Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Root Maggots

Members of the cabbage family (and onions: see below) are sometimes damaged by the larvae (maggots) of a fly that looks a lot like a small house fly.  The flies lay eggs at the base of the plant.  The eggs hatch and then the maggots feed on the roots. Plants like broccoli and cauliflower will then wilt easily during the day, because they can't transport enough water up to the tissues with their reduced supply of roots.  The plants may simply fail to thrive, and the leaves can have a shriveled appearance.  If you clear the soil from the roots you may find there are not a lot of side roots, and you may see some of the maggots, which are 1/8 to 1/4 inch long, and white.  The plant might be saved by drenching the roots with a rotenone or pyrethrum solution, and pulling soil up over more of the stem, which can root along the stem.  Often though, it's more practical to pull the plants so you destroy the larvae, and replant.

The damage is most noticeable and distressing when the maggots get into radishes (which, after all, are enlarged roots).  You can sometimes see the actual maggots when you pull the radish, or at least see the brown tunnels along the top and sides of the radish.  If the soil clings in clumps to the taproot below the radish that's often a clue there are maggots, since in our sandy soil that wouldn't otherwise happen.  If you're not squeamish, part of the radish can often still be eaten.  But those radishes will be hotter.  The radish at the top of the post has not been damaged by a root maggot - notice that the soil did not cling to the root, as well as the absence of tunnels.

The key to prevention is to keep the fly from laying eggs at the base of the plants.  Pieces of cardboard, tar paper, or old carpet can have a slit cut to the center, a small circle cut for the stem, and then slipped around the stem to lie flat against the ground.  I haven't ever tried that method. What I've usually done is put wood ashes around the stem, or along the row of radishes, which in theory makes an inhospitable place for the fly to lay eggs.  I've had only moderate success with radishes doing this, but haven't had any problem with the maggots draining energy from my larger plants since I've done this.  Haven't yet done it this year even though the plants have been in the ground for a week.  This is a mistake, and I need to get to it soon.  I reapply the wood ashes after every rain that washes them away.  Right now it's hot and dry and so I'm watering a lot, making it impractical to keep reapplying. (I don't have root maggots yet this year.  These are pictures from last year.)

Some folks in the community gardens haven't had any trouble at all with their radishes, and others of us have had.  Considering these are flies you wouldn't think they'd stay in a plot, so I'm not sure what the reason is.  It might be a timing issue.

Onion maggots are a different species.  The fly lays one egg generally at the soil line, and when it hatches and starts to eat, the greens will start to yellow and maybe wilt.  When this happens there's no point in trying to let the onion continue to grow. You will usually find the maggot at the base of the onion itself.  Throw the onions or at least the maggots in the trash, not on the ground. Read more about them here. We also have onion maggots in the community gardens, but they haven't been a significant problem.  Or at least, they haven't been a significant problem for anyone except JP, who typically gets his shallots in very early.  One of the lessons is that the timing of planting can make a huge difference in protecting us from the emergence of some pests, or in trapping the pests in plants we can later discard, leaving our crop to grow on .

The surest and safest way to protect plants from root maggots and many other pests is to cover them with a grow fabric made of spun polyester.  It does warm the plants somewhat (we don't need that) and reduces the light transmission marginally (which is fine for us).  It's a nuisance to deal with, but very effective.  I've never done this for root maggots, but last year I covered my cucumbers for 3 or 4 weeks to give them a head start over the striped cucumber beetle.  More on that later.


The cutworms are out in full force right now.  They are the caterpillars of a fairly nondescript moth, and I explained about protecting your transplants with a cutworm collar here: (scroll down to "adding a cutworm collar").

One of the things I do with seedlings which are impractical to protect with collars, is to leave a few weeds in the row so there's something to eat besides my seedlings.  About the third week of June the cutworms will have pupated, and/or the stems of large plants will have gotten large enough and tough enough so you can remove the collars and weed close to the plants.  As we've had a warm spring it may even be possible this change will take place by mid-June.

I find a few when digging transplant holes or weeding with a hoe, and dispatch them then. They usually curl up when you find them, but they may be out straight as well.  They eventually grow to about an inch, (which this one was) but you may find much smaller ones now, just beginning to feed and grow.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Saving Milkweed

Milkweed is one of the most beautiful flowers we can grow in the garden, and the fragrance is intoxicating.  It's also food for monarch butterfly larvae (it's the only food the caterpillars eat).  This site even suggests planting it for that purpose.  Lots of other insects and bees love the nectar too (see the small bees at the upper left of the blossom in the picture). Monarchs are so challenged with loss of habitat in their winter grounds in Mexico that it's a privilege to do everything we can to help their numbers remain high. 

In the garden it seems to be a weed, but in fact except for its inconvenient size and shade (which in our hot garden can be an advantage) it really doesn't behave like a weed.  The root is one substantial tap root, which reaches down a considerable distance, and therefore brings up minerals from below the level that other roots typically reach.  Because it doesn't have much in the way of lateral roots it doesn't interfere with the growth of nearby plants. So it's a great way to grow organic matter for next year's garden.

So I leave as many milkweed as I possibly can.  This year I designated a spot for them, approximately where they were last year - but instead they have moved (or been dragged by the tiller?) elsewhere.  Once the plant matures the long roots stay in the garden and send out runners from which new plants will emerge.

Here are a couple of pictures of the plants just emerging- the shoot can also have a reddish cast:

Japanese Beetle Larva

This ugly grub is what the Japanese Beetle looks like at this stage.  Notice how large it is - much larger than the Japanese Beetle itself.  It's these larvae that eat the roots of grass in lawns and destroy large patches.  Reseeding is only moderately successful if there's an infestation of the Beetles, because these voracious grubs will hatch each year.

About 35 years ago my family had a significant Japanese Beetle problem, and we treated both our back and front lawns with Milky Spore disease, which kills most of the larvae.  Enough survive to carry on the disease, and it's only been in the last 3 or 4 years that I've seen any Japanese Beetles in my yard again. So it solved our problem for 30 years.  It's moderately expensive, but only needs to be applied once.  Just google the disease and you'll find tons of sources and information.  I'm pretty sure the local garden centers have it too.

Ideally, neighbors would treat their lawns too, but the nature of the disease is that over time it will infect enough larvae so the numbers in the neighborhood will be reduced.  We treated only our lawn, but it was still very effective. Milky Spore Disease is not a short-term solution for the garden, and is only to be applied to lawns, not gardens, anyway.

Japanese beetles have become more and more of a problem in the community gardens (from which I collected this specimen a couple of days ago), where there are large dead patches of lawn adjacent to the gardens.  They are notorious lovers of zinnias, and so zinnias can be used as a trap crop. In other words, you can grow some sacrificial zinnias to protect other nearby plants that they might like, and you can collect the beetles from the zinnias. Evening primrose (a weed) also serves as a trap crop.  The food crop they attacked most were the snap peas.  In the garden I knock the adults into soapy water (don't try plain water!)  The container of soapy water needs to be positioned under the beetles, since they tend to drop as soon as disturbed, so it's not easy to pick them up.

You may also see miniature versions of this larva, about 1/4 to 1/2 inch in width, and these are the larvae of the masked chafer beetle, related to the Japanese beetle.  The brown chafer eats roots of plants in the garden and is a more significant pest than we're usually aware of, because they're usually at ground level.  When digging in the spring you may find little nests of these larvae. 

