Monday, November 24, 2014

The end of November

Welcome back to another episode of Lost In The Farmer’s Market. As all of you who read this web log have noticed we are in the midst of a holiday week and for those of us still in college we are in the grips of finals. Last week’s episode did not occur because of a lack of time to devote to a proper episode and so last week’s and this week’s episodes will be combined into an uber holiday episode.

The garden topic for this post is the holy grail of composting; leaf mold. Leaf mold is a byproduct of the composting process that occurs when a layer of leaves from hardwood trees or broadleaf conifers is compressed at the bottom of a compost pile into a compact golden-brown material similar to peat moss. There are many ways to create leaf mold but there are few ways to get the nutrients in the material just right. Typically what would happen is that a gardener might have a three-bin compost pile and during the fall they would collect and place Maple and Oak leaves in the two empty bins then use the contents of the full bin to make a soil cap over the leaves. The later addition of other leaves, soil and grass clippings in the spring would normally create the perfect atmosphere for the creation of leaf mold at the bottom of the bins. Typically it takes 10-12 months to create good batch of leaf mold.

The Sand Hills region unfortunately is somewhat erratic on plentiful sources of good hardwood tree leaves. For instance the area of the test gardens has no access to Oak, Maple or any serious supply of Ginko leaves. As proven in earlier posts pine straw will compost and from a leaf-mold layer but it’s more acidic than peat moss which is something I am trying to avoid for the obvious reasons. For today’s post I’m going to show you how to use a local substitute and how leaf mold is made in a container no less. In the case of this leaf mold project I used Fig Leaves, Compost, spent Potting Soil, this week’s fallen leaves from the lab and, the residual liquids and solids from cleaning out the French press. But below is a step by step guide to the process for your consideration.

The fig leaves are down due to our cold weather making for a useful resource.

Why Fig Leaves? Well, firstly I have an abundance of them also in prior years it was found they break down nicely in the pre-composter. I realize that figs are not a hardwood plant but neither is Ginko and from what I understand Fig leaves impart a bit of alkalinity to the soil where they decay so they may help the process of producing balanced leaf mold.

The act of crushing up leaves for composting can be done by a lawn mower with a bag attachment on or you can just run over piles of leaves with the mower set at its highest cutting height.
Crushing up the Fig leaves in this case is optional; I did it to mimic the process of crushing and or moving the leaves to the bin. I started with a cubic foot or so of fig leaves and crushes them up by hand to less than a quarter the volume and lined the bottom of the container with them. This is where the leaf mold should form in a few months.

Scraps from the lab and eggshells from the kitchen.
Inevitably all gardeners have a compost bucket, and the one that’s used in the lab is on the left in the picture above. The materials in the bucket are already growing mold and are in a state of decay which acts as an inoculant for the leaves. The contents of the bucket go on top of the leaves so that these decomposing molds are introduced to the pile of “food” in the bucket. The eggshells are introduced in the next step.

A steel pestle and Mortar can render eggshells to dust rapidly especially if they are dried thoroughly first.
I add pulverized eggshells as a source of calcium and as a soil enriching agent in the process. Adding them whole only takes up space and does not allow for a distribution of their benefits across the whole batch of leaf mold.

Spent potting soil and other disposable organic matter goes in next.
In this picture I’m shaking the soil off the roots of a dead Okra plant. You can see a rotting sweet potato in the trash can and now the active layer is beginning to take some shape. The potting soil is added as sort of ‘bedding’ layer for the decomposers such as the worms, millipedes and, pill bugs that inevitably came in with the leaves. It also acts as a moisture sponge for the entire mix.

A substantial layer of actual compost is the next part of the formula.
Someone might ask at this point why I am ‘wasting/using’ perfectly good compost at this point in the process. The answer is simple; compost is packed with microorganisms and decomposer critters. The use of an active agent in the mix ensures that the compost will continue to break down over time and will remain on track to completion.

