Friday, March 29, 2013

The Soil Whisperer?

My BFF (yes, at 50 I am allowed to have a BFF) called me The Soil Whisperer the other day.  I giggled at that and changed my middle name on facebook.  It was a hoot.

Today, after work, I was sitting in my rickety gardening chair in the backyard mixing peat moss and top soil in my trusty garden cart.  As I was running my fingers through the mixture of soil and moss, I caught myself saying something like, "I always forget how wonderful you smell, peat," under my breath.

My God.

She's right.

I should back up a bit and point out that another dear friend called me 'Amender of Soil' last week which had also warranted a giggle and a name change on facebook.  But, the difference is I already knew that was true.  I had no clue about the whispering business.

Honestly.  I didn't.  Life is funny, sometimes.  More often than not, my BFF points it out to me with one flappity hand.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Jumping the Gun?

This is what I'm dreaming of.
When I start the early planting every year, I almost always feel like I'm jumping the gun and planting too soon.  This year is no exception. 

In my neck of the woods, early gardening is traditionally started on or about St. Patrick's Day.  Every year, I do many google searches looking for just the right time to start planting.  Every year, I plan for a certain date to start.  It always winds up being somewhere around March 17.  So far I haven't had any problems or any casualties due to cold weather snaps that I can remember.  That may be due to Winter Gardener's Amnesia but it's more likely because I only plant what I consider to be the 'safe' seeds or bulbs that not only tolerate cold conditions, but actually thrive in them.  This is what I've planted so far:

  1. Sugar snap peas.  Pretty much my entire garden plan starts with where to put the sugar snaps.  Last year I got them in much later than I wanted to due to a late start building my raised beds.  But, I still had a pretty good crop.  This year, I'm a full month earlier and according to my county extension office, that should be fine.  I have another packet of seed ready just in case. If the first planting does well, I will try for a fall crop of peas.
  2. Spinach 'Bloomsdale Longstanding.'  My GOD how I love a spinach salad.  It's only made better by eating spinach I grew myself.  A little olive oil, some red wine vinegar and a sprinkle of bacon bits on a big bed of fresh baby spinach makes my favorite salad.
  3. 'French Breakfast' radishes.  Radishes are a 'maybe' crop for me.  If they turn out too hot, I can't eat them.  But I read this year that if breakfast radishes are grown in cool weather, they are much sweeter.  So I put them in my first round planting line-up.
  4. Red, white and yellow onions.  I have no idea what the varieties are for these.  They are the generic onion sets from my local, big box garden center.  I rarely buy a specific cultivar of onion sets since these generic varieties always do well enough to give us more onions than we can possibly use up fresh however small they might be.  I've read that onions are heavy feeders so I'll be fertilizing them more this year to see if that helps them grow bigger.
  5. Shallots.  I sort of got these on a whim.  I grew them once before a long time ago and I just don't remember how they did.  This is another experimental crop for this year.
  6. Garlic!  I've NEVER grown garlic before.  I got a pack of 4 bulbs and followed the directions on the package.  I wound up with 48 cloves.  If I get half that many bulbs, it will be way too much.  I found this interesting fact sheet from the UNL Extension office.  They'll get a dose of fertilizer the same time as the onions do.  It seems that garlic will do better if it is planted in October.  Funny thing is I've never seen garlic bulbs for sale in a garden center in the fall with the tulips and daffodils.  Odd.
So that's where I am.  The next thing is potato planting on or about Good Friday.  There are rumors of snow squalls in the next two weeks.  I don't care if it snows or not.  It's spring.  I can tell by the dirt under my fingernails.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Plan of Attack: Growing Squashes and Smiting the Squash Vine Borer (Updated!)

All my talk of luffa gourds last night has me thinking about growing squashes this year.  I have a longstanding love for squash of all kinds so there is never really a question of whether or not I'm actually going to grow squash.  The question is more often which types and how much.

Last year was a bust.  The squash vine borers got every last one of my squash plants and my replacement seeds did not do well in the severe drought even with extra coddling and care.  That's why there are so few pictures to accompany this blog post.

First wave of dying squash vines and their soon to be dead replacements.

It was, in a word, disappointing.  But this year will be different.  I have a plan. <insert hand wringing and maniacal laughter here>

Over the last few weeks, I've done some online research about squashes and the pests that love them. I Googled squash vine borer and got over 94,000 results.  That should give some indication of the severity of the problem this little clear-wing, day-flying moth causes every year.

