We are losing genetic diversity in our vegetables

June 30th, 2013

Not sure those seeds from last year are still good? Do a quick germination test to find out for sure.

August 26th, 2012

If you are like most gardeners, you probably have tons of seeds from last year (and from years before!). Since different varieties have different “shelf lives”, you may want to do a quick germination test before you toss and reorder.

Wet a paper towel (moistened thoroughly but not sopping) and place 10 seeds on the top half. Fold the bottom over the top to cover the seeds and seal in a zip-lock baggy. Blow a little air into the bag so the seeds have a bit of oxygen, then put the bags in a dark place where you won’t forget to check them (I chose a kitchen cabinet).

Wait about a week (different varieties have different germination times — check the seed packet), peel off the top paper towel and count how many seeds have germinated. Fewer than 50% and you will probably want to re-order, 50% to 70% you would plant more thickly than usual, and over 70% and the seeds are as good as new!

Time to Start Planting Winter Veggies

August 18th, 2012

Ingredients for this salad were picked fresh from SWQV Garden on December 11, just a few minutes before this salad was composed: radicchio, brune d’hiver lettuce, little gem lettuce, sugarloaf chicory, Tuscan kale, turnip greens, curly endive, baby daikon (green lobo), Chinese beauty heart radish. Amazingly, they weren’t given any special protection like floating row covers or a cold frame: they are just naturally cold-hardy varieties.

Winter Garden: How to Time Plantings

July 21st, 2012

There are even winter-hardy lettuces: this is Brune D'Hiver ("winter brown")

Unlike summer vegetables, which tend to be New World annuals (or tender perennials) like corn, tomatoes, peppers, green beans and zucchini squash, most winter vegetables are Old World biennials which need to over-winter in order to flower and produce seed during their second year.

Old varieties of chicory, kale, many cabbage family relatives as well as root crops like radish, turnip & carrots have provided Europeans with fresh winter vegetables since ancient times. It is always fun to experiment with which varieties grow best in Philadelphia winters, but timing when to plant can be tricky.

When planning your winter vegetable garden, keep in mind that even frost-hardy plants slow and almost stop growing when there are less than 10 hours of daylight per day. In Philadelphia, which is longitude 40 degrees (same as Madrid, the “boot” of Italy, Greece and Denver) this happens November 11 through January 20.

Therefore, you want your plants to reach maturity before November 11, even though it is fine to continue to harvest through this “dark” period. Look at your seed packets for “days to maturity” and subtract that from November 11 to get the last date you can plant that particular variety. This will give you a general timeframe and a “last date” to plant, but of course you can always plant earlier, depending on heat and bugs and whether you have space to plant or have to wait till something else finishes producing.

The longest-maturing plants for me this winter are brussels sprouts and radicchio (90 to 110 days to maturity). My friend Amy is setting up gro-lights in her basement and we are going to plant this weekend (July 21-22). The plants should be big enough to put out in the garden before it’s time to start the kales & collards in late August (these take about 60 days to maturity). The reason we are starting seed indoors is neither of us has any unused garden space right now and we want to avoid harlequin bugs and the searing heat and drought of late July/August.

Direct-seeded things like carrots, winter lettuce & arugula can be planted in Aug/Sept, while turnips, beets & spinach go in Sept/Oct. A little mulch will give them additional winter protection. Winter spinach won’t germinate unless it is quite cool (look for a variety called Gigante D’Inverno — “giant of winter”), so it should be planted late (mid Oct or later).

There are many pleasures in winter gardening — the weather is cool and refreshing, the skies turn deep blue and autumnal, the bugs have closed up shop for the season, you seldom have to water — and the thrill of harvesting ingredients for a fresh salad in mid-December just can’t be beat!

And many winter-hardy plants get even sweeter and better-tasting after the first frosts: apparently sugar is a mild anti-freeze and many plants convert some of their starches to sugar with the onset of cold weather. Kale and collards are great examples of veggies that taste even better after they are kissed by a frost or two.

NOTE: My source on winter gardening is Eliot Colman’s Four-Season Harvest. Eliot grows veggies commercially in Maine throughout the winter in unheated poly-tunnels, but since Philadelphia is so much milder, we don’t have to bother with much of the paraphernalia that Eliot is forced to use.

