Category Archives: Gardening Books

When Gardens Go Bad

I went on a family vacation.  My garden was still producing but not a whole lot.  So, I didn’t expect much.

I was in for a surprise!  While I was away, my cucumbers decided to play!  There were 5 cukes that were 14 inches long and almost 3 inches in diameter.  Really, look at the size of them — dwarfing my 5 quart mixer and towering over my salt and pepper grinders!

Big, sweet cucumbers.

My cukes grew huge while I was on vaca.

When I cut into them, I expected dry centers and mealy flesh but these were oh so sweet!     I couldn’t believe it!  One cucumber was enough for dinner for two adults.

But the cukes weren’t the only veggies to go berserk!

My pole beans grew up and over the 8 foot fence section I put in place for them.  And then they kept on growing.

I didn’t have pole beans; I had a green bean jungle!

Pole beans growing and growing.

The pole beans created a green bean jungle.

I could not believe how dense the growth was.  The vines twisted, turned and knotted themselves together to form a mat of green bean greenery that could not be penetrated!

It’s mid-September in Pennsylvania and I am madly picking green beans, roasting them,

Rampaging pole beans overrun my fence.

Pole beans gone wild.

making them into green bean slaw and eating them raw.

I love green beans but I already have 32 quarts canned and in the pantry.  And I think if another green bean hits my husband’s plate, he may just divorce me!

And I’m still picking cucumbers!  What a whacky gardening year this has been.

Anyone interested in learning more about organic gardening?  My book — Grow So Easy; Organic Gardening for the Rest of Us is available on Kindle!  I’ve gotten some good reviews and would love to know what you folks think!

Bee hive! | A Brave Experiment from kalegrower

I love this blogger’s courage, sense of humor and sense of adventure.  She is a real gardener…someone who gets dirt under her fingernails and sweat on her brow, working in her garden.

And she just took a leap I’ve thought about for years….but have not had the courage to do.  She got a bee hive for her backyard!

Check her out – Bee hive! | kalegrower.

…while I put the finishing touches on my book!

Cover – check.

Clean manuscript – check!

Bio page – check!

Grow So Easy Organic is heading to BookNook…today!

via Bee hive! | A Brave Experiment from kalegrower.

Growing Potatoes with Margaret Roach

I can’t help but repeat myself.  Margaret Roach does it again!  This time, with potatoes.

I have had hit or miss success with growing potatoes….but I may just give them another try because my favorite gardener — Margaret Roach — has put together another sensational, expert interview on how to grow potatoes!

As with her article on mulch, if you have questions, Ms. Roach has the answers.

Hope you enjoy this fact-filled Q & A and take advantage of the 15% discount from Filaree.

Garden Mulch – FAQs from Margaret Roach

Margaret Roach does it again!

And while I am working on my organic gardening manuscript….
I thought I would share links and articles from some of my most favorite organic gardeners.

This article is really an in-depth FAQ on mulch.  What really constitutes mulch?  How much should I use?  When do I mulch?

Got mulch questions?  Ms. Roach has the answers.

garden mulch: how to mulch, and what to use — A Way to Garden.

Grow So Easy Organic – How To Choose & Raise Organic Blackberries

My second favorite backyard fruit is blackberries.

I tried raspberries, once.  I even harvested beautiful, sweet red raspberries, once.  Then I ended up with a bramble patch so thick and so full of stickers that it defied all attempts to control it.  It got so bad that I actually pulled the brambles down and ran over the whole patch with our riding mower…three times.

English: Blackberries in a range of ripeness, ...

Blackberries om varying stages of ripeness. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Now, I raise blackberries.  And every year I get about 30 quarts of beautiful, deep purple, inch long berries that I make into slump, buckle and jam.

Why was my raspberry patch such a disaster?  Why am I so successful with blackberries?  What did I do differently?

The answer is very simple.  I bought Doyle Thornless blackberry bushes.  And I only bought 3 of them!  No thorns, no arm wrestling with 10 plants that morphed into 20 in one season.  And no scratches or flying curse words.

Choosing Blackberry Plants

When I bought them, Doyle Thornless blackberries were about the only thornless plants on the market.  And they probably are the most expensive addition in my garden.  Nowadays there are other thornless choices but there are really only two types of blackberry plants – trailing or erect.

Both varieties grow exactly the way they are named.  Erect blackberries have arched canes that support themselves so no trellis is needed.  Trailing blackberries have canes that can’t support themselves so you either have to build a trellis to support them or do what I did.  This lazy gardener used the post and rail fence in her back yard as her trellis.

The fruit of erect blackberries ripens later, is a bit smaller than those of trailing blackberries and is not as big or as sweet.  So you may want to trade the ease of raising erect blackberries for the taste and flavor and abundance of the trailing kind.

