Feeding the Kitchen Garden Beds: Cover Crops and Compost

I’ve just finished the last big kitchen garden task of the year, planting cover crops in the eight beds that have held summer and storage crops since late spring. It’s a multi-step process that starts with cutting back and hauling away for composting the spent foliage of corn, beans, eggplant, peppers, tomatoes, squash, onions and potatoes. The next steps focus on replenishing the soil that supported all this food from spring to now.  They are the most important things I do for the kitchen garden.

Our soil is clay loam that I learned early on needs infusions of organic matter every year to sustain the next year’s crops. The sources of organic matter I’ve settled on are winter cover crops and compost. Without them, clay loam becomes more clay than loam. To avoid this scary fate, every fall I spread the beds with a sprinkling of complete organic fertilizer, lightly work in a 2-3 inch layer of compost and then scatter on seeds of a cover crop and rake them in.

Cover Crop seeding

Cover Crop raking in

In the past, I’ve covered the beds with Reemay to protect the seeds from birds until they germinate and begin growing, but this year I spread a thin layer of the mulch over the bed, recycling the mulch that had kept down weeds and kept in moisture in the beds all summer. I’m hoping this mulch will protect the germinating and growing seeds and will also break down over the winter and provide one more source of organic matter.

Cover Crop mulching

For the past few years the cover crop I’ve used is Merced rye from Osborne’s Seeds in Mt. Vernon. The rye replaces Austrian Field Pea which I used for years until I discovered that it was harboring a population of pea weevils that later feasted on my sugarsnap peas and fava beans. (For more on pea weevils see the entry for April 29, 2014 on Linda Gilkeson’s Gardening Tips ) I’m hoping the rye will break this cycle.

As the Osborne catalog description says: This vigorous winter cereal grain is a great choice for winter cover and soil stabilization. It grows rapidly in cool weather, forming a dense stand with an extensive root system that absorbs unused soil nitrogen and loosens heavy soils while suppressing weeds. It is important to incorporate quickly once mowed, or the stalks will become very woody. Rapid growth in the spring can be controlled by mowing. Sow 90-110 pounds per acre, increase as it gets later in the season or if your seed bed is rough. I follow their advice and mow the rye down with the mulching lawn mower several times from late February through mid-March. Then I’ll cover the beds with black plastic or a tarp and let the cover crop rot down for about a month. I experimented with this step several years ago and was really pleased to find that the rye grass as well as the roots broke down considerably under this cover, leaving friable soil nearly ready for planting.

Planting the cover crop is easy. The challenge is having enough compost to add to all the beds. Despite our efforts, we haven’t been able to make enough compost each year for all our beds. There’s usually enough to use in the fall or in the spring when I plant buckwheat in the beds that have held winter crops, but never enough for both seasons. Fortunately for us, though, there’s a great source of compost right here on Lopez Island. At Midnight’s Farm, David Bill and Faith Van De Putte have been making compost that is a perfect for our garden. Check out the Midnight’s Farm website and be sure to watch the 3-minute video that describes the compost making process.

A couple of weeks ago we stopped by Midnight’s Farm in our small pick-up truck for a yard of sweet-smelling compost that was enough to add to this fall’s eight beds.

Compost David filling truck

A bonus of driving to Midnight’s Farm is getting what David calls his “five-minute tour” of the compost operation, two minutes longer than the website video and just as inspiring.

Compost with David Bill

In fact, a few days later as my husband Scott was chipping up our corn stalks and other summer garden foliage and building our compost bins he imagined just taking all this garden waste to David next year and letting him and his machines do the work. It might be hard to give up making our own compost, but then again, it might not.

This week, the fall rains have begun in earnest, watering down through the layers of mulch, cover crop seeds and compost to the kitchen garden soil, starting the process of rebuilding the soil for next year. The next kitchen garden task won’t be for a few months when seed catalogs start arriving and I begin January by ordering seeds for the year ahead. But for now, the garden is resting and so am I.

