Thursday, January 31, 2013

Winter Garden Geek Action!

Welcome back to another episode of Lost In the Farmer’s Market, where we are completely not immune to garden geek mayhem! Today we have a slight diversion from the planning topic to talk about some horticultural delights. Some of the plants covered to day were referenced in prior articles and the first such plant was covered repeatedly as a hard to kill plant for the southern garden.

Just when you thought Rosemary was a one-trick pony, it is actually a winter-bloomer. I admit this isn't a great picture but it does demonstrate the basics.
This rosemary is now 12 years old. It was planted on 2000/2001 in its current spot the last time I lived in Fayetteville. I have no doubt it was probably a Bonnie plant but with virtually no care it has grown into an incredible hedgerow of herbal goodness. Few realize that rosemary is within the mint family Lamiacieae, and thus has square stems. The flowers are typical of the mint family and as seen here are cheery bright blue colors. Rosemary exclusively is a winter bloomer and tends to put out flowers on its oldest stems between January and February in the region. I don’t know how mature rosemary must be to bloom, but I will know eventually as the clone of this specimen is growing on the other side of the cement pad.

My rescued specimen of Mahonia in bloom.
This little guy was rescued from Cape Fear Botanical Garden as it was about to be pulled out of a bed. It was clearly a volunteer, and had picked a bad place to grow. Before it was going to be pulled and tossed out with the weeds I gently dug this one up and kept it in a 1 gallon pot for a few months before planting it in the shady rock garden. It is rare that Mahonia this small bloom, so this was quite a surprise, maybe the plant was showing gratitude for its rescue?

Blushing Philodendrons are not seen often in the trade.

In an earlier article I noted that philodendrons have the unique ability to exude excess water from their foliage. This ability seems to only present itself during periods of high humidity or when the plant is excessively watered. For those of you who missed the house plants post with this particular plant pictured above is a Blushing Philodendron. The blushing philodendron for note is a larger variety of philodendron best known for its red stems and seeming reddish blush to the undersides of its leaves. In comparison to devils Ivy or golden pothos Blushing Philodendrons are slower growing and have very visible aerial roots.  But with the first three plants covered the next plant is the cause of this very plant-geek type distraction.

So someone at bLowes seems to have been paying attention, I was in the Skibo road location lately picking up a doorbell kit as the one at the Clark Ranch is very broken. Inevitably I found myself in the green house area where they keep the house plants and was amazed at something. Lowes was carrying a line of plants, labeled “Plants of Steel” and ironically every plant there was included in last years “black thumb-proof” plants article series. It figures that finally lowes would get the point, amazingly they even had Spear sanseverias in little white ceramic pots. As some of you might remember the spear sanseveria was a featured plant from last year as I saw it in Bizarre Botanicals and spent two years trying to find one.

The waxy leaves resemble some of the tropical ficus, and care should be taken to avoid wetting them so they dont get water stains like you see in this picture.
As some of you might know I habitually cruise the plant racks at the garden centers all the time to see if the stores might be able to sell me on something I’ve not seen before. Well bLowes managed it this time. If you will recall during the holiday house plants series of articles in the article “Seasons Greetings “ posted on 12-02-2012, I covered the Heurnias and gave brief mention to a specific relative, the Adenium or Desert Rose.  The desert rose has been a favorite of mine since I was first introduced to a specimen of one back in 2004. I even had one as a house plant while I lived in New Jersey. My original specimen was about three feet tall and occupied a 3 gallon nursery pot. When I moved to North Carolina I had to give my desert rose specimen to a cactus and succulent enthusiast since it was far too large to transport. Ever since then my eyes have been peeled for a replacement specimen to no avail. That is until just a few days ago when I saw a few of them for sale in bLowes. Much to my surprise some of the succulents were in full bloom.

