Sunday, February 26, 2012

Part One: Things to Consider

Welcome back to another weekly installment of Lost in the Farmer’s Market!  Before I start today’s topic I wanted to recap some of what was discussed at the Neighborhood Grange meeting for those in the Fayetteville area who could not be present and those who wanted the full details of what was said.

1.     Raised bed versus Mound bed design
I briefly expounded on Marsha’s comments on garden design by covering the science of bed designs. The two styles she specifically discussed; the mound and raised bed styles have the following advantages  and disadvantages.

Mound bed advantages:
          -Excellent drainage.
          -Can be placed over any soil.
          -Can be any shape.

Mound Bed Disadvantages:
          -Water-based Erosion.
          -Lawn grass and weed encroachment.
          -Fertilizer residuals flush out of the soil readily.

Raised Bed Advantages:
          -Soil stays warmer Longer.
          -Walling material stops or slows soil erosion by water and wind.
          -Great variance in height allowing for handicapped access.

Raised Bed Disadvantages:
          -Higher cost to build.
          -Cheapest designs limit gardener to angular shapes.
          -More difficult to flush out residuals from fertilizers.

2.     The combinations of plants for better productivity.
We talked on combining plants that help each other as Marsha put it plants that give, put back, and help sustain. I listed two trios of plants that do this and Marsha herself noted a very important one.

-Cabbages, Legumes, Strongly Scented Herbs.
-Tomatoes, Carrots, Basil.
-Potatoes, Rye.

3.     Neglect-tolerant plants
At the request of a fellow ‘granger’ I discussed briefly some garden produce plants that are neglect resistant. Due to time constraints I could not cover the full list of ‘easy-care’ plants.

1.     Cabbage Family (Leaf group)
2.     Southern Peas
3.     The Solanum group (Pepper, Eggplant, Wonderberry, Garden Huckleberry/ Physalis: Ground Cherry & Tomatillo/ Ipomoea Sweet Potato)
4.     Okra
5.     Jerusalem Artichokes (Helianthus)

1.     Mint Family ( Rosemary, Mint, Sage, Basil, Savory)
2.     Borage Family (Borage, Comfrey)
3.     Eucalyptus
4.     Apiaceae (Parsley, Parsnip, Dill, Fennel, Carrot.)
5.     Aster Family (Tansy, Coneflower, Feverfew, Artemesia, Tarragon, Santolina)

1.     Fig
2.     Blueberry
3.     Persimmon
4.     Pomegranite
5.     Kiwi / Loquat / Blackberry (tied for 5th)

1.     Prickly Pear
2.     Sedum
3.     Aster Family (Coreopsis, Rudbeckia, Zinnia, Marigold, Eupatorium,  Sunflower)
4.     Petunia
5.     Russian Sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia)

Now with the recap handled for today’s neighborhood grange meeting I present today’s LITFM article!.

It is late February, all the seed catalogs have arrived, and now you’re no doubt itching to do something. The weather seems to mock you by being gorgeous one day then the next cold wet and miserable. In the north it’s a deep freeze and you’re being driven crazy by cabin fever. In the south, the weather seems to be toying with you. Thus the quandary comes along with that gardener’s itch. The itch I mean can’t be cured by an over the counter cream from a pharmacy, no it’s the want to grow something, anything! This is an urge all of us of the green thumb suffer with, its February spring is so close we can literally throw a rock and hit it in the eye; it cannot come soon enough. What is a gardener to do in such a case, well thankfully several things!

If your plants need it now would be a good time to perform repotting, most house plants are not actively growing and will suffer less transplant shock in the winter from such actions. Here is the Basic method to transplanting a houseplant or overwintered outdoor plant.

