May 21, 2010

Keeping Hope ..... I Mean Seedlings Alive

So I picked up my seedlings last Saturday and like clockwork I started to get completely stressed out about how to keep them alive until it was warm enough to plant them.

I negotiated with the farmer from ReVision House and the staff from Allandale farm to try to get someone to tell me it was safe to just put them in the ground even though it was only mid-May. No dice. The seedlings usually get good and sad looking over the two weeks and I wanted to do better this year. I'm not expecting real growth, I just want them to stay healthy. I put the collards and brussel sprouts in the ground right away, but the cukes, tomatoes, basil, eggplant and pepper were not ready for that.

Also, my house is being painted, so I couldn't leave them out on my porch which is my usual routine. What on earth was I going to do? Not to count my chickens before they hatch, but the inaccessibility of the porch may have turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

As an aside, those of you urban dwellers know the unique challenges of growing things when you live in an apartment without a lot of space (indoor, but especially outdoor) and where all of that space is divvied up very carefully by all parties. There's no sunny growing spot out in the world that you don't work damn hard to get in Boston, that's for sure.

So I decided to ask my first floor neighbor if I could leave the seedlings in their yard (this is the yard that is in the back of the house I live in, but it is not mine) and put them in their covered "outdoor-shed/porch/living-room-type-thing" at night or if it looked to be bad weather. Given the house painting situation, they agreed. It turns out, this is way better treatment than they usually get on my own porch for a few reasons:

1) I usually put the seedlings on my front porch, which isn't as sunny during the day as the back of the house. I do have a back porch, but up until now it's been the "crappier" of my two porches because the paint in back was peeling so badly and because it's a little bit less convenient to get to than the front. Also both of these porches are covered on top, in typical triple-decker fashion.

2) Because they are on the porch and covered, I don't usually move them inside when it's going to rain. Also I have a cat (used to have two until this year, RIP my sweet Umbrella, but that is not what this blog is about so..... moving on) and the cat/s in my house have free reign and like to munch on vulnerable seedlings like nobody's business. So the long and short of it is that unless it was going to be freezing, the seedlings were outside for the duration with nothing more than a roof over their heads. Rain and wind could easily fly at them from the sides. Sometimes I'd cover them with plastic if the weather was particularly nasty, and only very rarely would they get to come all the way indoors.

3) In the past I kept the seedlings in the containers they came in. I knew this was wrong, but I just didn't have a plan for transplanting them. Again, where does a city kid keep all of the supplies needed for excellent gardening? It's a challenge. This year I was determined to do better. I found enough milk jugs, soy milk, oj and yogurt containers to give most of the seedlings a larger home. I still didn't have a great plan, because I was clinging to the delusional hope that global warming (tragic though it is) was going to work in my favor this year and I'd just plop all the seedlings in the ground.

Why I think this set up is better:

First of all, the seedlings look pretty good!

With the back yard set-up the seedlings get a lot more sunlight for more of the day and they are babied a little bit better ie: I've been bringing them in every night that it looks to get into the 40s and I keep them inside when it rains. Inside is pretty darn close to outside temperature-wise so I'm not sure what I'll do if the weather turns very cold, but so far I haven't had to worry about it and the forecast for next week seems even better. I think the complete absence of wind at night and the small temperature difference, probably helped a bit. In fact the subtle temperature difference probably works a lot better for them than going from low 50s in the evening to my cozy apartment which is probably in the high 60s. I mean they'd prefer it much warmer than that I know, but still gradual might be better.

The containers aren't perfect, but they still seem to help. I mean I totally screwed up on the water holes. I used a knife and ran it through the bottom of the containers leaving a few small slanty cuts (barely holes) for drainage. I was pretty sure I waterlogged some cucumbers this way, but they haven't died yet. I tried to fix the holes after planting in a couple places, but I don't think I got it. I learned my lesson with the yogurt containers and made larger holes which I think are better. Also, some of my containers are clear. I am sure that's not good since every planting vessel I have ever seen is a dark color. I assume this is to keep the roots away from the light. I'm hoping it'll still be ok because the containers are big enough that I don't think the roots will grow out to the edges all that quickly, but who knows.

The porches are due to be finished this weekend, but I really want to keep the seedlings where they are. It's just another week and I live all the way up on the 3rd floor.

Also, as luck would have it, I've realized that the back porch is likely the superior one for seedlings, but my current roommate is a smoker and she smokes back there. Cigarette smoke is not good for plants, especially tomatoes, so that's not a risk I'm willing to take.

