Archive for September, 2016

Sadly, you'll never see this in my garden.

Sadly, you’ll never see this in my garden.

If you hang around me more than a few minutes, I’m going to figure out a way to bring up the subject of raising food. It might be livestock, but more likely it will be fruits and vegetables. I love growing edibles, one look and you can tell I love eating them, and I love talking about growing food.

There are lots of people who are better gardeners than I am, and maybe one or two who aren’t, but nobody likes talking gardening more than me. Ask anyone.

There are, though, some things I can grow really well, and others that I just can’t grow even if my life depended on it. Today, just for giggles, I’m going to tell you my absolute best and worst.

Let’s start with best, because it’s easy. Most of you already know what it is. My most prolific results come from hot peppers. So far, I have never gotten a bad result from hot peppers. Sweet varieties have been a little more difficult, though I’m getting the hang of them, but the hot varieties are like in my DNA.

I’ve cut back in recent years, because I get so many peppers I can’t figure out what to do with them. Around here where we live, there aren’t many people who like the hotter ones. In fact, we have friends who don’t even use black pepper. As a result, a lot of my peppers end up dried and turned into powder. I have dried cayenne peppers from 2009 in the pantry. I kid you not.

This year I only grew 5 varieties of hot peppers: jalapeno (3 plants), Habanero (4 plants), Thai (3 plants), Yellow Ghost (three plants), and Yellow Moruga (1 Plant) and I have harvested enough to last us years. I will make one more harvest at the end of this week and then simply pull the plants up.

As successful as my peppers have been, there is a fruit I simply can’t grow; cantaloupe. I have NEVER successfully harvested and eaten a cantaloupe that I have grown myself. A couple of years they all burned up, one year the chickens got them all, but the biggest heartache of all was the year I had several one day from a planned harvest and one of my dogs got into the garden and ate all the ripe ones. We know it was her because A. we caught her in the act, and B. she crapped seeds for days.

Do I sound bitter? You bet I am. The truth hurts. I didn’t even try to grow any this year. I will try again….eventually.

So there you have it; the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. What about you? Are there things you grow well? Varieties you can’t grow for love nor money? Jump on the comments page and tell us about it. Spill.

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fertilizerEverything in the food chain needs to eat. From humans all the way down to beneficial bacteria; we all eat. A few species along the way are mostly carnivores, a few are herbivores, but the majority are omnivores, including the soil and the many of the microbes that live in that soil. For the sake of time and the focus of this article, though, we’re going to stick to discussing our soil and the nutrients our fruit and veggies need to grow and thrive.

Many gardeners think of the earth as merely a growing medium, something to hold plants while they grow, but it’s so much for than that. Think of the earth as either growing or dying.  The way we treat the soil, whether in beds or containers, will either develop and grow the soil or it will kill it.

The soil is the receptacle that houses the nutrients that grow our plants. Water is the vehicle that transports the nutrients TO the plants, as they are on a liquid diet, so to speak.

Plants require several nutrients; primarily Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Potassium, (NPK).  Most commercial garden fertilizers advertise their NPK ratios right on the bag or box. As an example, you might see 5-5-5 or 4-1-1, etc. In the first case, it means 5 parts Nitrogen, 5 parts, Phosphorus, and 5 Potassium. The second example is 4 parts N, and one part each of P and K.

Each variety of fruit and veg you grow has its own requirements, so one size doesn’t always fit all. A good, healthy nutrient rich soil will go a long way to meeting most plants needs and your fertilizer will mostly supplement what’s there.  Before we go, I’m going to show you a great workaround in choosing your fertilizer.  But first I want to show you how to minimize your requirements for them.

If NPK was all plants needed, things would be pretty simple, but the truth is, plants need much more. NPK are called Macronutrients, while the lesser requirements are called micronutrients. However, there are some others I consider Macronutrients, because they make a huge difference in performance.

The first is Magnesium. Magnesium is to plants what Vitamin B complex is to humans. It boosts energy and vitality. The easiest way to get Magnesium to your garden is via Epsom salts, which by the way, are not salts at all.  While I add some to my garden beds, most of the time, I add the Epsom salts to my regular watering regime.  It is easily dissolved and is very easy for plants to take absorb it through their leaves, or to take it up via their roots.

