Category Archives: Soil

The Wet and the Dry

By Peter Heffelfinger

June 29, 2020

 

The Wet

It certainly has been a wet month, with hard rains causing germination or mold problems. I am still waiting to see if my third planting of corn will sprout enough to fill in the bare soil in the rows from the first two disappointing seedings. As well, some of the 6-inch high onion plants developed mold around the bulbs and had to be discarded. But the peas soaked up all the rain and kept climbing up what seemed like an endless water spout.

Another sign of the high moisture level was the arrival of aphids, hiding in their usual beginning spot, deep inside the tender central growing tips of brassicas, in this case a bed of young Lacinato kale. An easy treatment is to spray the leaf cluster area with a light solution of detergent and water. The soap attacks the soft exoskeleton of the aphids that are sucking out the juices of the plant. Once aphids are present on a crop, keep a constant watch for their reappearance and keep spraying them at first sight. The soap solution does not affect the plant tissues, and is easily washed off, usually by the next garden watering. Check the site for several days to make sure there are no remaining aphids present, keep an eye out for any re-occurrence, and have the soap spray bottle at hand.

Aphids often spread to other plants, especially inside the top buds of Brussels sprouts. Check the long-standing plants often, carefully unfolding the tightly wrapped central growing cluster of leaves at the top of the stalk. Drench with the soapy solution if there are aphids hiding deep inside, and make sure to check the lower side-buds as well, once they start to form over the summer. In general, if the stems of any plant do get covered with aphids, discard the entire plant, in order to immediately to check the infestation. Aphids are endemic here, and will keep reappearing at intervals; but careful, organic pest management will control them.

There’s a good side to all the rain, though. The early broccoli crop has been abundant, the spring cabbages are already reaching full size, and the first small white crowns of cauliflower are forming. With our extended daylight hours of summer, cauliflower heads may start to sprout or discolor prematurely before getting full-sized. Lightly cover the central area of the plant by cracking, but not completely severing, the stems of a few of the outer cauliflower leaves and then folding them over the emerging heads. Complete the makeshift parasol by adding on top a few large, aged cabbage leaves. Keep the cauliflower heads in the dark. Wait for the head to grow to full size and pick while the curds are still tight. Fresh, homegrown cauliflower eaten straight from the garden is incredibly sweet compared to the commercial product that has been aging in transport.

A note on the garlic harvest. Some gardeners in the Dewey Beach area had to pull their already-mature garlic last week. For my crop out in the Valley, the last of the scapes have just been removed. Hopefully there will be a dry spell of our Mediterranean-style summer to properly mature the plants just before lifting in mid-July. For more information on when to harvest garlic, see the link below to the recent New York Times article on Filaree Garlic Farm, a commercial garlic seed grower in the Okanogan. Nice to know an extensive seed bank of the many types of garlic from all over the world exists on the dry side of our state. (Thanks to Jan Hersey for sending me the link.)

 https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/24/realestate/grow-garlic-garden-organic.html?smid=em-share

[ A subscription to the NY Times is required to read this article]

 

The Dry

Inside the hoop house, the main issue is watering, given the heat buildup that starts each morning as soon as the early sun hits the walls. I try to conserve water since I rely on an Artesian well that slows down in late August. Over the years I’ve tried various mulches, including black plastic and biodegradable paper mulch, to keep the soil moist, but I now prefer to leave the soil open to the warm air. I currently water using the half-gallon black plastic pots the tomato plants came in to make individual mini-cisterns half-buried next to the stems of each plant. The pots create an efficient deep-watering system.

For tomatoes, I cut the bottom off the thin-walled rectangular pots and drive the edges halfway down into a small, excavated area next to the plant and berm up soil around the outer sides of the pot. I fill the pots with a hose, letting the water seep down to the roots, with no leaks off the side of the raised mound. I do water the surface soil around the stem as well, but the pots supply the bulk of the irrigation.

For peppers, which don’t need quite the same volume of water, I use the thicker-walled cylindrical pots as is. The bottom drainage holes are buried 2-3 inches deep; the pot is located in between the plants, which are spaced 18” apart in the row. As with the tomatoes I water the soil surface around the stem of the plant a bit as well, to keep the surface moist, but most of the irrigation filters down to the roots. 

For both the tomatoes and peppers I let the cold well water warm up for a day in a 50-gallon barrel before applying it, via a gravity-fed hose, to what are originally tropical plants now being grown in a northern temperate zone. Keep their feet warm and wait for that first red tomato or full-sized pepper.

A Potato Problem; and a Perennial Brassica

By Peter Heffelfinger

Posted May 25, 2020
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I’ve grown potatoes successfully for many years, always making sure to rotate my plantings each year, and to avoid disease using new potato seed instead of the last of my stored potatoes. I try to get mostly egg-sized seed potatoes to plant whole, and cut any larger ones into separate pieces with at least 2-3 eyes. I dry the cut ones for a day, to let the cut surface dry out.

