Archive for the ‘Gardening’ Category

Wood Garden Flats

Tuesday, February 7th, 2017

Wood Flat

This old flat dates back to about 1990.  I started making my own flats from some cheap fence wood I had acquired.  I’m not sure where I got the design, probably a garden magazine or garden book, but it has proven to be long-lasting and very useful.  The flats are built using  3″ x 12″ x 5/8″ wood for the ends and 3″ x 18″ x 5/8″ wood for the sides.  Thus they are 3 inches deep.  The construction is very rough, especially the older ones, which were cut with a hand saw.  Now I use a table saw and the newer flats are definitely squarer.

Flat Lined with Newspaper

I line the flats with newspaper. They can be filled with soil, or filled with seed starting cups or pots.

Flat Filled With Potting Soil

When I fill the flat with soil, I use a block of wood to level out the soil and tamp it down.

28 Seed Cups in Flat

The flats hold 28 small 5 ounce drink cups exactly.  I start most of my seeds in these small cups.

Stackable Flats

The flats are stackable and strong.  Unlike many plastic seed starting trays, they are ridged and less likely to be upset when moving them around.  I now have about 30 of these flats in my collection.  They are easily repairable.  Wood flats are an important part of my gardening routine.

Potatoes in Cold Storage

Saturday, January 28th, 2017

Cold Storage in the Barn

It’s the end of January. We still have a lot of potatoes stored in the barn. Barn temperatures are often well below freezing but the potatoes are in good shape. Last fall, before I put the potatoes in storage, I modified my straw bale walls and replaced the bales on top with insulating foam panels. It was a good move. It’s way easier sliding off panels than wrestling straw bales when you need some potatoes. The barn stays cleaner and the potatoes seem to be in better shape than the last year.

Mover’s Blankets

Below the foam I placed some mover’s blankets, which are good insulators, to take up a lot of the gaps.

Shipping Crate Set in Straw Bales

The bales surround a wood shipping crate that has been re-purposed as a storage bin.

Potatoes in the Crate

The potato varieties are separated in the crate by walls made of scrap press-board. I mixed some loose straw in with the potatoes and that seems to be a plus in potato longevity.

Potatoes Ready to Cook

We’re pacing ourselves on potato consumption, trying to get most of them eaten before serious sprouting and shriveling sets in. Our improved above ground cold storage system is helping us enjoy all those good potatoes we grew.

Talking and Writing About Gardening

Tuesday, January 24th, 2017

CobraHead Weeder and Cultivator

I started CobraHead to sell a tool I designed. I was quite sure my tool would be a help to a lot of gardeners. Since then, sales have proven what I knew when I started, the tool was a good one. Supposedly it was Emerson who said, “Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door.” I can assure you Ralph got it wrong. You can have a great product, but you have to sell it and sell it hard before anyone will even know it’s out there.

CobraHead Logo

 

 

Fifteen years into our CobraHead venture it’s obvious no one would know anything about the tool if I didn’t become a marketeer to extol its virtues to the public. Word of mouth happens, but it’s way too slow. You have to fuel the fire. There is so much noise out there and so many people claiming, just like me, that they’ve got something people need to buy. Selling is actually the most time consuming part of the business. Fortunately, I was a salesman before I started the company, and I‘ve learned a whole lot about marketing since we first launched.

Magazine Ad

 

We’ve chosen a relatively low key approach to marketing our company. Print advertising hasn’t been our best venue. We don’t do a lot of it. We’ve found many lower cost tools to get our message out. Maintaining a blog is quite inexpensive. Talking about gardening at trade shows and garden conferences can cost almost nothing and I often get paid for doing it. And while I almost never talk about my tools directly, the association and connection to our company through blogs and public appearances strengthens the perception that I’m a gardener who walks the talk.

The CobraHead Blog

Very early into our history, we found out about a group called the Garden Writers Association. We began attending their conferences with the specific purpose of getting tools into the hands of garden writers with the hope they would like the tool and mention it in their articles and talks. That has proved to be our most successful method of gaining publicity, but attending the conferences also taught us about writing and presenting. Now, while I hardly consider myself a garden writer, I really am one. It’s just not my full time job.

