Garden Diary 2020 - May 16-31
With the frosty weather behind us, the fruits, vegetables, flowers and herbs have hit their stride. Spring flowers continue to bloom with bright pinks, purples and reds. We celebrated Memorial Day with a harvest of lettuce and strawberries. But a new foe has invaded my garden - BUGS! The tomato plants are looking fabulous, but what to do with those aphids? And what is eating my beans? Will organic pest control do the trick? Check my intro article here for links to the whole gardening season.
Before planting the potatoes, I learned the concept of "hilling up." That means you bury the leaves of the potato plant almost to the top so that there's room for more potatoes to grow underground. I probably waited a little long to do it, but hilling up was a lot more work than I expected. Because I planted in ground along my fence, I had to cover the gaps in the fence again to prevent the soil from spilling out. I also needed barriers on the front and side of the bed to keep all the extra soil in place. I didn't want to spend any money on this endeavor, not knowing if growing potatoes will be worth it in future years. So I looked for anything on my property to do the job, and I found it - slate. I had a couple boxes of slate tiles from an abandoned house. They are just thin enough to use as a backer board against the fence. For the other three sides, I pounded the tiles into the soil with a rubber mallet. It's not pretty, but it works. Most surprisingly, it took five bags of soil to hill up those potatoes - a pretty costly endeavor. As for the slate barrier, if the potatoes come out well at harvest, I'll probably devise a better system next year. I've got some ideas already!
Corn, Second Try
My first attempt to start corn indoors failed. This time I planted it directly in the outdoor containers. One set is in a 20 gallon Smart Pot, and the other five are in plastic containers reused from plants I purchased from the garden store. I set the Smart Pot in the empty rows of the carrot bed I had reserved for succession planting. The others are on the grass just outside the bed. Since corn wind pollinates, I set them together in a block instead of a row, and I planted one variety to avoid cross pollination.
It Never Ends
I finally finished cleaning up the front yard, and now it's time to focus on the back. At this point, I only intend to clean it up, not redesign it. I have big plans to someday convert it to a Japanese-style garden, but it will take some careful planning. For the clean-up, I'll be ripping out a big bed of English ivy under a group of trees. My body might revolt before it's done.
Is My Lettuce Bolting Already?
I learning the concept of "bolting" this year, the term for when a plant goes to seed. Many gardeners recommend pulling out lettuce plants once that happens because the taste of the leaves becomes bitter. One of the causes of early bolting are hot temperatures. We did have a couple warm days in the 80s, in between the cooler days in the 50s. But after I harvested the Mesclun mix, instead of regrowing a second wave, it bolted. Since it's a mix of at least seven different greens, and only one type seems to be bolting, rather than pulling it up, I'm going to let it keep growing and try to collect the seeds. Does it change the taste of only one leaf type or the whole plant? We shall see!
I see two, teeny tiny sprout in the cell pack where I harvested hydrangea seeds from my plant a couple weeks ago in my May 9 Hydrangea Experiment. Could they be the birth of a new hydrangea?
First Strawberry Harvest - Ups and Downs
We had our first strawberry harvest today! It was just a handful, but an exciting time to begin enjoying the garden bounty. They are firm and juicy this year, unlike in previous years where they were soggy. I remedied that by mulching earlier in the growing season when I expanded the berry beds. I have a new problem, however. Many of the berries are deformed! They taste fine, but they sure look funky! After careful inspection, I learned it was happening on both the old and new plants, and on both sides of the fence. Research shows that there are several potential causes, including frost damage and boron deficiency. Here's an article explaining the possibilities. I don't recall having this problem in prior years. The only thing I did differently was add Berrytone to the soil, which should help them not hurt them. My guess is that the crazy temperature swings this spring are the cause, but I'll keep an eye on new growth as the season progresses.