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Gardening and Traveling

I love gardening and the meals that the kitchen garden offers, but I love traveling too. As I plan each year’s gardening calendar, decisions about when to plant are influenced by when I want to be away. Over the years, I’ve learned that with the help of gardening friends to water and to raise lights as indoor seeded plants grow I can arrange planting timetables that open spaces for travel throughout the year.

February and March are the months when I start seeds indoors for summer’s plants, tomatoes, eggplant and peppers; storage plants like shallots and onions; late spring plants like peas, broccoli and cauliflower; and long season plants like celery root.

Sometime in April, early or later depending on weather and when I’m home, I begin planting seeds in the ground, salad greens, spring turnips, carrots, beets, fennel and potatoes. In May I continue with seeds that need a little more warmth to germinate, corn and beans directly in the ground and squash in pots to germinate before setting them out as soon as they’ve formed true leaves. Late May is also the time to start leeks in pots or in a nursery bed so I can transplant pencil-size stalks in early July.

June to late July I’m thinking ahead to fall and winter vegetables, direct seeding parsnips in early June, starting Brussels sprouts indoors a week later, then cabbage, more broccoli and cauliflower indoors. In July I start kale, chard and more fennel, carrots and beets as well as winter turnips and rutabaga.

Early August and on into September I start seed of hardy greens like mache, arugula, mustards and radicchios. And from October to January I harvest fall and winter crops but have no more seeds to plant.

This planting summary suggests that October through January would be great months to travel and they are. Weeks of hiking and backpacking, more weeks of skiing, and longer trips farther away find room in the calendar. But spring is great for travel too. Attention to planting timetables and the help of a kind friend who’s happy to share my seed starting room to start her own plants make it possible.

Last year, I was away from the garden for most of April. Knowing that tomatoes take about six weeks from seeding to setting into the ground, I started tomato seeds on February 17th and set out sturdy plants in the greenhouse on March 27th a few days before leaving for a month.

tomato-starts-soil

 

tomato-seedlings-sturdy-tall

The same day I started tomatoes I also started some broccoli and cauliflower and set these starts out in the garden just before we left. On March 1st I seeded a flat of onions and set robust plants out in the garden when I returned at the end of April. Also on March 1st I started a flat of sugar snap peas and set them out in the garden on March 18th.  Finally, because I wanted to have eggplant and pepper starts ready to plant out when I returned, I started seeds in 1-inch cells on March 8th , moved these tiny seedlings to 4-inch pots three weeks later, just before leaving, and when I returned in a month sturdy plants were ready for the garden.

This year I’ll be traveling for most of March and into April. Encouraged by my success last year, I modified the timetable slightly. I’ll be back April 5th so I started tomatoes February 22nd and hope for plants to set out soon after I return. I’m starting eggplant and peppers in 2×2 inch pots March 6th, the day before I leave, and hope they’ll be ready to pot up into 4-inch pots when I return and then be ready for the garden a few weeks after that. I seeded onions on March 1st again this year but not peas. This spring has been so cold and wet that I’ll wait until I return to plant peas. And I’ll leave the broccoli and cauliflower I started February 22nd in 4-inch pots and hope they won’t be too overgrown to set out when I return.

Finding a balance between garden and travel, between being home and being away is a challenge for a year-round kitchen gardener but the adventure of travel makes it worth the effort.

 

Seeds for 2017

2017-seed-catalogs

Ordering vegetable seeds each year is a process of looking back at what worked and what didn’t and ahead to re-ordering old favorites and tempting new varieties. It’s a pleasant process, a good way to spend some January afternoons. This year though there was some sadness as well as I looked for acceptable replacements for some long-time favorites no longer available.

Avalanche Beet and Red Cored Chantenay carrot were delicious additions to the kitchen garden’s root vegetables this year. I’d ordered Avalanche, a sweet white beet and recent AAS winner, for its color. It looked great steamed or roasted with yellow and red beets and though its flavor was a bit milder than a red beet it was still deliciously beetlike. I’d ordered Red Cored Chantenay because my friend Mary gave me one to taste last winter and I was amazed by its juicy sweet carrot flavor. It’s an heirloom from the late 19th century and one I’m grateful is still available. I’ve also been especially impressed by how well it’s held this winter, heavily mulched with hay, through 20 degree night-time temperatures.

