Thursday, April 28, 2011

Start a garden this spring

Several methods exist for starting a flower or vegetable garden depending on the time, money, and energy you have available. A few pots are plenty for the beginning gardener; it’s easy to overestimate your abilities and desires when the weather is lovely and cool in April and end up with scorched plants in July. Space probably exists among the shrubs around your home’s foundation for a few plants if you do not want to use pots; potted plants require more attention than those planted in the ground. Make sure your vegetable garden receives six to eight hours of direct sun daily.
For my first garden, I tilled a place in the backyard, added all the compost I could to the already rich, black, sandy loam of the yard, and harvested many vegetables. I have red clay and woods at my current home; my family and I cut trees and purchased soil to fill the raised bed we made out of the felled trees. Add as much compost as you can afford to the soil in your garden site.
Call your local county extension service for soil testing information. Soil test results tell you the specific nutrients, including lime, your soil needs; adding the amendments indicated by the results will help you have a successful garden.
I prefer to use the no-till method I borrowed from Ruth Stout who wrote the book "How to have a Green Thumb without an Aching Back." Lay 6-8 sheets of newspaper or cardboard directly over the grass and overlap the edges. On top of the paper, place 3-4 inches (or more) of compost or manure; then add 4-6 inches of mulch.
Mulch can be any substance that biodegrades easily; don’t use synthetic mulch or wood chips. I try to obtain free mulch so I can use it lavishly; I prefer old hay and bags of leaves from the side of the road. You can immediately dig planting holes in the compost or you can leave the “pie” alone for three to six months and the earthworms will till the soil for you. Mulch your garden lavishly regardless of the method you use to begin it; I pull a few weeds here and there but do not have to devote much time to the task because of the mulch.
When you begin planting, meet the plants’ needs for sun, shade, and moisture. The Southern Living Garden Book is a good resource for plant information. Make sure what you are reading is specific to the South since a plant’s ability to tolerate heat is as important as its ability to tolerate cold. Folks who move here from up North kill lilacs and lettuce in July on a regular basis.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

You can afford organic food

When I talk about eating foods grown without the use of chemical pesticides or fertilizers, and eating meat from animals grown without hormones or antibiotics, and that lived a life free of unreasonable confinement, the first objection people raise is that eating this way is too expensive. Foods grown naturally are more expensive than food grown conventionally without as much care to the well-being of the animal, plant, or the resulting effects on the environment, but the expense is worth it. Many people believe they cannot afford to buy anything but the cheapest grocery-store fare, but I hope to persuade you that buying better quality food is affordable.

The first way to decrease your grocery bill is to have a garden, even if it is a pot of lettuce in a sunny spot during the winter and a tomato plant in the summer. Properly cared for, even small gardens can help decrease your grocery bill. Next, eat what is in season locally, and buy it from a local farmer. In June, eat locally grown tomatoes; in February, eat collard greens and root vegetables like carrots, beets, and potatoes. For more information on eating foods in season, read “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle” by Barbara Kingsolver.

According to the Environmental Working Group, strawberries, blueberries, peaches, celery, apples, cherries, nectarines, potatoes, bell peppers, grapes, spinach, and kale contain the most pesticide residues, and, if you have to choose, you should buy the organic version of these vegetables. Eating foods out of season often means that the food was grown in another country with less stringent pesticide regulations, which may mean more pesticide residue is on the food than if it was grown in the US.

When I say “organic”, I do not mean USDA certified organic, because the regulations add prohibitive costs of production to many small farmers and, although they follow organic practices, they do not choose to pay for certification. I buy my meat, dairy, and eggs from Wil-Moore Farms, in Lugoff, and their farm is not certified organic. However, when I visit their home to pick up my food, I see the animals living on pasture, and because I can talk to the farmers directly, I trust that the animals are raised the way they say they are. You may reach Wil-Moore Farms at 803.438.3097.

My first priority, because I have two small children that drink a lot of milk, is to buy organic milk. Happy Cow Creamery, in Pelzer, produces milk from cows that live on pasture, and they do not use hormones. Wil-Moore farms and some smaller stores carry this milk. One reason I like it is because it is minimally processed, which preserves the good fats and vitamins in the milk destroyed by processing. Their cows also live on the pasture and eat grass, instead of hay, grain, and silage like most dairy cows, organic dairy or not. Organic milk does not contain growth hormones, and the cows are not given antibiotics routinely.

Reducing the amount of meat you eat is another way to cut costs. Eat your cchicken in a stir-fry instead of a huge chicken breast, and reserve steaks for special occasions. Try cheaper cuts of meat, like roasts, instead of more expensive cuts. Eat your ground beef in chili beans and spaghetti sauce instead of hamburgers. Buy whole chickens instead of boneless skinless breasts and use every scrap of meat on the bird, and then boil the carcass to make chicken stock. Eating the typical American diet of a huge hunk of meat and a small amount of vegetables is unhealty and expensive.

