Posts Tagged potato gardening
I know that most folks measure the beginning of summer from Memorial Day, which is still a bit more than two weeks away, but I’m thinking summer has gotten a head start this year. My evidence? Well, there’s Tropical Storm Ana, which hammered the NC coast just as Wonder Spouse and I were departing. We had a lovely, mild week of weather, and Wonder Spouse took hundreds of great photos, like the one above (Click on the photo to see a larger version). Let’s all meditate on that tranquil shot and say a collective “Aaaah,” before I return to the garden tasks now facing me.
The vegetables were very busy while we were gone. Wonder Spouse took one look at the growth of his beloved potatoes and immediately unfolded another level of his potato bags, so that he could tuck in more of his magic growing mix around his prodigies.
The Kipfel fingerling potatoes really multiplied:
I’m thinking their reputation for productivity is likely justified. If you’ve never eaten a fingerling potato, try some from your local farmer’s market when they show up freshly harvested in a month or so. Pure potato heaven awaits you.
The Purple Vikings are not as numerous, but the plants have really bulked up. I suspect their tubers are doing the same thing.
My beans germinated while I was gone. The Fortex pole beans came up enthusiastically, but the Jade bush beans did not. I wasn’t home to water the soil to keep it softer for germinating seedlings, and the Jades, which are not as robust as the Fortexes, may have suffered accordingly. Or the voles ate the seeds. I seem to have a bumper crop of voracious voles this year. I try not to hate any of Mother Nature’s creatures, but I’m still searching for a reason to appreciate voles.
The peppers and tomatoes are filled with flowers and tiny fruits. I spent a good half hour or so tying up tomatoes that shot up a foot while I wasn’t home to watch them. The squash seedlings now have multiple leaves; they’re still safely tucked beneath their Reemay tents until they begin flowering.
The bed of greens needs a good harvesting before the heat turns them bitter. The dill, chives, and parsley really filled out, and enhance just about every meal we eat (I don’t put them on my morning oatmeal, but they make scrambled eggs sing).
And, of course, I can’t close without showing you some of the fabulous flowers currently adorning our five acres. The Fraser Magnolia finished blooming while we were gone. I can just see small seed cones beginning to develop. Currently, the Ashe Magnolia is showing off, and I do mean showing off. This shrubby small tree decided to bloom from top to bottom this year. And when I say bottom, I mean touching the ground.
I could smell the sweet perfume of this magnolia before I got within 20 feet of it.
The Ashe Magnolia’s bigger cousin, Bigleaf Magnolia is full of buds. It will complete the native deciduous magnolia show in another week or two.
The deciduous azalea show is winding down, but the cultivar of Rhododendron flammeum — Scarlet Ibis — is peaking this week. The blooms don’t look scarlet to me, but they are indisputably spectacular, with a subtle perfume that adds to their wow factor.
A few more currently blooming floral highlights before I close this post:
The two Tradescantia ‘Sweet Kate’ plants I added some years ago have become a Sweet Kate horde, and that’s just fine with me. They will bloom off and on until frost, barring severe heat waves/droughts.
To close this update, let’s meditate once more on the peace and tranquility that only a spring trip to the NC coast can provide. Wonder Spouse took this shot from the deck of our rental cottage. After several hours of rain, the sun returned on the final day of our visit and painted the sky with a rainbow framed against departing clouds (Click on it to fully appreciate the shot).
A quarter-century ago when Wonder Spouse and I were younger and over-enthusiastic about the growing potential of our recently acquired five acres of Piedmont goodness, he picked up a handful of soil and declared, “This land will grow potatoes!” My potato-loving man of Irish heritage had long dreamed of such an endeavor, and if you’ve ever eaten a freshly harvested potato, you know why.
The French word for potato is pomme de terre, which translates to apple of the earth. This made no sense to me until I cut into a freshly harvested potato the first time. Just like a ripe, fresh-picked apple, the potato was crisp, snapping open as I cut it, with the same sound an apple makes when I slice into one. And in a white-fleshed potato, the flesh glistens just like the flesh of a fresh-cut ripe apple. The French knew what they were talking about!
The first year we grew potatoes, Wonder Spouse planted seven different kinds. We devoted several beds to nothing but potatoes — whites, yellows, blues, purples. Some were fingerlings, others best for mashing, some for roasting. Wonder Spouse was in Potato Nirvana.
Our unfinished, cement-floored basement turned out to be ideal for potato storage. We ate our own harvest well into the late fall that year. Wonder Spouse’s most memorable potato culinary triumph was a 4th of July potato salad using red, white, and blue potatoes. It was patriotically delicious!
