Saturday, April 28, 2018

Growing kale

Lettuce to the left; kale to the right

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Kale is not only beautiful, it is good for you!  Kale is chock full of antioxidants, beta carotene, lutein, vitamins C and K, and calcium.  It also contains compounds that are potent against cancer, sulforaphane and indole-3-carbinol.  Nutritional info
Kale was the first to be domesticated from the ancient cabbage family of plants.  The Celts were the first to cultivate these greens, causing the birth of kale, broccoli, cabbage, collards, cauliflower, brussels sprouts and kohlrabi.  

Thomas Jefferson’s favorite kale was a variety similar to a Siberian kale.  He also grew a variety similar to today's Tuscan kale, also known as dinosaur or black kale; a very striking plant to have in the garden with its long, dark blue-green and bumpy leaves.

Most kale is a biennial, but there are still perennial varieties if you can find the seed.  Perennial varieties include tree collards, walking stick kale, western front kale, Dorbenton kale, and sea kale.  I have grown these in my garden but have not had luck in their survival over a couple of years, but are fun to try!  

Dwarf blue curled kale
If you want to save seed from the biennial, you have to allow the kale to go through one winter, allow to flower and dry on the plant.  Kales cross easily with other kales and collards so if you want true to type, grow only that kind in your garden.  Flowering kale have pretty yellow flowers and the bees love them!

There are many colors and textures of kales.  There are the “dinosaur” kales which have a blistered, black appearance, red kales, green kales, dwarf kales, green, red kales, and ornamental kales which are edible.  Some are more winter hardy than others.  Check seed packets for descriptors like "winter hardy" and "cold tolerant".  Those grown in the fall are sweetest if picked after a frost.  Fall garden planning and planting

Kale is generally a fall crop but can be cultivated in the spring.  They can be started indoors or direct seeded in May (soil temp of 55-75 degrees F).  They prefer rich soil and should be kept moist until sprouted.  Sow seeds 1/4” deep and 4-6” apart, thin to 12”.  If planting rows, allow at least 18”.  I have also had great success raising them in a pot. 

Several varieties of kale come available as bedding plants in March.  There are also a couple varieties of collards.  Both can be planted into beds and pots in our Zone 7 garden now.

For fall, plant around Independence Day (July 4th).The kales I planted last fall are still alive.  I had several different kinds planted in pots.  Kale is very cold hardy. 

You can harvest the outer leaves when they are 8-10” long for cooking or juicing.  You can also harvest the leaves when smaller for salads.  Store at 32 degrees and high humidity in the frig for the longest life.

One of the fun ways to prepare kale is to salt and dry in a dehydrator or low temp in the oven.  They can be eaten as you do chips, but are much healthier.  

For any that I don't eat fresh, I blanche and freeze to add to a steamed veggie side dish or to soups.  You do need to blanche kale and other greens to maintain the taste.  Freezing the extras for winter

Sunday, April 22, 2018

What to plant now

Dill in front, mint and French sorrel in background

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Now is a great time to plant plants or sow seeds outdoors in Midwest gardens!  There are a bevy of different fruits, herbs, and vegetables that mid April is the perfect time to plant.

This is a great time to plant apple trees, blackberry vines, blueberry bushes, raspberry vines, rhubarb, and strawberries.  Spring sun is not too intense and spring rains nourish the plants to grow strong root systems before summer heat and drought kick in.

Spring is perfect for all herbs except basil and stevia.  A frost will kill these heat lovers.
Cilantro, a cool season herb, in foreground, sage in background

Asparagus, broccoli, cabbage, carrots, all greens, kale, lettuce, all mustards, onions, peas, potatoes, radishes, spinach, tatsoi, and turnips.
Buttercrunch lettuce in Earthbox

It is still too early to plant heat lovers without the benefit of cover  Extend the season with protection for plants

May 1 is the date the old timers say is when to plant your summer veggies.  Summer planting by month  Summer veggies include tomatoes, eggplant, squash, and peppers.  Come May 1, check your extended forecast and if it is calling for the low’s to stay out of the 30’s, this is the green light to plant the heat lovers.  

