ORGANIC VEGETABLE GARDENING

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ORGANIC VEGETABLE GARDENING

By James Sagmiller

The benefits of gardening organically are many.  First, food grown without dangerous pesticides and herbicides is safe for us and our children to eat.  Second, using organic methods protects our natural environment: soils are healthy, waters are protected from dangerous runoff, insects, birds, and water creatures are all unharmed by dangerous chemicals.  With organic methods, your soil becomes alive with organisms such as mycorrhizal fungi, which, through a symbiotic relationship with plant roots, increase a plant’s ability to uptake moisture and nutrients.  These fungi, along with beneficial soil bacteria, create an ideal, sustainable environment for crops—exactly the opposite of degraded soils exhausted through repeated use of chemical fertilizers. 

At first, planning to “go organic” might seem difficult, but I assure you the rewards are worth the time taken to learn easy ways of gardening organically.  Siting, fencing, and soil building are first steps.  Find a location for your garden that receives full sun, preferably one with wind protection.  If a site is windy, you can put lattice or privacy webbing on your fence to slow down the blast.  Shelter belt plantings of native trees and shrubs are excellent too.  Because deer are so prevalent nowadays, an 8-foot high fence is the best way to shield your garden.  Other methods are less effective.  I made my fence out of game fencing and 10-foot metal posts.  A 6-foot fence that hides what is on the other side will work also; if deer cannot see what is on the other side, they will not leap over.  Deer will eat anything if they are hungry enough! 

A soil test is very helpful before you begin your garden spot.  You can immediately see what nutrients you have in your soil and which ones you need to add more of.  It is also good to know the analysis of purchased soil amendments (marked with the letters N-P-K on fertilizer labels).   For high nitrogen contents (N on the label) choose blood meal, cottonseed meal, alfalfa meal, and composted manure.  Amendments with high phosphorous (P on the label) include fish bone meal and rock phosphate.  Potash (K on the label) is abundant in kelp meal, alfalfa meal and wood ashes.  Keep in mind wood ashes and bone meal become alkaline (higher pH) as they decompose, and cottonseed meal becomes more acidic (lower pH).  It is helpful to have a test kit and know your soil’s pH and NPK content.  Nitrogen promotes good green growth, phosphorous promotes flowering and fruiting, and potash encourages root growth and ripening of fruits and seeds.

To kill out grass and weeds for a new garden spot, use something safe that will shade the ground.  Some options are: landscape fabric with weights on it, newspaper covered with moist, heavy organic straw, or black plastic weighted down.  It takes a few weeks to kill out most plant material, but some perennial weeds will remain and seeds will sprout again.  If you are planning well ahead, you can immediately plant a soil-building cover crop to shade the soil until you plant vegetables.  If you need to start right away, till the soil, add organic amendments, plant your seeds and transplants, then mulch. 

When you plant seeds, choose organically certified seed if possible, especially for food plants.  Heirloom seed varieties, which are all open-pollinated, are excellent for organic gardening, because being generations-old, they are well-adapted to climates where they have been grown for a long time.  Heirlooms often ripen in succession rather than all at once, frequently are more nutritious, have exceptional taste, and seed can be saved from them to plant next year.  Another plus is that many heirloom varieties were developed to last well in storage—a valuable trait for local sustainability and for gardeners who want to be self-sufficient.

Mulching your garden is important to conserve moisture and provide for living soil organisms.  Landscape fabric, organic straw, compost, or composted grass clippings work well.  (Fresh grass clippings or other fresh greens will draw nitrogen out of the soil rather than add nitrogen.) 

Be sure to include a home for pollinators in or around your garden.  Native wildflowers are best; they will attract and foster native species of bees and other insects.  Another effective tactic is to release ladybugs, lacewings, praying mantises and other pest-eating bugs in your garden at proper times.  It is helpful to provide bird, bat houses and Mason bee houses.

Most gardeners new to organic gardening have anxiety about controlling pests and diseases.  Healthy, thriving plants, combined with preventative methods are the most effective ways to begin.  A diversity of crops will help confuse damaging insects (the scent of marigolds, for example confuses some pests).  Crop-rotation will prevent a host of pest and disease problems.  Plan your vegetable layout so that the same kind of plant is not grown in the same spot for at least 4 years.  Collars made from toilet paper rolls or plastic cups will deter cut worms.  Netting will prevent birds from eating strawberries.  Light insect fabric on row covers will protect all cole crops from cabbage loopers; and straw mulch around tomatoes will make a home for beetles, which will eat aphids off the tomatoes at night.  Garlic spray over your vegetables will confuse most damaging pests and prevent infestations if timed at monthly intervals.  Safe pesticides and fungicides, such as BT, horticultural oil, neem oil, insecticidal soap, pyrethrum, and diatomaceous earth are each effective for certain listed pests.  Always follow directions and precautions to the letter with any pesticides or herbicides. 

Take advantage of the latest technologies to assist your organic garden.  A few of these include: season-extending high or low tunnels, solar-powered heating and cooling, and frost-protection fabrics.  Using tunnels and row covers can improve yields significantly because you get a month to 6 weeks longer season of growing and harvesting!  Automatic solar vents for cold frames, greenhouses and high tunnels will save you labor and worry—especially in our volatile climate, with its ups and downs in temperature, alternating clouds and sunshine, and sudden winds that occur in a typical Montana spring.  Solar powered fans will kick on automatically when the temperature gets too high in a tunnel or greenhouse, and will not contribute to the overabundance of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere.  I wish you the best of luck and success in your organic gardening!

 

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HEIRLOOM VEGETABLE VARIETIES FOR WESTERN MONTANA

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HEIRLOOM VEGETABLE VARIETIES

FOR WESTERN MONTANA AND THE INTER-MOUNTAIN WEST

Below is a list of varieties of tried and true heirloom vegetables that have been around for at least 50 years, and do well in our Western Montana climate.  From my own experience, and the experience of other Montana gardeners, the kinds listed below have proven they are well-adapted.   Some of these antique seed strains are grown for seed in Montana.