Not unlike a school kid let loose toy store with several weeks worth of allowance in hand I set about picking a single Desert Rose. This for me was serious business; I looked for any signs of illness, pests or other factors such as overly dry soil. I skipped over the plants in full bloom and finally found one with buds but no evidence of having actually bloomed already. Of course being the utter plant geek I am, inevitably I wound up in a conversation with another shopper who was telling me about her Desert Roses. You see it’s a funny thing, all of us plant people know when others have their vaunted trophy in hand.  Inevitably, during this conversation someone else mistook me for an employee and I wound up diagnosing a plant problem and giving plant advice. It may have to do with the green hooded sweatshirt; another mystery for another day I guess.

Skipping ahead I got this beauty home and it’s now the centerpiece of the living room along side a Swiss cheese plant and a duke of orange philodendron. I hope it will bloom soon and when it does you can expect pictures, but go ahead and google ‘Desert Rose’ if you dare, the blooms are incredible. What makes the Adenium especially appealing is its unique architectural form which resembles a miniature Baobob tree while the root structure looks as if it would be perfectly at home growing over a rock in Bonsai style.

I always liked the desert rose because it reminds me of the Baobab Tree of Africa, minus the being leafless 9 months of the year of course.
As a final note to my complete plant geek side-track here, I might add I think there were five left at the Lowes on Skibo Road the plant cost about 7.00 and came in that nice ornamental terracotta pot. So maybe I should stop calling Lowes by my nickname for the store ‘bLowes’, just on account of their taking a chance and stocking a uncommon and often hard to find succulent that was also actively blooming.

If you think I should stop being so hard on bLowes feel free to contact me or, leave a comment at the Sustainable Neighbors Meetup page in the forums section.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Garden Planning: Part 3

Welcome back to a slightly belated episode of Lost in the Farmer’s Market, as some of you may know the semester is underway and that often competes with time for this blog. That aside today’s topic is a continuation of last week’s conversation regarding the four steps to early planning. The third step is the actual act of turning your measurements and observations into actual drawings which will be essential when ascertaining what to plant and where.

I admit there are a several schools of thought as to how to lay out a garden. Some popular methods include square foot, cottage, row, terraced and, raised bed styles all of which are equally effective when the terrain and environment warrants. However today we are going to handle the topic in the simplest way possible so first off I will be using scans of drawings of one particular bed in the test gardens. Some of you out there may have heard of my work with the high production beds. Those of you who are new to this blog or to my work may not have seen the humble beginnings of the high production beds.

This was sketched in a note book along with other relevant harvest data in September of 2009.

This is clearly a rough sketch of the High Production (HP) Beds as they existed in late 2009. Provisions for significant mulch and the addition of a soaker hose to counter the late droughts of August and September were in consideration. The lack of measurements over all isn’t actually a problem since at this level precision has no effect on productivity. I might add in 2009 the HP beds were un-walled and thus were raised mounds to a height of about 6” with slight irrigation “trenches” around each bed. The need to mulch at the time was more to control the existing Bermuda grass issues then to stop other weeds.

In the case of the average gardener who just wants a garden this sort of drawing can be fully acceptable. Since base sketches require no measurements and still leave a record of where things are located they can serve as a useful tool. The real benefit of a base sketch of this sort is that you don’t even need drawing tools or any real skill at artistry to make an functional concept drawing that you can refine freely. An old favorite trick of mine was that instead of redrawing a bed repeatedly I would make a master copy. The master would have all the fixed information such as paths, walls and things that could not be changed, but had no common garden plants listed.  The blank master copy would then be run off a copier by the dozens and the duplicates used to make edits and proposed changes. This method admittedly is incredibly low-tech but very effective for those not experienced in landscape drafting.

A brief proposal for drainage improvement and irrigation efficiency, this concept was never built as the paver-wall plan replaced it.
I admit, this is another sketch from the same book but you can see the plan has changed to incorporate considerations for other plant crops. The gravel trench irrigation idea also was a way to compensate for the water needs of the new crop.  The informal idea here was that I realized due to the fact the area of the HP garden was on a gentle slope, if I cut trenches on either end of the bed and filled them with gravel this might be used as a water collection point for when it rains. By the time I had drawn this one, More then one heavy rainstorm had floated off the applied mulch and this was supposed to be a semi-remedy.