One last word of advice about choosing your stock.  Make sure you know your hardiness zone and you know which blackberry varieties will live and play well in your zone.  Blackberries are pretty tough but can be harmed by extreme temperatures so check before you buy.

Where to Plant Blackberries

Whichever kind of berry you plant, the site is very important.  Sun is important but almost any soil (but very sandy soil), will work for blackberries.  Surprisingly, the single most important qualification of the site for blackberry plants is water.

Blackberries need a lot of water during fruit production but are damaged by water in the winter.  If water stands around the roots, winter and spring frosts can really hurt the stock.  So drainage is important.

When and How to Plant Blackberries

As soon as you can work the soil in your zone, you can plant you root stock.    That’s early spring in the North and late winter or early spring in the South.

As you know, I’m a lazy gardener.  So the way I figure it, I give my plants a good start and the rest is up to them.  Because I was planting along the fence line where nothing but crab grass and weeds had grown before, I did take a bit of time to prep the patch where I wanted to plant them.

But I didn’t get carried away and plant green manure crops like rye or vetch.  Blackberries grow just wild in the woods and do fine so I decided to go the easy way.  I loosened the soil by tilling it but that’s about it.    No soil sample and no manure or compost was added.

Doyle Thornless blackberries trail, so I spaced them 8 feet apart.  Erect varieties can be planted 2 feet apart.  If you are doing more than one row of either kind, make sure you leave 10 feet between the rows so you’ll have enough room to maneuver around the plants, pick, prune and generally see to the health and happiness of your plants.

If your root stock looks dry when it arrives, soak the roots in water for several hours before trying to plant them.  Use a shovel or a large fork to make a slit in the soil for each root you intend to plant.  Rock the fork or shovel back and forth to make the slit wide enough to put the roots of the plant in without cramping them or breaking them off.

Once you have a hole for each root and you’re ready to plant, trim the top of each plant back to just 6 inches long.  Remove each plant from the bucket of water, using the trimmed top as a “handle” and drop each root into its own slit.

On each plant, you should be able to see a line where the plant met the soil in the nursery bed.  Don’t plant the root any deeper than it was planted in the nursery.  As soon as the root is in the ground, firmly pack earth around it, first with your hands than with the heel of your shoe.

Once planted, I wrap a soaker hose along the entire length of the bed so I can provide a constant source of water during the growing season.  Once the soaker hose is down, I mulch all of my new plants with between 4 and 6 inches of straw.

During the first year, don’t expect a lot of berries.  Your plants have to establish themselves.  But make sure you keep the babies watered.  And make sure you mulch them heavily for their first winter.

Training and Care

Blackberries are easy to train along a fence or a trellis.  I simply tie my canes to the fence in the direction I want them to grow.  And I’ve learned to be a bit ruthless with which canes I keep and which canes I cut.

Erect and trailing blackberries will send out suckers and new canes.  Make sure you keep an eye on both so that you don’t end up with a thicket.  Even without thorns, it is hard to train, manage, harvest and prune if you are overwhelmed with too many canes.

Remember that the canes that produced last year are not going to produce in the coming year.  So I wait until late August or early September to cut back the ones that I know had fruit that summer.  I also take time to thin out a few of the new canes – leaving only the larger, healthier ones for next year.

You can cut suckers at this time too.  But if you lost a plant or two during the season, take a few minutes to get a replacement from the new stock in your patch.  To get new ones, I have two choices:

Just wait for a new sucker to push up through the ground.  Let it establish itself a bit then cut a nice round bit of soil around the sucker, dig it up and transplant it where you want it.

Or, just as easy, you can take a long cane, slash it once on the bottom side and bury the slashed bit in soil.

How to grow organic blackberries.

Thinned, tied up and mulched, my blackberries are dreaming of spring again.

Once you’ve thinned, trimmed and replaced, you can simply tie up the canes you want to fruit next year then mulch with 6 to 8 inches of straw.  Or, if you aren’t as lazy as I am, you can plant a cover crop over the patch that you can work into the ground, in the summer.

Whatever you do, don’t let weeds get a start in your patch.  Like asparagus, blackberries don’t like competition.  As big and as bold as the canes can get – some of mine are almost 2 inches in diameter, the size the fruit and quantity of the harvest will be affected if weeds get a chance to complete.

Next week, how to handle Japanese beetles and some great recipes for fresh, juicy organic blackberries.

Grow So Easy Organic: How to Grow Asparagus

I LOVE this plant because you plant the crowns one year, wait two years and then reap the asparagus harvest for the next 20 years.  Every spring, tips push through the earth, ready for harvesting.  

English: Asparagus tip growing in a tub

Asparagus emerging from the ground every spring is a delight to any grower. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Asparagus is not quite a perennial unless you are my age…then it will outlive you!

Planting asparagus is a bit more complicated than dropping seeds into soil, watering and waiting to harvest.  But I once read an article that said planting asparagus is a bit like getting married.  If you do it right, you only have to do it once.