Before I switched to buying free-range meat, by watching sales, I was able to buy my meat so cheaply at the grocery store that I often wasted it. If we got tired of eating something, I would throw it out. Now that I buy the more expensive meat, I make sure I use every scrap of it. I turn leftovers into stir-fries and pasta dishes. From the carcass of my Thanksgiving turkey, I canned about 14 quarts of turkey stock, which I will use in recipes calling for chicken stock.

If you want to make buying organic foods a priority, you may have to adjust your spending on other things. Processed snack foods, frozen meals, soft drinks, fast foods, and deli foods are usually neither organic nor healthy. They are expensive, though, and overconsumption of these foods will make you unhealthy. Unfortunately, they are a mainstay of most American’s diets.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

If I could only own one gardening book

If you are looking for a general gardening book, "The Southern Living Garden Book" is the best one. It lists plants alphabetically and cross-references common and botanical names. Some books focus on ornamental plants instead of vegetables; this one covers nearly any plant you might want in any sort of garden. Unlike many gardening books that do not acknowledge the South's heat, this book will tell you that you live somewhere too hot for a particular plant to grow, It further divides the South into Upper, Middle, Lower, and Tropical South; folks in Maryland can grow lots of plants people in South Carolina cannot. It also includes helpful lists of plants such as deer resistant plants, good shade trees, and plants that like moisture. I think the previous edition of this book was the first gardening book I ever owned; whether you are an experienced gardener or a novice, your book collection is incomplete without it.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

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Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Growing Apple Trees

Last spring, I planted an apple orchard. My grandparents had an orchard when I was a child, and some of my favorite childhood memories are of the family gathering on a cool fall day to make cider in the hand-cranked mill that made the apples release their juice when two thick boards compressed them. My grandfather proposed to my grandmother under an apple tree, and some descendants of the tree, christened the “Goldie-Fred apple” by my aunt, after them, still stand among decaying buildings and overgrown trees on the farm.

Since no one has maintained the trees in at least twenty years, they are diseased and overgrown. The trees are all standard varieties and are at least twenty feet tall. To prune them, a person would have to climb a ladder while holding loppers or a pruning saw to begin thinning the twisted growth. Diseases and pests like apple scab, coddling moths, cedar apple rust, and sooty blotch plague the trees. Even though growing grocery store-perfect apples is not easy, it is possible to obtain a fruit crop from the home orchard. We had plenty of apples from my grandparent’s orchard, and my family still harvests apples from the orchard as long as a late freeze does not kill the blossoms. They don’t look like the apples sold in grocery stores, but no one sprayed them with chemicals in New Zealand before they arrived in the local store, either.

One way to make maintaining an orchard easier is to buy dwarf or semi-dwarf trees. Dwarf trees grow 8-10 feet tall, and semi-dwarf trees grow 12-15 feet tall, and bear full-size fruit. I planted four bare-root trees: a Granny Smith, a Red Rome, a Braeburn, and a Yellow Transparent. I ordered my trees from Stark Brothers, and other companies and local garden centers have trees. Before you buy, make sure you buy trees that are compatible with each other for pollination. The trees need to bloom at the same time so insects can pollinate the trees. The Stark’s catalog details this information, as do books. For South Carolina-specific information, call the Clemson Cooperative Extension Service at 1.888.656.9988 from 9 AM-1 PM, or get an apple-growing fact sheet at http://www.clemson.edu/extension/hgic.

Clemson Extension also has fact sheets on apple diseases and pests. I hope to maintain my orchard organically, or at least as organically as possible. Since I am not selling my fruit, it does not have to be cosmetically perfect, but I do want a harvest and some sound fruit I can save over the winter. I have read that simply slipping a paper bag or a piece of ladies’ hose over immature apples prevents pest damage, and with four small trees, I should be able to accomplish this task. Pruning the apple trees properly is important to make sure sunlight can reach the interior of the tree and to make sure to encourage the growth of the branches that produce fruit.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Preparing Transplants for the Garden

I began the process of hardening off, or preparing the plants I started indoors under lights for life outside, last week. The tomato and pepper plants need some time to get used to the wind, variable temperatures, and sunshine before they spend a full day of life in the garden. To harden them off, I put them in an hour or less of morning sun, and watch them carefully to make sure they do not wilt. Each day I expose them to more sun until they sit in the sun most of the day without wilting.

Think of a transplant’s tender leaves as a baby’s skin; a baby sunburns quickly but an adult takes longer to burn because adult skin has had more experience with the sun. The transplants’ leaves need to be tougher, like those of an adult’s, before they will be safe in the garden.

The hardening-off process usually takes about a week. I also leave the transplants outside overnight as long as the temperature does not get below 45 degrees. Make sure to watch the moisture level in the pots; sunlight quickly evaporates the water from the tiny pots.

