The Yellow Farmhouse Garden

March 21, 2018

Save wood ashes to use in the garden

Filed under: Fertilizers — bob @ 4:11 pm

If you enjoy regularly using your fireplace or wood stove, you know that a fair amount of wood ashes can be accumulated over a heating season. Under the right circumstances, those ashes can be an excellent fertilizer for your garden.

Wood ashes contain about ten percent potassium, one of the three major elements needed by plants to grow and survive. That is a relatively high percentage of potassium for a no-cost,naturally occurring material that is easily available. It doesn’t need to be mined from the ground, packed and shipped long distances to a garden center.

Many natural sources of potassium like greensand release their nutrients very slowly over a period of moths or years. Wood ash potassium is in a form that is very water soluble making it immediately available for plants to use. Because of this high solubility, potassium is quickly lost if the ashes are stored where it can be rained on. The rain water essentially washes away the potassium, so it’s important to store ashes in a dry area.

Calcium, at about sixty percent, is the other major constituent of ashes. It is in the form of calcium carbonate, the same compound that makes up agricultural limestone. When soil pH is too low, the soil chemistry changes to the point where the nutrients are no longer available to the plants. So farmers and gardeners add limestone to raise the pH to the optimum for plant growth.

Ashes contain trace amounts of micro-nutrients too. Those are essential nutrients that are needed for plant growth but only in tiny amounts compered to the three major nutrients of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium.

Depending on soil conditions about thirty to one hundred pounds of limestone is commonly added to a thousand square feet of garden. However, only about three to ten pounds of wood ashes are required to do the same thing, about one-tenth the amount. Why is that so if wood ashes and limestone are both made of calcium carbonate? It’s because the particles of wood ashes are so small that the calcium is immediately  available while even finely ground limestone has to break down even further in order to work.

Wood ashes work so quickly to raise soil pH that there is a danger that the soil pH can quickly get too high and cause other problem for your plants. It’s always a good idea to check your garden’s soil pH to get an idea on how much wood ashes to apply.



Start the first part of your fruit tree pruning now

Filed under: Fruit,Trees — bob @ 4:10 pm

It’s tempting to prune fruit trees in early March especially on warm, sunny days when were out in the yard looking for some thing to do. Usually it’s fine to do so, but I like to wait to prune until after the chance of freezing rain has past.

A heavy accumulation of ice during an ice storm is liable to break off branches from fruit trees. That can be a real problem if a major scaffold branch is lost.

In many cases the tree can grow new scaffold branch from existing nearby shoots. It’s the gardeners job to select which shoot would make the best replacement. If you do all your pruning early, you greatly reduce the number of shoots available for growing the replacement branch.

You can however to do part of your pruning now and save the rest for later without losing any potentially valuable wood. Early March is a very good time to prune off all of the water sprouts that have grown from during the previous season.

Water sprouts are those thin branches that grow straight up from the main branches.

Water sprouts are those thin branches that grow straight up from the main branches.

During a severe ice storm, ice can add from ten to one hundred times the weight the weight that branches have to support. High winds make it even more hazardous for the trees. By removing water sprouts you drastically reduce the surface area for ice to collect, lightening the load that fruit trees branches have to bear. One quarter to one half inch of ice can cause small branches to begin breaking. Taking off the sprouts also reduces the amount of area for the wind to push against.

Water sprouts need to be pruned off eventually as a regular part of fruit tree pruning. They reduce much needed air circulation making conditions more conducive to diseases. With their rank growth, they also keep sunlight from reaching the fruiting parts of the tree.

During a normal year we can expect four or five days when ice accumulates and usually is not enough to do much damage. But every ten to twenty years or so we get a major ice event and that’s when trees get damaged.  By doing your fruit tree pruning in two stages you can buy yourself a little extra insurance against major tree damage.

Maybe you’ve seen pruning being done in large commercial orchards as early as February. They prune that early because of the sheer number of trees that need to be pruned and don’t have the time to go through the orchard twice.


February 27, 2018

Force shrubs and trees for early spring inside your home

We still have plenty of winter left to go until spring arrives. In the meantime you can bring a little bit of spring early into your home by forcing shrub and tree branches into budding out of season.

The shrub everyone thinks of first is pussy willows with their irresistible silver, fuzzy buds. There are others that you can force into budding but you have to start now if you want results before spring. Some species of woody plants, such as forsythia, may take only a couple weeks to bloom while other plants may take a month or more.

Fruit trees like apple, cherry and pear can produce showy flowers. Others like maple tree branches are more subtle with their separate male and female flowers.

Magnolia buds may not blossom but will swell and provide you with some spring  color.

Magnolia buds may not blossom but will swell and provide you with some spring color.

Aspen and other poplar trees will often send out a pendulous spray of flowers that remind you of warm days ahead. Many other species will reward you with green leaves that have their own charm when viewed up close. Indoors, some leaves even have a faint spring-like fragrance that is lost in the great outdoors during their normal budding season.

