Notes from Windward: #69


Garden Notes for May

May 1:

     April was a busy and exciting time in the garden. Direct seeded plants—like carrots, radishes, turnips, parsnips, peas, beets and salad greens— all went in last month and now they are beginning to germinate and say hello to the world. It has been particularly exciting to see the carrots come up, since they take up to 3 weeks to germinate. And as we moved closer to May, we entered yet another time of transition into frost-free nights which open up considerably the planting possibilities.

     Since we are still having night-time temperatures that reach down into the low thirties, we can only stick to frost-tolerant transplants—kale, cabbage, arugula, chard, collards, parsley, cilantro etc. However, when we do have these cool nights with light-frosts, the ground does not freeze and so seeds of slightly frost-sensitive plants that are still underground germinating should be ok.

     For example, we planted the potatoes in the first week of April and the first are just beginning to emerge now. They have been able to utilize the soil moisture during these last few weeks to sprout, minimizing watering, at little risk of being damaged by light frosts. Now that they are emerging we will cover them with mulch to protect them from any frosty nights. Similarly, beans, which are frost sensitive once above ground, take at least a week, sometimes two, to emerge from the soil, so by planting some now, while there is still may be a light frost, they will get a head start and begin to emerge as we (hopefully) move into consistently warmer nights.

the potatoes are starting to come up

     We are growing a variety of bush and pole beans this year, mostly for eating fresh or canning/freezing. Since beans, like peas, can produce abundantly when they are ready, we are staggering the plantings so that we have a more continual harvest throughout the summer.

the first oak buds

     We time our corn planting with the budding and leafing out of the oak trees. Over the past week, the swelling buds have been transforming into little leaves, and so I started preparing the main garden for the corn. We are planting Oaxacan corn as the oldest sister in the three sisters guild—corns, beans and squash. Corn has proven difficult for farmers/gardeners up here on the plateau to grow well, but last year we had enough success that it is still worth developing.

      Most planting patterns for a three sisters guild garden that I have come across suggest creating a series of mounds and planting the seeds into these mounds. However, this will not work for us here because water is so scarce in the summer and any water that falls onto a mound will readily drain off instead of seeping into the soil for the roots.

the depressions for the Three Sisters corn guild

      So, instead, I did the opposite—creating a series of small-crater like depressions, added compost, planted four corn seeds in each depression, laid the soaker hose across each depression and added a good layer of hay mulch. After the corn germinates and is a few inches tall, then we’ll plant the beans so they can climb up the corn stalks, and finally the squash, which will vine out and spread along the ground.

pea seedlings coming up

     The tomatoes and peppers are still going strong in the kitchen. I have had to transplant some of the tomatoes into larger containers so they won’t become root-bound, which restricts their growth. Tomatoes are very sensitive to frost, so they will not be transplanted until we are clear of frosty nights (~May 15th).

     However, I have started the hardening-off process, bringing them outside during the day to get them used to direct sunlight, wind and more variable temperatures. The cucurbits (summer squash, zucchini, winter squash, and cucumbers) have recently been joining the solanums in the kitchen. Squashes and cucumbers grow quite quickly, are frost intolerant, and do best in warm weather, so they can be seeded indoors about 3-4 weeks before they are transplanted.

tasty turnip greens triving in Vermadise

     Oana and Gina are really excited about making our own pickles this year, so we are endeavering to grow cucumbers (which we haven’t grown many of in the past because they are water intensive). Some will hopefully go into the duck-ponics system that Jon has been getting up and ready.

     The rest of the cucurbits will go in the lowest terrace that is part of the winter sheep pen. Now that sheep have been moved out of their winter pen and into the summer pen, we were able to take the fencing down that divides the upper garden from the sheep pen and begin to prepare the cucurbit patch. Cucurbits use lots of space, so in addition to having some squash planted as part of the three sisters guild, we wanted to give them their own patch.

