2012, and 2013), I collected soil samples in late September or October (see October 19, 2013, part 2 for the most recent account) and sent them off to the Rutgers Soil Testing Laboratory. Two weeks after that, the lab sent me via e-mail me a report of our soil’s properties (see February 14, 2014 for discussion of the October, 2013 results).

It was a worthwhile endeavor—information is power, and all that—and we made some adjustments that I am sure were of benefit to the vegetables. Probably the most significant factor that the tests brought to our attention was soil pH. Initially, it was too high and the following year (2012), we added Sulfur to bring it down.

But after that first year, we did not learn anything new. Our soil’s pH has stabilized within the optimal range and both the macro- and micronutrient levels have remained constant. The soil appears to have reached a healthy equilibrium and as a result, there have been no recommendations for change. And as they say, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

This year, the vegetable plants themselves are telling me everything I need to know. Almost all are very happy so the soil must be okay.

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.

Today, more digging.

Each time I pull out the shovel, I hope that it will be the last time. However, I must face this cold, hard fact: In the garden, there will always be digging to do.

For those who have not already stopped reading, I’ll skip the griping and keep it positive. We’re working on the planting area for the cucumbers which last year, we grew behind the west planter. This year, we’ll plant behind the east planter in what passes for crop rotation around here.

As noted in one of last season’s recaps (see January 15, 2014), our hypothesis for why the cucumbers underperformed is that we did not provide them with enough fertile soil in which to flourish (well, that’s one reason anyway). To test this theory, we’ll dig a continuous trench this time instead of the discrete pits we dug last year. This will result in more new soil available to each cucumber plant.

And it turns out that this also results in easier digging. Yes, we still encountered numerous rocks and boulders (I didn’t say that it was easy digging) but the elongated shape of the trench reduced the confinement of the rocks within its depth. Knocking them free with the shovel required half the effort needed for a small, circular pit.

Digging the trench also required half the time and we were done by noon. After a quick break for lunch, we filled the trench with soil; see May 11, 2014 for a description of that process.

To complete the setup, we installed stakes and chicken wire against the pool fence. I had expected the most difficult part of this task to be driving the stakes. However, as we learned last year, pre-drilling the holes with a steel rod and sledge hammer greatly reduced the necessary effort. No, the most difficult part was unrolling the chicken wire (which we purchased last year and which had been stored in the workshop since) and keeping it flat.

The area is now ready for the cucumber seedlings and we’ll set them out tomorrow. If they do better this year than last, we’ll plan on digging another trench behind the west planter next year. As I said, there will always be digging to do.

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.

So far, we’ve been lucky.

When we started planning the garden—back in 2011—a location that would keep it secure from animals was a primary criterion. We were mainly concerned about deer, who in our experience will munch on just about everything. But we had also seen beavers, groundhogs and rabbits in the neighborhood and, of course, there are squirrels and chipmunks in large numbers.

We were happy, then, when we chose a spot next to the swimming pool, which is surrounded by a four-foot high picket fence. It won’t keep the deer out if they really want to get in (they can jump up to six feet) but it does deter them and screens the garden from view (they can’t hurt what they can’t see). Similarly, squirrels and bunnies can easily pass between the pickets but the fence seems to be diverting their attention elsewhere.

Later, when we designed and built the raised beds, we kept potentially harmful animals in mind. Our planters are on the high side—almost two feet—which minimizes bending over (my aching back!) and provides comfortable seating, our main considerations. However, the extra height also elevates the plants well above ground level. Coupled with the planters’ bordering trim, which extends six inches above the soil level, there is no line of sight to nearby critters who pass by unaware. (On the other hand, if deer were to enter the pool enclosure, the planters would be at feeding trough height.)

During construction, before filling the planters with soil, we installed a layer of galvanized wire mesh. The hardware cloth forms the bottom of the planter through which water freely drains. But should a gopher or mole decide to attack our vegetable garden from underground, the mesh should prove an effective barrier.

I say “should” because it seems that our luck may be running out.

