Central Virginia Organic Gardener

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

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Snow: Update

Yesterday and overnight we had about 10 to 12 inches of snow, unusual for Central VA. Sometimes people ask me "will all this snow damage your plants?" It is possible to get some damage, especially when the weight of the snow (or ice, which is far more destructive) snaps off branches and crushes plants. Generally, though, snow is not a problem and, given our current weather of below freezing cold, snow is good. Snow acts as an insulator. When your temperatures might hit 9 degrees (as we have had in our forecast lately) or anything below 32, it is usually far better for your plants to be snow covered than exposed to these chilly temperatures.
So, enjoy the snow and don't worry about your plants!
Happy snow gardening???!

Saturday, January 30, 2010

2010 seed order

My 2010 Seed Order

My seed order is probably of more interest to me than to any reader, so, instead of listing out every seed I am ordering (and there are a lot) I will discuss the odd or unusual ones, or ones that are new to me that I am trying this year (plus some old favorites at the end).

From Pinetree garden Seeds (www.superseeds.com):

The first oddball to describe is a basil I have grown once before, HOLY BASIL. This odd, slightly fuzzy basil is essential to many Thai dishes. I love it because it is just wonderfully fragrant and it is a treat to run my hands through it. Not as anise-like as Thai basil (like “Siam Queen”) it is a tasty in stir-fried vegetable dishes, added after the cooking is done. I grow both types of basils (along with lemon, lime and large leaf basils) and am looking for seed for the gorgeous African Blue basil, an ornamental that attracts lots of bees.

ROUGE GRENOBLAIS LETTUCE. My husband has a weakness for red leafed lettuces and I have a weakness for growing it for him! 52 days, crisphead/butterhead, slow to bolt, good in the cold….supposedly.

SANDWICH ISLAND MAMMOTH SALSIFY. I love odd root crops and have grown scorzonera, celeriac and parsnip among others, but I also like salsify, also called oyster plant, for its delicate flavor.

LOVAGE. Celery is hard to grow, but lovage, a celery substitute, is not (though getting the seed started can be a little tricky), Lovage comes back year after year, can be chopped and used in stocks, soups and stews and tuna salad and the leaves are nice to eat too.

MOKUM CARROT (F1 hybrid 54 days) and NAPOLI CARROT (F1 hybrid 66 days): I love carrots and have been having fun growing them (when the voles don’t get them) and wanted to try these two. Mokum is a Dutch hybrid, reportedly sweet, 6 inch roots. Napoli, an early nantes type, more carroty than sweet.

MUSQUEE DE PROVENCE PUMPKIN: a “Cinderella” or “cheese-wheel” type pumpkin, which I think is the most beautiful type, and pretty darn tasty too!

BOLTARDY BEET (46 days). Beets break my heart most every year, but I keep trying (now that should have been a New Year’s resolution- make a fluffy soil bed for beets! Or give them up!). They seem to start out OK, but don’t always form the root, and end up with this scraggly little plant trailing out of the soil. I love beets- to me they are the candy of the vegetable world, right up there with sweet corn. These are supposed to be bolt resistant, which might be part of my problem, in this short-spring climate.

RATTLESNAKE BEAN (65 days): a vigorous, 8 to 10 inch long, green and purple bean with reportedly great bean flavor.

From totally Tomatoes www.totallytomato.com

This year I ordered a few new tomatoes, to supplement my old standby, Parks Whopper Improved. All are disease resistant and the Talladega is heat resistant too.

Original Goliath Hybrid Tomato: very large slicer, indeterminate.

Early Goliath Hybrid Tomato: earlier than above, large slicer, indeterminate.

Red Brandymaster Hybrid Tomato: a more disease-resistant type of the heirloom Brandywine, a potato-leafed variety with great taste, indeterminate. I used to grow the original Brandywine and loved it, until it started succumbing to disease.

Talladega Hybrid Tomato: beefsteak-type, mid-season, determinant.