The first thing you have to do is choose your asparagus plants.  One of the new male varieties will usually be more productive than the old stand bys.  All-male asparagus varieties — including Jersey Giant, Jersey Supreme and Jersey Knight— produce up to three times more than older, open-pollinated male/female varieties, such as ‘Mary Washington.

Once you’ve ordered your crowns, it’s time to get the asparagus bed ready for the new babies.

Planting Asparagus
Asparagus isn’t hard to plant but it does make a few demands on the back yard gardener.  For one thing, early spring is the best time to plant asparagus crowns in my neck of the woods.  Once the soil can be worked but frost is still hitting the back yard.  So, if you live in the Mid-Atlantic region, planting should be done between April 15 to May 15. 

Asparagus has some very specific requirements but you only have to plant it once to enjoy more than 20 years of production.  And there are really only a few steps to follow that will make your asparagus grow healthy and give you fresh, succulent green shoots every spring.

Step I – Choose the site wisely.  Asparagus likes sunshine – a lot of it.  Make sure the spot you choose will not be disturbed for 20 to 25 years.

Step 2 – Dig a trench that is 18 inches deep and 24 inches wide.  If your soil is heavy, make sure you loosen it to a depth of 24 inches because asparagus likes good drainage.

Step 3 – Add a layer of organic matter to your trench – 4 inches of chopped leaves or pine needles or compost or rotted cow manure and dig it in a bit with a fork.  Asparagus likes rich, fertile soil.  Sprinkle on a light dusting of bone meal and your ready to plant!

Step 4 – Once the bed is ready, carefully take out each crown, spread its roots and place it in the trench with its buds facing up.  Give each crown some room to grow, spacing them about 15 inches apart to allow for root growth.

If your trench is 30 feet long, you should be able to put 24 crowns in the ground.  When I planted my asparagus, I made 2 trenches about 15 feet long each with a 2 foot wide path between each trench.

Step 5 – cover the crowns with soil but only 1 to 2 inches of soil, initially.  Over the next few months, you will gradually fill in the trench as the crowns put out their first spears.  NOTE:  DON’T HARVEST ANY SPEARS the first year.

If you harvest in the first year, you will stress the new crowns and may reduce your asparagus crop every year thereafter.  And, by the way, ONLY HARVEST the first 2 or 3 weeks of the next year (the second year your crowns are in the ground).  Again, over-harvesting can damage and, in some cases, even kill the crown.  So patience…or you might regret it for the next 20 years.

Making Asparagus Happy
Once the spears are starting to grow up through the soil and you are keeping them lightly covered with soil, your primary job in year one is to keep weeds from growing up around the asparagus.

But don’t till around the asparagus.  The crowns don’t like being disturbed.  So you can hand weed one or two times a week.  Or you can use table salt to kill off some weeds (asparagus is more tolerant of salt than other plants).  But I take care of weeds in the asparagus bed the same way I do my whole garden – with mulch.

Once the trenches are leveled off, I put 4 inches of straw on either side of the bed and straight down my walking path.  Weeds are suppressed; water is held in and the asparagus spears are pretty well protected from my dancing West Highland terriers.  And the mulching approach works all year long.

Keeping Asparagus Happy
Setting up the asparagus bed just so means you will have happy asparagus crowns for decades to come.  Once the plants are established, keeping them happy is really very easy.

Don’t harvest every spear of asparagus.  Taking all the asparagus means the crown has nothing to help it replenish itself.  Year 3, you can harvest for the first 4 weeks.  Year 4 and beyond, you should be able to harvest everything for 6 to 8 weeks but note…

There are some sure signs that you should start getting a bit particular about what you harvest.  To ensure that your asparagus plants stay healthy from year to year, ALWAYS STOP HARVESTING when 3/4ths of the spears are down to pencil – size, about 3/8ths of an inch in diameter.

Also, oddly-shaped spears and woody spears are indications that your harvest season is over.

Asparagus plumosus with berries (unripe); {tāu...

Asparagus spears left in the ground plume, adding beauty to the garden and protecting the crowns.(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Once you stop harvesting, let the remaining spears in the patch grow up and fern.  These ferns aren’t just nice to look at.  They offer protection to the asparagus crowns so Do NOT cut the ferns down, even in the fall. 

Let them overwinter because they protect the crowns from freezing.  I usually cut and remove the dead ferns in late February.  And I mean remove them.  They are taken out onto the back acre and piled up with the brush that will be burned in March or April.

Make sure you side dress asparagus with some nice, rich compost every spring.  And make sure you mulch heavily (3 to 4 inches of straw) around the rows to stop weeds from growing in the patch.  Then sit back and wait for that glorious, first harvest of fresh asparagus.

