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Archive for July, 2010

Here’s an update on our first season garden at our new digs. We enjoy and appreciate comments (including constructive criticism) so don’t hold back on your impressions 🙂

But first, a bird’s eye view of the garden with our Plangarden layout. Click on the image to get the larger size:

Plangarden's Veggie Garden July18 Status

Here's our garden plan as of July 18, 2010

Starting from the top and moving somewhat left-to-right, here are our garden pics starting with our “Tower of Potatoes”:

Roy inspecting our potato tower which is beginning to blossom!

Roy inspecting our potato tower which is beginning to blossom!

Next is the red Kennebec potato and Yin-Yang shelling bean “boxless” plot. A couple of *huge* rocks stuck out of the ground and were removed, leaving large divets. We thought why not fill it with soil and just make a “normal” bed? The potatoes are doing well but we had problems with this plot for the beans. Roy suspects that root-knot nematodes affected bean germination:

Yin Yang Shelling Bean and Kennebec Potatoes in background

Yin Yang shelling beans and four Kennebec potato plants in rear of bed

Our melon and watermelon patch is going nuts! Good thing we provided lots of “crawl area” for the vines in between boxes (~4-5ft). The “Far North” melon (~65 days) already has fruit the size of a baby’s head. The “Golden Midget” (~70 days) watermelon has some fruit about the size of small apples. This 3-pounder’s rind is supposed to turn golden yellow when ready to harvest – can’t get easier than that! As for the “Sugar Lee”, we have had lots of trouble germinating this baby which is supposed to produce 15-18 pounders. Only one plant is growing vigorously, albeit slowly. But if it succeeds, we may be harvesting watermelons through October!

Melon and Watermelon Patch

Melon and watermelon tendrils have draped well over the sides of garden boxes!

The Yin-Yang shelling beans grown in this box are thriving; so are the cukes “Dragon’s Egg” (technically a melon) and “Straight Eight”.

Yin Yang Beans and Cucumbers

Thriving Yin Yang shelling beans and cucumbers in rear

Royal Burgundy beans in the neighboring box are also doing well though surprisingly not as prolific as I had expected (we’ve only had 1 meal and it’s mid-July!). Suspect a small varmit has been visiting. Roy’s looking to see if the Butternut squash have developed fruit (not yet).

Roy inspecting Butternut Squash and Royal Burgundy Beans

Roy looking for Butternut squash fruit. Royal Burgundy beans in foreground

We love it when a stray seed or two goes from soil to compost and back to new soil. These two beautiful purple Amaranth plants are “squatting” in between the bell peppers. We didn’t have the heart to remove them, and the peppers don’t seem to mind it (yet). We will probably harvest the Amaranth leaves for salad and not let them get too large. In the rear of the box are a gorgeous sweet Armenian cucumber (“Metki White Serpent”) and two prolific straightneck yellow summer squash plants.

Bell peppers, Armenian cucumber, Yellow squash & Amaranth

Amaranth popped out of nowhere but don't seem to bother the bell peppers

We think our tomato plants are probably the most spoiled on the planet. Some would probably have abandoned them long ago, but not us. Well, not Roy. I nearly gave up, but acquiesced to Roy’s insistence on buying the black shade cloth that blocks 60% of the sun (~$50) and a misting system (~$25) to cool down the tomatoes in the middle of the day. Since the temps started climbing in the upper 90’s to 100’s in mid-June, these babies have been suffering from blossom drop. I also used old muslin fabric to protect the western side. We had our first attack of tobacco hornworms, but now have them under control, thanks to our chickens 🙂

Heirloom Tomato garden box

Doing everything we can to salvage our heirloom tomatoes from extreme heat

Our last veggie box houses the corn. We sowed two different varieties with different days-to-harvest times about a week apart to further stagger the harvest. We also sowed climbing beans about 2 weeks after planting the corn so that the stalks would be larger than the bean plant. This looks successful so far.

Corn provides trellis for pole beans

We staggered planting of two different corn varieties

Pole bean plant climbing up corn stalk

Pole bean plant climbing up corn stalk

Our first attempt at upside-down tomato plants have not been successful, probably because of the high temps that have overheated the plastic paint bucket containers. The “Celebrity” tomato plant has died, but “Early Girl” is still hanging in there, and produced two ripe (albeit small) fruit. The cloth you see is what I used to cover the plants to protect them from too much sun:

Upside Down Tomatoes & Thai Basil

Upside-down tomatoes may have broiled in those plastic buckets. Thai basil on top.

Finally, here’s the big picture showing our recently-built (final) chicken coop on the left (click on the image for larger pic). We’re still adding more plants, sorely needing ornamentals, but we have had to prioritize. Hopefully next year, we’ll have more grapevines, landscaped paths around the fence, more flowers and attractive shrubs.