Two tomatoes that I’ll definitely plant again this year are Sunchocola , a large henna-colored cherry tomato, and Fiaschetto de Manduria, a paste tomato from Puglia via Uprising Organics. Both were flavorful whether fresh, roasted or dried. And both produced early and continued to provide lots of tomatoes throughout the summer.

A couple surprising disappointments were Escamillo and Lipstick peppers from Johnny’s. Johnny’s wonderful Carmen has been a favorite for years and the catalog described Escamillo as Carmen’s “perfect, golden-yellow partner.” It did look pretty but it was missing the sweet and spicy flavors I like in peppers. Lipstick tempted me with its blockier shape compared to Carmen’s bull’s-horn shape but it wasn’t so productive as Carmen or so flavorful.

It’s hard to resist new varieties of tomatoes and this year I gave in to two. The first is Orange Paruche, described by Territorial as “succulent, sweet and flavorful,” excelling “in productivity and taste with astonishing quantities of brilliant, glowing orange fruit.” But the deciding piece of praise for me was that Orange Paruche won Territorial’s in-house taste test. The second is from Territorial’s Heritage Marriage Series, Cherokee Carbon The catalog describes it as “the best of Cherokee Purple and Carbon… beautiful beefsteaks [that] have a dusky blush and rich, delicious flavor.” Cherokee Purple is one of my favorites and my friend Carol says Carbon is a great tomato so maybe this marriage will work.

Sugar Snap peas and Copra onions were two sources of sadness. For the past several years I’ve noticed the corruption of the original strain of Sugar Snap peas; more and more off types have been turning up, peas the shape of flimsy snow peas mixed in with the classic crunchy, sweet edible pea pod. Most catalogs no longer even offer the original Sugar Snap, suggesting as replacement Super Sugar Snap. I’ve tried Super Sugar Snap and been disappointed by the flavor so this year, intrigued by their catalog description, I’m trying Adaptive Seeds’ Sugaree . “A classic green sugar snap pea… Super tasty with a classic sweet crunch …Originally bred to be a public domain replacement for Sugar Snap…”

Copra has been the perfect yellow storage onion in my garden for years but this year’s Fedco catalog signaled its end with their description of Patterson Onion, the suggested replacement: “2016 is a time of great partings. Which is worse: losing Obama as president or losing Copra onion?” Well, there are replacements for Copra. Turning to Adaptive Seeds again, I’m going to try their Newburg  described as “simply the best open pollinated yellow storage-onion… a great replacement for the classic Hybrid Copra.” I can feel optimistic about a replacement onion; as for the just-inaugurated replacement for Obama, I feel only despair.

The garden can offer some relief from despair. It’s an act of hope to bury a small seed in the ground and trust that it will produce a plant and food. And the hopefulness of gardening can be a metaphor for other acts of hope. Small seeds of goodness can germinate, can grow and reach out into the world. I can’t order these seeds from a catalog but I’m going to look hard for them in the year ahead, plant them and join with others to move beyond despair.

Cold Snaps

We’ve had a lot of cold weather in the past few weeks, days barely above thirty-two and nights close to twenty. Almost every winter we get these cold spells, those of 2012 and 2014 come to mind, and during each I wonder what will still be thriving in the winter kitchen garden once the cold passes and we return to our usual temperate coastal winter temperatures. Experience tells me that the heavily mulched root vegetables, the rutabaga, turnips, parsnips, carrots, beets, will be fine and most of the plastic and Reemay-covered kale, mustard, arugula and radicchio will be too.  Walking through the garden, surveying the mulched mounds, the frosted cold frame, plastic tunnels and Reemay blankets, I remind myself that everything will taste sweeter after this cold. But it is hard to look at this frozen garden.