All varieties listed are open-pollinated; meaning insects, birds or winds pollinate them.  Seed saved each year will produce vegetables of the same, original variety the next year.   None of the kinds listed are hybrids (human-pollinated) or GMO (genetically modified organisms).  Since no patents exist on these old strains you can legally save seed and grow the same kind year to year.   I want to stress that some kinds of vegetables need to be raised in isolation, so they will not cross-pollinate with other plants of their own species.  Maize (corn) is one example: it is recommended that corn be isolated by a mile or more from other varieties of corn to keep the strain pure, and a block of over 200 plants are needed to prevent inbreeding depression.   But most other vegetables have less complex requirements.  Some vegetables are biennial, meaning they produce seed in their second year; for example cabbage and carrots.  These will need special handling.  If you plan to save and grow your own seed, it might be a good idea to research the best methods to do so for each type of vegetable.  Some vegetables self-pollinate and are easy to save seed from; with these, you can be assured of getting the same variety by separating different kinds of the same species.  The following will produce seed of the same strain (and self-pollinate) when separated by only a few feet: beans, lettuce, peas, and tomatoes.   Two excellent books on seed-saving are: The Heirloom Gardener by Carolyn Jabs and The Complete Guide to Saving Seeds by Robert Gough and Cheryl Moore-Gough.   The second book was written by two professors at Montana State University in Bozeman.

Here are some locally-adapted heirloom vegetables:

Storage Onion ‘Southport White Globe’ (110 days):  An American heirloom, pre-Civil War onion originally from Connecticut.  This onion is a long-day onion, so seed needs to be started in early spring and planted out so it will begin bulbing in the summer long days.   The onion is globe-shaped with purplish-red colored skin and the flesh is white.  It has a mild flavor, is a good yielder and stores well.  There is a ‘Southport Red’ storage onion also, with the same good qualities.

Bunching Onion ‘Heshiko Evergreen’ (65 days):  An heirloom Japanese onion that can be sown in spring, or in fall for a crop the following spring.  It never makes bulbs, but grows into little clumps that can be divided into 6 or more plants in the fall.  I found this to be a very productive variety, flavorful and tough.  Use it as scallions, thinning as the season goes on.

‘Walking Onion’ (Tree Onion):  This is a very old European, or possibly Egyptian, perennial onion that forms small clusters of bulblets, or baby onions, on the tips of the leaf stalks.  These can be replanted for more onions.  The flavor is pungent and sweet.  The bulblets can be used for pickling if you have enough extra saved out for propagation.  Harvest the little bulblets in summer and replant some for next year.

Leek Giant of Musselburgh’ (105 days):  A tough, cold-hardy leek of large size, dating to the 1830s, from Scotland.  The stalks are very large, to 3 inches in diameter.  The flavor is mild, and the plants are reluctant to bolt.  Harvest can continue into November, or longer if cloched.   Another good cold-hardy leek is ‘Hannibal’ (95 days): not quite as old as ‘Giant of Musselburgh’, but very early-maturing, with a mild flavor.

Carrot ‘Red-Cored Chatenay’ also called ‘Red Chatenay’ (65 days):  This variety was introduced into America from France in 1929, and may be much older.  I have grown ‘Chatenay’ carrots since I was a boy; the flavor is sweet, the texture is dense and crunchy.  This variety does well in our thin, rocky soil as it has shorter roots and does not split as often as other kinds do.

Carrot ‘Parisienne’ also called ‘Parisian Market’ and ‘Tonda di Parigi’:  A very old orange carrot, from the 1880s or before, with small, round globe-shaped roots about the sizer of a ping-pong ball.  They are not as sweet as ‘Chatenay’, but are very early and do well in shallow, rocky soils.  The flavor is mild and pleasant.   ‘Nantes’ carrot, from the 1850s is another sweet, rather short, orange carrot that does well here.

Beet ‘Chioggia Candy Stripe’ (60 days): is a pre-1840s heirloom from Italy.  It was in the U.S.A. before 1865.  The roots have rings of red and white, like peppermint candy.  The flavor is mild and sweet.  The greens are excellent also.

Beet ‘Bull’s Blood’ (50-60 days):  This beet originated in the 1840s and has dark red foliage that is beautiful in the garden and colorful when used in salads.  The roots must be harvested small (2” to 3”) or they will become woody.

Chard ‘Red Ruby’ (55 days):  This chard dates to 1857 and is also called ‘Rhubarb Chard’.  The stems are a beautiful red, and the leaves have red veins.  The seeds should be planted in late spring—early June, to prevent bolting.  The beautiful leaves continue all summer into fall.

Spinach ‘Viroflay’ (47 days):  A tall plant with dark green, smooth, trowel or arrow-shaped leaves.  The flavor is mild, with low acidity.  ‘Viroflay’ dates to 1866, and is from France.  My plants produced a long time before bolting in very hot (over 100 degrees F.) weather.  A good fall crop will mature if you plant a second crop in July-August.

Cucumber ‘Lemon’ (65-70 days):  A good, juicy, early type of cucumber from the 1800s with a very mild flavor.  The fruit are round; best picked about the size of a small lemon or apple, and the plants are productive.  Immature green fruit can be harvested as well.  It does very well in cold seasons.  ‘Boothby’s Blond’ is another early yellow cucumber with mild flavor, though I found it to be not as productive as ‘Lemon’.

Cucumber ‘Straight Eight’ (62 days):  A smooth, straight heirloom cucumber growing to 8” long, mainly used for slicing.  The fruit appear early and the plants are vigorous and productive.  ‘Straight Eight’ is from the 1930s and won the All-American Selections award in 1935.

Summer Squash ‘Early Summer Crookneck’ (58 days):  An ancient, Native American variety with a rich, buttery flavor, a firm texture and pale yellow skin.  The best time to pick for fresh use is when the fruit are 4” to 5” long.  Squash left on the vine longer, then harvested and stored, will keep through fall into winter.  The plants are very productive and healthy.  This squash can be steamed, sautéed, baked or grilled.

