compost piles and stuff

Has it really been that long since I’ve posted something?  I guess so.  Time flies when you have nothing to say.

As the garden winds down, done with most of the heavy breathing, the compost piles are getting ready to jump into the act.

I have three modular, movable bins.  They can each be adjusted in height to accommodate what’s going on in the smelly world of waste.  The Spring pile (leaves, grass clippings, coffee grounds, and who knows what else) has long since become nice black compost, full of worms, and home to what my granddaughter calls a ‘guard snake’. IMG_5214 The summer pile, composed mostly of pine shavings, chicken manure, grass clippings and kitchen waste that the chickens didn’t get, is also well on its way.  I’ll be using piles 1 and 2 directly on the garden beds this fall after the crops come out.

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The third pile is a work in progress; corn husks, seaweed, dead tadpoles, and who knows.  This will be the base for my winter compost pile of dead leaves, coffee grounds, kitchen scraps and chicken litter.  Come Spring planting time, it should be ready to rumble.

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And I’ve started next year’s seed collection with Amish Paste and Black Oil Sunflowers..

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seed saving for the forgetful

I’m pretty new at seed-saving, with just a couple of years’ experience. The tomatoes I grew from last year’s seeds have worked out great. But I can see where a catch might develop.

It’s my memory. I’m pretty sure that the tomato seeds I chose to save from last year were from bigger tomatoes than most that I’ve harvested this year (so far). The crop as a whole wasn’t exceptional last season, but there were some beautiful individual specimens.

Is my memory of those specimens reality or wishful imagination?

There’s a sure way to take guesswork out of the equation; facts.

I didn’t grow Amish Paste tomatoes last year, so I’ll definitely be saving seeds from that variety. My thought is that I want an accurate accounting of my parent stock, so why not take a picture? And one picture might not show the true size and shape, so I’m going with tomato mugshots…

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I printed them out on regular paper at 5% of actual size, just right for the little homemade seed pack.

Those, along with the tomato’s weight and harvest date on the seed packet should take my memory out of the equation. I usually save my tomato seeds for a few years, and I’m hoping that this will make it easier to judge when to replenish the seed stock.

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serving my time

Winter’s great for the most part. I’d rather be cold than hot. But these late winter deep-freeze spells just stink.  It was -9° with -24° wind chill last night, and more of that coming.

So I dink around with coop plans and seedlings inside. About a month ago I started Yellow of Parma onions, my first crack at onions from seed.

Yesterday I started a second variety, a storage onion called Australian Brown. Here they are getting their first bottom water in the tub…

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I always bottom-water seeds. It’s just easier and less disruptive.

The goal is to have, give or take, 200 onions in the garden. I’m trying two different varieties and two different planting times because I want to learn. I’m also hoping to save seed, so I don’t want the two varieties blooming at the same time to avoid cross-pollination. We’ll see.

And I’m trying an experiment with a single bell pepper plant (King of the North, OP).  If it poops out, no big deal. I want to determine if a pepper planted this early can be kept to a manageable size indoors with pruning until weather permits planting it outside. And I just want to find out how pruning peppers affects yield.

Here’s the little guy, with its regenerated lettuce friends in the background…

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disjoint

onion seedlingsYesterday my first onions from seed popped through (that officially took 4 days from planting). They’re under lights with a fan cooling their jets.

Disjointed, theme-less post today.  That’s the way we roll.  My chicken coop thought has transformed into pretty much a full-blown chicken coop obsession.  Why am I like this?  My wife should like it because it keeps me busy and not underfoot.  Did I mention that retirement (semi-retirement in my case) rocks?

planting onion seeds part 2

Back already with changes to yesterday’s post.

As mentioned, I tend toward the obsessive when trying to nail down garden answers.  I feel kind of like a stalker to those poor, unwitting answers.

I hadn’t had much success locating clear, believable, detailed descriptions of starting onion from seed indoors.  But yesterday I finally found a source that I trust because 1): the source is a company whose purpose and profit rely on growing the best seeds, B): it’s a trusted company and Last): the information is clear and well-presented, plus it feels right in the context of my own experiences.

