Posts Tagged summer vegetable garden

Sweat Equity in the Vegetable Garden

Rainbow Chard lives up to its name

In case any of you handful of folks who actually read my blog on purpose were wondering why I haven’t posted in a week, this entry is my explanation. With the invaluable aid of the Wonder Spouse, I’ve been working hard to get all the summer vegetables situated in the garden. I’m happy to report that I’m nearly done. A half dozen Queen Sophia marigolds and a couple of nasturtiums still need to be tucked in somewhere, but everything else is planted, watered, and mulched. And, in the case of the tomato plants, they’re also tied to their trellises.

I’ll show you shortly, but first I want to spend a bit of space on the wonderful spring vegetable garden that is still growing strong — for now. The weather seers are predicting temperatures in the 90s and no good chances for rain for the rest of the week, so I’m not sure they’ll be looking this lovely by next weekend. Thus, a brief photo tour is in order.

Here’s the bed of greens — lettuces, spinaches, and the astonishing rainbow chard dwell happily together:

They taste even better than they look.

The absolute hit of the salad greens has been the Red Cross lettuce. This buttercrunch type is so tender that chewing is almost optional. And it’s gorgeous, as you can see here:

Red Cross lettuce -- a salad star is born!

Not all the spring vegetables have been as cooperative as those shown above. The beets were slow to get going, although they are finally starting to look like they might become productive in a few weeks — if the heat backs off.

Red Ace beets in foreground; mesclun mix in back

Carrot germination was almost nonexistent for me this year. I blame the absurdly warm, dry spring. I think I’m nursing about a half dozen tiny carrot plants mixed in with the beets.

The Sugar Sprint Snap peas took way longer to start blooming than I expected. However, now they are blooming bigtime, and I can see numerous small pea pods dangling from the vines. I watered them thoroughly again this morning in an effort to push them to harvestable size before the heat melts them.

Lots of flowers on my row of Sugar Sprint Snap Peas

Will the pods reach harvestable size before the heat destroys them?

And here’s a view of the quarter of my vegetable area dedicated (mostly) to spring veggies this year:

Peas in the foreground; greens behind

In addition to harvesting, watering, and encouraging the peas to plump up faster, I’ve been busy in two of the other quadrants. First I sowed Fortex Pole Beans and Jade Bush Beans, both varieties that have worked well for me before. Amongst the Fortex seeds, I sowed seeds of a climbing nasturtium that is supposed to produce flowers in vibrant shades of orange and red. I’m hoping they’ll look spectacular mingled with the vigorous green bean vines. Almost every seed I sowed sprouted in just over a week’s time, as you can see here:

The beginning of a green bean avalanche.

I also transplanted six squash plants — two of each of the three varieties I’m growing. I interplant them among other vegetables in an attempt to make it harder for squash predators  to find them. And, as is my practice, after I mulched them, I immediately tucked a lightweight garden fabric over them to prevent insect attacks on the young plants. When they start blooming, I’ll be forced to remove the fabric. I explained my reasoning and methodologies on squash growing in a long post last year, which you can find here.

Here are a couple of the plants hiding under their cloths in this year’s garden:

The garden cloth produces more vigorous plants better able to withstand insect assaults.

As you may have read in earlier posts this year, I started my tomato seeds much earlier, because the absurdly warm winter/spring caused me to fear we are in for a sweltering, dry summer. Consequently, my tomato plants were enormous by the time I decided it was finally safe to transplant them in the last week. I waited this long, because we had two recent cold snaps. My hill went down to 28 degrees during the first plunge, and lingered around 30 during the second snap — way too cold for tomatoes, which is why mine remained in their cozy greenhouse during that time.

Finally, the long-range forecast looked worth the gamble, and I knew my horrendously pot-bound tomatoes couldn’t wait any longer. Because they were so huge, the Super Marzanos and the Sweet Treats already had fruits! I ended up planting sixteen tomato plants. This is more than I had planned on, but they were all so lovely that I just couldn’t bring myself to give that many away. I donated all but two of my extras to a local community garden. The last two went to a neighbor down the road.

Three Super Marzano tomatoes promise almost frightening productivity.

I only planted two Sweet Treats cherry tomatoes. I remember their productivity from last season.

