Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Varieties for Northern Nevada Gardens

I got my indoor seeds planted today. I've found eight to ten weeks is long enough to get everything up and growing and hardened off, ready to plant. Since I won't plant any of them outside until after Memorial Day, today was a fine time to get them started. They won't be as big as the plants you can buy in the garden shops in May. But I think my smaller plants undergo less transplant shock, and do catch up quickly once the warm weather gets here. More about the process here.

Those of you following along at home, start saving your eggshells, too. I just keep mine in an open jar under the kitchen counter. They dry out, so don't smell or attract ants. When the jar gets full, I use a potato masher to crush them down. When it's time to set my tomatoes, peppers, chiles, and eggplants out in the garden, I add some eggshell (calcium) and Epsom salts (magnesium) to the planting hole to prevent blossom end rot. It's a good idea to pick up some Wall-o-Waters if you see them in the store, too. I reuse the same ones year after year. I put them around my plants when I set them out, and leave them on until July. They both keep the plants warmer at night and provide protection from our notorious Washoe Zephyr.

Most years, we can count on around a 100-day growing season for our tender crops. Pass up those Brandywine tomatoes, and go for the Early Girls if like eating home-grown ripe tomatoes. Here's what I started today - varieties I've found that usually will produce a pretty good harvest in our high-desert climate. Many of these can be found in the seed racks at Wal-Mart or any of the grocery stores. This is enough for the two of us to eat fresh, put by for the winter, and still have some extras to give away:

1 Early Girl tomato - the most reliable, fresh-eatin' tomato
1 Sweet 100 tomato - for snacking on, right there next to the plant
6 CC (for Carson City) Paste tomatoes; to can, slices to dry, plus they'll also store until after New Year's - I started with an Amish Paste tomato 25 years ago. I kept saving seeds from the biggest, earliest couple of tomatoes each year, and now have my own "heirloom" that reliably produces big, early, bunches of tomatoes. I don't bother with the fermenting-seeds-in-water bit everyone tells you to do - I just cut the fruit open, squoosh the seedy gel out with my finger, and wipe it onto a piece of paper. When dry, I fold up the paper and store it in an envelope in my seed box. When it's time to plant, I just scratch the seeds off the paper and stick 'em in the dirt.

6 CC Chile peppers - same story - I started with an Anaheim/California green chile years ago, and saved the seeds from the biggest, earliest couple of fruits each year
6 California Wonder bell peppers - still working on getting a good, early bell pepper. This is an heirloom so has some good possibilities
6 Jalapeno peppers - up from my usual two plants. The jalapeno jelly I made last year is soooo good, I want to make sure I have enough plants to make a batch or even two this year. If I end up with a bumper crop, it's easy to put together a smoker to make chipotles - maybe I'll try canning a batch in adobo.
6 Ancho chile peppers - the additional chile for this year. Every year, I grow and dry or can enough of one different chile - cayenne, paprika, relleno, pimiento, etc. - to last for the next 3-4 years. I just broke open one of last Ancho I grew, strung up in a ristra hanging in my kitchen, and planted those seeds. They should still be viable.
1 Habanero pepper - I usually end up buying a plant at the store. If I want to grow my own, I should probably start it in January instead of waiting until now. One plant will usually produce enough to make a batch of my favorite hot sauce each year.

2 Clemson Spineless okra - yes, you can grow okra here. And why deal with spines if you don't have to? It's an heirloom variety, but I've never managed to save viable seeds so I buy a packet every few years.
3 Black Beauty eggplant - I like them better than the Japanese type, plus they'll last in storage 'til the first of the year. Same as the okra, it's an heirloom variety, but I've never managed to save viable seeds.
2 basil - enough to eat fresh, dry some, plus freeze a few batches of pesto, too
2 green tomatillos - last year, I just picked out the biggest fresh tomatillo I could find in the grocery store, and did the same squoosh-the-seeds-onto-paper that I do for tomatoes. I got a nice harvest of good-sized tomatillos, and saved the seeds from the biggest, earliest ones to plant this year.

I also started six-packs of early Golden Acre cabbage, late Dutch Ballhead cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, raddichio, Joi Choi, Tuscan kale, and both orange and yellow calendulas, plus a couple chard, red kale, and blue kale plants. But those are all cold-hardy veggies, so just about any variety of those plants will do ok here. All of those will get set out the end of May too, to grow through the summer for a fall harvest.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Garden Remodel, Still in Progress

The plan for today was to get my seeds started inside. But when Aries' planned outing got canceled, I changed my plans in order to take advantage of the nice weather, superior muscles and horsepower now available. I got him to help me finish the garden reconfiguration.

I've been working on this project for a year - starting with moving the chicken coop, so we could move the garden fence, and re-working the lower two squarish beds into three long ones. I'd moved the raspberry patch last week, so had only to dig up the little patch of baby leeks, bunching, and walking onions. While I did that, Aries got the big rototiller fueled up and running, and brought it down to the garden. Luckily, a friend stopped by to visit him just then, so it gave me some time (ah, the dynamics of two fire signs working together - there can be sparks, but we do get things done) to get some stakes and string laid out to show him what should be garden bed and what should be path.

