Tomatoes and Tilling

Tomato Status: Excellent

Despite the setbacks for the cold, the tomatoes are flourishing. They are almost a foot and a half tall. Color looks good. I removed all the yellowing, cold-damaged lateral stems.  I would say I am on track for where I would normally be this time of year, which is a little surprising considering the long, drawn out cold spring we have been having. But lot’s of sun and a few hot days and the tomatoes have bounced back in fine fashion.

Yesterday I weeded all the beds and gave everything the first shot of Espoma Garden Fertilizer. Today, I went through the plants and pinched off the small flower buds that were starting to set. It won’t affect the quality or quantity of the harvest. Plants can’t expend energy in too many directions at once.  So by pinching off the flower buds, the plant will shift gears to green growth instead of fruit production. More flowers will come, but until I think they are ready, no flowers. This is gardener’s version of responsible parenting. I also went through and removed all of the suckers where lateral shoots come off the main stem.  They can have a tendency to retard growth if left unchecked. And if you can successfully root them, they are a ready made plant.

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Today I also started tying up the plants as well. You have a lot of options with tomatoes. You can stake them, cage them, weave them o a wire, or just let them sprawl out. I choose to stake mine. It works better with square foot gardening. Over the years I have used a variety of tying options from jute twine to wire , electrical zip ties and kitchen twine. What I found last year was something that works better than all of that. Elastic. Just a plain old elastic band like the type you wold use for sewing. I bought a roll of 3/8 inch elastic at Walmart for just a few dollars and it goes a long way. I tie the stems loosely using a square know and leaving just a little room. As the stems thicken and move around, the elastic will stretch and flex with them without any damage. Especially when it gets windy.  It cuts and ties easily. The only downside is that you can’t compost it. So either you untie it and save it, or do what I do, cut it out with scissors at the end of the season and throw it away.

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To Till or Not to Till

Finally, I would like to close out by bringing up a topic I have seen discussed a lot lately. Tilling or working the soil. The current and trendy view is that this shouldn’t be done because it damages the mycorrhizae which exist in your soil, and in damaging them you hurt the soil as a whole over the long term.

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The mycorrhizae are those tiny little fungi that inhabit the soil and latch onto your plant roots in a complex symbiotic relationship. Plants can easily absorb water, but not so easily absorb most nutrients. The mycorrhizae need sugars that soil doesn’t provide. Thus a partnership is formed. The fungi latch to the plant roots and help the plant absorb those nutrients and the plants provide them with sugar. This is the complex interconnection of nature in action.

The along come the humans. We break up the soil to some extent in order to make soil easier to work, add in amendments or simply to till under a cover crop. It all amounts to the same thing. Some amount of damage is done to the beneficial fungi. But I believe that extent is a bit exaggerated by the “no till” permaculture crowd. There are several reasons why I think this is true, but mind you these are theories based on what science I do know.

If you remove the plants, roots and all at the end of the season, you are basically cutting off the fungi’s food supply anyway. But don’t worry, unless you are sterilizing your soil between seasons, those fungi have inoculated your soil with spores. Spores which hang for the next season waiting for another plant to bond with. This will be especially true if you’re a heavy user of compost or have a garden soil already rich in organic matter. Rich, well drained soil will help the mycorrhizal layer quickly re-establish itself.

The “no-till” viewpoint gives too much credit to these fungi for being able to overcome terrible soil. If you have that dreaded heavy clay, or soil so sandy it holds water about as effectively as a colander, then you need to amend it, most likely for several years in order to get it where you want it. The fungi that help the plants don’t really improve the soil. That’s not their function. So in this case the benefits of tilling or mixing in amendments, far outweighs the damage done. Your fungal layer will more quickly establish itself the better your soil gets.