This is my final post on growing organic vegetables.  I will post three more growing stories — on blueberries, blackberries and sour pie cherries.  And then, I’ll be on to prepping this manuscript for publication on Kindle!

So, next week, how I harvest 60 quarts of blueberries every year from just one corner of my yard!

Grow So Easy Organic – How To Grow Dried Beans

Most people think of dried beans and come up with the familiar four – kidney, navy, pinto and black.

Diversity in dry common beans

There’s a lot of diversity in dry common beans (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But there are a whole lot more varieties of dried beans and some of them have spectacular flavors and very high nutritional value.

For my money, Rancho Gordo sells some of the best dried beans available on the market.

I don’t normally recommend buying something if I can grow it in my backyard but…there are a couple of reasons I strongly endorse Rancho Gordo.

First of all, organically raised, heirlooms like Mayacoba and Good Mother Stollard beans are just a click away from arriving at your front door.  Secondly, Rancho Gordo is a small company in California started and run by Steve Sando, a man who knows a whole lot about organic and beans.

Another reason I LOVE Rancho Gordo is that Sando’s bean seeds are organically sourced and he works with Seed Savers Exchange.  Then there’s the fact that the beans he bags and ships are fresh and so flavorful they actually stand on their own as a main course.

Those are all really great reasons to like and recommend a product but here’s one of the strongest reasons of all.  The first time I had a problem (the disaster referenced below), I emailed Steve and he actually, personally emailed me back with advice and ideas.

The “disaster” started because of one of my growing philosophies.  In this age of saving money and eating locally, I decided to try sprouting some of Steve’s lovely beans and growing my own.

Disaster!

Starting Dried Beans Indoors
I made a decision to start my bean plants indoors, from beans I bought from Rancho Gordo.  My last frost date is May 15th so I put the seeds in the pots the last week of April – first mistake.

The seeds were incredibly quick to break open and start growing.  Within 5 days of sprouting, they were a foot tall.  It literally took less than a week for the beans to outreach my highest grow light.  Here comes the second mistake.

I thought about what I should do for a couple of days but when I went back into the basement to check the little dears, I realized I had no choice. I was raising two trays of Seymours from Little Shop of Horrors!

I had to transplant them!  The third and final mistake.

A bit too early and a bit too cool, but I put the small trellis in the soil and put the bean plants in the ground.  The next morning, I walked out to the garden to see how they were doing.  All but 3 of my 48 bean plants were flat on the ground.  Within 24 hours, most of them promptly fell over and died.

It was a full-blown,  growing disaster so I moved to Plan B.

Direct Seeding Dried Beans
Okay, so starting seeds indoors and transplanting them was an unmitigated disaster.  But I don’t give up easily.  And since the seeds were so ready to sprout and grow, I thought, why not direct seed?

So, I put beans in the ground, watered them and watched them sprout quickly and reach for the netting.  They were beautiful plants, sleek, green, growing straight up the supports.  Then they were dying.

I think they literally drowned.  It rained for 5 weeks straight here in Eastern Pennsylvania – way too much water for this crop.

When the bean plants that survived the flood (no I did not put them on the Ark and drive them around until the waters receded) finally did dry out, they really tried to finish their jobs and produce beans.

The plants set flowers. I got bean pods.  But with all the moisture in the air and the soil, the pods promptly got moldy!

In desperation, I emailed Steve Sando and asked him if I could still harvest the bean pods if the outsides were speckled and turning black.  This wonderful master of all things bean actually emailed me back.

Yes, I could but…isn’t there always a but?  If the beans themselves were discolored or speckled (unless that’s the way they were born), I had to toss them.

Bottom line, I grew more than 100 bean plants; I harvested 1 quart jar of dried beans.  And now I just buy my beans at Rancho Gordo because it is a heck of a lot cheaper than trying to raise them!

Despite my bean disasters, I did learn a lot about how to plant and grow beans.  That’s up, next week.

Grow So Easy Organic: Protect Cucumbers from Diseases & Bugs

Cucumbers are a favorite in my home garden and I’m sure they are a favorite in other gardens, too.  They produce a lot of tasty product for a very small investment in seed.

But cucumbers are also one of the fastest plants to succumb to infestations from one particular bug and the diseases that bug carries.

So, let’s talk a bit about armed warfare on Cucumber Beetles…another of my top 10 most hated insects.

Bugs That Bug Cucumbers
Diseases that affect cucumbers are transmitted by bugs.  So instead of listing the diseases, I’m going to share the disease name(s) and the critters that carry them throughout your garden.  I’ll also share my unorthodox methods for controlling them.

Bacterial Wilt – Plants infected with bacterial wilt are victims of a cucumber beetle attack. Cuke beetles carry the disease organism in their bodies.  It overwinters with them as the beetles take up residence and hibernate in any vegetation, including weeds that are left in the garden.  Cucumber beetles emerge just in time to feed on tender cucumber seedlings.