1.     Obtain a pot no more then 1” larger in diameter.
2.     Use a soil mix of the same type as you used in prior potting of the plant.
3.     Lay out newspaper over your work area.
4.     Turn the plant sideways and carefully tap the sides of the pot to loosen roots and soil.
5.     Carefully wiggle the plant and the root ball out of the pot, if it fails to loosen repeat step 4, and make sure to tap the bottom of the pot also.
6.     With the plant out of it’s old pot carefully loosen any visible roots by gently scraping the edges of the soil/root ball with a hand. This may shed some soil so be prepared to add this old soil to the compost pile.
7.     Put enough new soil in the new pot to raise the plant’s root ball to within ½” of the rim of the new pot.
8.     Backfill the new pot with new soil making sure to occasionally pack the new soil around the plant’s root ball to ensure no air pockets exist.
9.     Carefully finish filling the pot and place some of the soil over the exposed root ball.
10.                        Water the plant gently and keep it away from direct sunlight until it shows active growth.

In the garden if there are any plants you want to transplant now also is the time to do this, the process is about the same as indoor plant repotting. The difference is that you need only worry for air pockets in the planting hole and making sure to enrich the soil in the new location.

For those of you enthusiasts who like starting their garden plants from seed, now would be the time to start a few specific plants. The problem with February as a month is that April and May are so far off that most of the cold season plants don’t do as well when started now. But the slow-growing plants and the hot seasonal plants will need the extra head start. Some things to start from seed now include the following.

1.     Eggplant
2.     Peppers
3.     Slow-growing Herbs (Sage, Rosemary, Rue, Lavender)
4.     Hot season leaf greens (Strawberry Spinach, Amaranth)
5.     Slow developing annuals

You will likely need a heat mat to get your seed started and barring that you can set seeding flats or trays atop the refrigerator to mimic the soil warming of a heat mat. Once seeds emerge you should keep them in a sunny but warm location and keep a close eye on their development and watering needs. Until you see the emergence of the first true leaves refrain from using fertilizer, and keep watering to an as-needed basis with little excess to prevent fungal disease. Many a flat of seedlings has been lost to the notorious ‘Damping-Off’ a fungal disease that occurs when seeds are sown too densely and kept far too moist.

As a final note to today’s article it is a good idea to perform your major garden improvements now rather then later. The logic behind this is simple enough as the weather is both cool, acceptable and rains fall regularly enough to reduce post installation maintenance thus warranting the extra labor time. In short, it is easier to labor now then later when the heat is on and thus your rewards will both be greater but can be had at lesser overall effort.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

The life and times of a Black thumb

“I can’t grow anything I’m a total Black Thumb!”

We’ve heard this line before, If you say this or know someone who utters something like this with regularity then this is the article for you. For those unfamiliar a black thumb is supposed to be the opposite of a green thumb. Generally it is accepted that a ‘black thumb’ is a person whom for whatever reason is convinced they cannot grow any sort of plant.

There are five things any potential black thumb should know; these things also will improve greatly the survival rate of your plants. For those who are planning to give a plant to a potential black thumb

There are five rules to successfully growing house plants.

1.     All Plants need water
2.     All plants have a winter resting period.
3.     All plants will eventually need repotting.
4.     All plants need light to grow.
5.     A stressed or sick plant may get a bug problem.

The first rule is pretty obvious, even the hardiest of cactus and driest of air plants needs some form of water eventually. The key to meeting your plant’s watering needs is to remember what sort of plant it is and what environment it came from. A cactus is used to prolonged periods without great precipitation where as an air plant is used to humidity and foggy mist but no real actual rain. Part of the key to watering is to make sure the soil-media is allowed to dry out completely between watering. If the media is allowed to dry organisms that could cause root rot never get a chance to cause a problem. On the other hand, allowing the soil to dry also guarantees that the plant is able to breathe, as waterlogged soil has reduced airspaces. Lastly, remember to water before the soil contracts away from the pot, at this point you may need to dunk the soil to get it wet again.

Secondly, all plants have a winter resting period that is triggered by the cooling of temperatures and the reduction of light due to the natural reduction of photoperiods caused by the days becoming shorter. Since you cannot do anything about this outside of buying an expensive greenhouse setup to guarantee light year-round, the simple solution is to begin allowing somewhat more time to pass between waterings, and make absolutely sure the soil dries between waterings. During this rest period your average house plant will naturally not be doing much growing, and will need little or no fertilizer as a result, it generally will need just enough water to remain alive but not as much as would be needed to actively grow.

