Maw-Maw On My Mind: A Garden Update

April 8, 2012 at 5:07 am (Gardening, permaculture) (, , , , , , , , )

Despite the news of the impending sale of our house to a commercial property development company, the glorious springtime weather has us out in the garden almost daily.  In the last few days, I have added aged manure to the garden beds and greenhouse.  Every bed has received a nice layer of straw to protect from spring rains and drying winds.  The apple trees, blueberries, and strawberries (all in containers so they can go with us when we have to move) were top-dressed with manure.

An afternoon of sun showers and hail storms followed a morning of potato planting.

The night before last, I noticed a full moon, big and low in the sky.  I wanted to get potatoes in the ground to test Maw-Maw’s theory about planting root crops with the waning moon.  For above-ground crops, Maw-Maw only plants when the moon is in the sign of Cancer.  She says that’s what her father used to do.  He wouldn’t have called himself a biodynamic farmer or anything so new-agey; he was the heir to a long tradition of farming and he knew when to plant by simply looking at the stars in the night sky.

Without knowing the word, I bet my great-grandfather would’ve grasped the concept of hugelkultur.  My hugel bed is coming along nicely now.  So far, I’ve transplanted the lupins I started inside to the hugel bed, as well as some oregano and thyme.  On one side I sowed quinoa and the millet seeds I saved last year, in hopes that these grass-like plants will grow quickly and spread their roots to hold the mound in place.  Later, I’ll plant some sprawling tomatoes on the mound, which will benefit from the warmth reflected off the garage wall.

An old baby gate will serve as a trellis for the tayberry. The wire fencing, visible on the left, extends 8-10 ft. out of the picture and will provide support for shelling peas as well as a little privacy from the busy back lane.

Of course, the garden really begins in the basement, where last year we set up 4 ft. tube fluorescent lights for starting seeds on some built-in shelves.  The part of the basement where the seedlings live stays around 60 degrees F., which is fine for starting most seeds of flowers, herbs, lettuces, and brassicas (broccoli family).  But, heat-loving plants like tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant germinate best when the temperature is closer to 70 degrees.  In the past, I have germinated these types of seeds by precariously balancing their trays on the fluorescent light fixtures themselves to make use of any wasted heat.  This year, I have moved and rebuilt a shelving unit to make use of the heat given off by the gas furnace.

The exhaust pipe from the furnace blasts these shelves with wasted heat every time the heater comes on, keeping this area a few degrees warmer than the rest of the room.

Next up: starting seeds for all the heat-loving crops to be transplanted when it really warms up outside.  And, as if it isn’t enough for me to handle this whole garden by myself, I’ve gotten in touch with some other moms at my daughter’s school to form a garden committee to clean up and maintain the Children’s Garden.  Thursday, after spending the whole morning at UBC Farm helping with the kids in the Landed Learning project, I spent the afternoon pruning the severely overgrown apple trees at our school.  Ideally, it would’ve been done when the trees were dormant, so we’ll be losing some flowers this year, but it really needed to get done and I hope no one complains.  Maybe when we’re asked to leave this house and our beloved garden, the Children’s Garden could be the recipient of many plant donations by me…

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Three-Day Gardening Extravaganza

February 24, 2012 at 7:21 am (Eleanor, goings-on, Other, Vancouver) (, , , )

Apart from a five-minute hail storm that caught me out yesterday, the Vancouver weather has just graced me with three consecutive days in the garden.  Days one and two were transplant-and-cover days.  I’m using bent heavy-gauge wires to support a layer of landscaping fabric that should protect the young plants.

In The Winter Harvest Handbook, Eliot Coleman writes that keeping winter crops covered with cold frames or row covers boosts their micro-climate by one USDA zone (two, if you grow them covered in a greenhouse).  Besides keeping crops warmer, cold frames protect them from drying winds and direct sun that can thaw frosted leaves too quickly and cause cell-wall damage.

On day one of the extravaganza, I transplanted young mixed lettuces, spinach, and some onions (to maybe deter a few of the buggies).  On day two (yesterday), I transplanted lots of leeks and a kind of romaine lettuce called Cimmaron.  I spaced them closely to quickly provide cover for the soil, as well as edible thinnings over a period of time.

On the left--interplanted cimmaron and leeks; on the right--spinach and mixed lettuces under cover.

Today, day three of my garden extravaganza, I finally got around to shoveling the last of the truckload of soil we had dumped in the driveway last spring.  It went on the hugel bed!

There wasn't enough soil to cover the whole bed; I'll have to grab a few bags.

The soil layer is only superficial for now, but I’m really pleased with how the bed is coming along.  I went ahead and sowed a cover crop of clover, which, if it gets covered with more soil later, will just decompose and add nitrogen to the soil.  I also have a tray of lupins started under lights in the basement to plant on the hugel bed.  (Lupins are said to fix nitrogen the way members of the legume family do.)

As I was shoveling soil onto the hugel bed, an older gentleman from the neighborhood stopped in the lane to appreciate my garden.  He was European and had such a thick accent that I barely understood him, but he seemed immediately to understand what I was doing.  He recommended adding manure, which I really ought to do throughout the garden…  One more thing for the spring garden to-do list!

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Creating Micro-Climates for Heat-Loving Crops

February 17, 2012 at 6:06 am (Gardening, permaculture) (, , , , , , )

There was a picture I wanted to post, but can’t seem to find in my photo collection… maybe I didn’t really take a picture; maybe the memory is just that vivid.

Picture this: Two winter squash plants growing side by side, organically, in the same soil.  One is pale in color, with leaves that are mottled with powdery mildew, and has but one small fruit.  The other, is vigorous, with bright green leaves, and boasts several fruits that are maturing rapidly. The difference between the two is marked.

I’m not making this up or speaking hypothetically.  These plants were grown on a test plot at the UBC Farm, where my PDC courses were mostly held.  The 24-hectare teaching farm is right by the coast, where conditions can be very cool and damp (yes, even in Vancouver, there are varying degrees of wet).

Besides sun, water, and NPK, some of the most popular garden veggies really prefer warm weather–squash, melons, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, basil, and corn (to name quite a few) really do best with some heat.

I hope the next time I grow corn, it turns out better than this. Obviously, it wasn't fully pollinated--a problem with growing too little corn for good pollen dispersal by wind.

In the squash example, the first one was planted in freshly-dug garden soil with a healthy dose of finished compost to get it started.  The other one, the vigorous grower, was planted on a mound of unfinished compost and soil, then covered with a tarp for moisture retention and insulation.  That the plant was raised a bit above the level of the surrounding garden, caused cool, damp night air to settle away from the plant on the mound, so it was less susceptible to fungi and molds.  And, the heat created by the compost continuing to break down kept the plant’s roots several degrees warmer than the outside air temperature.  When a plant is referred to as being “heat-loving,” it doesn’t necessarily mean that it has to be grown in a hot climate or greenhouse where the air temperature is high; heating the plant’s roots can be enough to boost growth.

I failed to mention in my last post, Hugel What?, that heat is one of the main reasons for building raised garden beds in the hugelkultur style: heat from rotting wood, lawn trimmings, and compost at the center can give a boost to plants growing on the  mound.

Other ideas for creating a warm micorclimate: using black plastic or landscape fabric as “mulch” between plants because black absorbs and traps heat; use gravel and rocks in your garden design because they store heat and release it back slowly as the surrounding air cools at night; use pools of water or water-collection barrels for the same reason (heat-storage); position heat-loving plants against a south facing wall that will reflect light and heat during the day; if you’re container gardening, place plants on pavement and asphalt surfaces to reflect and store heat.

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