Spotted cucumber beetle (Diabrotica undecimpun...

Spotted cucumber beetle (they come with stripes, too). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Even if you can’t see them, plants are frequently infected with the disease-causing bacteria from beetles long before the symptoms show. When the vines wilt and collapse (usually about the same time that the first cucumbers are half-grown), it is too late to prevent the disease.

It’s easy to see why cucumber beetles are on my Top 10 Most Hated list and they deserve to be.  Small — 1/4 inch long, black and yellow spotted or striped beetles, cucumber beetles are voracious and can kill cucumber plants whether they’re young or established.  They even attack seedlings!

They feed on foliage, flowers, and fruit and bore into stems. And they fly from one plant to another and can easily carry bacterial wilt with them.  So, cucumber beetles should be controlled from the time that the young seedlings emerge from the soil.

Your best defenses for these beetles and the bacterial wilt they bring with them are:

  1. Clean up the garden in the fall.
  2. In planting season, cover your baby cucumber plants with a light, spun row cover until just before pollination is required.

If you do these two things, you might just cut down on the number of cucumber beetles and be able to raise a nice crop of these wonderful, crunchy, green delicacies!

Use row covers early in the game but remember, cukes need to be pollinated so you can’t keep them covered forever.  You can also make up a mix of insecticidal soap and spray frequently.

And squash these beetles relentlessly.  I shake the vines and when they fly out, use my thumb and forefinger to crush them.  You can put a dent in the population if you take 15 minutes every evening to find and kill them.  These really are the only organic methods I know of to kill cucumber beetles.

Keep in mind that cucumber beetles are equal opportunity pests so make sure you check any squash or melon that you are trying to grow for these bugs.

Aphids — Watch for buildup of colonies of aphids on the undersides of the leaves.  These tiny bugs come in a whole lot of colors – green, black, brown, red, pink – but if they’re pear-shaped, slow-moving and small — 1/16 to 1/8 inch long – you are looking at an aphid colony.

Colonies are found along stems and on the underside of a leaf. These little munchers like succulent new growth. They suck sap from the plants causing leaves and stems to become distorted and damaging the plant.  Aphids can also transmit other plant diseases so they are not welcome guests in any gardener’s patch.

And aphids reproduce quickly so if you don’t control them, you will have several generations of aphids living in your garden.  The University of Illinois  has  good information on cucumber beetles and a great data bank on a lot of bugs – what they are, what they do and how to handle them.

Recipes

I’m only including one actual recipe for cukes because I love them fresh.  So here are a couple of my favorite “fresh” serving suggestions for cukes:

  1. Sliced with mayo on homemade bread is my favorite.
  2. Sliced, mixed with sliced onions and covered with a dressing made of half mayo and half plain yogurt with a dab of sugar and a bit of cider vinegar comes in a close second.
  3. Cukes as a principal ingredient in my favorite cold soup – gazpacho – well it’s a close second, too.

Refrigerator Dill Pickles

INGREDIENTS:
¾ C kosher salt
1 Qt Cider Vinegar
2 Qts Water
Fresh Garlic cloves
Fresh Dill seed heads
Peppercorns
Onion slices optional

DIRECTIONS:

  1. Thoroughly dissolve the salt in the water.
  2. Add the Vinegar
  3. Put layer of dill seed heads and garlic clovers in the bottom of a gallon glass jar.
  4. Place freshly picked cukes on top of dill.
  5. Add another layer of dill seed heads, garlic and more cukes until the jar is ¾ full.
  6. Fill the jar to the top with the vinegar mixture.
  7. Add peppercorns.
  8. Add onions.
  9. Close the jar and refrigerate for 5 to 7 days.

These will stay crunchy and keep in the fridge for up to 4 weeks!  And they are one of my very favorite ways to enjoy my cucumber harvest.

Next week, beans…green and otherwise!

Grow So Easy Organic: How To Grow Great Green Cucumbers

One of my favorite, childhood memories is eating cool crisp cucumber slices on homemade bread slathered with mayonnaise.  My mom could raise just about anything but she really got a ton of cucumbers out of the dozen or so plants she put in the ground every spring.

Cucumber Flowers

Cucumber plants early in the growing season

When Mom was gardening (way back in the 50’s and 60’s), there wasn’t a slew of choices when it came to what you put in the ground.  Cucumbers were cucumbers.  Today, there are a whole lot of varieties that you might want to try.

Like tomatoes, cucumbers come in two varieties – hybrid and heirloom.  There are three general categories or types of cucumbers, too, slicing, pickling and  burpless.

I’m an equal opportunity cucumber person.  I grow and eat them all.  But if you’ve got a yen for a certain type of cuke or a bit less space than you’d like, it helps to know just how big the plants will get and what type of cucumber you will harvesting.