Third on the list is the simple fact that all plants eventually need repotting. It is noteworthy that certain cactus and succulents do respond to being ‘pot-bound’ with the production of flowers and offsets. The aloe, sanseveria, haworthia and, the ox-tongue for example will often produce flowers and offsets in response to being pot bound but will stop this for a while once they are repotted. The act of repotting is that of simple renewal, as the soil like all things eventually goes stale, it loses composition, nutrients and a plant may go into decline if it is no longer able to get what it needs from the soil. Additionally a depleted soil may not hold moisture very well potentially doubling what it takes to keep the soil-media moist. Now without going absolute soil science geek on you readers out there, in short, a soil relies on its organic matter to sustain life, and outside in your yard the organics are being replenished as are the nutrients by the yearly cycles of growth, death and decay. In a potted plant the cycle is not so effective there is only much that can occur in a comparatively sterile environment.  The simplest way to check for repotting is to  simply try to remove the plant from it’s pot, if you see a whole lot of roots circling about the perimeter of the root ball, the plant is likely ‘pot-bound’  or that the roots are holding the current soil so much they make a pot unto themselves.

The fourth point on the list is the fact is that no plant can survive in the absence of natural light. Some can survive, short periods but none will do well under such conditions.  Even the rugged Cast-Iron Plant whose name derives from the fact it was the only plant that could survive the dark saloons of the Wild West cannot survive in an environment with no light at all. Inversely some houseplants cannot tolerate direct sun either, so the simplest way to handle this is to always read the plant tags before you buy and determine where the plant is to go before any money changes hands at the garden center. If a houseplant has brown dry leaf edges it may be getting too much sun.

Lastly, it is an accepted fact that bug problems on your plants are generally of opportunistic nature. The plant became stressed at some point and the bugs moved in somehow to take advantage. The key to avoiding a lot fo this si simply to avoid getting your plants stressed in the first place, by minding how often you water, recognizing the winter rest period, and making sure your plants are not pot-bound and are getting the right amount of light.  Also making sure your plants arrive without pests or diseases by inspecting them will go a long way to preventing problems. Always check under leaves and in the areas where stems or branches meet the main body of the plant. Lastly always have a little spray insecticide handy, as well as rubbing alcohol and cotton swabs.

In closing, it is important to state that knowing what to do is as important as knowing how to do it. For all you black thumbs reading below is my top-ten list of the toughest house plants. For you skilled gardeners yes #1 is a curve ball plant, in the south Cast Iron plant is a garden perennial too, but it must be grown in shade in essence the cast iron plant gives you a two for one deal.

Top 10:  Neglect Proof House Plants
1.     Cast Iron Plant - Aspidistra elatior
2.     Snake Plant – Sanseveria trifasciata
3.     Zanzibar Gem – Zamioculcus zamiifolia
4.     Star Window Plant – Haworthia Cuspidata
5.     Ox-Tongue  - Gasteria liliputana
6.     Heart Leaf Philodendron – Philodendron cordatum
7.     Aloe Vera – Aloe barbadensis
8.     Desert Privet – Peperomia obtusifolia
9.     Peace Lily – Spathiphyllum spp.
10.   Rotary Peperomia – Peperomia verticillata

Please join us next Sunday when part one of the ‘Things to Consider’ series covers early season planting preparation. Thank you for reading, and if any of the above ten plants seems hard for you to find let me know, while it is not published I can tell you where to look for these plants. Lastly, remember to check out the Neighborhood grange web page at:

Sunday, February 12, 2012

In the pursuit of black gold

Before I get into today's post I'd like to thank all of you whom turned out for the Neighborhood Grange meeting at the Cape Fear Museum. All of you were a great audience and I hope the talk on soil preparation was useful.  For those who could not come or, those too far to come to the meeting, here is a shortened recap of what was said at the meeting by me, and as always don't be shy about emailing or posting me questions or comments. Thank you for reading.

Often we don’t take soil very seriously, some assume it will always be there, and then once it is eroded away we wonder what went wrong and may even balk at the cost of undoing the damage that we have wrought by inaction. Civilizations have seen decline due to poor stewardship of the land and the real mark of a people’s success can be seen in the imprint they leave upon the lands on which they live. Thus we have today’s topic your soil, and how you can best prepare it for the year ahead.