Plangarden's veggie garden and coop mid-July 2010

Our veggie garden and coop in the heat of the summer.

Quick flashback to May 1st, just 2 1/2 months ago:

Finished Building Veggie Garden Boxes

Construction of veg garden was a Herculean effort, thanks to abundant rocks, most of which had long been cleared out of this photo

And here it is the morning of April 1st, just 3 1/2 months ago, with snow-covered Mt. St. Helena in the background. It looks idyllic here (gee why did you ruin your view?), but the shrubs you see are a fire hazard (chamise or “greasewood”), and the overgrown former lawn was teeming with yellow star thistle!

View of Mt. Saint Helena from our backyard

A vegetable garden was but a dream in early Spring ...

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Well-camouflaged tobacco hornworm can be a garden menace!

Well-camouflaged tobacco hornworm can be a garden menace!

Time to talk about the nasties. This bugger is a vicious defoliator, mostly attacking plants in the Solanaceae (nightshade) family – tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant, peppers, and of course, tobacco. The specimen above was first assumed to be the tomato hornworm, but a master gardener from Colorado State clarified the difference between the two caterpillars. They’re the larval stage of the “hawk”, “sphinx” or hummingbird moth – begrudgingly beautiful – but can wipe out your tomato plantation in no time.

These critters added to our tomato heirloom woes (notably “blossom drop” from the very high temps) just yesterday when Roy discovered them feasting on the leaves. In the evening, he applied Bt, Bacillus thuringiensis – an effective natural pesticide against caterpillars. In less than 48 hrs, we put on our “pattern identification lenses”, and picked about 20 of these nasty buggers. Picking them off the leaves is like pulling velcro apart, and they seem to fight back by bending backwards and grabbing you with their vicious little jaws. (Actually I don’t think they bite and people will handle them with bare hands … but these critters still gross me out!)

The Bt was effective almost overnight, but we still found a half dozen or so lively, fat beasties today.

Bt already took effect in less than 24 hrs. for some caterpillars

Bt already took effect in less than 24 hrs. for some caterpillars

The happy ending to this story is that we get a whole lot of entertainment feeding these caterpillars to our chickens. The chooks will come to you eagerly, snatch the beasty from your hand, and fight over the gourmet meal. They were pretty subdued in the video, but you do see the Buff Orpi do an Olympic sprint well away from the competition!

A more informative video on tomato and tobacco hornworms to watch is from GardenForkTV.

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Straightneck Summer Squash is a better alternative to zucchini

Straightneck Summer Squash wins over zucchini hands down

This is our first year growing straightneck summer squash, and I wonder why it has taken years to discover this absolutely delightful veggie. In fact, I scratch my head wondering why on earth zucchini became as famous as it is today? Because it rhymes with spaghetti? Does anyone have an answer?

This squash is meatier and deliciously creamy unlike its watery flavorless cousin. When stir fried, zucchini tends to get limp, transluscent, and loses lots of water, whereas the yellow straightneck stays relatively firm and almost butter-flavored. The best part is that it is as easy to grow as zucchini, not to mention prolific!

You can use the yellow squash for my zucchini bread recipe , replacing the zucchini with this squash variety as shown in the photo. The bread was a bit denser but still delicious! Next time, I may add about 1/8 cup of fresh-squeezed orange juice just to see what happens when you add a bit more liquid.

As an FYI, we got our seeds from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds at the Seed Bank in Petaluma, CA.

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As many chicken owners know, these wonderful, food-providing creatures can also be frustratingly destructive. Lush green lawns can quickly turn to wasteland. Fresh chicken poop is too potent a fertilizer to use and can quickly “burn” grassy areas and gardens. Chickens also love taking dust baths, creating large cozy divets – which can be problematic for people who don’t care much for moon landscapes!

Cultivating chicken garden allows hens to feast on greens

We plant hulless oats for our chicken garden

Using a chicken-wire frame shown in the above picture, we can cultivate a “chicken garden” to allow greens to grow undisturbed in our chicken pen until the plants are more mature. When the area is ready, we can either remove all or just part of the frame to let the chooks go wild and feast on the greens.

Chickens feasting on hulless oats in our chicken garden

Chickens feasting on hulless oats while part of their garden remains protected

The above area is quickly laid to waste within 24 hrs, but provides a great source of nutrition for our hens. This frame allows us to cultivate gardens in different parts of their pen. The hulless oats shown above took about 1 1/2 months to grow to that size, so we’re looking for other greens that grow faster and are just as attractive a food to our chooks.