These are both related to what I grew up calling June bugs or May beetles (saw one in April this year).  These are shaped like the other chafers, but are much larger, with a dark brown shell.  They are not a significant pest for us in the garden.

What are these Seedlings Part 2

Here's a picture of a marigold (on the left) and a ragweed.  At this stage it's fairly easy to tell them apart, but in a row of marigolds just coming up, not so much.  The marigold has a ring of crushed oyster shells around it just so I don't mistakenly weed it as a ragweed.

Here's a picture of a row of zinnias and marigolds, with various weeds.

Here's a picture of 3 little seedlings from the above picture.  The top plant is a ragweed, and the middle is a marigold..  Notice that the marigold has longer cotyledons (the first leaves), and the ragweed has rounder cotyledons.  The ragweed is darker green and may have a reddish cast to the cotyledons - but that can be true of marigolds too.  The bottom weed I don't have a name for - will work on that this year.  I think it came in on compost and probably isn't all over the whole garden.  It grows about 12 inches tall, and has tiny white flowers.  There are quite a few of this weed in the picture showing the row.  It's color is distinctly yellow-green.

I'm pretty sure this is a zinnia - but at any rate I'll leave it until I'm sure.

This plant (from the row above) is one of my favorite weeds - lamb's quarters, which I grew up calling pigweed, though in other parts of the country another weed goes by the name of pigweed.  This is where latin names are so useful!  This lamb's quarters is Chenopodium album, and is a relative of spinach and beets and is very nutritious.  It's also in the same genus as Chenopodium gigantium, which Johnny's seeds sells as a food plant. I have a few meals of lamb's quarters every spring, and it's usually my first harvest. On this plant you can see the little pearly dusting on the surface of the leaves. Ragweed has now displaced lamb's quarters as the dominant weed in our garden, which is disappointing.

This is a picture of a larger lamb's quarters with a pea plant, and the color is very much the same.  In other words, the lamb's quarters is a blue-green, though it often has a magenta cast to the center whorl of leaves. This is just about the size I like them best, though I'll pick them up to 4 inches tall or so.  After that individual leaves need to be picked, but at this size the whole plant can be thrown in a salad or cooked.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Preparing the Hole for Transplanting

One more essential for transplanting, especially in our sandy, nutrient poor soil.  Because it would take a tremendous amount of organic matter to upgrade our whole garden plot all at once, it's essential to improve the soil around each plant.  I do this by preparing a substantial transplant hole that adds organic matter and trace elements along with fertilizer.  As I mentioned in Plant Positive not Pest Negative, the basic rule of good  gardening is to feed the soil, not the plant.  But at the moment I feed the plant, knowing that over time the whole garden will improve. 

For plants such as tomatoes, peppers, coles, and heavy feeders such as cucumbers, I remove a couple of shovels of soil, put a quarter to a half bucket of compost in the bottom of the hole, add a small handful of pelletized dolomitc lime (high in Magnesium as well as Calcium), a handful of basic 5-10-10 or 5-7-4 fertilizer,* and a handful of kelp or greensand (high in trace minerals).  I mix the fertilizers with the compost, add back some of the soil I removed, and mix it again several times.  I use the extra soil to build up the bowl around the plant.  I dig and fill this kind of hole for cucumbers and squash even if I'm planting them from seed.

The trace elements are essential for really healthy plants, and help build up disease and pest resistance.  Think of them as vitamins.  Vitamins aren't carbohydrates, fats, or proteins, but they're necessary just the same.

Blossom end rot (those first tomatoes that are black on one end) is a physiological problem, not a disease, caused by a combination of uneven watering and calcium deficiency.  Even though tomatoes really like a mildly acid soil, they need calcium enough so that adding a small handful of lime is a good thing for them.

The organic matter that gets added to the soil - whether compost, manure, leaves, or even peat moss:
1) adds trace elements,
2) makes trace elements already in the soil more available for plants to take up,
3) makes the soil hospitable for the micro-organisms that break down the soil into nutrients, *
4) Helps our soil hold moisture and fertilizers we add, which ordinarily leach out of the sandy soil.
So do all you can to add and save all the organic matter you can.  Compost in place the weeds and food plants you pull from the garden, by letting a small pile decompose right in your garden.  Or if you want to keep the garden neat, dig a hole, put the weeds in, and cove with soil.  Bring coffee grounds and the contents of tea bags from the house and mulch your plants with them; both are very beneficial.  Bring grass clippings if you don't put herbicides/pesticides on your lawn.

In the fall, think about bringing leaves.  Ideally, you'd have shredded them first, as otherwise they tend to blow all over the place before they get tilled in.  For those in the community gardens, you can see soil utterly transformed by a decade of adding leaves every fall, at Dan's garden.  I think his plot is B6 and C6, but you won't have any trouble finding it, because the soil is rich and dark and moist.  He's added horse manure this year, but the fundamental soil structure has been built up with leaves.  Last year his potatoes grew waist high.  I didn't even know potatoes could grow that tall.

In an emergency I've just put the plant in the ground, and planned on side-dressing with fertilizer later on.  But this is no substitute for providing organic matter for the roots. 

* There are lots of reasons not to use chemical (non-organic) fertilizers such as 5-10-10:
1) The manufacture of these fertilizers uses a lot of energy, and may be harmful to the people who make them.
2) The fillers in the fertilizer are not regulated or disclosed, and may sometimes contain heavy metals (lead, cadmium, etc.)
3) Chemical fertilizers are available all at once, and so the excess is leached from the soil and may end up in rivers and lakes where the phosphorus feeds algae blooms.  For this reason we're now being encouraged to use 5-2-10 for our lawns, to help keep phosphorus out of Lake Champlain.
4) Because they leach from the soil so readily more fertilizer is necessary than with slower-releasing organic fertilizer
5) Chemical fertilizers are harmful to the micro-organisms we need to encourage in the garden and which make natural elements in the soil available for plants.  Especially harmful to earthworms, too.
6) Because they contain no trace elements our food will be deficient in them too, which is not as healthy for us.  Any heavy metals or other harmful chemicals will, however, be taken up by the plants and we will eat them.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Transplanting to the garden

This weekend will see the major start of transplanting in our community gardens.  Here are some of the things I think are most important for successful transplanting:

1) HARDEN OFF THE PLANTS  This means increase sunlight and wind over a few days before the plants go in the garden.  Too much sun all at once will sunburn the plants and the leaves will turn white or get white spots.  Often it's a good idea to reduce watering to a minimum too.  The garden is a harsher environment, and you want your plants ready to take in as much water as possible, not panting because they've had plenty and haven't had to grow new little rootlets. It's very important to harden off your plants, even if means delaying your transplanting a few days.

2) COOL, CALM, AND CLOUDY are the ideal conditions for transplanting.  The middle of the day on a breezy, sunny, Saturday is not.  The idea is to shock the plants as little as possible, and help them adjust before they have to face the sun and the wind.  I usually transplant in the evening as well, which gives the plants an overnight to settle in.

3) PLANT DEEPER.  This isn't a universal, but lots of plants are eager to send out new roots along the stem.  Planting deeper also puts the original root ball further from the hot dry surface in our sandy garden, and as the plant grows it will be protected somewhat from fluctuations in moisture.  Plants that root along the stem include all of the tomato family (tomatoes, peppers, eggplants), coles (broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower etc), and the squash family (including cucumbers and melons).  Although lots of people plant their tomatoes quite a bit deeper, I prefer to have a longer distance between the ground and the bottom stems, to help prevent disease. (see 3 entries earlier) That's not necessary if you're mulching.  If the stems are spindly then planting deeper also protects the stem from whipping about in the wind.

