Our Soil Analysis Part 2 – Where We are Going and How We are Getting There

Our last post we discussed the results of our last soils analysis. This was our graphical analysis:wkgsoil.xls

Well, where should we be? And how should we get there? Let’s work left to right.

Organic Matter

Optimum for clay loam: 3-5%
We are currently at 2.6% so we have some work to do to increase the soil organic matter. Here is where we need to be careful. Our phosphorus levels are very high and some composts will increase phosphorus levels, particularly composted manures, which we have a lot of. We are going to need to consider a different route in adding more organic matter.
The Remedy:
Compost from crop residue and yardwaste tends to have lower phosphorus residues so we will be utilizing this type of compost this year. Napa Waste and Recycling sells compost for $10/cu. yd. which is a screaming deal compared to other suppliers. Compost weighs approximately 1,300 lbs per cubic yard. Soil weighs about 46,000 lbs per 1,000 sf x 6″ deep. 4% organic matter equals just over 1,800 lbs of compost. We currently have 2.6% organic matter or 1,196 lbs so we will need to add 600 lbs or half of cubic yard, give or take.

Nitrogen

Optimum level for vegetables: 40 ppm
We are fairly deficient in Nitrogen having less than half of what we need for vegetables. Nitrogen is tricky as you don’t want to dump a bunch on all at once. Doing so will lead to overgrowth or burning of plants.
The Remedy:
We’re going to go with feather meal which is a slow release (6-9 months) nitrogen fertilizer. It also won’t add any additional phosphorus to the soil as it’s NPK is 13-0-0. 13% of feather meal is nitrogen so for every pound of feather meal we apply we are adding 0.13 lbs of nitrogen. The recommendation is that we add 2.9 lbs of nitrogen per 1,000 sf. Since our garden beds are just over that we’ll round up to 3.0 lbs total. We will then need to apply 23 lbs of feather meal to our beds. The recommendation above says to do half before planting and the second half  later on to avoid salt damage. Since we are not using a chemical fertilizer and it is slow release we will go ahead and apply all of it.

 Phosphorus

Optimum Level: 80-100 lbs per acre
We currently have, depending on which test we follow, 95-125 ppm of phosphate in our soil. Converted to pounds per acre and we have 190-250 lbs/acre. We have over double of what we need. The upper threshold of phosphorus is 300 lbs/acre. Above that limit and it starts to become a pollution issue.
The Remedy:
For now there isn’t really a remedy other than reducing the amount of phosphorus we apply to the soil. Removing all crop waste and not putting it back on the soil can also help reduce it. The one benefit of having a high phosphorus level is that it binds with any lead that is in the soil stabilizing it so it is no longer hazardous. The EPA is currently applying massive amounts of phosphorus in the form of fish bones to urban gardens throughout Oakland to help bind lead pollution in the soil.

Potassium

Optimum Level: 120-200 ppm and 5% CEC
We are above the optimum level of potassium which is fine. Plants will just absorb more potassium than they need. Too much potassium, however, can antagonize the uptake of calcium.
The Remedy:
None. If we were deficient we would add sulfate of potash since we are also deficient in sulfur. If sulfur levels were fine we’d go with greensand to replenish potassium levels.

Magnesium

Optimum Level: 30-70 ppm and 15% CEC
Clearly our soil has plenty of magnesium. Actually levels are high enough that they can cause drainage problems and potassium uptake issues.
The Remedy:
Increasing soil calcium:magnesium to a ratio of 5:1 will help reduce the CEC through competition. If we were deficient I would add K-Mag.

Calcium

Optimum Level: 5:1 Calcium:Magnesium ration and 65-75% CEC
Considering our clay loam, the low level of calcium is concerning. We do have issues with blossom end rot on tomatoes and peppers (caused by calcium deficiency) and we usually can help mitigate that by throwing in some egg shell into the planting hole. It appears that we need to do something as a whole.
The Remedy:
Gypsum will be applied at 20 lbs per 1,000 sf per the recommendation on the soils analysis. The gypsum will also help improve the sulfur deficiency.

Sodium

Optimum Level: 1-3% CEC
Sodium has no real use by plants and excessive levels can burn them.
The Remedy:
No need to do anything. If we had excess sodium we would water heavily to leach it out (did this a few years ago when our CEC was 5.7%).

Sulfur

Optimum Level: 15 ppm
We currently have less than half of what we need to avoid deficiencies. Our soil used to have 121 ppm of sulfur so it’s a huge drop and shows that sulfur is used quite a bit by plants. What’s interesting is that sulfur is used to help acidify soil but when we had such a high amount our soil was actually neutral and now it’s it more acidic (ever so slightly) with a lower sulfur content. This is most likely due to the leaching of sodium from the soil.
The Remedy:
Gypsum, which is 18% sulfur will be applied. This will help us with both our sulfur and our calcium levels. The recommendation is 20lbs per 1,000 sf.

Zinc

Optimum Level: 20-70 ppm
Zinc is most important for bean and corn production though it is a micronutrient for most most crops. We are about in the middle of the optimum level needed for corn and beans, which we do grow.
The Remedy:
None needed. If we were deficient we would look into applying zinc sulfate which is 35.5% zinc.

Manganese

Optimum Level: 8 ppm for soil with a pH of 6.7
Soil tests for manganese are unreliable, however our manganese levels were once much higher. Acidic soils allow for manganese to be more bioavailable to plants, however we had a much higher level when we had a more basic soil (41 ppm). Now we are down significantly to 2 ppm even though our soil is more acidic.  Manganese toxicity can happen so you have to be careful with application. Toxicity is more likely to occur, however, if the pH is less than 6.0.
The Remedy:
Manganese sulfate is 31% manganese. We would need to add less than a pound of manganese sulfate to our garden. For now, because we aren’t growing any crops that need a high manganese level in the soil and manganese sulfate is difficult to find in small quantities we will forego application. If during the growing season we see signs of manganese deficiency we will foliar feed with a product that contains manganese.