By the third year of potato production, the voles had found our garden. That year, we barely harvested any whole potatoes. The voles liked to gnaw about half of one, then move on to the next. Wonder Spouse gave up on growing his own for about a decade, consoled by the fact that now our local farmers’ markets were brimming with locally grown organic potatoes, even many of the same kinds he had grown himself.
Then he spotted potato bags in a gardening catalog, and hopes for his own potato harvest brought back his potato-loving enthusiasm. I told you about his first trial with three potato bags here, and his results are here. The voles cannot penetrate the bags, and the potatoes grow unmolested.
He grows a different variety in each bag, and his harvest last year was better than his first harvest the year before. Each year, he tweaks what he uses in the growing medium, how he settles the bags in the garden, and so on. This year, he is growing a continuing favorite, Purple Viking, a new fingerling variety (for him) called Kipfel, and an early potato that intrigued him called Dazoc. All are looking good so far.
Purple Vikings store well, are drought-resistant, and yield consistently large tubers. They make the best-tasting mashed potatoes you will ever eat in your life. It has snow-white flesh, and its skin is purple splotched with pink-red. In our area, freshly harvested Purple Vikings are usually available in our local farmers’ markets in June.
Kipfel fingerlings intrigued Wonder Spouse, because they are purported to be one of the most productive fingerling varieties, and for Wonder Spouse, abundant fresh potatoes are always a good thing. It is also supposed to be more heat-tolerant — a bonus, since our Piedmont summers tend to heat up by May.
I think Wonder Spouse settled on Dazoc as his third variety this year, because these dark-red-skinned potatoes are purported to make great hash browns — one of his favorites (and mine, when he makes them). This variety was developed in the early 1950s in Nebraska and maintained by local growers even after commercial growers moved on to other varieties.
This year, Wonder Spouse plunked his potato bags in an area of the garden full of blooming crimson clover. The clover has grown tall, but I’m trying to nudge it from around the bags without removing it entirely. My neighbor’s honeybees work the clover from dawn to dusk, and I really don’t want to deprive them of this resource, especially since soon the potato plants will be taller than the clover. And the more bees visiting my garden, the more tomatoes, peppers, squash, beans, etc. I will have to harvest and share. It’s a win-win for the garden — and Potato Nirvana for Wonder Spouse.
Two months to the day after the last drenching, inch+ rain event on my yard, the rains finally returned. My rain gauge registered almost exactly a two-inch total for the event. Of course, the airport a mere 30 miles away measured over twice that, but I’m willing to overlook that this time.
The only puddle that remained by this morning was in the driveway, and its size was modest compared to previous puddles. When I walked the floodplain this morning, the ground was not muddy anywhere, but it was at least not dusty anymore. And the grass grew half a foot overnight, of course.
Even though the rains came down hard for much of the event, little managed to run off into our creek. I know this, because the creek water level is still quite low. The water is muddy, but barely flowing — still an improvement over the thin thread that occupied that space a few days ago.
The little pond I showed you in my previous post is not full to the top, but the level did rise. Compare the following two photos to those in the previous post.
Compare this to the close-up view from my previous post:
Last weekend, Wonder Spouse decided to harvest his remaining two potato bags. The heat and drought were making the plants look pretty sad, and he was worried the tubers below might be adversely impacted if he waited any longer.
I showed you the harvest of Viking Purple potatoes in the previous post. All three varieties Wonder Spouse grew this year began as a pound apiece of seed potatoes. From that, his yield was 6.3 pounds of Viking Reds.
The new variety he tried this year, Marris Piper, yielded 7.3 pounds of smaller potatoes.
Potatoes are never tastier than when they are freshly harvested, and we have been enjoying frequent potato feasts. Any way you prepare them, the flavor is astonishing if you’ve never eaten anything but old tubers from the grocery store bins.
The other vegetables remain productive despite the drought. In fact, I suspect that the drought is the reason they are still doing so well. During last year’s highly unusual rainy, cool summer, the beans, tomatoes, and squashes all succumbed to fungal diseases quite early in the summer. This year, I’m still picking lovely zucchinis. Two of the six plants have surrendered to the evil squash vine borers, but the other four are still valiantly producing, aided, I suspect, by numerous enthusiastic honeybees from my neighbor’s hive. Thanks, neighbor!