A short list of what I am ordering again, because they worked out great last year? Lavender touch and Raveena eggplant, Starbor dwarf blue curled kale, Sweet Success cucumber, Pinetree Garden lettuce mix. Sugar Snap pea and India Mustard Red Giant.

Happy Gardening!

Friday, January 29, 2010

Wildlife: Today's Visitor

This might not appear to be a garden entry, but it is. The photo is today's visitor to our yard and gardens, a lovely red-tailed hawk. What does this have to do with gardening? Though we live in the 'burbs, we have plenty of shrubs, evergreens, trees, a variety of plants and a brush pile, all encouraging places for wildlife to roost, hide and live. We have feeders, a water source and native host plants too. I will soon be writing a more detailed entry on encouraging critters in your yard and one on the VA Habitat at Home program.
In the meantime, I have started pod-casting! My pod cast is available thorough itunes, just search for VirginiaOrganicGardener!
Happy gardening!
Enjoy the coming snow!

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Seed potatoes

Seed Potato Shopping

This is a THE time of the year to buy your potato sets if you want to plant potatoes. Some catalogs have deadlines that come up soon if you want to get your potatoes in mid-March, plating time here in central VA. In the past I have found it difficult to find seed potatoes in garden centers, and, when I do, they are limited in variety. This year, I sat down with a dozen or so seed catalogs that sold seed potatoes and tried to compare by price, including shipping, and whether the potatoes were organic or not. I do not fuss a lot about non-organic seed (seems like a little, tiny thing with low probability of significant contamination), but I do prefer big tubers like potatoes to be organic (and, of course, certified disease free). One frustration I had were that some catalogs give a per pound price for seed potatoes, some a per- pre-cut set price (that is, potatoes that are already cut and cured that can be planted directly) and a few gave a price for a certain number of tiny seed potatoes that you pop in the ground whole. This makes it tough to compare across catalogs. I settled on two organic sources this year:

The Maine Potato Lady for Yukon Gold (excellent per pound price, higher on shipping) and Rio Grande Russet through Seeds of Change (standard per pound price, average shipping). I ordered 5 lbs (!) of each, so we better get cracking building potato bins!

Happy gardening!

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Floating Row Covers

Floating Row Covers (photo: row cover on my pallet bed)

I have been using floating row covers for years. For those of you who don’t know what they are, floating row covers are a lightweight, spun-bond "fabric" cover that lets in light and water, but creates a barrier to insects. This is great for plants like cucumbers that attract cucumber beetles. They also provide a little extra warmth early in the season. These covers have commercial names like Reemay or Argonet. My main frustration with them is that they tear too easily, often not lasting more than one season (though I can sometimes get a second season out of them by patching with tape). That and the price. While doing some garden reading, I read a recommendation to use sheer window curtains in the place of floating row covers. So, this winter’s thrift shop goal is to find used, inexpensive, sheer curtains for this project (and if any local readers have some for me, let me know!). If I do, I will report on how successful it was, how durable the curtains were and if they let in adequate sun and light.

Now, back to making my 2010 seed order!

Happy gardening!

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Robin flock

An elderly friend from Indiana, who was like a mother to me, and I had a friendly competition regarding who would see the first robin of the year. Of course, I began to win once I moved to Virginia! She passed away over a year ago, and her family saw their first robin of the year at her headstone that following spring. I have been seeing a few stray robins around the neighborhood, but, as I write this, there is a flock of robins in my back yard! That's the sign I have been waiting for to signal the days are getting longer and spring is coming! I cannot tell my dear friend, but I can tell you!
Happy gardening!

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Native pollinators

Mason Orchard bees

One of my favorite Christmas gifts this last year were these two bee nesting boxes-top photo (thank you Jeannie!). We all have heard of the decline in honeybees, but did you know that honeybees were not native to America and that we have a variety of native bees? Some of our native bees are non-social (or “solitary”), that is, they do not live in large communities or hives. The two nesting boxes (or blocks) are great for these non-social, cavity nesting bees. And these bees are good pollinators for your garden.