Iron

Optimum Level: 29-50 ppm
We are slightly below the optimum level when we were previously over the level. Like other nutrients, more acidic soil makes iron more available.
The Remedy:
So far our plants haven’t been showing any signs of iron deficiency. The levels still show as high so for now we won’t be adding any additional iron. If the level drops further we’ll look into adding iron sulfate. If we see signs of deficiency this year we’ll apply a foliar treatment of iron chelates.

Copper

Optimum Level: 1-3 ppm
We are over the limit which can be toxic to soil fungi and plants. Our property was once an orchard which would explain the high level of copper. Spraying of copper has to be done carefully and thoughtfully.
The Remedy:
Gypsum and compost can be used to lower copper levels. Copper binds to organic matter making it unavailable. We are already planning on applying both compost and gypsum so this should be remedied. Due to goats needing a copper rich diet we will also have to limit the amount of goat manure we apply since they do excrete it.

Boron

Optimum Level: 0.15-0.50 ppm
A level over 1 ppm can be toxic to some plants and, of course, we’re over that at 1.1 ppm. So far we haven’t seen any negative effects and our levels have actually gone down over time considering we were at 1.5 previously.
The Remedy:
Acidifying the soil with sulfur can help reduce boron, as can leaching with water past the root zone. Unfortunately leaching will also remove other nutrients that we want to keep so for now, since we haven’t seen toxicity problems we are going to leave it be. If there was a deficiency we would look into adding laundry borax at very low rates. Yes, laundry borax.

While we do have some deficiencies that we need to take care of, it’s not too overwhelming and easily remedied. Next weekend we’ll be making a trip out to the farm supply to get the needed amendments. Hoping the upcoming season is a productive one!

Our Soil Analysis Part 1 – Where We Stand

Back in 2009 we got our soil tested. We had done one of those home tests you get at the nursery but what it was telling us didn’t seem to be right. I bucked up and decided to bay the $36 to get the professional test done. Here is what it came back as:

99999gsoil09-237-054

Nearly everything except calcium, sodium, boron and chloride were high to very high, though boron and sodium were higher than they should have been. The following year we had our best harvest out of all of the years we’ve been keeping track. This pumpkin along with 4 others were grown that year from two plants. Squeak weighs 60 lbs for reference.

squeek pumpkin

As time wore on our harvest total slowly went down. This past year our tomatoes were mediocre at best. Our squash hardly did anything. We had consistently added composted goat and chicken bedding but it clearly wasn’t doing the job. So this year we decided to run another soil test to see what was going on. Here are the results:

wkgsoil.xls

 

It’s interesting to see how the levels have changed over time.

  • Phosphorus levels have gone up while magnesium, zinc and copper have remained high to very high.
    • We’ve always known our copper levels were high. Our property used to be an orchard and copper is used as a fungicide for most fruit trees. Also, goats require copper in their diet and inevitably they will excrete some of it.
    • Phosphorus has most likely gone up due to the chicken manure. Goat manure tends to be higher in potassium than nitrogen and phosphorus but chicken manure is highest in phosphorus. Add into that the higher phosphorus levels in the feed of chickens (grains) and the grass straw used as bedding for the goats and that would explain the higher phosphorus levels.
    • Magnesium levels are most likely also due to manure application.
  • Everything else has dropped substantially. Some of that is good (such as sodium and born which were both previously medium-high and are now low) but we’ll need to boost organic matter, nitrogen, calcium, sulfur and manganese.
    • For as much composted bedding as we put down every year (4-6″ layer turned in) we were surprisingly low on organic matter in our soil.
    • The reduction in organic matter can easily be explained. The original test was done after our yearly application of compost while this test was done before adding compost.
    • The original test was taken after we used our well water to water the garden. This was how we came to find out that our well water had salt water intrusion, hence the higher salt, sodium and boron content. We’ve done a good job at leaching those salts out of the soil in the past 5 1/2 years.
    • We have been lax at adding back calcium, sulfur and manganese which would explain the drop in levels.
  • The pH is 6.7 which is slightly acidic, but in the most beneficial range for the best availability of major nutrients by most plant types.
    • This change is most likely due to the leaching out of salts which tend to make soils more alkaline.
  •  Improvements need to be considered for the CEC or Cation Exchange Capacity since it has dropped 9.5 points. The CEC is your soil’s ability to hold onto and release different positively charged elements and compounds, called cations. These include Potassium, Magnesium, Calcium and Ammonium (Nitrogen).
    • CEC is most likely lower due to decreased organic matter in the soil. Organic matter is negatively charged.
    • We have a clay loam soil. Clay tends to have a higher CEC because clay particles are negatively charged.
    • One of the reasons that it could have gone down is due to the leaching of sodium that we had to do. Sodium is also a cation.

For Part II we’ll go over what the optimum levels of nutrients are for vegetable production and how we are going to get our soil in tip top shape for the coming season. Stay tuned!

Surviving the Drought in the Garden 2.0 Update

Well, it looks like our drought is going to be continuing into it’s 4th year. To add on to the lack of rain we have record temperatures exacerbating the drought, further stressing plants and melting any snow that may fall soon after it falls. California will likely have no backup in regards to snow melt that we normally rely on for our summer water needs.

The biggest question garden-loving Californians are asking right now is “Should I even grow a garden this year with this drought?” It’s a responsible, well meaning question. I asked it myself last year. I went back and forth about it. A garden increases your water use, but at the same time you don’t want to let all your hard work die.

