Quick Spring Update

Lots of life stuff to deal with so far this year, but I wanted to just get a few notes in about what we’re working on this spring. So far it’s been very wet, so I think it’s going to take a bit longer to get certain things in the ground than last year. That being said, the soil structure in the garden continues to improve, so that helps.

Last week we planted probably the last larger order of fruit trees in the orchard. At this point there are probably enough trees out there. Still a chance we’ll include some additional fruit trees in a food forest/ wind break or something elsewhere on the property, but we’ll see. This year we planted the following:

  • Ashmead’s Kernel – great heirloom, good for cider, drying, etc.
  • Chisel Jersey – this one isn’t much use for anything but cider
  • Dabinett – another English cider apple, we already have one of these started from a previous year. Makes an amazing single varietal cider.
  • Golden Hornet – cool crab apple type with yellow fruit, very nice in the spring as well and a great pollinator
  • Redfield – another cider apple
  • Spitzenburg Esopus – second one of these as well, the first one we planted is probably one of our best trees so far. This is one of the varieties Thomas Jefferson was infatuated with.
  • Mount Royal Plum – first plum tree, hardy to zone 3, curious how this one does
  • Northstar Cherry – not having great luck with getting cherries started, so planting another. Much more susceptible to transplant shock than apples.

 

I did a count and I think this brings us to around 30 trees, give or take. If I can get even half of these to thrive, we’ll have more fruit than we know what to do with. We’ll let you know when that happens in case you are close enough to enjoy some yourself.

Otherwise, seed starting continues to go well. Tomatoes are going gangbusters and I’m running out of room to the point that I’m already putting some extras in the greenhouse. Calculated risk as it may still get too cold, but if not they will be hardier and bigger when we transplant. Probably going to share some seedlings as well. We started some seeds Kristin saved and got really good germination on all of them, so we’re curious to see how true to type those are. This was a bit of an experiment to see how well we could do at growing our own saved tomato seed, so this year we may be a bit more intentional to avoid cross-pollination.

We aren’t doing a ton of new things this year, but Kristin is getting more and more interested in medicinal herbs and plants so we are trying to grow a few more of those type of plants. We are also trying to get comfrey going in the orchard (non-invasive type that makes sterile seeds). Comfrey is great for all kinds of things and will outcompete some of the undesirable grasses and weeds in the orchard to eventually become a living mulch. When it gets tall, it falls over so it almost does the mulching for you. Tons of nutrients and minerals and good for the soil as well. I’m also trying to see if I can start some perennial shrubs from seed (sea buckthorn, service berry, Siberian pea shrub). This requires cold stratification (basically starting for a few months in soil in a fridge) and getting to transplant stage takes two growing seasons, so it’s a multi-year experiment.

The other big spring project is re-doing our back deck. This will be a lower deck, almost at grade (basically 1 step down to the ground). We plan to put some beds around the perimeter of that and probably some cedar planters so we can have some herbs and flowers within steps of the back door. Hope to post pictures of that process once we get started.

Finally some tomato starts I can work with

I’ve been trying to start my own tomatoes ever since we moved to Vermont with varying degrees of success. It’s partly because I like to grow some more obscure tomato varieties that are hard to find in the nurseries and garden centers and partly because once again I’m apparently a glutton for punishment.

greenhouse2

Tomatoes and peppers were one of the primary reasons I really wanted to invest in a greenhouse. We got one last year, but by the time we got it installed it was well after the prime tomato starting period. So I was very curious to see how much difference it made this year in the quality and size of my tomato starts. I have not been disappointed.

These greenhouse shots aren’t all tomatoes of course, there are also some peppers, eggplant and other odds and ends. But it is overflowing with tomatoes at the moment.

greenhouse3

This is probably the first year I’ve had quite a few tomato starts that actually look like something I would buy at a good nursery, both in size and health. I still started them initially in our basement under grow lights, but once it started to warm up they went in the greenhouse. There were some nights of moving them back and forth when temps once again dipped into the 20s and low 30s at night.

tomatostarts16_1

We are now starting to plant them out and I’m very happy with how many nice big plants I have and it’s only the middle of May. I also have a pipeline of additional starts in case some plants don’t take. Plus, we’ve never really had quite enough tomatoes to put away just from our own garden and end up buying extras. Hoping maybe this is the first year that isn’t the case.

tomatostarts16_2

Seed starts

Well, it’s already that time again. Starting seeds marks the beginning of the gardening year. We already have most of our seeds ordered. It’s still a bit early to start most things, but I am starting some herbs and flowers since they can sometime take awhile to get going and actually will do ok inside for a few months.