Let’s start with the ones that most people buy in the grocery store, the long green slicing cukes.  There are a couple of varieties that have gained popularity in the last few years.

Slicing Cucumbers
Burpless Cucumbers – burpless cukes are, according to researchers in the Department of Horticultural Research at North Carolina State University, actually Oriental Trellis cucumbers.  And they are a little less bitter and a little less prone to cause burping.  Whatever you call them, these sweeter, long hybrids grow well on trellises and are a nice addition to any garden.  But remember, this is a hybrid so seed-saving may not work.

Marketmore 76 & Marketmore 80 – this cuke likes to have a trellis to climb, too.  I use an old box spring for my cukes.  Like the burpless cucumber, Marketmore cukes are dark green and straight (unless they grow through a bit of the bedspring) and quite tasty.  And, they’re disease resistant, too.

Straight 8 –  another dark green, cuke that grows long and straight (hence its name) is a wonderful slicing cucumber.  It’s crisp flesh and mild flavor make it a favorite for cucumber salads and sandwiches.  Straight 8 is an heirloom so you can save its seeds.  Once most of your harvest is in, leave a cucumber on the vine and let it turn yellow.  Pick it, scoop out the seeds, clean them off then dry them, thoroughly.  Refrigerate and use next year.

Cukes for Limited Spaces
If you don’t have a lot of space to garden in or you’re working with container gardening, you can try a couple of the bush cucumbers.  They’ll still give you long, green slicing cukes but they’ll take up much less real estate doing it.

Bush Crop – these plants are ideal for small gardens or containers.  The Bush cucumber produces the same size cukes as it’s bigger brothers – 8 to 12 inch long – but it does it on a dwarf, mound-shaped plant.  There are no runners, either.

Fanfare is a hybrid but oh what a cucumber it is.  It’s got it all, great taste; high yield, extended harvest and disease resistant, the Fanfare produces fruit on compact vines.  It’s a great choice for someone with small gardening space or the container gardener.  The cuke is slim, dark green and grows to 8 to 9 inches long.  And it has a wonderful, sweet cucumber taste.

Salad Bush is another hybrid but it matures in just 57 days.  This tomato plant only grows that are 18 inches long but it still produces beautiful straight, 6 –plus inch long, dark green cukes. The seed is a bit expensive but if you’re garden space is small or your raising cukes in pots, this may be the one you want to try.  Direct seed the Salad Bus and sit back and wait for your beautiful, compact bush to produce beautiful, flavorful cucumbers for your table.

Pickling Cukes
Pickling cucumbers are smaller, have more spines and hold up to brining better than slicing pickles.  But I think of the pickling cuke as a “two fer.”  You can pickle them; you can also slice them and eat them right off the vine!  Here are a couple that you might want to consider but don’t limit yourself to just these varieties.

The Bush Pickle is fast to harvest – producing fruit in just 48 days.  It’s another compact plant so it’s good for container growing – no need for trellises or stakes! The Bush Pickle may be small but it produces a good-sized crop while taking up just 3 to 4 feet of space. The fruit is about 4 inches long, light to mid-green, with a crisp, tender flavor – perfect for pickles!

Carolina (Hybrid  matures just one day after the Bush Pickle, taking 49 days to produce its straight, blocky fruit.  The Carolina has medium-sized vines so you may want to trellis the plants.  Vigorous, with great yields, the Carolina produces medium green fruit that are generally about 3 inches long and a bit blocky.  The Carolina comes with spines, too and makes a great dill pickle.

Tips on Planting
Cucumbers are usually started from seed.  Like their relatives, squash and melons, cucumbers like warm soil so only plant them after all danger of frost is past.  In fact, I don’t plant my cukes until almost the end of May.  They have to have warm soil and planting them early just means the seed may not germinate.  Or if they do, growth will be slow and the plants will be small.

So, wait for the warm soil and warm air before putting cuke seeds in the ground.  The same is true for transplants.  But transplanting cucumbers is a bit tricky.

“Cucumbers resent transplanting.”  I laughed out loud when I read that sentence in Moosewood Restaurant Kitchen Garden: Creative Gardening for the Adventurous Cook.

Then I transplanted some by pulling them out of their little plastic pots and shoving them in the ground.  Needless to say the seeds I planted in the ground on the same day grew a whole lot faster than the transplants.

Apparently, cukes have lots of little tendrils  – small branches off the central root that uptake water and nutrients and feed the plants.  Harsh transplanting damages the branches and the plant may not recover, at all.

Mine didn’t.

But since I like to have a jump on the growing season, I have worked out a way to do the least damage to the baby cuke plants while giving them about a 6 week jump on being put out in the ground.