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Chicken whisperer coaxing chooks to come to him

Roy the Chicken Whisperer coaxing chooks to come to him

It’s been a couple of months since we last wrote about our chickens. They’re now about 3 1/2 months old and have adapted well to their new home. Recently however, they’ve been flying up on the 3-ft fence and exploring areas outside of their spacious run. So we thought it’s probably time to clip their wings.

The chooks seem to like Roy the most – which is great – because he’ll be the grim reaper when their time comes – but hopefully not for a few years. To prepare the chook for wing-clipping, Roy likes to turn them upside down like this (and yes, they’ll put up a fight for about 20 secs. or so, but then settle down in submission). I don’t think it’s necessary to flip them over, but it seems easier to articulate the feathers.

Roy grabs chicken at legs to turn upside down for wing-clipping

Grab chicken at legs to turn upside down before you clip wings.

Next, spread out either the left or right wing. It’s usually sufficient to clip just one wing, but we suspect that our gals are gung ho fliers and may have to do the other wing later on.

Spread out chicken wing to articulate feathers.

Spread out wing to articulate feathers. This girl is a Rhode Island Red.

You (or preferably, your helper) will want to clip only the long outer wings or flight feathers, taking care not to get the shorter inner wings. Make sure you use sharp scissors. We clip only the first 10 or so flight feathers, but some people clip up to 20.

Only clip the flight feathers, and as closely as possible.

Only clip the flight feathers, and as closely as possible.

Lastly, you’ll want to give them a good pet on the back and praise for being so cooperative. (Um … it’s a bit of a stretch they’ll enjoy the hugs. But it is a good idea to get them used to being handled!)

Give praise after clipping chook's wings

Handle your chooks frequently or you'll be like Rocky Balboa chasing chickens!

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After our post on how we built our new vegetable garden beds/boxes, we invited our readers to send us pictures of their garden boxes. Here are a few of them. It is *amazing* to see how much can be grown in containers. We applaud you for your love of growing your own food, and the creativity and beauty that often comes out of this endeavor!

Here’s a box set up right on top of a lawn. What an excellent use of space!

Beautiful veggie garden bed

Marigolds surround array of veggies - toms, cabbage, et al

Or how about a delightful collection of containers that can be moved around as needed? This is particularly important in areas where drastic changes in temperature may occur. Containers are also gopher-proof!

Lettuces growing in containers

Wendy's delish greens in containers

Herbs grown in containers

Love these container-grown herbs!

We love this innovative “double decker” garden box with its varmit-proof roof!

@Badgerpendous' double decker veggie box

@Badgerpendous' double decker veggie box

Varmit-proof garden box

Varmit-proof garden box

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The netting is to prevent squirrels, racoons, cats, and the occasional chicken from digging into da goods!

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Here’s another garden w/ a funkily-dressed scarecrow in the center of the beds. And check out that awesome climbing bean trellis in the background, too:

Napaosak's garden boxes

@napaosak's veggie garden boxes - wow, look at those cabbages!

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We’re total newbies to heirloom tomatoes, particularly the exotic kinds. The first harvest was “Chocolate Vintage” whose brackish flavor took us completely by surprise (hmm … chocolatey appearance but salty!).

Today, the 4th of July, I was pondering on the sad blossom drop of many of our heirlooms when I noticed one tomato that had a bit of orange at the bottom of the fruit. I looked at the variety on the label that I stuck in the soil next to the plant – “Marmande Vert“. I touched the tomato and it felt ripe! I asked Roy about picking a green tomato that felt ripe and he couldn’t give me a yes or no, so I trusted my instincts and pulled it off the vine. After all, “vert” means green. It came off reluctantly and I felt a little guilty, thinking of an old commercial about not picking fruit “before its time”.

Marmande Vert heirloom tomato

Is this Marmande Vert heirloom tomato ripe?

I looked at this unremarkable, somewhat pathetic little green tomato with a large crack. Well, it *feels* very ripe. Sliced it open and knew at once that this was definitely “its time”. The taste was mild, yet flavorful, the way you’d expect an heirloom to taste. The skin was not at all tough, thick or bitter. I was happy that my curiosity with these plants prevented fruit from rotting on the vine!

Marmande Vert heirloom tomato cut open

Yes it is! Marmande Vert is a delicious green heirloom.

The red Marmande is one of the more famous heirlooms from France and one of Europe’s favorite “beefsteak” tomatoes. The green variety should have been cultivated at our former place along the Coast where it tolerates cool temps. I’m not optimistic that it will be producing much more for the rest of the season because of our dry, hot climate. We may have to cover the entire tomato bed with a light cloth to protect the plants from the searing heat!

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