Central Virginia Organic Gardener

"And 'tis my faith that every flower enjoys the air it breathes." - William Wordsworth, 1798

Sunday, July 26, 2009


[photo: bed being prepared with organic matter in fall]
A recent phone call with my sister in law has made me think more about soil. She is having trouble with slow growth in her northern NJ vegetable garden and is puzzled. The area is sunny and was just built this year to increase her growing space. She had a load of top soil delivered for the area and planted in it. She did something similar at a school garden a mile or two away last season, and that garden is showing good plant growth this season. I told her I am not sure why the school garden is doing better, though she thought it might be greater earthworm activity and the longer time frame for the school garden to get some organic matter into it. In addition, I thought that underlying soil at the school garden might be better, that commercial top soils can differ, even if purchased at the same place, and, of course, the site is different. But I still think that the unimproved, commercial soil is the issue for uniformly slow growth.

People think that topsoil is the thing to buy and use, that it is rich and good soil for growing, there are a few problems with this: 1. Where is the soil from? It can be excavation dirt from building, which might mean it is not the top few inches of loamy soil, and the soil typology of the area can vary a lot. Did you know that some commercial top soils are dyed to look like rich, black earth and are really clay? 2. The top soils I have encountered (in bags, or bulk delivered) seem to have very little organic matter in them. When I have planted into mostly commercial top soils, my plants have not had great growth. Also I noticed that they seemed to clump and bake in the sun, which a soil filled with organic matter would not do. I know you need to start with something, that you can't make raised beds out of thin air, but you need to amend commercial top soils- they are insufficient in themselves for good vegetable plant growth.

I have an accidental experiment with this going on this year. In my main garden, I have a bed of tomatoes planted mostly in top soil. Yes, the soil was amended in the past, but not lately. These tomato plants are sort of scrawny and are not producing much. Most of my tomatoes, however, this year are in a separate garden area. This is an area that my husband dug last fall and we added some commercial top soil, as well as grass clippings, pine straw and leaves and buried compostable kitchen scraps and coffee grounds. I also worked in some organic fertilizer in the spring and lightly turned the soil a few times, watered it a few times, and covered it with a tarp to promote decomposition, weed suppression and dog digging suppression (though we discovered that my dog loves to rip tarps). The tomatoes in the new bed? I am jokingly calling it the “tomato hedge” or “tomato forest.” The plants are huge, full of fruit and I swear they are growing right before my eyes!

The advice I gave my sis-in-law (and to anyone building a new garden) was to side dress and scratch in some organic fertilizer this year. Starting in the fall, I suggested that she do what I did above and sheet compost (see composting entry) or work in the various amendments, watering and covering with an old tarp. I would bury kitchen scraps especially (to help them break down and not attract animals-she has a raccoon problem and neighborhood bears). I suggested that if her town or county has yard compost for residents, get some of that (though if you ever buy compost, beware of what the industry calls "biosolids"- that is composted sewage sludge, and can contain contaminants and heavy metals) and get some manure from local farms (dig it in- this should be done as early in the fall as you can, as the manure would need to break down enough before you could plant in it). Of course, if you have a compost heap or pit, make sure to add some of that “garden gold!”

If the soil is right, the garden should grow well. Happy Gardening!

Friday, July 17, 2009

Garden Quickie: Passiflora in Bloom

Above is a photo of a red passionflower that is in bloom on my back porch. I bought it on a whim at a high school plant sale in the spring! It has produced a fruit too...
(Next week's regular blog entry might be late- I'll hopefully be paying a visit to Bartram's Gardens, near Philly, the oldest botanical garden in the US).
Happy gardening!

Monday, July 13, 2009

Succession planting

Succession planting

I am doing a lot more succession planting this year than in the past. And more “waves” of plantings of the same crop. One way to get a lot of produce is to have a large garden. Another way to increase your harvest is to plant a second (or third) crop when the earlier one is done, or to plant in waves, say carrots every two weeks.

Here are some of my sequences that have worked this year: peas, followed by beans. Lettuces, followed by eggplants and peppers. Lettuces, followed by root crops. Onions followed by carrots. I recently tore out the kale beds (in the summer they get woody and their flavor deteriorates) (my son rejoices!) and will be amending the soil in those beds to plant fall lettuces, maybe broccoli and cauliflower. I write “maybe” because kale should probably not be followed by broccoli (they share some pests and diseases), but as long as I don’t plant anything in this family in the same bed next season, I am hoping it will be OK. I will be harvesting my potatoes soon and will also probably fill that area with greens and lettuces.

Another way to maximize your space is to plant quick growing crops in between slower growers, like lettuces and radishes between your pea plants or tomatoes. That way you get a quick crop, and they are harvested before the tomatoes or other plants need the space.

So, remember to maximize the use of the space you have, though it is sometimes a good idea to let a bed go fallow, cover it with compost, leaves, pine needles and let the soil regenerate for a season.

Happy gardening!

Sunday, July 5, 2009

What to do with all that kale...

(Photo caption: Making strawberry jam!)

What to do with all that kale…or tomatoes…or cucumbers

Over the last 6 weeks I have harvested enough cucumbers for multiple families…over the last few months enough kale for the neighborhood…. We gardeners coddle our veggie plants through diseases, drought and bugs and later get overwhelmed by the amount they produce (I find nothing sadder than seeing a neighbors garden with food rotting on the vine or plant). Here are some ideas for some of that bounty:

  1. Preserve: I can, of course. What I mean is that I can high-acid foods like tomatoes, jams and pickles. (I would like to pass along the advice that made my jams come out better- add 2-3 T. lemon juice and get them to the jell point of 220 degrees F and the jam will set up). There is more to preserving than this:
  2. I dehydrate: years ago my beloved bought me a “snack master” dehydrator and I use it to dry tomatoes (not sun dried, but pretty darn good tomato “raisins”), figs, peaches, apple slices and herbs. Dried produce, though it loses some of its nutrition, takes up lots less space and is a good source of fiber. I also air dry whole onions and garlic (“cure them”) and hang them in reused mesh bags in the pantry.
  3. I freeze: My freezer space is currently limited, so I freeze the foods I highly value, like strawberries, raspberries, bell peppers and roasted eggplant. These four do not require blanching, though other veggies, like green beans, edible-podded peas and corn, do require a minute or so in boiling water to deactivate enzymes that will cause them to spoil, even in the freezer.
  4. I cook: IMHO, there is not much of a point in growing all this wonderful produce if you don’t cook. It doesn’t need to be elaborate- think tomato sandwiches, pesto, tomato-based veggie soups, kale with carrots and garlic braised in wine or balsamic vinegar, cucumber salads, peach crisp…
  5. Of course, planning is important. I do grow more cucumber plants than I think I will need because I loose a few each spring. It is a good idea to how much you will eat. My family, for example, will eat about 10 turnips per year, so planting a bed of them is somewhat foolish, unless I follow my own advice at the end of this entry. We will, however, eat lots and lots of carrots and onions, so this is where my energy should go.

Sometimes my cooking can get a bit repetitive, but I find I can sneak in the same produce in different ways in a week; for example, my family consists of individuals who are not found of string beans-but they grow so easily! So, I marinate some for a salad one night, make an Indian-style green and dried bean dish the next, and put them in vegetarian Pad Thai the third night (then take a night off!).

Remember this last point: some food banks and soup kitchens accept fresh home grown produce…so, if you have too much, donate it!

Happy gardening!