Secondly, plants need Calcium, especially varieties that produce fruit like tomatoes, peppers, squash, cucumbers, etc. There are some great water soluble Calcium products, but it’s really easy to add garden lime, egg shells, oyster shell or something similar to the soil at the beginning of the garden season when you’re working your beds.

Third is iron. We don’t think of it enough.  There are many great natural products on the market to enrich the iron content of your soil. Remember, the general principle is, we feed the soil so the soil can feed the plants. Are we making sense so far?

Oh, something that happens more frequently that we realize is what’s called, nutrient lockout.  The short version is, there are nutrients in the soil, but the plants can’t access them. This is where beneficial bacteria (microbes) come in.  One of the best supplements you can use if you have a particularly bad patch, would be humates.  Humates, mostly humic acid help bind the carbon to the nutrients so   your plants can take advantage of those nutrients.  Humates are available in bag form and in liquid concentrate.  In bag form it’s added directly to the bed and worked into the soil. In liquid form, it’s diluted and added either directly to the soil, or used as a foiliar spray.

Many studies have shown that humates improve nutrient uptake by 30% to 50%.  That’s huge. In an future update, I will focus on the benefits and types of humates, but for now, let’s get the principles.

There are many types of soil amendments available to build soil; straw, wood chips, perlite, leaves, all come to mind right away. If you’re going to use wood chips or straw, I encourage adding them the autumn before you plan to plant to give them time to better decay. Perlite and leaves can be added when you begin to work up your beds. I’ll explain about the wood chips in a future update.

Obviously, good rotted horse, cow, or chicken manure is awesome.  But make sure it is well rotted.  The best ways to do that are to make a compost pile and let nature take its course, or to add some compost worms to the edges of the pile after it’s been standing a few weeks.  A third way, and maybe the best, is to let chickens have access to your compost pile.

Better than any of those other manures is rabbit manure. Rabbit manure is not ‘hot’ like what comes from more traditional livestock. In simple terms, the nitrogen and ammonia in most manures is so rich and dense that it can burn the roots of plants. Rabbit manure is ‘cold’, as if it’s already been composted.   Goat manure is great, too, but they aren’t usually confined like rabbits, so it’s harder to get it raked up and used. Goat manure from a stall or paddock is usually full of straw or wood chips, and needs a great deal of composting.

If you have a pet rabbit, you’re already in luck. If you don’t maybe it’s time to consider it. J.  A pair of bunnies will provide hours of enjoyment, loads of baby cuteness, tons of fertilizer, and for true omnivores, many pounds of the healthiest meat on the planet. I know that here in the USA, we think of rabbits as either pests or pets, but with the possible exception of goat meat, rabbit is the most consumed meat in the world.  Ask any heart specialist about the value of rabbit meat.  (Note: we’re not going to debate eating rabbits. This is an omnivore site and I’m an omnivore. If you don’t want to eat rabbit, no worries, don’t. Just enjoy them as pets and as little fluffy manure factories.)

The great thing about rabbit manure is that you can apply it directly to the garden without composting.  Talk about convenience.  In the early days, I would just empty the trays below the cages into a wheelbarrow and take it straight to the garden beds.  These days, I prefer to put it in my worm compost bins.  The worms compost the rabbit poo fairly quickly and the compost is even better than the straight rabbit manure.

So, worm composted rabbit manure is my number one choice for the garden. Straight rabbit manure is my second choice, and worm castings are number 3.

In a future episode, I’ll give you a secret recipe for the perfect compost mix, but this is the fertilizer issue, so I’m going to share two very similar fertilizers that in my experience are the best options for new and intermediate gardeners.

The first is Sea Grow 16-16-16.

This is a water soluble, seaweed based formula that is perfectly balanced and contains micronutrients.  The only thing you need to add is calcium and magnesium. It is ideal for raised beds and containers.  If you have a good soil mix to begin with, you can dilute the Sea Grow to a 50% strength with some calcium/Magnesium and you’ll have great results.  I mostly use a hose end sprayer, but in the greenhouse, when I’m feeding, I will mix the sea grow in a watering can.