Our Favorite Lettuce So Far
Growing lettuce in our home garden has been one of the easiest accomplishments so far. Every time I look at the lettuce patch I ask myself the same question - why didn't I do this years ago!?! As I reported in March, I planted six Romaine transplants from the garden store, and also planted seeds from four different packets. Today we ate the Burpee Organic Gourmet Blend for the first time. It's the hands-down winner in my family so far! The blend is a nice mix of five looseleaf varieties, all tender and colorful. This is unlike the leaves from the Romaine transplants, which are good but a little tough. I'll definitely be planting more of the Gourmet Blend throughout the season. We have many more lettuce varieties to try when my second leafy green bed comes to maturity. Can't wait to find more favorites!
I was outside today admiring how well my tomato plants recovered, with new healthy green growth overtaking the scraggly yellow leaves brought on by heavy rains and an unexpected May frost. Then I noticed trouble - little white moving specs all over my plants. It's a full-blown aphid attack. Oh no! Fortunately, I had seen this video from Journey with Jill, another respected organic gardener. Her experiment with organic remedies to combat aphids was very informative. I'm going to try the worm casting method. Next time I go to the garden store, I'll pick up a bag.
Ivy Bed Blues
I've spent the last couple days ripping ivy out of the a backyard bed. Just like the pachysandra, the English ivy that came with the house had become a nuisance over the years. It regularly grew outside of its bed, killing the grass and choking out other plantings. It also became a haven where poison ivy and other thorny vines flourish. Knowing how physically exhausting this project will be, I'm spreading it out over several days, a couple trash cans full of ivy at a time. Despite my best efforts to avoid the poison ivy, I'm already starting to itch. It's going to be a rough week!
It's apparent that some of the seeds I sowed outdoors weeks ago are not going to germinate. Today, I replanted marigold and amaranthus seeds, along with anise and basil yesterday. There are others, such as the African daisies, globe amaranthus and impatiens that don't look promising either. Other seeds germinated easily, such as the zinnias and cornflowers, and were far less fussy about weather conditions. I'll be looking for plants to fill in the gaps over the next few weeks.
Looking back at my photos from last year, I noticed that by the end of summer, my tomato plants had been hit with diseases where the bottom leaves turned yellow and spotted. There are several possibilities on the type of disease, such as early blight and septoria leaf spot, but I didn't take close enough photos to determine which it was. Assuming it was a soilborne disease splashing up from the rain, I decided to take preventive measures recommended by the gardening experts. I also had to tackle the aphid problem that I'd noticed a few days ago.
First I removed the lower leaves that were touching the ground. Having survived the Mother's Day frost, all my tomatoes have fully recovered and are thriving, so they were now tall enough to be pruned. Second, to kill the aphids, I scratched in a handful of earthworm castings, which I bought in a bag at the garden store, around each plant. Third, I added a thicker layer of mulch. I hope it works!
Beans Under Attack
My beans are also under attack from pests. When I was photographing the plants last week with my Canon macro lens, I picked up an insect with a small body and large wings sitting on the stem. I didn't notice it until I had enlarged the photos on my full-sized monitor and was lucky to get one in focus. I haven't been able to conclusively identify the insect yet, but it's possible that it's some type of aphid. On the assumption that it is, I applied worm castings to the bean plants as well. Even if it doesn't kill the insects, at least it's feeding the plants.
To add to my basil collection, I purchased and planted more seeds today - 'Lemon,' 'Lettuce Leaf,' and 'Fino Verde.' The seed selection at the garden store is getting pretty minuscule, so I'm planting whatever I find for the purpose of at least growing to harvest the seeds for next year.
I also planted stevia, sweet bay and a scented geranium from transplants today. These are all new for me this year.
Ivy Bed Clean-Up Continues
The grueling ivy bed clean-up continues. There's poison ivy hiding in every corner of the patch. I covered up as much as I could to avoid any skin contact, but I'm certain that I'll be itching in spite of my best efforts to avoid it. I thought about hiring somebody to do this job, but I decided to do it myself instead. For one thing, I want to be sure that the unwanted plants are being pulled out at the root, and that there are no pesticides being used. I may grow some food in this bed. Also, while I'm out there working, I'm also planning how large to make the bed and what to do with it. A fountain? A pond? A cool season crop bed? A flower bed? So many possibilities! I've filled up about ten trash cans of yard waste and have at least two more to go…if my body will let me!
Basil Test - Need I say More?