But, as I said, I have a plan.  I have more than one plan, actually.  First and foremost, I plan to grow some varieties that have a natural immunity to the borers.  I've read conflicting information about genetic resistance. I understand that Butternuts are the first choice for resistant varieties. For summer squashes planting the non-bush types should help. I found this information sheet on the topic in one of my many searches.  Also, this forum thread was very interesting.

Before I start, let me just say that I am determined to make this work.  I plan to make this as difficult as possible for the borers.  If I have to plant in containers using fresh, sterilized soil every year then so be it.  Based on the information gleaned here are my plans:

1. The first plan involves a yet-to-be constructed cover that I plan to put over my squash seeds from day one immediately following planting.  The goal is to keep the borers from having any access at all to the plants until after the egg-laying portion of the annual cycle is over and done with.  From what I've read, putting a floating row cover over top of your squash plants until the female flowers appear is one way to keep the borers at bay.  If you're just not sure they're gone yet, you can even hand-pollinate the flowers  until you're sure the coast is clear.  I have an idea on how to make the covers sturdy enough to keep out the moths and big enough to allow the vines to grow undisturbed. I may do a tutorial on the construction process.  I have more than one design in mind.  I think this should work pretty effectively unless there are borer moths waiting in the soil where the squashes are planted.  As further insurance, I plan to spray regularly with insecticidal soap.  If these efforts should prove futile:

2. Two words: diatomaceous earth.  Another article I found described how one gardener put a heap of diatomaceous earth around the base of all of his squash plants.  Diatomaceous earth works to kill grubs, worms and other soft-bodied critters by being sharp enough to cut through their skin causing them to dehydrate and die. So as the eggs hatch and the grubs emerge, they crawl through the stuff and thus seal their own fates.  It is totally natural and non-poisonous although I'm told you don't want to inhale the stuff and get it down into your lungs.  That sounds icky.  Yes, it's a technical term.

3. Bacillus thuringiensis, a.k.a. Bt, is a bacterium commonly used as a pesticide.  It produces a crystal protein that affects the digestive tract of insects and causes them to die.  Unfortunately, it is not specific to grubs or worms so it takes a bit more work to protect beneficial species than just spraying it on the plant.  Another article I read suggested that a solution containing Bt should be injected into the affected plants to target and kill the grub that is destroying the squash vine.  I see this as a second to last resort in my squash vine borer arsenal.  But I'm not above it.  I'm not, I tell you.

4. I've read some good things about Montery Spinosad Organic Garden Insect Spray.  It's supposed to be very good at killing things like grubs, beetles and weevils but not harming beneficial insects like bees. (update 28 June 2013:  I have since learned that this is not the case.  It says right on the label not to spray on or near flowering plants as the bees will be killed.  Bummer.) I have not personally used this product. But if worse comes to worst, I will try it by spraying on the base of the plant near the ground.  One article suggested that this could also be injected into the stem of the vine to target and kill the grub within.  Another article touted its curative abilities in the squash bug arena. 

5. If none of those things works this year, then I guess I'll just have to buy from someone who had better luck than I did.  Last fall I ran across a guy at the farmer's market with a 16-foot trailer LOADED with butternut squashes. He said he had over a ton of squashes on the trailer and he had that many more waiting at home. He was selling them for $1 apiece and I felt like I was robbing him since the squashes in the store were almost twice that much per pound.  But he practically begged me to take them.  So I did.

Does all of this seem a little too much for some squashes?  Perhaps it is.  But at this point, it's the principle of the thing.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Tips for Growing Luffa Gourds

The smaller one is 10 inches long.
Recently, a friend told me that she had picked up a packet of luffa seeds to grow this summer.  After having spent last summer struggling with my own luffa plants, I decided to do some more investigating about their cultivation.

Here is what I learned:

Luffas are in the same genus as squashes, namely, Curcurbita which also includes cucumbers and melons.

Luffas require a very long growing season.  Some sources cite as much as 150 to 200 days for some varieties. However, there are some that are ready in as little as 120 days under optimal growing conditions.

Luffas are edible as any other squash would be up until they get to be about 8 or 9 inches long.  Cook and eat as you would zucchini.