For all of you readers out there, this also demonstrates how you can add limited multi dimensional ideas to a base sketch. It doesn’t have to be an engineering plan it only has to get your ideas across to whoever might read it. Drawing things out always helps you determine what will work and what may not long before you invest in plant stock and materials. It is also easier to ball up and throw away a piece of notebook paper then it is to purchase materials and find out your plan is fatally flawed.

I might add this plan as drawn was flawed, the angle of drainage and soil type alone would have made this drainage ditch idea a fatal waste of materials and funds. If you notice the plan also does little to address the sandy soil, weed problems or the nutrient needs of the individual crops. Ironically I would end up instead lining the collard and nightshade beds with rectangular paving stones set into the ground 2” deep on their longest dimension effectively making low height raised beds. These modified beds were filled with spent potting soil, compost and whatever non-native soil amendments I could get. In function this concept improved nutrient retention, reduced weed problems but still suffered with drought and soil depletion during the peak heat.

This drawing was an informal master-blank from the end of 2010.
This is a measured master drawing that is intentionally left blank but the structural elements are noted clearly. Unlike the last two drawings distances and proportions in regards to other outside structural objects are noted clearly giving the HP beds true size and dimension. This sort of drawing increases your ability to exactly place plants by using their full sizes to figure where everything will be when the design is finished. 

I have to say this was one of many proposed configurations for the HP beds which as of the time this was drawn had officially gotten the name ‘High Production Beds’. For note the right side of these beds faces roughly east, and thus their placement maximized solar exposure. This alone as I would discover meant that I could get away with a nearly 365 day growing year because the soil in these beds never cooled as much as the surrounding soil. You might notice that the asparagus row disappeared in this design. I don’t know in hindsight why that is, but it may have been proposed due to poor yields that the asparagus be moved to the triangle bed on the other side of the yard.

This revision was proposed in late 2010, and is the final design I went with.
This drawing was scaled not for the plants but for the area, which puts it on the opposite end of the prior drawing. The clear relationships between objects are heavily noted as is theoretical plant selections. The precise measurements have revealed that indeed the Asparagus bed at that time was longer then HP beds 1&2. This discrepancy in bed length went unnoticed until this drawing was done, and affected the final design as installed in early 2011. The advantage to drawings this exact is that they tell you a lot about your area and allow you to start planning plant layouts in advance. You can ascertain precisely where things need to go and how many of them you can put in. For the purposes of crop rotation this sort of drawing is very important as it can be used estimate soil depletion and enrichment cycles as well as irrigation needs.

On a personal note, this wound up being the final design for the HP beds up until late 2012. The design served an interesting purpose in determining the best way to build raised beds but also it was instrumental in determining the best soil to amendment ratio. I did draw one major conclusion from this design; the sand hill’s soil is nine shades of awful. The result of this determination was that instead of the industry standard of improving native soil with amendments, I began to instead remove and replace at a rate of 1 part native soil to three parts amendment. Some of you out there might balk at that however once this was attempted in 2012, productivity spiked upwards. As it turns out, at least in my area the soil was actually worse then the soil tests indicated.

Drawn in October of 2012, this is the current incarnation of the High production beds.

As you can see here this drawing is semi technical. The only way to make this more so would be to break out the drafting board and redo this on vellum paper using an engineer’s scale and drafting tools. For my purposes with the project this is about as professional as I go. Unlike the other drawings this one is measured in all three dimensions as the measurements in the upper right attest. The bed actually is perfectly square and is fourteen and a half inches tall. The notation of bed height is important as it pertains to the soil space of the crops listed on the right and as noted in the drawing.

I might note, the soil in the bed actually adds another six inches of height to the bed as the asparagus sit in a raised mound of soil while the rest of the crops sit flush with the brick walls. The only thing in this sketch that is permanent is the soil, walling materials and the asparagus planted slightly off-center. In case you are wondering the horizontally placed bed noted in the last two drawings sits outside the drawing area of this sketch.