NOTE2: Winter veggies you might consider: Arugula, Winter Spinach (has thick, extra-large, crinkly leaves), Cabbage (including the oriental cabbages), Kale (Tuscan & Red Russian are especially good), Carrots, Beets, Turnips (including oriental turnip and mustard greens), Winter Lettuces, Radicchio, Endive, Radishes (Daikon & Chinese “Beauty Heart” are an interesting change from the small red & white ones), all kinds of Chicory, Broccoli Rabe, Brussels Sprouts, Collards, Escarole, Sprouting Broccoli, Dandelion Greens, Garlic (harvest in the spring), Fava (harvest in late spring), Chard (your summer chard will survive the winter if you leave it in the ground), Peas & Snow Peas (a before-Christmas treat), and others which I don’t have the space to mention…

…Oh, and don’t forget that early fall is a great time to replant the cilantro and dill that went to seed and died during the heat of summer. If you have coriander seeds in your pantry, just plant those to get fresh coriander a.k.a. cilantro without having to order seeds. You can do the same with dill seeds if you have them.

–Barb Mc

Continuous-Harvest Veggies

June 30th, 2012

Pole beans can get 8 feet tall or higher. Obscure fact: pole beans always grow around their supports in a counter-clockwise direction as you can see here

When planning my garden, I distinguish continuous-harvest from single-harvest type crops. Since I am a self-proclaimed lazy gardener, I go for continuous harvest whenever I have any choice.

For example, you probably know that green beans come in two basic types (bush and pole), but did you know that bush beans were developed so that they can be mechanically harvested, which means the plants are short enough to fit underneath a harvester and all the beans ripen at the same time? In contrast, pole beans produce steadily from the time they start bearing around July 1 until the fall temperatures get too cold for them to set pod. Bush beans have to be succession planted if you want a continuous supply, but are good if you like to can or freeze your produce. Pole beans bear continually, so you can plan your meals by merely strolling through your plot anytime after they start producing in late June and picking what you need for a meal or two. Pole beans produce a lot in a very small space, so be sure to donate the excess to City Harvest.

Bush beans come all at once, which is great for canning or freezing for next winter

Indeterminates (top) get huge & produce until frost, determinates (bottom) stay short, bear all at once then quit.

Same thing with tomatoes: the short ones are determinate because they can be harvested mechanically, and produce all at once then stop growing, while the long vine-like ones that want to crawl all over your garden and need to be staked or caged or otherwise supported or restrained are indeterminate because they just keep on growing until the November frosts kill them off. I am a great fan of indeterminate tomatoes: the fabulous SunGold orange cherry tomato doesn’t quit producing until the first killing frost, long after all of the determinates have become a faded memory. Many of the famous heirlooms & Jerseys are indeterminate, as is Burpee’s tasty Brandy Boy, while paste-type and grocery store varieties tend to be determinate. Your seed packet or plant tab will tell you which type yours is.

Other continuous-harvest plants I like are chard, kale, collards — sometimes called “cut and come again” — plants which you harvest leaf by leaf. The only thing to keep in mind is to always leave enough leaves so the plant can support itself, otherwise you will shock it and slow or halt production. An additional bonus is that these plants are usually biennials, meaning they don’t produce seed until their second year — which means they have to survive through the whole winter, supplying you with fresh veggies during the coldest months plus a bonus spring crop right before they go to seed and die (most of our “winter” vegetables are these winter-hardy biennials). With the exception of chard, which loves the summer heat and is relatively unaffected by bugs, most of these veggies prefer cooler temperatures, so you might think about planting them in the fall when there are fewer bugs and the weather gets more comfortable for both plant and human.

Root crops (like beets, carrots, turnips, parsnips, potatoes, rutabaga), although admittedly not “single harvest”, can be held in the garden over the winter under a blanket of salt hay mulch because they never “ripen” but only get bigger. That way you can gather only as much as your need for a meal or two and essentially treat them as continuous harvest until you run out. It’s not a bad idea to sow an extra crop of these in August for over-wintering.

Root crops like beets (left) can be left in the ground until ready to use. Chard (right), a biennial, can be harvested for almost a year before it goes to seed and dies.

– Barb Mc

BONUS LINKS: Pauline forwarded this article from Science Daily which will make you feel extra-good about growing your own tomatoes. Turns out organic tomatoes have more anti-oxidants that conventionally grown ones.

Anne Seidman sent this NYTimes article about a tomato gene which makes tomatoes beautiful but tasteless — inadvertently bred into most tomatoes to give them a luscious red color. Good enough reason to plant heirlooms!

Gardening geeks will also be interested in Darwin’s The Movements and Habits of Climbing Plants. First published in 1865, it remains unsurpassed in its observations on how plants climb. Thanks for locating this classic, Anne!