Luffas are vigorous growers and will climb just about any support.

Female Luffa Flower
While all of that is very interesting, here is what I learned last year on my own:
Luffas are divas.  If the conditions are not just exactly right, then they won't germinate, grow, flower, produce fruit or anything.  The seeds I planted last year in early May that finally lead to the flowers and fruits you see on this page took about six weeks to germinate and begin to grow.  I despaired of ever having any vines, much less flowers and fruits.

The soil temperature must be 70 F or greater or they just don't do a thing other than pump out stem and leaves.  It was nearly August before I had a viable female flower.  Yes, like other members of this family, the pollen is produced by one flower type and the ovary by the other.

Male luffa flowers on top, Tennessee Spinner gourds underneath.

The vines will be SWARMING with insects.  Mostly small, red ants who, it turns out, do most of the pollinating.  But mason bees, paper wasps, yellow jackets, honey bees, bumble bees and just about every kind of fly will be all over the flowers or, at least, where the flowers ought to be.  The ants are attracted to a sticky sap that oozes from the base of the leaf petioles.  The wasps are particularly attracted to the very young fruits.  No clue why that is so. Just be careful if you decide to examine your luffas on a sunny, summer afternoon.

Once your vine finally begins to set fruit, you will see numerous flowers and fruits pretty much all at once.  With any luck, you will have at least 50 days left in your growing season for the fruits to mature before frost kills the vines.

Luffas smell.  Some don't mind the smell, but I find it off-putting.  It will get on your hands like tomato vine smell does. Fortunately, it washes off a lot easier.

Luffas are indeed vigorous growers.  Given the chance, they will climb just about any suitable surface and BLOT OUT THE SUN.

After the first killing frost, pick all the gourds on the vines, except the most recent, and take them inside to dry.  In my case, about half of what I harvested was actually ready to be made into sponges.

The gourds are ready when the skin has dried and darkened and the gourds are very lightweight for their size. If you shake the gourds, you should hear the seeds rattling inside. Mine took about four weeks in the dry, forced-air heat of my laundry room to dry out. 

It's a fairly straighforward process to remove the husk and rinse the sponge until the water runs clear.  It is somewhat less simple to remove the numerous seeds inside the gourd.  I got out what I could by firmly smacking the gourd on the inside of a 5-gallon bucket.  There are still lots of seeds in my sponges and they don't seem to hurt anything.

In order to save yourself a lot of tense waiting and potential heartache, I recommend the following:

  1. Do not grow luffas unless you have at least 120 days of growing season.  That's 120 days between last average frost in the spring and the first average frost in the fall.  My zone 5b garden in central Nebraska barely meets those requirements.
  2. Before sowing the seeds, soak them in water for 24 hours to help soften the seed coat.  Then, nick the seed coat with a pen knife before planting to help the seeds germinate.  This is something I did not do last year because I did not do my homework first.
  3. Make sure the soil is warm enough before you plant.  You may want to mulch the soil to help keep the heat in.  I am going to try starting some of the seeds indoors on a heat mat before transplanting outside.  You never know.
  4. Provide a suitable support.  The gourds are big and heavy.  Although I did not have any problems with the vines being too weak to support the weight of the gourds, I could see it becoming a problem with an especially large fruit.  You may need to support the fruit with an old nylon stocking or a mesh bag (like those the Cuties come in).
  5. Sit back and let nature take its course.  I tried sweet talking the flowers. I tried hand pollinating the flowers. I tried pleading with and standing watch over my flowers.  The silly vine will make fruit when it's darn good and ready and there really isn't anything to be done to hurry the process along as near as I can tell.
All in all, I really did enjoy growing my luffas last year.  So much so that I'm going to try again this year.  The vines are beautiful, the flowers are lovely and as a pollinator attractor, I'm not sure it can be beat.  So sit back and enjoy the vines.

Oh, and grow some birdhouse gourds, too.  Much, much easier. Trust me.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Coming out of Hibernation

Wow.  Winter has been brutal this year.  The storms have been vicious in these parts.