Some of you maybe heard the old horticultural adage that ‘Dirt is merely soil that is out of place.’ And such a maxim is quite true, the dust bowl’s infamous dust storms were essentially large particles of eroded sub soil borne on the wind due to erosion of the top soil and the demise of the vegetation that once held the soil in place. But how does soil get displaced exactly? First you need to know a little soil science to understand where soil comes from and how you can damage it thus causing erosion.

Out side of those in the agricultural or, environmental sciences it is a little known fact that the soil is composed of layers. These layers are called horizons and each one is for lack of a better description is a state of transition. Soil itself is composed of several things, minerals, organic matter and deposits of chemicals. Each of the three plays a critical role in the process of the varied horizons that form over millions of years. The birth of soil itself starts with the weathering of rock into smaller particles, these particles continue to break down through organic, chemical and environmental processes until by particle size they become sand, clay and silt type materials. The presence of metals and deposits of other minerals will add both color and nutrient value which then is fed upon by microorganisms and plants which further the action of these particles being broken down.

The soil itself is scientifically broken down into anywhere from three to five primary horizons depending on which book or expert you consult. It is generally agreed upon however that the horizons from top most to the bed rock are O, A, B and, C horizons.  Each horizon is essentially a state of transition, from the parent material (bedrock) towards the final material (topsoil.) In order from the top soil downward towards the bed rock the horizons are best defined as follows.
1.     The O horizon is usually the first 2” inches of the soil and is composed of mainly organic matter that is in varied states of decay.
2.     The A horizon may be upwards of 6” deep on average, this is the horizon where the fully decayed organic matter accumulates and bears  a large amount of soil life forms.
3.     The B horizon is often around 30” deep and is commonly called the subsoil. This is where the clay, iron, aluminum and organic residues tend to finally accumulate.
4.     The C horizon is the horizon in which the parent material breaks down to form materials for A and B horizon.
5.     Depending on who you ask, some sources will consider the bedrock itself an additional soil horizon.

For our purposes we need not worry to much about the bedrock, B horizon or C horizon because chances are we will likely not dig deeper then perhaps a foot and normally this foot is covered by O and A horizons for the most part. With all of that said, it takes a long time for bedrock to weather to make just C horizon, and in the same way it takes just as long for topsoil and the supporting vegetation to develop. Topsoil is a resource that is perpetually undervalued and critical to our survival, no topsoil no food.

Now that you know where soil comes from, and why it’s important, here is what you can do. In at least the state of North Carolina you can send off soil samples to the agricultural extension agency for free. I recommend doing soil tests at least once a year regardless of the state you live in. These soil tests will tell you what sort of soil you have and provide recommendations on what you should do to improve it for your own purposes.  One thing to remember is to collect the samples with tools and containers that are not made of galvanized steel or anything zinc plated, as both can skew your test results. If you send in soil samples now, and perhaps again in late fall the turnaround time for getting a report back will be fairly quick. Once you have your soil test results in hand or on screen as they tend to send you info by email, you can proceed to the nest step.

Preparing the soil is as much knowing what soil you have and testing it as it is knowing what you are to grow. If you are into growing members of the cabbage, melon or mallow family you can expect you will need to fortify the soil with nutrient and organics to keep up with their heavy feeding habits. In comparison tuberous crops such as yams, potatoes, turnips, rutabagas, peanuts, carrots, parsnips and, radishes will need a deeper then average soil with a loose texture and balanced nutrients. In the same way vegetables in which you eat the fruiting bodies such as cucumbers, tomatoes, eggplant and peppers can make do with soil of at least 6” depth but need nutrients to do best. 
The first thing to consider is your soil amendments. Obviously there is no shortage of options in this department and at any given garden center you will likely be bombarded with sometimes understandably excessive claims.