Back on March 9, I planted a basil seed disc in a terracotta pot and left it outside. March was so warm that I thought they might do better than my indoor herb starts, which were growing so slowly. Mother Nature had a different idea, and temperatures ended up dropping to near freezing a couple times. Even though I brought the pot indoors on those blustery nights, the chill of spring definitely stunted its growth.
The photo on the left is the one I planted outdoors in March. The photo on the right are the seeds I planted outdoors in May when the weather warmed up. As you can see, the ones I started in May are about the same or taller than those started two full months earlier. Bottom line - there's no point in starting basil outside until the weather warms up.
As reported above, my tomato plants had been attacked by aphids, and my method of choice to try getting rid of them was worm castings. With the lettuce bed next to the tomatoes, I noticed that the romaine lettuce was covered with them today, too. When I harvested the lettuce this morning, I shook the aphids onto the ground and sprinkled them with worm castings. They were moving around quite a bit at the time, but when I came back a few hours later, they were gone or dead. Maybe it works?
Parsley is a biennial plant. I had planted it in the garden last year, and it returned full and bushy in the spring. I was able to harvest it for cooking for at least a month while my new plants sown this year were still developing. Last week, it started going to seed. Rather than ripping it out, I'm going to collect the seeds for next year.
Cornflower - Second Try
With no luck sprouting the perennial cornflower from seed harvested from my garden plant, I attempted to do it again. I cut another expired seed head, this time fully dried out on the plant, and separated out the seeds. I planted them in a starter pack again - 3 seeds in each of four cells - and this time placed it indoors on a heat mat in the window. Last time, I kept it outside.
Memorial Day Harvest
The weather couldn't have been more perfect for an outdoor Memorial Day picnic with my family. We especially enjoyed the fresh salad my sis made from my homegrown romaine lettuce. Its tougher leaves held up well to her delicious oil and vinegar-based dressing. Dessert was homemade Nutella crepes filled with the newly ripened strawberries from my garden. What a treat to enjoy the first harvests in spring!
My new compost tumbler arrived today, and it's all set up in the garden. In previous years, I had only composted leaves and yard waste, but this year I added kitchen scraps. I've been following all the guidelines about what should and shouldn't go into the bin, such as no meats or dairy. I'm composting things like used coffee grounds, used tea leaves, crushed and washed egg shells, herb stalks, lemon rinds, etc. That was all going well until I started adding peels from carrots, celery and onions. Then it started getting stinky.
To remedy that, I bought this enclosed dual bin tumbler to supplement the two open bins I have for yard waste. It was fairly easy to assemble, in spite of the lousy instructions, and I've already begun to fill one side. It will be interesting to see how quickly it turns to compost. But most of all, I hope that it is a good solution to the stink problem!
Tomato Plant Maintenance
The tomato plants already needed another trim. They are growing quite vigorously. The San Marzanos and Sweet Aroma hybrids are already beginning to flower. The Romas remain the smallest of the bunch. Following the advice of tomato experts, I clipped the bottom leaves again that were touching the ground to prevent soilborne diseases. I also inspected the plants with aphids, and unfortunately, some were still covered, particularly the small Romas. To remove the ones already on the plant, I sprayed the leaves with the hose on the jet setting. That got rid of them, at least for now! I'm keeping an eye on which varieties resist them better than others, as well as individual plants to determine from which I should harvest their seeds at the end of the season.
Yeah, a few of the blueberries turned deep blue! They are much smaller than the grocery store berries, but very fresh and flavorful. We can't wait for more!
Corn, Third Try
Only three corn plants that I planted from seed on May 16 have emerged. Maybe I didn't water them enough? Or maybe the colder weather killed them? Since corn is wind pollinated, I don't think three will be enough. I replanted the same variety of seeds as before in the same pots. If another three show up, I'll be satisfied.
It's been a delightful month with some challenges, mainly caused by the erratic weather and the arrival of garden pests. My front and side yard garden is in a good place, though a few gaps need to be filled and regular maintenance is now required. The backyard work has begun and will probably take the rest of the summer. In the meantime, I'm enjoying seeing my little plants, started from tiny seeds in February and March, begin to flourish.