Up until recently, we had never seen signs of subterranean marauders. Sadly, though, as winter was ending and the snowpack receding, the telltale serpentine humps were revealed, the topsoil pushed up through the dormant grass. Depictions of this in old Warner Bros. cartoons is not an exaggeration. The route map of the gopher subway system was easily identifiable.

At first, the tracks were limited to the lawn areas. Eventually, though, we discovered them leading into the vicinity of the vegetable garden and then right up against the planters (I can imagine the clang as the Goofy Gophers banged their cute little heads into the wire mesh). In one or two spots, the tunnels breached the surface, where apparently the little rascals popped out to get their bearings.

Fortunately, we have not witnessed any carrots or beets disappearing into the ground, pulled from below by hungry rodents. Just in case, though, we will keep a rubber mallet near the planters so we can play an at-home version of the carnival favorite, Whac-A-Mole.

Last week, we dug the holes (see May 4, 2014). This week, we filled them.

Last year, I did a careful estimate of how much soil we would need and meticulously calculated the volume of the (assumed) conical mounds of soil on top. Of course, I was very precisely wrong and underestimated the total by a wide margin.

This year, I eyeballed it.

Well, okay, not completely (that would be contrary to my nature). At the garden center, I figured about four bags of compost per bale of peat moss (at equal proportions) of which I guessed we needed two. I then applied a factor of safety of 1.5 to the compost and got 12 bags.

Back in the garden, I wrestled a bale of peat moss (it is quite heavy and awkward) onto the wheelbarrow and Rachel sifted in a quantity about equal to a bag of compost. Bales of peat moss are very tightly compacted—they are almost rock solid—which made dispensing it even more difficult.

Peat moss is packaged in a bone-dry state, so we sprinkled it with water and gave it a stir. Like a magic trick, the water disappeared after only a few turns. We repeated the process with similar results until finally, after five applications of water, the peat moss looked slightly damp.

At this point, we added a bag of compost and stirred (with our hands) to incorporate. The moisture contained in the compost was sufficient to produce a workable consistency and we dumped the soil into the first hole. There was enough to fill it and to form a mound about six inches high and 18 to 24 inches in diameter.

Five bags and half a bale of peat moss later, we had filled and mounded the remaining holes. We were left with almost as much peat moss as we started with (counting the bale already on hand) so once again, my estimate was way off. I had not taken the peat moss’s compaction into account and as a result we purchased at least twice the necessary quantity. Also, my factor of safety on the compost was completely unnecessary.

It’s no matter; the peat moss and compost will not go to waste. We used some of it to top off and tidy up the mounds from last year which are now ready to be planted again. We can’t do any cucurbits (who inhabited these spaces last year) but perhaps we will try tomatoes (of which we have more than we can fit into the raised beds).

I’ve been neglecting my tomatoes, poor things.

While I potted up the squash and cucumbers almost as soon as they germinated, I’ve left the tomato seedlings in their seed trays for a month since they sprouted. True, the tomatoes are not as big—especially compared to the exuberant summer squashes—but they would benefit from a move into larger pots. There is not much room in the seed tray compartments for an expansive root system.

After taking care of the tomatoes, I moved on to the last of this year’s indoor sowing. We are determined to have a second color of bell pepper and picked up seeds for a yellow variety: Yellow Belle. With a name like that, I’m expecting demure flowers and beautiful fruit (with, perhaps, assertive flavor).

While at the garden center, we also purchased seeds for Early Fortune cucumbers, whose name implies bounty and punctuality (but whose number of days to maturity is larger than our previous varieties), and Tricolor Pattypan squash, whose name is, well, self-explanatory. I’m looking forward to growing these because it is my favorite type (and shape) of summer squash.

The producer of the squash seeds—Renee’s Seeds—thoughtfully color-coded them to differentiate the fruit that the plants will produce. Most of the seeds are buff; others have been tinted with red or green dye in shades reminiscent of the Italian flag. Based on the drawing on the seed packet, the squash will be either green, yellow, or white so the mapping is not immediately apparent.

Presumably, buff seeds will produce white squash, green seeds will lead to green squash, and (by process of elimination) red seeds will beget yellow squash. I planted two of each and will keep track of which ones ultimately bear fruit. That will be the only way to know for sure.