And then it dawned on me as I was driving by agricultural fields being irrigated by overhead spray in the middle of the day.

I’m going to be eating food anyways that requires water use. If I grow it I can control how much water is used better than a large scale farmer can. I can actually reduce my water use through food consumption more if I grow it myself. The LA Times recently had an article about how much water is required to grow certain foods (if you eat meat, goat takes the top spot for least amount of water needed per pound of meat). An apple requires 18 gallons and an orange requires 13 gallons. That’s quite a bit of water for just one fruit. Potatoes require 119 gallons of water for a pound. Yikes.

In addition to having to eat, using water in your own yard will help keep your soil healthy and alive, while also providing much needed habitat for wildlife.

My guilt of growing a garden subsided a bit. Now it was time to figure out what I can do to reduce my water footprint even more. I hope these tips can help you as well.

The only exception to this is if you are on a well that may run dry. If that is the case reduce, or even eliminate, your garden and just focus on keeping your trees and perennial plants alive.

Know Your Soil

soilstructure

One of the keys to water wise gardening is to know what kind of soil you have. If you have raised beds you most likely have a soil that is high in organic matter and maybe even has a bit of topsoil. If your beds aren’t brand new you’re going to want to get your soil tested so you know what nutrients you need to add. Plants that are getting enough nutrients are going to be hardier and will weather the drought better. If you plant in the ground like I do you are also going to want to know the soil’s structure. How much sand, silt and clay does your soil have? Sandy soil doesn’t hold water very well while clay soil has a tendency to hold onto water too well.

In addition you can check out the Web Soil Survey through the USDA (push the green button). This will give you an idea of how deep your soil is, which directly effects how much water it can hold. It will also tell you the water holding capacity of your soil. For the record, our soil is 20-40″ deep but only holds 4.5″ of water, which means that if it rained 6″ the soil would only be able to hold 4.5 of them and the remaining 1.5″ would run off or flooding would occur. Also, the water table is over 80″ deep so I can depend on trees being able to access it, as most tree roots actually only go down 2-3′.

Amend Your Soil

compost (2)

Adding compost to dig in

Starting from the ground up we first want to make sure our soil is well amended with a lot of organic matter. Organic matter will help absorb and hold onto more water. It will also help provide enough nutrients for the plant to develop strong root systems. Organic matter helps fast draining sandy soils hold onto water and helps heavy clay soils distribute the water deeper to the root zone and makes it more available to the plant. If you have tested your soil through A&L Agricultural Laboratories they will offer you recommendations of what to add to your soil to grow the desired crops.

Control Your Water

tomato

A tomato planted at the emitter location on drip tubing.

Fortunately for us, we are already on the right track. Our entire property is on drip/micro irrigation. If you don’t have your vegetable beds on drip, now is the time to invest. A drip system does several things.

  • It reduces the amount of water you use while watering by 50% or more.
  • It reduces diseases caused by overhead watering.
  • It reduces problems with weeds.
  • It reduces the amount of time you spend watering.
  • It reduces runoff and erosion.

If you don’t have a drip irrigation system yet and don’t know how to put one in, I’ve got a pretty thorough tutorial that can help you. Once you have your driplines in, situate plants so that they occur at an emitter so the plant can fully utilize as much water as possible. And instead of watering a little bit every day, water heavily but less often. You want the roots to travel as far down as you can get them to go. Plants with shallow roots are more likely to get dried out and stressed. Most plants require an inch of water per week. My aim is to water with drip 30 minutes twice a week. Of course the length and frequency of watering depends on the drip components you use. Many manufacturers offer calculators to determine how long and often you should run your irrigation. In addition, to reduce evaporation, schedule your irrigation to come on between 7pm and 7am. Early morning hours are preferable.

Keep Your Water

Give all your plants a thick layer of mulch

Give all your plants a thick layer of mulch

Mulch the hell out of everything you plan to water. And I mean MULCH. Lots of it. Go for at least 4″ if the plant’s height allows. Straw is a cheap mulch that you can use though it does get slick when wet and has a tendency to blow around. Bark mulch is heavier and longer lasting but can be expensive unless you get it from a tree service. However, getting it from a tree service can limit you to getting mulch from whatever tree they just removed. Some tree species can cause problems in the garden such as black walnut and eucalyptus. So far, one of the best mulches that I have found for water retention has been old livestock bedding. It’s heavier because it has absorbed urine and feces (which also increases it’s fertility) so it doesn’t blow away and it’s finer in texture from being broken up by hooves so it doesn’t have as many air spaces to allow evaporation. If you don’t have livestock you can get old bedding from horse stables, which are usually giving it away for free. Just be careful about weed seeds. Horses that are stabled tend to have less weed seeds in their feces than pastured horses. I’ve used rice hull bedding from a local stable before and this stuff was fantastic. You can also save up dried leaves and use those as well. We tried out plastic mulch/sheeting one year and found that it helped hold onto more water than expected. It also helped heat up the soil for plants that preferred warm soil. Melons and watermelons really thrived with the black plastic. The more drought tolerant plants such as tomatoes, didn’t fare quite as well.

Make sure to lay the mulch over your irrigation lines. You don’t want to actually water the mulch because it will absorb all the water and not allow any to reach the soil and water your plants. You also don’t want to have mulch right up against the stems of most plants (onion family and potatoes plants tend to be the exception) as it can cause problems with rot. An inch or so away is fine though.