Summer Squash ‘White Scallop’ (50 days):  Another ancient Native American squash that is very productive and healthy.  The fruit can be picked when very small, 2” or so and steamed or sautéed with other baby vegetables, or left to mature to about 3” and baked or fried.  There is a ‘Yellow Scallop’ summer squash, which is also ancient and only differs in color.

Winter Squash ‘Lakota’ (100 days):  A rare, ancient Native American variety grown by the Lakota Sioux along the Missouri and its tributaries.   ‘Lakota’ is a unique squash, with beautiful coloring, in red-orange and green stripes.  The fine-grained flesh has a sweet nutty flavor.  The Lakota used this squash for winter food.  It was cleaned, sliced in ½ inch thick pieces and dried in the sun.  The dried pieces keep well and were easily rehydrated in soups and stews.  This rare, old variety makes a wonderful crop for sustainable gardening and farming.

Pumpkin ‘Long Pie’ (100 days):  A very old pumpkin with an elongated shape, ‘Long Pie’ was first recorded in 1832 in Maine, but it may be a much older, Native American variety.  Illustrations of a very similar pumpkin brought from America are depicted in Gerard’s Herball of 1596.  This pumpkin is bright orange with sweet flesh and makes terrific pies.  It also will ripen in storage if picked while still showing some green.  This pumpkin is grown for seed right here in the Mission Valley.

Peas ‘Mammoth Melting Sugar’ Snap Pea (65-75 days):  A high-yielding heirloom variety with stringless pods 4” to 5” long.  If picked often, as long as the weather stays cool, the vines will produce longer than other varieties.   The pods are sweet and best picked before peas inside get too large.  I use them for fresh-eating, stir fry dishes, salads and for freezing.

Peas ‘Tom Thumb’ (50-55 days):  Introduced in 1854, this is a dwarf variety that needs no trellising.  It grows 8” to 9” tall.  Usually this pea was grown as a shelling pea, but the pods are sweet and tender and can be used as a snow pea if picked young.  This pea is very good early and late in the season as it prefers cool weather.  The variety was named after the Barnum & Bailey Circus performer Tom Thumb.

Beans ‘Blue Lake Bush’ Snap Bean (53 days):  The pods of this variety are 6” long, stringless and tender when cooked.  A relatively young heirloom (from 1961) ‘Blue Lake Bush’ has excellent flavor.  It is one of the most popular green beans.

Pole/Bush Beans ‘Arikara Yellow’ (80-85 days):  This is an ancient Native American variety from the Arikara Nation of the Dakotas.  It is a short pole bean or tall bush; kind of in between in height.  The beans are tan or creamy yellow and very productive; they can be used as snap beans or shelled and dried.  The plants are drought tolerant, a virtue common to many antique American vegetables.  This variety was described by Lewis and Clark in 1804 and was grown by Thomas Jefferson at his home in Virginia.

Tomato ‘Stupice’ (55 days):  Of all the 18 varieties of tomato I grew last year, ‘Stupice’ was the most productive.  It was the second earliest, following ‘Glacier’ another early, but rather acidic tomato.  ‘Stupice’ was much sweeter and more flavorful and kept coming on well all season.  This variety is an heirloom from the Czech republic, an area with rather short, cool summers just as we have.  The fruit are about 3 to 6 oz. on semi-determinate plants with disease-resistant potato-leaf foliage.

Tomato ‘Siletz’ (60-65 days):  Nearly old enough to be an heirloom, this tomato is a determinate slicing variety with larger fruit (10-12 oz.) than many early tomatoes.  The rich tomato flavor is excellent.  ‘Siletz’ was bred in Oregon by Dr. Jim Baggett of OSU for fruit-set in cool weather.  It has very few seeds, is very productive, very disease resistant and resists cracking.

Tomato ‘Black Krim’ (70-75 days):   A very old variety originally from the Ukraine.  The fruit are deep red, to black with a greenish flesh.  The flavor is very sweet; the tomatoes are juicy and large.  It has been found to be one of the most nutritious tomatoes.

Tomato ‘Cherokee Purple’ (80-85 days):  A tall Native American heirloom variety that is a long-season tomato for us.  Mine began to mature fruit before frosts and the flavor was great!  The fruit are big 13-14 oz. purple, flattened globes with green shoulders when ripe.  You will have to stake, or even better, cage this tomato.  It would be a good idea to get it in the ground as early as possible and have a tunnel or cloche ready carry it through a longer season, because it is definitely worth extra trouble.  You could also grow it in a large pot with a cage and move it inside if we get a cold snap.

Paste Tomato ‘Heinz 2653’ (68 days):  Another vegetable grown right here in Montana from seed, so you know it is well-adapted.  It is earlier than most paste tomatoes, and conveniently, the fruits all ripen about the same time, which is great if you want to can, make sauce or ketchup.   The plants are short and disease-resistant with firm, 3-4 oz. fruit.  This variety was developed years ago (1930s) by the Heinz ketchup company.

Eggplant ‘New York Improved’ (75 days):  The oldest surviving American Eggplant (before 1865) and an early variety (though not the earliest nowadays considering all the new varieties of eggplant).  ‘New York Improved’ has shiny, purple fruit; pear-shaped and medium sized.  It is good baked, as in eggplant parmesan, or fried.

Sweet Bell Pepper ‘California Wonder’ (65 days):  A popular variety all over the U.S.A., producing large, blocky peppers about 4” square.  They mature to deep green or red when ripe.   ‘California Wonder’ does well in our cool summers.  A good way to get lots of fruit is to plant larger plants, and pick off any flowers that appear before June 21, the summer solstice.  The plants will then continue to set blossoms all summer.  If allowed to set fruit before the solstice, the plants stop blooming and set the one crop of fruit rather than continuing to produce.  This applies to most types of peppers.

Hot Pepper ‘Early Jalapeno’ (65 days):  This variety and ‘Cayenne long Slim’ were the first peppers to ripen in my garden each season in the last few years, and both are very productive.  Both varieties are from the early 1800s or before.  ‘Early Jalapeno’ keeps on producing lots of fruit, also.  These peppers are both on the upper scale of heat, for most people, but about 2/3 up the chart to the hottest peppers, like ‘Habanero’.