There are several fungal inoculants you can buy to aid you in re-establishing the beneficial relationship. I can’t speak as to their effectiveness as I have never used them. I would suggest trying it out o a small scale and see how that does versus a non-inoculated section. Where I can see these inoculants being most helpful is if you are starting plants from seed in pots or trays and you are using sterilized soil. The sterilization process may have destroyed any mycorrhizal spores present. The seedlings will not need these fungi when they initially germinate. But as they quickly mature and develop roots  here it will make an impact with faster nutrient uptake. In theory this could mean you enter warmer weather with bigger, healthier transplants who already have an established root/fungus relationship to bring to the garden with them. Hmmmmm. This sounds like something to experiment with.

That’s all for now. The warm weather is upon us. So get out there and enjoy it. A bad day out in the lush green beats a good day inside anytime.

 

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Coffee in the Garden: Enjoy it Twice

I love coffee.

Many of us love coffee.

We all love gardening so…………..

I enjoy nothing more on summer mornings than sitting on my deck, sipping a warm cup of coffee, enjoying the quiet sounds and watching the world come alive. I look out over the garden, smell the fragrance, listen to the birds and just enjoy the moment. A lot of coffee gets consumed in my house. I also have a lot of garden beds in need of good compost. So I take advantage of this ready source of nitrogen and add coffee grounds to my compost. In doing so, I get to enjoy the benefits of coffee twice.

How good of a source of nitrogen is it?

Used coffee grounds are an excellent source of nitrogen, and a few other nutrients and minerals. Depending on which scholarly article you read, coffee grounds are somewhere around 3% nitrogen by volume. So on it’s own, coffee grounds would read as 3-0-0 for NPK. They do also contain potassium and phosphorus, but generally less than 1% by volume. 3% isn’t too shabby. Now coffee alone shouldn’t be your only source of nitrogen. But when added to compost bins, it creates another diverse source of nitrogen for you.

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Why wait then? Why not just add it straight to the garden beds?

You can add your grounds directly to the garden soil. However, the nitrogen in coffee grounds is not readily available for plant uptake. The grounds have a carbon to nitrogen ratio of about 20:1. If you remember your rule of thumb for compost breakdown, then you want that ratio closer to even. The coffee grounds are an available source of food for beneficial microbes, but that process can rob the soil of it’s existing nitrogen. So you can add them, but you will also need to supplement with additional fertilizer, so whats the point? Eventually when the coffee grounds break down, they will provide nitrogen, but that takes time and could represent a good portion of your growing season. You should not  expect any results right away.

But coffee is acidic……

Adding spent coffee grounds to your soil, or using compost of which they are a part will not make your soil more acidic. Used coffee grounds have a pH of between 6.5 and 6.8. That is slightly acidic, but pretty close to neutral. The brewing process removes most of the acid from the grounds because it is water-soluble. Your coffee ends up being acid and the grounds neutral. So don’t be scared by this urban myth. It’s based on only knowing half the info. This all being true, fresh ground coffee poured around your hydrangeas and watered in, should in theory cause a color change. I have never played around with it, but it sounds like a fun experiment.

Where to get the grounds

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Kitchen grounds bucket with some vegetable scraps in it

If you drink coffee, you have grounds. But that alone may not add up to enough to be meaningful. Luckily for us, there are a lot of other coffee drinkers in the world. So there are lots of grounds available. There has been a lot written about making deals with coffee shops, convenience stores and the like for their grounds. They almost always have coffee brewing, and they produce a lot of grounds. But realistically, they don’t want a stinky bucket of used grounds underfoot. So you can ask, but you will need to stay on good terms with them. Try smaller, boutique coffee shops. They generally thrive on being environmentally friendly, and may jump at the chance to help you out.

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Friends and neighbors are always a good source too. Especially if they share in the bounty of your harvest. This way you can sell it as they are really helping themselves by helping you. If you are brave you could leave out a bucket, pail or tote with a sign, but who knows what would end up in it. I leave that to your discretion.

I have discovered a gold mine of free used grounds. Work. We plow through coffee at work. Most offices do. Last spring I put out an empty #10 coffee can with a sign on it explaining why I wanted them. It was a hit. I was lugging home two of these containers a week. The cleaning lady even helped me out because in case you don’t know, wet coffee grounds are heavy. So I effectively removed over 10 pounds from the trash for every can of grounds I took home. It didn’t take long to fill a 60 gallon Rubber-made tote.