Make the Right Plant Choices

All of this Pink Banana Squash came from just a single volunteer plant that we only watered twice

All of this Pink Banana Squash came from just a single volunteer plant that we only watered twice

Not all vegetables are created equal. Some, like celery, onions, green beans, carrots, lettuces and melons require a lot more water than other vegetables. Squash, tomatoes, peppers, eggplants and dry beans, especially Tepary beans, chard, and arugula are better choices for gardening when water is restricted. Most plants also have critical periods where they will require more water than normal. Most of the time this is during flowering and fruit production.

If you really want to grow some of the higher water need plants, put them together on a separate water valve. That way you can have part of your garden getting more water than the rest rather than the entire garden getting more water than some plants need. Also space the plants farther apart so they aren’t competing with each other for each precious drop. You may end up with fewer plants, but you won’t have to water as much.

The above picture with all the squash is a perfect example of how water wise gardening can still be productive. All of that squash – each weighing approximately 20lbs – came from a single volunteer plant. It sprouted in our old chicken yard so the soil had lots of organic matter and a high nutrient content. Because it was a volunteer we didn’t have irrigation going to it and only ended up giving it two deep waterings early on in it’s growth. It was a wetter year then compared to now, so the soil had a larger water capacity than this year, but it goes to show that if done correctly and mindfully very little applied water can still result in a big harvest.

We have a lot of volunteer vegetable plants that grow in our yard. Most of the time they are in our beds, but sometimes they are growing elsewhere that won’t be getting any water. These vegetables are the ones that do best in drought conditions because they don’t need the extra water. Chard, squash, arugula, and tomatoes are the most common ones growing about our yard. Also artichokes are very drought tolerant. Their growing season is in the winter and spring and then they die back in the summer and go dormant until the rains return. We rely 100% on the rainy season for our artichoke plants. We’ve never watered them until this year. They and the trees are now getting the water we save.

A Word on Container Gardening

If you have a small yard or balcony and still want to grow some of your food, container gardening can be done even in a drought. Follow many of the same guidelines as outlined above but you also want to take care regarding the type of container you are using. Terracotta planters are going to dry out a lot faster than plastic or even glazed pottery. Also, utilize saucers under your pots to catch excess water. An even better system would be to invest in or make self watering containers. These only release water as the plant needs them and are low water use.

Save Your Water

We now have several 5 gallon buckets in our kitchen and bathroom to collect water that can be used for watering perennial plants and trees. One of those buckets is in the bathtub specifically to catch the cold water before it gets warm. This is perfectly fresh, clean water that shouldn’t be wasted. In addition we are now saving some of our kitchen water. If you cook pasta, don’t salt it so you can use that water in the garden. If we’re rinsing off produce, we save that water. We save some dish washing water based on what we are cleaning and what soap we’re using. If it has touched raw meat, raw eggs, etc. it goes down the drain. All this water is getting used to water our artichoke plants, fruit trees, and various shrubs. I don’t use it on annual vegetables where we eat the leaves or roots. You can also save laundry water if you aren’t washing diapers.

Besides saving water we’re also just reducing the amount we use. The saying “if it’s yellow leave it mellow, if it’s brown flush it down” is being said quite often around our house now. We also turn off the water when we’re brushing our teeth (which we all should do anyways) and turning it on only to rinse the dishes. Also, while washing dishes we run the water a lot lower. It seems that it rinses them just as quickly at a lower flow than at full blast so I hope to see a savings in that regard. Showers have also been shortened to just 5 minutes. I’m planning on getting a valve to add to the shower head so we can turn it off while we’re soaping up.

By reducing the amount of water your garden and your household uses and by saving it, you can reduce your overall use of water enough to not have to feel guilty. And remember, the agriculture sector uses 75% of the total water so if you’re growing your own and following water wise guidelines you are helping reduce more water than just what you see on your bill.

 

Growing, Curing & Storing Onions

It’s almost time to start thinking about planting onions. Around here we go through half a dozen onions a week because we’re slightly nuts, but they just add so much flavor to meals, how could we not? There’s no possible way we could grow enough onions to provide us all year long unless we severely cut back, but who would ever want to do that? We do, however, try to grow as much as we can so at least some of our onion needs are met. There are several different types of onions – bunching, walking, multiplier and bulb onions are the most common. I will be talking mostly about bulbing onions.

Once you figure out what works best for you, growing onions can be very rewarding. If taken care of in the beginning the are kind of a set-it-and-forget-it crop until harvest.

onion copy

Choosing Onions

Growing onions can be very rewarding, but it can also be a bit confusing. When you look at a seed catalog you will come across in the description of the onion as being “Long Day,” “Short Day,” or “Day Neutral/Intermediate.” These descriptions are about how the onion grows and where, geographically, it is best grown. When you plant onions, they will start out looking like scallions. When the day length reaches a certain point, the onion will start to bulb. The trick is to get the most greens on the plant before it does this. More and bigger greens = bigger bulb. But you don’t want it to take so long that it will bolt too early before harvest and before you have a bulb.

  • Short Day varieties require 12 hours of daylight to start bulbing
  • Long Day varieties require 14-16 hours of daylight to start bulbing

The general rule is if you live above the 35th parallel (draw a line from San Francisco to Washington DC) you will want to grow Long Day onions because you will get longer days to encourage bulbing. Growing a Short Day variety in the north will cause your onion to bulb too early and end up being too small. Below the 35th parallel you will want to stick with Short Day varieties. Growing a Long Day variety in the south will result in an onion that bolts before it ever bulbs because the days never got long enough. If you’re pretty close to the 35th parallel you can do both types pretty successfully. Our most successful onion variety at our house is Yellow of Parma which is a Long Day variety. Day Neutral, also sometimes called Intermediate, can be grown anywhere.