cold-mulched-beds-16

cold-cold-frame-16

cold-reemay-16

Luckily there are storage vegetables to get us through these cold times. Winter squash, potatoes, onions, dried beans and dried tomatoes and the shell beans, corn and peppers I put up at the end of summer all offer comforting meals. I have a black bean, poblano pepper and onion soup simmering on the stove for lunch. I may add a bit of leftover baked Buttercup squash to it for sweetness. And I’ll top it with a dollop of spicy red pepper hazelnut sauce.

black-bean-soup

I’ll roast another winter squash or two and make a savory tart and perhaps some squash soup. I’ll sauté some onions, thaw some roasted peppers and put them on a pizza.

pizza-pepper-onion-sausage

For a salad perhaps some corn, black beans and slices of dried tomato.

corn-black-bean-salad

We’ll be fine until the more temperate weather returns. And we’ll enjoy the clear skies and sun that come with these cold spells. If cold brings sun, it can’t be entirely bad.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

https://lopezislandkitchengardens.wordpress.com/2013/08/23/drying-tomatoes/

Seed Ordering 2016

Just after the New Year my friend Diane asked me if I’d finished my seed orders yet.   I laughed and said I hadn’t even begun. The fun of the holiday weeks had filled up any garden planning time.

But I knew I needed to get started and that the first step, before I’d let myself open even one of the 2016 catalogs piling up on my desk, was to organize and inventory my seeds. After arranging the seed packets alphabetically in shallow cardboard boxes, I peered into each packet and jotted down what I had enough of for another year and what I’d run out of and needed to replace. This bit of organization always gives me the illusion that all I need to do next is order the seeds I’ve run out of and I’ll be done. It should be that quick and easy, but it rarely is.

Seed boxes on desk

In addition to noting what I needed to replace,  I found myself jotting down phrases like “a new red beet,” “another broccoli,” “a yellow carrot this year and a better red carrot,” “a new sweet corn” “a bolt-resistant variety of fennel,” “a new red pepper,” “a new orange or yellow tomato.” It’s not that I’d run out of these seeds, but it was time for some change. And seed catalogs with their enticing descriptions and photographs offered lots of possibilities for change, maybe too many possibilities. At least the list of changes wasn’t too long.

On first reading, every variety looks great and it’s lovely imagining all of them growing in my kitchen garden, but knowing I should choose only one or maybe two or at most three varieties I reread the descriptions paying attention to the details wrapped in the tempting prose. Flavor and texture, appearance and color, size, days to maturity/harvest, heirloom, open-pollinated or hybrid, germination needs, disease resistance, cold or heat tolerance, preparation or serving suggestions all vie for attention.

Seed catalogs on desk

I started with beets, narrowing down Territorial Seed Company’s sixteen offerings to five candidates—Boro, Merlin, Cylindra, Lutz and Avalanche—and comparing them to beet descriptions in Fedco, Johnny’s, Pinetree and Adaptive. Boro has a slight edge over Merlin because I’m worried that Merlin, touted in Johnny’s for its sweetness, might be too sweet, and Boro’s “sumptuous, thick leaves” remind me of how much I like beet greens. Then there’s Cylindra, an heirloom with “bold, earthy flavor” and unusual shape that might be fun to try though Johnny’s catalog description notes that: “roots tend to push up out of the ground as they grow” and that for smoother shoulders hilling is a good idea. Would I get around to that? I’ve grown Lutz before for its winter-keeping qualities and liked it. Maybe it’s time to grow it again. And then, just to slow down the decision making process a bit more, there’s a white beet, AAS winner Avalanche, something completely new. I grow golden beets now, and white might be a nice addition to create a color trio. After nearly half an hour, I was ready to move on to broccoli.

So this is why it takes so long to complete seed orders. But it’s such a pleasant way to spend some January days. After several afternoons working through my list and through all my catalogs, I finally made my orders. And it’s still only mid-January.

The new entries are: Boro, Lutz and Avalanche for beets, a sprouting broccoli called Summer Purple, Yellowstone and Atomic Red carrots, Honey Select sweet corn, Preludio fennel and Mantovano fennel, Lipstick red pepper, and for orange tomatoes, two heirlooms, Persimmon and Valencia. These new varieties will arrive with all the other seeds that I ordered. The new garden year has begun.

