Archive for January, 2010

What’s the Plan?

Sunday, January 17th, 2010

It helps to have a plan. For business, for life in general, and certainly for growing plants to eat, planning gives you some control of the future. January is planning month for lots of northern gardeners. My planning includes going though several favorite seed catalogs and ordering seeds to replenish any in short supply in my seed inventory.

I also start looking at what is going to be planted where. In January, I print out two new charts for my south and north garden beds and start to pencil in the plan of crops and their locations. The charts go back to 1986, but it’s really the last seven years I care about. I use previous years’ charts to help maintain a rotation that I took from Eliot Coleman’s book, The New Organic Grower.

The rotation was designed for a large acre and a half plot designed to feed 40 people, but with a few modifications, I find it works well for me. I also use a rule not to plant the same type crop in a bed without at least a four year break, but I prefer to try to keep seven years between planting a crop type again in the same bed.

Coleman’s rotation is this: Potatoes after sweet corn, corn after cabbage, cabbage after peas, peas after tomatoes, tomatoes after beans, beans after root crops, root crops after squash, and squash after potatoes. I won’t explain Coleman’s rotation logic, it’s in the book, but the benefits of crop rotation are proven, and I’m in total agreement with Coleman’s statement, “. . . crop rotation is the single most important practice in a multiple cropping program.”

Since the rotation doesn’t address lettuces and greens, nor onions, I typically plug those in with root crops, but in trying to fit the puzzle together as I lay things out, I often have to resort to the four year rule when I have an empty bed and something that needs to be planted.

I have a large garden by most backyard standards. With over 20 beds to play with that are typically 5 feet wide by 22 feet long, it’s easier for me to plan a rotation than it would be for someone moving all the possible things they would like to grow through a small 10 by 20 foot space. But the point is that by charting and keeping track of what was where in previous years, a crop rotation can still be achieved.

For the most part, any rotation is better than none, especially if the logic that many similar crops should not be planted directly after each other in the same spot is applied. Crop rotation balances the nutritional needs of the plants and it reduces the buildup of insect and disease problems. It also seems to act as a soil amendment in making hard soils easier to work.

A few snags to an to easy rotation for my beds are strawberries, rhubarb and raspberries, which remain in place up to three years and asparagus, which never gets moved. I’m also now experimenting with letting more greens and herbs go to seed and self sow. If they are in a place that isn’t bothering me, I let them grow where they have volunteered. But I’ll admit that it’s much easier to do rotations in a large garden versus a small one.

As we try to grow our CobraHead tool business, garden planning is taking on additional importance. We now point to our own gardens as part of our how-to program to try to help gardeners grow food. My gardens in Wisconsin and Geoff’s gardens in Austin are now the CobraHead Test Gardens for Northern and Southern Climates. And there is a huge difference in how and when things are done up here and down there. Our Wisconsin gardens are under a foot of snow, while until two weeks ago when a cold snap hit, Geoff was harvesting bountiful crops in Texas.

GBBD January 2010

Friday, January 15th, 2010

Not a heck of a lot blooming in Wisconsin in January, but this lipstick vine in our sun room has been putting out a fair bit of color lately. This isn’t the only blooming plant in the house right now, but it was the only one worth photographing.

Now head on over to May Dreams Gardens, the home of Garden Bloggers’ Bloom Day. There you can find bloom day submissions from all over the country and many places outside the country, too!

A new house, a new compost pile

Thursday, January 14th, 2010

This morning the lid on the compost bucket in the kitchen would no longer close, so it was time to make the first compost pile at my new home.

Unlike my dad, Noel, I prefer to build my compost in layers first with materials high in carbon, then a nitrogen layer, followed by a cap of soil, repeating the process until the pile gets to be three to four feet high. I have to mention here that I learned a large part of what I know about composting from my gardening mentor, Bruce Blevins.

I layer in soil for two reasons: both to inoculate the pile with the micro-organisms already existing in the soil and also to prevent odor and keep out potential flies and critters, the latter being critical in my Austin city lot.

I get the soil by excavating the area where I am going to build the pile down three to four inches and creating a pile of soil next to the compost pile so that it will be available as I need it.

I also loosen up the ground beneath the pile with a digging fork to allow better soil-compost contact.

Next I add several inches of carbonaceous materials. I love to use straw for the structure that it give the pile, but given that I am not on a farm and have three mature pecan trees in my backyard, leaves it will be. As I pack down the leaves, I try to make sure that the pile maintains a defined, rectangular shape. A well constructed, free-standing compost pile can be an object of great beauty in the garden and does not need to be hidden.