Next you will need to figure out what types of onions you want to grow. A good rule of thumb is the sweeter and milder the onion the shorter the shelf life – about 2 months. If you have a bumper crop of red onions you can preserve them by pickling, or even caramelizing and then freezing them for future use. Onion varieties like Vidalia, Maui, most red types, and Grano are going to have a short shelf life and are best eaten fresh. The more pungent yellow and white onions, such as Yellow of Parma, Ailsa Craig, Copra and Cortland, can be stored for as long as 12 months. We usually grow 1/3 red onions and 2/3 yellow onions.

onions growing

Growing Onions

There are several ways you can plant onions. You can use seed, transplants or sets. Sets are basically miniature onions that you plant out. Sets are one year old onions so they can sometimes be  more prone to bolting early since onions are biennials (they flower their second year). Onions transplant very well so you can start with transplants to get a jump on the season. I usually start with seed, but have found that onions are a bit finicky about direct sowing so I will start them indoors and then transplant them out. I like to use seed mostly because there are many more varieties available in seed than in any other form.

I prefer to start my onion seeds at the first of the year. Planting them in the fall, I find, throws them out of whack when the days get shorter and then get longer. When this happens the plants think they are heading into their second year so they bolt almost immediately in the spring. You can plant them en masse and when you plant out just tease them apart.  I start them in flats in the greenhouse and once they are about 3″ tall I will transplant them in their well amended, loose bed. Don’t use a high nitrogen fertilizer for onions, though you do want to offer them some nitrogen. What you want is more phosphorus to encourage root growth. A good amendment would be a combination of poultry and steer (or goat) manures.

There are two very important things about growing onions. They need a good amount of water, especially when they are young, and they really dislike competition from weeds. You can mulch around them with straw after they are big enough to help with both of these issues.

Onions curing

Harvesting, Curing and Storing Onions

When the tops of the onions start to fall over you are close to harvest time. We usually wait until almost all of the tops are down and most are beginning to dry up before we harvest. We harvest in August, when it’s bone dry here, but if you live somewhere that rains, make sure to wait until you have a nice break in the rain and the ground has a chance to dry out some before harvesting. Don’t pull the onions out by their tops. Instead, use a shovel or fork to gently lift them out of the ground. You want to keep the top on through the curing process so you don’t open up the onion to pathogens that could cause their early demise.

Other things to watch out for are any bruising and onions that have bolted. The bolted onions will have a stiff stem coming up through the center. It is safe to assume that any onions that have dropped on the ground are bruised. These ones we set aside to be used first. The rest of the onions we lay out on a table in a single layer in a warm area with good circulation but out of direct sun. We have a metal patio table with a mesh top that works well for this but we also use a wood table as well with just as much luck. Don’t wash them or peel off any layers.

Allow your onions to cure for about 2 weeks. The tops and roots of the plant will  dry down to nothing. Once they are completely dry the curing process is done and you can trim the top and the roots. Store them in a cool, dark place. We store them in small burlap bags in our water tower and garage. I prefer the smaller bags because it allows all the onions to get plenty of air circulation. The larger coffee bean sized burlap bags always end up causing the onions in the center to rot first.

A proper curing will ensure that your onions will keep for a good long time. I do find as they age they become more pungent and oh boy, can they leave you in tears. Just throw them in the freezer for about 10 minutes prior to cutting to help avoid crying all over your cutting board.

Some good onion seed resources:

Building a Greenhouse for Next to Nothing (Compared to Buying One)

greenhouse1

I can’t believe I never did a post about our greenhouse. We’ve now been using it for at least a year and a half and I’ve been oddly silent about it. I guess it’s probably because it’s not 100% complete. We have one small area that still needs a permanent covering, the windows need new glazing and it is in desperate need of new paint. But it’s still functional and gets a lot of use. And it only cost us about $300. $300 may sound like a lot of money until you consider that this greenhouse is 8′x12′ and uses glass glazing. Buying a glass greenhouse that size will generally run you  around $5,000.

