Friday, February 24, 2012

My Potting Shed

Exterior view of shed

Because my gardening supplies were taking over the garage, we built a potting shed.  My husband, Scott, designed it, with my input.  We wanted it to look as if it might have been part of an old homestead and as if it belonged on our property.  The siding is made of Western cedar, because we didn’t want to have to paint the siding, and we wanted it to resist decay.  Cedar resists rot naturally.    We situated it in the edge of the woods. 

We tried to use recycled and free materials to construct the shed.  My father cut down trees from his woodlot to provide some cedar lumber for the door.  Our neighbor from a previous house was a carpenter, and we recycled some old windows he reclaimed from a structure he was repairing.  We used old hinges my father found in one of his outbuilding for door hinges, and I used a garden trowel for the door latch.

We enclosed one-half of the shed to contain a potting bench, pots, soil, fertilizers, and supplies.  The other half is open on one end, and contains wheelbarrows, the lawnmower, and other tools.  The windows prop open, and it’s pleasant to work in the shed with them open while a spring rain pelts the tin roof.    
Potting bench with soil container in the middle

Although a company built the shed, Scott built the potting bench and shelving.  The bench has shelves for storage, and in the middle of the bench is a round container that holds potting soil.  To the left of the potting soil container there is a slatted counter with a removable container underneath the slats.  When I put soil into pots, some falls out of the pots, and instead of making a mess on the counter, it falls through the slats and into the removable pan, which I can pull out and dump back into the larger container.
Removable container that holds spilled potting soil when it falls through the slats
If your gardening supplies threaten to overtake your house, consider building a garden shed this spring.  Keep all your supplies in one spot and let your spouse reclaim the garage.  If I had to build the shed again, I would probably situate it closer to the vegetable garden; because I have to walk across the yard to reach the shed I am not always as vigilant about returning tools to their proper location as I should. 

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Confused about Fertilizer?

Even if you have perfect soil, your garden needs regular applications of nitrogen to replace the nitrogen removed by crops as you harvest them and from erosion by wind and rain.  Contact your local county extension agent or garden center to obtain instructions for completing a soil test to determine all the nutrients your soil needs. 

The easiest solution is to add chemical fertilizer like 10-10-10.  It provides the three main nutrients, nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, in equal amounts.  Many garden advisors suggest adding it to fulfill the needs of all garden plants.  However, it is not the best option. 

Chemical fertilizer kills soil microbes and garden critters like earthworms.  If you put 10-10-10 on everything, you will add excess amounts of some nutrients, and perhaps not enough of others.  Rain washes excess fertilizer into streams and disrupts ecosystems. 

Organic fertilizers are a better choice.  They can seem expensive when compared to chemical fertilizers, but in the end, they are cheaper.  Blood meal provides nitrogen, potash gives the soil phosphorus, and bone meal supplies potassium.  At a local store, three-pound bags of blood meal, potash, and bone meal cost about $6.50 each.  A 20-pound bag of Black Hen fertilizer, which is composted chicken manure, is about $7.  Bone meal, for example, has an N-P-K ratio of 6-9-0, which means it has 6 parts nitrogen, 9 parts phosphorus, and no parts potassium.  Black Hen fertilizer has a N-P-K ratio of 2-3-2.  Bone meal is about three times as strong as Black Hen, but the bone meal costs about six times more than the Black Hen. 

An even cheaper choice is alfalfa meal or cottonseed meal, available in 50-pound bags at feed stores for about $15.  Alfalfa meal has a N-P-K ratio of 2-1-2, and cottonseed meal, available in approximately the same amount and quantity as alfalfa meal, has a N-P-K ratio of 6-4-1.5.  Farmers use alfalfa meal and cottonseed meal as animal feed, but they work well as fertilizer.  I prefer to use alfalfa meal instead of cottonseed meal because farmers apply more pesticides to cotton than they do to alfalfa, and farmers grow GMO cotton but I do not think there is a GMO version of alfalfa.

Not everyone has room for 50 pound bags of fertilizer or can store bags of Black Hen fertilizer somewhere the smell will not offend anyone.  In those cases, the more expensive small bags of organic fertilizers are the best option.  For a small garden, they will last the season and maybe longer.  Organic fertilizer stays in the soil longer than chemical fertilizer, and this benefit offsets the higher initial cost of organic fertilizer as compared to chemical fertilizer.  They also actually improve the soil’s health instead of destroying soil life.  For me, one of the best benefits is that although composted chicken manure or bone meal are a little icky, you do not have to worry about the fertilizers burning the hands of children who want to help in the garden.  

Below are two other internet references that give a discusion of chemical versus organic fertilizer.  Here is a link to the benefits of organic fertilizer over chemical fertilizer, and
this is a YouTube video from Atlanta Gardener about the living soil organic fertilizer creates. 

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

It's Time to Plant Asparagus and Strawberries

It is time to prepare a spot to plant strawberries and asparagus.  Asparagus that arrives in your house from California via the grocery store is nothing like the tender vegetable you will harvest from your garden.   Local strawberry farms exist, but walking into your own garden to pick a strawberry snack whenever you want it is more fun. 