I urge you to watch this if you’re new to planting onions from seed (or just interested in how pros do it), by Sustainable Seed…

The containers he uses look to be a shade deeper than mine, but I’m ok with that. His planting method is the same that I used.

But he suggests ultimately ending up with 15 or so seedlings per pot. That also feels right to me, rather than the 25-30 I originally planned on, because these things do need some room. I seeded two more pots today. Up-potting isn’t mentioned, which is very fine with me because that sounds like a pain with those little threads of seedlings. So I may transplant a couple of seedlings into individual containers, but most I’ll leave in their 4″ pots till it’s time to put them in the garden.

And I immediately caved to seed lust and ordered some Australian Brown onion seed.

planting onion seeds

I have lots of experience with vegetable plants and vegetable gardening. Not bragging, just old. But I recognize that I’m not an expert on any of them, I’m very forgetful, and sometimes downright dumb. So like everyone else, I turn to the Internet.

One of the vegetables I’m very familiar with is the onion. Almost impossible to screw up, hardy, no real disease threats, and can be planted almost anywhere. But still, there’s more to know. I decided to start onion seeds indoors for the first time, and that’s what I did yesterday.

There are handy assets I can pull from; my brain, seed packet instructions, and the Internet. My brain doesn’t contain information on when to start these little seeds. The seed packet does. It says 10-12 weeks before last frost date. But there’s a wrench in the works. A different seed company says that if you want really big onions, start your seeds 14-16 weeks before frost-free date.

I do the math like a champ. 14 minus 10 equals 4. Dang, I’m good. 4 weeks equals 1 month. Told you. In my case that means now. And that’s an excuse to plant something in January. Baby!

I’m fairly obsessive about scouring the Internet when there are different answers to the same question, and that’s what I did. Forums, experts, seed companies. And as often happens, there aren’t agreed-upon standards for planting onions from seed. Plant them in flats, plant them individually in deep containers, plant them in huge bunches. Plant them in December, plant them in March, plant them in the garden.

Could be that they’re all good.

But I can use this confusion to try to end mine, by experimenting. Love those things. Experiments are like my own internal Internet. And they provide answers that I remember.

I’ll plant half my onion seeds now in January and half in a month. I’ll even try up-potting some of them into individual containers to see if it ultimately makes any difference in size.

Previous experience with other seedlings tells me that potting up to larger containers will make a difference. But I also have to consider my lighting real estate. What’s more important to me; tomatoes or onions? I’ll let you guess.

For this first batch of onion seedlings, I settled on 4-inch pots.

4" pots

They have more vertical space, which onions like, than flats or 6-packs. I filled them with the seed starting mix that I made yesterday and tamped each one down with the bottom of another pot. Then I stole my wife’s 1/8 teaspoon measuring spoon and filled it up (I figured about 50 onion seeds in each 1/8th tsp.).

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Those were spread evenly over the soil in one pot and covered with about 1/4″ inch of the seed-starting mix, then pressed down again.

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Finally, I spritzed the top of the soil to make sure the seeds got wet, and set the pots into water for 15 minutes to moisten everything without disturbing the seeds.

The final tally was four pots, or about 200 seeds, twice what I’ll need for the first part of the experiment. I’ll transplant some of them to nice, deep containers at some point, and leave the rest as is.

Then in about a month I’ll repeat the whole process, and hopefully determine whether planting early and/or up-potting are useful practices for onion seedlings.

My own answer. And one that I most likely will never have to look up again.

spring for a minute

Mid-40s!  There’s actually a smell when I step outside.  You know how frigid temperatures sanitize the air of any hope?  Today I smell that good smell that says there’s still life under that whiteness.

And I needed to DO something.  So I thought it would be a good time to start getting together the various stuff used to make my seed-starting mix.

There are all kinds of different recipes and philosophies about this, like most everything.  I’ve never seen the need to sterilize or heat ingredients; never had a single problem with disease starting seedlings.  And while I love to obsess over mixtures and ratios of ingredients, my wife pulled me around with an obvious but profound observation.  She said that seeds in nature sprout and thrive in non-sterile garden soil.  Do you really need to worry?