1.     Peat moss: a good source of organic matter, it acidifies the soil a little, may require wetting before use and comes from non-sustainable sources.
2.     Coir Fiber: An excellent contrast to peat moss, it is pH neutral, comes from coconut husks and is sustainable, a bit pricy, but this will change as it sees more distribution.
3.     High Potency Manure: Products such as Black hen qualify as their nutrient level is often two or three times higher then normal composted manure. The price is often double, but a little does go a long way.
4.     Composted Manure: Generally sold as composted cow manure, this soil amendment does not burn, produces instant soil improvement and is reasonably priced. The downside is you don’t know what the cows ate and the quality can greatly vary.
5.     Agricultural Bi-product: The best example of this is Mushroom compost which is the fully decomposed logs left from mushroom growing. Generally nearly neutral pH, reasonably reliable in quality and scent-free, this stuff is good but may be pricy.
6.     Worm Castings: These are the fecal matter produced by worms in a vermiculture setting and are probably the least-gross of the manures. They don’t need composting, they don’t smell and they don’t burn plants, in fact you can even use one cup per gallon of water to make one hell of a compost tea. The problem is that they can be expensive for use in large areas.
7.     Home Compost: this is your compost, the advantages and disadvantages are the same, you know what’s in it, and its quality varies based on the time you spend working on it. Home composting is the closest one can get to making natural topsoil.
8.     Mulch: All mulch serves a primary purpose, that is to prevent wind and water based erosion, while also looking nice. It also serves the secondary purpose of simulating natural leaf-litter and breaking down to add to the topsoil. As a result mulch effectively is the cheapest soil amendment imaginable. Certain mulches do have effects on the soil, pine straw and park acidify, rubber much leaches zinc into the soil, and cedar and cypress mulches may repel termites.
9.     Potting soil: Potting soil is probably the last resort soil amendment, its nutrient value is questionable, and some mixes come with added chemicals that may not help you very much. However if you are dealing with pure clay or pure sand,  flooding the bed area with 3:1 ratios of cheap potting soil (ie Hyponex) may be the fastest way to kick start a garden and set a decent if nutrient poor foundation to improve from later.
10.                         Coarse Amendments: Sometimes the soil is so hard to deal with one must resort to macro-particle amendments such as perlite, vermiculate, construction sand, or even ultra-fine crushed gravel to gain any traction. Coarse amendments do nothing for nutrient and only exist to help bust through severe hardpan or Caliche type soil conditions, Green sand pay help break down the clay, but ultimately this is a drainage solution.

Needless to say, your soil test should determine what amendments to use as it will tell you your soil structure and what you should do.  There are three final thoughts to soil preparation to consider before you start applying materials anywhere. Firstly is the placement of your beds where you put a garden bed determines what will grow, how much amending and how much fertilizer you will need. For instance areas that flood during rain storms may need to be raised and walled to prevent the mulch and soil from floating off as well as the nutrients from leaching away. Areas near roadsides may need extra mulch to keep the soil cool in summer and limit soil freezing in winter, and also may need additional water. Beds near structures and stone or concrete paths will likely be in a micro-climate and thus soil amendments should be tailored specifically.  Also the orientation of a bed in consideration of the sun’s path through the sky may determine what you can or cannot plant.
Second, one must also consider the prior years of growth, specifically what was there before, and what you intend to put there now. Repeated planting of the same crops in the same spots will slowly in most cases deplete the soil of specific nutrients. So consider soil replenishment on an annual basis. An alternative is to consider planting heavy feeders with plants that naturally replenish the soil, such as legumes and cabbages.

Third know the nutrient needs of your plant stock, some plants become a weed if over fed while others don’t produce what you want if they aren’t getting the right nutrients. For instance, Nasturtiums will produce tons of leaves but no flowers if they get too much nitrogen. This is great if you like the leaves as salad greens but terrible if you want the buds for pickling or the flowers for attracting pollinators.

The last factor to consider is your soil’s basic pH and what your plants require. The soil’s ph effects what nutrients are available and in what amounts with this in mind it’s a good idea to try keep the soil ph between 6.0 (low acidic) and 8.0 (low alkaline) or roughly neutral. Most plants will do well in that range and most soil borne nutrients are available to plants in that range as well.

In conclusion I hope this somewhat long article about soil preparation was useful and as always you can send in questions to the email attached to this blog. Next weeks article is ‘The life and times of a Black thumb’ and is about house plants that even a black thumb can grow; thank you for reading.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Back from dormancy!