I also planted four each of three pepper varieties. I’m not a fan of the hot ones, so all three are sweet peppers. Carmen is an Italian Bull’s Horn variety that we always enjoy. I was tempted to try a bell type called Merlot, because it produces dark purple fruits. And I planted a freebie sent with my order called Golden Treasure. All twelve plants appear to be adjusting well to their summer homes.

Peppers and squashes

More peppers at the end of the chive bed

I’ll end this post with a shot of one of the Bronze Fennel plants that I grew from seed last year. It’s really taking off, and I expect it to be a magnet for Black Swallowtail caterpillars this year. Behind it is a large shallow saucer that I keep filled with water for birds, toads, and other critters that might get thirsty while they’re patrolling my plants for tasty insect pests. Anything that helps draw pollinators, insect-eating birds, reptiles, and amphibians, and other predatory insects is welcome in my vegetable garden. That’s why I mix the veggies with herbs and flowers, and I think my results speak for themselves.

Bronze Fennel and friends

Here’s hoping we all enjoy a productive — and tasty — summer gardening season.


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Vegetable Garden Update

Today's harvest

Thirty seconds of water every other day. That’s what every vegetable plant in my garden was getting for the last three weeks. The shallow well I use for the vegetable garden was mostly gone. By alternating days and severely limiting the amount of water each plant got, I was able to coax the well to produce a small stream of water — just enough to keep most of the vegetables from surrendering to the record heat (numerous 100+ degree days in a row, multiple weeks) and unrelenting drought. Every watering day was a race to see how many plants I could water before the stream emerging from the hose began to thin and cough.

Finally this past weekend — the miracle that every drought-plagued gardener prays for — rain! Real rain. Not the ten-second showers that only wet the tops of the canopy trees. This was two days of off-and-on bona fide, blessed rain. All told, we got 2.13 inches. Yes, so much water so fast has caused some of the tomatoes to split as the skins are unable to stretch fast enough to accommodate swelling fruits. But that’s not a big problem.  The best strategy is to pick the splitters before they’re fully vine ripe and allow them to finish reddening on the kitchen counter.

The addition of soil-reviving moisture throughout the garden has caused the veggies that were limping along to surge into high gear. Productivity of the tomato plants especially is verging on the ridiculous. My fifteen plants (I pulled out a dying Purple Russian over a month ago) are over a foot taller than my seven-foot trellises, and fruit production does not seem to be slowing appreciably. Here’s a shot of a part of the garden to show you what I mean:

Moist veggies are happy veggies

That’s a wall of tomatoes in the back. In front are some ripening Carmen (Italian bull) peppers surrounded by basils and marigolds. As you can see, it’s a party out there.

And the Fortex pole beans? Have mercy! They topped their six-foot trellis over a month ago. Now they’ve fully grown down the other side, and they’re starting back up again. That’s over 12 feet of bean vine, and I planted a lot of beans. Here’s a shot of the bean wall I took this morning:

Be careful what you wish for...

The zucchinis all surrendered to the heat and squash vine borers. The Honey Bear acorn winter squashes are limping along. After we harvested the first four mature fruits, they flowered again and produced two more. It’s a race to see whether these fruits will be able to fully mature before the vines expire.

But the other member of the cucurbit family I’m growing this year is still hanging tough. These are the late-sown Diva cucumbers. During the height of the heat wave and drought, I wasn’t able to give them enough water to help them form fully perfect fruits. But the rain has changed that. Fruits are lengthening fast, and the vines are still actively growing. What a surprise they’ve been. Here’s a shot from this morning:

Diva cucumbers running out of trellis

And not to be outdone are the sunflowers. I bought the packets locally and promptly lost the names after I sowed the seeds. But you’ve got to admit they’re looking mighty impressive:

Sunflowers sparkle in the morning sun

You need a close-up to fully appreciate these lovely flowers:

Sunflower Duo

And finally, the totals for today’s harvest. In that basket at the top of this post were 35 Sweet Treats cherry tomatoes, 20 Viva Italia plum tomatoes, 9 small slicing tomatoes (a mix of Ferline and Italian Goliath), 4 big slicing tomatoes (Big Beefs and Early Goliaths), 9 beans (7 Jade bush beans and 2 Fortex pole beans), and 1 Apple sweet pepper.

I’m off to make and freeze tomato sauce, so that we can taste a bit of summer’s bounty when winter’s chill frosts the windows. Here’s hoping the rains will be more frequent, now that they’ve found us again.