No.  No I don’t.  But I like to a little.

Anyway, I settled on a mix proportion for seed starting;

1 part vermiculite, 2 parts peat…

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And 2 parts compost, chipped away from my compost ice block and defrosted…

compost

defrosted compost

…and a dash of vermicompost just because.

All the rest of the tools of the trade…

seed mix tools

And the finished product (It never seems possible for me to capture the character of earth-materials with a photo.  This stuff is very light and fluffy, and those humongous bits are actually very small)…

seed starting mix

Now I’m sitting here debating whether to start my onion seeds now (like the Jung Seed Co. suggests), or wait another month like the seed packet says.

Or hang on there…best of both worlds, do BOTH!

pickled

As my brain makes random associations, I generally take off the leash and let it run. Recipe for disaster.

Whether or not to save cucumber seeds? Mmm, probably not this year anyway. It would be a real chore to isolate the picklers from the slicers, and even if I did, there’ve been a few disease problems with my vining crops in recent years. I don’t want to chance losing a whole year’s worth of vine crops just to save my own cucumber seed.

Brain click…whirr…cucumbers…recipe…pickles. And away we go.

Pickles have been a bit of an obsession in recent years. Constantly trying new recipes, even delving into fermentation a little. (Loved the sauerkraut, especially the red stuff). There have been some really tasty dill pickle recipes too. But I can’t say that I’ve found the magic Kosher dill; the one that says ‘You have it, Dan. The Holy Grail’. This summer I’ll share the recipe for my favorite so far, but come on, it’s too cold here to do that now, and who wants a recipe for someone’s favorite, almost-great pickle anyway?

Fermented pickles, I’m not so sure about. They have an interesting taste, different from canned pickles. Varying fermenting times yield different flavor. I’m pretty sure that they’re not flavors for my palate. I ate a lot of fermented pickles this summer, different recipes, different fermentation times. It’s a distinctive taste, pretty complex. But probably not for me. My favorites are the 3 or 4 day old deli pickles, but you can’t save that taste for January.

And then the canned Kosher dills. That’s the recipe that I quest for. Something to brighten the winter.

When you think of Kosher dills, you probably envision a nice long quarter-cuke or a big-fat-hog-salami of a pickle. But last year I found that the jars I treasured most were those full of whole small cukes, dill gherkins. Just a perfect amount of pickle to get your Kosher pumping, but not an intimidating blimp that can’t be comfortably downed in one sitting.

Brain click…which leads me back to seeds and such. I’ll probably plant my pickling cukes more closely than usual next year, and plant more of them. With good fertility I think they’ll be fine, giving me more of those thumb-sized gherkins that rock my world. That way there’ll be more chances of a flush of baby cukes at the same time. Just gotta keep em picked.

Maybe there really is a point to this post. And we’ll pretend that it’s this; garden decisions you make now can affect what you’re having for lunch next January.

So there’s my brain on…nothing. Hope that didn’t frighten you. And you should not let me dissuade you from trying fermented pickles. It really is an intriguing taste. I can see why some people might have them at the top of their list.

A final pandering; if you’ve made a Dill pickle to die for and want to share it with us, I’ll kick in a free pat on your virtual head as grand prize, fees and taxes included.

seed saving footnotes

Sometimes it’s tough to admit that there’s a lot of stuff I don’t know about vegetable gardening, even after doing it for close to forty years. It’s stuff I probably should know, but either haven’t paid attention to or just didn’t care about. But not admitting it is just plain pride, and stupid in the bargain.

I’ve saved tomato seeds before, but other than those, I’ve been content to spend my winters slobbering over seed catalogs and choosing the most likely hybrid. With so much conversation in the gardening community about growing open pollinated and heirloom seeds in the last few years, it’s hard not to consider doing it on a more enlarged scale. That’s what I’m doing right in front of your eyes.