I know there hasn’t been many updates of the blog, you can  blame me being tied up in horticultural endeavors. But Lost in the Farmers Market proudly returns with this post but before we get to today’s horticultural post there is some news.

1.     Southward Skies second edition is now available on for digital download as an ebook for the kindle. The digital version of the book contains the original intended covers and is formatted exactly as the print copy is.
2.     The second edition is also available as a PDF file which can be ordered through email, I’ll be taking orders for the PDF version at the two upcoming events mentioned below.
3.     The actual print version of second edition will be available in mind-late February, in a limited print run. The updates to the book include 50 new photos, and entirely re-done herbs, vegetable, ornamental, weeds and pests sections.
4.     On Sunday February the 12th 2012 I will be the guest speaker at the neighborhood grange meeting located at the Cape Fear Museum  in Fayetteville North Carolina At 3:00pm. The topic being discussed is Winter Soil Preparation for improved harvest and, How to maintain a 365 day garden. While I cannot say if print copies of second edition will be available at the event I can say the PDF version will be ready and available.
5.     I have confirmation that I will be participating as a speaker in the Urban Farm Day event, it is going to occur at the downtown community garden on Van story and Mann Street on Saturday May the 12th 2012 from 10:00 am through 3:00pm. By then there will definitely be hard copy of the book available as will PDF versions. As with last year there will be a plant sale, giveaways, and a rare copy of Desert Harvest will be available.
6.     About the book, the three versions of the book have set pricing, The Kindle electronic book version, is 9.99, the PDF version is 15.00, and the print version, which will be signed, is 25.00. The kindle version and PDF versions are available now; the hard copy is due in mid to late February.

But enough about that shameless promotion, time to talk about the topic at hand, winter gardening. Did you know that it is possible to produce a crop every month of the year? The key is timing of course knowing when to do what is as important as knowing how to do it.

January & February
January & February are often bleak months, it’s cold, it might be wet, and most have resigned themselves to winter leaving the garden to fend for itself. Up north the ground may be too cold to work, and in the Deep South while the ground isn’t frozen the weather may be uncooperative. But there are several critical things you can do in the first months of the year that can save you a lot of  effort later on when it will be harder to accomplish the tasks or too late to start work.

Knowing the size and depth of your beds will help you determine what you can grow, but also will help you evaluate what work needs to be done before the spring crops are planted. Also measuring out areas for new beds is best done during the first two months of the year because you have time to tweak the placement and appearance of the beds. Drawing actual plans of your beds at this time is part of measuring because it helps demonstrate the nature of your garden and aids in keeping your plans within reasonable limits.

Look at your garden, determine what worked last year and why, then look at what did not do well and also consider why. Now is the best time to consider where you may want to transplant things or what basic changes you need to make to improve conditions. Also now is the time to send off soil samples to your local agricultural extension agency to have the soil tested. The tests will aid in determining what you must do later on for the soil.

In late December through March is when your plant supply and seed catalogs tend to arrive. If you are not getting these already then January generally is the best time to sign up for them. It may save you some effort to go through each once bending the page edges that bear things your immediately interested in, then going back through with a highlighter making the things that you know you can reasonably grow. The idea behind this is to burn out the shoppers urge so you don’t overdo it before you start.
If you stick to the things you know you have the space for and can absolutely grow then pick a handful of experimental plants your chances for overall success will be better.

Once you understand the space you have, what plants you want to grow, and the soil test results are back you can then before planting go about making structural improvements. I always advice doing the heavy lifting during the winter and fall for two reasons; reduced insect annoyances and  the weather is cooler and thus you have to strain less to get the same result.  Good tasks for the late winter and autumn include building raised beds, cutting new beds, adding soil improvements and applying mulch.  Lastly in the improvement phase you can readily adjust your plant selection with information gleaned from earlier steps weather patterns and any other changes that are prompted.

It is fair to say that the above is more or less the groundwork for what will come next,  but that portion of this series will appear next week, when I in conjunction with the public appearance noted at the beginning of this article will discuss soil preparation in detail.

February Update schedule
2/12 – Winter Soil Preparation
2/19 – The life and Times of a black thumb.
2/26 – Things to Consider.