     The sheep have been working hard all winter fertilizing the soil so that the squashes will have rich earth to grow in. But in the process they have compacted it quite a bit too, so after Walt did some repairs and maintenance on the rotatiller’s carburetor, I did the first pass, loosening up the rich soil for the squashes.

the lower terrace gets its first tilling

     Vermadise is heating up nicely in the day-time, and its about time to trade the plastic covering for shade-cloth. The warmer temperatures are giving the plants a head start: the strawberries are flowering and we are harvesting greens from the grow tubes—turnip greens, kale, lettuce, mesclun mix—to enjoy as part of lunch.

grooming the lavender patch

     Oana and I spent a recent afternoon in the lavender patch—quite a lovely place to be this time of year! Grasses and other weeds had been growing through the mulch layer, competing with the lavender for nutrients, so we weeded out these plants and added a new layer of mulch. We also removed the remaining flower stalks from the last season. Once established, lavender plants can use a healthy pruning each spring. However, our plants are still too young and small to require aggressive pruning.

our first strawberry blossoms

May 12:

Carrots love Tomatoes

     Many gardeners say that carrots love tomatoes, there is even a whole book dedicated to the subject. Apparently carrots and other plants in the carrot family (parsley, parsnips) attract insects that prey on tomato pests. I had never planted carrots with tomatoes before so I wanted to experiment with it this season.

     However, since we heavily mulch our tomatoes to increase the retention of soil moisture and to help with weed control, we had to come up with a way that would allow us to seed the carrots and mulch the tomatoes if we wanted to experiment with this companion planting. Carrots are slow germinators—taking up to three weeks to emerge above ground—and in this time a healthy crop of faster-growing weeds often takes over the planting space. Carrots also do not require light to germinate—so covering the planting bed with black plastic after the plants have been seeded is a relatively common method used for weed control. So I thought that perhaps mulch could serve the same purpose.

lots of lambsquarters

     The organic material we turned over and into the soil in the lower terrace in March has decomposed nicely. To prepare the beds for the tomatoes (and peppers) I have been loosening the soil once again, removing any weedy clumps, adding a healthy serving of Windward compost, laying down the soaker hoses and then adding a thick layer of hay mulch on top. The tomatoes and peppers are still in the process of being hardened off and there are still some chilly nights in the forecast, but the beds will be ready when its time for transplanting.

compost by the wheelbarrow load

      Along the edge of part of the to-be-tomato bed, I seeded a row of carrots before adding the hay mulch on top. And in the adjacent to-be-pepper bed that Jon, Oana and I prepared on a recent sunny afternoon, we seeded carrots and parsnips along an edge as well. So now they are snug under a layer of mulch, that hopefully will reduce weed germination. The carrots and parsnips will be germinating around the same time that the tomatoes and peppers will be ready for transplanting, so at that time we can separate some of the mulch to give the carrots and parsnips some more light.

getting the bed ready for peppers

May 25:

Gathering Greens

     We are entering that time of year when the days are long, the sun warm and the plants just grow and grow and grow. The various salad greens planted through March and April are growing faster than we can eat them, turning compost into an edible and nutritious meal.

morning light herb garden

     Every morning, when the light is still low and the shadows long, I have the pleasure of walking through the grass, moist with dew, to gather a salad for our lunch. Every day the combination of greens is different, but we are thankful to be able to take part in this abundance of fresh spring produce.

a salad tire

     Turnip greens seeded in the grow tubes in Vermadise in early March have been serving us well since April, proving to be a reliable early spring green---though they get a little spiky as they mature. Then there is the dwarf Siberian kale, which I have also been harvesting since April, that provides a little more depth and strength (lots of calcium and iron) to the salad. Leaf lettuces are growing well in Vermadise (where it is cooler and so they do not bolt as quickly). After harvesting in Vermadise, I walk through the forest to gather some claytonia (miner’s lettuce) which grows wild in the woods and adds a delicate and playful touch.

salad greens in Vermadise

     Then I find my way down to the main garden where more of everything grows—lettuces, turnip greens, spinach, chard, beet greens, arugula, mustard greens, baby bok choy, kale—all of which hop their way into the basket. I also gather a few radishes and carrot tops and add those to the mix as well. Sometimes, I find my way down to the lower garden where we have a field of lambsquarters growing. Lambsquarters is a plant in the spinach/quinoa/amaranth family that grows commonly as weed and is very nutritious, and good to use in soups and salads. By eating the grass and ignoring the lambsquarters, the sheep have created a nice field of it in the lower garden.

a planting of maychard

      Then finally, I make my way back up to the herb garden where more spinach and arugula, both cooler weather crops, grow in the shade of the oaks, along with an abundance of cilantro and parsley.

salad fixings ready to take to the kitchen

Notes From Windward - Index - Vol. 69