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Everything to know about growing onions

Potted Egyptian walking onion

Saturday, April 21, 2018

In America, there are wild Alliums known as wild garlic or ramps.  The onions we cultivate in our gardens today likely originated from a wild Asian onion, but has been grown so long, the road back to the original is lost. Two thousand years ago, there were many varieties that we would recognize today. There were round onions, white onions, red onions, flat onions, long onions, keeper onions, sweet onions, spicy onions. 

Onions have been important for their perceived health benefits in times gone past and proven health benefits today as well as the fabulous taste they add to an array of dishes.  For the nutritional rundown, onion nutritional info

Onions are easy to grow, have little to no pest problems and are a perennial to boot!  They will hang out in the garden until you pull them.  Some will even multiply underground and produce "seeds" above ground.

Onions have shallow roots, like to be moist, but can’t stand being waterlogged. Continuously wet soil causes them to rot.  You should enrich the soil with plenty of organic matter before planting. As common sense would tell us, they also like loose soil that allows their bulb to expand without restriction. Organic matter helps this along. Onions can be grown in the ground or in pots. My perennial Egyptian walking onion has been growing in its pot for 10+ years.

In the Midwest, seeds can be started indoors as early as February and transplanted outdoors in March. Transplanting should be done 4-6 weeks before the last spring freeze for spring planting.  Planting later than this is also fine.

Since onions are perennials you can also plant in the fall, October for our Zone 6/7 garden. For multiplier type onions, fall planting will provide a bigger harvest next spring and summer.  

Egyptian walking onions propagate underground and through their bulblet tops they put on at least twice a year.  In our area, Our Egyptian walking onions put on their bulblets in May or June.  As soon as the bulblets turn reddish brown and have filled out, they are ready to plant.  

The more popular method of starting onions is planting “sets” that are young onions that can be put out in early spring as soon as the soil can be worked, just as the daffodils begin to fade for full size onions.  You can plant later and still get scallions or smaller bulbs.  Or leave in the ground overwinter for a bigger harvest the following year.
Bulbing onion flowering in late spring

You can place them close together and pull for scallions until the bulbing onions are 5-6” apart. As the bulb reaches full size, you can pull the soil away from the top of the onion to help the bulb and neck cure for harvest.

You can also plant the bottoms of store bought onions. If you get enough of the bottom, the onion will take root and give you an onion next season.

Onions tell you when they are ready to harvest, when half of their tops fall over. What can be easier than that? Like garlic, they should be lifted rather than pulled from the ground and leave them in shade for about a week to harden. I use a trowel to dig under the bulb and pop them out. You don’t want to knick them or they will not store well. If you do, keep them in the fridge and use them first.
Onions and garlic ready for harvesting

So, how do you choose which onions to plant? The best bet is to talk to your local nursery to see which grow the best in your area for the ones that thrive in your climate.

There are 3 types of bulbing onions-short day, intermediate day, and long day onions. Intermediate and long day varieties have been around for a long time. Short day onions are relatively newcomers.

Onions are sensitive to daylight hours. They start forming bulbs when daylight hours hit a minimum. For long day onions, it is 15 hours. For intermediate, it is 12-13 hours. Short day onions are 9-10 hours.

I would have thought long day onions would be for further south, but this is wrong. The north gets the really long summer days (think of Alaska in June with no darkness). Long day onions should be planted in states north of the Oklahoma/Kansas border (approximately 36 degrees latitude).

Long day onions are planted in states in the northern part of the US, intermediate in the middle and short in the South.

Short day onions are planted in the fall and form bulbs in the spring. Intermediate and long day onions are typically planted in the spring as sets, not seeds. Seeds require sprouting indoors and transplanting.

So, if you want a sweet onion and live in the Midwest, Vidalias are not the best bet since it is a short day type. A better choice is a Walla Walla or a Sweet Spanish.
Close up of onion flower
The other thing to keep in mind is that, like wine, onions pick up the terroir they are grown in. You can grow the exact same onion as you buy in the store or at a farmers market but have a different taste because of the differences in your soil.

There are many fun onions to grow besides the round ones. There are the flat disk like Borrettana Cipollini or the Red Baron onion that is a red scallion type onion. Of course, there is the onion made famous in French cooking, the shallot-French, Gray or Sante are well known varieties.

Then, there are onions for keeping over the winter like Rossa Di Milano, Early Yellow Globe, Sweet Sandwich, and Granex Yellow.

Onions will also keep over another year in the ground. When onions I planted last spring did not get to decent size, I left them over the winter. They gave nice bulbs the next summer.