This morning as I got out of my car in the parking lot at work, I saw two big, fat robins bouncing around in the dormant grass.  It was a refreshing sight.  Winter winds have been whipping and screaming around my little haven for a couple months now.  I’ve spent a good portion of those dark, winter evenings surfing gardening blogs, enjoying the offerings on Netflix, crocheting a ton of baby things for my Etsy page Curiosity's Piqued and making lots of cool costume stuff for Tadasana Tribal also on Etsy.  It’s been a productive winter.  I can say with all frankness and sincerity that I’ve had just about enough of that.  It’s time for spring to get here.

It hasn’t been easy, but I’ve managed to distract myself from the biting cold and drifting snow with seed catalogs and planning my garden, like any normal gardener would do. A few weeks ago I set up my seed-starting light rack and now there are dozens of little seedlings emerging from their little pots or peat pellets and stretching towards the light.  It’s a very restorative sight for me.

So far the emergent seedlings have been tomatoes, peppers and some flowers I’m toying with this year.  I’m also trying out some herbs like spearmint and chamomile for the first time from seed. I admit it.  I probably got a little carried away.  Maybe more than a little.

I really can’t help myself.

There are four kinds of tomatoes:  Roma, Beefsteaks (leftover from last year), Rutgers (a new variety for me) and Super Sweet 100 cherry tomatoes (also leftover from last year’s seeds).  They’ve all germinated nicely and little bitty, leggy seedlings have emerged.  Maybe I should up the wattage on my lights.  Mmmmm...cherry tomatoes!  I can't wait for them!  I started several plants so we'll have plenty to dry for next winter.
The peppers include: Jalapeno, Sonoma Sunset Sweet, California Wonder and something called Chili New Mexico.  We’re going to have peppers coming out our ears if we’re lucky.  It’s a salsa-making year, so I hope so.

There are also numerous flowers: Pinks, moonflower, 4 kinds of marigolds, corn poppies…and many others that I would have to get up and find my notebook to remember.  I write it all down, of course.  I’m turning 50 at the end of the month and I trust very little to my memory anymore.

Of course, there will be more soon.  I’m planning to start all my squashes and gourds inside in the little newspaper pots I’m trying out.  I'm hoping for better germination of the gourds.  And I have plans in the works for those squash plants and my nemesis, the squash vine borer.  A POX ON THE MOTH!
Good Friday is coming up so that will be potato planting day. After the smashing success last year growing potatoes in containers, I’m ramping that up from last year’s 4 little pots to 6 big plastic totes and 3 different varieties:  Yukon gold, Kennebec and a red that I've forgotten the name of.  They say the Yukon Gold doesn't keep very well, but we had the last of ours at Christmas and that's pretty darn good to me.  I’ve also got three kinds of onions in the standard red, yellow and white varieties and plenty of each of them.  I discovered last fall that drying and storing onions is an imprecise art form.  I hope to improve this fall.

I have plans to try many, many new things this year.  I finally got myself a pressure canner this winter and I'm anxious to give it a try canning some of those things I've never been able to can before.  A whole new world of canning awaits me!  Also,  I splurged on a Victorio food strainer and sauce maker  on the recommendation of another blog and I wish I could remember which blog it was.  That food mill looks like a dream come true for sauce and salsa making.  I also got the 4-piece accessory set to use for things other than sauce.  I expect this single purchase to take much of the tedium out of canning season.

But the very best thing for this season?  That's the subject of an entire blog all on its own, I think. 

It feels like there should be pictures of all this stuff, but I don't have them ready.  I hope to have some pictorials of all these goings on in the coming weeks.  It’s going to be a busy spring and summer...aaand fall at Almost An Acreage.  I can hardly wait.

Self-Discovery #9,761--I Am Solar Powered

It dawned on me, literally at dawn this morning.

I was driving down the highway looking yet another workday right in the eye.  I came up over a hill and there it was.

The sun.

It was just about all the way up past the horizon and looked enormous against the skyline of the city I was approaching.  It hung there in the sky all huge and golden and shining brilliantly with the promise of a brand new day.

It was stunning.  It was uplifting.  It was energizing!

At that moment, I realized that in spite of my fondness for chicken salad sandwiches, my coveting of chocolate and tomatoes, and my zeal for bacon, I am actually solar powered.  Seeing the sun and feeling (ok, I imagined I was feeling it) the sun on my face unleashed a powerful urge in me to live my life to the fullest possible extent.  Or maybe it was a sunlight-induced endorphin rush.

Solar powered.  Who'da thunk it?