Thursday, August 30, 2012

My Greatest Gardening Challenge Nets My Greatest Gardening Discovery

I was not expecting to move this summer.  We'd started our seeds over winter, planted the seedlings in the ground (and in planters) and were nurturing them along when life said, “don't get too comfortable, now.”

Challenge:  can one move mature garden vegetables successfully?  My instincts told me “no.”  I've gardened most of my life.  I've never transplanted anything in the middle of summer.  That would be begging for trouble.

A googling I went.  Sure enough, there was a how-to video for moving mature tomato plants.  If it works for tomatoes, it should work for peppers, right?  According to the video, we needed to prep the plants by digging around them and breaking their roots, letting them recover from that shock in their original positions by watering them thoroughly over the next two weeks before removing and transplanting.

I would not be moving the plants to another garden plot, though.  I would be transplanting them to planters.  Tomatoes are large plants that need a lot of soil for their roots and plenty of nutrients to support their intense, rapid growth and fruiting.

A project that had been tickling at the back of my mind for over a year was sub-irrigated planters. During my mid-winter gardening research (if I can call stumbling about the Internet somewhat haphazardly 'research') I came across Bob Hyland's Flickr photostream of his research and work with sub-irrigated planters.  Bob is the founder of the Center for Urban Greenscaping and has spent years perfecting the way he makes sub-irrigated planters (SIPs). His photostreams showed convincing results (coffee trees in New York!)  that compelled me to give SIPs a try.  The instructions are sketchy in his photostreams, however, and I felt no confidence in moving forward.  When life suggested I get moving, the time was right to give these sub-irrigated planters a go.  I worked from memory knowing my memory was shoddy at best.  I managed to mash the instructions for smaller SIPs with the instructions for larger SIPs, but the results two months later are great.  From memory, I needed a reservoir for the water, wicking material to draw the water into the planters, and a pipe of some sort to be able to add water to the reservoir without dismantling the planter.  I had forgotten an overflow hole (remedied quickly with a drill).

I gathered food-grade plastic five gallon buckets for the tomatoes and other, smaller ones for the peppers.  Since the pepper plants were small and easy to work around, we transplanted those first.  Once they were in the planters we positioned the planters in mostly shade and watched for signs of shock.  One plant pouted a bit – the leaves and stems were droopy that day and the next.  By the third day, the droopy plant was fine as were all the other pepper planters.  This was back in June.

Inside of planter bucket.  Wicking material is poly fabric.  Section of garden hose  is  used for refilling the reservoir.
Wicking material hangs down into water of reservoir.  (This is the part I got wrong, but seems to have worked throughout this season.) 
Newly transplanted.  
I use a funnel to add water.   
We went on to transplant 12 pepper plants with equal results and three tomato plants.  The tomatoes were enormous!  They wilted terribly when moved, despite having prepared them 10 days previous.  We stopped at the third plant because we didn't think they were going to make it.  During the actual move, one of the tomato plants dropped 30 green tomatoes.  I thought for sure these plants were going to succumb to the shock and die.
It's a beast! 
They did not!  They rallied and within a week were no longer wilted or drooping.  I damaged one of the plants trying to stake it after transplanting it when it was wilting so severely.  I broke several branches and decided to stop there and never staked it.  Of course, none of this was ideal for the tomatoes.  Saving the three plants we did, we've been able to put up enough sauce and chopped tomatoes for a winter's worth of spaghetti, soups, and chili!

All the planters in their new home. 
The peppers, though, have behaved as if nothing ever happened.  They've produced heavily.   I did not have time to make all the transplant containers sub-irrigated and not knowing if SIPs would make much difference anyway, several of the planters are just regular drain-holes-in-the-bottom planters.   And this is where my big discovery comes in.  Since June in record-high temperatures with record-low rainfall, I have had to add water to the sub-irrigated planters TWICE!  Twice!  The regular planters all must be watered daily, twice a day on very hot days!  Not the sub-irrigated planters.  This is astounding!  I do fertilize with a liquid fish and seaweed emulsion once a week for the peppers, but that is it.  Every day I check my planters and every day the soil in the SIPs is moist.  This is a Very Big Deal!  I imagine I save about a gallon of water a day on each sub-irrigated planter.  The plants in them are happy, healthy, and incredibly productive!

SIP on left.  Standard planter on right.  Note how dark and glossy the leaves are on the SIP and how pale the leaves are on the pepper in the standard planter.  Soil is the same.  Fertilizing schedule is the same.  The only difference is the water reservoir on the SIP.  (Can you see I added an overflow hole on the SIP bucket? )

You can bet every planter I make from now on will be sub-irrigated!