A few years ago my brother Ed built me a mason orchard bee (Osmia lignaria) nesting block out of non-treated, but rot-resistant, lumber (the second photo). I actually purchased two tubes of mason orchard bees for them. These bees are excellent pollinators for those early flowering fruit trees, like apples, peaches and pears. It might just be coincidence, but the year I got them I had a bumper crop of peaches and apples. Mason orchard bees like to have tubes of a specific diameter (1/4 to 3/8 inches in diameter). They do their early pollination, then lay eggs in the individual tubes or holes, cover with a plug of mud and are done for the year, often filling multiple tubes. These blue-black bees live for about a month and are generally gentle, rarely stinging. They do have a tendency to move on, but your bee block can be inhabited by new bees year to year. Unlike honeybees, they need no special care.

Happy gardening!

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Winter garden blues

OK, this is not my typical post, i.e., it is not an attempt to provide useful garden information. It is, however, a post relating to what I do when I cannot garden and that is work, chores, cooking and crafts. Above is a photo of my newest installment of an all-wool, needle-felted doll, my "garden doll," and her trusty companion dog, yet unnamed. See the basket of garden vegetables on her arm? I can't get into the garden, but I can still create! (Hope this isn't too cutesy!)(OK, it is, but...)
Happy limited winter gardening and alternative activities! We're going to warm up soon!
and...Happy New Year!

Monday, January 11, 2010

Tree Pruning 2

Tree Pruning 2

[photo: Ain't is pretty? Flowers on my "Moonglow" pear].

I am not an excellent pruner, especially of my fruit trees. But I do know the basics. Here are some rules to follow for pruning fruit or other trees:

1. Unless you inherited a neglected orchard, do not remove more than one-third of the branches at a time. If you inherited an orchard, consult an orchard arborist!

2. Make sure your tools are sharp and in good working order. It is frustrating to begin a big pruning job and a tool does not work. I like a folding hand saw, pruning shears (secateurs), long handled pruners and a large hand saw. I am not comfortable with power equipment and I think chain saws encourage you to cut, baby, cut and over do it! (I once read that the best advice to give someone contemplating pruning a tree is to not let your husband or other male loose on it with a chain saw!) And made sure the tool fits the cut- hand-held pruning shears will not cut a half-inch diameter branch. You will damage the branch, the tool and/or your hand!

3. Make a cut from below (in an upward direction) first, then cut downward from above. This prevents the bark from pulling off in a long strip when the limb meets gravity (a sign of poor pruning is when you get a lot of these peeled areas at the site of a cut. Some accidental peeling is unavoidable, a lot is a sign of carelessness).

4. Recently I read advice to not paint the cut limb- it traps germs against the wound. Allow the wound to heal in fresh, cold air.

5. Cut off unproductive “water spouts,” that is, the long, straight, vertical branches that often form where you pruned previously. They are ugly and, in the case of fruit trees, cannot support fruit.

6. Cut off any crossed limbs, or, in young trees, you can use spreaders (see last entry) to move them around.

7. Don’t “top” trees (cut off all the branches on a mature tree to try to make it smaller) unless you want to kill it!

8. Lastly, if you cannot reach the fruit on a limb, cut it off!

Happy gardening!

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Fruit Tree Spreaders

Fruit Tree Limb Spreading

Mike McGrath, the garden guru (formerly of Organic Gardening Magazine, now has a garden show on WHYY in Philly called “You Bet Your Garden”) seems to hate fruit trees. He discourages anyone from planting them. They take a lot of work, he is right about that. Like Mike, I would recommend that novice gardeners try the small fruits first, that is raspberries, strawberries, and blue berries, and that the first tree you plant in this climate be a fig. But I would not flat out discourage planting large fruit trees. Despite the difficulty of growing large fruit trees (apples, pears, cherries, peaches, etc) home growing is the only way to get copious amounts of organic fruit without a huge cost. In addition, some of the “work” is fun, if you like gardening! The fruit may not be the ready for a grocery store ad, but it will taste great! (So far I have an apple tree, 4 peaches, two pears, 5 figs and lots of the small fruits too).

