Archives for posts with tag: space shortage

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.

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We decided to pack the root vegetables in closely this year. We’ll cram six rows of carrots, radishes, beets and turnips into the east planter, completely filling the space in front of the Sugar Snap peas.

Four of the rows are already planted, two in April and two in May. The April bunch is in mid-production. We’re harvesting turnips and radishes—or their greens—on an almost daily basis. The beets are trailing behind a bit but we’ll start picking their greens soon. And seedlings for the turnips, radishes and beets sowed in May are pushing their way out of the soil.

But where are the carrots?

After a casual glance at the planter, one might not realize that carrots are growing there at all. There is no sign of those we planted in April and the May seeds have yet to germinate; their half of the row is empty.

That’s because we made a miscalculation when we laid out the rows. Carrots share with radishes in the first, northernmost, row. The next row going south contains turnips and beets and then the order repeats. At the west end of the planter, then, the rows alternate carrot-turnip-carrot-turnip-carrot-turnip, from north to south.

Now, carrots are very slow to germinate and when they do, put up frilly greens not unlike the dill or parsley to which they are related. Once sprouted, their growth remains slow. We don’t expect to be eating them until the end of June.

Turnips, on the other hand, are crucifers with tall, broad leaves. They grow quickly and profusely. They are among the first to germinate (along with the radishes) and soon grow into a dense hedgerow (albeit, at garden scale). The batch we planted in April is currently a foot high.

Hiding behind them are the carrots. Unfortunately, they won’t see the light of day until the turnips have all been harvested. Had we reversed the planting order, putting the turnips to the north, the carrots would not have been affected, at least not until the following row of turnips sprouted. I’ll try to remember this next year.

Fortunately, another consequence of the fast pace of the turnips is that they will soon be eaten, leaving the carrots to have their days in the sun.

Two of this year’s late additions to the garden—Tricolor Pattypan squash and Early Fortune cucumbers—have been racing to catch up to their cousins. The latecomers were planted at the beginning of the month (see May 9, 2014) while the Cavili zucchini, Supersett Yellow Crookneck squash, Alibi Pickling cornichons, and Tanja slicing cucumber seeds were sowed two months earlier. That’s a lot of time to make up.

However, it looks like they are up to the task. Most of the seedlings are already four inches in height; one the of the pattypan squash plants is twice as high. I potted them up as I was sure that their roots had run out of space in the compartments of the seed tray.

When transplanting the pattypans, I carefully labeled each seedling’s plastic pot with the color of the seed that produced it. Eventually, I will determine which seed—red, green or buff—produced yellow, white or green squashes.

The only stragglers now are the Yellow Belle peppers. They have yet to unfurl their first pairs of true leaves and remain somewhat dainty, in contrast to the brash squash and the more decorous but still exuberant cucumbers. They are not ready to be potted up. In fact, they do not appear to be in any rush to do anything.

Meanwhile, all of the other seedlings have been enjoying their daily trips to the back porch where they absorb a moderate dose of solar energy and respire the fresh air (I would say breath, but a plant’s process is the opposite of ours). I’m glad, too, that they are going indoors at night. Even though it is Memorial Day—the traditional start of the summer season—lows remain in the 40s. We’ll not be setting the seedlings out anytime soon.

It turns out that when I was describing the benefits of crop rotation two weeks ago (see May 4, 2014), I was only half right. The process can be much more complicated—and substantially more advantageous—than merely planting different families of plants in different plots each season. The key is choosing what to plant and the order in which to plant it.

A good example of a more scientific approach to crop rotation is described in an Op-Ed piece by Dan Barber, chef of the restaurants Blue Hill (in New York City) and Blue Hill at Stone Barns (in Pocantico Hills, New York), that appears in today’s New York Times (see “What Farm-to-Table Got Wrong”).

Chef Barber buys his wheat from a farmer in upstate New York. On a visit to the farm, he learned that the wheat is only planted at the end of a four-year cycle of carefully selected crops, each of which performs a specific task for conditioning the soil. The procession follows a basic order which can be modified as soil response and weather patterns dictate.

First up is a cover crop such as mustard, which cleanses the soil and adds nutrients. Next is a legume to fix Nitrogen. Rye follows which, apparently, crowds out weeds (and also “builds soil structure”, although no explanation is given as to what exactly this means). Last to be planted is the wheat, the crop that outsiders (and until recently, Chef Barber) would think of as the whole point of this enterprise.

What is lamentable in the wheat farmer’s case is that the market for what those outsiders might call the off-season crops—the mustard, peas and rye—is scarce. While the wheat commands high, New York City prices, the other vegetables and grains go unwanted and often end up as feed for animals raised as food. Such use is not considered by most experts to be a very efficient use of resources.