Head Lettuce ‘Tom Thumb’ (47 days):  Dating to the 1850s, and named for the famous circus performer, ‘Tom Thumb’ head lettuce is the oldest American lettuce variety still in cultivation.  The heads mature to 6” or 7” and have a firm, crisp texture.  You can grow 4 plants in one square foot.   One head of this lettuce makes a perfect salad for one person; just like a fine dining experience!

Head Lettuce ‘Buttercrunch’ (50 days):  This is a Bibb-type lettuce that forms a loose rosette of leaves.  The variety is bolt and heat resistant, giving you a longer season to pick.  The flavor is buttery-rich and the texture is pleasantly crunchy.  It stays mild in flavor in hot weather longer than other lettuces.  ‘Buttercrunch’ is almost an heirloom, originating around 1960.

Broccoli ‘Calabrese’ (60 days):  This broccoli originated in Italy, where it has been known for a long time; it arrived in America in the 1880s.   The plants are dark green and produce 5” to 6” heads with many side shoots.  A great advantage of this variety is that side shoots will grow out after the main head is cut, so harvest continues.  This is a very good, insect-resistant variety of broccoli.

Kohlrabi ‘White Vienna’ (50-60 days):  Kohlrabi does well in our climate and is a delicious addition to salads.  ‘White Vienna’ is very old, originating before 1860 and the flavor is mild and tasty.

Cauliflower ‘Snowball’ also called ‘Erfurter’ and ‘Early Snowball’ (55 days):  A variety developed by Peter Henderson, an American market gardener, in the 1850s and ‘60s.  The plants yield early, with mild, flavorful 5” to 6” heads; somewhat self-blanching.  The plants are rather small compared to other Brassicas.

Cauliflower ‘Purple of Sicily’ (90 days):  An heirloom Italian variety from the 1800s or earlier, this cauliflower is very insect resistant.  It is quite cold-resistant as well.  The heads are bright purple, and cook to bright green—looking like broccoli, but tasting like cauliflower.  ‘Purple of Sicily’ is one of my favorite vegetables!

Cabbage ‘Golden Acre’ (65 days):  A good variety to plant for an early cabbage crop, ‘Golden Acre’ produces tender, dense, 5” to 7” heads.  Excellent used fresh, for cole slaw and stir fry dishes.   An old kind, from the 1920s.

Cabbage ‘Late Flat Dutch’ (100 days):  Sometimes this variety is listed as ‘Premium Late Flat Dutch’.  It has been grown since the 1860s and is becoming more difficult to find in seed catalogs.   The heads weigh 10 to 15 pounds and are wonderful for slaw and sauerkraut.  This is a very large, late-maturing cabbage that stores well.  Good storage is an important quality for self-sufficient and sustainable farming.  Many heirloom vegetables produce crops that store well; an important virtue in the days before refrigeration and mass-marketing.

Kale ‘Nero de Toscana’ (‘Dinosaur Kale’, ‘Black Magic’) (50 days):  Kale is quite nutritious and cold-hardy.  It is a very old variety, dating to the early 1800s.  The leaves are very dark green and loaded with nutrients.  The plants are insect-resistant, and are good fresh in salads, or added to stews, and soups.   Smaller, younger leaves are best for fresh use and the larger ones for cooking.

Sweet Corn ‘Golden Bantam’ (78-80 days):  An 8-row, golden yellow sweet corn from 1902, with ears that grow to about 6” long.  It was introduced by Burpee Co. and was one of the first yellow types to be commonly grown by American farmers, who grew mostly white sweet corn before 1900.   ‘Golden Bantam’ is still listed in the Burpee catalog, among numerous modern hybrids, which we cannot save seed from.  Since this variety is early-maturing and adapted to cooler conditions, it does well in Western Montana, often performing better than most hybrids!  An important factor is to pick ears young, in the milk stage for sweet corn, then a bit later for parched corn, and later for dry storage flour corn.

Popcorn ‘Tom Thumb’ (85 days):  Another dwarf, early vegetable variety from the 1850s.  The plants are about 3 Ft. tall and produce 3” to 4” ears.   The variety is well-adapted to cool summers, and this one is grown for seed right here in the Mission Valley.

 

 

 

SAVING SEEDS FROM YOUR GARDEN

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An excellent way to preserve a favorite vegetable variety is to harvest and save the seed from your own garden plants.  This can be done with all open-pollinated (non-hybrid) vegetables.  Hybrids are pollinated by humans for a specific resulting plant.  (Seeds saved from hybrids will not produce the same fruit or vegetable you grew.)  Many rare, open-pollinated heirloom vegetables and flowers have been saved and passed down for generations.  Some Native American kinds of squash, corn, beans and sunflowers have been passed down by various tribes for over a thousand years!  Several heirloom kinds of lettuce, peppers, pumpkins, squash, tomatoes and other vegetables still exist from Colonial and Victorian times.

Locally adapted varieties will be the most successful and productive.  You will need to save about 100 to 150 seeds of each cultivar you want to save.  Some easy vegetables to begin with are tomatoes, beans, peas, and lettuce, which are all self-pollinating and easier to keep true to type; they can also be cross-pollinated.  Other vegetables need to be cross-pollinated to produce seed and will cross with other nearby plants of the same genus or species.  Each variety needs to be isolated so it will remain true to type.

Isolation may be accomplished by distance; staggering maturity dates; by caging, or bagging.  For most vegetables 200 feet of distance is enough to retain genetic purity, but some, such as corn, need a mile or more.  Staggering maturity might be accomplished by planting two strains of corn, one maturing at 65 days and another at 80-85 days.  Pollination of the early variety will be finished by the time the later one is ready to pollinate.  Cages can be built and covered with row cover fabric to isolate radishes, beets, turnips, carrots, parsnips and onions.  A bait of honey spread upon a plate will attract bees into an uncovered cage.  When about 15 bees are present, cover the cage for an hour or two; release the bees before sunset. There are three species of squashes and pumpkins commonly grown so you must research this if you want to keep your strain pure.  Corn, squash and pumpkins can be hand-pollinated if bagged.