I start seeds indoors in mid-March (Zone 5 ½) and once they get their true second set of leaves I simply place the 2 inch peat pot into a 4 inch peat pot and cover with soil.  No transplant blues, no disruption and by mid-May, when these babies hit the dirt, they are tall, healthy and frequently covered with blooms

NOTE:  when transplanting into the garden, do NOT remove from the peat pot.  Just dig a hole deep enough to accommodate the 4 inch peat pot, place the whole pot in the ground and cover with soil.

Make sure you cover the top of the peat pot with soil or, just tear the first inch or so of the top of the pot.  If you don’t, the wind will blow on the top of the peat pot and wick moisture right off the plant.

If you’re using seeds, you can put a single seed in the soil about every 12 inches and cover them with ½” to 1” of soil.  Or you can create a small “hill” of soil and put 3 or 4 seeds in each hill and cover with 1/2 to 1 inch of soil and water them, gently.  NOTE:  you MUST water these seeds daily.  If they dry out in the act of sprouting, they die.

If using the hill method. Leave 24” to 30” between each hill to give the plants a chance to grow without being crowded.  If you’re using transplants, plant them in warm soil about 12 inches apart.

I usually put transplants on one side of the trellis I use for cukes (actually an antique bed spring I found by the side of the road) and put seeds in on the other side.  This ensures that I have a longer picking season and, if I lose a plant or two to cucumber beetles, I have others to replace it.

By the way, unless you live in Maine or Canada, you can do a second planting for fall harvest by planting seeds in mid- to late summer.

Make sure you water cucumbers frequently.  They have shallow roots and have to have moisture, especially when they are setting and maturing fruit.  Try to use soaker hoses for cukes, too.

Cucumbers also like mulch – something that keeps the soil warm in early spring. And floating row covers can help keep your baby cucumbers warm, too.    Once the cucumber transplants have settled into their new home, you can side-dress with nitrogen fertilizer when the plants begin to vine.

Be careful not to handle cucumber plants when they are wet as you can transmit diseases from plant to plant that way.  I only harvest in the afternoon, after the sun has dried off the leaves, top and bottom.

Next week, how to find and destroy the bugs that bug cukes and my favorite refrigerator pickle recipe

Grow So Easy Organic: The Magic Is In The Dirt

If anyone ever asks you what the magic is in your garden – why you can raise so many healthy, happy plants, tell them it’s in the dirt.

Fall is not the time that most people think about making their soil better but it should be because this is the easiest time of the year to enrich your garden plot and give all of the plants you are planning to raise next summer a really solid foundation in their lives.

If you garden, you know that soil counts.  You also know that you don’t have to have perfect soil to get started.  I started in pure, clay silt!  In fact, the dirt in our yard was so soft that when we planted a 3-year-old maple tree, we had to tether it to our lawn tractor for a year to keep it from falling over.

The soil in my garden was an absolute disaster.  But I just kept adding composted soil from my bins, grass clippings (worth all the work to rake up and save), newspaper and straw. And my soil just kept getting better.

Today, the soil in my garden is dark, loamy, rich and sweet-smelling and I didn’t have to spend a dime to get it.  All I did was add organic matter and let it rot in place.  Voila! Soil any gardener would kill for.

So, what is soil, anyway?

According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), soil is the, “…unconsolidated mineral or organic material on the immediate surface of the Earth that serves as a natural medium for the growth of land plants.  It is the unconsolidated mineral or organic matter on the surface of the Earth that has been subjected to and shows effects of genetic and environmental factors of climate including water and temperature effects, and macro- and microorganisms, conditioned by relief, acting on parent material over a period of time.”

What a definition!

Bottom line for gardeners, soil is NOT the stuff you buy in bags at your local big box store.  It is the stuff we walk on, the stuff plants, bushes and trees sit in.    Soil is the stuff we start our seeds in, transplant our baby plants into and set our ready-to-grow plants into in our gardens.

Soil is the place that harbors worms and micro-organisms that enrich the earth in our veggie plots and make our plants hardy and disease resistant.

How do you make good soil?  How do you keep it good once it’s enriched?

Add organic matter.

Wow, that was easy.  And it really, really is easy.  The single most important way to improve soil conditions is to add organic matter- compost, grass clippings, straw, newspaper, straw – to the garden and letting it break down.

Right about here, a lot of gardeners might say, “You can’t just dump it in the garden and leave it.  You have to, “…till it in.”

NOT!

You might want to use a large fork (not out of the silverware drawer but one with 4 tines and a big wooden handle).  It’s called a deep spader and generally has 4 big tines and a top bar you can stand on to drive the tines into the dirt.

The spader loosens soil to a depth of 12” to 16″, allowing garden roots to reach deep for nutrients and moisture.