While preparing a seed tray for the peppers, cucumbers and squash, I was reminded that one must not lose faith. The seed tray was left over from last week’s potting up session (see May 3, 2014) and had been left sitting unwatered and unheated on a shelf of the seed-starting apparatus. Just as I was about to dump out the leftover soil, I noticed that another pickling cucumber seedling had emerged.

Because only one had sprouted previously, I quickly moved the second one into a larger plastic pot. I had given up on the cucumbers but at least one of them had not given up on me. Now was that a lack of faith on my part…or neglect?

I’m doing some work for my former company and was chatting with a friend and co-worker while in the office today. We talked about several topics (I haven’t seen her in some time), including our garden (she has been following this blog; thanks!). She was impressed by the 640 pounds of compost that we added to the raised beds a month ago (see April 12, 2014).

Yes, that’s a lot of manure. Bringing it home from the garden center taxed the suspension system of our old car and schlepping it from the road to the planters taxed my poor aching back (fortunately, the staff at the garden center take care of loading it into the car). Gardening can be an intensely physical activity.

But once the compost was placed (along with an equal volume of peat moss) in the raised beds, it didn’t amount to as much as one might think. Spread out over almost a hundred square feet, that load of compost only raised the soil level by a couple of inches. It would take another three times that amount of material—almost a ton—to bring the soil level up to the top of the planters.

And while two years ago, when I was only just building the second planter, one hundred square feet seemed like an immense area in which to plant vegetables, it soon became crowded and insufficient. That’s why last year we expanded the garden outside the confines of the planters. We now plant the entire yard to one side of the swimming pool, an area of about 360 square feet (admittedly, some of that is aisle space).

We’ll be headed to the garden center shortly for another load of soil in which to plant the squashes and cucumbers. Six hundred forty pounds of compost will become 1280 pounds or maybe even a ton. Taken all together—including what is already there—it is truly a staggering quantity.

And it will increase even more when we figure out where to put the asparagus and rhubarb…

You can tell that we’ve finally passed the point at which cold nights can be expected; there is a freeze watch in effect for tonight. I’m not too worried—the National Weather Service does not actually predict sub-freezing temperatures—but I will cover the east planter with black plastic sheeting just to be safe.

The radishes, always first off the starting block, made their appearance three days ago and the Sugar Snap peas, not to be left behind, started to peek out from the soil a day later. There are now seedlings to protect and the root vegetables are particularly susceptible.

With the trellis in place, I cannot fully cover the peas, but I don’t think it is necessary. The pea shoots are quite hardy and even without completely enclosing the planter, the sheeting will capture the heat that the garden acquired during the day.

I wonder what date the National Weather Service uses for last frost in our area? I conservatively use May 5, which has a 90 percent confidence level (i.e., there is only a 10 percent chance that the temperature will fall below freezing). Apparently, the NWS uses an earlier date.

I suspect that they use a lower confidence level, probably at a 50 percent chance of exceedance. Their date—whatever it might be—is less conservative from a freezing temperatures point of view but more conservative from a freeze warning point of view (i.e., its use will likely generate more warnings). Given that the NWS is in the business of forecasting the weather and not gardening, this makes perfect sense.

Mother Nature continues to be a bit confused about what season it is.

After a glorious weekend when temperatures reached through the 70s and into the 80s, we awoke this morning to a one-inch-thick layer of snow and ice which fell overnight.

Like the winter storms before it, the snowfall cloaked the still-leafless trees in a shroud of white. It has been long enough since the last one that I can again appreciate the beauty.

Sadly, however, I could not escape the need to sweep the walk and scrape the cars, tasks made more difficult by the persistent cold temperatures. That I do not appreciate. Nonetheless, it is forecast that the day will warm to above freezing and the snow should soon melt.

The planters are also blanketed by snow but I’m not worried about the seeds we planted on Sunday (see April 13, 2014). Probably nothing much has happened beneath the soil’s surface. The seeds will pause whatever they were doing and will resume when the soil heats up again. In effect, it will be as if the seeds were planted today.