In the garden, give plants grown for seed more space to accommodate tall seed stalks.  Select the most healthy, robust plants to save seed from.  The fruit should be riper than that used for eating.  Usually fruit will turn yellow, soften and sometimes even begin to rot before seeds are mature.  Pea seed turns green or yellow; beets, beans and watermelon seeds darken; peppers and squash seeds are usually white, and corn seed (especially sweet corn) will dent and shrivel.

To process seed for storage, remove pulp, juice or flesh and dry the seeds on a fine screen because seeds will stick to paper or cloth.  A float test will show viable seeds.  Those that float will not grow.  Dry the seeds to about 10% moisture before storing away in glass jars with metal lids.  Glass jars are the best way to keep out humidity, which might cause your seeds to sprout and die in storage.  A cool, dry place is best for storage, or you may place the jars in the refrigerator.  Label your seeds carefully to keep good records.

SOIL PH FOR GROWING VEGETABLES

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Soil pH is a measure of acidity or alkalinity.  This measurement can range from a very low pH of 1.0 to an extremely high pH of 14.0.  7.0 is considered neutral and several vegetables will thrive in soil with a neutral pH.  Some vegetables do prefer a more acidic soil while others prefer a more alkaline soil.  Fortunately most will grow and produce well in a pH range of 5.5 to 7.5.   Areas with high rainfall, such as coastal Washington, tend to have acidic soils high in organic matter, while areas with lower rainfall, such as most of the mountain valleys in Montana, tend to have alkaline soils low in organic matter.  Here in the valleys of the Flathead region, where most of us garden, soils tend to be somewhat to highly alkaline.

Before you amend your existing soil to plant vegetables it is a good idea to test the pH.  An easy way is to purchase a test kit.  Most of them are easy to use and give fairly accurate readings.  Your county extension agent can do a soil test also.  Once you have determined your soil pH and which crops you intend to grow, you can amend your garden soil.  Adding lime will increase pH and make acidic soils more alkaline; adding sulfur will lower pH and make soils more acidic.  Organic matter usually helps reduce alkalinity.  Aged manure, pine needles, compost and coir dust are a few amendments that will help do this while they improve soil structure and encourage beneficial soil micro-organisms.  If your garden is divided into separate beds or raised beds, it is easier to adjust the soil in each bed for what you plan to grow.   I rotate my vegetable crops in a four-year rotation plan, so I try to keep a basic soil pH around 6.0 to 6.5.  This way I can grow almost every vegetable, but I slightly adjust pH each year before growing a particular plant.  For example, I add sulfur before growing potatoes.  Conversely, I add a small amount of lime before planting any of the Brassica family (Broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, etc.).   Having soil pH correct for each crop will reduce pest and disease problems as well as increase yields.

Here is a listing of pH tolerance ranges for specific vegetables.  (The optimum pH for each is usually the median between the two extremes.)  I have listed vegetables preferring more acidic soils first and those preferring more alkaline soils last:

Potatoes, 4.5-6.0; sweet potatoes, 5.6-6.5; horseradish and rhubarb, 5.5-6.8; butternut squash, carrots, corn, eggplant, lettuce, peanuts, peppers, pumpkins and watermelon, 5.5-7.0; cucumbers, garlic, winter squash, and tomatoes, 5.5-7.5;  celery, 5.9-6.9; soybeans and strawberries, 6.0-6.8; onions, radishes, shallots and spinach, 6.0-7.0; beets, any of the Brassica family, peas, summer squash, Swiss chard, and zucchini, 6.0-7.5; okra, 6.0-8.0.

 

GROWING HEIRLOOM TOMATOES

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Tomatoes are native to the Andes Mountain region, a region of varied climates.  The kind of tomatoes most frequently grown in our gardens are botanically classified as Lycopersicon esculentum.   Tomatoes are easy to grow in Western Montana if given the right conditions in the garden.  The site should be sunny and protected from wind, but with some airflow.  If grown in too close or crowded conditions tomatoes can succumb to disease.  Fortunately, in our area, the air is usually pretty dry, meaning humidity is usually low (when the sun is out).  Good soil is important.  I amend my existing soil with manure, bone meal or rock phosphate, alfalfa meal or wood ashes and greensand.  A good, dark compost will enrich your soil, feed the tomatoes and retain moisture.  If you prepare your soil well, as organic gardeners do, you will not have to feed them at all the rest of the season.  Tomatoes prefer even moisture; if given too little water they will produce fewer and smaller fruit.  If given too much water all at once, especially when the soil has dried out, the fruit often crack and split.  An even, slow watering is best, so the moisture goes deep into the soil.  Leaf roll, blossom-end rot and cracked fruit can be prevented by careful, even watering—aim for moist soil always, not wet or dry.

Tomatoes are naturally a vining plant, though they have been selected over the centuries to be shorter and bushier.  This is especially true of more recent seed strains.  Many of the oldest heirloom tomatoes are tall plants that require support in the form of a tomato cage or wooden frame, or a trellis.  One example of a tall heirloom tomato is ‘Purple Cherokee’, which grows over six feet tall!  It is important to keep the fruit of the ground and leave space around your plants.  This will help prevent disease.  It is best to water tomatoes in the morning and avoid wetting foliage in the evening.  This will reduce or prevent late blight (spots on leaves and fruit).  Other diseases include: powdery mildew, verticillium wilt, and fusarium wilt.   If you suspect disease, your county extension agent or other specialist can help you diagnose these problems and recommend remedies.  This is important in our region, to protect our potato industry.  Potatoes are related to tomatoes and subject to many of the same diseases.  Sulfur and copper fungicides are two available OMRI listed, certified organic disease controls.

Deer are a primary pest in our gardens; gophers and voles are quite damaging, too.  A tall (seven foot) fence helps prevent deer, and hardware cloth under a raised bed is a good way to prevent gophers and voles.

One more issue to watch is proper pollination of your tomatoes.  Fruit will not set well if daily high temperatures do not reach 55 degrees; conversely, fruit will not set if temperatures are over 100 degrees.  Historically, we have had troubles setting fruit with our cold days and nights, but nowadays with warming temperatures, the daily high temperatures might become an issue.