Our entire property drops down towards the east. He had to really work to keep that big tiller moving across the slope when it wanted to swing downhill, but he did pretty good keeping it lined up reasonably straight. Once tilled, he started hauling wheelbarrow loads of compost down from the bin up by the garage (he thinks it's easier to move the spent plants and chicken manure up, and the compost down, than moving the chipper-shredder very far from the garage). I spread the compost evenly over each bed, and then he ran through each one again. I'm still going to have to do some hand-digging along the edges of each bed, and a lot of raking to get them all into level terraces. But it's looking good.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Seed Starter Mix

It's time to start tender seedlings inside, to be set out in the garden after Memorial Day. But I was out of my seed starter mix, so today I made up a batch. Regular potting soil is too coarse, and doesn't hold enough water to get seedlings off to a good start. Curious, I looked at the tiny bags of seed starter mix in my local home improvement store. Not only would buying enough for my needs be prohibitively expensive, but I really don't think using something that, in reading the small print on the back, cautions that it's important to wear gloves while using this product, keep it away from children, and write to them to find out more about the metals (metal??) it contains. That just sounds chemical-laden to me. I'll continue to mix up my own, thank you.

Seed Starter Mix

3 parts compost
3 parts sphagnum peat moss (or coir fiber)
1 part vermiculite (or perlite)
a dusting of fertilizer booster blend (equal parts bonemeal, bloodmeal, & greensand)

I bought a bale of compressed peat moss at Wal-Mart, and big bag of vermiculite at Home Depot. Both are enough to last me for another 5-6 years of planting seasons. The compost and fertilizer blend I already had.

My compost is completely cooked, but still pretty coarse, so I had Aries run me a bin-ful through the chipper/shredder. Better, but still too coarse for little broccoli seeds. But once I sifted everything though a riddle, I had a wonderfully fluffy, fine-textured mix. It was easy to mix everything together with a trowel.

It's important to get the mix evenly damp before planting. The moss holds water well, but once it dries out, it's hard to get the moss re-hydrated again without disturbing the seeds. Wheeling it over to the faucet, I ran enough water into the wheelbarrow to make a soupy mess, and left it for a few minutes. When I came back, the moss had soaked up everything but there were still dry spots underneath. I kept adding water, stirring with a short-handled shovel, and waiting a bit, until everything was evenly damp.

Using compost, I probably won't have any pathogens or molds in this mix, but just to be on the safe side I solar-sterilized it. An old salvaged storm window was the perfect size to fit over the wheelbarrow. Weighting the glass down snug, with an old rug and a wadded-up feed bag tucked into the spaces top and bottom, I left the whole thing sitting in the sun all afternoon. Despite the somewhat cool temperatures today, the glass started steaming up almost immediately. This evening, I'll fill up my seed starter bin and bring it into the house so it doesn't freeze overnight. And tomorrow, I can plant my seeds!

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Planting Day for Cold-Tolerant Seeds

The earliest daffodils are blooming, and now today, the Shiro plum tree. A couple of blooms have opened on the apricot. Buds are swelling on the rest of the plums, and leaves just starting to show on the lilacs and the maple tree. It's starting to look like Spring!

Yesterday evening, I finished digging and shaping two of my garden beds, and laid out the soaker hoses. So today was early season planting day. The onion plants were still dormant, down in the cool cellar. It's a bit damp down there, and a few of the tops had a bit of fluffy, grey mold on the tips. So, using my kitchen shears, I clipped about half an inch from the top of each bunch. Once outside in the wind and the sun, they should be fine.

With six garden beds to play with now, I've had to do some figuring and planning of how I want to divide up my plantings, and how my rotation will work. One long bed will now be the Allium bed, with a couple of little bits for the earliest greens harvests interspersed. It gets a dual soaker hose setup. My softneck garlic, from bulbs harvested last July then planted last fall, is already up about four inches, and green tips of the shallots are just starting to poke up out of the ground. I had scattered some spinach and arugula seeds in a block between those two last fall. They germinated in January but then shriveled in the dry eight weeks that followed. Ah well, sometimes that works, and sometimes it doesn't. So today I seeded some more arugula (my seeds, harvested last summer) in half of that area and some Champion and Salad Red radishes in the other half.

On the other end of the bed, I set out one bunch of Copra onion plants, plus a mixed bunch of Red Zeppelin, Ringmaster, and Walla Walla plants. I dug a couple of bunches of baby leeks from my allium nursery bed, and set each one into a hole the depth of my trowel (taking the time to hand-dig the entire bed this past week makes it so easy to plant everything today). In the last little patch of that bed, I scattered some Bloomsdale Long-Standing spinach seeds, harvested from last year's plants.

The second long bed will be a Peas and Greens bed - also with dual soaker hoses. I made three pea trellises, pieces of wire fencing attached with twist ties to t-posts pounded into the center of the bed. Despite what they say on the seed packets, I don't think you can plant peas too thickly. I dig a 3" wide trench on either side of the trellis and then scatter in the seeds about half an inch apart. I planted Sugar Snap peas around one trellis, Lincoln English peas around another and, for the Chinese pea pods, Melting Sugar on one side and Oregon Sugar on the other. All the peas are heirloom open-pollinated varieties, so I can save seeds for future plantings.

I've found that planting lettuces on the outside edges of the pea plantings works well. As the weather gets warmer, the growing peas provide shade for the lettuces, and the shade from the lettuces keeps the pea roots cooler, prolonging the harvests of both crops. I planted Romaine, Four Seasons, Buttercrunch, and a Gourmet mix of lettuces (also all open-pollinated) on either side of the Snap and Chinese pea plantings. I'm going to start some Tuscan kale plants inside to set out alongside the English peas.

I seeded some Swiss Chard and the last of my Joi Choi seeds in one patch between two trellises. I need to order some more Joi Choi seeds. It's a hybrid but it's the only bok choi I've found that can take the heat of our high-desert summer without bolting, so worth searching out (I get it from Jung Seeds). The rest of that bed I left open for cauliflower, cabbage, and broccoli transplants.