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Sweet Alyssum: Progress Report

My blog software statistics (thanks, WordPress) tell me that I get a lot of visits from folks looking up Sweet Alyssum.  Today, I thought I’d give you an update on the progress of this annual in my garden — gardens, actually. I sowed the seeds with the intention of interplanting the flowers with my veggies to entice pollinators and aphid eaters to the garden.

But some of you may recall that I got a tad carried away when I sowed these tiny seeds in my greenhouse back in February. I ended up with approximately a gazillion plants. I told you why I wanted to plant them here. I described the initial germination results for these flowers here. Then I mentioned their early enthusiastic progress here.

After I had interplanted some of my Sweet Alyssums with the vegetables, I realized I had quite a few left over. I decided to plant one entire bed in this flower. Understand that my vegetable beds are just shy of twenty feet long and about four feet wide. Here is what that bed looked like a couple of days ago:

Twenty feet of Sweet Alyssums

The picture doesn’t really do them justice. The bed is visually stunning. You can also smell the sweet, but not overpowering perfume of the flowers from quite a distance away. I was standing beside them a few hours ago while Wonder Spouse was harvesting some sweet onions and a few garlics, and the longer I stared at them, the more different kinds of insects I realized were visiting these flowers. I saw numerous species of solitary bees, several different beetles, fireflies, and even a few butterflies stopped by for a quick drink.

No lacewings — which is funny, since those insects were what the Sweet Alyssums were supposed to attract. But the lacewings may have stopped by and then moved on due to lack of their favorite snack: aphids. So far this year, my garden has been astonishingly aphid-free (knock wood). I have no idea why.

I also tucked in a few Sweet Alyssums along the front entry walk to our house. They looked great early on, but now the Lantanas-That-Will-Not-Die (a story for another time) are rapidly overshadowing them. The Sweet Alyssums valiantly persist, but they are undeniably getting squeezed.

All in all, I’d say I’ve more than gotten my money’s worth from these beautiful, fragrant annuals. And the best part is they’re still going strong, despite a record early heat wave that had us sweltering with 100-degree-plus heat indexes before May was even over.

I can see why so many Internet searchers want to know about this delicate, but surprisingly tough flower. It will most definitely remain on my must-plant list for future vegetable (and other) gardens.

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Ruled by Weather

Any serious, long-time gardener pays close attention to weather — not just the forecast for the current day. We watch the long-range forecasts, noting temperature and precipitation trends, so that we can coordinate our activities with optimal weather conditions.

In the Piedmont region of North Carolina where I garden, the last few weeks have been astonishingly temperate. We’ve actually had a bona fide spring this year — the first one in decades.  Wonder Spouse and I had yet another wonderful spring salad from the garden last night: fresh lettuces, mesclun, spinach, Sugar Ann snap peas, and even some delicate chive leaves from my recently transplanted bumper crop of seedlings.

The carrots, beets, and onions are progressing nicely, but are not ready to eat yet. That’s OK. I planted them in the part of the vegetable garden that gets afternoon shade. As long as the rains keep coming, the root crops will achieve tasty maturity.

But after gardening 40+ years in this climate, I know this prolonged spring cannot last much longer. In fact, the weather seers are calling for mid to upper 80s and summertime humidity levels by this weekend. And that’s why I’ve been wearing my old joints to nubs trying to get the summer garden planted and mulched while the cool weather lasts, and before this next round of rain drives me indoors. Besides beating the weather, I had good reason to hurry.

This was the state of my tomato plants in the greenhouse a week ago:

Tomatoes hitting the greenhouse ceiling

Two weekends ago, Wonder Spouse (with help from his lovely assistant, moi) constructed the tallest tomato trellises he has ever built for me. He used 7-foot tall plastic deer fencing material attached to tall metal poles. Maybe, just maybe this year my tomatoes won’t grow taller than my trellis. As it is, I think I’m going to need some kind of ladder to tie the plants as they near the top — and to harvest fruits too.

Here’s what one of the trellises looked like just after I transplanted the tomatoes:

Just-transplanted tomatoes

I dig holes about 8 inches deep and wide for each plant, add organic fertilizer especially formulated for tomatoes, then bury the plants, covering at least the seed-leaf node, and often the next node up as well. Roots will sprout from these newly buried nodes, increasing the anchoring and nutrient-intake systems of the plants.  See the depressions around each plant? Those are little catchment basins that I build to hold water, directing it down to the roots.  Those white markers are ID labels, so I can distinguish between the seven varieties I planted.