windows

Why a glass greenhouse? Why not just make a hoop house to save money? Hoop houses are great, don’t get me wrong, but they just don’t stand the test of time. While they are cheaper to make up front, there are some concerns you have to take into consideration. The material usually used for hoop houses is plastic sheeting, which doesn’t last more than a few years, even if it is UV resistant greenhouse plastic film. I’d prefer not to have to add more plastic to the landfill and also spend the money replacing it. Also, special consideration must be made regarding the hoop structure. PVC pipe (most isn’t UV resistant) will degrade the plastic through chemical reaction faster than it would normally degrade, so you have to either wrap the pipe or use another material, like galvanized pipe, which increases the cost.  Also, we have a very windy site for most of the year and plastic sheeting just wouldn’t hold up. Polycarbonate greenhouses also degrade from UV but lasts substantially longer than poly film. It is a plastic and even though it my hold up for 10-20 years if properly treated with UV stabilizers, it will discolor and become more opaque after time. It also becomes brittle. Double walled polycarbonate, however, adds a benefit of being more insulating than both glass and film. It can be quite pricey though. Not as expensive as buying glass specifically for a greenhouse, but if you can do glass, which is superior to both film and polycarbonate, for less than either, why wouldn’t you? It’s all about the windows. It is amazing how many people are trying to offload free windows. Craigslist is where we scored the majority of them. We also scored a free door that was 1/2 windows from my best friend who had just bought a house and wanted to replace the front door. We stockpiled old windows until we had what we felt was enough to start building. Before starting we laid out the panes on the ground so we could get the right configuration to fit the walls of the greenhouse. Do this carefully as we had a few casualties while doing this, but fortunately we had enough windows to make up the difference. We made sure that we got some windows with their frames so we could open them as needed when it got hot in the summer. 080914_0013_BuildingaGr3.jpg Next, we had to figure out how the greenhouse would be sited. We had a space on the north edge of our property that wasn’t shaded, and it wouldn’t shade out anything. We made the long 12′ wall be the south facing wall to maximize sun exposure. We also decided that since the north facing wall is facing a fence we could just use plywood for it. We framed up the structure with new lumber, which is where a good portion of the money we spent on the greenhouse went towards, however the most costly part of this job was actually the roofing material. We used some of the extra pavers we had to level the structure since our ground slopes. It was also imperative that add extra bracing since the weight of the windows can be quite substantial. windows going in The biggest score from the window search were these two 6′ long windows that someone had purchased and then never bothered using. The easily spanned the whole lower half of our south facing wall. It was a tight fit but we got them in. We also got more narrow windows from our next door neighbor that flanked the door (seen in the first photo). Once we got most of the windows in on the south facing wall, we started  framing the door and getting the roof joists up. Sexy ain’t it? We decided to just do a simple sloped roof, rather than a gable roof so the south side was getting even more sun exposure, especially in the winter when the sun angle is lower and when we need the greenhouse the most. It’s important when you get the door that it comes with the jamb for easier framing. greenhouse2 Once the door was in, we were able to finish up adding windows. And then the roofing, which we used the clear corrugated plastic sheeting. It’s not a particularly pretty greenhouse and it does need a coat of paint, but it’s definitely functional. greenhouse   Of course, what you also have to think about is the interior. Where are you going to put plants? And what about the floor? We scored some pea gravel off of Freecycle and it was enough to put down a nice 3″ layer. We first put down weed cloth though so we wouldn’t be fighting the never ending onslaught of bindweed and Bermuda grass inside. Tom build a fantastic 8′ long potting bench out of scrap wood and then we bought some heavy duty utility “baker” racks for putting the plants on. We will be probably switching the locations of these and put the potting bench on the east facing wall and the racks on the south facing wall so we can add another one. We also are using an old unused compost bin (our chickens do all of our composting now) as a soil storage.

Some Cool Chicks

chickens

It’s been hot around here (David Bowie is panting). So this is how we keep our girls cool. A kiddie pool filled with muddy water. The trick is the mud. They refused to stand in it when it was just water. All of them loiter around the pool during the hottest part of the day taking turns dipping their toes in the cooling mud.

What I’ve Learned 2013 Edition Volume 1

Summer is officially here and it’s time for me to finally get around to writing down some of the things I need to remember. Hopefully this list can help you too in your quest for gardening perfection (pssst….it doesn’t exist).

strawberriesReplace your strawberry plants every few years.

I’ve heard this said over and over but I’ve always kind of been like “yeah, whatever, they are perennials.” Well, I finally have to admit that I was wrong. Every few years those plants drop in production…like a lot. Last year we harvested 35lbs of strawberries from our little 4’x10′ bed. Quite impressive. This year? I haven’t added it up yet but I’ll be surprised if we broke 5lbs. The berries this year are also substantially smaller than last year as well. These plants gave us a good 3 year run but even fertilizing didn’t help use out and we’ll need to replace them next year. The question is what varieties should I replace them with? Do you have a favorite strawberry variety with outstanding taste (#1) and production (#2)?

Update: While I was writing this it came to my attention that while the harvest is lower it has been made even more low by Squeak the Super Dog who has found an undying love for the taste of strawberries.

People love their big beefsteak tomato plants

This year we tested the waters selling plant starts. The tomatoes were the biggest hit by far. We only grow heirlooms and are picky about the varieties – only choosing those that grow well for us. While I thought Stupice – the heirloom tomato’s answer to a fog-tolerant Early Girl – would have been a big hit, it was the Black Krim and Hillbillies that stole the show. We actually sold out of Black Krim and 90% of our Hillbillies before we even started tabling at Moschetti Coffee. We also got a lot of requests for red beefsteak tomatoes so we’ll be looking at including more of those – probably Brandywine, Italian Heirloom and more Mortgage Lifter plants. Paste tomatoes were also a popular request so I’ll need to include some of those as well. Next year I hope to increase the amount of plants we grow substantially. We will also be using real plant pots as the red cups tip over too easily. Unfortunately it means we’ll have to charge a bit more to cover the cost.

….but are not so hot on hot peppers

As much as I LOVE hot peppers I should probably have realized that the general populace doesn’t share that love with me. While I was able to sell most of them, the sweet peppers sold out pretty quickly. Also, I’m hoping that next year the Anaheims do better so I’ll actually have some of those to sell.

Direct seeding doesn’t always work but sometimes it’s the seeds

We had a problem with direct seeding melons, watermelon, cucumbers and some of the squash. Most refused to germinate. After doing some investigative digging I found that the issue for some was that something was eating them right when the root would start to come out. So for those I ended up germinating them in the greenhouse and planting them as soon as they were up so as not to have issues with being root bound. However, the Bidwell Casaba melon seeds I couldn’t even get to germinate in the greenhouse. I tried pots outside. Still no go. I ended up going through 4 packets of seeds and after planting every single one I only got 2 plants to show for it. They weren’t being eaten, they just weren’t coming up. So I decided to try a few other varieties of melon and every single one I planted came up within just a few days. I’ve planted Bidwell Casaba before and had great luck so I suspect there was something wrong with this year’s batch. Next year I plan to start seedlings about a week before the earliest date I can put them in to avoid this mess again.

It’s all Beansabout the manure

Our garden is going gangbusters right now. Plants are all huge, producing a ton and we aren’t having any disease or pest issues. Last year we had a pathetic harvest due to being skimpy on the manure spreading. This year we tripled the amount of manure we put down and what a difference it has made! The only patch of ground that we didn’t amend very well is where we have beans planted and the difference between that patch and another patch in another location that was planted at the same time is very notable.