PowerPoint Slide Show

While I’m not on the speaker’s circuit, I’ll be giving three talks on gardening at our favorite garden show, the Madison Garden Expo, coming up in February. I’m talking about growing garlic, growing sweet potatoes, and the raised bed method of gardening that I employ. In none of these talks do I hard sell my tools, but they do generate sales for us at the show and after.

Facebook Page

Social media is the newest selling tool out there and it can be low cost. We maintain a Facebook page, but so far, Twitter, Pinterest, and other such venues are yet to be explored. It probably will be a while before we jump in with those.

Promoting CobraHead has taught me a lot about marketing and certainly has improved my gardening knowledge just by being associated with the garden industry and trying to figure out ways to become a stronger part of it. I’ve met hundreds of people in the industry and many of them are, like me, trying to show others the value of gardening. I’ve learned a lot from them.

CobraHead Weeder and Cultivator Chosen for the Top 8 Manual Weeders of 2017

Monday, January 16th, 2017

The CobraHead Weeder and Cultivator was chosen by Ezvid Wiki as the #2 garden weeder for 2017. That means we are #1 small hand weeder since their #1 selection is a stand up weeder for weeding the lawn.

Here’s the link: https://wiki.ezvid.com/best-manual-weeders

Late Fall Planting of Wine Cap Mushrooms

Tuesday, November 15th, 2016
Wine Cap Mushrooms

Wine Cap Mushrooms

Wine Cap Mushrooms (Stropharia rugosa annulata) are considered one of the easiest mushrooms to grow. Easy to grow, but highly prized, Wine Caps are noted for both their large size and excellent taste. Wine Caps are not often found in stores because of their fragile nature. This is my first attempt at growing them. As with the shiitake mushrooms I’ve grown for many years, my Wine Cap stropharia spawn came from Field and Forest Products, Inc., Peshtigo, Wisconsin. http://www.fieldforest.net/ If you want to know anything about growing mushrooms and want buy the products you need to grow them, check out Field and Forest. We highly recommend them.

Wine Cap Spawn

Wine Cap Spawn

Wine Caps are often grown on wood chips. Yields with wood chips are larger and longer lasting, but growing on straw is fast and easy. Field and Forest sells Wine Cap spawn in 5.5 lb. bags, which they recommend for a fifty square foot planting using one small square bale of straw. I doubled that and planted two 5.5 lb. bags.

Shady Spot Prepared for Planting

Shady Spot Prepared for Planting

A shady area with good soil surface contact is recommended for planting beds. The ground should not be covered with sod or other materials that might keep the mushroom spawn from interacting with the soil. We had an excellent spot on the edge of the woods where the grass never gets established and was showing some bare soil, anyway. It was easy to scratch up a 10 foot by ten foot bed.

Soaking Weighted Down Straw Bales

Soaking Weighted Down Straw Bales

The straw should be of good quality, and relatively weed free. It needs to be soaked under water for three to six days. I had a big stock tank that worked perfectly for this. I soaked three straw bales (just to be safe), although I only ended up using just two bales. I had to weigh down the straw bales with blocks and rocks. Without the weight, the bales would float and not soak up the water in a short time period.

Bagged Spawn

Bagged Spawn

Here’s a picture of the two bags of spawn. Field and Forest has developed a breathable bag that allows the spawn to remain fresh and viable without refrigeration for up to two weeks. If not used immediately, the spawn can be refrigerated for up to six months. The spawn breaks up easily. I just put the contents of the bag into a large bowl and crumbled it by hand. After it’s all broken up, it looks like brown sugar.

First Layer of Straw

First Layer of Straw

I laid down about one inch of wet straw. Working with wet straw is really sloppy, so boots and old clothes are highly recommended. On top of this straw I scattered as evenly as possible the contents of one bag of spawn. Then I added another couple inches of straw and scattered the second bag of spawn on top of that.

Finished Planting

Finished Planting

I covered the second layer with a final cover of about three inches of straw, which used up all of two bales. I blocked the whole pile up neatly and were not winter coming soon, the job would be done. In warmer weather I could expect some mushrooms in just a few weeks.

Wine Cap Straw Pile Mulched with Leaves

Wine Cap Straw Pile Mulched with Leaves

The cold weather will slow things down and the mushrooms shouldn’t show up until spring. To keep the pile wet but not soaked, I mulched the bed with about six inches of leaves.

