Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Growing Pains

This is the area that was designated to become the 
'Upper Extension' of the Bottom Garden this year.
We had a very mild winter this year, not once did I have to warm rocks on the wood burner to take down to my worm farm at night to keep them from freezing. Our herd of worms were very productive this winter, providing us with about 10 bottles of worm juice for the start of this year's gardens. We also have had no measurable snow fall… yet. The balmy weather in January and February means I was getting antsy to start gardening projects. Just like the start of years 2, 3 and 4, as we approach the beginning of year five of our off-grid life I have plans for more garden expansions.

As you may recall, last year I created the ‘bottom garden’ on the bottom half of a sunny slope just a little south of the house. When clearing out area for the bottom garden I determined the upper limit based on how many rocks I would have to remove if I wanted to take it any further up the slope. I convinced myself there was too much shade cast on the upper slope and thus, I didn’t need to put in the effort to clear that rockier area. And then, throughout the garden season I tracked the amount of sun on the upper slope and confirmed that with the most recent trees we removed to open up our ‘solar window’ this upper slope would make a good garden extension. Unfortunately, this meant we had to remove all those rocks I chose to ignore last year.

Getting started - briers and tall weeds have been removed along with
all the loose rocks that could be tossed to the side of the garden. We
later pulled that log out using Stormy, our Isuzu Trooper.
We started by clearing brush, which was about 80% briers and cutting out small saplings. We then set to work on the rocks. While our property is very rocky, most of the rocks are small enough to pick up by hand and toss to an area outside of where the garden fence will be going. Once all these were removed it was time to start digging up the ‘icebergs’ – those pointed edges of rocks sticking out of the ground that I had kept tripping over while doing the other work. Just like icebergs, we never knew how big these rocks actually were until we attempted to pry them out of the ground. Most were pried up fairly easily as most rocks also tend to be fairly flat on the property. I found that if you were able to budge the rock on the first couple of tries with the crowbar, then it was likely to come out relatively easily as the rock was only 2 to 4 inches thick and we were able to get the crowbar under it for leverage.

Alan making another attempt at the
largest rock we tried to move.
However, after removing several dozen rocks by hand and by prying them up there were still a few that were too large for the crowbar. We made a trip to Tractor Supply and bought a very large pry bar – 16 pounds and almost six feet long. With a lot of effort, and sore muscles, we were able to get all but one of the largest rocks out of the garden. The large pry bar (believe it or not, we haven’t named it, yet) has a point on one end and a short flat blade (think spatula) on the other and between the two we could work the bar under all but one of the rocks to get enough leverage to work them out of the ground. As for the one rock that remains – I am cutting the bottom out of a plastic tote, placing it over the rock and creating a small raised bed. I just have to remember to not dig to deep in that planter or I may break my trowel.

As I started laying the landscape fabric I kept tripping over a
small piece of rock that was still sticking up out of the ground.
Alan was working on another project so I decided to dig it up
myself. Here is a picture of it after I rolled it to the edge of the
garden. The red circle shows the part that was above ground.
While working on this upper extension to the ‘bottom garden’ I also decided to create a lower extension as there is a flat area at the bottom of the slope. We had ended the original area of the bottom garden at the bottom of the slope not because of rocks but because of a tree that would be inside the garden area if we went any further in that direction. This year I decided I would either work around the tree or have Alan take it down for me. My plan for this area is to make it into a berry patch. I cleared the briers, saplings, etc. from this area and then Alan and I measured it to determine how many feed lot panels we would need to fence it in.
The completed extension. And yes, I realized we spent a lot
of time and effort removing rocks only to place some of them
back on top of the landscape fabric to hold it in place.
While measuring, we discussed the various possibilities, including the life expectancy, or lack there of, of the tree at the edge of the current garden. We determined that, as this section of the property is not as flat as I thought (the brush and briers were hiding a dip) the feed lot panels would better fit the contour of the land if we created a new garden that started several feet past the tree rather than extending the current garden in that direction. This is also the area where we park Hoss, our large king cab dually pickup we use for hauling. We can leave his parking spot and make a 16’X16’ berry patch (feed lot panels are 16’ long) or we can find a new parking spot for Hoss and make a 32’ X 16 foot berry patch. I am opting for the 16’X16’ this year so I can already start planning for another extension next year.

While all this hard labor has been going on outside, the garden activities are also in full swing inside the house.  Every year I try to start some of my indoor seedlings earlier in the season. I have several plants I grow that have fairly long growing seasons and I want to give them as much of a head start as I can before transplanting them outside. The problem is I only have one south facing window, the kitchen window over the sink, and grow lights would require way too much power. With the limited natural light it is always a balancing act once my seedlings germinate – rotating the various flats so they all get enough sun so they do not become spindly before I can plant them outside. It has been so mild the past couple of months I have been able to put my seedlings outside much more than in past years.