As with most good things in life, the devil is in the details. Open-pollinated tomato and bean seeds, happily, can be saved with little chance of cross-pollination. That makes my life better.

Not so with cucumbers or peppers. If I grow slicing cucumbers and pickling cucumbers, they’ll make whoopee. If I grow sweet peppers and hot peppers, ditto. Cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower and kohlrabi will actually crossbreed amongst themselves. Cruciferus incest. There’s always a gotcha, isn’t there?

There are ways around the inbreeding problem. Row covers work to keep pollinating insects away from the blossoms that you want to isolate, as does covering individual plants or flowers with paper bags or row fabric. But those covered plants have to be self-pollinating, like peppers, because there won’t be bugs or wind to help pollinate them. Growing a single variety of open pollinated cucumbers would create that isolation too(depending on your distance from the neighbor’s plants).

More details. It’s better to save a couple of seedpods from every plant than to save all the seedpods from a single plant. That makes your seed gene pool a little more diverse. So with beans, for instance, you’d let two bean pods develop on each of your plants, picking all the others, because your yield will decrease if you don’t keep the beans picked. And you’ll end up with a healthier seed stock.

Carrots will cross with the wild varieties of carrot like Queen Anne’s Lace. They go to the bottom of my seed-saving priority list along with cole crops. At the top, as always are tomatoes. I’ll grow one or two hybrids. Hybrids aren’t evil. I always save garlic bulbs from my Chesnok Reds. Love those. And beans and peas are easy choices.

I won’t be saving seed corn. I’m extremely happy with my hybrid, and there are too many corn fields too closeby to even consider it.

Potatoes…yeah, I’ll probably try saving some seed potatoes. More information needed. Can not compute yet.

Cukes, not such an easy decision. I need to read a bit more and think a bit more, because I definitely want both pickling and slicing varieties.

Look, here’s a bunch of fine print in big letters…don’t take my word, or the word of any blogger or single website as gospel on this stuff. Even university studies can be slanted or in error. Get yourself a concensus of opinions that make you say ‘That’s true, it has to be’. And then try it yourself so you can be the expert.

pre-sprouting seeds

It’s blue-lips cold outside. About the only gardening chore I have besides ordering seeds is thinking. And one problem with reading about planting vegetables while it’s warm out is that it’s warm out. You don’t want to be reading.

So I figured I’d post this now, and maybe you’ll be more likely to read it than when it’s 75° outside and there’s a garden to plant.

I first tried this method with peas, because no matter how much care I took, how much innoculant I used, my pea crop usually consisted of about four plants.

It’s called pre-sprouting. Dead simple, and at least for me, 100% effective. The concept is to give the little buggers a head start in life before you throw them to the cold soil wolves.

First, take two paper towels and fold them over into a single square, and then do the same with an additional two towels. Wet both double squares and squeeze out the excess water. They should be damp, but don’t need to be soggy. Un-scrunch the towels and make them nice and square again. Place one doubled square onto a small plate that’ll fit inside a 1-gallon resealable plastic bag.

seeds and plate

Figure out about how many seedlings you’ll want, and place that many seeds onto the wet towel. I try to space mine so that I’ll be able to pick them up easily later without problems…not too close to each other. Then take the remaining wet double paper towel square and cover the seeds. Fold the edges over so the seeds don’t fall out. Put the whole lot into the bag and seal it.

seeds in paper towel

Put the paper-towel-seeds-plate in a room-temperature area and go goof off. About three days later, open the plastic bag and check progress. They’ll likely have curly little roots emerging from their seedy bottoms. Check frequently, because you don’t want the roots to get so long that they break off in planting. When the majority of seeds have roots from 1/2″ to 1″ long, it’s time to plant. You’ll want to place them at the depth you normally would, but be careful not to damage the roots, and put the root side down.

No need for innoculants, no month of wondering whether you should replant. The green top-shoots will be poking through the soil shortly.

I’ve done this with peas, beans and corn seeds, and it’s worked flawlessly every single time. The rows are always uniform and full.

Now go look at a seed catalog.