4)  REMOVE THE BOTTOM LEAVES!  This is one of the easiest steps to helping your transplants adjust.  Preserve the growing tip and a couple of leaves below it, but otherwise you really don't need the lower leaves on most of your vegetable transplants.  They are likely to yellow and drop off later anyway - or as with lettuce, you'd be removing them to eat.  At the first sign of wilting you can remove the lower leaves even if you don't do it at transplant time.  Your first task with transplants is to help the roots get established.  I routinely remove the bottom leaves from tomatoes, peppers, cabbage, and broccoli.  (I usually start the squash family in place and don't transplant).

5) IN SANDY SOILS TRANSPLANT INTO BOWLS, NOT HILLS.  Our soil in the community gardens is so sandy that anything we can do to help the soil around the plant retain water is a big help.  I plant most of my transplants into a recess, rather than a hill.  This makes watering easier all through the summer. (The advice to plant in hills is to encourage the soil to warm up faster, and to ensure the soil will drain.  Not a problem for us).

6) ADD A CUTWORM COLLAR  Cutworms are 1/2 to 1 inch grey caterpillars that curl around stems  at ground level during the night and eat right through the stem.  In the morning you'll find the plant lying on the ground, and it looks like it was cut off with scissors.  If you dig around the stem in the early morning you'll find the cutworm near the stem. But as the sun rises and warms the soil the cutworm will travel lower and wait to get an adjacent plant the next time it feeds. To prevent this, put a collar around the stem that extends an inch and a half below and above ground.  Wrapping with a few layers of a strip of newspaper is the most practical, and in time it will disintegrate.  JP uses toil paper tubes cut in half.  On plants I really care about I use a strip of aluminum foil, since the cutworms never climb over that, but it needs to be removed about the 3rd week in June, which is a bit of a nuisance. On tiny plants that would get swallowed by a collar, or plants with a short stem such as cabbage, you can try putting 3 toothpicks vertically around the stem, so the cutworm won't feel the soft stem when it wraps around.  not clear if this works.  This year I'm going to try putting some oysters shell pieces (intended to protect fall bulbs from moles) around these stems and see if that works.  I've already lost a few peas to cutworms.  Update:  Paul from the community gardens reminded me this morning that he's used paper or stryrofoam cups with the bottom cut out, as a collar.  And he and I have both learned the hard way to make sure the large end is down, so you don't pull soil up when you pull the collar off later on. 

7). GIVE SOME TRANSPLANT SOLUTION.  Once you've settled the plants in, water them well and add a cup or so of very diluted fertilizer (such as miracle grow or fish emulsion), and/or some sea weed extract. (see a couple of entries earlier).  This helps the root system start to expand, and in the case of the sea weed it boosts the immune system and helps the plant respond to the shock of transplanting.

8) WAIT TO TRANSPLANT YOUR PEPPERS, and probably your eggplants, too.  One year I transplanted about half my peppers into the garden about the same time I transplanted the tomtoes.  The temperature seemed warm enough, and the plants got established nicely.  But the remaining half that stayed in the house under lights really flourished, and by the time I got them transplanted they were much bigger and sturdier than the earlier ones.  Peppers are very sensitive to temperature.  Peppers that spend the night in the low 40's will stop growing for a week, even though they won't show any damage from low temperatures.  So if you've got your peppers, transplant into larger pots if you can (9 oz cold drink paper cups are fine) and wait til the first of June to transplant.  Leave them outside during the day, and bring into the house at night.

Dew Point

For the fourth time this last month, the morning temperature has been about 4 degrees colder in Burlington than the National Weather Service predicted.  You'd think they'd learn, especially when frost is involved.  Last night they said the low would be 34, and now at 5:30 it's 31.  It won't be a surprise if it drops another degree in the next hour before it starts to warm.

One of the keys to deciding if there will be an unpredicted frost is to look at the dew point, which is the temperature at which the air will be so saturated with water that it will condense on colder surfaces.  Warm air holds a lot more water than cold air, so the dew point is not a measure of the actual water content.  The temperature can never go lower than the dewpoint, (but the dewpoint can drop as the temperature goes lower.)  So the dew point is a good guide to how low the temperature can/will go.  If 34 is predicted and the dew point is 32, there's a good chance you won't get frost.  If 34 is predicted but the dew point is 17 (as it was earlier this week), then the temperature is likely to drop, and frost is a good possibility. 

If you're caught by an unexpected frost, the best thing to do is go out as early as you can (before the sun hits the plants) and spray with water.  This will warm the plants and the ground, raising the temperature around the plant. 

The amount of moisture in the air affects plants in other ways.  Really dry air dehydrates plants, and really humid air promotes some fungal diseases. 

When the dew point reaches into the  50's and 60's then we're usually uncomfortable, especially if it's not very warm.  (If it's 90, then the amount of water in the air relative to what it can hold will be lower, and it actually may be more comfortable.)  But by the time the dew point is 70 people generally find it oppressive.  And when it's hot with a high relative humidity our sweat can't evaporate off our bodies, and we lose our ability to cool down.

In the meantime, this next week looks to be great weather.  We could use a little more rain, but in our sandy garden that's almost always true.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Sea Weed Extract

Sea weed extract is the magic elixer of plant stress protection. There are active hormones in the extract that boost plants' immune systems. It's good to treat plants with this 2-3 times a summer (some have suggested that much more often than this may be detrimental).

At transplant time, flowering, or when plants are under particular stress (prolonged heat spell, or when you notice they are yellowing and you're going to need to side dress) are good times to spray the plants with this hormone mix, which they'll absorb through the leaves.  It is not a fertilizer ( because it's applied at a great dilution), but will help the plants make better use of the available fertility.  By boosting the immune system the plants will ward off diseases and insect pests better - one of the ways to be plant positive, rather than pest negative.

It's mostly my tomatoes that I spray with sea weed extract.  I buy Sea-Com from Johnny's seeds, but there may be other brands available locally.  Look for brands that say they have active cytokinens (though there may be good brands that don't say this).

update:  As we're facing frost tonight I'm remembering that sea weed extract may confer a couple of degrees of frost protection, too, perhaps by strengthening the cell walls.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Plant Positive, not Pest Negative

In The New Organic Grower, Eliot Coleman gives his philosophy for dealing with pests - both bugs and diseases - as "plant positive, not pest negative."  We should try to prevent diseases and insect pests, which minimizes having to deal with them when they arrive.  As with people, the way to do this is to optimize growing and living conditions, so the plant's immune system is strong and resistant (plants have immune systems!)