My second recommendation is very similar to Sea Grow and is called MaxSea 16-16-16. Instructions are the same.

I also use both products in small Deep Water Culture Hydroponics systems for growing lettuce and greens. IMO, the Sea Grow gets better results in hydroponics systems, but there is no difference between them when I use them in soil.

There are other formulas in both products that are designed for different growth stages.  Frankly, in soil and container gardens, I haven’t seen the benefits of the ‘bloom’ formulas. If you’re going to grow blooming and fruiting plants hydroponically, then adding the bloom formula to the mix once buds appear, can improve results.  But we’ll save that for another day.

If you don’t want to deal with mixing water soluble formulas, then consider the Jobe’s line of products or the line from Espoma.  Both are available from most garden centers and big box stores.  In the long run, I believe the Sea Grow and Max Sea are more versatile and less expensive, but I’ve gotten great results with Jobe’s and Espoma.

There is an enormous array of fertilizer options on the market. Please do some homework before you just go buy something that promises miracles; especially if you want to use products that are good for the soil.

That’s it for this week. If you try, or have tried, my recommended fertilizers, let me know how it goes.  I’d also love to hear your recommendations.

As mentioned earlier, when we get closer to Spring, I’ll give you my recipe for a dynamite soil mix.  Talk to you soon.

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k0284391I should be nestled all snug in my bed as visions of sugar plums dance in my head, but I can’t sleep. Hey, it happens.  This time it’s all about seasonal allergies.  All the weed pollen floating around Georgia found its way into my lungs and I have some kind of chest infection.  As a result, last night my lungs were exploding and I didn’t sleep at all.  Mostly I just panicked.  Then today, I pretty much slept all day. Now tonight, I can breathe well enough to sleep, but I’m not sleepy. Figures. So…I have a cup of tea at hand and decided to talk to you a bit about what I learned from this year’s gardening season. That way, if you can’t sleep either, you can use this post as a sedative.

I learn something every year. Sometimes it’s a lot, sometimes a little, but always something.  If you don’t already keep some kind of a garden journal, I encourage you to start doing so. It can be elaborate, or very simple. I choose the simple route. I use a spiral notebook and a mechanical pencil. Maybe it’s my age, but for whatever reason, the information sticks better if I write it rather than enter it into the computer.

Usually in December I start planning my garden for the next spring.  And here’s a tip to save you some coin.  Many seed companies have end of season sales in December and you can pick up some pretty good deals. 

Anyway, I always write out my garden plan including all the varieties I intend to plant and when I will start the seeds. At the end of the season, I like to take note of what I learned.  That’s what I’m up to tonight as I sip my late night English Breakfast tea.

1.       This was a hard year. In part it was because it was so hot and dry.  Many of the plants really suffered. Besides the heat, my health has been up and down due to some back issues so I didn’t keep up on the weeding very well.  In all honesty, that got out of hand. All in all, it was pretty discouraging.  But I have a plan. Lesson: regardless of experience, some times you’re going to have a bad year. Live with it.

2.       This year it finally sank in that buckets are not very good as containers except for a few select items like snap peas or maybe a cucumber.  For several years I’ve used them for tomatoes, and except for the occasional cherry or grape variety, the results have been marginal, at best.  I like container gardens because of the flexibility, and I’ve always had a lot of buckets because they’re cheap. My logic was that buckets are deep and the roots can really dive deep, but in reality that’s not what most veggies, including tomatoes really want.  This year, my veggies in half barrels and self watering containers did much better than anything in buckets.  I could see the difference as soon as I pulled up the plants after they were done. The roots want to spread out more than go deep.  For example, I had a single zucchini in a 3 ft by 5 ft. 8 inch deep concrete block raised bed that out performed any three zucchini in buckets. The roots spread through the whole bed, the plant was at least 7 feet across and I maybe got 24 or 25 fruit off of it.  The ones in the buckets were a foot tall, 2 feet across and gave me 3 or 4 fruit each.  Soil, nutrients, water were all the same.  The plants in buckets couldn’t spread out.

Similarly, I have one Yellow Moruga Scorpion pepper plant all on it’s own in a container with a wide top and it is twice as large as any other pepper plant, and it has much larger fruit. 