More spent potting soil.
These two plants obviously died of exposure but their soil is likely to be full of critters that can help decomposition in the leaf mold. So another layer of inoculant is added. As most gardeners know you are supposed to layer your compost as is and this formula may seem a bit heavy on the browns but ultimately it’s supposed to mimic the act of composting during the winter when no greens are available.

The remnants of cleaning out the French Press a few times.
Even if you do not realize, the water and grounds left from cleaning out a French Press coffee maker are an idea and ultra-cheap fertilizer. The coffee-water itself will help feed plants but when you wash out a French press with dish soap you’ve added trace amounts of alkaline compounds which plants react to as though it was fertilizer. Believe it or not dethatching formulas are often recommended for accelerating decomposition in compost piles with excessive amounts of green matter. Using this coffee-water is almost the opposite we’re trying to decompose the brown materials so we’re using a differing material. After this point the can‘s lid is placed on securely and the can is placed in a sunny location in the lab.

In a few months I’ll have a nutrient rich material that can be used to transform a few square feet of the garden.  All of this is done at virtually no cost to me save for the price of patience and a place to site the compost container. When I crack this container in spring you can expect a write up about it here.

This holiday week is a pretty big week because on Thanksgiving is on Thursday, but also I have three public events this week and they are as follows and all are located at the Fayetteville Transportation Museum on 325 Franklin Street in Downtown Fayetteville.

City Market:     Wed, 12:00 pm – 4:00 pm
(Possible rain in AM only)

Dickens Holiday: Fri,  1:00 pm – 5:00 pm
(At transportation Museum)

City Market:     Sat,  9:00 am – 1:00 pm
(Sunny Weather)

So yes basically a busy holiday week, you can expect that I will have surprises at the booth on all three days and the list below will not completely reflect what may show up on any given day with exception to the cold-season plants and the sweet potatoes.

Southward Skies: A northern guide to southern Gardening
Southward Skies is a pocket-sized guide to gardening in the Carolina region. It will guide you through the process of having a productive garden in our region using a year-round format that matches the timing of what you should do and what time of the year you should do it. Unlike a lot of garden guides Southward is written in a way that can help even the most discouraged gardener to find success. Southward Skies has been tested by gardeners in other states ranging from as far south as Naples, Florida, as far north as Dorset, Vermont and as far west as Reno, Nevada. As a general guide you can’t lay hands on a better collection of tips, tricks and methods. The book is available on as a digital book for the kindle and makes a good gift in print or digital format. The book costs $25.00 and we do take checks for this item, you can even have it signed. During the month of December we will wrap copies of the book at your request if you intend them as a gift.

Cold Season Crops
6x Mustard Greens, India - 3.5” pot ($3.00)
6x Mustard Greens, Japanese Red Giant - 3.5” pot ($3.00)
6x Cabbage, Copenhagen Market  - 3.5” pot ($3.00)
6x Cabbage, Savoy – Perfection Drumhead  - 3.5” pot ($3.00)
4x Collards, Georgia Southern Creole - 3.5” pot ($3.00)

Fresh Foods
Our ‘wilderness’ sweet potatoes are packaged in 2lb lots for $2.00 each in brown paper bags for your convenience. Novelty sized potatoes cost a little more but the bragging rights are totally worth it.

3x Novelty-Size, Sweet Potato (For pure bragging rights and silliness) – ($3.00)
2x Huge-Size, Sweet Potato (Good for use in pies)
3x Large-Size, Sweet Potato (Good for baking)
3x Medium-Size, Sweet Potato (General use)
2x Small-Size, Sweet Potato (For Recipes)
2x Tiny-Size, Sweet Potato (For recipes)

Holiday Splendor

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Frost Advisory

Welcome back to another episode of Lost in the Farmer’s Market. The current weather has prompted a change to our intended topic for this week. As some of you noticed we have a serious cold front due to hit late on Friday. Temperatures are expected to be below freezing so instead of our planned photo tour we’ve got a bit about frost and how to make sure your winter crops survive the weather.