What makes this level of design accuracy and detail important is that it is useful on many levels if you are gardening from a standpoint of production. My goal here is to produce a winter crop to reduce my winter grocery bills, but more so it also allows me to study plant productivity and the methods to achieve a local sustainable food supply. The plant list alone can be used to determine how many individual plants it would take to make a meal of some sort for a set number of people. The height of the bed can be used to determine what the ideal raised production bed height should be. Further more the bed’s height could be used to pick root crops to match. The plants noted in the sketch also serve as a test bed. Few realize that well fed asparagus fronds can grow up to seven feet tall which casts light shade for whatever is behind it in this case.  That alone coupled with the raised height of the bed in which the asparagus grows can make for a small micro climate for whatever plant is behind the asparagus which may mean food plants such as the sorrels might grow well behind the taller crop. More heat tolerant plants could be grown in front and on the sides, and the best part is, since birds love perching in tall asparagus, there’s no shortage of birds handling insect problems.

It’s a lot to think about, at this level it stops being a garden, you’re plans in this case are on the level of micro-terraforming. What your doing is you’re planning to make miniature climates and environments, effectively beautifying the world one square foot at a time. Your reward is a home grown crop that doesn’t have to sit in some box for hours or days before arriving at a market. All it takes is a piece of paper and a clear vision of what you would like to have, and what area you have to work with. If that’s not a reason to start drawing out those garden plans I don’t know what is.

Check back next time when we cover the fourth and final part of early planning, the gathering of supplies. Also I will have some cool winter plant photos of stuff in bloom during the winter, and a photo of a succulent plant I talked about during the holidays. Until then readers, remember to keep ‘em growing.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Garden Planning: Part 2

Welcome back to another edition of Lost In the Farmer's Market. This week the topic is about garden planning and in specific today we are talking about taking measurements. While I  admit most people do know how to use a measuring tape, there are a few things about making that information useful for planning that are not so clear. 

Before we get into details of taking measurements of your garden I do need to talk briefly about something you experienced gardeners should be doing right now aside from measuring. Whether you know it or not now is the time to take soil samples. It's winter, you've no doubt harvested some of your winter crops leaving holes in your cold season garden. Another reason to take soil samples now is because you need to know what amendments if any you need to add before planting time in April. With that said you may want to take several samples per bed, using the free UDSA soil cartons and ship them off to the testing center. The cartons can be dropped off at cooperative extension centers who will take them to the USDA soil testing labs free of charge. I might add all parts of this USDA service is free so put it to good use. Before the end of the month I will have an article up here covering in detail how to take soil samples. But enough on soil sampling and onward to taking measurements.

The second step to preparing your garden is to take your measurements right now. There are three factors to consider in regards to measuring your bed space however, the first two are length and width however height and depth can come into play.

The first thing to do is to make sure you have adequate measurement tools and a way to record what you are measuring. Generally most garden bed measurements can be handled with a basic twenty-five foot tape measure however in some cases a measuring tape reel is needed to handle distances over fifty feet. Both of these tools thankfully can be bought at any hardware store and cheaper version may even be available in the house wares or hardware sections of supermarkets and drugstores. Admittedly some gardeners due to the size of their garden beds can make due with a yard stick and thus you have to make a decision based on your individual situation.

Fortunately reading a measuring tape follows the exact same standards as reading a yard stick except for the fact there is simply more yard stick to read essentially. Some tape measures will indicate increments down to a 1/16th of an inch, but when measuring gardens it’s wiser to keep your measurements rounded to the quarter inch for mathematical purposes when calculating square footage of a bed. Don’t worry I will cover how to measure square footage of a bed later in this article.