Seeds lined up on damp paper towel for germination.
I did have a lower germination rate on several varieties of seeds this year. I started them as I always do, including keeping them close to the wood burner to make sure they are warm. My only thought is that the mild weather has meant we have not had a fire in on some days, and even a few nights, so while the temperatures have been mild, that has actually caused the house to be a bit cooler.  I took stock of which plants I had a shortage of and set about germinating more seeds. I have been wanting to experiment with soilless seed germination and decided to give it a try. I placed a paper towel in a glass casserole dish, moistened it and laid out rows of the various seeds. I covered the dish and placed it in my oven as the pilot light keeps it nice and warm. Within a day some of the seeds had sprouted. As each variety sprouts I transfer them to the seed starting flats that are filled with a seed starting mix. This method is also a good way to start older seeds that may have a lower germination rate because you are only planting the seeds that have been proven viable rather than filling starter containers with non-viable seeds.

Part of the excitement of each year’s garden is determining what new plants and varieties I want to try growing. Some new garden family members are chosen for the challenge to see if I can grow them, while others are chosen to replace varieties that were not successful producers. My two tomato go-to varieties have been Amish Paste and German Red Strawberry. Both are determinate varieties which mean they all ripen within a short season (good for canning) rather than having a few ripen at a time over the entire summer. Both varieties are also very meaty, another plus for canning, however I tend to get frustrated with the German Reds because while they are supposed to be large and shaped like strawberries, many of mine are irregular shaped – more like conjoined strawberries. While they have a single stem, it looks like two tomatoes grew together. This year I am adding two new tomato strains to my arsenal – St. Pierre and Betalux. I am currently disappointed with the Betalux for their poor germination rate and failure to thrive, but maybe they will surprise me.

I was pleased with the ginger I grew last year, so this year I have added tumeric to the list. I also have plans to try more herbs as well. I have not had any luck with carrots since I started gardening . My plan was to not grow carrots this year, but then I remembered I did have success in saving carrot seeds last year. Carrots are a biennial plant, which means they do not produce seeds until their second year. Therefore, you must earmark a couple of your plants as seed producers and not harvest them.

Carrots seeds I saved from last year - time for an experiment.
In our area, it is mild enough that I can leave them in the ground over the winter and the next year they shoot up long stems with flowers that look like Queen Anne’s Lace (which is in the carrot family). Allow the flowers to dry on the plant and then cut them off into a paper bag. I stored them in the paper bag last fall with all the other seeds I saved from my 2015 garden. When I saw the bag in with all my other seeds from last year I decided I had to try carrots one more time just to verify my seed saving worked. I have always been able to grow carrots plants, they have just never produced any decent carrots, so as long as I get carrot plants I will consider the biennial seed saving successful.

I have also wanted to experiment with making my own seeds tapes, and as one of the problems with my past carrot patches was probably the fact that I did not thin the seedlings enough (I hate throwing away baby plants) this would be a good reason to make carrot seed tapes. If you are not familiar with seed tapes, a Google search describes them as “Seed Tapes are the perfect, no-waste way to plant. Each strip of biodegradable paper is embedded with perfectly spaced seeds; simply unroll into a planting furrow and cover”. You can buy pre-made seed tapes wherever you buy garden seeds but I wanted to make some with my carrot seeds. Here is the process I used:

  1. Artisan Seed Tape!
    Mix up a thick flour paste – 2 teaspoons flour to 1 teaspoon water. You want the paste to be thick so it dries quickly and does not start the germination process.
  2. Use a strip of toilet paper (unused!) that is an easy length to work with. I made mine about 4 feet long as that length would become a row in my raised beds.
  3. Cut the toilet paper in half length wise and then fold the strips in half to make a crease down the entire length of the now half-width strips of toilet paper.
  4. Using a toothpick, place dots of flour-paste along the crease line. Space the dots the recommended distance  for your seeds. In my case the carrot seed spacing is every two inches and toilet paper squares are 4 inches long so I placed a dab about an inch on either side of each perforation of the toilet paper.
  5. Use the same toothpick, it now has a sticky end, to pick up individual seeds and place one on each dab of paste. As for my carrot seeds, I was a little freaked out when I shook out my saved flower heads and discovered that individual carrot seeds looked very similar to ticks!
  6. Refold the paper strips along the crease to encase the seeds in the paper strip and allow to dry. Note: as I placed the dabs of paste for each seed I used the toothpick to make a streak of paste toward the long edge of the paper strip, this helped glue the paper strip together more firmly.
  7. When ready to plant, dig a furrow the recommended depth for your seeds and plant the strip. 
Enough about the inside garden preps, time to go back outside. With the briers, rocks and trees cleared along with the landscape fabric laid and the fencing around the upper extension, now the hard work starts - bringing in truck loads and carrying it by 5 gallon buckets to fill various raised beds and containers. You may have guessed that the growing pains we suffer from are sore muscles.