Here is a list of some wonderful open-pollinated heirloom tomatoes that do not have too late a season for Western Montana:

‘Glacier’ (55 days) is a dwarf, bushy variety with potato-like leaves.  The fruit are 2” to 3” and red to orange.  ‘Glacier’ produces well in cool climates and has excellent flavor for an early tomato.  No pruning or staking is needed for this variety.

‘Bison’ (65 days) was developed in North Dakota in 1937.  It is another dwarf variety that sets 3” deep red tomatoes even in cool weather.  ‘Bison’ can produce as much as 40 pounds of tomatoes from one plant.  This variety requires no staking or pruning.

‘Persimmon’ is an orange, persimmon-colored tomato that originated in Massachusetts in the mid-1800s.  It is rare today and reasonably early, (75 to 80 days).  The flavor is very good, low-acid; the fruit reaches about one pound.  This is a great tomato for salsa!

‘Large Red’ (80 days) is one of the oldest and rarest tomatoes.  It originated in Massachusetts, in the 1820s, and was grown by the Shakers.  Pioneers brought is west on the Oregon Trail.  It is a tall plant with convoluted red fruit resembling the pumpkin that became Cinderella’s coach.  12 oz. fruit is common, as it is a beefsteak-type.  ‘Large Red’ has a sweet and rich flavor.

‘White Shah’ (80 days) is an heirloom from the 1880s; a very mild, flavorful, white tomato.  The fruit are quite large, 8-12 ounces, and the plants have potato-like leaves.  ‘White Shah’ was the healthiest tomato I grew last year, and one of the best for flavor.

‘Pink Brandywine’ (80 days) is another tall plant, potato-leaved, with delicious, pink fruit.  It is the most popular heirloom for flavor, though the plants are more disease-prone than most tomatoes.  Good culture should prevent or minimize these problems.  ‘Pink Brandywine’ is one of the best for tomato sauce.

‘Cherokee Purple’ (80 days) originated with the Cherokee people and was brought west to Oklahoma on the Trail of Tears.  The plant is very tall—six to seven feet!  Staking and/or caging is necessary.  The fruit are large, flavor is among the very best, and fruit sets fairly early.  Prepare your soil well, as this variety is not usually as productive as some.

 

April Gardening Calendar

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April is another busy month for gardeners; usually a month characterized by ups and downs in temperature.  Keep watch for frosts; protect cold frames with mats if frosts are imminent, and admit air daily as weather permits.  Finish pruning fruit trees if not done, plant grapes; fertilize and prune blackberries.  Check your fruit trees and roses for pests as soon as they bud and leaf out and set out apple pest traps two weeks before bud break.  Weed and amend all your beds now while it is cool and moist.

Finish planting fruit trees, shrubs, roses, and perennials.  This month is a good time to direct sow (where they are to flower)seeds of several flowers: sweet alyssum, cornflowers, carnations, pinks, poppies, stocks, rose campion, Lychnis, columbines, valerian, honesty, foxglove, snapdragons, mignonette, larkspur, kiss-me-by-the-garden-gate and four-o’clocks.  Perennials still may be divided if weather has not become too warm.  Violets can be divided after blooming and cuttings taken of pansies.  Make cuttings of chrysanthemums, gauras, Helianthus, lupines, Lychnis, Liatris, knautias, saponarias, scutellarias and veronicas.  Dahlias and tigridias may be started inside in cold climates and planted out later after frosts are over, or planted outside if the soil temperature is above 60 degrees F.

Several vegetables can be direct sown if weather permits and it is not too cold: beets, arugula, carrots, caraway, celery, chervil, chives, cilantro, dill, fennel, collards, mache, fava beans, cress, kale, Jerusalem artichokes, kohlrabi, leeks, lettuce, mustard greens, rhubarb, turnip greens, onions, pasley, parsnips, peas, potatoes, radishes, salsify, scallions, spinach and Swiss chard.  Sunflowers and tomatillos can be sown two weeks before the last expected frost.

Corn may be sown after April 15th in cool maritime northwest climates, or a week or two later in the inland and mountain areas.  Usually corn is sown about 10 days to two weeks before the last frost.  Native Americans of the Hidatsa tribe living in the Dakotas planted sunflowers first, then corn, and after frosts followed with beans and finally, squash.  Sunflowers were grown by themselves in a field, but corn, beans and squash were grown together; with corn in hills of 6-8 and beans and squash vining through.

Vegetables started last month indoors may be planted out this month: the brassicas, parsley, Asian greens, rhubarb and tomatoes; once frosts are over.

Prune established roses before bud break and seal the cuts with water-based glue or wood glue.  This prevents drilling wasps from injuring the canes.  Fertilize organically with Epsom salts, manure or compost, bone meal or rock phosphate, alfalfa meal and seaweed or wood ashes.

A few things maybe grafted now: grapes, hollies, pears, maples, pines and clematis.  Layers can be made of Cotoneaster, Cotinus, Hydrangea, Lavandula, Lonicera and Parthenocissus. 

Enjoy spring!

Starting Seeds Indoors

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Many of us get a good feeling from planting seeds and watching them grow when outside it is still dark and cold.  But inside, we are planning for spring planting.  We can start the varieties we want—perhaps a favorite is not available locally as a transplant or as seed; we can raise it ourselves from seed!

Most everyone I know has good luck starting seeds in a sterilized seedling mix.  It may be difficult to find an organic seedling mix; and it must be sterile or seedlings might dampen off from fungi present in the air and abundant in unpasteurized soil mixes.  A mix I make is soil free: 6 parts sterile (pasteurized)peat moss + 3 parts fine perlite + 1 part washed coarse sand.  If you are unsure if your mixture is sterile or not the mix may be heated in an oven at 160 degrees for one hour.  Do not allow the mix to heat above 180 degrees.  A mixture including compost would need to be sterilized by heating to use for seedlings.