This year, the soil was perfectly moist — not wet, but not dry either. In dry years, I add water to the holes after I add fertilizer but before I plant, just to pre-moisten the root zone. Then I bury the plant and add more water.

The final step of this initial phase is mulch. Mulch is essential to the success of a southeast Piedmont vegetable garden. I know old-school farmer/gardeners believe in keeping the soil bare; they use hoes (constantly, all summer long) to hack down the weeds that sprout. Not only is this time-consuming, exhausting work, it’s also much harder on the plants. Root zones become overheated by summer sun, soil dries out faster, and when thunderstorms pound the bare dirt, mud splashes on the plants, creating opportunities for soil pathogens to bounce onto leaves and cause trouble.

Mulching a vegetable garden adds nutrients as the material slowly breaks down. It provides habitat for beneficial organisms like earthworms, toads, and garden spiders. It keeps roots cool, suppresses weeds, and protects soil from eroding during summer downpours.

We use wood chips that have decomposed for two or more years to mulch our veggie beds. I never have enough leaves to use those, although that is my preference. Commercial mulches tend to be treated in ways that make me nervous; I don’t know what has been added or subtracted. I tried hay bales once and only once — summer rains made them sprout into a giant weed patch.

A mulched garden also looks better. Check out my tomatoes with their newly added layer of mulch:

Mulched Tomatoes

Those catchment basin depressions I made are still there, but now they’re filled with mulch. The mulch swells with water, keeping the root zone beautifully cool and moist. I alternate plants on either side of the trellis and tie the branches to the trellis as the plants grow. I find it much easier to keep track of the fruits this way. Tomato cages inevitably become dark green caverns hiding lost fruits.

My method also has the advantage of exposing the work of caterpillars like Tomato Hornworms. Usually the birds spot them before I do, eliminating any need on my part to remove them. Trellises make great perching spots for birds. My bluebirds routinely sit on posts to look for tasty insects.

The tomatoes were just the beginning. I’ve done a lot more in the last two weeks. I’ll show you in another installment, since this one’s running long — much like the increasing daylight as we rush toward another summer solstice.

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Full Speed Ahead!

A calmer moment

I took this photo yesterday morning. It’s a nice little scene just off my entry walk, and — if I do say so myself — it’s gosh-darn pretty. Of course, if you looked to the right or left of this picturesque scene, you’d see the weeds plotting their final conquest of that side of the entry.

But I’ve no time to worry about weeds in the ornamental beds right now. I’m up to my aching muscles in the annual big push to get the summer vegetable garden planted.

Yes, I’m behind. What else is new?

My excuses:

  • For the first time in several years, we have a successful and productive spring vegetable garden, so we spent a lot of time weeding and mulching those beds as the veggies attained maturity. I’ve also been feeding them with a dilute fish emulsion/seaweed mixture to keep them happy, and they are, which is why I’m picking spring vegetables every other day.  Our spring salads melt in our mouths. Lightly steamed Sugar Ann Snap Peas are unspeakably delicious. The results are worth our efforts, no doubt about it.
  • However, this has put preparations for the summer beds behind. We’ve now managed to get the two beds designated for tomatoes weeded, compost added, trellis built and erected, and — since yesterday — planted. That’s 16 too-tall tomato plants plus 8 basil plants. Today’s chore list starts with mulching the tomato beds before tonight’s predicted rains.
  • I am not as tough as I used to be. While I realize that aging beats the alternative — as Wonder Spouse is fond of reminding me —  whiny joints and screaming muscles are decreasing my productivity. I can’t work full 8-hour days back-to-back anymore — not if I want to walk upright the next day.
  • Life — yes, I actually do more than obsessively garden, and sometimes I must sacrifice a perfect gardening weather day for those other obligations. Very frustrating, but obligations must be met, yes?

I could go on, but you get the idea.  Weather is predicted to become rainy and unsettled toward the end of the week, so that is making me push even harder.  I have been taking a few pictures, and when the rains finally drive me indoors, I’ll try to catch up a bit on the blog.

For now, enjoy the lovely quiet scene from my front garden, ignore the fact that it’s a highly contrived shot designed to only show you the good bits, and think good thoughts about my cranky body’s ability to keep up with the gardening demands I’m placing on it.


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