This year, however, whole sections of the rows never sprouted, particularly the favorite Yukon Golds, with failure also in parts of the Cal Whites and a few of the Red Lasodas. When unearthed, the affected seed potatoes were all rotted, with no sprouts, particularly the ones that had been cut. Was the problem in the seed itself or in the soil? Or did the cutting open them to fungi? The area had been in pole beans and winter squash last year, and corn the year before, so soil rotation should not have been a concern. Plus, I had grown potatoes there in prior years. Very disappointing, since potatoes are as an easy and usually reliable crop.

Although there would be plenty of time to replant, the supply of seed potatoes is long gone, given this year’s surge in gardening interest. When a garden setback occurs, the best thing is to fill the gap quickly. So I planted winter squash starts to cover the bare soil: Cinderella‘s Coach, Kabocha, and Sweetmeat. Hopefully the fact that winter squash and pumpkins had been planted in the same area last year will not be an issue. Plus, the plot had a winter cover crop of annual rye that had been tilled in. Gardens are always an experiment and often an exercise in overcoming adversity.

Note: if anyone else had problems with their seed potatoes this year, please let me know. As in past years, my seed came from the hardware store in town.

A Perennial Brassica

Many years ago I received a gift packet of seeds from a pair of pilgrims who had walked the Camino and then returned the next year to serve as hostel hosts on the Path. The seed was an extremely frost-resistant variety of Kale, with large flat leaves like collards, and commonly grown in gardens in Galicia, thriving in the rainy winter coastal climate similar to the Maritime Northwest. Most unusual for a brassica, it was a perennial, not dying back after going to seed the second season. Each year the plant gets larger and bushier, makes flowers for seed, and surrounds itself with multitudes of seedlings. Fittingly, the tall, thick stalks are fashioned by local craftsmen along the Camino into lightweight walking sticks for the pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostella. Holy Brassica.

Sadly, the couple who had originally brought me the seed have now both passed on. So, in their memory I maintained several of these everlasting Spanish kales, until finally the plants got too large and had to be removed to make space. But the original plants left behind a store of viable seed in the soil. Even after several years, I found numerous seedlings sprouting up where the parent plants had been. So, as a way of perpetuating the variety, I transplanted them this year into super-sized pots meant for small trees and installed them as mementos in my non-vegetable backyard, hoping they will survive the deer who graze there each evening. I look forward to seeing the large green leaves, as emblematic to me of the Camino as the mileposts there marked with the sign of the pilgrim’s scallop shell.

Note: the variety is officially known as Cabbage-Kale, and originated in the Isle of Jersey.

 

It All Starts with the Soil

TWIG (“This Week In the Garden”) posts will appear weekly, on Mondays, to help you know what to focus on for a successful growing season.

This Week in the Garden (TWIG #1)

April 20, 2020

It all starts with the soil

Peter Heffelfinger

If you are new to gardening this year it is important to remember that everything begins with your soil. While Fidalgo Island is blessed with a moderate climate for year-round vegetable production, there are challenges in finding a good garden site. 

The first few gardens I had here lacked any real layer of topsoil, the healthy, friable layer of dark dirt that is the basic need for growing a crop. Due to the Ice Age glaciers and various former river beds, we have layers of gravel and clay or concrete-like hard pan that can lie right under a layer of regular soil. In the worst scenario, one needs to build an enclosed raised bed filled with new topsoil. It is vital, though, that the hard sub-soil be loosened up first with a spading fork to provide good drainage. Soggy soil means poor growth, more pests, and eventually dried-out unbreakable clods. Note: do not invert the gritty subsoil to the top layer; keep it at the bottom, underneath the topsoil.

I rake up the available dirt into raised beds 6-8 inches high to warm up the soil in spring and to drain better in the winter. It is important to regularly add composted organic matter to keep the soil loose for aeration and good tilth. Note: compost alone does not supply large amounts of balanced nutrition to your plants. Amendments are needed, whether from well-rotted manure or organic commercial mixes. I use a combination of both. In addition, given that our native soil is acidic, a dusting of slow-acting dolomite lime (not fast-acting industrial lime that may burn your plants) is also required (except where you plant potatoes, which prefer acid beds).

Given that we are well into spring, I would concentrate on planting early, cool-weather crops, such as lettuces, radishes, and greens such as spinach and Bok Choy, which will readily go to seed in summer heat. Once the soil heats up in early to mid-May, it is time to plant beans, squash and other warm weather varieties. I hold off on corn until June 1st. For tomatoes, peppers and cukes I use a grow tunnel for added heat during our cool night mists that roll in off the Sound. We are in a maritime climate, even as our summers get warmer and drier.