The only "clear" walk down to the end of the yard

The only “clear” walk down to the end of the yard

….but there is a downside and we planted too much of it

We can barely get down to the walkways because the uber-happy squash has taken over everything, including the pathways. We need to grow fewer squash next year because of this and also because they seem to want to take over all the other plants. Plus I have absolutely no idea what we are going to do with that much squash. I figure this year will just be the year where we determine what our favorite varieties are and then next year we will reduce the amount we grow. So far we know we will be growing Howden pumpkins and Trombocino squash. What I really like about the Trombocino is that it’s eaten like zucchini but the majority of it is seedless except for the bulb at the very end. This means that if one gets away from you it is still just as edible as it was when it was smaller. It also makes fantastic pickles because it’s less likely to get mushy in the canner. Of course it will be awhile before we can choose the winter squash variety we like the most (besides the pumpkins).

 Hot weather makes for early harvests

We harvested our very first June tomatoes this year. Usually we don’t get tomatoes until the end of July – mid-July at the very earliest. We’ve even got tomatillos ready to go. It’s been unseasonably hot the last month or so. While our normal weather pattern is around the upper 70s with morning fog, we’ve been getting a pretty consistent stream of upper 80s to 100s. It finally cooled down to decent upper 70 weather this week but it was pretty brutal for awhile. Because we weren’t expecting it, some of the harvest got away from us and now we’re scrambling to process stuff. I processed a dozen quarts of zucchini pickles on Friday. I also processed 36 8-oz jars of apricot jam, 6 quarts of halved apricots and 2 quarts of apricot syrup.

I think for now I’ll stop here. Watch for Volume 2 later in the season.

The Hugelkultur Bed Experiment Update

hugelLast fall we decided to convert part of a garden bed into a low  hugelkultur bed to see how it would work for us. To compare we prepared the bed right next to it using a rototiller. In both beds we used the same mix of soil amendments and we planted the exact same varieties in the same configuration. They are also hooked up to the same water line. So other than one being a hugel and the other being tilled, they are, for all intents and purposes, exactly the same.

The season is still fairly early but I’m already seeing some differences.

tomatoesThe tomatoes are slightly larger in the hugel bed compared to the tilled bed.

peppersSame with the peppers. Especially the habanero, which is notorious for being a slow growing variety.

eggplantsThe eggplants are doing equally well.

watermelonWatermelon germination was the biggest difference. I had much faster and better germination rates in the tilled bed compared to the hugel.

Of the squash plants that germinated at about the same time, the ones in the tilled bed are bigger and more vigorous.

bedsThe biggest difference though is a substantially smaller amount of weeds in the hugelkultur bed.

The season has just started and production hasn’t even started yet and that will be the real test to determine which bed works the best.

Canning Season is Almost Here – Stay Safe Out There

packed in jars

Raw packed pickles

We just planted our tomatoes, eggplants and tomatillos this weekend. In a couple of more weeks we’ll be planting peppers, squash, cucumbers, melons, beans and corn. In just a few months we’ll be busy harvesting and preserving our bounty through drying, freezing and canning.

Preserving has been gaining in popularity and I see some really great recipes out there on the interwebs. I also see some dangerous ones that kind of scare me. I’ve seen so many bad ones, in fact,  that I’ve decided that I’m no longer going to judge canned goods at events anymore unless the recipe and canning process is included with the sample. You can’t simply shoot from the hip and make up recipes that “sound about right” and expect for them to store at room temperature for extended lengths of time.  There’s a science behind canning to ensure safety that I can’t stress enough. So I figured that with canning season fast approaching we should discuss some guidelines to canning to help everyone stay safe.

The Rules

1. Just because it’s on the internet does not automatically make it a safe recipe. 

Be critical of every recipe you see on the internet.  Check to make sure it has enough acid and is processed long enough if it’s not pressure canned and uses low acid ingredients (especially if it is raw packed). If it’s high acid make sure it is water bath canned long enough. The USDA has safe canning guidelines through their National Center for Home Food Preservation site that you can cross reference from. Also avoid recipes that have dairy, eggs, and pureed low acid food (such as lemon curd, pumpkin butter and pureed bananas) and don’t also say that it is to only be kept in the refrigerator for a limited amount of time (usually for a month) or to freeze the finished product.

2. Books are *usually* a safe bet. 

I only say “usually” because I’ve seen some questionable and downright dangerous recipes even in published books. Check the book to make sure it says the recipes have been tested for safety. The most reliably safe books (though I can’t testify to the flavor of all the recipes in these books) are:

cans

These are refrigerator-style pickles that have a finite shelf life.

3.  If you find a safe recipe do not alter it, but if you do, know the guidelines. 

Even adding a bit more onion to a recipe can alter the pH enough to make it unsafe. For water bath canned products you want the pH to be 4.6 or lower. However, unless you have a super deluxe Vitamix blender, chances are just blending and using a litmus strip isn’t going to give you an accurate reading of the acidity. The safest way to test is to send it to a food lab, but that can get expensive so just stick with a tested recipe. Always follow the basic safe guidelines if you do change the recipe. If you’re not sure, err on the side of caution and don’t alter it. The canning recipes I have on this blog always follow the safe guidelines and I almost always increase the acid when I don’t need to just to be on the safe side. I will not post low-acid recipes that require pressure canning. And recipes that don’t follow the safe guidelines, like our oven-baked heirloom tomato sauce, will always be for eating immediately of freezing (which is why we don’t include canning instructions with it).