Chef’s response to this situation was to develop menu items at his restaurants that incorporate the lesser crops and thereby elevate their stature and, presumably, their price (I hope that he pays his farmer as much for the mustard, peas and rye as he does for the wheat). It’s an elegant solution—a no-brainer, in retrospect—and also a win-win. Really, it’s a win-win-win because not only do the farmer and the chef benefit but the patrons of Blue Hill get tasty meals out of it, too.

So, how might this concept apply to the backyard gardener? Well, I’m not sure about growing an entire planter full of rye or mustard but half of a planter mixed with other like vegetables or grains might work (especially if Chef shares his recipes). And I never feel like we have enough Sugar Snap peas so the year of legumes would not be a problem. The primary issue is space, something we never seem to have enough of.

Maybe the question for me is, where can I put two more planters?

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…

My second least favorite garden activity: Digging holes in our rocky, clayey soil. (Long-time readers of this blog know what my least favorite garden activity is; new readers can look at January 7, 2012 for a clue.) Unpleasant as it is, I have to face up to it if I want to be ready in time to plant summer squash and cucumbers over the Memorial Day weekend. More specifically, I need to start digging if I want to plant them in a different place from last year.

And I do want to plant them in a different place. Most gardening experts advise rotating crop locations every year. Moving vegetables in the same family around the garden helps protect them from insects and diseases that can hunker down in the winter and lie in wait for the new season’s plantings. Given our problems with cucumber beetles, aphids, bacterial wilt and powdery mildew, it is worth the effort.

Many sources advise a four-year rotation. Because crop rotation also helps balance demands on the soil (heavy feeders one year, light feeders the next), the suggested schedule sometimes includes a season of so-called green manure (peas, buckwheat, winter rye, alfalfa) to replenish nutrients or a cover crop to stifle weeds. I love the concept even if we cannot afford to lose any planter space to vegetables we do not plan to eat.

Any separation of the rotating groups is beneficial but to be maximally effective, there should be as much distance as possible between the individual planting areas. I’ve seen recommendations of up to a quarter-mile. That sounds good for large-scale growers but a quarter of a mile from my garden is practically in the next county. We’re very limited by the space available to us.

So we do the best we can. We have two raised planters and each year we alternate what goes into them. Last year, we planted cucumbers behind the west planter; this year, we will move the cukes to a similar location behind the east planter. And after laying out a dozen mounds for squash, we only dug and planted half of them last year, in a staggered arrangement. This time around, we’ll plant the other six. The separation is not huge but it’s not zero, either.

Which leads me back to the digging. It’s not my favorite activity but when it is done, the garden will be in a better state (and I shouldn’t have to do it again next year).

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.

Often, the execution of a task is dependent on the completion of another.  This condition can occur for a variety of reasons.  At the general end of the spectrum, for instance, a set of skills or body of knowledge might need to be gained before a specialized task or further study is possible (the former might be called prerequisites in this case).  Before learning to design cars, one must learn basic engineering.

More specifically, especially in a multi-step process, an operation cannot take place until the item to be processed is physically created.  An automobile cannot be assembled until its component parts are first manufactured.  Of course, the manufacture of individual components is not usually dependent on the others; this process is parallel rather than serial.

There is nothing wrong with the serial approach until a step in the progression becomes delayed or stuck.  When this happens, everything that follows the stalled task must come to a complete stop, even if the stalled task is minor.  On an auto assembly line, for example, something as simple as a shortage of bolts or washers means that production must be halted.  The result can be a logjam of thwarted activities that is annoying at best and catastrophic at worst (see the famous chocolate factory episode of I Love Lucy for a humorous depiction of the consequences).  Not surprisingly, industrial engineers spend a lot of time studying ways to prevent this from happening.

I frequently experience this phenomenon, partly because I tend to set projects up as series of dependent tasks and partly because I am prone to procrastination.  The most recent occurrence of this was the clearing off of the seed-starting apparatus (see January 8, 2014).  One group of items temporarily stored there was a set of wood-working clamps generously handed down to me by Rachel’s father.  The clamps are the old-fashioned variety which use two wooden threaded rods to control the wooden jaws.

The problem was that I did not have another place to store them.  I had a place where I planned to store them but it required some minor construction on my part or, in other words, a prerequisite task.  Not a big task—it involved replacing an existing shelf with a thicker, sturdier one—but big enough to keep me putting it off for months.  Making space for trays of soon-to-be-sown seeds was just the stimulus I needed.  The global task of growing vegetables provided the imperative to move me beyond procrastination.

Gardening is largely composed of similar serial activities:  First, find a place to build a garden; then, clear it and turn the soil; construct planters if desired; next, choose what to plant (which might be a parallel task up to this point) and get seeds started; nurture the seedlings (or buy them); set them out; water and feed them; and, finally, harvest the produce.  The same motivation—not falling behind the growing season—keeps the process moving forward.