Speaking of pollinators, the almost completely absent butterfly population is finally showing signs of returning, no doubt aided by recent rains. The local experts on the lepidoptera (butterflies and moths) chatlist are theorizing that the previous unusually cold and sometimes wet winter killed most of the overwintering larval stage of these insects. We’re finally beginning to see some, probably migrants from areas that weren’t so adversely impacted.
So far in my yard, I’m still seeing almost no swallowtails, but the little skippers and other small butterflies are now showing up in the numbers I expect, especially now that the flowers have been fortified by adequate (for now) rain.
I did spot the first bright green Praying Mantis of the summer a few days ago. It was loitering in a marigold growing next to my beans. I usually don’t notice these predators until about this time of year, as they grow larger in preparation for egg laying.
Speaking of egg-laying, just before the rains hit yesterday afternoon, I noticed the Carolina Wrens nesting in a pot on my back deck were covertly flying back and forth — a sign that at least one of the four speckled eggs they’d been tending had hatched. I tried to get a peek this morning, but only managed to annoy a damp Mrs. Wren snuggled inside the nest.
A bonus with the rain is an influx of below-normal cooler and drier air, which is predicted to linger for several days. For me, that means I’m out of excuses regarding weeding and other plant-maintenance tasks. But with moistened ground and a refreshing air mass, digging in the dirt will be a pleasure, not a hardship.
The rains are predicted to return in a few days. Perhaps now that my yard has been re-moistened, some of the future juicy clouds will choose to visit soon.
Here’s hoping all our gardens receive the rain they need to flourish.
I am not a gambler by nature — except for gardening, of course. Anyone who tells you gardening is a science is kidding you, or themselves perhaps. Science can help a gardener, to be sure. Understanding the environmental microclimates on your property, the species that naturally occur on it, and the geology of your land will absolutely contribute to your gardening successes. But wild cards abound — weather fluctuations, animal predation, neighborhood vandalism. Stuff happens; gardens suffer. Sometimes.
As a gardener for over five decades now, I weigh all the variables as best I can, then I go with my gut. Experience should count for something more than wrinkles, right? It should help me make the right gardening calls when my options are not absolutely obvious.
Thus is the dilemma of spring vegetable gardening in my region of North Carolina. Some years, spring has come so reliably early and warm that I’ve planted out tomato plants in early April. Then there are years like this one. For most of last week, weather forecasters were calling for snow for my region today. Measurable snow is not unheard of around here this time of year, but it is unusual — and entirely unwelcome.
As last weekend approached, the weather seers began to vacillate. Perhaps the snow would miss my area and pound the northeastern US instead. Perhaps. But is perhaps enough to gamble my spring vegetable garden on?
Surveying the size of the greens thriving in my greenhouse, and knowing that I wouldn’t be able to plant them out for at least another week if I waited, I decided to gamble.
On Friday, I planted the onion plants that had been patiently waiting for me since Monday when they arrived in the mail. Onion plants are remarkably forgiving. Even though they look a bit shriveled and worse for wear when you make them wait, experience has taught me that they’ll plump up in no time, sending up green shoots, putting out fresh roots, and fattening sweet bulbs for later harvest.
I mulched the newly planted onions with mushroom compost from my favorite local supplier. This material is used by local mushroom growers once, then recycled into compost after harvest. It makes my local earthworms deliriously happy, and it protects the onions from heavy rains. I planted onions at either end of one of the long beds. In between, I’ll sow seeds of beets and carrots as soon as this latest round of wintry weather passes and the following warm rains end.
On Saturday, Wonder Spouse focused on his beloved potatoes, while I tucked in all the greens I described in my previous post. As I mentioned in that post, I did acquire a flat of broccoli seedlings to plant with the greens. They’re in the back on the left in the top photo.
After his success with potato bags last year, Wonder Spouse was eager to use them again, with a few variations, of course. Instead of placing the bags on top of the soil of a bed, this year, he dug out shallow holes for the bags before he filled them. He has three bags, so he’s growing one variety per bag. Here’s what his supplier had to say about the varieties he’s growing this year:
- Viking Red — Bright red skin, holds well in storage. Full-bodied flavor for baking and boiling that is extraordinary. Grows great in Texas and hot climates as it has ability to withstand heat. Rapid sizing, can grow from golf ball to baseball size overnight.
- Purple Viking — Has all the characteristics of its parent Viking Red, but it has a true purple skin with pink-red splashes. Perhaps its most remarkable attribute is its waxy snow-white flesh. Drought-resistant and a yielder of large tubers. Its unique taste is loved by many and will get sweeter with time.