Another type of onion is the Egyptian walking onion (pictured above in a pot). It is a perennial that you can pull year round. They do not form bulbs. They are about the size of a large scallion or leek, getting an inch or two wide and 3” long bulb. They also grow great in a pot. When they get their bulblets, they remind me of Medusa. Really cool.  You just snap off the bulblets, separate them and plant for scallions this year or more onions next year.  They also multiple underground year on year.  For more on Egyptian walking onions:  Egyptian walking onions

They are one of my must haves in the garden since they can be harvested year round. Their bulb is great as a cooking onion and their greens as a chive.

Onions are a great addition to the garden. They are perennials, easy to grow and have little to no pest problems. I really like the perennial type onions, the Egyptian walking onions and multiplier onions like potato onions. The Egyptian you can just leave in place and harvest from year round. The multiplier potato onion has a very long shelf life indoors for a storage onion. When you harvest it, just leave behind the smaller onions and they will multiply again for next year’s harvest.

Garlic on the left, newly planted onion sets on the right
This spring my Egyptian walking onions are doing great.  I planted some onion seed several weeks ago in my mini greenhouse outdoors, but am not seeing a lot of action there yet and I bought intermediate day bulbs with white, sweet and red onion sets.  These I planted a few weeks ago and are doing just fine.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Easy ways to make a new vegetable garden bed

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Making a new garden bed can seem like a monumental, labor intensive task, but it doesn’t have to be.  There are several minimal labor ways to make a new bed.  It all begins with a hose and old newspaper and/or cardboard.

The best place to put a vegetable garden is close to the house where there is good sun, ideally a spot that gets southern exposure.  Check out where the sun falls throughout a sunny day to see where the best locations are in your yard.  Don’t be concerned if your garden spot gets some shade each day.  Fruiting vegetables need the most sun, 6-8 hours.  Root vegetables require less and leafy vegetables require the least.  Leafy vegetables appreciate getting afternoon shade in the hot days of summer.

Once you have picked out a spot, you can use a hose to lay out what you want the bed to look like.  We then use a spray can of landscaping paint to paint out the edges of the bed.  

The easiest next step is to cut the grass inside your new bed as short as possible.  Then lay several layers of newspaper or cardboard over the top of the closely sheared grass and cover with compost then mulch.  Now, just let the bed lay until the grass dies.  Use a balanced fertilizer when you plant.

Another option is after mowing close to the ground and laying the newspaper/cardboard, dump garden soil over it all, add compost, fertilize and plant immediately.  Just be careful to not cut through the newspaper or you will get grass growing in your new garden bed.

We have also used a sod cutter, cutting up the sod in our new bed.  Then, turning it upside down, covering with newspaper/cardboard, a couple of inches of compost, mulch, and plant.

If you don’t need your garden bed to be “pretty”, a quick way to plant is to simply poke holes in bags of garden soil, put the perforated side down, cut open the top side of the bag and plant away.  The plastic underneath will keep the grass from growing through.  The downside is that your veggie plant roots won’t be able to grow down as well either.  But if you don’t have time, this is a good way to get started.  You can edge around the bags and removed them the following year, adding compost and have a ready made bed for the following year.

You can also go the raised bed route.  There are many do it yourself, precut raised bed kits that you can purchase.  Use the same techniques above to make sure the grass won’t grow up through into your veggies.  Newspaper and cardboard works great for this.  Fill with good soil, compost, an all natural fertilizer and you are ready to plant.

The pros of raised beds is that they warm up quicker in the spring and you control the soil that you are growing in.  The cons, the temperature is not as constant as if in the ground and they will need to be watered more often.

There are several options to getting your garden bed in place that don’t require a ton of time or hard labor.  Now is the time to choose one and get your spring garden growing!

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Ideal soil temperatures for seed starting

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Adding some bottom heat can greatly increase the germination rate of many vegetables, particularly the heat loving veggies, in the spring.  In the summer, you may need to start seeds indoors or in a shady area.

Summer veggies like tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, cucumbers, squash, and beans love a little extra heat.  Tomatoes, eggplant and peppers need temps at least 60 F to germinate in a timely manner.  If you try and start the summer lovers in cold soil, many times the seed will rot before it sprouts.

