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Garden update: catching up after a late start

The photo above shows the greens bed on June 15. The yellow flowers are growing from the bolting bok choy plants. In front of the bok choy is the lettuce crop, in back are the cabbage and broccoli crops. To the right of the greens bed is the bed with beets and carrots; to the left is a bed with peppers, tomatoes, eggplants, tomatillos, ground cherries, basil, and two types of annual flowers, cosmos and zinnias.During the weeks since my last post, I have been adding the rest of this year’s crops to the vegetable garden, harvesting various crops, and keeping up with the lawn mowing. Now that summer crop planting is nearly completed and since it is raining yet again, I have time to offer my first update on the scientific dialogue that my garden and I are engaged in.

It’s rained a lot so far in 2013. According to the St. Louis NWS office, we’ve already received 30 inches of rain this year; compare that to the normal yearly rainfall of 40 inches which is rather evenly spread throughout the year to get a sense of how wet it has been. At our location I measured 7.1 inches of rain during April, 7.9 inches in May, and 5.7 inches of rain in June, a marked contrast to last year when we received almost no rain after the first week of May through the end of July. April 2013 was also cooler than normal, with our last frost occurring on April 20, while May was somewhat warmer than normal and June was near normal for temperatures. The only significant storm we have experienced so far this year was the close approach of the May 31 tornado that travelled about 32 miles across the St. Louis metro area. Near its end it passed a few blocks south of us at EF0 intensity. There was little if any hail associated with the tornado and thus no effect to the vegetable garden, but we experienced strong winds that threw tree limbs from neighboring trees on our yard. We lost electrical service for a few days but had no structural damage from the tornado. I’ll post about that experience sometime in the next few weeks as it is relevant to the larger purpose of my blog.

The combination of heavy rain and cool temperatures kept me out of the vegetable garden during most of April, a time when I should be planting all of the cool weather crops for the best yields. This year I planted the peas at close to the right time, April 5, but I did not plant the onion seedlings until April 24, the potatoes until April 30 and May 1, and the bed with cool-season greens such as lettuce, cabbage, and broccoli until May 12 and 13. It was May 17 before I planted seeds of parsnips, beets, and carrots. In all cases except for the peas this was well past when Missouri Extension recommends planting the crop, although I have planted on similar dates some past years.  The warmer weather since mid-May has been more favorable for garden work and I have planted warm-season crops like peppers, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, dry beans, cowpeas, and flint corn since then. I still have squashes, melons, and cucumbers to plant since I have found that the Missouri Organic Association’s recommendation to plant them in late June to early July to reduce squash bug damage works well for me.

The potato bed was the first bed I prepared and planted after receiving the report on soil sampling and preparing the fertilizer recipe for 2013. Since then each bed has received the recipe, modified to fit whatever phosphorus source I could buy locally or order on-line once the hard rock phosphate bag I had on hand emptied. The pea and onion beds were planted using the recipe from earlier years that was not matched to soil test results.

So far I have harvested all the spring lettuce, bok choy, and potato onions and garlic and nearly all of the peas. Because I did not pre-sprout the pea seeds and the soil at the time I planted them was quite cold, most of the seeds rotted. I should know by now that there is no point to my wasting pea seed on the garden unless I pre-sprout it before I plant it. Even with the poor germination, however, I still got about 3.3 pounds of garden peas from an area of 32 square feet, which translates to a yield of about 10 pounds per 100 square feet, not far below my best yield of 17 pounds per 100 square feet. Improving my pea-growing technique should result in improved yields even without fertilizing to remedy deficiencies on soil test results.

Since the area where the lettuces and bok choy were planted received the 2013 fertilizer recipe and the effects of using that recipe are part of this year’s scientific dialogue, I was especially interested in noticing any effects on lettuce yield and taste. Of the three varieties I grew this year, the winner for both taste and yield was ‘Anuenue’, the round green lettuce in the photo at the top of the page. It yielded at an adjusted level of 113 pounds per 100 square feet, slightly better than the previous best for any variety of lettuce I grow, and it set a solid head with a delicious taste and no bitterness at all, not even when it bolted! Neither ‘Bronze Arrow’ nor ‘Pirat’ tasted any better than usual and their adjusted yields were about half that of ‘Anuenue’. The bok choy yielded at 121 pounds per 100 square feet, not a high yield for a spring crop. All of it was bolting by the time I picked it, perhaps because the cool conditions in April primed it to bolt early. It tasted about the same as usual but it seemed to be less bothered than usual by the green caterpillars that feed on the cabbage-family crops. (The cabbage and broccoli also seem to be less bothered with the same insect pests this year.)