I’m also hoping to buy a small greenhouse this spring, so I’m hedging my bets that I’ll be able to move some things out there and get them acclimated with more true daylight earlier in the season. Should lead to more robust starts that can be planted sooner.

Here’s our seed starting space in the basement.

SeedStartTable

Here is a full view of my growing rack. I would like to add a few more lights this year.

SeedStart1

This year I’m trying to start some seeds more by broadcast right in the tray and then transplant the viable starts into the individual cell trays that we usually use. The cell trays have been problematic because typically not all the seeds germinate. So you replant and have seeds at different points of progress or you forget whether you’ve re-planted or you wait several cycles for germination and so on.

SeedStart2

Some of the flowers and herbs I’m doing directly in a small pot instead. The small green watering can you see in the photo has worked great, it has a very small spout and face that is very gentle on young plants. Highly recommended as this is much easier than trying to use a spray bottle. You can get it from Amazon.

SeedStart3

Next up in a few weeks, brassicas, tomatoes and peppers.

2014 Year in Review

Well, between keeping up with all the projects and having a new baby, this blog has taken a bit of a hit. So this post won’t be too lengthy, but wanted to do a quick bullet point list of stuff we managed to accomplish this year.

  • Poultry
    • Built a brand new chicken coop based on Fresh Air Poultry Houses, large enough for 15 chickens or so.
    • Lost one of our original hens, but picked up 6 new ones.
    • Got our first blue eggs.
    • One of the 6 new “hens” turned out to be a rooster (the Cuckoo Maran). He is still on probation until we determine if he’s going to be nice and helpful or a pain.
    • Built a duck coop and planned to get ducks, but that didn’t happen this year. Hopefully next year.
    • Set up solar for the new coop, which I still hope to blog about at some point. It’s struggling a bit now with the limited daylight and snow/ice, but I think overall will work well for lighting. Would eventually like an automatic door as well.
  • Gardening
    • Put in 2 brand new garden plots. They did okay considering it was the first year, although we still have a lot of soil consistency and wetness issues to work on.
    • Started 4 blueberry bushes, 25 asparagus crowns (of which about half made it) and 75 strawberry plants (3 different varieties of 25 each).
    • Had some luck for the first time with the following this year
      • Melons
      • Pumpkins
      • Leeks
      • Eggplant
      • Gourds
      • Popcorn
      • Sweet peppers
    • Standouts included
      • Potatoes (despite web conditions and compacted soil)
      • Brassicas (broccoli, cabbage)
      • Some of the tomatoes
      • Soybeans
      • Flowers – we had decent luck with various flowers this year, including sunflowers, that we’ve struggled with before.
      • Peppers, although I always want more variety and quantity
    • Still can’t seem to get Brussels Sprouts to work.
    • Our cucumbers and squashes mostly succumbed to a vicious onslaught of insects. Need to do a bit more row cover and other stuff next year.
  • Landscape and other property work
    • Got a riding mower and shed to store it in.
    • Planted 4 apples trees.
    • Had a full landscape design done that we are really excited about implementing over the next 5-10 years.
    • Built 2 bay compost bin

Lots of plans for next year that I may get into in another post. Soon it will be time to buy and start seeds. By the way, if you are thinking about seeds, don’t forget about my new site PickAPacket.com and tell your friends. It allows you to compare prices and see varieties carried by 13 of my favorite non-GMO seed companies, including lots of heirloom, organic and open-pollinated varieties.

Announcing PickAPacket.com–a new way to find sustainable seed options

Over the past few years I’ve been thinking about an idea to help me track down seeds from my favorite vendors. Near the beginning of each year we get a number of seed catalogs. I love looking through them in the cold winter months, getting a sense of all that is available, new varieties and picking new things to try.

We typically figure out exactly what we still have in inventory and then decide what we need to order.  Most of the seed vendors now have excellent web sites to order online. I wanted a way to quickly figure out who has what variety and potentially compare prices.  Often we have specific varieties in mind and not all vendors carry that type.  We buy a lot of seeds, so we think about price as well.  We typically put more stock in the success we’ve had with a particular vendor or variety, as well as how adapted the seeds are to our area.

