Thursday, March 26, 2015

More Springing

Radish babies.
Lots of excitement in the garden these days.

Two days after the Spring Equinox I wandered through the garden, pulling back dead, brown growth from last year. Tiny green leaves hugged the ground beneath most of it. Fragrant herbs -- the anise hyssop, slender mountain mint, etc. -- prepare themselves to become tea for me. Green lines of radishes, peas, arugula, even spinach stretch along the garden.

The first bouquet of the season, daffodils from the cutting garden, graces our living room, Buds swell on the trees. The tops of elms are yellow with blooms, providing early sustenance to honey bees.

Honey bees also buzz at apricot blossoms. Yes, the eager beaver apricot tree has begun blooming just in time for the first frost we've had in weeks. It is perhaps our fault for planting it on a south facing slope on the south side of the house, allowing it to warm earlier than trees planted elsewhere. Apricots tend to be early bloomers, anyway, which is why the omniscient They say we harvest apricots only every five to seven years in Kansas.
Apricot blossoms.

This "dwarf" apricot tree is the most robust tree of all the 35-plus fruit trees planted on our property. And we've gotten precious little fruit from it, perhaps a handful of apricots in five years. But it is a pretty and healthy tree, and the early blossoms give the honey bees something to buzz about.

The temperature barely dipped its toes into the freezing realm, not falling low enough to kill apricot blossoms, quite. It would take 27 degree Fahrenheit to do that and my thermometer read 29 before it began to rise. So, apricots this year? Maybe? We've still got some freezing opportunities this spring.

The perennial earliness of this apricot tree has us contemplating putting another one in a different location, down at the bottom of the hill, where temps naturally remain a bit cooler prompting later blooming times. We planted the majority of our fruit trees on a north-facing slope, which heats up later in spring, as an effort to delay blossoming and protecting them from late frosts. The peach tree there was loaded with fruit last year in spite of lots of late-season cold. If only I had known that gooey stuff was normal and not a cause to get rid of all the fruit... alas...

Lavender mint springing.
If you have fruit trees, here's a handy chart outlining the temps at which buds, blossoms and green fruit of various fruit trees are killed.

A couple of days ago, the National Weather Service said to expect a low of 24 degrees on Saturday, which made my heart sink. That kind of temperature had me concerned not just about apricot blossoms, but the radish seedlings, baby broccoli plants and other things in the garden. These are cold tolerant plants, but 24 is a bit too much for them. I was glad the old sheets and blankets I used to protect the winter veggies were still piled in a wheelbarrow in the garage. Fortunately, I probably won't need to use them, yet, as the current forecast has the low at just above freezing.

We've still got ample time for some real cold before the weather becomes summer, but so far it looks like a warm spring. However, Kansas springs like to bring surprises, so we can't relax quite yet.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

When the Earth Says "Peas"

For me, the planting season begins with peas.
Oh, sure, I've got broccoli, kale and onion seedlings in little pots started back in January, but peas are the first seeds I stick in the actual garden soil. Long rows of peas, because I could almost live on them when they are in production.

I'm talking about snap peas, of course. These succulent, sweet little edible-pod peas are what I crave most when growing season starts. If I plant enough, bags of these peas will go into the freezer to toss into stir-fry or any other dish that begs for the green pods. But the best way to eat them is fresh and the best time is while standing in the garden picking peas.

Because peas begin to lose sweetness the moment you pluck them from the vine. All those sugars begin to morph into starches, which are sustenance, but not nearly as tasty. This happens quite rapidly, and by the time you've filled your basket and gone indoors, much of the sugars are gone. So eat while you pick, I say. There is no better way to satisfy the craving.

Of course, it's impossible to eat them all while I'm in the garden (though I've tried). The rest go into a bag and in the fridge to nosh with any meal and inbetween.
Unless you will eat them in two or three days, better freeze them while they are as sweet as they can be. Steam blanch or boiling water blanch (cook briefly, that is), cool and spread on a cookie sheet to freeze. Once they are hard, bag 'em. They won't stick together so much that way.

Peas really are pretty easy to grow, once they've gotten beyond the point where cutworms and hungry bunnies nibble at them. After that, I don't notice much pest damage. They like a little water when it gets dry, but since they grow during the wetter part of our summer, I don't usually need to water them. They grow best in the cooler part of the season, which is why I plant them in early to mid-March; however, we can plant them to mid-April here.

 If the weather is favorable, I pick my first sweet pods in late May. The harvest lasts well into June, sometimes lasting into the first part of July. But by then, powdery mildew has coated every leaf and stem and starts to pock the pods. I take powdery mildew as just part of life. When the weather turns too hot for the peas, the fungus kicks in. Preventive measures can be taken by spraying with baking soda (1 tablespoon per gallon of water and few drops of mild soap) or milk (one part milk to 10 parts water). That must be done about once a week -- before the mildew shows up.