Several types of containers might be used to start your seedlings.  In the first picture above, I used a milk carton cut laterally, providing two useful containers.  Shown are pepper seedlings.  Peat pots work well for plants that are difficult to transplant, because they minimize transplant shock and biodegrade into the soil.  Be sure to keep them quite moist once planted, because if the peat pots become too dry, roots will not penetrate the container.  Some plants that benefit from being raised in peat pots and are difficult to transplant are: portulaca, nasturtiums, sunflowers, poppies, eggplant, squash, cucumbers, melons and pumpkins.  Peat pellets also work, but they sometimes are so hard that roots have difficulty growing in them.

Timing is another important factor in raising seedlings.  Your transplants should be big enough to mature and produce in your season, but not too big, or they will not take off well and will take up a lot of room in the house.  Here is a basic seed planting guide, categorized month-by-month, of which seeds to plant at what time for success in northern climates of 100 to 170 days.  (Adjust timings to your local climate):

In January plant impatiens, begonias, geraniums and salvias.  Late January or early February is a good time to start eggplant, peppers, onions, petunias and pansies.  March is probably the best month to start cole crops (brassica family).  April is a good time to start tomatoes and balsam; late April or early May for pumpkins, squash, melons, cucumbers, and nasturtiums.

Florescent grow lights with an adjustable chain are a great help in starting nice seedlings; the lights can be lowered with the chain to keep the newly emerged seedlings in bright light.  This will prevent your plants from getting “leggy”.   Temperatures vary for germination: cole crops about 65 degrees, onions about 70, tomatoes about 75 and eggplant, peppers, squash, melons, cucumbers and nasturtiums about 80 degrees.

Make sure your seedling mix is not too wet.  Some seeds like to germinate on the dry side, such as tomatoes and peppers.  I cover my newly-planted seeds with plastic wrap, but check them twice daily for moisture and rotate them if necessary.  Once the seeds are just up, I loosen the wrap (a little more each day) to harden the babies off to the air.  Grow your plants on in cooler conditions than you germinated them and they will grow stockier.  A cold frame is just about the best place you can put them if it is not too cold outside.  In a south-facing cold frame the soil will remain warm at night, and daytime venting will give the plants fresh air.  Keep shade cloth handy if it tends to get too hot during the day in your area.  This is a common occurrence in dry, sunny climates with warm days and frosty nights.  The second picture above shows newly transplanted seedlings in a cold frame vented for the day.  A cold frame will harden-off your plants before planting out.  Don’t forget to place open-ended containers around plants as you place them in the garden to deter cutworms.  Good luck!

Growing Asparagus

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Asparagus (Asparagus officionalis) is a popular vegetable today and was quite popular in the nineteenth century.  The photograph above is of an antique variety, ‘Giant Asparagus’ an engraving from The Illustrated London News, dated 1851.  An asparagus knife is shown alongside the plant.  This year, I grew another old variety of asparagus from seed, ‘Connover’s Collosal’, dating to the second half of the nineteenth century.   It is difficult to find plants of heirloom varieties of asparagus, so one has to start them from seed.  However, the process is slow, as the plants take three to four years to reach the size for harvesting.  (If too many shoots are cut from very young plants, productivity may be reduced, or the plants may die.  But if the plants are allowed to become established, an asparagus bed will last twenty years or more, even up to fifty years!)

Late March into early April is an excellent time to start asparagus from seed.  Use a sterile medium, cover the seed about 1/4 inch deep and place the pots in a warm location (77 degrees is optimum).  The seeds should come up in about ten days.  You may direct seed into a bed if soil temperatures are above 50 degrees, it will just take a little longer for the seeds to germinate.  Asparagus plants begin to grow slowly and will not be ready to transplant out for about three or four months.  Meanwhile you can prepare a bed for them.  An ideal spot is in full sun with a bed large enough to accommodate the number of plants you need.  It is usually recommended to plant five to six plants per person.  Since the plants are perennial (USDA climate zones 4-9) they benefit from a well-prepared bed.  Peter Henderson, in his book Gardening for Profit published in 1867, recommended planting transplants nine inches apart in rows three feet wide for commercial growers, or two feet wide for home gardeners.

Once you have established how many plants you need, you can make the planting bed.  Henderson recommended trenching the bed two to three feet deep with about three inches of rotted manure mixed into the soil.  A deep sandy loam is best for them as they are native to alluvial soils.  Bernard Mc Mahon, in Mc Mahon’s American Gardener, published in 1857, recommended double digging two spades deep and placing several inches of rotted manure in the trench, then spreading another layer of rotted manure over the surface.  He directed gardeners to mix this second layer of manure with the soil to a depth of eight to ten inches.  My young plants, now a year old, have spears a little larger in diameter than a toothpick.  The young plants may be grown in a temporary (sunny) rich bed for another year, then moved to their permanent location.  Place the crowns of the plants two inches below the soil surface.  Keep the beds weeded to ensure quick, even growth.  Mc Mahon recommends three years from planting (which would be four years from sowing seed) before cutting can begin.  Dress the bed every spring with rotted manure, bone meal and wood ashes.

If your family really enjoys asparagus, plant more than five plants per person; I plant twelve per person.  If you plant two-year transplants, spread the roots out like the spokes of a wheel and cover with about one inch of prepared soil.  Water well.  As the plants grow, cover them with more soil until you have them two inches under.  Do not use fresh manure as it will burn them and (heaven forbid) do not use chemical fertilizers, especially on newly planted asparagus.  Wait two years to begin cutting.  A summer mulch of three inches of straw is excellent, will protect the plants in winter and the spears will come up earlier in the spring if the ground is not frozen too deeply.

When you cut asparagus spears get them into the refrigerator right away or cook them immediately because they lose flavor as quickly as sweet corn does.   Considering how expensive asparagus is, I find the start up work well worth while.  Enjoy!

Designing A Garden For Heirloom Plants

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Winter is an excellent time for gardeners to plan garden designs as there is minimal activity outside this time of year, epecially in northern climates.  As soon as soil can be worked you can begin executing your project.  In southern and low desert climates it is also a good time to plan your garden and build it because the cool temperatures make it easier to do heavy physical labor.