There are two advantages of using a spader instead of a roto-tiller:

  1. The spader breaks up rather than tears up the soil, so that your surface organic matter is not buried and that layer of micro-organisms and beneficial fungi does not get destroyed.  A tiller rips into the earth, scatters and mixes the top layer into the deeper soil and disturbs the eco-system that helps get and keep soil health.It also chops up worms which, contrary to the popular opinion, do not regenerate. Cut one in half and you have a dead worm.  And worms are vital to your soil’s health.  They keep it soft, they regurgitate it, enrich it.
  2. The spader is a whole lot cheaper than a good tiller.  The top-of-the-line spader will cost you just over $200.  A top-of-the-line rototiller, more than $2000.

By the way, DON’T till…unless you have to.  I like this advice because, frankly, tilling is pretty hard work.  But the real reason not to till is more important than the relief.

Tilling destroys the micro-culture in the top 12 inches of soil.  It’s this micro culture that harbors beneficial nematodes and bacteria.  Also, if you have a good worm population, you will do some real damage if you till.

Another bit of advice that a lot of people will give you is that you need to analyze your soil, have it tested to find out just what kind of shape it’s in.  You can do that.  Most Agricultural Extension offices will test a soil sample if you drop it off at their offices and the charge usually nominal.

Or you can test at home.  There are a couple of ways.  You may know about the litmus test from high school chemistry.  Get a litmus test kit.  Follow the directions, dip the litmus strip and the paper will tell you red or blue – acid or alkalai.

I never got mine tested.  I just started throwing organic material at the ground, layering on the straw and grass and sat back and watched nature do all the work. But if you’re new to gardening or if you feel you need to know how good or bad your soil is, by all means, test.

Want to know the easiest method of all?  Scoop two soil samples, in two separate containers. Add ½ c vinegar to one, add ½ water & baking soda to the other. If vinegar one bubbles it’s alkaline, if other bubbles it’s acidic.

If you’re really in to the science of dirt, a soil analysis will tell you exactly what the pH of your soil is – how acid it is or how alkaline it is.  The pH Scale runs from 0, or pure acid, to 14, or pure alkaline.  You really don’t want either extreme.  In fact, most vegetables and fruits do well somewhere in the mid-range of the scale – between 5.0 and 7.0.

Once you get the results of your test, you might have to make some soil amendments to move it up or down on the pH scale.   How you make those changes is dependent on the so-called texture and structure of your soil.  Testing also gives you information about both.

Texture means how much clay, sand, or loam is in the soil.  Structure relates to how the soil acts when you squeeze in the palm of your hand.  Smooth and slick means too much silt.  Sticky and forms a ball, too much clay.  Too sandy?  It will feel gritty.

You can go into a whole lot of gyrations to try to find out just how good your soil is or your could do it the easy way.  Just keep tossing compost – really rich loamy earth, grass clippings, newsprint and straw into your garden and watch the soil take on a life of its own.

Dirt is important.  And it deserves consideration, respect and a bit of help but you don’t have to spend a lot of money to change your dirt into black gold.  As long as I do no harm — no chemicals and not too much roughing up –and add organic matter, dirt will pretty much take care of itself.

Frankly, I’d rather read about dirt than worry about it.  I have two favorite books about dirt.

Dirt: The Ecstatic Skin of the Earth
Written by William Bryant Logan, this book is my favorite. It is a book woven by a storyteller, one who draws you into what should be a short story about the very stuff we walk on and makes you hungry for more stories, more information, more pages.

I loved this book from the very first story about life beginning in the bed of a deserted pick up truck to the very end when Logan talks about earth and life and civilizations before us.  So did the editors at Publisher’s Weekly.  Here’s their review.

“Logan looks at soil formation and development. His topics range from quarries and the foundations of cathedrals to graveyards and earthworms, from husbandry in ancient Rome to composting in Florida. Logan pays tribute to the dung beetle as a symbol of renewal; he notes that dirt is the source of many drugs that work against infectious diseases (penicillin, streptomycin). He discusses the many forms of clay and the agricultural practices of John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and the Iroquois. Dirt is a natural history of the soil and our connection with it. “

Holy Shit: Managing Manure To Save Mankind
This book by Greg Logsdon is also about  dirt but in a little more primordial form.  Logsdon talks about manure – what it is, why it’s important, why all of us should become just a little bit more interested in how to make manure work for us in our overly chemical world.

Logsdon is a story teller too but he is more anecdotal than Logan and a bit more “…down to earth.”

Publisher’s Weekly offered this review:  Common sense and just the right amount of folksy humor make this treatise on feces a pleasure to read whether or not you’ve ever knowingly come within 50 miles of a compost heap.

Logsdon, a blogging farmer in Ohio, offers lots of clear DIY instructions for utilizing waste, draws from his boyhood experience during the days of the privy and his Amish neighbors.  Ultimately, the real coup here is that this book overcomes the yuck factor and illustrates how, as with many things American, we’ve taken a natural, healthy, efficient system and replaced it with something expensive, toxic and marketable –chemical fertilizers.

So while your out puttering and putting your garden to bed, think about adding some organic material to get your soil ready for next year’s planting.