The best way to be plant positive is to feed the soil, not the plant.  Every bit of organic material and trace minerals we add to the soil helps build it up so it's able to support plant growth.  Our soil is so sandy that I'm not there yet, and I have to feed plants as well as working to build up the soil.  Even with the compost I add, I tend to concentrate it in the bottom of plant holes, and directly in the rows where I'm going to plant. Over the years  the whole plot gets some compost. For trace minerals I've added greensand (as if we need more sand - but this particular sand is ground rock very high in trace minerals) and dried kelp.  When we add commercial fertilizer we're only adding Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Potassium.  But there are lots of other elements healthy plants need in various proportions, including Calcium, Magnesium, Boron, and even copper and zinc.  Our soil tends to be acid, and so adding lime adds needed calcium.  But adding dolomitic lime (available pelleted at various garden stores) adds magnesium as well as calcium (magnesium substitutes for some of the calcium atoms in the calcium carbonate.  The pink stone along the interstate cuts in Colchester, or along the lake, is dolomite).  Trying to garden without these added trace elements is like trying to stay healthy by only eating meat and carbohydrates.  Enough calories, but you're not going to thrive without your fruits and veggies.  And you might even need a vitamin pill.

Other things that can help are spraying plants with sea weed extract at strategic times, interplanting herbs and onions to (apparently) confuse the smell of the plants for pests (and spraying with garlic may help deter some insects), planting in small patches so there's not a concentrated stand for insects to attack, and using trap crops.  Sometimes insects prefer a plant other than the crop plant, and you can collect insects on this plant you're willing to sacrifice, and minimize them on your crop.  For example, striped cucumber beetles seem to prefer tomatillos to cucumbers.

The sad truth is that with a community garden it's very difficult to eradicate insect pests, because there will always be gardeners who don't practice good control.  But you can pamper your own plants so that at the least the pests go in search of weaker plants in somebody else's plot - until they, too, learn how to manage them.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Planning for tomato diseases when you plant

In Northern Vermont the tomato disease we most often get is septoria leaf spot (as in the picture above), a fungus that lives in the soil and splashes up on plants, and is transmitted through the air, too.  The disease starts with yellowing lower leaves, then brown spots that appear and eventually merge together, and the leaves turn brown and dry up.  By the end of the summer we may have few leaves left on plants.  Without leaves the plant can't produce sugars, and the tomatoes become excessively acid and don't have the complex flavors we enjoy.

Unlike the blight we had last summer, leaf spot doesn't generally directly affect the tomatoes.  They can still be picked and eaten, but they won't have the great flavor a homegrown tomato should have, and the plants won't be as productive as they could be. 

We can do several things at planting time to minimize or delay the onset of this and other fungal diseases.    Although the fungal spores are in the air, the plants are subjected to a heavy load when rain splashes up on the plants from below.  So anything we can do to minimize that will be helpful.

1) Removing the lower leaves keeps them from getting the disease early.  For this reason I tend to plant tall plants without burying the stem extra deep, which is an old-time practice to maximize the root growth.  I'd rather feed and water the existing root ball well. 

2) Just about any mulch will help, if it protects the plant from splash-up from watering or rain.  Straw will add organic matter eventually.  But plastic mulches work too, and red plastic mulch may help productivity.  I've put a clear plastic bag over the plant at planting time (by cutting a slit in the bottom seam), then inserted my cage, and had a bag I could pull up and attach to the cage, preventing even side splash, and helping to warm the plant on cold days.  Weeds will grow under the clear plastic, and I take the bags off around July 1.  If you have lots of compost or composted manure, you can top dress with it, which will protect the plant from soil splash but may also have disease-prevention properties on its own, as some have reported that spraying with compost tea or manure tea will prevent disease. 

3)  Help the plant stay dry.  Water gently with a hose at the bottom of the plant, rather than watering overhead.  Don't grow your plants too closely together.  Alternatively, you can prune so there isn't a lot of excess foliage, especially at the bottom.

4) Do as much as you can to give the plant a strong immune system, by feeding well and spraying with a sea weed extract.  Don't let the plant dry out to the point of serious wilting.  Water deeply to encourage deep roots that will stay hydrated when the surface of the soil dries out.

5) If you have a serious problem with a fungal disease, you can spray with a fungicide which may prevent the disease or treat it.  Update:  The Vermont Department of Agriculture has a new brochure discussing late blight and how to minimize the likelihood you'll get it in your garden.  Some of the listed fungicides (including those for organic programs) are very toxic to the applicator (you).  Use all the product label's suggested precautions when using  any fungicide or pesticide, and in general use only when the air is calm, wear long pants and a long sleeved shirt, and remove your clothes and shower after applying.  Wouldn't hurt to wear a mask or respirator, too.  The brochures are available at Claussens locally, and hopefully at other garden centers.  The same fungicides listed for late blight would also work for the septoria leaf spot we get every year.  I will still plan to use serenade, alternating with a copper fungicide, if necessary, both listed on organic programs.  The leading chemical fungicide may be safer to apply, but some sites have implicated it in the aberrant changes in amphibians that are happening worldwide, so I'll avoid it.

Last year's blight will hopefully not reappear.  It will have died with any organic material that didn't live over the winter.  Potatoes sometimes survive the winter if they haven't been found when digging.  In fact, I maintained a small crop of blue potatoes for a few years just this way.  But it will be very important this year to pull out any potatoes that sprout from last year (and dispose in the trash, not the compost heap), as the blight could have survived the winter in the tubers.  As you can see in the picture below, the blight affected the tomatoes and not just the foliage, and destroyed them in just a few days. Most organic growers in the Northeast lost all their tomatoes, and commercial growers needed to use a very strong fungicide to save their crop.  Some isolated plots were unaffected..  I sprayed my plants just as soon as the blight appeared, and the sun gold cherry tomatoes survived with practically no damage.  This is as good a reason as any to grow them.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Planting onions

I grow onions three ways in the garden:

1) From sets, which are small bulbs grown last year and then put into dormancy for the winter, so they're ready to grow again in the spring.  These are only for relatively long keeping onions, since the sets themselves have to keep all winter.  I use sets to grow pungent yellow keepers, and medium storage red onions which usually have sets that are already poking their green shoots up when you buy them.  It's possible to grow your own sets by sowing seeds thickly in summer, collecting the little bulbs in the fall, storing them properly, and planting in the spring.  Too much work unless there's a long-storage variety you crave, and don't want to start them from seed in early spring. Last year a friend gave me lots of onion plants she'd grown from seed, and I didn't get all of them planted.  They spent the winter in the garage, and I'll see if any of them grow this year as sets.

2) From purchased plants, usually of sweet onions, grown over the winter in mild climates (like Washington state), pulled in the spring, and shipped to garden centers.  Also available by catalog, from Johnny's seeds, for example.  The choice of varieties is limited, but this is the best way to grow big, sweet, short-keeping onions. The varieties need to say "long-day" onions. This shouldn't be an issue, but Agway this spring was selling short-day onions - labelled as such - and the chances are they won't bulb at all, as bulbing is triggered by the length of day.  We have longer summer days in the north than in the south, so the varieties have to be specific to the geography.  Depot Home and Garden will get their plants in early this month.

3)  From seeds.  Bunching onions are the only seeds it's practical to plant in the garden and expect to get a crop.  But it's not hard at all to grow seeds under lights.  They need to be started in mid-February to March.  The tops can be clipped as they grow.  I follow Eliot Coleman's advice and plant 3-4 onions together in one place, so I plant 4-5 seeds in each cell when I start onion plants. For bunching onions I plant 10-12 seeds together in a cell, and also plant them this way in the garden.  They are incredibly tiny blades when they emerge, and it's helpful to have a bunch of them together to show up.