- Marris Piper — This favorite from the British Isles never disappoints! Producing high yields of large, cream-skinned, cream-fleshed oblong tubers, Marris Piper makes awesome French fries and mashed potatoes that are out of this world. It’s very similar in taste and texture to the Kerr’s Pink and Yukon Gold potatoes with higher yields.
Here’s the first bag just before he buried the seed potatoes:
At the back of this photo, you can see my bed full of newly transplanted greens. Here’s what the bed looked like before I started.
Here they are newly planted and fully mulched with more of that lovely mushroom compost:
The garden fabric we used is heavy enough to protect from heavy frosts, but probably not out-and-out prolonged freezes. And what we had on hand was not exactly the right size, so Wonder Spouse performed his usual magic to make it work for us. Here’s the final result:
Although the snow now heading for the northeastern US missed us, the cold will visit for about 48 hours. Lows are forecast to be in the mid-twenties, which at my house usually means low twenties. But one night will be windy, which is actually a good thing, as long as the hoop fabric holds.
The next night, however, will be flat-out colder than normal for this time of year. Will my transplants survive? See my first paragraph above. Sometimes, a gardener just has to go for it.
I carefully weighed the pros and cons. Experience has taught me that spring temperatures don’t last long in my area. Spring greens are only happy when the air is cool. Thus, I made the call to not wait another week to get them in the ground. I’ve done all I could. They’re well mulched and watered, and they are covered securely by their fabric shelter. They are also still small, which makes them a bit more resilient, at least, that’s usually the case.
I’ve got about three nervous days in front of me before the weather warms and turns rainy for the weekend. Will my garden gamble pay off? Stay tuned, my gardening friends. Whichever way it turns out, I’ll be sure to share the outcome.
I confess I am hopeful. After all, we’ve already dodged the accumulating snow once forecast for my region today. Here’s hoping fresh-picked spring salads are just a few weeks away!
I am happy to report that Wonder Spouse’s Great Potato Experiment appears to be proceeding well. You may recall that WS is trying grow-bags for his potatoes this year to thwart the greedy chomping of voracious voles on innocent tubers. He began by filling the bags one third of the way full of compost and soil, then planted his potatoes — three kinds, one in each bag. The above photo is an attempt to get all three bags in one shot. It’s not easy. They have grown — a lot.
Here’s what two of the bags looked like on May 9. At that point, Wonder Spouse had folded up another third of the bag and filled in more compost and soil around the stems of the enthusiastic plants.
Over this past long holiday weekend, he unfolded the final third of the bags, bringing them to their full height. Once again, he filled in compost and soil around the stems of the plants. The idea here is that new potatoes are produced from the newly covered stem nodes, thereby producing successive layers of tubers.
Here’s what two of the bags looked like a day or so after he filled the bags for the final time:
Already, the plants are taller than what you see in the photo. The burning question plaguing Wonder Spouse’s potato-fevered brain is, “Do I have growing tubers, and are they numerous?” “There’s the rub,” as the Bard once wrote.
The same methodology that we think is thwarting the voles is also preventing Wonder Spouse from checking on tuber production. The plants are jam-packed into those bags. To try to dig into them seeking tubers would be to risk damaging the plants.
Thus, Wonder Spouse, aka Mr. Potato Head, impatiently waits. Potato harvest traditionally occurs when the plants begin to fade and die, usually some time in June around here. New potatoes are said to be ready for harvest when the plants bloom. Ours bloomed a bit, but Wonder Spouse decided not to risk damaging his long-term prospects for a healthy potato yield.
And so we wait, watering occasionally. And when I foliar feed the veggies in a day or so, I’ll be sure to give the potatoes a dose too. Meanwhile, the suspense builds…
You may also recall that I had planned to compare the same varieties of two grafted tomato plants with two seed-grown plants of the same types. However, the grafted plants I received in the mail were past recovery on arrival, as I documented here. It turns out, that’s not the end of the story.
Via a terse e-mail from customer support, I was informed that my money for the plants would be refunded. I didn’t ask for this; they offered. On the other hand, the nice folks at the Oregon greenhouse operation that produces the grafted plants for the wholesale market wrote me several e-mails, including one in which they offered to send me new plants. I thanked them for their kind offer, but declined, pointing out that it was too late for a fair comparison, given the then-enormous size of my seed-grown tomatoes in my little greenhouse.
