{ Archive for the ‘maintenance and techniques’ Category }

The verdict on solarizing weeds

My weed-solarizing experiment has been running for over six weeks now. It’s been quite wet and cool this spring, so it was a little slow to start, but we’ve had a few good hot days now and I am ready to call the winner:

Clear plastic after 40 days

Black plastic after 40 days

While initially I thought the clear plastic was working the best, the black plastic seems to have the best long term results. Probably the total light deprivation.

Things I would do differently next time:

1. Use bigger sheets of plastic. The garbage bags did the job, especially on an “experiment” basis, but finicky to use on the larger scale I intend to do. Also, I’m sure a heavier weight would change the effectiveness.

2. Cut everything back right down to the ground before laying the plastic. It would go down much smoother, and you wouldn’t have such a mess of dried up stuff to clean up afterwards.

3. Sealing out the air seems to make as much difference as sealing out the light. fix the edges really well as well as any seams.

4. If possible, I would try to leave the plastic in place for a full year, as different weeds manifest in different seasons.

 

The slap-dash planting of the raspberries

So I ordered some new Souris” raspberry canes this spring. Chris and I discussed where they might go, and we agreed to make them into a hedge in the mostly undeveloped back pasture of our property. He agreed to prepare the ground for me before the arrival of said canes, as they would likely already be sprouting and would need to go straight in.

Bless the dear man, he completely forgot, being busy rebuilding our back entry. How can I complain when I’m getting new lockers for all the kids?

But all the same, when they did arrive last week, I was faced with budding raspberry canes, inches of  imminent rain, and a grassy, decidedly un-ready plot.

So here’s what I did.

With my fingers crossed.

The ground being too wet to till, and about to get much wetter, I put the mower on its lowest setting and cut a strip where we had decided to put the hedge. Then I started digging a row of holes in the centre of the strip–just enough to loosen the soil about ten inches across and ten inches down. I pulled out any big clumps of grass or dandelion roots, threw down a bit of bone meal for some insurance, and tossed a cane in each hole.

The rain actually started to fall about halfway through the job, but I kept working.

And lastly, to keep down the grass and weeds around the fledglings, I laid down some carpeting scraps. You can buy fancy circles from the garden centre for this purpose, but the rain was falling and I live a good half-hour away from major shopping centres. Also, I’m cheap.

I cut slits for the canes to get the best coverage. this is how I always mulch baby trees. Mower goes right over top. You can also use cardboard, but you'd probably want to add some kind of mulch over top so the wind doesn't take it away.

I’ll leave the carpet in place until next spring, when I will remove it to allow new canes to emerge. By then most of the grass and weeds will be killed back, and I can decide whether to adjust the carpet for the new canes, or till, or mulch, or whatever. That’s next year. For now, I have raspberries in the ground, all in about a half hour, despite the rain and a forgetful husband.

(New lockers!)

 

 

 

Why thinning?

That time has arrived for my earliest crops: they need thinning. I sigh, as I am wont to do over this task, and mumble once again, “Isn’t there some way to avoid this fiddly, tedious, extra task?”

Come on, admit it, doesn’t it seem like a make-work project to plant a bunch of seeds, and then, after a few weeks, take a bunch of them back out?

Why not just plant them all at the right spacing to begin with and be done with it, right?

Every year I think this, and every year I talk myself back into doing it the long way. Here’s some of the reasons why.

1. Bad germination. Sometimes only some of what you plant will actually sprout. I hate to break it to you, but there’s a lot that can go wrong before those little plants are even born.Could be heavy spring rains washing out or rotting seeds, dry weather frying them, critters stealing them, less than ideal soil temperature, or just plain bad seed. So you over-plant, improving the odds that you will have enough germinate for your needs, and insuring yourself against empty gaps in your rows or squares (along with the resulting urge to re-seed).

2. Plant strength. Not every seed is absolutely, one-hundred-percent identical. Each might respond differently to the exact micro-climate you place it in. By planting thickly, you can choose those plants that seem the strongest to focus your resources on, discarding those that are weaker– and you do this when they are quite young to give the survivors the best chance and the most room.

3. Nature of the beast. No matter how far apart you plant some seeds, you will always need to thin because the “seed” is actually a seed pod, containing a group of seeds. Beets are a good example. In these cases, just resign yourself to the necessity.

