Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Sowing Oats

  "What's that grassy stuff in your gardens?" People ask me at this time of year.
  It's oats.
  While I very well could be growing the oats to make nutritious tea from the immature seed or oat straw, its purpose in the garden is to provide temporary cover for the soil -- a cover crop.
  Oats are my favorite cover crop. The seed is readily available at the local co-op or feed store, either as seed oats or as feed for horses. Oats germinate and grow quickly, so they can be planted throughout spring, summer and fall to follow almost any vegetable crop. Oats will be killed by temperatures lower than the mid-20s, but the brown plants still provide sufficient cover.
  If you want a small grain that provides green cover through winter, plant winter wheat or winter rye. They sprout more slowly than oats, so need to be planted sooner and will take more effort to “terminate” in the spring.
  Why does it matter whether the soil is bare? Why not just clear the garden and be done with it?
  Bare soil is prone to the erosive forces of wind and rain. Sunlight also oxidizes nutrients in the soil, which not only reduces the nutrients available to plants but might even contribute to greenhouse gases as oxidized carbon in the soil becomes carbon dioxide.
   Then why not just throw on a layer of hay or straw mulch? As the mulch decomposes it also adds valuable organic matter to the soil, which loosens it, helps improve both water retention and drainage, and adds a few  nutrients.
  The value of cover crops goes beyond adding organic matter to the soil. Their roots “trap” nutrients so they don’t leach from the soil in rain and snow melt. Then the nutrients remain available to your vegetables the following season. Mulch can't do that.
  Rotating small grains -- such as oats, wheat or rye -- with tomatoes helps reduce some diseases, such as verticillium wilt. Some, such as mustards, also help control damaging nematodes and other pests. Mulch can't do that, either. Using legumes as cover adds nitrogen to the soil. Mulch certainly can't do that.
  K-State has a great publication on using cover crops in vegetable growing ( I

  Usually a cover crop is cut down and “terminated” before it can flower. At this stage, the residue will break down quickly and you do not risk it setting seed and resowing. However, some cover crops, such as clovers and buckwheat, are lovely when in bloom. Others, such as cowpeas, provide their own crop for your use.
  Winter rye gets quite large when left to put on seed heads and can be quite difficult to pull out at that time,so cut it and use as hay mulch. Other tall cover crops also can be cut as “hay” mulch.
  Ideally, oats and other small grains are mixed with appropriate annual legumes in fall or spring. The quick growing oats protect the legumes until they get well established. For the best nitrogen-fixing, legume cover crops should be “inoculated” with a special bacteria that helps them transform the nitrogen in air and soil into a more plant-usable form.
  Mixing annual legumes with the oats takes additional planning because the seed is not as readily available. It often must be purchased by mail order or special ordered by the farmers cooperative or seed store. Some annual legumes are best suited for winter cover (crimson clover, Austrian winter pea), others as summer cover (berseem clover, annual white sweet clover, Canadian field pea). Many other annual legumes can be used as cover crops, but do not work well in mixes with grasses (grains). Whether you want a winter or summer cover also determines your choice of other covers.
  Buckwheat, neither a legume or grassy grain, is a great summer cover crop. I planted it this spring around some of my fruit trees and in garden areas that did not get planted to vegetables. According to the Extension publication, buckwheat is not drought tolerant, but another source said that it is at least moderately drought tolerant.
  In my experience this summer, the mature plant tolerated at least some drought, surviving three weeks of 100-plus degree temperatures and no rain in August.
Pretty buckwheat flowers attract bees.
  Buckwheat, and a few other cover crops, can grow so quickly and thickly that they out-compete and smother weeds -- when planted in the proper conditions.It also needs warm soil. The buckwheat I planted in April germinated only sparsely, while the buckwheat planted in a little warmer soil in early May did quite well.
  It can be sown throughout the summer, but does need some moisture to germinate.
  My method for planting the buckwheat and oats is to scatter the seed on loosened soil and rake in, then scatter on a light mulch of hay or straw to hold in moisture and keep the seed in place. You also can plant them in furrowed rows.
  Buckwheat blossoms are beautiful and highly attractive to bees. A friend told me that buckwheat is her favorite cover crop because is attracts so many beneficial insects. Buckwheat honey is an excellent cough suppressant, although most people will find its flavor too strong for use as a sweetener or topping for cornbread.
  The flowers are so attractive to bees that you might want to keep buckwheat from flowering while cucumbers, squash and melons and other pollinator-dependant vegetables are in bloom. Or the bees might ignore them in favor of the buckwheat blossoms. Young buckwheat greens also can be used as a green vegetable.
  Usually when you incorporate a cover crop into the soil you should give it a couple of weeks to decay before planting anything else. Buckwheat decomposes so rapidly that you can plant almost immediately after taking it down. Soon I will plant garlic in one area where buckwheat is growing. I will simply cut back the buckwheat, throw on the compost and plant the garlic right in the buckwheat stubble.
t focuses on the commercial vegetable grower, but the information is easily adapted to smaller scale gardening.