The first thing you need to consider is that you should make provisions to either bring in any crop plants that are NOT hardy or make a complete harvest of said plants so that you don’t lose what you have.  In the case of the test gardens the houseplants there outside as part of the warm season display have all been brought inside for the winter. The crop plants that I’ve decided to overwinter were withdrawn indoors and everything else received maintenance including all things that were planted within the last month. The first thing to know about a frost is that frosts are unpredictable; it may kill everything next door and skip your yard entirely or only hit one plant in your entire yard. The best thing you can do about a impending frost is to make sure you water all potted plants left outside as well as any new planting that has occurred within the last month. The reason you water new plantings and potted plants is because a well-watered plant is more likely to survive frost damage and resist being damaged. Basically a under-hydrated plant has shrunken cell walls within the stems and leaves that are more easily frozen and burst but the crystallization of whatever water is in and around them. Frost damage often looks like an ugly bruise because for plants that’s almost exactly what frost damage is. So before any frost hits it’s always wise to water your winter crops and if there is a lot of wind involved it may be necessary to protect your crops with tarps to reduce exposure. I always recommend harvesting lighting just before a frost so that the crop plants have less surface area that can suffer frost damage.

Obviously there are those last vestiges of the warm season crops in your garden right now. If the weather predictions are as serious (26 degrees) as suggested then it’s wise to go ahead and harvest what you can. Certain warm season crops such as basil, eggplant, peppers, tomatoes and potatoes in general tend to be ruined by a killing frost. In the case of the root crops if the ground freezes there is a high probability of crop loss. Basil is easily damaged by frost so of course harvesting all of it cleaning it and freezing the resulting materials is the best recourse. the images below demonstrate how to harvest a sweet potato crop as well as what happens when you plant sweet potatoes too late.

In this particular case the basic tools for harvesting sweet potatoes can be as simple as a pitch fork and a wheel barrel.
The sweet potato crop at the test garden was started late and honestly I didn’t expect much of it.

Patiently loosening the soil to see what has developed without doing any damage is why I always go with a pitchfork for this sort of task.
The tubers often are caked with dirt and may not be immediately visible but generally the tubers are right under the central crown of the foliage.
For note I didn't get the seed tuber in the ground until late in the summer so it's no surprise that little came of it. Generally you want to get sweet potatoes in the ground in late April or May and I wasn't able to plant the seed tuber until late June.

Aww look someday these might actually turn into real sweet potatoes.
It looks pretty bad right? not quite the Steadman wilderness test plot made up for the test garden failure quite nicely. The Wilderness plot started with twenty five starter plants, we lost two and ended up with roughly 135 pounds of sweet potatoes.

Now that’s what I’m talking about, Test garden crop was a bust, the Steadman experiment yielded way better.
Yes…you are reading that right the scale does indeed say four pounds. This single sweet potato from the Steadman test plot is the size of a child’s head and is that heavy.

Switching the focus of this post slightly I often get questions at the market about when to begin picking leaves off a plant for eating purposes. The obvious answer is that you can do that at any time you like however it may not promote the best health for your crops if you start picking to early. So now that some of the crops at the test garden are of the right size I snapped a few photographs for size comparison so all you winter gardeners out there can get a fair idea.

Rouge D’Hiver lettuce, at a a good size to pick a few leaves per plant.
Lettuce is one of those things where most gardeners have been a bit indoctrinated to it looking and being harvested a certain way. We like to think that lopping off the heads of lettuce is the right way and in truth it isn’t. From the plant’s perspective you’ve done massive damage and from the long term perspective if you lop off the top of a lettuce plant you have stalled any further harvests for a while assuming the plant survives. The size shown above is just right for picking a few of the lower leaves from each individual plant to make up a salad.

This is a good size to pick a few leaves on a Japanese Red Giant Mustard Plant.

Mustard and other cabbage crops all can be ‘harvested the same way as I suggested with lettuce. Picking just a few leaves per plant and focusing on the lower most leaves first can rapidly give you a lot of food in a short amount of time and, your plant lives and will produce more. The low-pick method is a win-win situation for you and your garden.

