Monday, October 15, 2012

Cold-Weather Projects


The wonderment of autumn is best seen through a lens that only the rapid color change of deciduous foliage can cast. Here we are with another episode of Lost In the Farmers market, a web log devoted to the promotion of good horticultural practices, and the expansion of variety in the average garden. Today we have a couple of really cool things to cover I think you will find this episode of LITFM both useful and interesting.

Ficus afghanistanica ‘Silver Lyre’ – Afghan Fig

Sometimes in the trade you see something in the landscape that strikes you so greatly for reasons untold that you decide you absolutely must have one. In that light it becomes easy to understand the early plant craze known as tulip mania. I would not have known about Afghan figs had I not seen a specimen of the normal green type at Raulston Arboretum in Raleigh North Carolina late last year. The Afghan fig at Raulston had small unripe fruit on it proving that it was both vigorous and productive. Inevitably I had to track down the horticultural director to find out where they had gotten their plants from. They were incredibly helpful in giving me the contact information for their supplier Cistus Nursery in Portland Oregon.  As soon as I have more detailed information I will post it here, the two examples of this plant in the test gardens will no doubt prove interesting.

Eupatorium coelestinum – Mist Flower, Hardy Ageratum

This is a Hardy Ageratum, one of the many members of the Eupatorium family. This group of generally perennial herbs is best known by its most famous member Joe Pye Weed. For note these plants get their name Eupatorium from Mithridates Eupator the king of Pontus. In the case the Hardy Ageratum as the picture shows these perennials outwardly resemble common annual ageratum. The key difference is that the hardy ageratum tends to grow up to three feet tall and form dense herbaceous colonies. Hardy Ageratum also spreads by underground stolons and can colonize in even the poorest soils. This particular hardy ageratum is well noted for its drought tolerance and blight cheery sky blue blooms starting in summer through fall. I might add and this warrants further testing, Fire Ants seem not to want to colonize where this plant grows. Once the hardy ageratum began to grow around the compost pile the pile stopped having ant problems.

Eupatorium greggii - West Texas Mist Flower

This member of the Eupatorium family is a deciduous perennial like most eupatorium it spreads by seed and underground runners forming impressive seasonal colonies. The bloom resembles Ageratum but is limited to appearing in late-summer.  What makes this species interesting is that it has dark colored stems and bright green leaves with deeply serrated margins. The effect is a striking plant on par for use with Russian Sage, minus some unwanted aspects such as being borderline invasive.

With all that plant geek action covered here is the main topic. Now you may have heard that I make extensive use of raised beds in the test gardens. All the raised beds are supported by stone work which costs more in the short term but allows an extension of the growing season thus paying back the investments rather heavily. The main reasons for the raised beds are the ability to limit erosion, maintain soil fertility and quality and, it makes spotting my produce much easier. Plus, *knocks on wood* the voles seem unable to find my crops in raised beds. Some of you out there have heard of the high production beds, these were the first beds to be cut and the most heavily refined since their construction. Below is a picture of how they appeared just before today’s project began.

This is a picture of the high production beds.  Just outside the picture is high production bed #3 which will remain separate for the purpose of this project. On the right is HP1, in the middle is the asparagus bed and on the left is HP2.

The first steps to the process of combining and rebuilding these beds are to clear the remaining summer crops, harvest what you can and remove the residual mulch. After the mulch and crops are gone I carefully dug up the asparagus crowns and, set them aside on a tarp. If you are unable to replant the crowns the same day, you can put them in a bucket filled with water until you are able to replant them.

The next step is to remove stone work as needed, and lay bricks as needed to connect the beds.  At this point once one connecting wall is installed you can begin to move in the first loads of fill soil. In this case I am using raw compost because it has enough nutrient to feed the asparagus over time.

Following the last step is the continued filling of the middle area. At some point you can lay the opposite wall, and begin to add compost by shovel while smoothing the soil with a spring rake or hard rake as needed.

In the case of this project I mounded the compost up, and planted the asparagus in the peak of the mound. This is where the use of raw compost is important; raw compost still has coarse materials that can aid in countering soil erosion until the asparagus recovers.

In this picture, the mound is covered with 20 pounds of poultry manure compost. The addition of the manure is there to both increase soil fertility and promote rapid growth of the asparagus crowns.

After the manure is applied 2” of topsoil is scraped off the existing HP1 & HP2 beds and placed over the surface of the mound.

Next is the addition of 60 pounds of composted poultry manure over the entire soil surface area. According to the application information it says 10 pounds per hundred square feet.  The additional amounts are to compensate for several years of heavy feeding crops and to reduce the need for soil amendments and fertilizers next year.

In this picture the soil is smoothed out and the final soil amendment is being applied. I'm using organic composted turkey manure which is a much more sustainable soil conditioner then the wood ship fines you see at big box stores.

Special attention has been paid to the contours of the mound and keeping the soil as level as possible. The new dimensions of the bed are 8’ 4 ¼” by 8’ 4 ¼”  by 14" tall on average which amounts to 60.06 square feet and 71.33 cubic feet.

The next to last step is the planting of seasonal crops. In this case 27 lettuce plants, 9 collard plants, 5 red cabbage plants, and 20 mustard plants have been planted.  All of these seasonal plants are biennial which means a relatively consistent source of greens from fall through mid-spring.

 The final steps in this project are to water the plants individually and then lay pine straw.            
After the pine straw is applied the bed is watered heavily using a rain wand to both settle the soil and ensure uniformly moist soil strata.

That is how you combine existing beds with an eye for heavy productivity. This method will not be for everyone, but the rewards are worth it, for a few short hours work you get months of food production which can put a size able dent in your grocery bill. In our next episode we will cover more of the cold season preparations, and how to save seed since by now you no doubt have some ready to collect.  Remember you have about three to four weeks before it’s just about too late to plant cold-season crops, if you are going to start don’t delay.

Until next time; Keep ‘em growing!

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