Wednesday, July 25, 2012

It’s Time to Plant Your Fall Garden!

I know it is too hot to think about fall, but it is time to plan the fall garden and to start some seeds to grow into transplants to put out later in the fall. Many months of warm weather remain before the first fall frost arrives, so, in the South at least,  there is also plenty of time to plant more crops of beans, Crowder peas, basil, dill, cilantro, cucumbers, and winter squash, among other heat-loving plants, before frost arrives. If your first attempt at a summer garden failed, try again. Sometimes pests that attack plants early in the season have moved on later in the season.

I plan to sow some seeds in the garden within the next couple of weeks. I will start the seeds while it’s still hot instead of waiting for cooler temperatures because the plants need to become established before cooler weather comes. If I wait until late September when the weather cools, which I have done, frost will damage the baby plants and they won’t grow well during cold weather. Older plants handle the cold weather fine, and I am able to harvest from them throughout most of the winter. In the spring, they will resume growing ahead of new plants.

Before I sow any seeds during hot weather, I soak the soil with water. After I plant the seeds, I water them very gently, and continue to water them gently once or twice a day, depending on rainfall. Mature plants, with deep roots, need infrequent, long soakings. Seeds, which are only in the top inch or less of soil, need only enough water to keep the top inch or so of soil moist. They need gentle mists of water, because vigorous water applications will wash the seeds away.

After I sow the seeds, I put metal hoops across a garden row and I lay shade cloth across them, pinning it down with clothespins. Shade cloth is available at garden centers or at Old sheets will work also; use something that blocks the hottest rays of the sun while allowing some light.

When the seeds sprout, I continue to keep the soil moist, but I gradually wean them off such frequent watering so they will develop deep roots. I leave the shade cloth up until the weather becomes cooler, and I gradually expose the seedlings to brighter sunlight. If the seedlings look too tall and spindly, they are not getting enough sunlight.

In the South, sow seeds outdoors for beets, carrots, collards, and rutabagas for the fall, and sow seeds of summer vegetables listed earlier. Indoors, sow seeds of broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, and cauliflower.

In August, begin sowing seeds of kale, kohlrabi, lettuce, and spinach, along with more of the previously mentioned fall vegetables indoors. Keep the baby seedlings inside and away from scorching temperatures until the weather cools.

Outdoors, in August, continue to sow seeds of carrots, beets, chard, Chinese cabbage, collards, kale, kohlrabi, lettuce, mustard, parsnips, radishes, spinach, and turnips. Keep the soil moist by frequently misting the soil with water, provide shade as needed, and you should have a garden ready for harvest throughout the fall and winter.

Google “what to plant now” for a list at, for the entire year, of which plants to sow indoors and outdoors at different times of the year for an ongoing harvest. Through succession planting, which is having another crop ready for the garden when the previous one is finished, I can harvest something from my garden every day of the year, and you can too.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Help Your Garden Survive Summer

It is just too hot to contemplate planting anything, but gardeners must help the plants that are roasting in the heat survive. The rain that fell Sunday afternoon may bring our gardens through this heat wave.

My garden is holding up fairly well to the heat because of water conservation strategies I have employed through the years. I work every year to improve my soil because soil that contains lots of organic matter holds more moisture than sand or clay.

Mulch is my ally against drought and heat. Plant roots appreciate shade from temperatures over 100˚F as much as people do, and a thick layer of mulch insulates and cools the roots, and holds in available soil moisture. I choose cheap and plentiful sources of mulch over expensive and hard to get, and so I use partially rotten hay, leaves, grass clippings, newspapers, cardboard, and pine straw for mulch. Mulch also keeps the weeds from growing so I do not need to go out in this heat to weed the garden.

When I water my lawn and garden, I water them deeply and infrequently, and I water them only when rain does not fall. I do not sprinkle them every day because shallow, frequent watering encourages the plants to develop shallow roots that cannot tolerate drought. These lazy roots love their life of leisure without having to search for water. Like lazy humans, however, they are helpless when their water is not given to them. Deep, infrequent watering, which mimics natural rainfall, makes the roots of the plant search deep in the soil for moisture. When rain does not fall, the deep roots can find water in the soil for much longer than roots used to easy provision of water.