Wine Cap Harvest

Wine Cap Harvest

If all goes well, we can expect a huge harvest soon after warm weather returns. Field and Forest Products, Inc. also kindly provided the three pictures of wine caps, as we won’t have any to show until next spring.

Wine Caps

Wine Caps

Marigolds Attract Pollinators

Saturday, October 29th, 2016
Marigold and Bee

Marigold and Bee

About five years ago I bought a flat of marigolds at a garden show in Rockford, Illinois. The flat cost only five dollars. I presumed the marigolds were neither organic nor open pollinated, but they looked strong and there were a lot of plants for the money. I thought I would stick marigolds at the ends of the raised beds to add some easy and quick color.

Marigolds in the Beds

Marigolds in the Beds

This was in June. The plants performed well and bloomed until hard freezes came. They put out seed heads with lots of viable seeds meaning they were open-pollinated, not a hybrid variety. On a whim I saved some seed and replanted it the following spring. Marigolds are slow to germinate and the germination rate on these seeds wasn’t great, but I still got a lot of new plants from which I’ve continued to save seed and replant.

Marigolds Everywhere

Marigolds Everywhere

Both the seeds and the plants I’m growing now seem more vigorous than the first ones I planted. Marigolds are adaptable, which means they improve their hardiness over time in a new environment. I went overboard this year and ended up with several hundred seedlings, most of which I replanted all around the garden.

Bee and Marigolds

Bee and Marigolds

The marigolds are proving to be great for their ability to attract and feed pollinating insects right up to and through the early frosts. They continue to provide heavy blooms offering pollen and nectar as well or better than just about any garden flower this late in the season. Marigolds are also touted as having beneficial properties when grown alongside tomatoes and other vegetables and their roots are supposed to be soil cleaning, eliminating certain bad root nematodes.

Bee on Marigold

Bee on Marigold

Moth on Marigold

Moth on Marigold


I found numerous articles on the Internet claiming marigolds are a bee repellent and not attractive or useful to pollinators, but there are even more articles debunking the “bad marigold” claims. While there may be some hybrid or double blossom marigolds which may not attract or be useful to pollinators, I can attest that bees love marigolds as do numerous other insects. I have often found the blossoms swarming with various flies, moths and butterflies.

Bumblebee on Marigold

Bumblebee on Marigold

Marigolds are very useful when used as an herbal and they are edible. So why not grow some? They’re too good and too easy not to.

Sweet Potato Harvest 2016

Saturday, October 15th, 2016
127 Pounds of Sweet Potatoes

127 Pounds of Sweet Potatoes

This year’s sweet potato harvest was certainly different than most. It was the largest we’ve ever had, over 125 pounds. Our previous best was 85 pounds. We normally yield between 75 and 80 pounds, so this was “really shocking”. We also had the largest single potato we’ve ever grown, eleven pounds. The quality was definitely not the best ever as we had a lot of cracked skins, which we are attributing to unusually high rainfall.

Sweet Potato Bed

Sweet Potato Bed

Our planting routine for sweet potatoes varies little. We grow 18 plants set under black plastic in a 20 foot long raised bed. Starts go in the last week of May and we harvest around the first frosts, usually mid-October. We never feed the plants and rarely water them. Sweet potatoes require almost no maintenance during their outdoor growing period. We had two nights of near frost the day before the harvest and the bed was covered with plastic. Above, the protective plastic is removed and the bed is ready to be harvested.

Cutting Off Vines

Cutting Off Vines

The thick tangled mass of vines is removed by cutting the vines from the roots using pruning loppers. The plastic circles we put around the plants when they are babies makes this job easier.

Vines Removed

Vines Removed

The vine mass is rolled up and out of the way as it is cut away from the roots.

Plastic Removed

Plastic Removed

We knew even before the plastic was removed that this was going to be a very large harvest with some very big roots.

Big Root

Big Root

They can grow ‘em big down south, but for us this is a rare sight.

11 Pound Sweet Pototo

11 Pound Sweet Pototo

Biggest one we ever grew.

Lots of Big Plants

Lots of Big Plants

Noel shows off more big ones.

Snake

Snake

We found several of these nested in the bed. There was no insect or mammal damage to our crop. Maybe the snakes helped.