Bees in the Worm Bin

We have a worm bin, a large plywood box our friend Kirm made for us years ago. The idea is to let worms turn vegetable and fruit trimmings into soil in the darkness of the box, safe under the heavy lid that keeps out pests like rats and raccoons. When I open the lid every few days to add more trimmings, all I see are slowly decomposing organic matter and the occasional sow bug.

Imagine, then, my surprise when I opened the worm bin on a recent afternoon and saw a mass of honeybees clustered around layers of honeycomb fixed to the upper corner of the lid.Bees closeup iPhone smaller

What the heck? That buzzing sound I’d heard when I neared the bin suddenly got louder. I quickly closed the lid.

There had been no buzzing or bees five days earlier when I left for a short trip, but in my time away a swarm of bees had found its way through a tiny opening where the lid met the box, perhaps mistaking the worm bin for a hive box. They had been busy.

We don’t have beehives but luckily our neighbors Kevin and Mary do. I called them and they agreed to come over that evening with their bee suits and a hive box and take a look. On the phone, Mary explained that swarming often happens this time of year. A queen and a large group of worker bees will leave their original hive and go looking, or swarming, for a new home. In this case, they found one in our worm bin.

We watched from a distance as Kevin and Mary, dressed in their protective bee gear, studied the layers of comb attached to the worm bin lid and planned how to transfer them to a hive box.

Bees K&M studying hive

Bees K&M closeup

Using a narrow scraper, Kevin gently eased each comb from the plywood lid and lowered it into the hive box. He explained that the comb was very warm and soft so the transfer was a bit tricky. In one of the combs he spotted the queen, a good sign he said for a successful transfer of the swarm to their hive box. A bit of comb broke off and Mary brought us the piece to taste. The honey was warm and runny, delicately sweet and almost fermented tasting like dessert wine.

Once they’d transferred the combs to their hive box, Kevin and Mary said they’d leave the hive box sitting in the worm bin until after dark, giving all the bees a chance to return to their new home, and then would come back and take it to join their other hives.

I called Mary a few weeks later to see how the new hive was doing. She said they were doing great and a few days later Kevin sent some photos.

Bees K & M #1

He wrote: “The first shows the swarm’s stack.  The bottom box (green) is a swarm from our hives.  The second box (white) is the “Hatch” swarm and the top box (green) contains the comb that they had built while in the worm bin.  We have since taken the green box away as they had cleaned out the comb, and we will melt it down with other wax we save.”

Bees K & M # 2

“The second picture shows some of our other hives, the swarm stack is on the right.  The “Hatch” swarm is very busy and the queen has started laying eggs.  It takes a couple of weeks from egg to bee, but soon we will see some young bees emerging from the white box. Thanks again.”

Here at my house the worm bin is back to its dark, quiet state. There are traces of wax on the lid where the worker bees attached the combs but that’s the only reminder of the temporary tenants. I haven’t tried to close that little gap between the lid and the box, though, hoping that maybe another swarm will decide to visit.

Transplant or Direct Seed?

Along with the decisions about when to plant, where to plant and how much to plant, one more decision for the kitchen gardener is whether to start seeds indoors for transplant out later or to direct seed in a garden bed where the plants will grow undisturbed. Heat-loving crops like tomatoes, eggplant and peppers are obvious candidates for seeding indoors and setting out when temperatures warm up while vegetables with long taproots like carrots and parsnips are clear candidates for direct seeding.

tomato seedlingsCarrots growing 1But for all the other kitchen garden vegetables, weather and soil conditions, garden pests, seed size and germination times, past experience and advice from many directions—seed catalogs, gardening books and friends—all come into play when deciding whether to transplant or direct seed.