Perhaps this porch-painting business is just the kind of bonding experience my neighbors and I need to make the back porch the permanent home for my spring seedlings. Who wants to stand in the way of a good garden produce, especially if you're a neighbor and might get some?

P.S. If things work out I'll have more seedlings than I'll be able to plant, so let me know if you are in the Boston area and might want some seedlings.

May 8, 2010

Early May Garden Worries

So far so good in terms of the "old" seeds sprouting to life. I am quite pleased. The beets, arugula and radishes have all come up nicely. I'm pretty sure that carrots, cilantro, dill, shallots, onions and parsley all take a bit longer so I'm not too worried that I haven't seen signs of life in those rows yet.

Meanwhile, I've got a new/old pest to contend with: flea beetles. I don't think there's much I can do. Frankly, I'm amazed at the lengths I go to (or at least consider) to keep the pests at bay and the minimal impact my efforts actually seem to have on the pest population. Let's run down the assorted critters and issues I've got on my mind in these early planting days of May:

1) Cutworms - these are my enemies from way back. I try to make a habit of turning over the soil as late as I can in the fall to expose any larvae to the elements and then again in early spring. That seems to have worked the past few years, but if it's not that cold (like now) I worry.

2) Bunnies - I am not sure it's rabbits, but in the past, something has gotten to my lettuce and chomped off a whole lot of it in the early growth stages. Same as last year, I brushed the dog living in my house (new roommate = new dog) and tied a bunch of his hair together with a string and hung it over where the lettuce is growing. I have no idea if this will really work, but it's easy enough to do.

3) Flea Beetles - I am honestly shocked at how quickly they started eating little holes through my teeny tiny arugula seedlings. I really haven't figured out anything to keep them away and I can still eat the holey arugula, but it's infuriating to see the damage and feel powerless to stop it. I suppose I could try some really thin sheets of fabric that allows the sun through, but it seems so large-scale farm-like for a little plot in a community garden.

4) Cucumber Beetles - I always get them and I definitely hate them. They don't come until later in the season, but I'm growing at least 2 things just for them: radishes (supposedly repel them) and dill (supposedly attract helpful bugs that eat cucumber beetles)

5) Leaf Miners - These guys REALLY piss me off. I've never actually seen one of the bugs, but they spend their time eating through the middle of beet leaves (and chard and other leafy greens) making them ugly and inedible. I can usually eat the beets, but it doesn't make me hate the Leaf Miners any less. I mentioned this problem to one of the staff at Allandale farm last year who suggested taking a year off the beets, but I just couldn't do it. This year I'm planting them in a new spot, in between rows of radishes and onions and hoping for the best.

6) Wasps - these are new for me, and they've been back since my last post. I don't know if I really want to go to all the trouble of installing a fake wasp nest to deter them, but I am not pleased to have wasps hanging out right in my plot. Flying around in general is ok, but within easy stinging distance all the time....I'm not into that.

The pick up for Revision House seedlings is next weekend, so I'm excited to get a lot more in the ground. It's been so warm, it might even be safe to put in tomatoes!

May 3, 2010

old seeds, new tricks?

This Saturday I finally managed to get into the garden to work. I did a pretty good job of weeding and turning over some of the soil in only 3 and 1/2 hours. It's been a while though and I guess I'm a bit rusty, because I also got a really stupid sunburn (the kind that makes it look like I'm still wearing a flesh colored t -shirt) and I planted cilantro (which I had already planted) instead of planting parsley. They really look alike!!

Overall I'm pleased with my accomplishment and feeling good about my work. I did plant old seeds though. This is not an encouraged practice since the seeds may not be alive anymore. I didn't store them in the fridge or take special care of them like you're supposed to, I just figured: "I have all these year old seeds, so what the hell?!" They had been in a drawer, away from extreme heat and sunlight, so I'm hoping I'll be lucky.

The real motivation was the fact that I don't have a car and didn't feel like biking over to Allandale farm. Partly because I just didn't feel like biking, but mostly because I knew I'd see things I wanted that were NOT seeds and that I would be unable to take back home on my basketless bicycle.

After I was done for the day, my favorite census taker drove me over to Allandale anyway. It was then that I bought some rosemary and "parsley" seedlings...that turned out to be cilantro. I was also on the hunt for something that might repel wasps. It turns out, my totally awesome cucumber trellis is attracting them. It appears to be the dry cracked wood that they like, but I am nervous that they'll try to make a nest which would completely suck. Wasps sting!! I mean, I've been stung a lot, but I'd rather not risk it every time I garden not to mention the fact that this is a community garden and there are 50 or so other gardeners and kids in the area all the time, some of whom might be allergic. I found a few comments online that mention installing a fake wasp nest to keep the wasps away. Apparently they are territorial and won't come near the nest.