A good rule of thumb is at least 70 F soil temps for starting summer veggies indoors.  You can buy a simple, cheap heat mat at any big box store.  For a list of germination rates by temperature and crop, this is a good link

For cold crops, hotter is not better.  Lettuce will not germinate if the soil is above 80 F.  This is the reason you may need to start lettuce indoors during the dog days of summer unless you have a cool, shady spot to start the seeds.

Seeds sprouting in an Aerogarden
If you want to go high tech, I found that using an Aerogarden with the seed starting insert gave an almost 100% germination rate.  Here is a link to their web page:
Look for the "Garden Starter System" accessory for the seed starting insert.

It can be tempting to start all your seeds as soon as you get them.  If you are starting them outdoors, be sure they are sown when the temps are right for the type of crop.  If growing indoors, you can modify the conditions to what suits the type of veggie you are sprouting.

For more on seed starting tips, see Indoor seed starting tips

Sunday, April 8, 2018

What we are eating from the garden now

Portable greenhouse lettuce, ready to eat!

Sunday, April 8, 2018

This has been the winter that doesn't want to end!  We have snow on the ground today!  Luckily, it should melt by later today.  So, what is popping up in the garden?  

Fall planted garlic, Elephant garlic, arugula, French sorrel, blood veined sorrel, kale, oregano, cultivated dandelions, common chives, strawberries, onions, wild leeks, sage, leeks, overwintered carrots, overwintered miner's lettuce, newly planted peas, volunteer lettuce, catnip, tarragon, horseradish, thyme, newly planted lettuce, kale, cabbage, and spinach.  

It has not been warm enough to put out under our covered deck our kumquat, overwintered celery, lemon balm, pepper plants, tropicals or any newly bought herbs.  The eggplants did not make it through indoors this year.

The lettuce, kale, cabbage and spinach that I put in my new portable greenhouse a month or so ago is close to full size.  The plants are growing well enough that we can pick leaves for salads now.

The forsythias and Redbud trees are are in full bloom.  This is the sign that it is time to use an organic weed and feed to treat pre-emergent weeds, and green up the yard!  Redbud flowers are edible.  They taste similar to peas.  Pretty and tasty in salads!  Growing edible flowers

We are behind this year in fertilizing and mulching the garden bed.  The reason?  Chickens and guineas!  My hubby got us baby chicks and keets last spring.  The chickens are giving us lots of eggs.  We let them free range.  The bad news is that they love my edible garden!  They don't like alliums so the onions, leeks, and garlic have been left alone along with the horseradish, strawberries, daylilies, lilies, glads, hostas, potatoes, and herbs.

I'll have to wait to fertilize, mulch and plant in the garden beds until we have a way to keep the chickens out of the garden.  
Portable greenhouse
The pots are already full with sown cilantro, peas, purple orach, rat's tail, arugula, corn salad, intermediate day onions, carrots, dill, red veined sorrel, Alpine strawberries, garlic chives, parsley, Belle Isle cress, kale and salad burnet; all edible plants that enjoy spring's cool temperatures.
I love mixing herbs, different types of greens and lettuces in salads.  It took a bit to get the miner's lettuce going, but now it is doing great!  Miner's lettuce is very similar in taste to arugula.  The advantage of having both in the garden is that miner's lettuce is harvestable through most of the cold months and when it goes to seed, arugula is in its prime.

This week end we had mixed herb, greens and lettuce salads.  Our cultivated dandelion were decimated by the chickens.  Typically, they would be full sized and ready to eat.  Dandelion greens are super nutritious and get sweeter when cooked.  Dandelion nutrition info  Use dandelion greens as you would spinach.
Portable greenhouse with greens
The cilantro does not last long; as soon as it warms up, it bolts.  You have to succession plant these to keep them in the garden.  Place them in a cool spot that gets some morning sun, but is in the shade the rest of the day.  Parsley does great for the entire season in any location.  

I had to start any chard this year as it was one of the delicacies the chickens loved to eat in the call.  Last year they overwintered.   I like them in a mix of colors.  Chard is beautiful in orange, red, yellow, burgundy, fuchsia and white stemmed varieties.  I plant them along the back of the garden bed as they grow to as tall as 4-5'.  
Second portable greenhouse, sown on January 28th
Small chard leaves are great in salads.  Large leaves are great steamed.  The stalks of the large leaves can be used like celery, but very pretty celery!  Chard is also a tender perennial.  The white stemmed is the most cold hardy.  I have had a red one that came back for years.  For year round steamed greens, grow chard!