 As a PS, I don`t want anyone to confuse or conflate SIPs with self-watering planters.  You can buy self-watering planters just about anywhere now-a-days, but commercially produced SIPs are hard to come by.  Earthbox is one and there are others. I have several self-watering planters and my experience with them is that they don`t make much difference at all from standard planters.  Using them outdoors, I need to water as frequently as I do with any of the standard planters.  I suspect that the large fill hole in the side of the planter allows for evaporation.

This is a self-watering planter with 4 peppers in it.   The seashells are only there to keep the squirrels from digging.  I overcrowded this planter and clearly not enough nutrients are getting to the one super cherry plant in the foreground.  (There are four pepper plants in this planter.  Ideally, there would only be one.  These are not transplants, however.  They started out this way.) 

I'm sure the reservoir hole allows for evaporation.  I have to fill this daily, sometimes twice daily.  

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Squirrels! BAH!

Squirrels are the bane of my gardening existence.  They dig out seeds I've just planted.  Chew the tops off pepper plants, tomato plants, and sunflowers!  I sometimes wonder if they're doing me a favor as topping those plants causes them to be bushier -- including the sunflowers!  Instead of a single flower head, there will be many when the squirrels have chewed the tops from one.  They dig out newly planted plants, too.  They dig in all my planters, leaving heaps of dirt all over the place!

I know.  I probably shouldn't feed him if he gives me so much trouble.  This table is on my porch just outside one kitchen window where the cats like to lounge.  Feeding him here is great entertainment for the cats.  Although, two of my cats go outdoors and I do have (expletive laced) video of my 24-pound tuxedo cat sitting lazily only 4 inches away from the squirrel watching him with mild curiosity.  

Every year I search for ways to stop the squirrels' destruction.  Usually I cover the tops of my planters with rocks and shells I've gathered from the beaches.  This does stop them from digging in those.  I'm never surprised when a bean plant starts growing in a row where I did not plant beans.  It's nothing I did.  It's the squirrel's doing.  

This is my potted blueberry.  We amended the soil to reach the correct pH and still it was a little sweeter than blueberries prefer.  So I started taking my coffee grounds out to the planter in the mornings to help increase the acidity.  What do you know?  When I added coffee grounds to the top of the planter, the squirrel stopped digging.  It's a good thing I love coffee!  I'll be spreading these everywhere! 

This chili pepper planter is covered in clam shells.  The bit of soil on the porch was from the squirrel's last dig before I added the shells.

Last year, I lost most of the spinach in my salad box to the squirrels.  They would dig it up, eat it, just make a wreck of the whole box.  This year, I sprouted everything under bird netting.  Once it got too tall for the bird netting, I removed the bird netting.  As soon as I did, holes everywhere!  Squirrels!  Bah!  I moved my salad box from a too shady location to a too sunny location, so had to give my lettuce and spinach some shade.

The squirrels aren't afraid to climb in on the sides and dig, or even in the small, two-inch gap between the two shades!  So we had to make some more modifications before we could start our cucumbers in the back row.  (In this picture you can see the leeks that overwintered in this box.  They were TASTY!  Normally leeks wouldn't survive a winter in this region, but last year's winter was incredibly mild.)

These are trays from garden centers used to hold all the cell packs of flowers and such.  I knew I hung onto them for a reason!  (They come in handy for harvesting.)  We stapled these to the sides of the box to keep the squirrels out.  It's working.  Look how happy the lettuce is, too!

The cukes are sprouting happily.  And the squirrel isn't going to get them!  

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Weed 'em and Reap!

Does your yard look like mine?

Yes, the dandelions are winning.  No doubt this is thanks to my dandelion loving youngest child who spreads seeds around with abandon every year.  Last year, he requested a dandelion birthday cake.  He really loves dandelions!  

What to do when you have an abundance of dandelion blossoms?  Make dandelion wine!  Which is exactly what we did.  

I was lucky to have come across the recipe the way I did.  I was leafing through one of my old cookbooks (The New York Times Heritage Cookbook, 1972 edition) for inspiration and came across several dandelion recipes days before the dandelions were in full bloom.  The recipe was simple and I figured "Why not?"

I'm sure the neighbours thought we were nuts out there plucking dandelion blooms and putting them into a 2-quart sized Easter bucket!  I found it was easiest to just slip two fingers beneath the bloom and pull up in order to get only blossom and no stem.  You don't want any stems, just blossoms.  Read the whole recipe before you get started as this is a several-day process (but easy!)