I usually grow very good onions considering the nature of our infertile, sandy, soil, and the reason is that I feed them well and water them nearly every day.  I have a friend who had been a market gardener and who now lives where he has to carry all his water by hand up a hill to his garden.  In one of our driest, hottest summers ever ('95) he only carried water  for the onions.  This was an impressive lesson for me.  Onions have shallow roots and need a plentiful supply of water available if they're growing to grow large.  They are also huge feeders.

So this year I'm using some pro-grow organic fertilizer, a little 5-10-10, and some of the compost/silt mixture I just got.  I'll work it into the soil well, make furrows, and plant groups of three onion plants - 10-12 inches apart for the large sweet onions, and 6 inches apart for sets and bunching onions.  When the onions grow they'll push each other aside and grow as big as they would have if planted individually, and it's much easier to weed them this way.  The roots need to be buried, but not much of the plant does.  I usually leave sets just barely sticking out of the soil.  I dig the furrow deep enough so it will collect and hold water.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Spring snow

Yesterday this tulip had her petals wide open to receive the Spring sun, and this morning she thought better of it.

APRIL is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering     
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.

                                                                                             T.S. Eliot                                                                                     

Compost Delivery

This was the day I got my delivery of  topsoil from Champlain Valley Compost.  We could have chosen better weather, as it's practically snowing snowballs. The truck had it easy here, but slipped quite a bit making a side delivery on a slope.

I hadn't realized that topsoil is a composed substance nowadays, rather than scraped from somebody's field. Steve Wisbaum mixes weed-free screened high quality silt with the compost to make what he calls "topsoil plus," 65% compost and 35% silt.   The silt will help my poor sand, raising its trace elements a little and helping it retain water, making it an even better choice for my garden than compost.  The silt/compost mix can be used as potting soil, or a soil for raised beds. I'm going to mix it with some commercial peat based potting soil I have on hand, for my transplants.

A couple of other gardeners in the community gardens got plain compost.  The compost is exceptional, made entirely from horse and cow manure.

I hadn't heard of Champlain Valley Compost before, because they don't advertise (don't need to. There's a clue there).  If you live in Chittenden or Addison Counties check out the web site, and trust me that this is superior to some of the well-know but Not To Be Named composts in the area.

What are those tiny seedlings? Part I

Wondering what those plants are that have sprouted in the garden?

The picture above shows spinach as it has just sprouted. The little seedling to the right of the left hand spinach looks a lot like a beet, but it's the seed leaves of a related plant called variously lamb's quarters or pig weed (chenopodium album) which is my first harvest after the volunteer mustard.  The little plant with the round lobes below the spinach is ragweed (and there's another tinier seedling with yellow-green round leaves, which is also a weed)  It looks a little bit like a lettuce seedling right now.  One of the ways to tell the difference is to look around and see if the seedling appears in the path, in other plots and the path.  Then you can assume it's probably a weed.

These are the seed leaves of radishes, but this is also what any of the coles (cabbage family. think coleslaw) would look like.  So if you've planted broccoli from seed, or kale, or bok choi, cauliflower, brussels sprouts or mustards, this is also what the seed leaves would look like.  The seed leaves are also called cotyledons, and they generally do not look like the "true leaves" that come next and grow and nourish the plant.  These two seed leaves were part of the seed itself, ready to unfurl when it sprouted. This is easiest to see in a bean, which easily splits apart into the two cotyledons.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Growing Dill, Thinking of Pickles

Buying dill seed is something you'll probably only have to do once, since it's a very efficient self-sower and you can save seeds from the seed heads, too.  I grow dill in a band one foot wide, 25 feet long, as a fence on one side of my plot.  If I just let it self sow I end up doing some transplanting, which isn't ideal because of the tap root that the dill sends down.  So with last year's saved seed I've planted 2 parallel rows about 8 inches apart (they would actually like more space than this) and I'll eventually thin the plants in the row to about 6-8 inches.  Before then I'll have lots of thinnings do use as dill weed.

As is true with any plant that reliably self-sows, it's very resistant to frost in the spring, so you can plant it now without much concern (there are already planted seeds in the soil after all, dropped from last year's seed heads).  If your interest is primarily the dill weed instead of the seeds, plan on sowing it at least a couple of times during the summer so you always have a fresh supply.  After the plant flowers the fronds deteriorate or even dry up.  There are dwarf varieties and varieties best suited to the greens, but you'll probably have to plan ahead and find them in catalogs. Look in Johnny's Seeds.

Dill goes well with salmon of course, but my favorite summer use for the green dill is in a dish of rice, summer squash or zucchini, onions, black pepper, and dill. Topped with sour cream. *sigh*  Will post something like a recipe when the zucchini comes in.

I also use the seed heads in half sour fermented pickles (recipe will follow soon).  The picture above shows the interior of a gallon jar with garlic, a little pickling spice, and a dill seed head, before I've added the cukes and brine.  The great thing about growing your own is that you can pick the seeds at just the right point for pickling, which in my view is while the seeds are mature but still green.  The picture below shows dew on a patch of dill.  Morning in the garden doesn't get much lovelier than that.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

How to Plant Peas

Time to plant peas, which need cool weather.  Here in Vermont we sometimes don't get a real springtime.  The saw is that we go from mud season to summer, and it's not unheard of to have 90 degree weather in May.  So the best peas will be started just about as soon as the soil can be worked.  June 1st is about the last possible date for spring peas, and I think it's an iffy last date.  Growing up we planted the whole garden memorial day weekend (which was the 31st way back then) but our growing season is a few weeks longer in the spring than it used to be.

If you're going to grow peas that need support it's good to plan ahead. I grow my tall peas on chicken wire, or sometimes just parallel strings, but in either case I dig holes for wooden plant stakes before I plant the row, so they're ready to add the fence (but you could pound them in later).  If your peas could use a little support you can add "pea brush" after you've planted.  Just take brush and push into the soil and the peas will cling to the branches. I wouldn't do that for any peas that grew taler than 30 inches.

Peas don't need a lot of fertilizer, even in my barren sandy soil, because - like all legumes - they have a symbiotic relationship with bacteria that fix nitrogen to the roots.  These bacteria pull nitrogen from the air and concentrate it in nodules on the roots, making it available to the plants (you can buy an innoculant for your peas and beans to make sure this happens.  I don't).  But I always put a light sprinkling of fertilizer on the surface of the soil and work it in with a cultivator.  Too much fertilizer can rot the pea seeds, so you can instead add fertilizer after the peas are up, if you feel you need it. 

The directions on the back of my packets of Johnny's pea seed varieties say to sow in a band 3 inches wide, with the individual seeds 1 - 1 1/2 inches apart, with no need to thin.  My bands are maybe just a little wider.  I do see some folks growing pea seeds in a single straight row, and that's really not necessary.  The productivity from this row will be much higher, and it makes optimal use of the space.  I vary from this only when I grow short peas that don't need any kind of support, and then I grow three single rows separated by about 8 inches, and the peas when they grow will tangle up and support each other.

I used to sow the seeds at the bottom of a little trench, cover them with 1/2-1 inch of soil, and firm the soil.  My friend JP had much better and more even germination than I did, so I now use his method of preparing the row, sowing, and then pushing each seed into the soil to just above my first knuckle (the four holes in the picture above).  This sounds like a lot of work, and if I were planting more than I do it would be impractical. But it doesn't take that long, and only needs to be done once.  I do this for about 100ft of peas, but not all of them are planted at the same time.  Different varieties and different planting dates give me peas over a long season.

