Thursday, February 27, 2014

For the green thumbs and those who want them

My track record over the years has been to talk about gardening in mid-February.  If you're a green thumb with a track record, you already know to start your long season vegetables indoors on Valentine's Day.  You also already know that St. Patrick's Day is the benchmark for planting peas outside.

In any other year, I would have been already harvesting lettuces, spinach, and herbs. Yeah, this year has been quite an anomaly on a number of levels.  I didn't have a winter garden this year, nor a summer garden last year, due to an injury which precluded digging.  This year looks like it'll get off to a late start, although any spinach planted in fall will sprout and grow as soon as there's a thaw, and a subsequent freeze won't cause damage; if you have those covered with plastic, they'll remain pickable in spite of a freeze, too.  I am instead going to talk about time-tested techniques instead of current ones, using past pictures instead of current ones.

Veggie gardening season here begins in the autumn, when old compost gets turned over and, after the autumn cleanup of old growing patches, gets distributed over those patches which then get seeded for over-winter crops like the aforementioned lettuces, spinach, scallions, and such.  There will be one patch that had been thus prepared in late summer, where beet seeds have already been started near the patches I've planned for over winter, as those will continue to grow over winter, too, if I can keep those infernal rabbits out.  Squirrels around here are pretty bad, too--they're never happy with all the feral pecan trees around, they always have to have more and will even wage wars over the resources.

I'll have laid out a few rectangles, all of which would be surrounded by 2 rows of water-filled 2-litre soda bottles (not too full--don't want them to split when they freeze), and then adorned the north edge of those with a string of Christmas lights.  The deteriorated garden hose of the previous year gets redeployed as an irrigation system, because leaks in this case are desirable.  Yes, there are tricks to watering an enclosed cold-frame patch even in winter...anyhoo, those patches finally get covered by heavy clear plastic tarps and with the lights on and irrigation going, stuff is ready to pick by late February.

People who get gardening catalogs know about the gizmo called "wall-o-water", usually sold for use around tomato seedlings that are planted out in the yard earlier than they're supposed to be; the water-filled pop-bottles perform the same function, but with gusto.  When it's 10 degrees F outside, the outside wall will freeze solid but the inner wall will remain liquid, thus controlling the lower temperature limit inside both walls, with the help of the Christmas lights.  I have successfully wintered over autumn peas without the lights altogether.

Now back to the starting of long-season seeds indoors in mid-February.  Typically, those would be tomatoes and peppers, and too many people expect a good many of them to "damp off" and die before spring.  Here's what you do to  avoid that: do NOT water your seedlings with tap water, and do NOT over-water them.  Let the  soil dry out on the top first before giving them more water. and ensure that they drain well.

The deal with the tap water is the temperature as it comes out of the  water pipes.  That's what will kill your seedlings.  Instead, keep a container of water at room temperature to do your watering with.  I will now bust a myth about tomatoes for the folks who think that buying greenhouse-grown tomatoes will get them ahead on the season just because the vines are more mature than those started from seed at home: tomatoes are daylight-length sensitive, and won't produce until the daylight hours are long enough.  Those "days to maturity" ratings make a difference only in terms of how late in the summer the tomatoes are produced; they make NO difference in how early in early spring they'll produce.

Much of my success at gardening in north central Oklahoma can be attributed to classes I took in Phoenix AZ, at the Desert Botanical Garden.  Many of the issues that arise as challenges in the Sonora Desert region are similar to what's found in north central OK, including the issues with hard pan and water salinity.

I keep bees, but they're not honeybees. They're mason bees, and the most maintenance I do with the nesting area is keep the holes clean by using drinking straws in them.  Mason bees will refuse to use a hole that has been previously occupied, so I stick drinking straws in them and remove the used straws every season, replacing those with fresh ones.

I will add more tips and pics to this entry as I find them.

Here we go--found a pictorial diagram I did for posting on a Group in Care2Connect some years ago.  This illustrates the principle of the pop-bottle coldframe, but with a single row for walls. I recommend a double wall.

The directional color scheme is important for converting low-angle sunshine into heat on the north end, while permitting less obstruction to the sunlight from the south side. On the north side of the north wall of water, I added black plastic for additional heat. In an election year, I harvested abandoned political yard signs, turned the plastic part inside out, exposing a black plastic panel inside, put it back on the wire frame and put it into the ground on the north side, achieving the same objective.

An example of a sturdy heirloom tomato seedling--variety: Silvery Fir Tree. Yup, that's a tomato and it has proven to be the only tomato variety that produced tomatoes during a particularly hot summer. Note the size of the cup--it has been my experience that smaller containers will dry out too fast and cramp the root system, so this size is actually ideal.

I simply took a yogurt display box from a grocery store to use as a handy dandy transport tray for tomato seedlings.  It's important to "harden off" seedlings by taking them outside when the temperature is above 60 degrees and it's not terribly windy.  A good breeze will help the stems strengthen, and the direct sunlight with the breeze will make them thrive.
Nothing beats home-grown asparagus ("gus" for short). I have already mentioned my gus hedge in previous blog postings, taking a regular hedge clipper to it and such.
One day's taking. I grow enough to enjoy in the spring with enough left over to freeze for use during the rest of the year.
Parsley that grew under plastic inside a pop-bottle coldframe, finally liberated in spring.

The pop bottle coldframe scheme has permitted this artichoke to winter over and produce the following year.  One of the reasons artichokes aren't grown this far north is because they don't produce until the second year.
At the foot of some jostaberry bushes blooms a Southern Illinois Prickly Pear cactus.  Got it from Mom's yard when I went back for her funeral.
From my Backyard Zoo collection: a mockingbird fledgeling hiding in the hedge
This is a variation on the pop-bottle scheme. Christmas lights on the north face inside, 'way int he back. The arch is fashioned from a discarded central A/C unit grille, and that's mostly romaine lettuce in there.

March 3 Update: I forgot to mention that the bright side of all this freezy weather this winter is that it portends a good apricot crop.  One of the biggest problems with growing apricots and other stone fruit like peaches is that the trees bloom too early to escape an ice storm or freeze snap that occurs later.  Pollination that early is also an issue, which is why I raise bees.  Not honey bees, mind you--mason bees.  Honey bees don't like to go out when it's not just the right warmth, and mason bees aren't that picky.

A long period of freeze plus snow blanket means later blooming, and thus a better chance of a good crop.  By the way, strawberries like it, too.

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