Radicchio needs a little more caution in picking lower leaves but the same rules apply
But then not all things are affected by the whims of the harvest and the mercy of the frost. Perhaps it is a funny irony that some of the plants at the test garden seem to not care that theres a frost I mean look at the below photograph.

Brown Echibeckia still blooming despite weather so far.

Oh look these here zinnas don’t care.

Hah, the snow peas are doing their thing, sticking it to the man…old man winter that is!
So there you have it, perhaps the ‘killing’ frost on Friday isn’t so scary anymore. If you remember to protect anything you have doubts on and thoroughly water everything else the frost won’t be so bad. But even with the potential for bad weather the Fayetteville City market continues on. The City Market occurs every Wednesday between the hours of 1:00pm and 6:00pm and on Saturday between the hours of 9:00 am and 1:00pm.  You can find the City Market on the property of the Fayetteville Transportation Museum located at 325 Franklin Street. Below is a list of what is coming to market this Saturday.

Southward Skies: A northern guide to southern Gardening
This is the second edition of my book, which was published using data compiled from several years of test garden operations. It’s written to aid gardeners of all skill levels in successful garden methods that are targeted for the south east but had proven to be a valued resource for gardens across the eastern coast. It’s certainly a good gift for that gardener you know or for yourself if you’d like to have a reliable field guide. The book costs $25.00 and we do take checks for this item, you can even have it signed.

Good Stuff
Rain Forest & Devil's Tongue Pepper packs - ($1.00)
Sweet Potatoes, 2lb Bag – ($2.00)

Cold Season Crops
6x Romaine Lettuce, “Parris Island Cos” - 3.5” pot ($3.00)
6x Mustard Greens, India - 3.5” pot ($3.00)
6x Mustard Greens, Japanese Red Giant - 3.5” pot ($3.00)
6x Cabbage, Copenhagen Market - 3.5” pot ($3.00)
6x Cabbage, Savoy – Perfection Drumhead - 3.5” pot ($3.00)
6x Collards, Georgia Southern Creole - 3.5” pot ($3.00)

[Depending on weather I may bring some aloes]

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

We are one dog short of a...oh wait.

Welcome back to a November edition of Lost In The Farmer’s Market or LITFM for short. This week we bring you the latest test garden happenings as well as the market report for the Veterans Day special activities. Soon we will be present a Photo-tour of the Fall test garden for those of you who missed the Garden Tour on Sunday.

We used to call her “Dust mop” because her fur color and pattern resembled an old well used cotton dust mop.

But first off this week’s Post is sponsored by the Test garden’s Mascot Houdini. In case some of you have not heard, ‘Houdini’ is basically a mixed breed small dog that routinely escapes its owner’s yard even when put in an outdoor kennel and ironically she runs right to the test gardens every time. If anything you might say this little one is probably the epitome of boundless optimism.

This is the teardrop shaped garden with mulch applied.
So, first off many gardeners often lament the lack of plants in bloom during autumn with good reason. Realistically if you go by what the nurseries sell our selection consists of snapdragons, pansies, violas, chrysanthemums, ornamental kale/cabbage and shrubs that are on sale and definitely not in bloom. Of course we at LITFM know for a fact that there is more than that narrow selection and here are a few options to consider.

Hypericum peroratum ‘Glacier’ – ‘Glacier’ St. Johns Wort
Say what you want about St. Johns Wort being invasive under certain circumstances in the test garden for the last three years it’s been nothing but well-behaved. The variety called Glacier not only has the pretty yellow flowers of the normal type but also has these attractive marbled leaves which add extra color to shady spots with dry soil conditions. As far as perennials go it’s reliable and stands out.

Trycyrits hirta – Toad Lily
The tad lilies are late-summer/Fall blooming and very exotic. They resemble Orchids but require none of the special conditions other than soil that is reasonably moist that bears a fair to moderate amount of organic matter and some shade. In areas with a high water table they can spread at moderate pace filling shady beds with a sea of gorgeous purple-speckled flowers in fall. Toad lilies spread by stoloniferous growth and can be divided every few years for use as gifts or for trade to other gardeners.