I know for some of you using a tape measure is an easy thing, however for those readers who aren’t confident with its use, the first thing you need to learn is how to retract the measuring tape, and how to stop the movement of the measuring tape. Typically measuring tapes will come with a button or switch on the front above the tape that when raised retracts the tape and when lowered or pressed locks the tape in its current position. Also at the end of the measuring tape where it peeks out of the body there is often a metal lip which exists as much to prevent the spring inside from drawing the tape into the body as it does for the purpose of latching the tape onto a solid object and upping the tape out as you measure.  Some tape measures feature extra stuff like laser pointers, LED lights for night use and occasionally magnetic strips so the tape measure body sticks to metallic surfaces.

The Craftsman tape measure is a Self-winding type.
The above represents the two most likely types of tape measures seen average home. The model on the right is more common then the one on the left. The primary difference between both of them is that the Craftsman model has a button that allows extension and retraction of the tape. Admittedly this particular model has a spring-loaded button that you press to release the tape but other sie it's always in 'locked' position. The Stanley has no springs and is retracted by a crank on the other side of the unit. 

Generally most tape measures will use a basic annotation where each foot of distance is marked in bold while the inches are marked in visible yet smaller font for ease of reading. Beyond the two basic increments depending on the type of measure you are using the tape measure typically breaks inches into fourths, eighths and depending on the model possibly sixteenths, twenty fourths and thirty-secondths. The only people who really need the last three are contractors and professionals really so for most garden purposes it’s wasted and confusing space. I might add the typical notation of feet and inches is standardized so you don’t have to actually write feet or inches on a sketch of your beds. Feet are typically represented as something like 3’ whereas inches are notated as 3”. Now if your into precise square footage there is a way to turn inches into decimals so you can obtain precise measurements, however you have to round all fractions of an inch into fourths for it to work well.

Measuring tape styles aside, measurement of a garden bed can follow a few criteria, if a garden bed is a square or a rectangle all you have to do is measure length and width. Multiplying your length times your width will produce an accurate square footage of a bed. Square footage is typically calculated by multiplying the length of something times the width of something. So for example a six foot by four foot bed will have a square footage of 24 square feet. When you have dangling inches and your measurements end up looking something like 6’ 6” x 4” 4” which when multiplied to make square footage roughly translates to 28.145 square feet. Now I know what you are thinking; ‘how the heck did he get that stuff after the decimal?’ well the answer is an easy one the following is always true of the inches in a foot converted into decimals.

1 inch = 0.833 (has a trailing 3 decimal, so I stopped with two.)
4 inches = 0.333 (trailing decimal, remember 4” is a third of a foot)
6 inches = 0.50
8 inches = 0.666 (the mark of the beast! No seriously another trailing decimal)
10 inches = 0.833 (more trailing decimal action)

Clearly you can just multiply the 1 inch increment above to make any inch increment in between those noted above. All of these increments can be found by dividing 1 by 12 effectively making that 1 represent a foot and the 12 represent the individual inches. In the case of fractions of an inch if you will remember I said earlier that it is wiser to round these to quarters for the sake of math. The reasoning is that it is easier to convert them and it makes for a far less messy decimal when calculating square feet. For instance if we have a measurement of say 3” and 3 ¼”  we basically would treat the inch amount as if it read 1.25” and multiply that by the above listed 1” decimal conversion to get 2.708333332 which can be safely rounded to get 2.0709”.  It is still better to round to whole inch amounts with no fractions even if that means rounding down but at least the process above will guide you through if you are stuck with such a measurement.

Triangular beds are a bit trickier because what you have to do is measure the outer length and width, but not the vertical angle, then multiply length times with as if it were a rectangle, but divide the result in half. Essentially the math looks like the following.
Length X Width, result divided by 2.

Circular beds present their own issues, but where they are present, they can be measured in a unique way. The typical way to figure the area of a circle involves using Pi, no not the yummy delicious type…the boring algebra type.  If you are into that the area of a circle is simply (pi divided by 4) times diameter to the second power. Most scientific calculators can do this process rather easily. If you are like me and don’t like excessive math try this; the area of a circle will always be approximately 21.46018366 % smaller then a square where the length and width are the same as your circles diameter. So in short imagine this, you have a circle with a 3 foot diameter, imagine it as a square that is 3 feet long by 3 feet wide, then divide the square footage by 100 and then multiply it by 78.5 you have a rough approximation of the area of your circle.