Drying the Harvest

Drying the Harvest

We knock off the excess dirt and dry the potatoes in the sun. The potatoes are trimmed and turned.

Cracked Sweet Potatoes

Cracked Sweet Potatoes

A lot of the larger potatoes had big splits. The splits weren’t deep and had already healed over, so we don’t think our losses will be great, but we won’t know for sure until we cut a few big ones open to check the quality inside and start pulling them from storage.

The 2016 sweet potato harvest was probably our most interesting. Now we have to figure out what to do with all these potatoes.

Layered Compost Pile

Monday, October 10th, 2016
Compost Pile

Compost Pile

It looks like a pile of straw, but it’s really a very structured compost pile. I built it over the weekend. It’s layered and there is actually not that much straw in it.

My raw ingredients included a pile of two seasons worth of garden debris – weeds, stalks, trimmings and anything else organic collected around the yard and garden that was not super woody. It was mostly already broken down and partially composted. I had a completely broken down 55 gallon drum of household scraps, which was now only about 40 gallons, full of worms, and no stink left. I had a huge collection of recently pulled still green weeds, consisting mostly of galinsoga (quickweed), which I’m letting become my weed of choice in the garden. I had a couple small square bales of rotting straw, lots of stalks of sunchokes or Jerusalem artichokes, and finally, comfrey, which I harvested and layered in as I was building the pile.

I made a platform of soil with raised up edges. The base of the pile is 6 feet by 10 feet. Then I started layering everything. We had just finished a couple weeks of very rainy weather so I didn’t add any water, it was wet enough. My first layer was sunchoke stalks, followed by a layer of compost, followed by green material, either weeds or comfrey. After the pile was about 18 inches tall, I began working in layers of straw. Between each layer of straw, green material or stalks was a layer of compost or partially composted soil. As I was building the pile, I walked on top of it to compress it, trying to keep the pile as square as possible and leave no gaps or air pockets.

I ended up with a very dense pile almost 4 feet tall. I put a lot of straw on the top layer so it would shed water. By the time I finished, the pile had already begun to heat up and this morning most of the lower half of the pile had reached a temperature of 85 F., so I’m not worried about it breaking down. It will cook very quickly.

Compost Pile Tools

Compost Pile Tools

Here’s a picture of the tools I used to make the pile. The garden cart was used to haul straw, the wheel barrow used to haul garden debris. The manure fork is a most perfect compost fork for tossing everything but loose soil. The small pointed “SpearHead” shovel is better than a wider traditional spade for slicing into soil and moving a lot of soil without wearing yourself out.

And my favorite tool, the antique five-tined cultivating hoe, was used to clean the ground to prep the pile bed, rip apart debris, and loosen compacted soil. It would have been a lot more difficult without it. This tool will let me easily keep the paths around the pile weed free.

Compost is the key to successful gardening and is the safe and sustainable approach to garden nutrition. One doesn’t need an elaborate pile like this. Compost as they say, just happens, by letting organic material break down, but the process can be sped up and the finished product made more usable when a structured system like this is used.

Open Raised Bed Garden

Tuesday, July 19th, 2016
South Garden Area

South Garden Area

I advocate the use of open raised beds for home gardening.  I’ve been working with open beds for over 30 years.  There are lots of advantages over both conventional planting in rows, and also over assembled, boxed in beds.  I’ve got two plots with open beds.  The area I call the south beds is a very geometric layout of 18 beds, each about 5 feet wide by 20 feet long.

North Garden Area

North Garden Area

The north bed area is a lot more haphazard.  It borders on a weedy, woody area “where the wild things are”.  Most of the beds in the north area are 10 feet long and five feet wide.  I thought an interesting post for July might be to show what’s going on in each of the beds.

Coles, Sweet Potatoes, Empty Garlic Bed

Coles, Sweet Potatoes, Empty Garlic Bed

The bed in the foreground has cabbages, kohlrabi, Chinese cabbages, Pac Choi, fennel, nasturtiums and some volunteer mustard.   The next bed with the black plastic has sweet potatoes.  The third bed is where I just harvested garlic.  It still has a few lettuces in it.  I’ll harvest those, level off the bed and plant a fall crop of beets and carrots. Open beds make succession planting easy.

