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September 30, 2011

Three sisters garden update

I was going to wait until the corn gets established enough for the beans to climb over it's stalks, but the corn is not exactly going gangbusters. I need to get beans and squash into the ground because we only have two solid months until the possible first frost date. So, I decided to cheat a little, and added bamboo posts to support the beans.

Now, even if the corn fails I would still have the beans and the squash, which will make it a two sisters, but I am hoping for the best. I planted six bean seeds around each stake.

Also planted two squash seeds per each diagonal corner of the three sisters garden. If both come up, I will leave the stronger one and snip the smaller one. We will see what develops.

September 27, 2011

Lazy compost pile

If you grow squash and you don't have a compost pile going, here's a double whammy.

Squash is a heavy feeder, in fact the best squash you can grow is on a compost pile itself. At the same time squash requires a lot of room. Usual spacing for squash is about three feet on center, but it would love to crawl even farther if you allow it.

So the solution is to grow squash next to the compost pile, or start one next to the growing squash. Here's the squash I have going, it's a yellow straight neck variety. Yellow squash is pretty easy to grow, and I love easy.

Designate a space next to the squash and start piling up some garden waste. Break up spent plants into manageable pieces and add to the pile. Weed your garden and add weeds to that pile as well. The only thing you have to watch for is not to add weeds that have gone to seed because this pile will not be hot enough to kill seeds. The regular compost pile that is capable of killing the seeds should be at least three feet high. We are not building that huge of a pile for the purpose of lazy composting, so eliminate weed seeds from the pile.

At this point it looked like the pile was lacking carbon, so I added a layer of chicken coop cleanouts, partially decomposed wood shavings. Now the pile looks balanced.

For a compost pile you need roughly equal amounts of green and dry matter. Green matter includes weed greens and kitchen waste. Dry matter includes anything that was once a green matter but dried out, such as fallen leaves, pine needles, palmetto leaves, etc. If you don't have any of these, shredded newspaper and office paper will do as well. Use your imagination.

Keep the pile watered and turn it once a week until squash takes over. You can keep adding to the pile until squash sends the stems over it. Then just wait until the sqush is done and dig both, compost pile and spent squash leaves and stems into the ground to enrich the soil.

September 24, 2011

Replanting Lettuce and Kale into the ground

I have seeded romaine lettuce and kale in containers about two weeks ago to get an early start. Now these seedlings are grown enough to be replanted into the garden.

This late in September you can seed all greens, including lettuce, kale, bok choy, mustard greens and collard greens, directly into the garden beds. But if you started some in containers, here's some tips on replanting them.

Prepare the bed by digging in remaining mulch and compost and raking the surface to smooth. Dig a hole deep enough to bury the whole plant so that only a few leaves are above the surface. This is very important. By no means replant the seedlings so that the stem is sticking above the ground. These young roots are not strong enough to support the weight of the plant, so you will end up with an undeveloped weak plant. The amount of space occupied by the roots shoud roughly equal the amount of space occupied by the leaves. If you plant too shallow, the top of the plant will be heavier than roots and will stunt the growth.

If in doubt, error on the side of planting deeper. Don't worry, the plant will grow a new healthy stem. Just bury up to the leaves. To take the plant out of the container, put the stem between your index and middle finger and turn the container upside down, then gently lower the plant with the soil that was in the container into the hole.

Lettuce spacing is about eight inches on center:

Kale spacing for the dwarf curly kale that I planted is about a foot. But if you are growing a regular, not dwarf variety, then spacing should be about 18 inches on center, just like broccoli.

Just like with any other transplants, water right after transplanting if the soil is not wet and keep watering to keep moist until established. Right now we are experiencing daily rains, so watering can be eased.

If you are seeding directly into the garden, mind the spacing requirements, and also plant two seeds per hole to limit bald spots. Even if both seeds germinate, you can snip the weaker one with scissors and use in your salad.

September 22, 2011

To ferilize or not to fertilize?

...that is the question. I meant synthetic fertilizers in that context.

Strict definition of organic gardening does not allow use of synthetic fertilizers, and for a good reason. If we are in it for a long term then we need to build the soil, not just feed a plant. Soil building includes adding a lot of organic matter so that the soil becomes moisture retentive as well as drainable and rich in nutrients for the plants themselves and supporting fauna - earth worms and other organisms.

But what do you do if you are in an emergency situation - your plants need feeding but you did not have an opportunity to properly build the soil yet? I would compromise at this point, as long as you have a long-term plan on building rich soil in your garden.