My Shortcut #1: Diameter x Diameter, Result divided by 100, result x 78.5

My Shortcut #2: same as above but divide first result by 5, answer isn’t perfect but if you are counting the walls of a raised bed it may be closer to accurate then you think.

Algebra method:  Area = (pi/4) times Diameter to the second power

As a final note on measuring methods, when your talking ovals, elliptical shapes and other unusual shapes the old trick is to break them up into parts curved beds can be broken into half circles and the results of each area added up. Beds in curved terraces with undulating walls can be Ball Park measured by using the length and then multiplying by the widest widths then subtracting between 40 and 50% of the result to compensate for the non-bed curves. There is official math for this but without precise measurements and lots of use of the very much non enjoyable flavorless Pi it’s just not worth being absolutely precise.

But enough about the actual act of measurement for today now that you have an idea of how it works; we are ready for next week’s topic. In next week’s installment of Lost in the farmer’s market we will be covering methods for drawing up sketches of your garden design.

As always folks Keep 'em Growing!

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Happy New Year!

I hope all of you had a happy and safe new year we at the Skye project had a blast. It was as much fun working on the project as it was distributing for the first time one of the unique products of the project. As some of you may have heard we chose to do something fun with one of our crops, we turned our fig harvest into Fig wine! We had to invent an entirely new recipe and use some interesting ingredients to make what turned out to be an incredibly elegant desert wine. So here we are in 2013, what will the year bring, well stay tuned and fined out.

Today’s topic of focus is early planning; as we start a new year the door is wide open for garden opportunities. The first aspect of this comes in the form of the seed catalog; these paperback books often arrive with great collections of old time garden favorites as well as the best and newest varieties of your preferred plants. In fact the temptations offered in any given seed catalog are enough to drive even veteran gardeners to distraction with the temptation to order much more then you can handle.

My trick for handing these catalogs and the temptation to buy more then I have space to maintain is a simple one. The first thing I do is go through each of the catalogs marking off Items I like with a highlighter or marker and dog ear the pages these selections are on. I then put the catalogs away for a full week and return to them and circle the items I still want and have the space to take care of. Right after that I set the catalog aside for another week, at the end of this time period which will be one week shy of the end of January I pick what still is attractive with a very limited number of extras and place the order for my seeds for the year.

In the interim I might point out for those of you just starting a garden; now is the time to order seed catalogs if you have not done so already. Generally for a typical production oriented garden you want to have access to the seed suppliers as early as possible, so that way you can be prepared for the big February rush. The February rush is the start of the seed planting season. Generally most gardeners start their warm season plants between the first and second weeks of February if they have the facilities and materials to make the lead time count.

As a final thought on ordering from seed catalogs, they sell a lot of stuff, including seed supplies and associated garden equipment of many shapes, sizes and skill levels. All of this stuff is generally very useful and worth considering however you should always consider the amount of experience you have with gardening in relation to what you might order. Some tools look great on paper but may not be very effective for your particular situation. Some seed may not be well suited for your climate or may require special care that you lack the ability to provide*. Also some equipment such as seed starting or hydroculture kits may be above your comfort or skill levels and may take up too much space. You have to consider carefully what you are being offered and work your way up slowly towards a point at which you feel capable and skilled enough to sink your hard-earned cash into higher skill level supplies and materials. 

With all of that said this concludes the first episode of Lost in the Farmer's Market for 2013. Next week I'll be covering the next step in garden preparation, specifically the basics of measuring your gardening area. I hope you have found the information  in today's post useful and hopefully we'll see you back here next week.

*A prime example comes from our own attempts to grow certain types of coneflower and pyrethrum chrysanthemum. The seeds of both require specific stratification and acid treatments to have any reasonable germination. The same could be said for (Asclepias tuberosum) Milkweed, which turns out to not be fond of being transplanted and takes years to establish.