This last year I designed and built a garden in Early American style to hold my collection of antique roses, fruits, flowers and vegetables.  I had several goals: create a design based on historic models; maximize use of space and efficiency; minimize maintenance labor; use local materials, protect plants from predation and create the best growing conditions possible.  The first picture above depicts an American garden design plan from the late eighteenth century.  The original drawing is archived at the Essex Institute in Salem, MA.  My photo is taken from British and American Gardens of the Eighteenth Century, edited by Robert P. Maccubin and Peter Martin; The Colonial Williamsburg Press, 1984.  This style of design and use of space has its roots in Medieval gardens of Europe.  The plan is formal; beds are edged by timbers, are often raised or slightly raised and mud-free (and/or weed-free) paths separate beds.  This formal style is quite convenient to tend: crops can be separated and rotated; soil pH, texture and drainage can be adjusted from bed to bed, and some beds can be high water-use, while others may be medium or low water-use.  I find it convenient to place high water-use beds nearest the house and low water-use beds farthest away.

The second photo above is of my garden design for my garden in Corvallis, Oregon.  I measured the entire site, then made the drawing to scale on graph paper.  I used cut-out pieces of colored paper for structures such as the greenhouse, cold frames and porches.  I made labeled pieces of graph paper to indicate trees and shrubs.  The cut-out pieces can be moved around over the drawing until you determine where you want everything to go.  Shade is an issue in this garden, so sun-loving and shade tolerant plants were placed accordingly.

When the design was finished, trees and shrubs that cast heavy shade were removed or moved to new location; materials and workmen were sourced.  Tree and shrub roots were ground and removed.  Soil leveling was undertaken, then fences were built.  We tilled the soil, as seen in the third photo above, then raked the grass and roots into piles approximating the location of beds.  We had such a hot summer that the grass roots quickly died.  They provided immediate organic material for the soil.

We measured and drew out my design with spray paint and began to build our boxed beds.  I used 2′ x 12′ cedar lumber anchored in place with metal spikes set in concrete.  The fourth photo shows bed construction in the back yard garden.  Trenches 6 inches deep were dug to lay the timbers into.  Now we had beds raised six inches above the original soil level and 4 inches above planned level of the gravel.  This enabled us to use the native soil and amend it with 4 to 5 inches of compost, manure, greensand, wood ashes, alfalfa meal and bone meal (See the fifth photo above of the front garden).

After soil preparation, planting could begin.  The sixth photo above is a shot of the back garden two weeks after planting.  Vegetables grew quickly in the wonderful, organically amended soil.  The front garden was finished and planted a few weeks later (the seventh photo above).  The front beds were planned for bulbs, perennials and shrubs that use little or no additional water in our climate.  I do have to water the rose bed bordering the fence; watering deeply but infrequently once the roses are established.

The last photo shows one of the large 3′ x 3′ wooden tubs newly planted with ‘Blue-Podded Blauwschokker’ peas, which date to the sixteenth century.

The entire construction project took six months, from design to planting.  For a labor force we had two people working part time and one person working full time.  The garden is planted with heirloom plants dating from the ancient Greco-Roman period through the Oregon Trail Era (1830-1869).  Also included are a few more recent varieties, dating before and up to 1925, when the house was built.

 

IMPROVING YOUR SOIL

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The quality of your garden soil is an important consideration in growing heirloom fruits, vegetables and flowers as soils come in a wide variety of textures and materials.  Soil texture describes the size of the mineral particles in your soil.  Soil particles in order of size, from smallest to largest, are: clay, silt, fine sand, medium sand and coarse sand.  The ideal garden soil (for most plants) is a loam soil, which carries particles of clay, silt and sand, plus organic matter.

Soil structure refers to the way soil particles bind together to form clumps.  In soils with good structure the spaces between particles are large enough to ensure good drainage but do not dry too quickly.  The best garden soil, loam soil, drains fast enough for root health but retains enough moisture for continued satisfactory growth.  Adding amendments to soils will improve its structure and provide food for beneficial microbes.

Another consideration to address before you add amendments to the soil is to test the pH— the measure of acidity to alkalinity in your native soil.  A pH of 7 is considered neutral and many plants are adapted to this condition.  A pH above 7 is considered alkaline while a pH below 7 is considered acid.  A pH test can serve as a guide to which plants you might be able to grow with ease and others that might be more difficult.  It is easier to make soils more alkaline, but difficult to acidify them.  Even though you may add sulfur or aluminum to your soil to acidify it, the subsoils beneath will remain alkaline and eventually the alkalinity will return, especially if your water is alkaline.  This makes it difficult to grow plants such as camellias, rhododendrons and azaleas (which prefer acid soil) in regions with alkaline soil and water.  Adding lime or crushed shells to acid soils will increase soil alkalinity.

One consideration in growing heirloom plants is to research soil amendment ingredients and practices used in the 19th century, as most of the plants still in existence from that era and before were selected under those soil conditions.  I am an organic gardener using these time-tested methods and believe that building your soil is crucial to long term success.  By amending your soil with such things as greensand, sulfur, bone meal, kelp meal and manure, you will enrich it and create a productive environment for soil bacteria.  You can choose from composted cow, hog or horse manure, alfalfa meal, cottonseed meal and guano or chicken manure to add significant nitrogen to your garden soil.  These all contain small levels of potassium and potash.  Bone meal, hoof and horn meal are excellent sources of potassium.  Kelp meal, wood ashes and greensand are significant sources of potash.  Greensand also contains many trace minerals.  Keep in mind that bone meal is somewhat alkaline and wood ashes are quite alkaline.  Home made compost is always valuable and usually contains a fair amount of nitrogen with smaller mount of potassium, potash and trace minerals.  Another option to improve soil is to plant cover crops and till them under.  Clover, rye, lentils, field peas, vetch and buckwheat are some examples.

This is the time of year to plan for improving your soil.  As soon as the ground thaws you can test the pH and as soon as soil becomes workable (not too wet to dig) you can add amendments.  It is important to learn as much as you can about what type of soil each plant you plan to grow prefers, for long term success.  For example, brassicas (cole crops like cabbage) have fewer pest problems and greater production in slightly alkaline soils.