After the seeds are pushed down I brush a little soil over to cover the holes, and gently firm with my hand.

Gardening in Sandy Soil

It rained most of the weekend, and the picture above shows the soil on Monday.  It is never, never, too wet.  Before long there will be hot afternoons when the surface temperature is 120 degrees.

Gardening in sandy soil has some real benefits, and some significant challenges.  We can start the garden much earlier than those around us who have heavy soil.  It's ridiculously easy to work with, and weeds pull out very easily (pull them when the soil is dry, and the roots don't have a good hold.  Then water to help the disturbed roots of your garden plants).  In very wet seasons it's an advantage to have such good drainage, and if water is available we have the ideal situation of being able to control just how much water the plants get.  It's too dry for slugs.

On the other hand:

This soil is so sandy it doesn't hold fertility, and fertilizer of some sort needs to be added every year. Adding organic matter is critically important, both to improve the baseline fertility, but also because the higher the organic content the better the soil will hold on to water and any fertilizer that's added.  The biggest mistake most gardeners make in the community gardens is not adding enough fertilizer at planting time, and then not side-dressing with more fertilizer during the growing season.  There is bagged organic fertilizer available, and I also use some 5-10-10 (more on this another time) because it's so much cheaper and I need so much.  alas. 

The soil is so dry and so devoid of organic matter there is not the vibrant microbial life that supports healthy plant growth, and makes nutrients available, making even more fertilizer necessary.  No earthworm will make its home in the hot, dry, sandy soil.  When I've brought earthworms in as part of a pile of horse manure, they stay only as long as there's a moist pile of manure and straw.  As soon as the manure is distributed they go deep and/or leave.  Adding leaves, compost, manure, coffee grounds, peat - just about any organic matter you can get, is critically important.  A compost pile of your own is useful, but it's also a great idea to let the weeds you've pulled just stay in place and add back that organic matter.  If you want a neater looking garden, then dig a little hole in the path, throw your weeds in, and then cover.  Over the years some people have added significant amounts of organic matter to their plots in the community garden, and it's possible to pick out those plots because the soil has become darker and richer.

The surface dries out so quickly it's good to water small seeds planted in shallow drills frequently until they germinate.  Carrots tend to germinate poorly in the sandy soil, (even though the soil won't crust over, which is an advantage).  But it can take as much as 3 weeks for carrots to germinate, and in that time they need to have some moisture available.

Many of you will either have read that some things should be planted in raised beds or hills, or have done that in other gardens. The only reason to do that in sandy soil is to increase the depth of fertile soil, if that's an issue.  But hills and raised rows can require more water.  Water tends to run off the mound.  A principal reason cucumbers are grown in hills is so they won't have "wet feet" from sitting in moist soil.  That is never a problem for us.  In fact, I grow most of my transplants in bowls, rather than hills, so they will collect and hold water.   The only other reason to plant in raised beds is they will keep you from walking close to the plants.  It's very important to avoid compressing the soil near your plants, so the roots have a nice loose soil to explore.  After I've prepared a row but before I plant, I loosen the soil adjacent to the row by inserting my shovel and lifting the soil, as I've done in the picture below (the path on the right is compressed.  The stake marks where the row will be planted, to the left of the string).

It's better to water deeply less often, than to give a light watering frequently.  Roots will tend to grow where the water is, and you want deep roots.  If there's plenty of moisture at the surface the roots will stay near the surface, making the plants more susceptible to heat and dry spells when you might not be able to water.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Under Lights

The lights needed for growing vegetable starts are simple and inexpensive.  To start my tomato, pepper, and cole plants I use 3 sets of 4 foot flourescent shop lights side by side.  Under those lights I've started 100 each of tomatoes and peppers, and three dozen broccoli/cabbage plants.  I admit that by the middle of April I'm usually taking the plants outside for part or all of the day, and sometimes in early May when it's colder and rainier than I had planned on it being (meaning I didn't plan!) I've had to platoon them, growing half under lights during the night and putting them in a totally dark room during the day, and then the other half under the lights all day, and in the dark room at night.  As long as they spend time in total darkness they won't get leggy, even if they have to spend a couple of days there continuously.

The real key is to have the lights be no more than 3-4 inches above the seedlings.  To accomplish this I raise the lights gradually as the plants grow.  Here comes the part where you should not do what I do:  I rest the ends of the fixtures on books (an old set of encyclopedias), and this means that with some of the brands of fixtures the bulbs themselves rest on the books.  This can't be a good thing.  They never get hot, but I'm still not sure it's safe (informed opinions about this would be welcome in comments), and it would be better to have an arrangement where the lights could be lowered and raised by chains, as the fixture always comes with holes for an S hook to hold the chain.  Some brands of fixtures are designed such that the metal shade extends below the lights, and these are the ones to look for if you're going out to buy them.

The light stands that are sold by gardening centers do generally have a way to lower the lights by chains, but they are very expensive.  At best, you could build a modest arrangement to do this yourself.  Make sure you can put at least two units side by side, as I find that there's not enough light to satisfy plants off to the side.  If you're planning on putting flats under the lights you'll definitely need two-or three sets side by side.   As a temporary arrangement planks or 2x4's straddling workhorses, with hooks that would let you attach the fixtures' chains, might possibly be safer than my arrangement.  No matter what you do, make sure that neither children nor pets can upset the lights.

Fortunately I have a 6 foot table in a back room that I can dedicate to this project, so I'm not getting down on the floor to water little seedlings.  I drape the table with 6 mil plastic, and I'm all set to go.

This picture shows the dilemma I face with just these 3 sets of lights.  I have tiny seedlings 3 inches under the lights, and tomatoes that are growing right up into the lights.  It's time to transplant the tomatoes, and I'll need to raise the flat of tiny seedlings so they're closer to the lights.  The tomatoes are a little leggy.  That's mostly because there have been days I've never turned on the lights at all (sigh), and also because I should have bought new bulbs this season, and didn't.  Even though the lights still turn on, they lose brightness over time, and should be replaced every year.  But the tomatoes will be fine when transplanted, and the camera angle is also exaggerating how tall they are.  They tiny seedlings look okay, as you can see. (And yes, the tomatoes are a little yellower than they should be. need fertilizer)

Saturday, April 10, 2010


Some of this information is available in more detail under garden posts.  To see all garden posts in chronological order, click on "All garden posts" under gardening information..  You can also look up by subject or by some vegetables.
Check out the website "Weekend Gardener", linked here or under Food Sources, for what you can plant this week.  I use May 15 and October 15 for last and first frost dates.

May 20.  Well I didn't get my peppers planted, but did plant about 60 mixed coles - broccoli, romanesco cauliflower, 3 kinds of cabbage, 2 kinds of bok choi, and chinese cabbage.  I'll give the peppers another go today.

May 18. I'm going to plant my peppers tomorrow.  After then it's supposed to be above 50 at night for the next ten days, and it will be getting warmer during the day.  They need to be transplanted, and I'd rather do it once rather than twice with all I have to do.  Will wait on the tomatoes because they don't need to be transplanted yet.

May 16. Planted beans, but won't water them unless it gets very dry.  Three parallel rows about 10 inches apart, beans 2-3 inches apart, about an inch deep. Fresh Pick, Brittle Wax, Royal Burgundy, and Roma II.  Planted 12 feet (times 3), so altogether about 36 feet of beans.