This year I decided I didn’t need that much. So I settled on an alternative. Like many offices, the traditional coffee maker setup is being slowly phased out in favor of Keurigs. No more buckets of grounds. Now I get bags of spent k-cups. I sent out a email to everyone in my general vicinity at work, and told them why I wanted the grounds, and that I had a bin labelled for used k-cups in my cubicle.  All it took was a waste bin from an empty cubicle and a label maker, to be in business. Once a week I get a decent sized bag of k-cups to bring home.

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K-cups from work being processed

The down side of this is, that it requires some processing on my end. You just take a knife, run it around the foil rim, peel it back, then once around the inside to loosen the grounds. Give it a tap and out they come. K-cup grounds are a finer grind. So per unit of volume you get more coffee grounds than traditional grounds. The finer grind should also help with the breakdown process, as a finer grind has more surface area. More surface area makes them more chemically reactive.

So consider this resource when you are hunting for things to compost. When organic matter like coffee grounds gets to a landfill, it gets buried and decomposes anaerobically. That means it produces methane. But by composting you help eliminate this source of green house gas. So all you organic gardeners, urban homesteaders and mad scientists need to take advantage of this resource.

Stay green. Help the planet and in turn help yourself.

A parting word of thanks to all you new subscribers. I am touched by the fact that you liked what you read enough to subscribe. I will keep trying to turn out qualify content for all of you.

 

 

Spring Garden Preparations Continue

I had such plans for last week and this weekend. Our growing season is short here in upstate NY. Because of that, savvy gardeners like to hit the ground running as soon as it gets warm enough. I have the normal list of stuff to do such as work the beds, transplant seedlings to pots, etc. Additionally, I have an ambitious list of outdoor projects that I want to get done as well before the growing season gets underway. Some items are necessities, some are “nice to have’s”. Either way, I need nice, or at least tolerable weather to get it all done.

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Towards the end of last week, it started to rain and got cold again. Not exactly what I wanted because I had taken apart the almost 100 feet (30 m) of vinyl picket fence that was slowly being pulled down by creeping English Ivy. This Ivy had been planted in the cedar hedgerow along my southern border and just left to it’s own devices for who knows how long before I bought the house. It grew through the fence and into the lawn, in the process applying so much downward pressure on the fence, that it shattered the plastic clips that hold the sections to the posts. My only choice was to yank the fence sections out, prune back the ivy, then reinstall the fence sections using new hardware.

I could have let this go, but I have a deer problem and a dog problem. Deer want in, dog wants out. So I decided to solve both by installing plastic mesh deer netting. This would make the broken down fencing inaccessible, so the ivy/fence issue had to be dealt with first. I was not kind to the ivy……if anyone tries to sell you on the idea of a few flats of Ivy as a ground cover or border, or anything, just know that it needs to be constantly contained. And it will grow underground and pop up in other places. So you think you have it under control but you don’t.

I was also anxious to upgrade my compost bin in order to take advantage of the debris from spring cleanup as a potential source of compost. But given the location of the bin, the deer meeting had to go up first. So as you can see the ivy and fence issues were in the way of pretty much everything. To top it off, the weather was wet and cold. I needed a better option, but waiting for one would not help.

No secrets here. I sucked it up every decent, passably dry hour I could find until I beat back the ivy, and got the fence back up. Slammed home a bunch of 7′ metal T-posts I purchased at Tractor Supply and hung that netting. Hanging deer netting is no fun. It snags on everything. At one point I was like a salmon caught in a gill net. But you need to be patient, careful and deliberate. I still have a few hundred feet to go, but the hardest part is done.