My biggest problem with thinning is this horrid feeling that I am killing tiny bits of life. All that potential! How can I toss it at the compost heap? But the truth is, by sacrificing those little guys, you really are improving the production of the rest. I had two big squares of carrots last year. One I thinned early, the other got pushed to the bottom of the list until well into July. You would not believe the difference in the harvest in those two squares (both seeded and germinated evenly): the first gave me pounds of medium to large sized carrots, the second had lots of tiny ones, the kind that are just annoying to try to clean and prepare.

‘Nuf said.

So away I go, with some good sharp scissors, and weigh my little seedlings in the balance. Those found wanting get a snip right at the soil line (yanking them up is more likely to disturb roots on the keepers).

There is the odd time you might find three really strong, healthy looking specimens grouped too close together. I have been known to dig some up and move them to a more suitable spot, but be warned: only try this on plants that don’t mind root disturbance.

Though I haven’t quit my grumbling about one of my least favourite garden chores, I try to keep as my mantra a little piece of wisdom I heard someone say somewhere, sometime: “I would rather grow a few plants really well, than an acre-full badly.”

The war on weeds: how to bake or solarize weed patches

I’ve been pretty up front with the world as to my losing battle against the dandelions, thistles, and various invasive grasses. But I’m tired of the shame. I am ready to fight back in a big way this year.

Before

 

I picked a weedy spot against the house that is supposed to be a gravel walkway to try an experiment with solarizing–a method of weed killing that basically uses the power of the sun to fry the suckers. Aptly known also as ‘baking’, you cover the area with plastic, weighting it down so the plants beneath are both deprived of oxygen and exposed to extreme heat. You have likely seen this principle in action when the lid for the kids’ sandbox accidentally got left out in the middle of the lawn for two weeks and everything under it turned yellow. Same principle, except we’re doing it on purpose.

I decided to try both clear and black plastic to see if one might me more effective than the other. So far, the clear seems to be working better, but I only put this together last Friday, so the jury is still out. Stay tuned.

 

 

Clear plastic, after five days. I probably should have whipper-snipped everything first, to avoid the seeds.

I just used garbage bags, without cutting them open or anything, so a double layer of plastic, and then weighted them with rocks. Making it airtight would result in a stronger effect, I would think.

UPDATE: July 5, 2013

Soil health: starting the season right

I love this quote from Beverley Nichols that showed up in an advice article in my CG email this week:

“Light in a garden is a quarter of the battle. Another quarter is the soil of the garden. A third quarter is the skill and care of the gardener. The fourth quarter is luck. Indeed, one might 
say that these were the four Ls of gardening, in the following order of importance: Loam, Light, Love and Luck.”
 

In fact, several of the bits of advice in the article mention the importance of healthy soil.

I consider myself a fairly well informed gardener. I’ve gleaned quite a bit of knowledge over the years about all kinds of topics, and lucky me, I have a pretty solid memory retention. But when it comes to soil health, I’ve pretty much spread on the compost and crossed my fingers. Last year, I started feeling that my soil was getting depleted. I can’t tell you exactly why, just a general sense that growth wasn’t as strong as it could be, drainage more sluggish than normal.

So when I learned a class was being put on by a neighbour, an expert in agricultural soil health, I immediately marked it on my calendar. The evening was really valuable, and I learned a whole lot, but it truly is one of those topics that start feeling bigger the more you learn.

Some of the fundamental things I seem to be doing right, but I’ve never been one to add commercial fertilizers, and I think my compost is simply missing some of the trace minerals that plants and soil need. Your average garden-center NPK (Nitrogen-Phosphorous-Potassium) products don’t have them either.

Here’s a few of the nutrients I learned about from my neighbour. A soil test is the best way to determine what you need, and a really good garden centre or agricultural consultant should be able to help you identify ways of adding them.

Nitrogen: encourages vegetative, or leafy, growth. If your pepper plants look gorgeous but aren’t flowering or setting fruit, they probably have (proportionally) too much nitrogen. Gasses off quickly, so must be topped up more frequently than other nutrients.

Phosphorous: encourages strong root growth and structure. Part of the problem with phosphorous is that it tends to bind with the soil, making not all of what’s in there available for plants to use. It’s needed early in the plant’s growth to do the most good.

Potassium: I always thought this was nutrient for flowering and fruiting, but the real benefit of this important nutrient is how it builds a plant’s aerial (above ground) structure: how strong the stems and leaves are, how well it can take up water, etc. Also fights high levels of magnesium.