May 16:  Well I planned a lot of planting yesterday, but I broke my next to little toe at 7:30am, bringing plants out of the house.  sigh.  I'm hobbling around, and will get some stuff done today, but not as much or as fast as I intended.  Someone else is having to help JP put the water in, alas, but at least we will now have water on tap, which is a great luxury.

May 15.  I said above that I use May 15 as our last frost date, and at the moment it appears we may be frost free from now on.  none in the forecast for the next 10 days.  Planning a lot of planting and transplanting today, as we'll get the water in tomorrow.

May 14.  We got a little rain last night.  I planted some of my cucumber seeds yesterday anticipating that.  Have dug and filled holes for all cukes, melons, squash and tomatoes.  Finally found my super sugar snap pea seeds and planted this evening, 2-3 weeks later than optimal.

May 8 Went looking for pots of curled parsley yesterday, the kind that come with about 30 plants in a little pot.  Have had very good luck transplanting all the little plants into cups and then to the garden a few weeks later.  But there were only pots with 4 or 5 plants, and I was too cheap to buy them.  So now I need to start parsley seeds, which means soaking them first in warm water for 24-48 hours.  They will still take 2-3 weeks to germinate.  

May 8 Um, not gardening outside in this cold, rainy, weather, though I could still dig some more holes.  Colder weather coming, so I'm not going to plant new things.  I'm going to cut the bottoms off some gallon water jugs I've saved, and use them as hot caps over the squash seeds I planted, both day and night.  Will start cukes in paper towels today.

May 5.  Have been digging the holes for tomatoes, though I won't transplant them for a couple of weeks.  I've filled each hole with a half gallon of compost, a handful of 5-10-10, a handful of Gardener's Supply Company organic flower fertilizer 5-7-4, a small handful of pelleted dolomitic limestone, and a small handful of kelp.  I'll mix it all together well and be ready to put in the plants.

May 2.  Finally got tomatoes transplanted on Saturday, the 30th. They're doing well, but they should have been transplanted 10 days ago.  On the other hand, they spent 2 days inside without light, so I'm glad they weren't transplanted.  87 today.  Planted onions April 30 and yesterday.  Separate post and pictures to follow soon.

April 27 Boy, am I glad I waited to transplant.   3:00pm and it's still 34 degrees.  Real snow, falling in snowball size clumps.  But the topsoil was delivered, and it's supposed to be in the 70's this weekend.

April 26. Still haven't transplanted the seedlings.  I'm now waiting for the delivery of a load of topsoil (silt and compost) tomorrow, which I can use as potting soil - and I won't need any fertilizer at all for the time being.  Also, winter storm watch for tomorrow and Wednesday (April in Vermont).

April 25. Many of the seeds I planted April 14 are up:  radishes, spinach, some beets and chard, and the peas for shoots.  Have had to water these seedlings a couple of times, as it rained after I planted them but then got very dry.  Have not watered the seedlings that went into dry ground.

April 23.  I never transplanted seedlings on the 21st.  A frost was predicted for last night, and now it's predicted for tonight.  Don't want to have to deal with bringing all those transplants in, so I'm waiting to do it tomorrow.

April 21. Transplanting seedlings today, overdue.  Will plant some more carrots, beets, lettuce, in square foot plots. Update:  Also planted a few onion sets, wild lettuce mix, wild kale mix, corn poppy, california poppy, borage, and marigolds.  Way too early for the marigolds, but it's just 2 little square foot plots, and I can cover if they've germinated before the first frost.

April 20. Nothing planted. Set up some stakes to mark off plots, and gabbed a lot with other gardeners. Got onion sets and one bunch onion plants at Agway (don't get the ones labeled short day. They shouldn't be selling them!) Also got one flat of pansies, to plant in a square foot.

April 19.  Got some peas planted (see post about planting peas).  Started Caseload, which is the best shelling pea I've ever grown, hands down, and snow sweet (I think - I'll look it up again), a variety of snow pea that's new to me.  About 12 feet each.  Got the stakes in, but don't need to get the fence up until they're up and growing.

April 19.  This cold snap is over.  Partly sunny today, and already 42 at 8:00.  Will work on getting some transplanting done today.  The tomatoes under lights are badly in need to transplanting.  Lots of things can go into the garden now.  Will try to get to peas tomorrow, but I need to get some posts in the ground first, to support fences for the peas.

April 16.  Won't get above 45 today, and maybe not above 40 tomorrow, so I have to start platooning under lights. But we are getting some needed rain.

April 15. planted 15" square each of radish, and red-cored chantenay carrots.  This is just the first of many of each that I'll plant in succession (I don't need more than 20 radishes at a time.) We'll get rain tonight, which is good.  The sandy soil is so dry the furrows for the little seeds filled in.

April 14. Planted a few seeds today.  Am growing some modified square-foot garden rows, using the width of the rake (15") to make side by side patches, in a double row.  Planted dwarf grey sugar peas for pea sprouts, bright lights chard and fordhook chard, space spinach, and a little leaf lettuce mix.

April 13. 30 this morning.  Yesterday JP and I got started on marking out the community garden plots with stakes.  I could start getting some posts in and putting in the "sugar ann" sugar snap peas and the sweet peas tomorrow, and that's what I'll aim for.  I always have a lot to do in getting the exterior posts up ready for fencing for the taller peas, so it takes longer to start planting than I'd like.

This afternoon we got the lower gardens staked, and JP got them strung.  Time to garden!

April 12.  34 this morning.  It got up to 61 yesterday.  I planted more peppers yesterday that I'd started in paper towels on April 2.  Later than I usually like to start peppers, but I've got this space problem, so I couldn't have managed everything as early as I'd like.

April 11. 36 again this morning, though 40 was forecast.  It's that time of year not to trust the forecast low. The community garden is being tilled this morning! Looking in Weekend Gardener to see what they say I can plant outdoors now: beets, peas, kale, kohlrabi, mustard greens, onion sets, potatoes, radishes, spinach, turnip.  I'd also plant lettuce outside now, and I wouldn't plant potatoes yet, though they can be planted much earlier than most people around here think.  We will still get some real hard frosts, and the potatoes might rot before they sprout, in the cold soil.

April 10.  36 degrees this morning.  It always seems to happen that about now I run out of space under my bank of three adjacent 4 foot flourescents.  I might start platooning, having some of the plants under lights during the day, and some at night.  The important thing will be to see that they're able to be in the dark when they're not under lights, not just hanging out in the room with ambient daylight.   But for the moment I've put the transplanted tomatoes on the car's back window shelf.

April 9.  JP started his tomatoes today, so it's not too late!  I like to have mine tall enough so the bottom leaves will be well up off the ground, and that means they're tall enough for me to remove the bottom two or three leaves.

April 4 High 72 degrees. Transplanted some eggplants, herbs and flowers from the tiny cells I started them in on March 17.  Eggplant on the upper left,

April 3. Warm! 82 for a high today.  Planted a 98 cell tray with 15 lettuce varieties, and started broccoli, bok choi, and cabbage.  Transplanted early coles and some rhubard and a few tomatoes I started on March 3.  I've found looking back over my garden log the last few years that most things need to be transplanted the first time about a month after the start date.

April 2.  78 degrees today.  Started more peppers and eggplants

March 25.  Have planted most of the seeds I started to germinate in paper towels on March 17.  Very good germination from the Carmen peppers.