The didn't have one at Allandale and I'm tempted to try it, but even looking at that giant (fake) wasp nest is a bit scary to me.

I think I'll keep checking the trellis for a few more days before I fork out the money for a giant, fear-inducing nest "waspinator" nest of my own.

July 28, 2009

General Garden Update

I've been feeling like the world's worst gardener lately. June and most of July were so rainy and cool that I hardly had to water. I all but completely ignored the garden and let the weeds take over. This week I turned a corner though. I got up at 5AM on Monday to reign in the wild arms of the tomato plants and harvest a few things. Today again, I was up at 6AM to give the garden a good soaking now that it's actually hot out. The weeds are taunting me, but perhaps I will deal with them tomorrow. I'm quite pleased with the harvest this week: more collards, several beautiful cucumbers, beets and celery (first time ever!)

There are some good things happening despite my neglect. Yhe cucumber plants really did climb up the trellis and the cukes are dangling well above the ground, just like I had hoped. Unfortunately, all of the lower leaves seem to have rust colored spots on them. I assume it's some sort of fungus from all the rain, but I've been too lazy to even get to the bottom of it.

The leafminers chewed the hell out of my beets and my aggressive defoliating didn't seem to make much of a difference. I can still eat the beets though, and they look pretty good. Sad to say it, but I think for the next year or two I'm going to skip the beets and see if I can chase these pests away.

The best thing the garden is doing now though is donating produce to a local food pantry. We set out a cooler over the weekend so gardeners can drop off their harvest, and then someone picks it up early on Monday to take the bounty. I gave up some collard greens and cucumbers, but I think we're going to need a bigger cooler once the tomatoes get going!

June 29, 2009

Beet it!

I was away in California and then NJ for about 10 days and, as is the norm when traveling during the season, I worried about my garden while I was away.

Luckily it rained almost the entire time I was gone and all of the next week. Unluckily, that meant I had a lot of weeding to do this weekend.

So, like many young Americans of my generation this past weekend, I let Michael Jackson be the soundtrack to my day. I popped on the headphones, put Off the Wall and Thriller into one playlist on the ipod and got to work. I was never a die hard fan, and I pretty much stopped paying attention by the time I got to high school, but especially when I was about 12 or 13 his music was very very important to me. The garden wasn't too crowded, so not too many people saw my "moves" as I boogied to the music.

It took about 2 hours and I got MOST of the weeding done.

After being away for so long, things looked pretty different. Mostly in good ways: cucumbers have almost started climbing, the collards and celery and brussel sprouts look huge and the tomato plants look to be disease free, despite all the rain. The big blow was evidence of my two most hated (after cut worms of course) bugs: beet leafminers and cucumber beetles.

I found a few things online that said that radishes repel cucumber beetles, so even though it's way too hot for 'em. I planted some seeds next to the cukes. I only saw one teeny tiny beetle in the California Poppies (which look great!), but it's early and I'm anticipating a swarm.

I'm feeling at a loss in terms of the leafminers though. I removed one of the leaves that seemed the worst and will probably go back and remove more if necessary. You can see from the top photo that the injuries from these evil pests are really really ugly. Even though I'll still be able to eat the beets, I want the greens too AND I definitely don't want them to infect other plants.

We've got a 3 day weekend coming up though and it's supposed to be sunny, so I'm hoping I'll have some more time to be in the garden and do battles against the evil bugs who plan my plants harm.

May 27, 2009

My Vegetables are not Vegetarian

This Saturday I planted just about everything. It's a bit earlier than the dude where I picked up my seedlings suggested, but I feel certain that the plants have a better chance of surviving in the roomy, sunny and compost-ful environment of the garden than they would cramped in their seedling containers on my porch.

I had a fantastic time planting and am very excited to see how it all works out. It has turned colder in the past few days so I'm a bit worried about the cucumbers, but I think everything else should be able to handle it. Ah yes, I did have to get new cucumber plants at the farm, so it would be a shame to kill another set.

I also started the "summerizing" of my front porch with a few planted flowers and an overall clean up from the dirt and mess of the winter. Once again, you can see my cat in the photo if you look carefully. She loves the porch.