What kinds of synthetic fertilizers should we use? I would forgo generic 6-6-6 or 10-10-10 NPK (nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and potassium (K)) because while these are just enough to sustain plant's requirements, they are not sufficient to feed a human body. We are in it for the healthy food, are we?

In an emergency situation like that, for example if I do not have much time until the season's end and the plants are not doing so well, I would add some synthetic fertilizer, but one that contains more minerals. Here's the one I use in these situations:

It is quite expensive, about eleven dollars for this bottle, but it is worth it. First, it covers a lot of ground, literally. Second, it contains trace minerals such as copper, iron, zink, magnezium and calcium. Plants can survive just on NPK, but evidently they need more than that, not mentioning that we, consumers of the fruit, need these minerals. Speaking of calcium, you can add it quite inexpensively to the plants that need it the most: tomatoes and peppers. Just get crushed oyster shell at Tractor Supply, a huge forty pound bag for about eight dollars, or crush egg shells finely and sprinkle around the plants. Calcium is needed to prevent blossom end rot in tomatoes and peppers.

Fertilizers in this Miracle Gro mixture are not evenly balanced, like 10-10-10, for example. Instead, they are more like 9-4-12, so they are heavier on nitrogen and kalium. Folks at Miracle Gro must have figured it out.

Bottom line is, nothing will replace good organic soil building, for the long and short term as well. But if you see that your plants are stunted and growth season end is within reach, use the synthetics to give your plants a boost, but select a good one and plan for future organic sourses of fertilizers, namely cover crops and compost building.

September 19, 2011

Do you have a counter top composter?

If you are a gardener, and you are concerned about health quality of your produce, and you have kitchen vegetation leftovers, then, well... you should have a collector for your kitchen waste.

I simply use a 34 oz plastic coffee can for this purpose:

Now, it is not mandatory to have plastic can like I have. It can be metal, but be aware that it will rust in a number of months, although it is not a big deal if you are a coffee drinker, like your's truly. Just replace it with a new one. The point here is that you have some sort of container to collect your kitchen waste and you do add it to your garden soil.

What can go into that pile? A short answer would be - anything plant based. A detailed answer would be - all your vegetable peels, including onion, garlic, carrot, etc., also broccoli stems, cabbage stems, you got the point. Coffee grounds with the filters, tea bags and any non-cooked vegetable leftovers.

Now, for the cooked ones - I would not recommend putting spaghetti and rice there. Not that it cannot decompose, anything will decompose with time outside of plastic, but these items will attract rodents and flies, and you do not want that. Absolutely no oil or other buttery products. These will clog up your soil and will take ages to decompose. No meat. Granted, meat is great fertilizer for your plants, but it will attract mice and ants, and this will present the problem, unless you bury these items very deep into the ground. 

So, once your container is all filled up, just dig a hole about a foot deep in the unused portion of your garden and bury the contents into that hole. You would be surprised to find that after just a few weeks all that stuff will be reduced to nothing just due to the workings of nature. Happy composting!

September 17, 2011

How to replant lettuce

It is September, and we can start seeding and planting lettuce. Granted, in Central Florida the days are still very hot and young lettuce seedlings might not survive the heat and harshness of the soil. I am a big advocate of seeding in nursery containers and then replanting into the 16-oz styrofoam cups instead of seeding into the ground. The obvious exceptions would be radish, beets, carrots, beans and peas. In other words, vegetables that would take too much work seeding and replanting, as they are pretty resilient as is.

In Central Florida the optimum time to seed lettuce is the beginning of October, but I wanted to get an early start, so I seeded in nursery containers, namely some blue styrofoam trays that they sell mushrooms in. Once lettuce is sprouted and is starting to show first true leaves, it is time to replant it. The process is quite easy. Get yourself a table spoon and some bowl where the seedlings will be held while being replanted. With a table spoon pick up a portion of the seedling mess from the bottom and reposition into the bowl:

Sprinkle some soil into the indentation to keep the remaining roots moist and covered.

Be careful with the young seedlings. Separate them from each other by gently crumbling the soil that contains multiple seedlings. The point here is to separate the seedlings, not yank them. Their roots are very gentle, so be careful. I have to mention though that lettuce plans are quite resilient. Not saying that you can be rough on them, but you don't have to be scared either. As long as you don't break the stem and don't yank the plant from the root base, the plant will survive and do quite well.

Now, get yourself some 16-oz styrofoam cups, break drainage holes on the bottom, and fill them about half way with potting mix:

Gently separate one seedling from the bunch, lower it into the container holding by the leaves, not the stem, and fill with the dirt up to the leaves:

Finally, place containers into a bowl filled with water so that the cups suck up the water from the bottom instead of being watered overhead, which can lead to having some dry pockets. I would not be offended though if you sprinkled some water on top of the plant to speed up the process.