Carrots and beets will overwinter in pots or the garden.  There are a few carrot seedlings sprouting from letting them go to seed last summer.  I have sown  chervil from seed.  It is great on chicken and seafood.  I love the fragrance and benefits it adds to my skin oil I make.  Make your own fragrant herbal body oil

I like broccoli raab or sprouting broccoli because you get small broccoli heads throughout the entire growing season versus one large head at once.  The leaves are also edible and great to add to salads.  I am waiting to see if these survived the winter in the pots they were in last year.  Two plants give us all the broccoli and broccoli leaves we needed for our salads.  They grow to be large plants.  If planting in a container, thin to one plant in a large pot.  Sprouting broccoli- a year round fav

Now is also the time to plant spring garlic.  Fall is the best time, but you can get scapes and small cloves by planting in spring.  I also have garlic resprouting from the first crop I planted.  When you dig the garlic in the fall, there are tiny cloves that usually get left behind.  These will come back in the spring.  The tiny cloves may take 2 seasons to get up to full size cloves.  Time to plant garlic! With growing tips......
Kale and cabbage in the portable greenhouse
Our potato onions and Egyptian walking onions are harvestable for cooking.  They both overwinter well.  I love Egyptian walking onions as you can harvest them year round and they are so easy to grow, either in the garden or a pot!  I use the bulb as you would a white onion and the tops as you would chives.  Egyptian walking onions

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Have a natural, organic lawn

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Have you ever noticed that every time a lawn care company treats your lawn, they post warning signs to not have pets or people on the grass for 24 hours?  That doesn’t sound like something that is good for you or your family.

Chemical fertilizers and weed killers kill the microbes in the dirt as well.  These microbes are extremely important to supporting the plants growing.  They help provide the nutrients your turf needs to be resilient through all seasons.

So, what are the options?  You can go all natural and organic.  It takes 2-3 years for the microbes to rebound and your turf to get the full benefit of going all natural.  You can help boost your lawn's recovery with microbe containing fertilizers and compost.

The system we like is from Espoma.  It is applied 4 times a year with a season specific formula.  The cool thing about organic, natural fertilizers is that they do not burn the lawn.  You don’t have to worry about applying too much, like you do with chemical fertilizers.  Don’t be concerned either that the NPK numbers on the bag are lower.  Natural products don’t get washed away like chemical fertilizers so you don’t need the high numbers. 

They have different types of fertilizer for different seasons and needs.  For root and microbe stimulation, there is a New Lawn formula.  For spring when the forsythia's bloom you would want to apply the Weed Preventer.  To green up your lawn in the spring, there is a Spring Lawn Booster.  There is also a Summer Fertilizer, a Fall Fertilizer, or if you just want an anytime there is an All Season Fertilizer.  

The great thing about organic, all natural fertilizers is that they do not burn the lawn and they last 2.5x longer than chemical fertilizers.  You can also use them on your edible garden and  they are people and pet friendly.  No “Stay Off the Lawn” signs needed!

You will have a lush, green lawn in 2-3 years using this system.  You won’t have the thatch that you see in chemical yards either.  Make sure that you are reseeding to keep the carpet thick to crowd out weeds.  

I would say this is the hardest part of organic-the weeds.  Options are using vinegar on hot days on the weeds, using a propane burn torch, or good, old fashioned pulling.  If you do resort to chemicals for weeds, try to spray as local as possible and do so close to when you are going to apply your next round of fertilizer to help with repopulating the microbes the chemicals killed.

Be sure to use the pre-emergent (corn gluten) every year when the forsythias bloom; this is in the Espoma Weed Preventer.  This will keep the weed seeds from sprouting.  If they don’t sprout in the spring, they won’t get a stand going in your yard, making it much easier to pull the few that do make it into your yard.  Corn gluten is also a natural fertilizer and will green up the lawn at the same time.

A natural, organic lawn needs much less watering than a chemical lawn and stays green almost all summer with no watering. 

We're going to try a grass mix that stays short so less mowing is needed.  This will save time and not stress the grass as much in the summer, further reducing watering needs.

For additional tips on a sustainable garden and yard, 10 tips for a sustainable garden & yard