4. Not all fruit is created equal. 

While many fruits are high acid and relatively easy to can, some are either borderline or low acid and must have acid added. Figs, bananas, white peaches, Asian pears, watermelon, mangoes and tomatoes all fall into this category of not acidic enough to can on their own without added acid. Be sure to follow the USDA guidelines if canning these items. I have posted tomato canning guidelines that are based on USDA guidelines and the Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving.

 5. If it’s a low acid food and you don’t add acid don’t even think of water bath canning it (same goes for recipes with meat in them even if you do add acid).

I’m serious here. Botulism will fucking kill you. Adding loads of salt or sugar won’t save you here.

6. If a recipe says to pack pint jars don’t pack quart jars and increase the time to what you think it should be. 

Sometimes you’ll come across recipes that only give you the processing time for a specific jar size. Don’t pack into larger jars because you don’t know what the processing time is for them to be safe. Tomato paste is a good example of this. Due to it’s consistency it’s best to only can it in 8 oz jars. And never can using jars larger than a quart unless the recipe calls for them (tomato juice can be canned in 1.5L jars per the Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving).

7. Don’t create shortcuts.

  • Cut fruits or vegetables into the indicated size as this ensures that the center reaches the correct temperature and acidity if using low acid foods.
  • Don’t “eyeball” the amounts of your ingredients – think of this as a science experiment rather than an art project.
  • Start your processing time after the water has come back up to boiling if using a water bath canner or after you reach pressure when pressure canning.
  • Pack hot food into hot jars that were slowly brought up to temperature, not cold jars (the sudden heat from the food will stress the glass causing breakage).
  • Don’t reuse lids (Tattler lids are the exception). You can reuse rings though.
  • Follow head space rules for a recipe – don’t over or under fill jars.
  • Always make sure there is at least 1″ of water covering the jars when in the canner.
  • Do not skip the water bath for acidic foods. The water bath heats up the food in the jar to kill microorganisms. The heated food increases in volume (why you need to follow rules for head space) pushing out air. The water covering the jars doesn’t allow air to reenter the jars. The air also is heated making it expand and escape the jar. Less oxygen means less oxidation and less spoilage (except for anaerobic microorganisms like Clostridium botulinum, many other microorganisms require oxygen). You’re much more likely to get mold if you don’t properly do a water bath. Mold changes the pH of the product making an acidic food more basic which opens it up to C. botulinum, which causes botulism.
  • Remove air bubbles after packing hot jars. Sometimes the food can contain enough air in it to alter the head space. Plus extra air means extra oxygen and more chances for spoilage.
  • Always wipe the rim with a clean cloth before putting the lid on. This will help ensure a good seal while also removing a vehicle for contamination to get inside the jar.

8. Take the rings off your jars after they seal. 

The rings are really just designed to keep the lid on while canning and should be removed after they seal. This will help reduce corrosion and rust on your jars but more importantly removing the rings help you avoid a false seal. A failed seal would indicate spoilage but if the ring keeps the lid down you wouldn’t necessarily know the food has spoiled – smell, taste and looks can be deceiving for some types of spoilage. However, you can put the rings back on once you break the seal to avoid creating a mess.

9. Remember to adjust for altitude. 

Find out your altitude and then adjust your canning time. Please note that the time difference may vary depending on the product you’re canning.

10. Use the right equipment. 

Steam canners and oven canning are not recommended and cannot remove the risk of all types of spoilage. A stock pot that is deep enough for your jars plus 1″ of cover is fine for water bath canning. Make sure to use a rack on the bottom of your pot though. The rack helps keep water moving all the way around the jar and helps prevent the jars from breaking. Use a pressure canner, not a pressure cooker, when canning low acid foods and meat. Pressure cookers don’t have as reliable gauges if they have one at all. Also make sure that your pressure canner is in good condition. Old or poorly taken care of pressure cookers are dangerous and can explode. Your county extension can test your pressure canner for you or direct you to somewhere that can.

Canning isn’t something that should intimidate you by any means, you just have to follow some rules to make sure your finished product is safe. Properly canned foods are delicious and most times are much healthier than what you can purchase at the store. So get out there and start canning!

Buying Before it’s Time

This morning I saw tomato and pepper plants for sale. This morning I also saw frost on the ground at my house, which has a much milder climate than where I saw these plants for sale. What do peppers and tomatoes hate? You guessed it. Frost.

So why in the world would some nurseries be trying to sell frost sensitive plants while there is still frost? Come on now, we live in a capitalist society, we all know the answer there. They don’t care if your tomato plants get ruined, they want to get a jump on selling the most popular vegetable plant around.

Don’t be fooled. Just because the nurseries have it does not mean it’s time to put it in the ground. Even some of the best nurseries can make you fall victim to buying before it’s time. Spring is here, the seed catalogs are out. It’s time to plant!!!!

Hold on a second. What’s your last average frost date? Not yet? Then don’t buy those frost sensitive plants. Actually I wouldn’t even buy them within 3 weeks of the average frost date. Remember, it’s an average, so some years it will be later in the year.  Our last average frost date is supposed to be sometime in February but I’m not buying it. As I said, we had frost last night and I know last year we had frost as late as mid April. Since then I’ve learned that February is NOT our last frost date and I won’t plant until after mid April.

Now, you can very well plant them early if you have season extenders, but mid-March still seems excessively early to even use those. Tomatoes and peppers aren’t just frost sensitive but they LOVE heat and prefer their nights to not go below 55 deg F. Planting them too early can stunt them or just knock them back so they don’t get a good start.

Nurseries do a disservice to gardeners by selling plants before they can safely go in the ground. Beginning gardeners trust nurseries to know when planting times are so if tomatoes are in they think that it’s time to plant them. Then they plant them and the plant dies because it’s still too cold still. And nothing discourages a new gardener like a dead plant when they just start out.