I was forced to wait much later than usual this year to plant out my tomatoes. Most years, they are in the ground and growing by late April. This year, it was about two weeks later. I was trying to avoid exposing the transplants to nighttime temperatures below 50 degrees Fahrenheit. I didn’t succeed. This has been one wacky weather spring. Last Saturday night — May 26 — the temperature in my garden dropped to 38 degrees! Fortunately, there was no frost, the sun came up quickly, and no plants appeared to be damaged. However, their growth has been slower than normal, I suspect, due to the chilly nighttime temperatures.
On May 9, I was feeling good about the summer vegetable garden. My beans were coming up with impressive enthusiasm, and the seed-grown tomato transplants appeared to be adjusting well to their new surroundings. Imagine my astonishment when that day’s mail included a box of two grafted tomato plants from the company that had promised me a refund. I was flabbergasted — and confused. And curious. What would the plants look like this time around?
If you compare these to the pictures of the ones I received previously, the difference in vigor is apparent. I didn’t ask for these plants, and they were vastly smaller than their seed-grown equivalents already in the summer garden, but they were here. So I did what any obsessive gardener would do — I planted them the next day.
When I unpacked the box, I discovered an addition to the packing instructions. This was not in the first delivery I received:
Trust me, those first plants I received were not salvageable even by gardeners with two green thumbs.
I took the little plants to my greenhouse and arranged them for a photographic comparison:
If you click on the above photo to enlarge it, you should be able to see that the newly arrived grafted plants are in front. Behind them are the dead stubs of the first grafted plants that were sent to me. Behind them are two seed-grown plants of the same varieties that I didn’t have room for in the garden. I deemed these plants to be lesser candidates for transplantation, so they lingered in the greenhouse as back-ups, if needed. Brandywines are on the left, Goliaths on the right.
Here’s what the plants looked like in the garden this past weekend, about two weeks since they were first transplanted.
It may be a little difficult to tell from these photos, but I would estimate that the grafted plants were about a third of the size of the seed-grown specimens. All my seed-grown tomato transplants are now sporting green fruits, as you can see here:
To confuse me further, a few days ago, the company from which I ordered the grafted plants credited my credit card for the plants. I guess they were trying to be nice, which I appreciate, but I would have much preferred that a human being had contacted me with an apology instead.
Bottom line: I will attempt to proceed with the grafted vs. seed-grown tomato experiment as best I can. Measuring growth rates is mostly a subjective matter, of course. But I can count the number of fruits each plant produces. And I can record when the plants are overcome by the many diseases that usually claim my tomatoes by late August. Brandywines are heirlooms, meaning they lack hybrid resistance to diseases. In my garden, this usually translates to the production of a few delicious fruits, then the demise of the plant to disease. Will reputed grafted vigor keep that Brandywine alive and productive longer?
Stay tuned, garden fans. I’ll keep you posted.
OK, it’s not a vegetable, but it is gorgeous, yes? That’s a Pink Lady’s Slipper (Cypripedium acaule). Thirty years or so ago, it was easy to stroll through local forests (now covered by concrete) and find hundreds of these native orchids blooming beneath the canopy trees. Stumbling onto such a spring display never failed to lift my spirits.
Over 20 years ago, a friend of mine invited me to rescue any natives I desired off her family’s land before it was sold. The property included a rich woodland full of treasures, including the increasingly rare Pink Lady’s Slippers. They are reputed to be very difficult to move, so Wonder Spouse dug a wide circle around the plants, and we moved them, soil and all, to a spot beneath our tall pines, much like the spot where they had been growing. They bloomed reliably for many years, but that area is no longer as open as it was 20 years ago. Understory shrubs and trees were robbing the orchids of the light they needed to flourish. So last year, I moved them to my deer-fence-enclosed north slope, tucking them in with my new trilliums, transplanted bloodroots, Solomon’s Seals, and other spring ephemeral treasures. To have the little plant bloom well the very next spring was very satisfying to this gardener’s heart, and it confirmed my instinct that this orchid needed a better growing site.
That orchid is just one of the ZILLIONS of flowers blooming in my yard. Some have already come and gone. I’ve taken hundreds of pictures, but because I’m outside tending veggies and choking on pollen, I am behind on sharing the beauty with my kind readers. Another post, soon, I promise, will show you more of what has been going on.
Today, I want to report on the progress of my spring vegetable garden. I am hoping that showing my methods and results may help some newbie gardeners out there. Spring vegetable gardening in the southeastern US piedmont region can be tricky business because of our wild weather swings. After a week of 80+-degree days, for example, the weather seers are now forecasting thunderstorms followed by below-normal temperatures, with lows dipping back into the low 40s. At my house, that likely means the upper 30s. Translation: Don’t plant your tomatoes outside just yet, folks.