I planted two disease-resistant pear trees a few years ago (“Moonglow” and “Crisp ‘n Sweet”) and they produced fruit for the first time this year. Then they shot up all summer trying to be tall columns. This is not the ideal shape for fruit trees- whenever you look at trees in a commercial orchard, you see that the limbs are spread out and the tree is relatively short. Indeed, the trees look gnarled and twisted, limbs splayed out versus erect. To achieve this, you must prune the tree early in its life and continue regular pruning throughout. In addition, orchardists recommend that, early on, you use limb spreaders to spread out the limbs of the trees from a more vertical to a more horizontal direction. You can buy commercial limb spreaders, can simply tie a limb to a brick (not too drastic a bend or the limb might just snap off as I discovered-but I saved the limb! And make sure that mowers know the brick is there and move it back into place should they disturb it) or tie the limb to an empty container and fill it with water until the desired bend is reached. Or you can do what I did in the photo above- make your own limb spreaders out of tree branches (sticks). The best stick to use is one with a fork at one end and some sort of V at the other with another limb. Then just slip the stick into place between two branches, and tie it off with a soft cloth. You can get fancy and actually whittle two v-shaped notches in either end of a stick and tie off as suggested. You will need to remove it after the growing season, do some more pruning, and reposition new spreaders until the final desired form is reached (though the pruning really never ends!) And, this is the time of year to do this, now that the trees are dormant. My method will not always be possible, i.e. if there is no opposing branch to brace one end of the stick spreader, so I will use the other methods as well.

Coming soon- what to cut off and how much?

Happy gardening!

Sunday, January 3, 2010


In reading the book I wrote about last week (Williamson, Donna (2008). The Virginia Gardener’s Companion: An Insider’s Guide to Low-Maintenance Gardening in Virginia. Guilford Conn: Globe Pequot) I wrote that I love it when a book stimulates an interest. In this book I found the tantalizing phrase “beautiful Pamunkey soil” which made me wonder where this soil was and if I have it. Pamunkey soil is alluvial, that is, it is left over marine and riverine deposits. We are in a 100-year flood area (most of central VA is) and are not far from the Chickahominy wetlands and the James River. I wondered if I had this type of soil.

So, first I looked up Pamunkey soil and found out a lot about soils in Virginia. For example, from: http://www.va.nrcs.usda.gov/technical/Soils/statesoil.html I read:

“The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has asked that each state adopt, through legislation, a "State Soil." NRCS asked the Virginia Association of Professional Soil Scientists (VAPSS) to select a soil for Virginia.

In selecting a "State Soil" for Virginia, we were faced with dilemmas that many other states would not be faced with. Virginia covers some 450 miles along its southern boundary, five Physiographic Provinces and nine Major Land Resource Areas. With this kind of diversity in the state, it is hard to select a soil which represents the entire state.

Fortunately, Virginia is blessed with rivers whose watersheds cover each physiographic province. The James River crosses the entire Commonwealth of Virginia and brings sediments from each of the provinces it flows through. These sediments are deposited on flood plains and on deltas along its course, to later form Pamunkey soils on low stream terraces.

This soil, originally mapped as Wickham soil series, was first recognized in Hanover County. Chemical laboratory data revealed that the base saturation (natural fertility) was greater in these soils than is allowed in the Wickham series. The soil was named Pamunkey, the name chosen for a nearby river, which in turn was named for the Pamunkey Indian Nation that lives along the river.

Pamunkey soils are prime agriculture soils in Virginia and occur on about 30,000 acres. Extensive areas of Pamunkey soils have been mapped in the counties of Charles City, Chesterfield, Essex, Goochland, Hanover, Henrico, James City, New Kent, Prince George, Richmond, Westmoreland, and York.