Strawberries and asparagus are perennials, which mean they stay in the garden all year long although they only produce a crop in the spring.  During the rest of the year, the plants continue to grow.  I do not have anything else growing in my strawberry and asparagus patches (except some weeds, of course), but if you lack space in the garden, you could intermingle plants that have different harvest times.  My asparagus bed is bare now, after I cut back the fronds when frost killed them, but I could have planted a winter crop of lettuce or beets among the buried asparagus crowns.  Broccoli might have enjoyed living among the asparagus during the late summer, where the asparagus fronds would shade it from summer’s heat.  Do not till the area or dig deeply because you will damage the asparagus.
Garden centers and catalogs will have strawberry plants and asparagus crowns available for purchase soon, if they are not already available.  Choose a sunny spot for your strawberry patch, till the soil, and mix in as much compost or rotted manure as you can afford.  Strawberries like acid soil, with a pH of about 5.5-6.5.  Most soils in the Midlands are already acidic; get a soil test if you are not sure about your soil.  Do not apply lime to strawberries unless you know your soil is extremely acidic, and do not put them where tomatoes, potatoes, or peppers have grown in the last several years because they are susceptible to the same diseases.  Strawberries like fertile soil with lots of nitrogen, so be sure to use plenty of organic fertilizer.

The “Guide to South Carolina Gardening,” by Walter Reeves and Felder Rushing, recommends fertilizing an 8x30 foot area containing 30 plants with 4 pounds of 10-10-10 fertilizer a week or so before they are planted, and in June and in September.  If soil is sandy, they recommend applying the fertilizer in May, July, and October.  After the first season, they recommend fertilizing the plants in late winter with 4 pounds of 10-10-10.  This is a lot of fertilizer, and it is simpler and better for your plants and soil if you use compost and manure.  These recommendations do give you an idea of the large amount of fertilizer strawberries need, though.  This book is a great gardening resource because it gives planting information specific to South Carolina.
To grow asparagus, choose a sunny spot in the garden and dig a wide trench six to eight inches deep.  Asparagus is sold in crowns, which look sort of like spiders.  Mix in plenty of compost and organic fertilizer, and lay the crowns in the trench, with the buds up and the “legs” spread around, and fill in the trench with about two inches of the soil; fill in the trench gradually with the rest of the soil as they grow over the year. 

When tempting green spears poke through the soil, do not pick them.  Unfortunately, you have to wait until the third year after planting them for your first harvest, and then you can only harvest them for two weeks.  In subsequent years, harvest the spears for a couple of months, or until they grow skinny.  If you pick them too early or for too long, the root will exhaust itself and die.  The wait for the tender asparagus is worth it.  After all the working and waiting, in future years, keep the patch watered, and heavily mulched, and your work will be minimal.   

Plant strawberries late this winter, and enjoy the harvest this spring.  Go ahead and start your asparagus patch now, because the sooner you start it, the sooner you will have a harvest.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Timeline for Sowing Seed this Spring

People frequently ask me about the correct time to plant different vegetables and fruits.  Planting times are a subject that confused me when I began gardening.   The guidance offered by seed companies and gardening magazines is somewhat vague because the writers want the information to appeal to everyone. 

The instruction that bewildered me the most was “Sow seed as soon as the ground can be worked in spring.”  I can work the ground in my garden in South Carolina nearly every day of the year.  If the ground does freeze, it often thaws by early afternoon, and within a week’s time from the cold night, we will usually have a day in the sixties.  Garden writers, I have found, often live in colder climates where they have many months in which they cannot garden because the ground is covered with ice and snow.  They are inside, writing about gardening and trying not to think about us fortunate Southerners outside, on a lovely January day, gardening.

To figure out planting dates, know frost dates.  In the Midlands of SC, our first fall frost usually occurs around November 1, although frost can happen a couple of weeks before or after that date.  Our last spring frost usually occurs around April 1, give or take a couple of weeks.  To figure out planting dates, decide whether you will sow the seed directly in the garden or whether you will first sow it inside and transplant it outdoors later.  For example, it is best to start tomato plants from seed inside the house under grow lights so they will be big enough to transplant outside when the danger of frost has passed.  The package says to start them about six weeks before the last frost, which means I usually start my tomato seeds inside around Valentine’s Day.  I also start peppers, eggplant, and broccoli inside under lights.  I sow green beans directly in the garden, and so I do not sow them until April.  I sow almost all other vegetables directly in the garden. 

In January, sow cabbage and broccoli indoors.  In February, or six to eight weeks before the last spring frost, sow broccoli, cabbage, spinach and other leafy greens, bulb onions, tomatoes, peppers, basil, & eggplant indoors.  Start sweet potato slips indoors.  Sow leafy greens, carrots, parsnips, beets, and English peas outdoors.  Plant Irish potatoes outside.  In March, continue sowing the crops as described above.  Transplant cool-weather crops outside when they are large enough.

In April, sow leafy greens outdoors, but know the heat we often have in late May will cause them to bolt and to become bitter.  However, we might have a cool spring, and so planting the greens later is worth the risk.  Transplant broccoli and cabbage into the garden, but it is too late to start them from seed because hot weather will arrive before they mature.  Plant green beans, lima beans, crowder peas, corn, okra, squash, and cucumber seeds outside.

In mid-April, or sooner if you are brave, set out tomato, pepper, and eggplant transplants in the garden.  Just remember that in 2007 the temperature dropped to about 24°F on the morning of April 7.  That spring I had not set out my tomatoes yet, but many gardeners lost their crop.  I have planted tomatoes unadvisedly early, as an experiment, and covered them with plastic, but nothing besides a heated greenhouse can protect them from that sort of cold.  Although some plants can survive a light frost, tomatoes cannot.  I wait until mid-April to set out mine; just because the big-box stores have transplants for sale does not mean it's time to set them out in the garden. 

Throughout the summer, make successive plantings of beans, squash, and cucumbers.  Start some more tomato seeds indoors to set out in August for a fall crop.  In August, plant cool-season crops like beets, carrots, leafy greens, broccoli, and cabbage in the garden for a fall and winter crop. 

Draw your crop plan on a piece of paper so you can put new crops in the spaces vacated by spent crops, and make your garden its most productive.  Purchase your seeds for the spring, because it is time to get to work.