First, on behalf of my spud-obsessed Wonder Spouse, we are happy to report that the Great Potato Experiment appears to be working according to plan. After loitering beneath the surface of their planting bags for several weeks, all three varieties are now pushing out leaves. Here’s a shot of the bed with all three bags:
Here’s a closer view of the bag containing the fingerling potatoes. They were first to emerge:
The greens growing beneath Wonder Spouse’s improvised canopy are thriving, although this week’s heat wave seems to have slowed their growth a bit. I’m hoping the spell of rain and chilly weather will revive them. We’ve already devoured several fabulous salads created from this colorful mix of spring goodness.
I always worry about the veggies I must direct-sow. Carrot and beet seeds are small, and I can’t control their germination environment the way I can inside my little greenhouse. Despite my worries, all varieties are now up and beginning to grow visibly. First up were both beet varieties. Beet “seeds” are actually clusters of seeds. It’s the way they grow. So I always end up with little grouplets of seedlings that need to be thinned. I’ve saved some space in one bed, so that I can move at least some of the thinned plants there, rather than compost them all. Waste not, as the saying goes.
The first carrots to germinate were the unpelleted varieties I got as free trials from Renee’s Garden Seeds. I hypothesize that the clay pellets surrounding the varieties from Johnny’s Selected Seeds require time to dissolve into the soil, thereby slowing germination.
Even though I carefully spaced my pelleted carrot seeds, they ended up coming up a bit clustered. Not as much as the unpelleted varieties, but enough to require some thinning. I suspect that hard rain moved some of the seeds. And I also suspect that the pelleting process doesn’t always coat single carrot seeds. They are tiny; I can imagine whatever machine is used to coat the seeds might easily group and coat several together.
Meanwhile in the greenhouse, I have transplanted all the tomato and pepper seedlings to the pots they will occupy until the weather settles enough to move them to their outdoor summer beds. As usual, germination rates for the varieties I tried were nearly 100% in all cases. When I transplant the seedlings, I add just a bit of an organic fertilizer specially formulated for tomatoes and peppers. This will be enough to keep them happy until the weather settles.
When will that be, you ask? When the string of 80+-degree days started, I was thinking I might plant out the summer garden by next week. Now I’m thinking it will be the following week, or maybe even early May, before I can trust that nighttime temperatures will remain above 50 degrees at my house.
Fifty degrees is the critical temperature for tomatoes and peppers. Studies have shown that total fruit production for plants drops when temperatures go below this number. Now that I’m growing fewer plants, maximizing productivity is more of a concern for me than it was during my days of growing three dozen or so tomato plants per summer.
I’m hoping to direct-sow my bean seeds this weekend. The cool air temperatures won’t be an issue during the week or so it will take for the beans to germinate. The key to that is soil temperature, and I’m certain the beds are warm enough to stimulate rapid bean germination.
I’ll also be sowing squash seeds in my greenhouse this weekend. Although you can direct-sow squash seeds, I’ve found I start with healthier, more vigorous plants if I pamper them in my greenhouse for a couple of weeks before transplanting them to their summer homes.
Finally, sometimes when you hear hoofbeats, it is a zebra. A medical truism favored by physicians states that symptoms usually point to the most common malady associated with them: If you hear hoofbeats, it’s probably horses, not zebras.
But this week in my yard, among the gazillion Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterflies swarming over my blooming blueberries, one yellow butterfly was not like the others. Zebra Swallowtails are much pickier about larval food choices. Their caterpillars only dine on our native Pawpaws. Fortunately for me, a stand of about two dozen trees grows on the same steep slope overlooking my creek where my Bloodroots grow. This week, a single Zebra Swallowtail taunted me by nectaring on the abundant Henbit growing in my lawn. This common weed with purple flowers is hated by some, but pollinators love it, it’s not invasive, so I don’t argue with it unless it is in my way.
Unlike Eastern Tiger Swallowtails, Zebra Swallowtails do not tarry long at any individual flower. Just about the time I almost had my camera focussed on my visitor, it would dash off to another flower. Apologies for the somewhat blurred photo, but it is clear enough to see the diagnostic red markings that distinguish the Zebra from the Tigers.
Can you feel it? The Spring Peepers can; they sing in my swamp with more vigor every day and night. Even the House Finches are feeling it. One came to the bird bath on my deck this afternoon with his mouth full of nesting material. He dropped the bundle of grasses beside his feet to drink, but the strong March winds blew it away before he’d taken a sip. I don’t think he was really ready to build a serious nest anyway. Perhaps the imminent Vernal Equinox (March 20) has him a bit addled.