Dandelion Wine

4 quarts boiling water
4 quarts dandelion blossoms, washed
3 lemons
3 oranges
3.5 pounds sugar (8 cups)
1/2 cake compressed yeast or one and one-half teaspoons active dry yeast, dissolved in two tablespoons lukewarm water

  1. Pour the boiling water over the washed blossoms (I simply added the blossoms to the pot of boiling water and stirred to submerge them all) and return to a boil.  Cool and set aside, covered, for three days.  (I covered with the pot lid and let it sit on a back burner for the three days.)  
  2. Strain, discarding blossoms (put these right in the compost bin or even directly on the garden, they won't go to seed now that they've been cooked!) 
  3. Cut the colored rind from the lemons and oranges (wash them well then use a very fine peeler or paring knife to remove ONLY the colored rind and NONE of the white pith -- try to get no white at all).  Add the colored rinds to to the strained liquid.  Bring to a boil and boil fifteen minutes.  
  4. Juice the orange and lemons and add the juice and pulp and sugar to the liquid and stir well.  (The oranges and lemons fall apart using a hand juicer, it's messy but it will do the job.)  Cool.  
  5. After it has cooled, add the yeast and pour the brew in a container to ferment in a cool place for a week to ten days.  I used a plastic gallon jug to ferment mine in.  I had about 4 inches of space in the top of the container and yes it expanded and it bubbled over a little bit.  I only had the screw-cap top on.  Anyone who makes wine regularly says to use a fermentation lock, which will fit on top of a gallon container - usually glass.  I recall my parents making wine and using balloons in place of the fermentation lock.  Poke several holes in the top of the balloon, fit it to the top of the container and let the balloon fall inside the jug.  It will raise with the carbon dioxide which will escape the holes.  When it deflates completely, it's done.  (Instructions for a balloon are here.)
When you set the wine aside to ferment, it doesn't look pretty.  It's foamy and brownish and cloudy.  In a few days the bits inside will settle and the liquid will clear.  I let my wine sit for 12 days before I strained and bottled it.  I strained it using a wire mesh strainer but now I wish I had put a coffee filter inside that wire mesh strainer as well.  I put it into 4 standard-sized wine bottles, corked them and put them away.  

This holiday weekend, we tried our wine.  It is good!  It's very sweet, though.  Researching online I see that with a short fermentation time one can reduce the sugar and also if you let it ferment longer, the sugar gets eaten in the process resulting in a less sweet wine.  It's quite citrusy, too.  I can see having lemonade coolers using this wine during the summer.  

Can you feel the anticipation?  

It is good!  I like it chilled.  

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Freecycle Score for the Garden!

Do you freecycle?  Freecycle is truly a grass-roots movement that's spread world-wide. Community members freecycle items to one another instead of sending those items on to landfills.  You can search for your local community at the link above.  Locally we started a plantcycle group to share garden plants with one another.

This is my most recent freecycle score:

This statue and birdbath were gifted to me by a local freecycler who no longer wanted them.

I think I'll be placing the boy somewhere else.  I can plant something shallow rooted in the base.  I'm thinking Sweet Alyssum, or perhaps a succulent or stonecrop of some sort.

It's enormous! About 3' across and 8" deep. 

It holds an 8" planter.  The hamster wheel in my brain is turning furiously trying to decide what I'll plant in it.  Something tall in the center, surrounded by something dangly.
What do you think? 
Last fall I saved this chair from the landfill by yanking it off the curb on trash day:  
It will be a planter when I'm done with it and I think it will go near the birdbath.  I will blog its transformation.  

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Get Creative Growing Runner Beans

Runner beans are beans that grow on vining plants.  Usually runner beans are grown for dried beans instead of fresh green beans (though most runner beans can be eaten as fresh green beans when they are small and immature.)

Our two favourite varieties of runner bean are Scarlet Runner Bean (Phaseolus coccineus) and Rattlesnake Bean.  We like Scarlet Runners best because they are very productive, covered in a profusion of small red flowers that attract hummingbirds and butterflies, and have a delicate, sweet-nutty flavour.  The Rattlesnake Bean is also productive, though the vines don't grow quite as tall as Scarlet Runners will.  The flowers are paler, but also lovely.  The beans, if picked young, have that true green bean flavour that you might remember from childhood.  As dried beans, I found them unremarkable, though they do make a good addition to a cold bean salad.

Runner beans prefer to be planted in warm soil, so you have plenty of time in zones 7 and below to plan how you'd like to plant your runner beans.  