Drip irrigation is the best way to get irrigation water to the roots of plants. Sprinklers put most of the water on the leaves of the plants, where it dries up before doing much good. Sprinklers also promote disease by wetting foliage. I do use a sprinkler in the garden, but I try to keep it off my tomatoes and other plants prone to disease.

When it rains, either turn off your automatic lawn sprinklers, or buy a rain sensor to automatically stop the sprinklers if rain falls. I turn on my sprinklers manually when the grass looks shriveled.   And please, please, adjust the sprinkler heads so you water plants instead of asphalt.  I do hate driving by commercial landscaping and having my car bathed by water that’s supposed to be going on the plants.

Ideally, gardens thrive best on an inch of rain per week, so if an inch of rain falls from the sky there is no need to waste precious fresh water by watering the lawn that week. I turn on the drip irrigation to my tomatoes and run it for an hour or two once or twice a week, if it does not rain, which gives the tomatoes the consistent soil moisture they love.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Blacksnakes Love Baby Guineas, Unfortunately

I have always had a pragmatic attitude about snakes.  Blacksnakes and other non-venomous snakes keep the rodent population under control, and after all, they are part of our natural environment.  I am not scared of snakes, generally, although I don’t want one as a pet, either.  I did not mind sharing a few eggs with the blacksnakes that visited the hen house occasionally.  I expected to kill venomous snakes because of the risk they pose to people and pets, even though they are here naturally too.  I have not shared the views of my grandmothers, who broke many hoe handles chopping away at any snake they saw, that “The only good snake is a dead snake.”

My views on snakes changed last week, though, because blacksnakes find baby guineas, or keets, as tasty as they do rodents.  The keets were in the garage, I left the door up so my children could access their toys, the snake came in, and by the time I heard the racket from the guineas, it had killed three babies and had a fourth in his mouth with its fangs sunk into the helpless creature’s back.

I do not recommend my methods of snake extermination and guinea saving; although they were effective they were perhaps a bit foolhardy.  I set the two remaining guineas out onto the garage floor.  As guinea in the snake’s mouth, a gray one that my daughter had christened “Mr. Cuteypants,” looked around with panicked eyes, I grabbed the snake by its middle and shook it until it let go of Mr. Cuteypants.

I knew the snake was not poisonous; even if it did bite me I would be okay, unlike the guinea in his mouth.  The snake had another dead baby wrapped in its tail, where it had killed it through constriction, and I thought it was unlikely that the snake could release all of its constricted muscles fast enough to drop the guinea in its mouth and bite me before I escaped.  I took the box with the snake in it into the woods and killed the snake.

I have no angst over killing the snake.  Over the years of living in the country, I have had several interactions with blacksnakes, and I always try to not to harm them; I even saved one’s life by cutting it out of bird netting in which it had become entangled.  I knew this one would be back for the rest of the babies if I let it go.   

If I see another blacksnake while the guineas are small, I will probably kill it.  Blacksnakes pose no threat to adult birds, although a blacksnake killed my aunt’s neighbor’s chicken while she sat on eggs in the nest.  Hens that are “setting,” or trying to hatch eggs, enter a trancelike state where they sometimes ignore danger. 

I chased the two unharmed guineas all over the yard, finally caught them, and put them in a new box.  I found Mr. Cuteypants, and called several vets before I found out that all I could do for him was clean the wound and put some Neosporin on it.  He had mild bleeding that scabbed over quickly, and seemed perfectly fine, much better than I would be if I had had snake fangs embedded in my back.

As I write this, a week later, Mr. Cuteypants shows no sign of infection from his snakebite, and is as active as the other guineas.  My husband is finishing construction of a snake-proof guinea house, and we will move them out there soon.  The three remaining guineas have spent their days on the screened porch, where they are safe from snakes, and they spend their nights inside the house.  I hope they will soon grow into independent adult birds that patrol my garden to eliminate bothersome insects.