Archives for posts with tag: stakes

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.

Advertisements

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.

We had a relatively warm and bright morning today, something that we will not have many more of (the warm part, anyway) until spring.  So, after breakfast, we performed another round of fall clean-up in the garden.

It is not as if everything is dead or dying—there has been no killing frost so far—and yet, nothing is developing very quickly.  The growth of the squashes, in particular, has slowed to a near stop.  There are plenty of zucchini and crooknecks and even a few large yellow blossoms—all beaming like it was still August—but none of the squashes has gotten any bigger than a few inches in length.

I have to keep in mind that the squashes are summer vegetables and we are now squarely in fall.  The zucchini and crooknecks are past their season and it is time to let them go.

Pulling out the vines was relatively easy.  The only difficult part was finding where they were rooted to the ground.  Summer squashes grow from one central stem along which the leaves and fruit radiate.  After the squashes ripen and are harvested, the leaves wither and die, leaving their section of stem barren.

At the same time, the leading tip of the stem continues to grow outward and new leaves, blossoms and fruit are created.  As a result, after four months of bounteous growth, the vines reach a length of several feet.  The active end gets separated from its starting point and the intervening stem gets buried by fallen trees leaves.  At a casual glance, it looks as though the vines have moved around the garden.

The winter squashes we grew this year develop in a similar manner.  But instead of letting the Naguri squash (a Kabocha-like variety) trail spread out on the ground, we trained it up and around a tripod of garden stakes.  When we removed the vine last week (see October 13, 2013 for photos), it had reached the top of the tripod, within striking distance of the temple bell that hangs there.

The Zeppelin Delicata squash looked as though it would follow the same path as the summer squashes.  Sadly, though, it got no farther than the perimeter of its mound of soil.  It produced only a few fruit, none of which got any bigger than an inch or so in length.  For us, their name was something of a misnomer.  I wouldn’t even characterize them as weather balloons.

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.

Warning:  Insect photo below.

This morning, we found the culprit who has been munching its way through the basil and leaving a nasty mess behind:  a large, hairy caterpillar.  I’m not sure what it will eventually morph into (a moth, probably) but it looks more like something I would see if I put a drop of swamp water on a glass slide and looked at it under a microscope (i.e., more Parameciidae than Lepidoptera).  We clipped off the leaf it was clinging to, along with the other soiled leaves, and tossed them into the woods.

We also replanted—again—the arugula seedlings that a friend gave to us.  They had not been doing well in their pot (too small) and we are hoping that by moving them to the east raised bed (where the other lettuces have been happily growing) they will have a better shot at survival.

At the other end of the garden, the Kabocha squash plant looks to be a climber. It has been steadily creeping outward from its mound of soil, searching for something to wrap its tendrils around.  To accommodate it, we built a tripod of six-foot-high stakes (the green plastic type, tied together at the top with twine) and trained the vine up one of the legs.  Its leaves are now facing the wrong way (north) but they should soon readjust.

From the top of the tripod, we hung a temple bell that a friend gave me for my birthday (the same generous friend who gifted me the blue ceramic pot; see June 29, 2013).  Gleaming with reflected sunlight, the bell now anchors the west end of the garden and provides a meditative—and melodic—focal point for anyone passing by.

Early morning is the best time to garden, while it is light but the plants are still shaded by the eastern trees.  And when the weather is hot, as it has been lately, early morning is the coolest time of day.  Once the sun clears the trees and starts shining on us directly, everything heats up.

Having eaten the last of the Sugar Snap peas last night (we chose to make them the last; the plants probably would have continued to produce), I carefully removed the vines today.  They had formed an interwoven fabric of stems, branches and tendrils that was firmly anchored to the trellis.  Pulling the vines free of the trellis without damaging it required some effort and concentration.

In the process, I found one pea that Rachel missed, despite her careful inspection of the plants, stem by stem.  I know from my own experience that the pea pods, even when they are large and plump, can hide in plain sight, blending in as they do with the surrounding leaves and branches.

And, in fact, I also found several peas that we had missed weeks ago.  Yesterday’s escapee was plump and sweet (I later gave it to Rachel to snack on); the older evasive peas, ensconced in tangles of leaves and tendrils, were shriveled and black (and completely unappetizing).

When I was finished with the demolition, Rachel joined me.  After clearing away the mulch, we sowed seeds for two types of string beans:  Amethyst Purple Filet Beans (to the west) and Roma II Bush Beans (to the east).  Working quickly (the sun was starting to rise above the treetops), we spaced holes at about two inches on center, using our fingers as dibbles.  Bean seeds are easy to plant (they are simply dried peas) and we were done in a matter of minutes.

String beans are slowpokes (55 to 70 days to maturity) and we will have a bit of a wait before we can eat them.  We should have the bush beans by late August.  The filet beans—a bright purple variety I remember my mother growing when I was in high school—take even longer to mature.  We will not be eating them until after Labor Day.