Forcing branches is a great excuse to use your special flower vase that has been sitting empty or that rustic flower container. It’s fun to experiment with forcing different types of trees and shrubs. Here’s a list to help you get started: for flowers try forsythia, dogwood, pear, cherry, plum, quince, apple, crab apple, currants, maple and willow. For leaves: beech, poplar and roses.

It’s important to start early because of the time it takes for the branches to respond to being brought inside where it’s warm. Make sure to use sharp pruning shears to make nice clean cuts with no ragged edges. Change the water in your container from time to time to keep it fresh and free from algae.

Use your artistic eye to arrange your branches in an attractive way since you’ll be looking at them for a few weeks without anything noticeable happening. Keep in mind the buds are very fragile once they start opening and can easily be broken off if you’re not careful.


February 20, 2018

Checking seeds for viability

After taking inventory of our seeds last week, we had to decide which seeds we were going to keep and which we needed to throw out. Each year we write the date on the seed containers, that gives us a starting point.

Some seed packs slipped through our system though and had no date on them, just the variety name. Others were getting to be a few years old meaning they were approaching the out side limits of their shelf life.  As seeds get older, their ability to germinate begins to decline. In many cases they still can be used even though they are past their prime. This week we are running germination tests on several types of seeds to see if they are something we would be able to use in the garden.

A simple germination test is easy to do and gives you a pretty good idea if it’s worth keeping a pack of seeds. To do the test,  pick ten seeds at random of one type of plant that we want to test, for example ten tomato seeds or ten onion seeds. Next take a moistened piece of paper towel. Place the seeds on the paper towel  on half of the sheet and fold the sheet over to cover the seeds. The seeds and moist paper towel go in a zip-loc bag and are sealed up. Then put the bag in a warm place to help speed up germination, we use our plant warming mat.

Seedlings are very fragile at this stage.

Seedlings are very fragile at this stage.

Check the seeds every day to see if any are sprouting. If you have the original packet, it usually tells how long it takes for germination. But when you use a warming mat with moist conditions inside the plastic bag, seeds usually sprout much quicker.

The number of sprouted seeds gives you the germination percentage. For example, if eight of the ten seeds sprout, you have an 80% germination rate.

The big surprise for us was an unmarked envelop of ‘Chadwick Cherry’ tomato seeds we found with the rest of our seeds. I don’t know where that envelop came from , maybe someone gave us some seeds a few years ago. We were expecting an low germination percentage but nine out of ten germinated. That was an excellent outcome and we’ll be growing those in the garden this season.  On the other hand, a group of onions we were looking at only had one seed sprout, we’ll toss those into the compost. Too bad because it was a pretty big packet of seeds.

Even if your seeds have a low germination percentage you can still use them, just plant extra seeds to make up the difference. For example if only half of your seeds germinate,  plant double the amount.

It’s true that you can buy fresh seeds of common varieties very cheaply. However, in our case we save quite a few heirloom and open-pollinated seeds that are not available anywhere else.Plus we don’t like to waste anything if it is still usable.


Taking seed inventory

Filed under: Catalogs,Seeds — Tags: , , , — bob @ 9:50 am

Seed catalogs have been showing up in our mailbox since before the beginning of the new year. Most of the catalogs that we regularly order from have arrived. We’re still getting a few duplicates and reminders from impatient seed sellers and some catalogs from new outfits.

I’d rather go to mailbox and see what catalog came that day than check my email and go to an online link. I realize that seed companies are so big nowadays that it’s hard for them to list everything they offer in their paper catalogs. Printed catalogs seem to get me more enthused than virtual catalogs, but that may be a generational thing.

Before finalizing our seed orders, we first like to take an inventory of what we have in storage. It’s very easy to get carried away looking through the catalogs and order things we already have on hand. And since there’s nothing much happening gardening wise right now but we’re still itching to do something, taking inventory seems to help fill that gardening urge we have right now. Maybe that’s where the expression “bean counters” came from.

Judy and I spent some time going through our pile of seed packets left over from last year. Some were not even opened, we either ran out of room or time and they never got planted. Most of the packets are partially used and contain seeds that are still viable and can planted in the garden this year. We always make sure the leftover seeds go into an air-tight container right away after we’re done planting.

Part of our seeds list

Part of our seeds list

While we were at it, we took the time to reduce the sheer volume of seeds that we had squirreled away. It wasn’t long ago that I had two large storage tubs of seeds that had accumulated from various people, places and projects — I’m talking about fifteen or twenty pounds of seeds in each tub.  Fortunately it doesn’t get that far out of hand anymore now that I’m culling seeds every winter.

We also have a sizable collection of heirloom seeds that were passed down to use through the years. Most of those are not available anywhere, we are part of a small handful of people keeping those varieties going. Those seeds are included in our inventory as well. We’re slowly building up the number of  those rare heirloom seeds we have. The word “rare” is often used as a marketing ploy to get folks to buy things but in this case these seeds truly are rare.

We may not be able to get into the garden yet but physically handling seeds and seed packets is a satisfying, temporary antidote to the mid-winter gardening lull.






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