In the end, rebuilding the shelf for the clamps did not take very long (about an hour) nor did it require much effort.  I had previously acquired the necessary parts (shelf, brackets and lag screws) and already possess the right tools.  (This is a good example of Life teaching me that there is no good reason to procrastinate.)  Once it was completed, the logjam came free and, with Rachel’s involvement, the shelves of the seed-starting apparatus were soon empty.  This sudden clearing of stalled events is another common aspect of dependent serial tasks.

At CVS yesterday, we picked up four inexpensive heating pads (fortuitously, we had a discount coupon to apply) to add to the seed-starting apparatus.  The pads are medium-sized (12 by 15 inches) and should fit nicely beneath the seed trays.  Most important, they do not have an automatic shut-off feature which would defeat their purpose of helping seeds to germinate—without my constant interaction.

Last year, we located the seed-starting apparatus in front of a south-facing window.  The idea was to capture as much light and radiation from the sun as is possible in mid-winter.  What we found, however, is that there is not enough sun this time of year to be useful (the heating pads provide energy until the seedlings break the surface; after that, the fluorescent light fixtures take over).

Therefore, we will leave the apparatus tucked into the corner of the room (in front of a door we no longer use) where it will be out of the way (the window location interfered with access to a refrigerator).  It is now ready for seed trays, the planting of which is the next task in the serial process we call gardening.  I’ll try not to put it off for too long.

Nature abhors a vacuum.  And of all vacuums, the one that Nature abhors most is an empty shelf.  If she encounters one, she seems to exhort (in her inaudible but distinctly perceptible and imperative way), “Don’t just stand there; store something!”

That’s my experience, anyway.  Every bookshelf in the house is full to overflowing; many shelves carry two or three rows of books.  In the kitchen, our cabinets are always groaning with everything from pantry staples to exotic ingredients.  Upstairs, I never have any shelf space in my closet despite the two or three trips to Goodwill I make each year.

And then there’s the basement.

We have several shelving units down there:  one for tools (and whatnot), one for paint (and the like), yet another for seasonal items (such as Christmas tree decorations and pool furniture cushions).  Whenever a space opens up (e.g., when we put the cushions outside in spring), it is soon filled with something else (e.g., a box of the previous year’s records that was sitting on the floor for lack of shelf space).  It’s a good example of what I might call the “Shelf of Dreams” Law which holds that if you build it (a shelf), they will come (items to be stored).

This law immediately became apparent when we began planning our indoor seed sowing for the coming growing season (believe it or not, we should be starting this month) and I made a trip to the basement to prepare.  Recall that last year, we constructed a simple seed-starting apparatus to facilitate indoor growing (see March 17, 2013, part 2, for details).  And what did we use as the basis of our apparatus?  That’s right, a shelving unit.

Shortly after we assembled the shelves, we filled them with seed trays.   A few weeks later, after we set out the seedlings in spring, the shelves became empty again.  That condition did not last long.

First, I started placing miscellaneous gardening supplies there:  spray bottles, sacks of soil amendments, plastic seedling pots.  Then, in mid-summer, we held a big party for our 25th anniversary.  We needed room elsewhere in the basement (for the caterers) and so anything that did not have anywhere better to live moved to the seed-starting apparatus.  By the end of the summer, the shelves were full.

Which was fine through the fall and into the start of winter.  But now it is time to make space for the seed trays again.  It will take some effort—there’s a lot of stuff to relocate—but I’m sure I can find an open shelf or two somewhere in the house.

Okay, I admit it:  I let the tomato vines get away from me.  I was aware of the impending problem and had adjusted my action plan accordingly (see August 20, 2013) but then I failed to follow through.  I have not done much pruning while the plants have continued to grow with abandon.

The result is a nearly impenetrable mass of stems and leaves that occupies the upper third of all six supporting cages.  We have had to drape vines from each plant across the cages of one or two adjacent cages in each direction.  At the ends of the east planter, the vines reach out into space, looking for something to grab on to.  It makes walking around them more difficult.

In addition, the unbalanced weight of the developing fruits is causing the cages to lean precariously this way and that.  We had braced them securely in the spring (this condition seems to be inevitable regardless of the size of the vines) and had we not done so, the cages would surely have toppled over by now.

Who knows what is going on in that tangled clump of vines—and with whom?  Hornworms may be munching away for all I know.  And with each plant intimately enmeshed with the others, if one contracts a tomato disease, they will all get it.  Luckily, there has been no sign of either, with the possible exception of some freckled and yellowed branches of the Country Taste beefsteak tomatoes.

The upside, of course, is that there are plenty of tomatoes of all varieties.  The beefsteaks are the most plentiful—there must be dozens of them, in all stages of development—while the Brandywines (which we think look more pink than red) are the largest.  We picked a husky specimen last week that must have weighed two pounds.  We could have made a pot full of sauce using just the one tomato.