Sulphur: competes with sodium. I need to keep the sulphur levels higher than my sodium levels and it will minimize the effects of an alkali (high sodium) soil–but that’s because I have a fairly alkaline (high pH) soil. If you have a more acidic soil, use calcium to balance out the sodium. (Are you confused yet?)

Calcium: among other things, contributes to the storability of the harvested fruit.

Boron: important in plant reproduction. When boron levels are low you end up with hollow potatoes and strawberries, or pea pods with only a few peas in them. But careful: high levels are toxic.

Then there’s magnesium and aluminum, which at high levels cause cracks on top of the soil and contribute to drainage problems. And selenium and zinc, which contribute to both human and plant immunity. But selenium is restricted in Canada as it’s categorized with–get this–arsenic.

Yikes. Apparently there’s a reason people go to universtiy to understand all the ins and outs of this science. I’m ready to throw up my hands and go back to my compost and crossed fingers.

But I did get a bag of fully balanced synthetic fertilizer, which I am spreading on this weekend–with the compost and the leaves.

 

Rescuing garden centre orphans

The height of summer hits and it’s inevitable: heat ravaged, root bound annuals get deeply slashed price tags. And I, being me, can’t help but take a quick gander through the rows of pallets and flats at the local big box.

This year I scored: a few weeks ago two plants from my wish list, wood forget-me-not (Myosotis sylvatica) and an all-yellow Iceland poppy (Papaver nudicaule ‘Pacino’), were languishing away hidden among the dried-out grasses, begging me to take them home for a buck a piece. How could I refuse?

Back home though, reality set in. How would I keep this poor things from going even further downhill when I added transplant stress and a heat wave to their list of complaints?

Well, they lived for me to tell the tale, so I’ll tell you what I did: after transplanting them I top dressed them with a couple handfuls each of worm compost and watered them in well. Then, for about the first week, in addition to keeping them watered, I covered them with milk crates I have kicking around.

This is a trick taught to me by an old friend, now gone. It keeps the airflow at maximum while keeping the transplants in the shade while they get the feel of their new home, and is heavy enough that it doesn’t blow away like a cardboard box might.

After that first week, I took the crates on and off randomly for a few days to expose the plants gradually to the sun. They’ve been unprotected (but still watered well) now for a good five days and here they are:

 

 

They need a little clean up, but lots of happy growth going on. I’d call this rescue successful… do you think it counteracts the sow thistle I can’t seem to catch up with?

 

The great gardener’s paradox

I can not win.

My daughter gave me a fridge magnet last Christmas that reads “Gardening forever, housework whenever“. It makes me smile. And I try to live by its wisdom. But the other demands on my time don’t seem to appreciate my priorities.

I spend a lovely, productive day in the garden, then come back inside to realize all the stuff I forgot to do in other aspects of my life. Unopened urgent emails, un-refilled fish tank sucking air through the filter… what’s that? You children want to eat?

So I shift gears, try to repair my negligence a little. Get the laundry put away, make the phone calls I’ve been putting off, help with the Social Studies diorama. But before I know it, four days have passed. The garden is jealous of my attention, and pouts, and the dandelions seed with abandon. Never mind the annoyed greenery in the porch, still waiting for me to get them in the ground. They might as well have their leafy stems crossed and their flowery brows knitted into a scowl.

I’ve had a little chat with my house, and my garden, my business files, and the piece of my soul called “mom”. We’ve negotiated. We’ve guilted. And this is the plan we came up with: One half hour, every day, minimum, in the garden. Enough to keep things together, without everything else falling apart.

Think it will work?

How do you keep a balance?

 

 

Lessons on worm composting

While visiting with my friend Elisabeth and her family, we helped make taco salad for supper. I chopped up some peppers, habitually making a little pile of the trimmings for the compost pile. I asked her where she was keeping her compost bucket and she answered, a little guiltily, that she didn’t compost in the winter: too much trouble.

I was surprised, as she and her husband are probably the thriftiest, low-impact kind of people I know, but I understood completely. Who wants to trudge outside through the snow? And really, who can call that frozen pile thawing to sogginess in spring a pleasure?

Coming home, I realized I should have told her about the worm composting I was trying out. Or, was supposed to be trying out but in reality was repeatedly forgetting about and then trying to repair the neglect. And then I remembered that I had promised you, dear reader, an update on my progress! Well, here you are. Here’s what I’ve learned.