If you have children or grandchildren, you might like to plant the beans around a bean tepee.  Just be sure to leave an opening for the kids to enter.  Rattlesnake beans are perfect for the bean tepee as their colourful, twisted pods are fascinating to young (and old) eyes!  I didn't make the base of ours quite wide enough when I did this.  I recommend a diameter of about 10 feet.  Push poles into the soil, lean them together at the top center and bind well with twine.  You can reinforce with twine around the midsection, too.  Runner beans snake up vertically and do not need horizontal lines to grab onto, but plants like peas would.

Bean tepee filling in.

Bean tepee filled in.
 For something that doesn't take up a great deal of space, but gives an amazing yield; try growing runner beans up a single pole with multiple vertical lines running down to the ground from the center.  We use the shepherd's hook my brother made for me and all our other siblings for this every summer.  It's 7' high, impossible to uproot, and creates a visually appealing living statuary in the garden.  From 2' square of soil at its base, where the beans are planted, we yielded a bushel of beans last year!  We attached guide lines from the top of the pole to the soil in a circle for the beans to climb to the top.  At the top we ran twine to the corner of the garage.  The beans made it all the way to the corner by the end of the season!  That's about 20 feet!  I've heard of other people running twine from their house to the soil and creating a living wall that cooled the home and blocked bright sunlight in the summer months that would otherwise warm the house a great deal.  Imagine a wall of beans and scarlet flowers!

Scarlet Runner Beans growing up a 7' shepherd's hook and across twine.  

Note the size of the beans; the candle lantern is about 16" long from top to bottom.   

Here's a tip for removing the beans from the pods:  put the beans, once they are completely dry, on a tarp or in a burlap bag and walk on them!  That's A LOT easier than what I've done in the past, which left my hands cramped and my back sore!  

At the end of the season, don't yank the plants from the soil.  Instead, cut them off at the soil line and leave the roots to rot in the ground.  Beans are nitrogen fixers, meaning they pull nitrogen out of the air and convert it into food for plants.  Nodules, small bumps, will appear on the roots of beans and other nitrogen fixers (clovers and peas  To let that nitrogen be available the following growing season, let those roots stay in the ground where the nitrogen will remain available for the next plants.  

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Internet Resources for Gardeners

Plant identification, help with plant problems, and a great deal of gardening information can be found at the UBC Botantical Gardens Forums.  I have had many unknown-to-me plants identified by the members there and received a great deal of helpful advice.

Everything from gardening ideas, success stories, and advice can be found at the Garden Web forums.  Topics are well organized and plentiful.  I find it can be time consuming to search information in this forum because many topics can be quite long. That may also be due to my tendency to wander off topic when I find something that interests me.

The gardening section at The Old Farmer's Almanac contains a wealth of information easily accessed and understood.  I often refer to the planting dates (you can input your postal code or zip code and it will return information specific for your growing area) and even seed starting dates for your area. I find moon planting interesting, but I'm not sure if there's really anything to it.  My father planted 'by the moon' and was quite the successful gardener; but I can't say that the two are truly connected.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Old gardens, new gardens and resolutions

Three years ago we moved and I left behind the gardens I'd worked so hard to build.  It was a difficult, but necessary move.  In return visits I see the new owners have dug up or mowed over the 40 hostas and bed full of ajuga I'd planted.  I got a hernia planting that particular side yard.  Trees and bushes have been left to sprawl and the rock garden looks like a weed bed as it hasn't been tended at all.  It's a painful thing to see.  I know they are no longer mine, but all that work and effort has truly become a waste.

Because of that, I've taken a different approach to my gardening.  It is entirely for my enjoyment and more utilitarian than in past.  I know that we will not be at this location forever, either, so I'm not expending a great deal of efforts on permanent gardens.  Instead, I'm using more planters and the beds are full of annuals.  They can easily be seeded with grass once we're done here.

I like planters because they are portable, I control the growing medium (instead of the soil controlling me as is often the case with difficult soils), I can manipulate the light they receive easily, and one planter is more easily remedied than a bed full of disease or pests.

I've been avidly reading Question and  for tips and suggestions and finding that I seem to hoarde the knowledge I've gained over the past 30 years to myself.  It isn't intentional.  I often do not realize that some of what i know is not common knowledge. Not everyone grew up with a landscaping father who taught his kids as much of what he knew as he possibly could over the years.

I'm not making promises as I'm fairly busy, but I am going to try to post more frequently and share information that I find invaluable even if I think it is common.

Are you planning next years' gardens yet?

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