As part of all this prep however, I realized that as I've moved from a flat out beginner to a slightly more experienced novice, there are things that no longer shock me. One such example is the fact that I routinely (and gleefully) treat my seedlings to a diet of dead animal parts to help them grow.

Do vegetarians know about this? What about Jews who keep Kosher?

What the best organic gardeners advise for a healthy, thriving garden, are small amounts of things like Pro Gro or Neptune's Harvest which is essentially a bunch of nutrients including blood and crab meal in the case of the former and liquified fresh fish in the case of the latter. Ew right?

On the big planting day on Saturday I added a few handfuls of compost to the soil in, around and next to every one of the seedlings and then this Tuesday I added a handful of Pro-Gro to everyone as well. The fish will go on this weekend and then I'll be repeating all of those steps a few times throughout the summer.

But I'm this "Kosher?" How are vegetables grown with animal parts classified? It's not like you're eating the animals, but it sure is a part of the process. I recently read a detailed article in the New Yorker about certifying Kosher products in China so I feel certain that someone must have thought about this. I am sure there are non-animal alternatives, especially in conventional, non-organic growing, but there is very little labeling in American produce aisles and I can't imagine that your average vegatarian even thinks about what might have been added to the lovely "vegetarian" foods they may be selecting. I know that I never did.

I was a vegetarian for 13 years and I slowly started bringing meat and fish back a few years ago...right around the time I started gardening. It's all part of the cycle of life and quite poignant that something dying makes life possible for something else, but still, I wonder how those who vow not to consume animals (or at least keep them separate from dairy or not eat certain kinds) draw the line. I also wonder if I would agree with the way said animals might be treated if I knew. As those who've been reading this blog may know, I have toyed with the idea of buying fox urine to keep the bunnies away, but I have no idea how they collect it and my guess is, its not a friendly method. So while it may be "natural," I don't know that it's something I really want to support.

Going down this road too far is a bit much for me. I/we live in an industrialized world and where we get our food and what goes into it is a touchy and politically charged subject. I like to think that by growing an organic garden and mostly eating organic food that I can identify as an actual plant or animal means I'm on the right side of most of these issues. Really though, I think it's more of a spectrum, as with lots of things in our modern world, there is a little "blood meal" on quite a lot of us.

No answers here, just questions.

Meanwhile, the garden is looking good and I really hope the seedlings make it through the cold and rain this week, but at least I don't have to water.

May 22, 2009

Daisy in the Garden

My community garden is pretty amazing. In addition to the fenced off area that has all the garden plots, there are a few other open areas where neighbors can hang out. One of the important rules of the garden however is that no dogs are allowed in the area with the plots. And it's a darn good rule in my opinion.

And yet, sometimes a dog is exactly what you need.

Several weeks ago I planted some lettuce seeds and they seemed to be coming up nicely until I noticed them disappearing... apparently chewed to the ground. I've seen rabbits in the garden so I assume it's them, though I suppose it could be something else.

Last year, I had tried putting some Irish Spring Soap (or drugstore knock-off) next to the lettuce after I noticed a lot of greenery disappearing. It seemed to work, but with the bright green color and the STRONG perfume smell I'm still not sure if this was a smart idea - especially in a garden designed to grow food. Once I saw the damage to the lettuce again this year though, I went out and bought some "Emerald Mist" and planned to set to work. It's actually supposed to be the Sodium Tallowate in the soap that scares off the bunnies due to it smelling like a dead animal and not all that perfume.

Luckily I was chatting with a co-worker who said that his mom always used dog hair in the garden to keep away rabbits. Eureka! It just so happens that I live with a dog. Her name is Daisy and she is very cute and VERY hairy (see pic above.)

That very night I did some strange stuff with twine and dog hair that looks like some sort of ancient sacred symbol or sacrifice. Maybe voo doo? It's basically puff-balls of dog hair tied to the end of the twine and hanging a few inches above the lettuce. Oh the lengths we'll go to for the garden! So far I haven't seen any new damage, so we'll see if this works. I sure hope so, since dog hair seems way better than stinky chemical-filled soap.

Meanwhile I am fairly confident that the cucumber seedlings on my porch are toast. They look awful. I had to cut off many leaves because they were dry and discolored and the ones that are still left don't look too terrific either. I'm not sure if I should even try planting them or just pick up some new ones. The tomatoes actually look ok. Not quite as good as they did when I picked them up, but not terrible either.

The big highlight is that the San Marzano seedlings look terrific!