I’ve been waiting for below-normal temperatures to abate so that I can start preparing my spring vegetable beds. It looks like this weekend will finally bring proper preparation conditions — and the amazing Wonder Spouse has even agreed to lend a hand. The timing is good. The seven kinds of greens growing in the greenhouse will be transplanting size very soon. And I need the room — it’s nearly time to start sowing tomato and pepper seeds.
I did not originally intend to grow seven kinds of greens this year. I had settled on five from my favorite seed supplier — Johnny’s Selected Seeds. But then I got my complimentary seed order form from Renee’s Garden (courtesy of my membership in the Garden Writers Association), and temptation overcame me.
This season’s spring garden will consist of the seven greens currently growing in the greenhouse:
- Lettuce, New Red Fire
- Lettuce Salanova Home Garden Mix (more about this another time)
- Lettuce, Coastal Star
- Spinach, Emu
- Vitamin Green Greens
- Spinach, Summer Perfection
- Asian Greens Mix
The first five are from Johnny’s, Summer Perfection is from Renee’s, and the final Asian greens mix was a freebie seed package from some other supplier, whose name I’ve managed to lose track of.
Also currently growing are seedlings of Bouquet Dill from Johnny’s and Blue Boy Cornflowers from Renee’s. Ideally, dill is best direct-sowed, but unpredictable weather — mostly in the form of hard rains — usually gives me sparse results when I direct-sow. As long as I transplant these herbs while they’re small, their somewhat temperamental tap roots should adjust without difficulty. One can never have too much dill, in this gardener’s opinion.
The Cornflowers are gorgeous blue annuals that bloom early, laughing at late frosts. I love the intense blueness of the flowers, so when I saw Renee was offering some, I jumped at the chance.
Because these are early spring plants, I didn’t use my germination chamber with the propagation mat to warm them. They don’t need the help. Even my cool greenhouse (I set the heater to come on at 45 degrees Fahrenheit) didn’t slow them down. All but the dill germinated in under five days. The dill took seven. The cornflowers won the contest, sprouting in less than 24 hours — now that’s enthusiasm!
When the garden beds are ready (i.e., weed-free), I’ll tuck in the greens, mulch with some fibrous compost mix I picked up from a local supplier, and enclose them in garden cloth supported by wire hoops. The cloth will protect the greens from all but the hardest of late freezes, and will also discourage rodents, who have learned to slip through my fence and help themselves — either field rats or meadow voles — or both.
I’ll be direct-sowing several varieties of carrots and two varieties of beets as well. Carrot seeds are as hard as dill seeds to germinate reliably, but Johnny’s offers pelleted seeds. They encase the seeds in little balls of clay, which dissolve when exposed to moisture. It is vastly easier to place these little clay balls where I want them — and to keep them where I put them. This year’s root crops will include:
- Beet, Red Ace
- Carrot, Early Nelson
- Carrot, Sugarsnax
- Carrot Nantes Starica
- Carrot, Snacking Rotild
- Beet, Dutch Red Baron
The last three are more freebies from Renee’s Garden that sounded too good not to try. Those carrots aren’t pelleted, so I’ll have some side-by-side data for comparison.
The only other spring crop this year will be Wonder Spouse’s potatoes. The order is due to arrive next week. I’ll keep you posted on that experiment, which I mentioned previously here.
I’ve given up on peas, either English or Sugar Snap varieties. Weather patterns have grown too unreliable for them, no matter how early I get them in the ground. Early heat waves destroy pod production just as flowering grows enthusiastic.
Early heat is the main enemy in a North Carolina Piedmont spring garden. Most of the greens I picked were chosen specifically because of their purported resistance to early summer heat. Carrots and beets are less affected — unless the heat leaps in the 90s in April — and heaven help us all if that happens!
Even after the spring garden is planted, there will be no time to rest. The summer beds will need to be prepared to receive the tomatoes and peppers that I haven’t even started yet (another week or two). As soon as the ground is warm enough, I’ll direct-sow the beans. I’ll start the squash seeds after the tomatoes and peppers are well germinated. They need less time to reach transplanting size.
So much to do, and an aging body to do it with. But Wonder Spouse and I will persevere, knowing that the rewards are delicious and good for us too.
But first, all those vigorous winter weeds must be removed from the planting beds. Charge!