I've planted basil of several varieties all over the garden, both from my indoor starts and direct sowing seed. It appears that the indoor starts that I transplanted in the Smart Pots are outperforming those I planted directly into the ground. There were too many variables to determine if the container itself made the difference, or if the soil mix, frost damage to the in-ground plants, or amount of sunlight are factors, but it's safe to say that the Smart Pot grow bags are a worthy alternative to planting basil in the ground. This would be a good candidate for a side-by-side experiment next year.
The rest of the herbs that I started from seed indoors are looking pretty good, with some exceptions. Cilantro is growing well, and I need to use it more for cooking before it bolts. Parsley and oregano are filling out slowly. Marjoram is coming along, but the tarragon is barely hanging on. It was too small when I planted it. Rosemary is growing dreadfully slow, if at all. I've had to purchase four rosemary plants from the garden store to use for cooking, and it's still not enough. What I've harvested is not growing back, either. Sage is also a slow grower, but appears to be enjoying the hotter weather. Thankfully, the one I planted last year is already full enough to harvest for cooking.
The herbs I planted directly from seed in the ground are also mixed. Borage is a remarkable grower with a 100% successful germination rate. Cumin and anise are too early to tell. No luck with chives or oregano in the Smart Pot yet. Cilantro is growing slowly, but I probably planted it too late.
Mint and lemon balm are so prolific that I'm going to have to start yanking it out for the compost pile. I have so much I don't know what to do with it, and I haven't had the time to harvest it for culinary use. I need to do something soon before it goes to seed.
Results from my indoor flower starts are a little disappointing, but I have definitely learned some lessons from this experiment. It's not over yet. The growing season has just begun, so I have to reserve my final judgment. But many of the little seedlings seem to be frozen at the same size they were when I planted them. Perhaps the late-season frost ruined them. There were others that were so tiny that they couldn't withstand the weight of the mulch. Even though I had pushed it aside from the seedlings, the wind and critters regularly blew the heavy mulch on top of the seedlings and smothered them before they could get tall enough to reach over the mulch layer. Next year I'll think about putting a guard around them - maybe a can - to hold back the soil.
The tiny seedlings seem to be performing best in my cottage garden area, where I had mixed the soil with composted cow manure. I didn't amend the rest of the flower garden beds and that might have made the difference. Next year I will add a layer of compost all over the garden in the spring.
The garden store flowers planted this year and years past are bursting with color. Dianthus, geraniums, impatiens, petunias, autumn sage, salvia, and sea thrift add dabs of pink, red and purple color against the lush green leaves.
The rest of the vegetable garden is growing very well. All traces of the Mother's Day weekend frost seems to have disappeared. The third row of carrots planted in succession is starting to sprout, and it's time to plant a fourth.
The tops of the root veggies continue to thrive, with potatoes still lush and green, and onion tops still spiking. The pole bean plants are already reaching halfway up the trellis. I know it sounds incredibly nerdy, but it's so exciting to see it climb the trellis I made for it. I can't wait to see the beans grow and hang down from the top. The bush beans are filling out and growing taller by the day.
Tomatoes are looking fabulous. Hot peppers have hit their stride with the warmer weather.
At last, the cucumbers I planted by seed have finally sprouted after three attempts! I will definitely wait for warmer weather next year. It seems they just don't like the cold. But now I have seven cucumber plants of three different varieties growing under one trellis. The three in the back are the garden store transplants, and the four in the front are from direct sowing seed. Can my homemade trellis handle the weight of all the cucumbers that will begin sprouting soon? I may have to do some pruning.
Harvesting has been pure pleasure. We're getting a big handful of strawberries fresh off the vine every day. The newer plants are sending out lots of shoots that will create new plants, filling in the gaps in the newer planting area. Next year, our daily haul will be even bigger! So far, we've used the berries for strawberry Nutella crepes, in an Acai bowl, on top of French toast, and a fresh snack all on its own.
And over a three-day period, we collected enough to fill a quart container, which I used for a strawberry photo shoot. Here's a sample. I'll be adding many more to my stock photo collection soon.
Oh, the joys of gardening! I hope my little adventure will inspire you, too!