March 20.  Aghh!  Things have germinated faster than I thought they would!  Have put them in the fridge to slow them down til I can plant them in the next day or so.

March 17.  Started more peppers and the rest of my tomatoes.

March 9.  First asparagus sprouted, more ace and mariachi, a new girl.

March 8 High 50 today.  Planted sprouted rhubarb, 2 sungold, ace, mariachi and jalapeno.  Surprised the peppers sprouted in 5 days, but they've been in a warm place a couple of feet in front of the register.

March 6.  Onions started in paper towels March 3 have sprouted. 2yr old purple bunching have not started.  I'm counting on enough starting to give me some plants, though this is old for onion seeds.  planted the coles that had started.

March 3:  Started in paper towels:  soloist chinese cabbage, gonzales cabbage, veronica romanesco, a few sun gold, new girl tomatoes, ace, mariach, jalapeno and carmen peppers, onions, asparagus, rhubarb.  Starting in paper towels lets me plant only those that are going to germinate and succeed, and then I don't end up crowding little seedlings.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Ukrainian Easter Eggs

As you might have guessed from my icon, I make Ukrainian Easter eggs.  They're made with a batik process.  That is, part of the shell is protected from the dye with wax, and then the egg is dyed.  I may do this just once, or I may repeat the process with many colors, leaving the wax on the egg until the very end, as it will continue to protect the shell from each new dye.

The second picture shows blackened beeswax on the white shell, and this protected area will stay white, and eventually when the wax is taken off it will be the white areas on the finished egg at the top. Neat, huh? Notice that the black lines in the diamonds on the finished egg were waxed around to leave a space for the black dye.

To draw in a line of wax, a tool called a kistka is used (the Ukrainian word for writing), shown below.  It's a tiny funnel made of brass or copper.  When I made my very first Ukrainian egg I used a fountain pen and melted some beeswax and painstakingly drew the lines.  You could try that if you want to.  Chances are you may find the tools at an art supply store (locally at Artists' Mediums and Bouteliers).  They also sell beeswax that's been blackened, or you can blacken it with kiwi black paste shoe polish (if you're not eating the eggs). The dyes usually sold for Ukrainian eggs are not edible dyes.  If you're going to use this process for edible eggs, make sure you are using food dyes.

I wax and dye the designs on raw eggs, so the eggs will sink in the dye.  If you're only doing a few you might find it easier to blow them out first, and then be prepared to hold floating eggs under the dye. To remove the wax from raw eggs, preheat the oven to 180, stick three thumbtacks in a shirt cardboard to form a triangle, and place the board on a sheet pan.  Place the egg on the tacks horizontally, and heat for about 10 minutes, until the wax is softened but not runny.  Pick up the egg and wipe off the wax with a paper towel.  Turn the egg over and heat for another 7-8 minutes, removing the last of the wax at the end.  It's traditional to leave the raw egg like this, or to cover with a thin film of oil to protect the water-soluble dyes.  It needs to be turned every few weeks if it's in your corner cabinet, because it might explode otherwise.  sigh.  not nice. 

If you've blown out the egg first, the oven only needs to be heated to about 150 or your lowest setting, and only needs to sit in the oven for a couple of minutes before you wipe off the wax from the first side.  Be careful, because the shell will get very hot.

In either case, clean the remaining wax residue off with lighter fluid (naptha), if you plan to varnish it.  If you don't do this, the varnish will yellow pretty quickly from mixing with the wax.  To varnish the egg, put some polyurethane in your hand, and roll the egg around.  Put it back on your thumbtack tripod to dry.  Wipe off as much of the polyurethane as you can, then pour a little vegetable oil in your hands and wash thoroughly with the oil.  Wipe the oil off, and then wash your hands with dish detergent. Magic.  No polyurethane residue.

This shows some eggs drying on a board full of nail tripods (you can see just one of the three nails for each egg).  I dry them upright, so any imperfection from the nail will be at the bottom.  You can easily make a shirt board with several thumbtack tripods, which is what I used to use before I bought this board.

If you've left the egg raw, you can blow it out after you've varnished it (so the egg doesn't mess up the water-soluble dyes).

Many Eastern European countries have a tradition of waxing with a common pin stuck in a pencil eraser, and this is easier to do, if not as exacting (but then, I'm not as practiced.  I used a ball end common pin.  I think there might be control with a "regular" common pin).  You can use paraffin instead of beeswax, and melt a little in a can on the stovetop.  Dip the ball end into the wax, touch it to the egg and drag, and you'll have a little teardrop.  Here's a heart I drew on an egg I'd dyed blue with edible dyes.  After waxing I rinsed off some of the blue dye, so the egg is two shades of blue. You can still see the shiny wax on the egg.

On this next egg I dyed the egg several colors in succession, with edible dyes.  Because the paraffin is so transparent, you can see the colors through the egg really well.  If you were using this way of decorating your hard boiled eggs, you wouldn't even need to bother to remove the wax.  Or you can scrape most of it off with your thumbnail, or remove it in the oven as before.  Do NOT remove the remaining residue with lighter fluid if you're going to eat the egg.

On these two eggs I used white beeswax and a kistka, so the design is finer than with the teardrop and drag method.I drew the design in pencil first, which shows.  When I take the wax off the pencil will come off too.

You can use either of these methods with food dyes to decorate hard boiled eggs, or to decorate eggs for the Easter Egg Nests shown in the previous post.  Be sure to ask me any questions you have in comments, and I'll get back to you.

Easter Eggs in a Nest

Once you've decorated some Easter eggs (see the next post, on instructions for decorating Ukrainian Easter Eggs,  here), you can bake them in a ring of dough to give them their own little nest.

The decorating needs to be done while the eggs are RAW, because you're going to bake them in the dough, and they will otherwise be overdone.  As it is, they will be perfectly "boiled" eggs, but they will have been baked, not boiled.


3 1/2 to 4 cups all purpose flour
1 tsp salt
1/4 cup sugar
1 pkg yeast
1/4 cup canola oil
1 egg
grated zest of 1 lemon optional
water necessary to pull together the dough

I use a food processor, dump in the ingredients, add water as necessary for the dough to form a ball, knead for 45 seconds, remove and let rise in an oiled bowl. 

Let the dough rise, punch down, and let rise again.

It's very advisable for your raw eggs to be decorated already before you make the dough.  Life intervenes, and the dough won't wait for you to decorate eggs, but the decorated eggs can wait for the dough.  It's probably best not to refrigerate the eggs while the dough rises, as the condensation when the eggs come back out of the fridge could make the dyes run - but it's up to you.

When it's ready to make the nests, divide the dough into 10-12 balls. Punch a hole in the dough and enlarge it to form a bagel shape.  You could also make a dough snake and join the ends, but that didn't work very well for me.  The rich dough didn't want to join well, and I had a thin spot on one side and the eggs wanted to fall out of the nest.  not good. 

Place the nest on parchment paper on a pan (or a well-oiled or cornmealed pan), and place the egg into the nest.  It should be sitting up out of the nest about half way.

Preheat the oven to 375 while the dough is rising (for about 20-30 minutes).  Brush the nest with an egg wash of one egg mixed with a few drops of water, and add sprinkles if you'd like.

Bake for 15 minutes.  The egg, as you can see, will be perfectly done. (The interior of the yolk was a little underdone.  It could have used another minute or two.) If prepared ahead the nests need to be refrigerated.