Buying your transplants at the store is cost-effective if you are only planting a few plants, and is a good way to begin a garden for the first time. I am planting 50 tomato plants, so starting them from seed is the best option for me.

When you buy transplants, look for healthy vegetable transplants that are uniformly green, not yellowed, and not wilted. Compare the plant to its neighbors and choose one of medium size. Plants should not be tall and skinny, but should have many branches and leaves protruding off the stem. Do not buy plants with blossoms or fruit on them; stress causes small plants to produce fruit.

Gradually expose your transplants to direct sun for a few days as described above before setting them out in the garden for a day of full sun. Try to avoid buying transplants whose roots are tightly wrapped in the shape of the container, or “root-bound.” If you have no other choices, gently tear the roots apart when you plant them to encourage the roots to explore the surrounding soil. Water and mulch them well after you plant them.

Garden centers sell transplants of almost all the summer vegetables, but our long growing season enables us to plant seeds of cucumbers, squash, zucchini, beans, okra, and any other summer vegetables besides tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant directly in the ground; this is both cost-effective and will produce the strongest seedlings. Plants would really rather grow in the same place in which they are sown instead of having to move around as they do when we transplant them.

The average date for the last frost in the Midlands of SC is around April 15. However, temperatures below 40 degrees can damage tomato plants, so to be safe, I have not set out mine, although I have begun sowing seeds of corn, beans, and squash. In my garden journal, I noted that we had a frost on April 15, 2008, which damaged the tomato plants I set out too early. We have such a long growing season here that I try to wait until late April to set out the plants. However, if you have set yours out, they will probably be fine, just watch the weather forecast, and cover them if frost is predicted.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Catching chickens

Catching chickens is not fun. I am new to chicken-keeping this spring, and I want to make sure my nine hens have a clean, fresh area to graze. Today I moved the elecronet fencing and their chicken tractor, a portable bottomless pen, from the area above the garden, in the apple orchard, to an area of fresh grass below the garden. During this process, the chickens all left the pen and headed for the compost pile.

Not in possession of much intelligence, the chickens couldn't seem to find their home. My 5-year-old daughter, Ella, and I tried to catch the chickens, a sight which was humorous for any observers and helped me work off the calories from the Caesar salad I had for lunch with the physical exertion required. Chickens are fast, and they are agile. I am not.

Eventually, we did catch them all, installed them in their relocated home, and gave them some corn as a peace offering for the experience. When I last saw them they were busy looking for seeds and bugs in the grass, and I hope they have forgotten the trauma of the move. Next time I will move them while they are still contained in the chicken tractor after they have gone to bed or before I let them out in the morning.

Installing drip irrigation is fun and easy

My husband has been holding out on me. Through experience at jobs, and by reading the packages while working at a hardware store in high school and in college, he can complete many household improvement tasks, although he tries to keep his knowledge hidden from me as much as possible so his “honey-do” list does not lengthen. Although he’s watched me drag hoses to water my plants and saw my soaker hoses break from dry-rot, he never told me that while he worked on John’s Island, SC, at a palm tree farm for a month or so after college, he installed drip irrigation around 150 palm trees in the midst of a Lowcountry summer.

I have read about drip irrigation, and although it sounded like an efficient way to water plants, I thought the installation process was nearly as complicated as that of the one installed by professionals that waters my lawn. I decided to try it, though, because I hate dragging hoses. I began with a starter kit. My husband, while helping me, revealed his seemingly miraculous skill in drip irrigation installation and had to confess the origin of the skill. After he helped me install the first few emitters, I completed the rest of the system.

I like drip irrigation because it provides slow drips of water to plants, at a rate of ½ gallon to 3 gallons per hour, and the water does not run off or evaporate like water from sprinklers. It’s inexpensive, although it does cost more than buying a soaker hose to move around; to water a small garden you could probably get all the supplies you need for under $50, and you can reuse them next year. Calculate in the cost of all the water you won’t waste with other systems, the weeds you won’t encourage by watering them while you water your plants, and avoiding the aggravation of dragging hoses all summer, and it’s a bargain.

Attach the main hose to a pressure regulator, which is attached to a garden hose or the house faucet. Off this main hose, install branches with emitters that drip onto each plant. For a row of beans, for example, use a hose with perforations to drip water onto the plants. For shrubs, put individual emitters in the hose for each plant. Attach the hose to the ground with landscape stakes and cover everything with mulch. Drain the system before winter comes, and leave it in place year-round.

I recommend buying a starter kit, which provides diagrams and instructions. Also, look at www.irrigationtutorials.com and www.dripirrigation.com. The public library and bookstores also have books. Once I understood the basic idea behind the system and could identify the parts, I installed our system easily, and it’s fun, kind of like playing with Tinkertoys.