Some varieties are less susceptible to others, but none of the snap peas I've grown escape forever. Snow peas, aka Sugar Pod Peas, the flat Oriental peas that you know from restaurant stir fry, are a bit more tolerant of heat, but not much. I plant those, too, but not as many. They also seem more productive, but maybe I just don't eat quite as many while I am picking.

Snow peas apparently are one of the oldest cultivated vegetables. Evidence of snow pea cultivation has been found in sites 12,000 years old. The snap pea, however, is relatively new, being developed in the 1960s when two guys, Dr. Calvin Lamborn and Dr. M.C. Parker of Twin Falls, Idaho, crossbred a snow pea variety with a garden pea. I am so glad they did. My life would be quite dull without the snap pea.

A number of snap pea varieties exist, some with more mildew resistance, some with long vines, some with shorter vines. The variety I planted this year is Cascadian. A few years ago, I found myself eager to plant a pink-podded variety. It wasn't as sweet as the regular snap peas. At least one catalog this year listed a yellow-podded variety. I'll stick with green, though, thanks. As far as snow peas go, I've stuck with Oregon Sugar Pod II. I don't see too many other varieties offered.

These edible pod peas contain less protein than other peas, but are still highly nutritious, containing iron and vitamin C, as well as fiber. We all need our fiber.

I love snap peas so much, and I'm betting other people do, too. So I've planted another row, with plans to sell them at a tiny farmers market nearby. If no one buys them, well, I will have plenty of freezer space by then.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Blooms and Things

The crocus wither, but these lovely and diminutive Iris reticulata popped their heads out in the last few days.

On Friday, the UPS truck drove up our hill bearing apple trees and berry plants, so Friday and Saturday were spent digging holes, soaking peat moss (for the blueberries), and planting, planting, planting. Hi ho, hi ho!

On Thursday I stopped at the nursery (it's on my way home from town) and bought pansies for the pots on the front porch. With the arrival of fruit plants on Friday, I didn't get them planted until today.

We have had unusually warm March weather for more than a week. The other day as I worked in the sunny garden it felt hot. Today was warmer. I saw the thermometer hit 84 degrees Fahrenheit. That would be warm even for April, although in the middle of July we would think it quite refreshing.

I've been looking at the weather forecasts, hoping for signs of cooling down and rain. Most of the next seven days will have highs only in the 50s. That will feel very cold after this tropical wave. We may light the fire again. But no sign of freezing temps (which I would like to see), although lows will be in the 30s most nights.

The most encouraging sign on the forecast is chance of rain on Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday. Small chances, but it's good to see potential dampness headed our way. We had a dry fall and winter, which puts us in a stage one drought, so I hear. Burning bans have been put in place, as each of the past several days saw the National Weather Service issue fire hazard warnings. Today's even higher heat and breezy conditions make fires even more of a danger.

I wish the Northeast could have trucked some of their snow down here.

Lettuce seedlings and little thyme plants.
When the weather cools this week, I will put the broccoli, kale and cabbage seedlings in the garden, planting seed of more kale, collards, radishes and whatnot. And I will put these baby lettuces in their own beds, planting seed alongside them for later. I hope to have lettuce to sell at a tiny farmers market nearby. The market coordinator called it a "starter market" and "incubator" market, for us small-time growers. I hope to have a few other things to sell there, too.

It's time, it's time to start planting. In a few more weeks, the frenzy will begin. Then we'll see what the weather does -- stay too warm? Cool down too much? Get soggy? You never know with Kansas, anyway, and lately it's been even less reliable.

I'm not going to fret, though, just cross my fingers and hope for rain, and start ordering my drip irrigation pieces and parts.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Marching In

We turn the calendar to March, and suddenly everything feels different.
The air feels softer.
The birdsong seems louder.
The garden looks more alive, even though nothing has changed since a month ago.

Crocus bloom. In the little strip between the house and the sidewalk where sedum covers the ground in orange and yellow, two little clumps of crocus sport sun-colored blooms.

Green daffodil blades erupt through the wood chip mulch.
Baby broccoli, cabbage and kale plants sit under lights in the front room. It's time to begin "hardening off" these babies, preparing them for their home in the garden.
Last night I moves panels of fencing to the garden so I can erect pea trellises today. Maybe I will plant peas today, maybe in  few days. The forecast puts us in the mid-to upper 60s (Fahrenheit) in the first half of next week.

Early forecasts had us covered in snow this past weekend, with white stuff falling all day Saturday and Sunday (March 1), and snow/rain/sleet on Monday. Snow did fall on Saturday, the last day of February, blanketing the world in a couple of inches.