And this is it, my friends. Now put these cups under the tree or other source of dappled shade and you don't have to worry about replanting them into the ground until you have time. These plants can stay in the cups until they are four to six inches tall with no problem.

September 12, 2011

Update on September Garden

Most of warm season vegetables should be in the ground now. These are tomatoes, peppers and eggplant.

Eggplant and Peppers
   Cucumbers and squash can be still seeded if they are of the early variety, no more than 60 days maturity dates.

Young squash
Squash is ready to be transplanted.

September 10, 2011

Update on Luffa

I was very excited to see young luffa fruit that appeared very quickly. But, as with many squash and cucumber type plants, the first promising fruit shriveled and fell off. I was a bit disappointed, but then a little later more young growth appeared and now grew into some nice healthy fruit:

Luffa surely likes to climb. It quickly took over the whole 30-foot fence, so I had to train it to climb back so it does not run out of room:

And it is very prolific. Everywhere on the new vines there is more flowers and more fruit. It looks like I will have my free sponges after all.

September 8, 2011

Three sisters garden project

This year I want to try out the "three sisters garden". This type of garden combines corn, pole beans and squash in the same area. The tale is that native Indians grew these vegetables together because corn provided support for the beans, beans provided nitrogen for the corn and squash, and squash provided shade and moisture for the corn and beans.

For this project I have selected Golden Bantam corn, Kentucky Wonder beans and Grey Zucchini Squash, not for any particular reason, but because I had the seeds. The only requirement, in my mind, is that beans have to be pole beans, not bush beans, otherwise there is no reason to plant them together with corn, as bush beans do not need support.

First, you need to seed corn. It needs at least some time to get established before beans choke the stems. So, seed the corn into the garden or in containers (I do) and then replant into the garden. Right now is the prime time to seed corn. Let corn grow to about six to twelve inches tall before planting the beans.

At this point we are done, waiting for the corn to establish a little bit before seeding beans and squash.

The layout and spacing of three sisters garden is something like this:

In a four-foot square, plant four corn plants in the middle, a foot apart. After they get to about eight inches tall, plant six beans around each corn stalk. Then, plant three squash plants in a circle around corn and beans. This plan provides for a space-saving productive garden, at least in theory. I will keep you posted on the progress of three sisters garden.

September 6, 2011

What can we grow in September in Florida

September is a very fruitful month. We can still plant and seed warm season vegetables as well as start cool season vegetables from seed. The only thing you might be careful about is maturity dates on the seed packets. We only have about three months, usually not much longer after Thanksgiving, to a potential first frost. So, from that perspective, the maturity dates for the warm season vegetables should be no longer than 60 days.

Tomatoes, peppers and eggplant should be in the ground now. It is too late to seed them now unless you are planning to grow them in a greenhouse. If you don't have any transplants, get them at the store and transplant now.

We can, however, start some warm season vegetables from seed even now. These include corn, beans, squash and cucumbers. But again, remember, the varieties have to be the early ones.

Squash and cucumbers are usually advised to be seeded directly into the garden. I however, prefer controlled germination, in styrofoam cups, only because I know for sure which ones came up and also can keep their germinating condition closer to ideal, as in keeping them moist. When seeding cucumbers and squash, mind the depth. They should be only barely covered with soil, but the soil should be kept moist all the time. Replant them as soon as first leaves emerge and establish.

As far as the cool season crop, we have plenty of choices. All greens, including lettuce, mustard greens, collards, kale and bok choy can be seeded now. Again, it is up to you whether you seed directly into the ground or in containers first. If you seed into the ground, you will have to water that ground every day so that the soil keeps moist. That is the reason I seed in containers and then replant: I do not have an opportunity to baby the seeds because of work.

By all means seed all lettuce varieties now. Below is a picture of my own romaine lettuce seeds. It looks like a hairy mess, but really extra stems and other stuff is not a problem. It was not worth it to spend time cleaning the seeds to the commercial quality of presentation. The only trick with germinating your own lettuce seeds is to keep them in a refrigerator for at least a few weeks, so as to fool them into thinking that winter is over.

You can also seed all brassicas -  cabbage, brussels sprouts and bok choy, as well as broccoli, carrots and beets.

I really like September. I can dabble in the garden in the evenings when it's not as hot anymore but still light, after work. I usually do garden work for an hour almost every day. Believe it or not you can accomplish a lot of things in just one hour. 

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