As for tomatoes, I use a popular brand of self watering container that says grow two plants per container.  I always do that, but this year, as an experiment, I took two containers and planted just one tomato and a basil plant. The difference was extraordinary. This revelation has changed my gardening forever.  Lesson: some crops benefit from intensive planting, others want room to spread out. Buckets have limitations. Sometimes spending a little more on larger containers saves in the long run.

For the record, my snap peas and cucumbers did great in the buckets. 

3.       I learned the hard way, that Deep Water Culture hydroponics is not the best way to grow tomatoes outside in Georgia.  The plants got off to a fast start in the green house and were huge and lush.  I had 13 in total. They filled with fruit early. I have never even come close to having tomatoes start off like these DWC ones did.  I was expecting to be canning tomatoes by mid June.  Then the hot weather hit and my hydro tomatoes disappeared as if by dark magic,  despite adding extra oxygen.  The water just got too hot and the roots cooked.  It was ugly and I was extremely disappointed.  Lesson learned.  Lesson: If I’m going to grow hydroponic tomatoes in Georgia, use Dutch Buckets, or another drip system.

4.       Speaking of hydroponic tomatoes, I learned that for me, they don’t taste nearly as good as soil grown ones.  The same is not true for green leafies or cruciferous ones.  I found that if you flush the system of all nutrients and run just water for a few days, like you do with aquaponics, it helps. Lesson: Always flush Hydroponic tomatoes with fresh water for about a week before eating.

5.       Let me stick with tomatoes for one more lesson. On the whole, cherry tomatoes are hardier than slicers. This has been true for me since I started serious gardening many years ago. Whether we’re talking about water shortages, heat index, or even calcium deficiencies, cherry tomatoes have always handled adversity better than their larger, more glamorous cousins. For that reason, I recommend ALWAYS having a few in your garden.  Lesson: Make Cherry Tomatoes a garden staple.

6.       It’s always better to oversize the water pumps on your aquaponics systems. I’ve found that with the exception of very small aquarium type systems, systems don’t turn over as quickly as advertised on the packaging, so It’s valuable to go a size up. The cost increase is marginal and the results are worth it. Lesson: Saving money on the front end, sometimes costs a great deal on the back end.

7.       I’m going to offer one more aquaponics lesson. This year I tried some water fountain/pond filter combinations as an experiment.  Essentially, they are great as a pre-filter or sprayer for oxygenation for the fish tank, but I had no luck using them as stand alone filters.  I tried a 1250 gph combo in a 300 gal system (150 gal fish tank, 2 x 50 gal raft beds, plus sump, and couldn’t keep up with even 30 common goldfish. It was a pretty water feature, but didn’t work as a filter.  Adding a small trickle filter between the Fish tank and first raft would have helped. Alternatively, swapping the sprayer for a media filter would have worked, too.  Fish waste simply requires more filtration than those little boxes can handle. Lesson: While it’s possible to have too little filtration, it’s virtually impossible to have too much. Make sure you have enough space for strong beneficial bacteria colonies.

8.       Mulching matters.  This year, despite having a couple tons of tree mulch available, I didn’t use it.  And I paid the price. Weeds were terrible, and with the dry summer, my watering needs were off the chain. 

In July, I was losing my roses. They were baking.  So I fed them, watered them thoroughly and mulched them well with some pine straw I had in the greenhouse. The benefits were almost instantaneous.  I had no more problems and twice the blooms of last year.  Similarly, I have 3 blackcurrant bushes that positively hate Georgia summers. I mulched two of them and they have tolerated and endured this season despite being on the face of the sun.  The one I didn’t mulch, died.  I fed it and watered it regularly, but it failed.  Lesson indelibly marked on my brain; Mulching is a part of garden essentials. It is not optional.

And there you have it; eight lessons that will make my future gardening endeavors more successful. They will work for you, too. I encourage you to incorporate them into your plans, immediately.

I’d love to hear what you learned this year. Just use the comments section and let’s talk.  Next week will be the first annual ‘Fertilizer issue’.  I will review 3 different commercial products I use(d) and make some recommendations.  Until then, have a great weekend. And remember, if you’re not growing, you’re dying.

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