Though planting advice in seed catalogs like the excellent Territorial Seed Company’s says that peas “may be sown as soon as the soil can be worked in the spring,” I stopped direct seeding peas years ago after losing too many plantings to hungry rodents. Instead, I start peas indoors in one-inch cells. The seeds germinate quickly and are ready to harden off and transplant in two weeks.Seedroom peas growing

I’ve always started storage onions in half-inch cells in late February for planting out in mid-April, but following Steve Solomon’s advice I’ve directed seeded leeks in late May in a “nursery bed” outdoors, raised them to “pencil size” and transplanted them to their permanent bed in mid-July. Leeks in nursery bedLeeks transplantedLast year though, the leeks seeds germinated very poorly due perhaps to dry weather and erratic watering so I ended up starting some indoors in pots then planting the not-quite-pot-bound clumps of tiny leeks into the garden. These potted leeks grew really well, reaching final transplant size about the same time as the direct seeded leeks did, so this year I’m starting all the leeks in pots, a first for me.

We always direct seeded squash, corn and beans in my family’s Massachusetts garden, but in the years that I’ve gardened in the Pacific Northwest, cool, damp springs and cold soil have pushed me to experiment with indoor seeding and transplants. The transplant method worked so well for squash that now I always start squash indoors. In 4-inch pots, the seeds germinate in less than a week and the plants grow quickly, ready to harden off and transplant in less than two weeks. This year seeds planted April 28th went into the garden beds on May 9th.

Squash seedlings

Transplanting also works really well for corn and beans and I’m grateful for gardening friends’ encouragement to try indoor seeding of these crops when spring is cool. This year, though, warm days in the first week of May tempted me to plant corn and beans directly in the garden beds. Luckily, the good weather held and a week later both beans and corn had germinated and begun to unfurl their leaves and grow. Next year’s weather may be different!

Corn seedlingsBean seedlings

The small seeds of broccoli, cauliflower, broccoli raab, Brussels sprouts and cabbage all germinate better for me if I start seeds indoors and transplant seedlings later. The one challenge has been hardening them off without stressing the plants. Cauliflower is especially sensitive to stresses from uneven watering, shifts in temperature and sudden sun so I have to be vigilant when introducing potted seedlings to the outdoors.

Kale, on the other hand, I’ve always directed seeded in mid-to-late July despite its tiny seeds. It usually comes up quickly and I can thin it to the final sixteen-inch spacing and put the thinned plants in salads. Last year, though, I had only a few seeds of one kale variety so I decided that starting indoors might hold fewer germination risks. The seeds all germinated and the plants grew well and transplanted beautifully. Direct seeding requires fewer steps so seems easier but I’m tempted take the extra time and try more kale transplants this year.

Finally, greens: lettuce, radicchios and escaroles, mache, arugula, mustards, spinach. They thrive both from direct seeding and from transplants but are sensitive to temperature. In my kitchen garden, I’ve learned that early and mid-spring direct seedings of lettuce germinate well in cooler temperatures and grow slowly so their leaves are more succulent. Lettuce mix small rowAs temperatures rise, I have better luck starting heat-tolerant summer lettuce varieties indoors for planting out. Or I simply wait until late summer when temperatures cool again and direct seed lettuce. Radicchios and escaroles also do better in my garden in cool weather so I grow them in spring and fall and because their tiny seeds are slow to germinate, I start them indoors and transplant them.Greens in flat

Mache is my favorite green for the winter garden and while I know that it will self-seed with abandon if I leave a few plants to flower in spring, the plants are never where I want them. For more orderly succession plantings, I start seeds indoors or in the garden in mid-August through September. If it’s still hot in August, I start seeds indoors and transplant. When cooler, damper weather arrives in September, I direct seed.Mache plants

Arugula and mustards are two more winter favorites that thrive in cooler weather. And because their tiny seeds are so quick to germinate, I’ve always direct seeded them. Spinach, on the other hand, has always been a germination challenge. Some years I’ll direct seed it in late September and it germinates vigorously and grows just enough to winter over and begin growing again in spring. Other years the seeds germinate poorly and/or garden pests nibble them away and I have to start seeds indoors and transplant. It’s a kitchen garden mystery I’ll keep trying to solve. And I’ll continue to experiment with transplanting and direct seeding for all these kitchen garden vegetables. As my lovely neighbor Frances often said, “There’s always next year.”