Monday, September 20, 2010

A Study in Fungi

Under the elderberries

It was a cool, misty morning on Cedar Springs Farm yesterday. A gentle calm following the previous night's energetic storm that dropped nearly an inch and a half of rain, as well as bringing hail and incredible lightning. I even heard rumors of a tornado warning at one point.
I stepped out into the damp morning, camera in hand with the intent of capturing a few flowers in digital splendor.
Then I noticed some medium sized fungi growing in the hay mulch around the elderberries. So I began shooting fungi of all kinds.
Fungi are remarkable forms of life. They are not plants, but have their own domain. The fruiting bodies that we see above ground, the toadstool is the most classic form, are but the tip of the iceberg.
Below the surface, the fungi's threadlike mycellia cover large areas, especially where the soil or litter has gone undisturbed for a long time.
Fungi sometimes are disease-causing, but many are vital to soil and plant health. They live in symbiosis with plants, attaching to roots and in essence stretching those plant roots even further, sharing moisture and nutrients. When planting our fruit trees, berries and even many of our vegetables, we sprinkled in a special mycorrhizal powder to inoculate the roots with the proper fungi that will help them grow healthy and strong.
One of the reasons to move toward low- and no-till gardening methods is to preserve the valuable fungal mycellia. If you must till, do it in the spring, when the mycellia have an opportunity to grow back.
I did not attempt to identify any of these fungi. I simply wanted to share with you their beauty.

These little fairy cups (my name) crowd together.

Closeup of a tiny "fairy cup"

Tiny little "fairy bowls" complete with dumplings.

These remind me of balls of dough rising.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Lettuce keep planting

Newly planted lettuce patch in raised bed.
Two days ago I put in two large patches of lettuce.
A row of spinach and short rows of arugula and radishes were planted alongside the lettuce. Next week I will plant more radishes, for a steady supply of these quick growing gems.
This is in addition to lettuce that I planted about a week earlier, which has already sprouted.
When the weather starts getting uncomfortably close to freezing, “low tunnels” made of half-inch PVC pipe and clear plastic sheeting -- a miniature greenhouse -- will be created over the lettuce patches.
Using this method, a friend was able to pick lettuce all last winter.
I was surprised that she was able to keep the lettuce going through the winter. Perhaps the heavy snows we received insulated her tunnels against the cold. Or perhaps it will work in pretty much any winter.
Encouraged by her success, we decided to try it this fall and winter to support our salad-eating habit.
Hay or straw bales stacked around the tunnels, especially on the north-wind side, will provide extra insulation. On the coldest nights, heavy blankets can be thrown over the tunnel to prevent heat that has built up during the day from escaping.

PVC pipe hoops over the new lettuce patch, ready for its
cover. Behind it is a kale patch shrouded in row cover to
 keep out the cabbage butterflies.
And believe me, on a sunny day a lot of heat can build up inside a plastic tunnel. One fall I tried growing cabbage, broccoli and their relatives under low tunnels. We put a wireless thermometer sensor inside one of the tunnels and were amazed at how much heat they could hold. On a sunny, 40-degree day the temperature inside the tunnel would be 60, 70 or higher.
Unfortunately, that was a bad year to try that, as the highs continued to get into the 60s and 70s well into December and I didn’t take time to open the ends and vent the tunnels. So our kale and such suffered from too much heat.
This year, I will remember to vent the lettuce patches if the temp exceeds 50 on a sunny day.