I have two worm composters: a Worm Factory and a Worm Inn. My second Worm Factory went to my sister Jenni. In retrospect, I probably could have kept it to keep up with the volume of kitchen waste around here (assuming I could find a place for it). As it is, I am still taking some larger loads outside to my regular bin, especially during harvest and canning. But Jenni finds the Factory to be a good size for her household of 2.

My set up. Worm Inn above, Worm Factory on table, blue bin full of bedding, bucket of finished compost behind.

When I say I need to “repair the neglect,” there really is more guilt in my heart than travesty in the bin. My worms don’t mind being fed once a week, though I try to give them little bits, more often, rather than lots at once.  It definitely makes a difference if you chop up stuff into smaller pieces. This improves breakdown in regular composting, but it’s doubly true for the worms. They say you can feed worms anything as long as there’s no grease, but I’ve found a couple of exceptions in practice and reading: they don’t seem to eat seeds. I’ve had several sprout on me, including cantulope and pumpkin, and my otherwise finished compost is littered with them.  They leave tougher stuff like stems from squash alone, and they don’t like raw potatoes. Go figure. And no matter what you feed them, always bury it with some bedding to discourage flies and mould.

Speaking of, the “ick” factor is much lower than I thought it would be. There is no smell (unless I over feed and under bed), and the worms keep to themselves. I had some fruit fly trouble once, but a trap placed nearby took care of them within two days. My biggest mess factor: bits of shredded paper or coconut fiber always on the floor. It seems impossible for me to get a handful into either bin without scattering a bit.

I did break down and bring both units into my back entry for the winter. Once the temperature started to drop, they just weren’t eating in the garage.

As far as the bins themselves, I think I prefer the Worm Inn for design and ease of use. It’s easy to add material to the top, and harvesting is as simple as opening the bottom and draining it until you see bits of unfinished food or some worms. I also love the space-saving hanging design, and it holds way more than you would imagine. The major drawback for me is how good the airflow is, meaning, I actually have to remember to check the moisture level. Dry worms=dead worms.

This is the big plus for the Worm Factory. Moisture loss is not a problem; however, too much moisture can be. I leave the drainage spigot open with a bucket under it all the time to try to help the airflow, and I definitely use more bedding compared to the Inn to try to absorb the moisture. I have to be sure not to add too much food at once or it goes slimy before the worms get to it. (I should mention the Factory I have is an older model, and the newer ones look like they are designed for better aeration.) Also, the trays are pretty heavy when full of damp material, and the finished compost always seems to still have worms in it, so you have to sift them out or help them migrate by placing the tray in bright light.

Dig around a little and you’ll find many other composter designs, including ones you can make yourself. But the basics are the same: Keep them aerated, keep them damp, keep them bedded and keep them fed. Is it more work than traditional composting? Maybe, but I don’t have to trudge through the snow, and I’ve got fresh compost all winter long. Whatdayathink, Liz?

 

How to repent and overhaul a flower bed

So, some of you may remember the horrid mess I encountered in one of my perennial beds this spring, thanks to my total neglect.

 

I continued my pattern of neglect right through the summer, but this week I decided the time had come to face up to my sins and fix things up. (Actually, I decided this last week, but it rained.)

If you, as I, have a nasty secret in your backyard, here are a few steps you can take to turn your life around.

1. Admit that you are powerless over quackgrass, that it really has become unmanageable.

2. Come to believe that a power greater than a trowel, fork, spade, or tiller is needed. Consider the merits of Roundup.

3. Start digging.

4. Put aside shame and ask for help.

5. Consider the layered newspaper thing. Smack yourself, remembering it is not a match for this particular problem.

6. Keep digging. Remind yourself that you really do need to divide the bulbs and the perennials anyway.

7. Lift all valuable plants. Marvel at the ability of grass roots to penetrate straight through an iris rhizome.

8. Stop for lunch.

9. Dig.

10. Consider Roundup.

11. Vacillate between replanting now, or stashing all the keeper plants in another part of the yard until the grass is really, really, really gone, either by Roundup or newspaper.

12. Remember that grass is never gone; stash plants/bulbs/etcetera in garage and put off decision for tomorrow.

Jack Frost comes to town

School is back in, the trees are changing color, and bugs are (attempting) to move inside: fall is unavoidably here. Some of you may still be weeks away from killing frost, but we’ve already had a couple of light ones here in Alberta.