Of the root crops, the parsnip seeds showed very low germination. Because I have only grown this crop one other year, I did not remember that parsnip seeds require cool soil for good germination. Next year I plan to change how I grow it and the onions and leeks I grow from seed: I’ll add the parsnips to the bed that includes onions and leeks and direct-seed all three crops, ideally sometime between March 15 and April 10, rather than attempt to grow the onion and leek seeds in flats and then transplant the seedlings. This year the onion and leek seeds did not germinate well, perhaps because the porch was too cold during that time. I think direct-seeding and thinning the onions and leeks may result in a better stand and not take much if any more time than it did to transplant tiny onion and leek seedlings, and the parsnip seeds should germinate much better in the cooler soil at that time of year.

For those of you who are not familiar with potato onions, these are in the same genus and species as bulb onions but the bulbs divide underground into a cluster of bulbs as do shallots. The potato onions I grow look and taste like yellow bulb onions. Single bulbs of varying sizes are fall-planted and mulched after the ground freezes to prevent frost heaving. I use leaves to mulch my crop. In early to mid March when the ground thaws for the final time the mulch is removed so the bulbs can grow on. They are harvested when the tops die back around mid-June. This year I harvested them on June 18 for a yield of about 33 pounds per 100 square feet, about half of the best yield I’ve obtained from these onions. The better yield came in a year when I planted them 6 inches apart rather than 8 inches apart as I did last year. Last fall when I planted the crop I did not add any additional fertilization beyond what the previous dry bean crop received when I planted it. This year I will again plant the potato onions (and the garlic) in fall after the dry beans are harvested, but I may re-fertilize before planting the onions and I’ll plant them at 6 inches apart. In the long term I’d prefer to plant only these onions and not the bulb onions because the potato onions are much easier to work with. The yield of the potato onions in the best year has been higher than the best bulb onion yield, but it has taken me several years to learn from experience the need for the winter mulch and for its prompt removal in early spring in order to keep the potato onions alive during winter and allow them to grow on in spring. Once I am sure I know how to grow the potato onions well I will stop growing bulb onions and try to grow enough potato onions to satisfy our appetite for onions.

Of the fruits, I had a tied-for-best yield of strawberries: 40 pounds from the 100 square foot bed of them. This bed hasn’t been fertilized since I planted it in 2011 with two different varieties of strawberries, ‘TriStar’, an everbearer, and ‘EarliGlow’, a May bearer. We had so many strawberries that I was able to preserve some of the crop for later use for the first time. Later this summer I plan to renovate the bed by removing excess plants and weeds and adding the 2013 fertilizer recipe to the surface of the bed. By now I think most of the plants are ‘EarliGlow’, the flavor of which I prefer, so my goal will be to end up with one plant per square foot of all ‘EarliGlow’ strawberries in the renovated bed. I’m glad we had so many strawberries this year because the birds ate nearly all of the plums and are eating a lot of the blueberries before they ripen (I’ll try netting the blueberries later this week as some of the bushes still have most of the so-far unripe crop on them). I did harvest a little over a pound of serviceberries before the robins moved in one afternoon and stripped the two plants nearly bare. Later this summer we expect to harvest pears, apples, and persimmons, perhaps even a couple of pawpaws. I hope to harvest some hazelnuts and chestnuts as well if the squirrels decide to share them with us.


The photo above was taken on June 15. In the middle are the ‘German Butterball’ potatoes. The bed on the left has ‘Elba’ potatoes in back and sweet potatoes in front. These two high-calorie crops are a mainstay of the Ecology Action approach to growing high yields of foods in small spaces. This year I want to see if I can beat the best yields I’ve gotten so far for these two crops. The sweet potato slips were planted on May 29, at the right time according to Missouri Extension. Both crops look good so far. To the right is another view of the bed containing tomatoes and the other crops mentioned at the top of the post. This bed was planted on May 21 and 22 and so far all the plants are growing well. This year’s wet conditions are conducive to the disease that has attacked my pepper plants in past wet years, but it’s too early to tell if this year’s plants will be spared. So far they look good and have set peppers. The dry bean, peanut, cowpea, and flint corn crops were all planted in June and look about the way I would expect them to at this point.

It’s been a good start to the garden year with more to report later on as the summer crops start bearing. In the meantime, after the squash, melon, and cucumber seeds have planted, I will have other topics to write about. I’ll meet you here again after awhile!

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