One of my other nicknames for Wonder Spouse — assigned with great affection — is Mr. Potato Head. My spouse would eat potatoes once a day and twice on Sundays if he could. It’s not that he dislikes other vegetables — he loves most of them. But he waxes poetic on the versatility of what some deem a humble spud. The secret is not to eat the mass-produced varieties sold in ten-pound bags at your local chain grocery store.
My Mr. Potato Head has become quite a connoisseur of this often unappreciated tuber. Varieties abound, if you know where to look. Yes, as with tomatoes and peppers, you can find entire catalogs devoted to selling potato varieties like Colorado Rose, Conestoga, Dakota Pearl, German Butterball, Purple Peruvian, and Yukon Gold to name a very few. Some varieties are best for mashing, others for frying, still others make ideal baked potatoes. Fingerling potatoes are gnarly little tubers that resemble arthritic fingers and come in colors ranging from pink to pale yellow. Fingerlings are beloved by gourmet chefs and taste buttery without the addition of actual butter.
If you grow your own, you can have red, white, and blue potatoes for your July 4 potato salad. Mr. Potato Head has produced this patriotic dish more than once. And if you’ve never eaten a truly fresh potato, you have no idea what you’re missing. When you cut into a fresh potato, it’s like slicing an apple — crisp resistant flesh yields moistly to the knife.
As soon as we realized that our five acres of Piedmont possessed sandy loam soils (a rarity), we knew we would be growing root vegetables, and they’ve done well here during our over 20 years of vegetable gardening. Carrots grow long, straight, and sweet. Beets plump up roundly. And potatoes multiply and flourish. At least, they did until the voles decided we were growing the potatoes for them.
The down side of fencing out the deer, it turns out, is that neighborhood cats and other predators can’t get inside to catch burrowing rodents. The rodents, alas, have figured this out, and now clearly consider our vegetable garden to be their own personal Eden. Still, I manage to get excellent yields from all veggies except the potatoes. A few years back, we lost more than half our crop to the voles. Every other potato we pulled was thoroughly chewed.
Because we are fortunate to live in a region populated by numerous small organic farms who sell their wares at local farmers’ markets, Mr. Potato Head has been able to find most of the varieties we once grew, freshly dug and as tasty as what we grew ourselves. However, some speciality varieties are not productive enough for the small farmers to grow them, so Mr. Potato Head has been pondering ways he can grow those himself.
Some folks grow potatoes in tires, but we nixed this for two reasons. First, tires are not organic. Heaven knows what chemical leak into surrounding soils from tires exposed to hot sun and regular watering. They also are connected to the ground, meaning industrious voles would still find their way to Potato Heaven. Barrels and other solid enclosures seemed likely to present drainage issues, and the expense of those options was prohibitive.
Then Mr. Potato Head spotted the item in the top photo in one of the many gardening catalogs that fill our mailbox. These bags appear to be made out of a nontoxic landscape fabric that permits air and water circulation, but is too strong to be penetrated by voles. We were intrigued, but the cost seemed high, so we passed on this option. But last fall, Mr. Potato Head spotted these bags on sale in the catalog. So we bought three bags. I think we settled on the red ones because of research showing that red-colored mulch improves productivity of tomato plants. Mr. Potato Head is betting that since potatoes and tomatoes are in the same plant family, red bags should boost productivity. Time will tell.
Limiting himself to only three varieties was his greatest challenge. We once grew seven or eight kinds every year. After much pondering, Wonder Spouse settled on Bisons, Purple Vikings, and Kipfel Fingerlings. I believe he has trouble finding at least one of these varieties in the local farmers’ markets, so he was eager to have them once more.
We will fill the bags with a mix of our soil, a bit of compost, and a lot of broken-down leaves. As is always true of potato planting, you plant the tuber pieces in a deep hole and cover them with an inch or so of soil. As the plants sprout and grow, you add more soil, so that the stems will produce multiple levels of tubers.
We’ll find a spot in the garden for our red bags of potential spudly goodness. I’ll provide updates as they progress through the season. If this works, Wonder Spouse may try his hand at constructing his own bags from landscape fabric we have collecting dust in our garage. If all goes well, perhaps future gardens will contain bags full of all of his favorite varieties. I’ve always said, if you’re going to go the trouble of growing your own food, you should absolutely grow the food you like, and at my house, that most certainly includes breakfast hash browns and July 4th patriotic potato salad.
Next post, I’ll update you on the other varieties I’m growing this year. I’ve mostly stuck with old reliable favorites, but as always, a few new varieties looked too tempting to ignore. Have you ordered your seeds yet? If not, get busy. Here in the southeastern Piedmont, spring garden preparations should begin in just a few weeks.