Aloe x hybrid ‘Fauxgave’ – Faux Agave-Aloe
This is the perennial hardy aloe that was sold at the market this year as a limited quantity special item in August. The Test Garden specimen developed a flower stalk in late summer that prevented it from being planted in the gardens. Basically I wanted to see what the blooms were like and often transplanting a plant in bloom often causes the plant to drop bloom so now our specimen sits on a growing tray inside the lab. I do not know if this picture does any justice but the flowers are a wild pink-red color overall while the petal tips a sort of lime-green color in contrast.

Yes indeed the evidence of some frost activity played out on the basil plants still outside in the test gardens.
 So indeed we did get a minor frost at the start of the week though it was not quite up to the state of panic some seemed to think it would be. The cold snap might have been a disaster for certain warm season plants but hardier ones positioned near structures such as these basil plants will often survive several frost events allowing for a prolonged harvest or collection of seeds.

Frost damage can vary and unless it's a "killing" frost may hit with complete randomness.
Notice in the above picture where frost left the tips of the basil alone but "scorched" the tops of the lower leaves. The critical thing to remember is that frost is very random unless for some reason the localized micro-climate reduces it or  the plants in question have been watered within 24 hours of the event. Frost damage is technically a secondary effect. Plants that are watered before a frost hits tend to take less damage as frost damages though dessication the cold then causes cells to rupture in the leaves and stems especially when they are not fully hydrated.

Don’t worry, as other things come into bloom this fall you can expect to see the pictures up here along with images and suggestions for the normal rank & file plants that see common use. The topic must now shift to that of the City market this week. As you may well know the Fayetteville City Market is open on Wednesdays (2pm-6pm) and Saturdays (9am-1pm). As noted in the last post or two we’ll be maintaining a presence at the Wednesday market at least until November the 26th and decide on if or if not to hold a spot at the market for December. I do however definitely plan to be at the City Market on Saturdays Up until the 27th of December, After which I may take a two-week vacation from market operations between the 28th and 9th of January. If that is the case you can expect to see it up here by the first week of December. But enough of market scheduling, as some of you might have heard this Saturday is one of the big market events, Veterans Day is on the 11th and the city of Fayetteville has it’s Veterans Day parade and festivities on Saturday so the City Market is following suit. On the grounds of the Fayetteville Transportation Museum there will be a car show and the Market is taking over Maxwell Street and so our booth position will be shifted slightly. Normally we are in the front parking lot of the Museum but for this event we will be located on Maxwell street not far from our normal position.

For those who do not know the Fayetteville Transportation Museum is located on 325 Franklin Street, and Part or possibly all of Maxwell Street will be blocked off for the event. Event goers may need to plan accordingly and possibly dress for the weather depending on what traffic and parking will be like for the event.  Here is the market list for Wednesday, and well let’s just say that I may sneak some odd and unusual things in for Saturday that may not be on the list.

Southward Skies: A northern guide to southern Gardening
This is the second edition of my book, which was published using data compiled from several years of test garden operations. It’s written to aid gardeners of all skill levels in successful garden methods that are targeted for the south east but had proven to be a valued resource for gardens across the eastern coast. It’s certainly a good gift for that gardener you know or for yourself if you’d like to have a reliable field guide. The book costs $25.00 and we do take checks for this item, you can even have it signed.

Good Stuff
Rain Forest & Devil's Tongue Pepper packs - ($1.00)

Cold Season Crops
3x Romaine Lettuce, “Rouge d’Hiver” - 3.5” pot ($3.00)
12x Romaine Lettuce, “Parris Island Cos” - 3.5” pot ($3.00)
9x Mustard Greens, India - 3.5” pot ($3.00)
9x Mustard Greens, Japanese Red Giant - 3.5” pot ($3.00)
6x Cabbage, Copenhagen Market - 3.5” pot ($3.00)
6x Cabbage, Savoy – Perfection Drumhead - 3.5” pot ($3.00)
6x Collards, Georgia Southern Creole - 3.5” pot ($3.00)

Oh no....Houdini is looking at YOUR yard!