But March dawned with intermittent sun that melted much of Saturday's snow. Something about saying, "it's March" made even Sunday's cold temperature seem refreshed and refreshing. Spring is almost here.
Puddles in the stones were ice last night, but that won't last under today's sun.

While wandering through the garden yesterday evening, my mind moved over the more imminent tasks -- finish cutting down last  year's growth on the sweet grass; prune, transplant and mulch the elderberries; put up pea trellises and hoops for the cabbage beds....  Excitement moved through me. I can't wait to get out and tidy and clean and check on things. Tomorrow, the plastic comes off the low tunnels under which kale has overwintered.

A couple of days ago, as dusk overtook the world, I saw three -- or maybe four -- rabbits bouncing off of each other, hopping and... playing?? It's mating season. The time of the Mad March Hare (although these are cottontail rabbits, not hares). The moon is waxing, almost full. I feel the sap rising. The energy expanding outward. Spring springing.

Hurray for March. It changes everything.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Spotted Wing Drosophila

Red raspberries are under attack.
New food pests are never welcome, but the spotted wing drosophila will prove to be particularly problematic. This fruit fly invades soft skinned fruits -- pretty much all berries, cherries and peaches. I imagine they'll also attack apricots, perhaps even plums. Anything with a soft skin. Apples and pears produce skin too tough for the fruit flies. Even tomatoes aren't entirely safe. While their skin may be too tough, the spotted wing drosophila (SWD) will take advantage of cracks.

Fruit flies tend to be a problem only on rotting or fermenting fruits, so don't generally present many issues in the fruit garden. However, SWD attacks ripening fruit, laying its eggs inside the fruit, so its eggs and larvae are safe from predators and pesticides.
Spotted wing drosophila likes peaches, too.

While home gardeners can just decide to ignore an egg or larvae in their berries, those producing these fruits for sale are scrambling to figure out ways to control them. Consumers don't like buying a box of blueberries and finding little fruit fly maggots in some of the berries.

Control of the SWD starts with sanitation. Don't leave any fruit in the berry patch. When you pick, take a basket for the good berries and a basket for the bad berries. Don't just toss the bad berries in the compost heap. Tests have shown that you must bury those berries at least a foot deep to prevent the larvae from pupating and taking flight. You can put the culls in a clear plastic bag and set it in the sun for a few days to kill the eggs and larvae, or you can stick them in the deep freeze for a few days. Pruning that opens the "canopy," thus creating less shade, can help, as well.

Grapes aren't immune.
Because the eggs and larvae are inside the fruits, pesticides work only on the adult flies. Several conventional pesticides work on them, as well as a couple of organically approved pesticides. Look for products containing spinosad, a natural insecticide produced by soil microbes. Pyrethrum products (made from a certain daisy species) also work, but pyrethrum  also is toxic to bees, which our berries need for pollination. So great care must be taken when applying such pesticides. The downside of these two organic pesticides is that they are short-lived and must be applied about once a week. The upside is that they deteriorate quickly and you won't be eating toxic chemicals on your berries.

Adding sugar to the pesticide mixture encourages the fruit flies to eat it. The presenter at the Missouri Organic Association conference recommended that you alternate pesticides -- pyrethrum one week, spinosad the next -- to avoid pesticide resistance in the fruit flies.

I asked if Surround -- a slurry of kaolin clay that coats fruit and leaf surfaces to repel insects -- works against SWD. The answer was that it would work, but the white coating is difficult to wash off of the soft-skinned berries. Kaolin is non-toxic -- it is present in toothpaste and other cosmetic products -- so eating a little is no problem for the home gardener. However, it presents aesthetics issues for the market gardener.

Early fruits -- such as black raspberries and early strawberries and blueberries -- are far less susceptible because they are harvested before SWD usually shows up in mid- to late June. However, weather that warms early could result in early arrival. Before wholesale application of pesticides, monitor your berry patches to determine whether SWD is present and when it shows up. Otherwise, you are wasting money on pesticides and unnecessarily endangering pollinators.
Late season blueberries are susceptible.

Since berries continue to flower while their fruit is harvested, it is important to be conscientious about the bees. A trap for monitoring for SWD can be made from a plastic container with holes punched around the top that is hung in a shaded area among the berry plants or susceptible tree fruits. The best bait for these traps is 1/2 tablespoon active dry yeast mixed with 2 tablespoons sugar and 6 ounces of water per quart-size trap. The fruit flies crawl in to get at the bait and drown. You will need magnification to determine whether the drowned fruit flies in your trap are SWD or some less destructive fruit fly. Your local Extension agent can help you identify them.

Even late season strawberries are targets of SWD.