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That was enough to then allow me to build my new compost bin. I already had a 4 foot (1.2 m) by 4 foot square made of 2″x 8″ lumber. My goal was to use that as the base and extend up so the bed was 32 inches (81 cm) tall sides and back, yet only 16 inches (40 cm) in the front to allow for easier working. I built this monster about 10 feet from the beds current resting place. And I grossly underestimated how much this beast weighed when assembled. Pressure treated wood is heavy stuff, and only handling one cut piece at a time, I didn’t consider the overall weight until it came time to re-position it. That took a combination of brute force and ingenuity, but I got it situated and I am a lot happier. My co-workers have been donating coffee grounds and between that and the yard waste I will generate form cleanup, I have quite a few sources of carbon and nitrogen and I expect to create black gold with this new setup.

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During the wetter hours, I managed to get most of my seedlings out of the 6 packs and into some larger starter pots. Even though I re-potted my peppers, they are still sitting on heat mats for another week. Everything got a small shot of fertilizer as well. That will help with the transplant shock. But the hardening off process has begun. My Viollete de Bordeaux fig has started to leaf out, so I potted that and it now lives outside. Soon it will go to it’s permanent home in the yard.

All told, it was a productive weekend despite the crappy weather. Sometimes you just have to suck it up and will yourself to get stuff done. Had the weather been sunny and dry, I would have gotten the garden area mowed out as well, maybe gotten some additional deer netting hung. But I am happy overall with what I have so far.

Find your motivation, make your own Eden.

Let the thought of growing things move your hands to action.

Growing Degree Days: Unlocking The Timing Of Nature

Adopt the pace of nature; her secret is patience.    (R.W. Emerson)

I want to take a minute to talk about a little known and seldom used topic: Growing Degree Days (GDD). A new topic for many, or an old topic just called something else depending on where you live. We all  know at least one piece of folksy garden wisdom such as putting down crabgrass preventative when  the forsythia bloom.  There are tons of little “tips” like this out there. Most of them actually based on science, even if most of us didn’t know it. So GDD is worth taking a minute to talk about.

So What are they?

Basically, they are a measure of heat accumulation to-date for the growing season. It is a tool used in phenology, which is basically the study of plant and animal life cycles. Tracking GDD allow you to predict plant, animal and insect development. These things are biologically timed to enter certain stages at certain times, often based on GDD. So forget about your calendar. Nature has it’s own, and it cares not for our man-made creations.

Growing degrees are calculated when the temperature goes above the base temperature, usually 10 °C. The actual formula is a little more complex because it requires taking into account the high and low temperatures. Then there are formulas for determining cumulative GDD, not just for a single day. The good news is , you don’t need to do math.

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Why Use Them?

If you are a serious gardener, urban homesteader, or even someone just getting started, tracking GDD is something you need to consider. Why? Because as I mentioned earlier, nature keeps it’s own calendar. Some people may go out and do the same things at the same time every year, and get lucky as a result. But why not do things at the proper time, when conditions are optimal and you get the best results? From an integrated pest management and organic gardening standpoint, it’s worth it. Using GDD to time fertilizer and pesticide applications maximizes results. That saves you time, money and reduces chemical usage.

Getting it right the first time is important with plants. As many of us know, depending on what you are growing, you only get one chance to stop an infestation, block a fungus, or correct a nutrient deficiency. Watching your GDD, and knowing what is coming next can really give you an advantage.

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Where Does One Get This Helpful Information?

I told you earlier, you won’t need to do math. You can if you want to, but there is an easier way. For those of us here in the states, it’s simple. Every county has an extension service , every state has its own friendly department of Agriculture who track this data for local farmers. But this data is just as helpful to the gardener as it is for the farmer.

This is the web page for the station nearest me, our local agricultural service has a monitoring station at a local apple farm. Here I use a “base 50” scale. Which calculates GDD using a base temperature of 50 degrees Fahrenheit:

NEWA Cornell at Orbaker’s Apple Farm

I visit this page weekly through mid-season. They have some helpful guides as to what pokes it’s head up when. So I know when to start looking for certain pests. The best defense is when you know exactly what the offense is going to do.

So take advantage of the hard work others are doing. Most of it funded by your tax dollars anyway. You will be the local garden wizard who always seems to know what is going to happen before it actually does. Whether you choose to share your secret is up to you.

Happy growing!

 

 

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