The second best time to garden is dusk.  As the sun drops to the horizon, there is an almost audible sigh of relief from the earth as the seemingly relentless barrage of light and heat diminishes and cooling begins.  Starting at about 6:30, there are one to two hours of twilight during which a lot of work can be done before it gets too dark.

On Sunday—a day of blistering sun—I spent those precious evening hours pruning the tomato plants and tying them to their cages.  I also retied the bell peppers and eggplants (moving their Velcro straps upwards) which have grown much taller in the summer warmth.

Another strong rain and wind storm swept through the area yesterday and although not seemingly as intense as the deluge a few days ago (see June 24, 2013), it dropped more than half an inch of rain on us.  It was also windier, as evidenced by the tomato and bell pepper plants that were toppled over by the strong gusts.

I’ve mentioned before that the tomato plants have kicked into high gear but I haven’t had much to say about the eggplant and bell peppers.  Up until now, they have been plugging along at a relaxed pace.  However, they too enjoy the drier, warmer conditions that we’ve been having over the last two weeks (occasional downpours notwithstanding) and are making up for lost time accordingly.  The eggplant and peppers are not yet as tall as the tomatoes but generally, all of the deadly nightshades are prospering.

To prevent further mishaps (the thunderstorm season is only just underway), I inspected each tomato plant and Velcro-ed any loose branches to their supporting cages (I snipped off one or two that seemed excessive).  For the eggplant and peppers, I installed a bamboo stake (the green-tinted, pencil-thin variety) adjacent to each stem and tied them together with more Velcro tape.

While working on the bell peppers, I noticed that when they first form, their young leaves look like crumpled wads of paper (albeit shiny, deep-green paper).  As they develop, the wads slowly expand, the leaf surfaces becoming less crinkly until finally, when they are full size, the leaves are smooth and oval.  It is as if invisible hands are opening up and smoothing out the wadded leaves just as one would an important paper thrown into the trash by mistake and later retrieved.

Presumably, at the end of the season, the leaves will dry, darken in color and return to their crumpled state at which point they will truly be ready for the metaphorical wastebasket.  Here they will remain until next spring when the cycle repeats itself.

The third seeding of the lettuces sprouted yesterday.  The seedlings are tiny and frail (were the first seedlings this small?) so I will leave them covered a bit longer.  To prop up the cloth covers, I laid a stake across the soil surface.  This will give the seedlings room to grow while remaining protected from wind, sun and evaporation.

The initial crookneck squash on each vine has grown to about an inch in length but both are experiencing blossom end rot.  One of them might be salvageable (in other words, we may be able to eat it yet) but the other is too far gone (I cut it off and tossed it out).  There has just been too much rain (e.g., almost an inch yesterday).

I’m not concerned about losing these first, early, squashes.  Shortly after we started the garden in 2011, a farmer friend told us that the first squash will never reach full size and that it is better to harvest it when still small to encourage additional growth.  It makes me wonder what purpose this early fruit serves.  It appears weeks before expected, with next-to-no hope of surviving to maturity.

I may have been deficient in my thinning during the last week, especially of the carrots, but almost everything in the west planter is in need of more space.  The growth of the carrots and beets has been very slow—they are all are much overdue—and crowding may be a factor.  Over the next few days, we will thin the older plants mercilessly using the three-finger rule.  I see salads and sautéed greens in our future.

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.

Saturday was a washout (it rained all day) and yesterday, we spent our time expanding the west end of the garden (see May 26, 2013).  Today it is time to plant!

To start, we installed the tomato cages across north side of the east planter.  In each of the last two years, we added stakes late in the season to stabilize the cages against the unbalanced forces of unruly tomato vines.  Recognizing the inevitability of this step, this year we did it right from the beginning.

For each variety of tomato, we chose the two best specimens (even after having given some away, we had several to choose from), dug a deep hole on either side of a cage, and buried the seedlings and their root balls up to the first set of true leaves.  The buried portion of the stems will produce roots and help firmly establish the plant in the soil.  In prior years, I have relied on my memory to keep the location of the different tomato varieties straight.  This year, I placed row markers against the stakes.

In the south center of the east planter, we formed two rows, staggered, for the eggplant and peppers.  We have room for eight plants and chose three Rosso bell peppers, three eggplant, and two orange bell peppers.  We have no need to identify these with row markers; their fruits will (eventually) identify them.

I read that that bell peppers like to be close to each other—to hold hands—so we placed them with only about a foot in between.  All will eventually need support for their main stems but being short on stakes, we will have to provide them later (they are not yet very tall so there is time).

In the remaining sextant (at the southeast corner), we laid out a relatively dense pattern of staggered rows for the basil.  We planted nine seedlings that had been hardened off (we gave away the others) and added five seedlings from indoors.  The latter had not been hardened off and they showed it with their droopy leaves (I would be disconsolate, too, if I had been kicked out of the house).  These seedlings are also smaller having never been potted up.

With that, the east planter is now full.  We gave all of the newly transplanted seedlings a drink of water (we’ll install soaker hoses later) along with a dose of fish emulsion.