On top of the leaves I add the kitchen scraps. Here I would also add green weeds, lawn clippings or manure if I had them but since I don’t this layer will be a little light on the nitrogenous material. Ideally it would be about half as thick as the carbonaceous layer.

Finally, I cap off the pile with a layer of soil just thick enough to cover the kitchen scraps and then start the process over with more leaves. Austin has been dry for the last few weeks, so I also need to add a little water.

This pile will not be ready for several months, but luckily I have large bucket of worm castings generated over the last year to tide me over for a while.

Phil’s New Digs

Wednesday, January 13th, 2010

About a year ago I set up a worm composting system using the Worm Factory. I was pretty excited about it at the time, and I decided to name it Phil (each individual worm is also named Phil). Because I’ve read that vermicomposting can take a while to really get going, I was careful not to overfeed Phil during the first few months. I don’t think I even added a second tray until two or three months had passed.

When July rolled around, the creator of the Worm Factory offered to let me try their new model, and I happily agreed to trial it.

The new Worm Factory is designed to allow better air to flow through the system. The bottom tray now sits on a booster that creates an air gap all the way around the bottom of the tray, and the lid now sits above the top tray rather than inside of it. I was told I could simply take the old trays and stack them in the new system, but I wanted the tray colors to match.

Transferring Phil into his new digs was also a good opportunity to check on the composting process. Aside from a few paper scraps and minor food chunks like eggshells, the bottom tray was ready to harvest (note to self: do a better job of crushing eggshells before feeding them to Phil). I kept the tray going, though, mostly because I was too lazy to empty it out right then.

Fast forward to January 2010, when I finally got around to harvesting some worm castings (I’m skipping a few months where Phil developed a fruit fly problem, and I left him alone for a while – I now make sure to microwave the scraps I feed him to kill any fruit fly eggs).

I moved the bottom tray to the top of the system and left the lid off. I also stirred the castings and kept the light on to encourage the worms to migrate down to the tray below. I left it like that for about a day or so, hoping that the castings might dry out a bit before I took them out to store them. They were still quite moist when I transferred them to a big bowl, though.

We’ll probably mix the castings with potting soil and use the mix for our indoor potted plants, most of which are in dire need of transplanting at the moment.

Phil’s fly problem has cleared up, and he seems to be chugging along just fine for the time being. I think this year I’ll make it a goal to ramp up production and really put Phil to work.

New Year’s Capucijner Purple Podded Peas

Friday, January 1st, 2010

No black eyed peas for us New Year’s Day. This larder has capucijners. Capucijner (pronounced cap-you-sigh-ner according to the Fedco catalogue) peas are one of the richest and most complex soup peas we have cooked with. We’ve been saving seeds that we think we purchased from Johnny’s Seeds about 20 years ago. We’re not sure because they don’t have them in their catalogue any more but this Dutch heirloom purple podded pea (pisum satisvum) is obtainable from several sources under various aliases such as Blue Podded, Dutch Grey, Blauwschokkers and Pois A Cross Violette. Legend has it that this pea was named after the Capuchin Monks who developed it during the 1500’s. Apparently the shape of the pea along with the color – an olive darkening to brown – looked like the cowl of the robes that the Monks wore at that time. (Cappuccino coffee is also derived from Capuchin but we won’t go there!)

Here’s a picture of this past year’s peas (lighter color) and the darker version (the older the seeds get the darker they get) from the harvest of a year ago:

When cooked, these peas stay whole and form their own gravy. They make a great meatless soup because they have a stand-alone flavor. Of course the usual onions, garlic, salt & pepper are de rigueur for all my soup pots. The rest of the ingredients depend on what’s on hand in the refrigerator or freezer. Hot peppers and fresh herbs such as cilantro are always nice additions along with carrots, celery, squash and other soup vegetables. (This time I used onions, garlic, one dried hot pepper poked with a fork, 1 cup chopped butternut squash, a handful of chopped cilantro, pinch of sage leaves, 1 tsp. salt, 20 grinds of pepper & 1 T. Liquid Aminos.)

Capucijner peas can take a long time to soften when cooking the long slow method (overnight soaking and simmering all day). I’ve dug out my pressure cooker for a faster version. Here’s the method: Cover about 2 cups dried peas with water by about 2 inches over the top of the peas. Then pressure cook at 15 pounds for about 20 minutes. Let the pressure drop down naturally. While this is happening prepare the rest of the ingredients. When you can safely remove the lid add everything else plus more water (if necessary) and pressure cook for another 20 minutes. Let pressure down naturally. Check the doneness of the peas and adjust the seasonings. (Please read directions for your own pressure cooker. If using split peas they can clog the vent.)

Start a new tradition. Dig out the pressure cooker and rattle those pots and pans, it’s capucijner pea soup for dinner tonight!