Potatoes, More Potatoes, Rhubarb and Raspberries

Potatoes, More Potatoes, Rhubarb and Raspberries

Next we have two beds of potatoes and a more perennial bed of rhubarb and raspberries.  I’ll probably relocate the rhubarb and raspberries this fall.  They’ve been in that spot since 2004.  It’s time for a change.

Peas, Onions, Strawberries

Peas, Onions, Strawberries

The trellised bed has peas, which are just about finished producing.  I’ll rip all the structure out and plant a fall crop of green beans and other greens in that bed.  In front of that are red and yellow storage onions.  The closest bed is a three year old bed of strawberries, from which any baby  plants will be used to start a bed this fall or early next spring.  I recently bought that green wheeled cart with a tractor seat.  I’m liking it and using it a lot.

Strawberries, More Strawberries, Squash and Cukes

Strawberries, More Strawberries, Squash and Cukes

Here are two beds of strawberries, new this year, and a bed of squash and cucumbers.  The big hubbard and kuri squash are sprawling on the ground.  The smaller squash and cukes are trellised.

Coles, Herbs, Zukes and Melons

Coles, Herbs, Zukes and Melons

The furthest bed is zucchini, and melons, along with some mustard and cilantro that I’m letting go to seed, a rather unkempt but very productive herb bed, and a bed of coles – cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli and Brussels sprouts.

Tomatoes and Two Beds of Corn

Tomatoes and Two Beds of Corn

Lastly on the south side are tomatoes and two beds of corn.  I have to fence the corn in, otherwise the thunderstorm winds easily topple the stalks over.

Potatoes, Shallots

Potatoes, Shallots

The far more shaggy north garden area contains my compost pile. It’s barely visible, but capped by two buckets in the upper left side.  In front of that is a bed of potatoes.  Directly in front is a half bed of shallots and I’ve got a couple blackberry starts doing pretty well in front of those.  I’ve got a huge crop of girasole (Jerusalem artichoke, sunchoke, Helianthus tuberosus,) growing in several areas on the north side.  We don’t use them as much as we should.  Once you’ve got them, they are here to stay.

Candy Onions

Candy Onions

Behind the shallots I’ve got a bed of candy onions, bordering next to the wild lands.  Fortunately, the critters, so far, don’t seem to have a penchant for onions.

Asparagus, Peppers, Tomatoes, Okra and Leeks, Comfrey

Asparagus, Peppers, Tomatoes, Okra and Leeks, Comfrey

Rounding out the garden tour is more girasole.  Next to that, okra and leeks (which are past due for transplanting to a larger space).  Behind the leeks is a bed of comfrey, which is spreading well outside its borders, but I’m encouraging it, as it is a miraculous plant that I’m using a lot as a mulch and compost.  Next to this are beds of peppers and eggplants and more trellised tomatoes.  And finally on the left, our almost 30 year old bed of asparagus.

Open beds offer more flexibility than other systems.  They are relatively easy to maintain, and they truly do produce a heck of a lot of food in a pretty small area.

 

Garlic Harvest

Wednesday, July 13th, 2016
Harvesting Garlic

Harvesting Garlic

We harvested our 100 garlic plants yesterday.  The bulbs were almost all quite large and firm.  We didn’t wait for the stalks (on the soft necks) to fall over, the traditional sign that it’s time to harvest.  We were expecting some extended rains and we didn’t want to harvest wet bulbs, nor did we want the outer skin layers to start splitting.  The time was right.

Lettuce and Garlic

Lettuce and Garlic

We planted two rows of hard necks and one row of soft necks.  I started out using the broad fork to lift out several bulbs at a time, but I quickly switched to using a small fork and a CobraHead Weeder to pull out each bulb individually.  That was because I still have a lot of young lettuce plants that I had planted between the rows and I want to keep them going until I clean up the bed and do a late summer planting of beets and carrots.

Drying Garlic

Drying Garlic

We’ll dry the garlic for about two weeks on tables in the garage, but if it gets too hot we’ll bring them into the house to finish drying slowly.  High heat can overdry the garlic and practically cause them to disintegrate.

When the leaves turn brown we’ll cut them off leaving a 2″ stalk and store in the basement in mesh hanging baskets for good air circulation.

Garlic Bulbs

Garlic Bulbs