Although you can find single varieties somewhat easily through Google or Bing now, it’s still a laborious process if you want to compare varieties or do a lot of research quickly.  I’m also only really interested in vendors who support the ideals I believe in: no GMOs and a focus on any mixture of organic, heirloom, open-pollinated and generally sustainable options.  The only way I really know to accomplish this is to pick vendors I believe in and then crawl their sites to determine what is available.  So I wrote a specialized web crawler that does just that.  The results are now available at Pick A Packet.

I have some ideas for additional features, but for now it is a limited feature set.  I want to make sure the seed companies appreciate the idea of this as a resource before putting too much additional effort into it.  I also want to see if anybody else finds this helpful or just me.  If so, some ideas for future features include social elements (I’m growing this in this area), ratings of success with particular varieties, ability to share photos of specific varieties (both plants and final crop) and helpful resources on the ideas the site is about (GMO issues, open-pollination, heirloom plants, seed saving, etc.).  I would appreciate any feedback or idea you have on any of these ideas or the main concept of the site.

Please share this with any gardening friends you may have.  I hope you’ll find it useful.

Post move update

As you might expect, life has been pretty busy since our move.  Fall went pretty quick and now we are already headed into winter, so work outside will slow down for awhile. Here are a few of the things we’ve been working on.

  • We put in an herb spiral.  I’ve always found the idea of these one of the most interesting and accessible permaculture concepts.  We have some rocks scattered around the property, so I was able to build this with a combination of repurposed bricks and rocks.
  • We had one little hoop in a raised bed for the fall.  Got quite a bit of lettuce and other greens out of it into November.  Also some radishes and Hakurai turnips.  The last part of November was fairly cold here, so not much is still growing now.  But there are also carrots and bunching onions that should come back and continue to grow in the spring theoretically.
  • Kristin is experimenting with the concept of a couple of “lasagna” plots, which is basically where you build up a raised bed using various materials (grass, straw/hay, food waste, chicken shavings/manure, spent beer mash, etc.)  It’s basically building a compost pile, letting it sit over the winter and early spring and then planting directly into it.  We have two of them going so far, both a standard 4’ x 8’ size that we settled on for raised beds. Makes it easy to use scrap dimensional lumber for frames and the hoops fit over them nicely.
  • We dug up another section in our back pasture and planted garlic.  Our tiller really struggled with getting anywhere with our dense pasture grass sod.  It took about 8-10 runs to break the ground into anything useable.  So we may need to get some sections of the properly plowed at least once to get certain things started, like asparagus, strawberries, etc.
  • I just planted a couple of hazelnut bushes from the Arbor Day Hazelnut Project. They are developing hybrid bushes that can grow in a much wider range of climates, hopefully over most of the US instead of mainly in a small area of the Pacific Northwest.  I also started our windbreak with 10 Norway Spruces from Arbor Day. Eventually I want to build up a substantial windbreak on the north and east sides of the house and along the lane, with a mix of evergreens and deciduous trees.
  • We did a bunch of efficiency work on the house, including blowing cellulose into the attic which was never done for some reason.  We also insulated the basement above grade for now as well as our bulkhead door, with the intent of eventually putting foam board on the entire set of walls in the basement.  This may not be necessary and foam board is pricey, so we’ll see how it goes.  The basement is already noticeably warmer. We would like to eventually put in another heat source, such as a pellet stove.  We have a fairly efficient oil furnace, but I don’t like having that as my only option and it’s certainly not the cheapest way to go for a house of this size.

This winter I hope to do a few small projects, including building a larger chicken coop using the principles in Fresh Air Poultry Houses.  We also still have some odds and ends to wrap up in the master bath, painting to finish in the upstairs and some electrical work to have done.  I hope to get some additional storage and a workbench/tool area set up in the basement, now that we have some of the insulating done.

I’ve ordered my first 4 apple trees for spring delivery and we’ll need to start thinking about strawberries, blueberries, asparagus, rhubarb and additional trees for windbreak to plant in the spring.  Plus our normal seed starting and the fun we always have looking though all our seed catalogs.  This year we’ll finally be able to grow some things we didn’t have room for in the past, such as sweet corn, melons, pumpkins and lots of other things.  Not sure we’ll get to all that in the first year, but we’ll do what we can like we do every year.

