Sunday, September 30, 2012

Double-Post!: Gardening for Fall & Winter

Welcome back to another episode of Lost in the farmer’s Market. Due to an exceptionally busy two weeks last weekend's post was combined with this week's post so that all aspects of the topic could be covered in a single post to keep the update schedule in line. for those of you with somewhat slower connections, this post will be very photo heavy, but trust me, I think you will enjoy the imagery as much as the information.

 First off is a picture of the proof copy, this is what will become Southward Skies Second Edition, This arrived within the last week. The process of editing and proofing the book is the last portion before print copies arrive. The first shipment of books should arrive between October 5th through the 10th, and will be available for sale immediately. The book is 120 pages of gardening info for those of you on the east coast. Also the digital version is available for kindle and with a free app for the Ipad/Iphone on right now. The book costs $25.00 (usd) in print or $10.00 in digital format, you can either send a message through this blog, the sustainable neighbors meetup group or come to the Sustainable neighbors meetings at the cape fear historical museum. Enough of the plugging of second edition, lets see some fall picture goodness.

As the weather cools and the deciduous trees begin shedding leaves, we are on a direct course for autumn. Today’s topic is about cool-season crops, and how to keep your garden productive during the cool periods of fall, winter and early spring. But before we get to that I have a few pictures from the test gardens that I thought you would find interesting.

 This is a Gasteracantha cancriformis or Star Spider.

These spiders are common in the sandhills area, what makes them interesting is that at this time of the year along with other larger spiders they will often build webs stretching between the limbs of a tree to the ground. This of course puts their web at head height for an unwary passerby. I don't think they are poisonous but be wary when you walk at night, the webs are hard to see.

 Occasionally I do get questions inquiring as to what could possibly take so much time at the test gardens in general,  below is a series of three pictures showing the second generation of our own hybrid okra 'Clark's Mammoth' which was crossed between 2009 and 2010 and is now the sole okra species grown.

A close up of the hybrid Okra showing the particularly attractive bloom and a young 3" pod.

 The 'blood splat' is a common feature on the leaves of this  hybrid, in larger plants the splat is far more vibrant.

 Unlike last year the two production specimens were grown in much smaller 8" pots to see if they would still bear full pods despite the lack of space. As the first picture above attests, they will in fact mature just fine under cramped conditions.

As you can Imagine, the idea of our own localized hybrid is pretty exciting, hope fully next year will be the first in which full in-ground trials on a normal scale will begin with the third generation. But good news aside we also have the following picture of another crop in the test gardens.

 Sweet potatoes only bloom when reasonably mature, and in the years since the start of the gardens, ours have not until this year. These small cup shaped blooms are something else, if only the ornamental potato vines did this with any regularity they would be worth a whole lot more as a annual.

 Two years after being planted, the Swamp Sunflowers finally bloomed this month. For those who don't know Swamp Sunflower's Latin name is Helianthus angustifolius, and it is a perennial that can handle wetter soils then the common sunflower we think of. Just like Jerusalem Artichokes and other sunflowers pollinators love it.

This is Eupatorium, and it is a volunteer around the compost pile that is covered in these blue batchelor's button type flowers right now. It spreads as much by seed as it does by stolons and is quite attractive even if it is technically a weed. As far as wild flowers go it is a good candidate for shady areas to attract pollinators who don't like open areas.

Trycirtus, or toad lily in full bloom. I posted some stuff about these guys earlier in the year before planting them, and they bloomed the same year which is a bit rare. With flowers like this it was totally worth it to grab a few.

Saint Johns Wort, the round things are the seed capsules which in this variety are just as ornamental as the flowers. The short-lived blooms are bright yellow and can light up a land scape with ease.

 And last in the list for the fall menagerie Chicory, which has been in bloom almost non-stop since late spring. Talk about a plant with boundless optimism. Chicory is a tough plant that can handle drought and poor soils with ease, the blooms are preferred by pollinators too.

 Now onward to the main topic, how to produce a cold-season harvest? Today I have a step-by-step photographic guide to how we at the test gardens prepare a bed for cold season crops. It is important to mention that we are geared for absolute productivity in minimum space and high efficiency. Some of the quantities of materials we use are higher then would be normal for the average backyard gardener. More plants more amendments and much more maintenance, in your case I strongly advise you adjust as needed for your own situation and what your goals are.

A few weeks ahead I tend to start seed using recycle cell packs, a basic soil mix and a reasonable group of cold season food plants. In this case it's Paris Market Carrots, Red Cabbage, Dino Kale, Snow Peas and Chinese Cabbage. 


A electric seed warming mat and a  humidity dome can aid or hamper germination depending on what you are growing. Cool seasonals may turn to mush if the dome is kept on too long. In the back are my late-summer lettuce and cabbage-collard plants, I tend to start three batches of cool-seasonal crops and use the best outdoors when planting time comes.

While sowing your crops you must also undertake what is called culling, in which you pull up and remove any crop plants that are in the area you wish to plant with cool-season plants. The exception to this rule is if the crops are perennial or have formed fruit that is close to maturity. In the above case a number of fruitless peppers and eggplant have been pulled and the soil shaken from their roots. These pulled plants should be composted

The first step at the test gardens is to gently remove the existing mulch so you don’t loose too much soil.