Last winter I geeked out and did a bunch of reading on frost, thinking some theory might help my practical application this year. I had visions of early planting, and harvesting veggies and displaying flowers well into October. Not much of my vision materialized, as I still live in the real world, and I definitely haven’t reached the caliber of Niki Jabbour, but it’s cool to understand more about how weather works. And spreading sheets over the pumpkins with a flashlight after dark last week was totally worth buying them another couple of weeks’ growth.

Here’s a few things I’ve learned this year that may help you predict, and hopefully outwit, Jack Frost, and buy yourselves a little more time in the garden.

First off, find a weather website you like or buy one of those weather stations from the hardware store. The Weather Network actually has a Lawn and Garden forecast, including frost predictions and watering advice. A little info goes a long way.

Next, be prepared for frost. Have some old sheets or lengths of burlap ready to cover plants, as well as something to weigh them down against the wind. Small straw bales, a cold frame, or cloches will also do the insulating job. Have a spot in mind in the shed or garage to move containers of annuals to when you get a frost warning. Do a little research if you’re not sure which of your plants need frost protection. Bronze, hairy, or compact plants, as well as those closely spaced, will be naturally more protected, but don’t count on most annual flowers, squash, tomatoes, peppers, or corn to stand up to frost without being covered overnight. Carrots, beets, and most members of the cabbage family, as well as many other vegetables, don’t mind frost.

If you want to actually predict a frost, the first thing to do is look up. Clear, calm skies are a sign frost make strike, especially if afternoon temperatures start falling fast. Frost is less likely to occur under a cloudy sky, or when there is fog, as the day’s heat is trapped closer to the earth. This is part of why covering plants protects them–it traps some of the heat from the earth close to your plants.

Then assess the wind. If it’s strong, especially if it’s coming from the northwest, cover things up. Movements of large, cold air masses often bring on killing frost. But very still nights allow the coldest air to settle to the ground, also risking the temperature for your plants to hit zero. A light breeze will keep temperatures higher, unless that wind itself is below freezing.

Higher humidity decreases the risk of frost. This has to do with all the high school chemistry you’ve blocked out regarding warmer air being able to hold more water molecules. (See the next bit on dew point.) I’ve known people to water in annuals to protect them when a light frost threatens, though I’ve never tried it myself. The science backs them up: when the air is dry, evaporation sucks warmth out of the soil, making for chilly plants. By attempting to increase the moisture available, these gardeners “insulate” plants from the cooling effect of evaporation. Same goes for the old standby of covering things–it keeps the moisture close to your plants.

So here’s the real nitty-gritty of how frost actually appears–feel free to skip this paragraph if you’re not into scientific explanations. Basically, the dew point is the temperature at which the moisture vapor in the air will condense back into liquid, based on the given factors, most importantly, humidity. If the air temperature drops to the dew point above freezing, you get wet summer grass and diamond-scattered spiderwebs. If the dew point is below zero, and the temperature drops to it, the water vapor is changed directly into solid form–ice–and you see lovely feathery crystals on the edges of everything. Now, if the dew point is below zero, and the air temperature drops below zero but doesn’t reach the dew point, you won’t technically have frost, but tender plants will be damaged by the freezing temperatures. The other thing that can happen is the water vapor condenses at a dew point above zero, leaving dew, but the temperature continues to fall below zero, forming a coat of ice. So if you know the dew point and the overnight low, you can predict a frost.

If you’re really of a mind to change your relationship with frost, you may want think right down to the bones of your garden, your location and its physical features. Ever noticed that your neighbor can get white tipped lawn when you don’t? Higher altitude increases frost risk because the air is thinner and the average air temperature is lower. But low areas in the garden can be more susceptible to freezing because cold air is heavier than warm and tends to sink. Gentle slopes that expose the garden to the sun are more protected, open spaces plagued by wind are not. Houses, fences, and water bodies can be heat sinks and/or wind breaks that protect from cold air. Allowing places in the garden where wind can move, and hence, cold air escape, will also be protective. And that old saw about starting with the soil if you want better plants? It’s true in this case too: Fertile soil holds more moisture and passes it into the air more efficiently compared with sandy or deficient soil. And we know that humidity is good.

There. Don’t you feel smarter?

 

 

 

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