Seed starting tip for peas

I think I mentioned this last year, but wanted to throw it out there again. You’ll find this noted elsewhere online, I found it last year when growing peas for the first time.

Since peas can be started so early (apparently sometimes they will even sprout and grow through snow), the soil conditions can be all over the map. So I sprout my peas indoors first. It’s really simple. Take some paper towels or cloth and get it moist, but not wet. This year I used an old diaper. Put the peas inside. They like to roll around, so it can be helpful to roll up the sides in some fashion to keep them in. Put the paper towel or cloth inside a plastic bag or really anything that can hold some moisture in. I find a gallon ziploc works great and we always have used ones around. Just leave enough of a gap in the container or bag for some air to get in and out. You are basically making a little greenhouse.

After a couple of days, start checking them. As soon as you see sprouts you can plant them outside. Be careful with them at this stage as the little sprouts can be pretty fragile. If you break them off, that seed is done.

They seem to like a diaper better than a paper towel because this time a bunch sprouted by today, probably 60-70%, and I just started them during last weekend. Some of the sprouts actually grew through the diaper cloth. They are ready to go!

2013 Seed Buying

Yesterday I bought seeds for this year to replenish our stock and thought I’d write down a couple of interesting observations.

Last year we were planning to have a large garden for the first time and we went a little nuts. Bought tons of seeds and I think we ordered from 4 or 5 different companies.  I think for the most part we used everything we bought and were pretty happy with most of it.

This year we decided to go a little simpler and decided to buy everything from two companies, High Mowing (a local VT company) and Baker Creek.  We had a chance to visit High Mowing last fall for their “Field Days” and we were very impressed with their operation.  Besides the plus of being local and thus having a higher possibility of getting seeds well adapted for our area, they are also doing some interesting seed development and hybridization work.  As far as Baker Creek, we just love their selection and advocacy for heirloom and open pollinated seeds.

One thing we decided to try for the coming year is to buy a few hybrids.  We had a decent amount of trouble with various wilts, rusts and blights last year.  We never did get zucchini going, although a lot of that was bug issues.  A lot of the tomatoes ended up with various levels of disease, although some of that may be rectified by giving each plant a bit more space and pruning better.

After a lot of experimentation last year, we are probably going to go a bit more basic this year until we have our own property with more room.  That means we probably won’t grow cauliflower (takes a lot of room and we didn’t have much luck getting heads to form), popcorn (proved out we can grow it and also takes a lot of room), melons (not enough sun, difficult to get started and once again room) and soybeans (we’ll definitely grow these when we have the space).

Every year we like to try some new things, so here are a few things we are planning to experiment with this coming season:

  • some hybrid cucumbers from High Mowing (a pickling and a slicing variety)
  • Kaitlen cabbage – a sauerkraut variety
  • Tomatoes – Amish Paste, Cherokee Purple, Black Cherry and Berkeley Tie Dye (a funky pink and green variety developed by Bradley Gates of Wild Boar Farms)
  • Potatoes – Russet and Russian Banana (fingerling) – had good luck last year with Yukon Gold, La Ratte fingerling and Red Norlands, want to try some other varieties)
  • Good Mother – an heirloom dry bean
  • Various greens – new salad mixes, a Bibb lettuce, Purple Orach, Purple Mizuna
  • Eggplant – Aswad (large dark purple Iranian variety) and Ping Tung (a Thai variety)

Should be another fun year and hopefully we can take what we learned last season and build on that.

2012: The Season In Review

So our first gardening season in Vermont is pretty much over, although we still have a number of things under tunnels again.  Looks like we may have some cabbage, carrots, beets, chard and a few other things.

Overall, we are pretty happy with how things went, although we still have a lot to learn.  But considering I haven’t worked a garden this big since I was a kid, I think we did okay. We mostly kept up with weeds and getting things picked. One thing we didn’t expect to struggle with so much was the insect pressure early in the season.  We had certain crops we planted multiple times and still didn’t get anything going. Next year we will probably use more row cover until the plants get established.