The Pamunkey soils were first used to sustain the Pamunkey Indians, other tribes, and later to grow crops by the settlers at Jamestown. The high natural fertility and high crop yields associated with these soils may be one reason that the Jamestown settlement survived.

Soil Classification: fine-loamy, mixed, semiactive, thermic Ultic Hapludalfs

Pamunkey soils are very deep, well drained soils formed in Piedmont and Coastal Plain fluvial sediments. They are on nearly level to sloping stream terraces. Slopes range from 0 to 15 percent. Mean annual precipitation is about 48 inches, and mean annual temperature is about 59 degrees F. Pamunkey soils typically have a sandy loam surface layer and a sandy clay loam subsoil underlain by sandy and loamy substrata.

Facts about Pamunkey Soil

Pamunkey soil is formed from sediments which originated in every physiographic province in the Commonwealth and therefore represents the WHOLE state better than other soils.

The farm where the representative profile of Pamunkey soil is located, near Jamestown, is the oldest continuously worked farm in the United States. Because of encroaching development, the county of James City has put this historic farm into a conservancy program for the use of agriculture.

The Pamunkey soil, on this oldest working farm in America, produced the world corn yield (308 bushels/acre) and the world record wheat yield (140 bushels/acre) in 2000.

The first settlers at Jamestown grew their crops on Pamunkey soil which may be the very reason they survived.”

Quite a bit of information here, most of which I understand. I do not expect to understand all the many names of soils types (there are a staggering number). This information from the NRCS lead me to believe I was gardening in Pamunkey soil, as it specifically mentioned my county as the place it was first recognized!

So then I went to: http://websoilsurvey.nrcs.usda.gov/app/

This is a way cool web site where you can find the actual soil in your area, provided it has been surveyed (ours was and the report was from 2008). I entered my address, state and got a custom soil report for my area and even got an aerial view of my street, my home with the soils in the area marked. The image above at top is an example of a type of image you can get from this web site, and you can zoom in for closer resolution. From my report I found my the soil in my yard is a combination of Orangeburg-Faceville fine sandy loam or Kempsville-Bourne fine sandy loam (loams are great soil). Both are marine deposits, well-drained and -draining soils. The web site did not specifically call it "Pamunkey soil," but I think this is what I have (alluvial, marine deposits, loamy soils- sounds about right, plus we live in a 100-year floodplain, like almost all this area). Maybe a call to my ag extension agent is in order. I got a lot more details about the soil, the layers of soil and sub-types, the slope of the area, and more information I need to learn more about! This was a really fun exercise and I think it will continue to be fun as I do more exploration. I am lucky to have good soil, though I still need to add compost to maintain soil fertility (even good soils can lose fertility).

Happy gardening!

Friday, January 1, 2010

Happy New Year 2010

[Photo: giant teasel at James River State Park, Gladstone, VA, on 12/30/09].
Last January, 2009, I wrote a "Gardener's Resolutions" entry, stating I did not make resolutions, but made some anyway...here they are and here is my progress update....and why I won't be making any more resolutions this year!
1. Garden at least as much as last year. Accomplished! I think I spent more time in the garden! Of course, I am getting slower as I get older, so....
2. Plant some new greens. No, but planted a lot of greens. My family rebelled.
3. Continue my New Year’s Day tradition of going though all my seed catalogs and making my seed orders for the next year. Did that last year and will do it again today!
4. Suck it up and tear out a few beds that aren’t working. Tore out two, one remains.
5. Write the check to get the water garden installed. Nope, no progress at all.
6. Really prune those fruit trees. Did not get to it last year. We started pruning the fruit trees last week and have it scheduled for this weekend, so there is hope for this season!!!!
7. MUST SPRAY DORMANT OIL on the fruit trees! I always forget! I did not get to it last year....again. But will get to it soon for this season??????
8. Maximize the use of my new cold frame. DONE!
Happy gardening!