I know what some of you will likely say here, ‘Pine Straw?!’. Yeah the test gardens are fortunate enough to have five white pines (Pinus alba) on the property that produce scores of fine needles that rapidly decompose. There is also a single Long Leaf pine which is also home to a decent stand of Spanish moss. The first rule of good horticulture is to look at what you have and use it responsibly. I took to using pine straw due to the large feral cat population. The cats love using disturbed soil to go to the bathroom, so I’d often see miniature mounds in the garden beds. They won’t however mess with a garden bed that has pine straw. The straw makes for less incentive for them to hang around and bother the numerous species of birds that visit the test garden regularly.

The second step is to carefully move the top 2” of soil over the planting area into a wheel barrel.

As you can see the soil has great structure and while sand is a significant component this soil despite being dry is rather dark. As I continue the re-enrichment process twice a year it will likely become blacker then the night sky. Keeping fertile productive garden soil is a constant process but you will be rewarded with exceptional yields.

The third step is to apply your soil fertility booster of choice to the new area.

 In this case I used a large quantity of poultry manure, at a rate that may be upwards of six times the labeled amount. I know this sounds excessive however the soil in this region grew a heavy summer crop and before that a heavier winter crop. As noted in a prior soil, you need to feed your soil if you want the best results, if that means compost or some other amendment don’t be shy about it either.

The planting of a cool season pea is part of the plan too.

In this case on the same trellis where the waning Malabar Spinach from summer is slowly winding down; two types of Snow pea are direct sown into the garden. Taichung, a ferry Morse variety, and Snow Bird a Burpee variety are sown. The trellis has three sections and on the outer sections snow bird was sown while Taichung was sown in the center. At the very least when a few pods mature fully and seed is collected I might have an interesting Snow Pea cross. With any luck there will be snow peas to store for winter, and the possible cross will have taichung’s size and vigor with snowbirds cold resistance and sweet floral scent.

The plants you choose are as variable as your own dinner table preferences.

These lettuce and cabbage-collards are planted with maximized spacing to encourage high-quality leaves for even better harvests later.

So here we have Black-Seeded Simpson Lettuce, and Cabbage-Collards, two good full-cold season edible leaf greens. The collards are planted higher up in the row to give them more soil depth while the lettuce is planted in zigzag patterns to maximize space between the plants. The effect is that I can rapidly see any problems and act on them before they become anything more then a nuisance.

Watering in is of course the Next part, a gentle pre-watering occurs first. After the pre-watering the mulch is gently replaced to hide the signs of cultivation and discourage critters.

To reduce the incidence of plant transplant shock all plantings are watered gently using a 1-liter watering can. The sown seed are watered a bit less gently to ensure as much of the soil around the seeds is wet enough to promote even germination. In this case the mulch also acts as a modest repellant for the local feral cats as well as a limited erosion control. Thankfully at this time of the year the mulch is a bit brittle and reapplication means less fussing with it as it tends to land gently about the plants but does not necessarily block their growth towards light. I would also as a final action hit these plants with a standard potency bit of fertilizer in my case it's always Alaska Fish Fertilizer. In a few weeks your plants might look like this first batch Napa cabbage planted in a 14" pot.

 This picture was taken two weeks ago, at the moment from a top-down view, you cannot see the pot, hows that for successful organic goodness?

Now what good discussion of methods is complete without a listing of good winter crops? I started this list  two episodes ago and as now is the time to plant here is a list of things that are good for the garden and for beginner to intermediate skill gardeners.

Easy / Beginner: Lettuce, Flat-Leaf Cabbage, Collards, Radish, Carrots, Mustard and, Snow Peas.

The beginner group contains a number of easily purchased plants in both seed and plant form that require little to be successful at and in the case of the snow peas are good for use in teaching kids how to garden.

Medium/ Intermediate: Asparagus, Cilantro, Flat-leaf Kale, Broccoli, Cauliflower, Turnip, Rutabaga, Parsnip and, Kohlrabi.

The intermediate group consists of common cold-seasonal crops some of which can be bought as plants, but all can be bought as seeds. These plants require more attention to care, watering and especially soil quality. In the case of cilantro it is the easiest of the bunch, but does not tolerate hot weather. The cilantro seeds are of decent size to handle for older kids and the plants grow fast. Asparagus is the only perennial in the group, it takes more then a year to produce anything edible but is highly adaptable to soil types. I may take experimentation to determine what works best for you with this particular plant.

Hard/Difficult: Kale (Heavily curled types), Cabbage (Head Forming types),  Broccoli Raab, Strawberry Spinach and some of the head-forming Asian cabbages.

The Difficult group consists of plants with tricky seed germination, and limited availability of plant stock. In the case of head cabbages it takes more effort to grow a plant of any size due to heavier then average nutrient needs. Insect damage may be harder to spot early and need a trained eye. I might add because of these plant’s potential you will need deeper soil of higher quality. In case of heavily curled kale such as ‘Russian Red’ insect damage may be harder to spot because the leaves already appear ragged normally. In the case of Winterbor Kale the leaves are heavily curled providing places for pests to hide and continue to damage your crop unseen.

With all that said, Next week, the second phase of the cold-season crops discussion will continue as generally it is best to get these crops in the ground within the first two weeks of October. Again I am sorry for the long double post ands thank you for your patience; but I hope you all have found it useful, I promise the next one will be more compact.

As Always folks, Keep ‘em Growing!

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