Ways to Reduce Your Water Consumption this Summer

March 29th, 2012

A working group comprised of Thom Hardenberg, Anne Seidman, Anne Harvey and Suzanne Schecter has been looking into ways to reduce water consumption this summer. Here are their recommendations:

Before you get to watering, here are some tips:

1. Amend your soil
Adding compost will both feed your plants and keep your soil draining properly. Sandy soils drain too quickly, while clay soils hold too much water. If the garden doesn’t have compost available, you can still get it for free from the Fairmount Organic Recycling Center in Fairmount Park.

2. Mulch
Covering the soil surface will slow evaporation, thus keeping the soil moisture level more even. Mulching with organic materials also adds nutrients to the soil as it breaks down. The biggest plus – mulching makes gardening easier by impeding the growth of weeds.

3. Weed
Those weeds aren’t just unsightly – they’re competing with your plants for moisture and nutrients. As long as they’re not diseased, you can throw them in the compost pile and help feed the garden.

Watering: the how, when and where

1. Water deeply and infrequently.
Deep watering promotes the development of a deep, extensive root system. Deep-rooted plants are better able to survive hot, dry weather.

Frequently, light sprinkling wastes water and does not aid the growth of your plants. Daily watering should be used only when starting seeds or caring for new seedlings.

How much should you water? It depends on temperature, rainfall, what you’re growing and what stage your plants are in. The best way to know is to stick your finger in the soil – it should be damp but not soggy. Give it time to dry out a little between waterings.

A deep weekly watering should be adequate for fruit, vegetable and flower gardens. Apply approximately 1 inch of water per week, depending on rainfall and temperatures.

2. Water in the morning.
A morning application allows the water to soak more deeply and evenly into the ground, and provides the plants water to face the heat of the day. It also allows any water on the leaves to dry, which can lower the spread of disease.

Watering mid-day is both wasteful and potentially harmful to your plants as the cool water can shock them.

Although some people prefer evening watering, be aware that it can sometimes lead to mildews, rusts and other diseases because the water sits on the plants and roots. If you prefer to water in the evenings, be sure to follow the next tip.

3. Water at the base of the plants.
Adding water at the soil line will distribute it evenly, encouraging a wider root system. Keeping the leaves dry can slow the progress of diseases such as the tomato fungus in the news the last few years.

For more information, check theses sites:
– Good information on composting, water saving techniques and critical water periods for plants: Colorado State Gardennotes
– Overview & list of critical watering times for vegetables: The Gardening Channel: Watering the Vegetable Garden

A Four Season Farm in Maine

February 25th, 2012

Pauline sends this link from the NYTimes about Eliot Coleman and Barbara Damrosch’s farm in Maine, where they use unheated greenhouses to raise crops in all four seasons.

Link to article, “Living Off the Land in Maine, Even in Winter”.

View Slide Show of Photos from Article.

End of Season

October 20th, 2011

Here it is, the middle of October, and there’s some good and not so good things still going on in the garden. It’s been a strange year for the crops, some things doing great even if they ripen late, and some things not seeming to happen at all. There is a great crop of tomatoes that is literally rotting on the vine and on the ground.

Unharvested tomatoes rotting on the vine

It seems like such a waste , when we have a vehicle to collect this abundance and give it to those less fortunate than we.  After all the effort gone through to weed, plant mulch and water through the heat of the summer, it’s hard to make sense of this abandonment just when the “fruits” of all the labor are ready to be enjoyed.

It’s also too bad that folks are not visiting their plots with any regularity because there’s a lot of beauty all around. The fall flowers are beyond magnificent. The array of colors, shapes, and sizes is a joy to behold. Gwen and her helpers have turned our little urban lot into a botanical paradise. So come on out, pick your late crops and enjoy the late season beauty!

– Thom

Dahlias this year were spectacular

One Fine Day by Verlyn Klinkenborg

July 2nd, 2011

Linda Witt found this wonderful essay called “One Fine Day” in the NYTimes. Luckily, we can link to it without violating copyright laws. As Linda observes, it is a lovely piece of writing, especially about bees.

Ruth Stout’s Extreme Organic Gardening

April 20th, 2011

Last fall when Linda Witt wrote ”A Garden Bedtime Story” about putting gardens to bed for the winter, she described her protagonist Ruth Stout as “a stubborn old Connecticut gardener…who believed that mulch was the cure to just about everything in the garden,  as well as a great preventer of aching backs and repetitive motion disorders in the gardener.”

“Ruth Stout’s Garden” is a lively film journey into the life of a woman who, from a perspective of more than ninety years, shows how easy it is to grow vegetables. This video gives insights into the early history of the organic gardening movement, and Ruth Stout’s advice is as timely today as when she was writing and lecturing back in the 1950′s.

HINT: If the video keeps stopping to rebuffer, just let it play thru while you do something else, then hit “replay” to watch without interruption.