The good

  • Peas –  got a decent little crop early on, both shell peas and snap peas. We only had one row, so not enough to get much. Definitely want a lot more when we have some land. Had better luck with pre-sprouting the peas before planting than seeding directly.
  • Carrots – Tried a bunch of different types and got a good yield eventually, but they take awhile to get going.
  • Tomatoes – Mostly did pretty well with these, although had some disease issues with certain varieties. Had some volunteer plants from the compost as well, mostly cherry.  We were able to dry and slow roast a lot and put them in the freezer.
  • Peppers – Once again, some of these took awhile to get started in the New England climate, but once they did we got a fairly prolific yield. Even the habanero we started ended up loaded late in the season, although it would have been nice to have a bit more warm weather for them to finish ripening.
  • Tomatillos – We only planted a couple of plants, but they grew over 6 feet tall and got loaded with fruit.  Once again a couple more weeks of hot weather would’ve helped, but Kristin was able to make a bunch of salsa verde anyway. The main thing we learned is even though the stems get pretty thick and woody, when the plants started getting loaded they needed extra support, particularly in the wind.

The disappointing

  • Cauliflower – We didn’t have great luck with any variety, but the Purple of Sicily from Baker Creek was particularly disappointing. The thing is, it was wonderful in every way except fruiting. It germinated quickly and at a high rate, was very hardy when transplanting, responded well to insect pressure and grew really large. So maybe it was the season or something we did wrong. I’ve heard cauliflower tends to do better in fall plantings since it likes it colder when fruiting, but didn’t get around to starting fall plants early enough.
  • Zucchini – Yes, really, even though this is normally one of the easiest plants to grow and you end up with more than you want. We tried planting this multiple times and the bugs kept getting it.  We finally go a few plants started in mid-summer, but they never did much.
  • Melons – Same thing, too much insect pressure for them to get going and they need a whole season here to do much.
  • Tomatoes – like I said above, we did okay for the most part. But the Brandywines succumbed to some sort of rust or blight and we got maybe one or two decent fruit. Plus the slugs would start eating them before they got fully ripe, so was hard to get one that was nicely sun ripened. This seems to be the story with Brandywines, they are notoriously tricky to grow. The Paul Robesons did much better and I like them just as much.

    The other plant that seemed to have disease issues was Stupice, although it is very widely grown.  In retrospect I don’t think I allowed enough spacing between plants and they probably could’ve have use both more air flow and pruning. Something to remember for next year.

  • Brussel Sprouts – similar to the cauliflower, plants looked great and never sprouted. Another one I think I’ll reserve for fall planting next year.
  • Cucumbers – we had some issues with cucumbers here that we never had in Chicago.  Same variety, but they formed stunted fruit that seemed to be an off shade of green along with some brown. I expect it is some type of mineral deficiency or something, but we never figured it out.  We did plant Mexican Sour Gherkins later in the season and they actually did great. But we were hoping for more pickling cucumbers of other varieties.

Well, there is a lot more I could go into, but that’s probably enough. I would like to post a list soon of the various food we were able to put up.  We’ve got a pretty nicely stocked basement now and should be able to have some food this winter from our garden. We aren’t close to being most self-sufficient in food yet and we’ll probably need more land for that, but we are another step closer to that goal.

How did your garden do this year?

Google custom search for seeds

When we looked at buying seeds this year, we had a bunch of catalogs and seed companies to choose from.  It would be really great to be able to quickly determine who has what variety, the cost and whether it is still in stock.  Certain popular seeds tend to sell out quickly.

When I started looking into this, it seems like a task that would be difficult to accomplish without some direct assistance and interaction from the seed companies.  And I’m not sure they would be that interested.  I still think there might be a way to do this with some sort of screen scraping app, but it would take some doing.  And it might not make the seed companies happy, even though my goal is to support those who are selling organic and open-pollinated seeds. 

Still might be a fun project to try.  The problem is not everyone uses a distinctive enough url structure to make this easy.  It’s also not trivial to compare prices, since some companies sell by the number, some by the ounce and it also depends how large a quantity you are buying.  If you could find the price, I guess you could just display it.

In the meantime I created a Google custom search that searches all of my favorite companies.  I tried to filter down the urls to be as specific as possible (e.g. use the item detail page, not every url in the site). You can do this with some of the sites, but not all.  Makes me wish everyone was using MVC/friendly urls.  Mother Earth News already has a custom search like this, but it’s hidden in their site and they search several hundred companies.  So the signal to noise is pretty bad if you ask me.

You can check out mine and see if it’s helpful.  I will likely add some additional companies into the mix, but trying to keep it a bit more curated.