During the last week of August I set out transplants of cabbage, lacinato kale, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, and broccoli that I started in June and July. They live under a protective row cover, which keeps out the nefarious egg-laying imported cabbage butterflies and cabbage loopers. These fluttery things only sip nectar, but their larvae will gobble up a small cabbage family plant in no time.
The young transplants were watered every other day until the weather cooled more and rain started coming. A 30 percent shade cloth would have helped them along by cutting down the amount of hot late-August sun they received. A few of the weakest plants shrivelled under the sun's gaze, but most of the plants survived.
This year, we will actually eat the cabbages. I'll make cabbage stew and/or sauerkraut.
Next year, we hope to have a root cellar in which to store our cabbages and other goods. But that's another story.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Spider Web Moon

One cool, misty morning in August we awoke to find our little piece of paradise draped with dew-covered spider webs.
They were everywhere. Large ones spanned spaces between cedar trees. Small ones filled in between branches on tall weeds.
The effect was breathtaking and beautiful.
We were headed out on some errand in town, but took the time to go back and get my camera. I tried distance shots and closeups from various angles, trying to catch the light and backgrounds so that the webs were at their most visible.
August is always filled with spider webs. In the trees. In the grass. I call the August full moon Spider Moon, or Spider Web Moon. You can tell that it is August here when the webs are everywhere.
The webs usually are not very visible, though. I often find myself walking through webs in the garden, pulling the sticky strands from my face and arms.
But when the air is cool and a heavy dew falls, they are plainly visible, transforming the landscape into something wondrous.

I don't know what species of spiders made these webs, but they are artists through and through.
Tools can be beautiful and these spiders teach us the artistry of necessity, the strength of beauty and the beauty in strength.
Merry meet Grandmother Spider

Thursday, September 2, 2010


Prescott Fond Blanc
Today I cut free the first two Prescott Fond Blanc melons.
The first whiff of the freshly cut melon was heaven.
The first taste was beyond description.
 Because the spring rain and cool weather hung around too long, they were planted late. That first planting failed to sprout, so they got planted even later. I wondered if it was worth the bother, if it would have time to produce melons.
Believe me, it was worth the bother. I cannot wait for breakfast, when I will devour at least half of one of these 10-pound lovelies.
My luck with melons over the past two decades has been on again and off again. Mostly off.
Kansas weather is variable, to say the least. The weather is either too cold too late in the season, or too hot and dry, or too wet, or too something for melons.
But the Prescott Fond Blanc has produced for me each of the three years I have planted it. It can be argued that the last two summers were almost ideal gardening weather -- at least during the middle part. During the high heat and dry, dry weather of this past August, I occasionally dumped my dishwater on the Prescott melon to keep it going. The heat did not keep it from pollinating (many other small melons are forming on the vine) nor did it keep the melons from swelling and maturing properly. The vines are long and lush and luxurious, in spite of the invasion of cucumber beetles.
And the melons that I just cut are the sweetest, best-flavored ones I have ever grown.
Prescott Fond Blanc is a rock melon, something like a cantalope, with orange flesh, but with a thick rind. It is deeply ribbed and warty, very interesting and lovely. Even a not fully ripe melon is tasty. The seeds for this heirloom melon came from the Seed Savers Exchange. I recommend it to people who have had trouble growing melons in the past, as I have.
In spite of many troubles with melons, I always plant them, including Moon and Stars watermelon. This is another heirloom melon that under the right circumstances can produce melons exceeding 30 pounds (I have weighed them). But even smaller ones have one of the sweetest flavors of any watermelon I've tasted. And they are lovely -- dark green melons with yellow splotches of varying sizes, the moons and stars.
The foliage of this melon also has yellow splotches. The first time I grew it, I thought it was diseased, until I picked the 33-pound melon.
The moon and stars I planted this year has a couple of golf ball-size melons on it, which may or may not mature before our first frost. However, I already have picked one melon and another one waits between a cup plant and goldenrod. This vine is a volunteer, it came up spontaneously in a patch of wildflowers that previously hosted a compost heap. One of the great things about growing heirloom, open-pollinated things is that they come true from seed.
Is it breakfast time yet?