The Yellow Farmhouse Garden

May 3, 2019

Monitor soil temperatures often this spring

Soil temperatures have been cool enough during April that it has slowed down plant growth. My winter rye cover crop looks to be a week behind last year at this date and last year was later than normal as well. So that means we’re really behind. The apple tree buds have finally, slowly opened.

This may be the year to monitor soil temperatures more closely than usual if this cooling trend continues.

Some vegetable crop seeds can be sown into cold soil and do quite well under those conditions while others will not germinate or grow at all. There are certain minimum temperatures that seeds need in order to germinate. Seeds languishing in cold soil will be damaged or more likely, rot in place before they sprout.

For example, at 35 F you can expect spinach, onions, parsnips and lettuce to germinate. We’re well past that point by now.

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Although not as durable, a kitchen thermometer makes an adequate replacement for a soil thermometer

Beets, cabbage, cauliflower, swiss chard, radishes, turnips, peas, and broccoli will all germinate at 40 F. Even though they are not technically seeds, seed potatoes will begin to grow at that temperature too.

Sweet corn requires the soil temperature to be at least 50 F. If they are pinched for time, some farmers will plant corn at lower soil temperatures but they always use seeds treated with fungicide to keep them from rotting in the soil.

A minimum soil temperature of 60 F is needed for warm weather crops like beans, cucumbers,melons,pumpkins and squash seeds to sprout.

Keep in mind that these are minimum required temperatures. Optimum germination temperatures may be five, ten or even twenty degrees higher in some cases.

You may have noticed that I didn’t include many common vegetables like peppers or tomatoes in these lists. That’s because in our growing area, those plants are generally grown as started transplants, not from seeds planted directly into the ground.

Bob

February 1, 2019

Looking at last year’s saved seeds

This is the time of year I drag out all of my old seeds from last year and years before that. I always like to take inventory to see what I’ve got on hand before I order anything. We’re in the middle of winter and not all of the seed catalogs have arrived yet.

You would think that after all these years I would have come up with a better system for keeping track of my seeds since I have dozens of different varieties. You know maybe a spreadsheet, color-coded vials, a numbering system things like that, but I don’t.

Some of my current seed collection.

Some of my current seed collection.

Seeds don’t last forever. In rare cases however, seeds can germinate after decades or even centuries. One famous example is a Judean date palm seed that germinated and grew after 2000 years. Seeds that we use in the home garden typically last just a few years unless special steps are taken to preserve them. If they’re in an unopened, original envelop, they’ll have a better chance of remaining viable for longer periods of time. That’s the principle behind the survival seed kits that are sold on line.

Seeds that are kept dry and in a cool place fare better than those that are exposed to moisture or heat. Located above the Arctic Circle on a remote island, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault takes seed saving to the extreme and is able to store seeds from around the world for expended periods of time. Home gardeners on the other hand, can only do so much. Most of the time we seal up our seeds the best we can and keep try to them away from temperature extremes.

Here’s a chart I put together a while back that you can refer to when deciding whether or not to keep a particular type of seed. I’ve only included the more commonly planted food crops. This assumes that seeds are kept under typical conditions found in a home. Clip it out and save with your seeds.

SEED VIABILITY CHART

 

Five years Four years Three years Two years One year
Broccoli Beets Beans Chives Onion*
Brussels Sprouts Squash, winter Leek Corn Parsley*
Cabbage Squash, summer Lima beans Okra Parsnip*
Cauliflower Swiss chard Peas Pepper Peanut*
Celery Tomato Soybean (Edamame) Popcorn† may lose viability after one year * may retain viability for two years
Cucumber
Eggplant
Kale
Lettuce
Muskmelon
Pumpkin
Radish
Rutabaga
Spinach
Turnip
Watermelon

Many people believe that the larger the seed is the longer it will stay viable. Looking at the chart you can see that seed size is not a factor. Compare corn which are large seeds with celery seeds that are quite small. Corn can be stored only for two years before it loses viability while celery lasts five years.

Bob

December 20, 2018

Protecting my bonsai from bitterly cold winter temperatures

There’s some talk among weather prognosticators about a speed bump developing in the polar vortex this winter. Some are saying very cold, below normal temperatures are just over the horizon and heading our way. If you haven’t already done so, now’s the time to finish up prepping your garden for winter.

I’ve done all I can for my gardens making sure they are all set for the cold weather . The last item I had on my outdoor things-to-do list was winterizing my bonsai trees. Usually I have them all tucked in around the first week of December but this year it’s been so mild that I left them out until this week.

Every year I change the way I winterize them but there are a couple of important things I always make sure happens. First, the roots and tops are protected from the extreme cold and fluctuations in temperature. I do that by digging an over-sized  hole in a protected area big enough to bury my pots.

The second thing is to make sure melt water doesn’t settle in to the pots. Re-freezing of water in the pots can cause them to break due to the expansion that occurs when water freezes. So, I tip the pots on their sides keeping the water out.

Placing them on their sides also allows part of the top branches to be in the hole. The surrounding soil helps moderate the temperatures that they are exposed to.

This year I dug my hole in a well-drained area near a group of white pine trees. The trees will slow down brisk winter winds lessening the chance of desiccation.

After placing the trees in the hole I covered them with a layer of white pine needles. That will help insulate them and make it easier to clean off the soil when I take them out in the spring. Then I took the soil that was left from digging the hole and covered the needle covered plants.  I also banked up the soil on the pot end of the hole giving additional protection to the roots.

Here the plants are in the hole and partially covered.

Here the plants are in the hole and partially covered.

Finally, I hauled in tree leaves and covered the entire area including the plants. A small amount of branches are still peeking up through the leaves. Later, when the Christmas tree comes down I’ll cut off boughs from it and lay them over the mound. The boughs will help catch snow allowing it to drift over the spot and provide even more insulation.

I know this sounds like a lot of work for a few plants but my bonsai are valuable to me. I’ve been caring for one tree for seventeen years so I sure don’t want to lose it now.

Bob

May 1, 2018

Two weeks behind schedule in April

Filed under: Weather — Tags: , , , — bob @ 8:47 am

The colder than normal April has been a topic of conversation with just about everyone. Mostly I hear people complaining about it but when I talk to people who spend a lot of their leisure time outdoors, the conversation gets much more interesting.

Fishermen I’ve talked to have mentioned how far behind their season is. Mushroom hunters are wondering about their upcoming picking season. Other outdoors people are saying much the same thing. As a gardener, I have to concur, we’re about two weeks behind normal. The agricultural weather people at MSU have measurements and statistics backing up observations made by us outdoors types. The statistic they look at is “growing degree days”.

The growing degree days system is a way of calculating when a crop should be planted and at what stage of growth it should be during the growing season. This is much more accurate than looking at the calendar and expecting “the corn will be knee-high by the fourth of July”. A month like the April we’ve been experiencing demonstrates just how inaccurate simply looking at the calendar date can be.

Late April the rye cover crop was way behind last years growth.

Late April the rye cover crop was way behind last years growth.

RyeCroppedPic

The photo above shows the rye in 2017 was over a foot tall at the same date.

Plants require a certain amount of heat in order to grow and reach their different developmental stages. For example, corn seed germinates, then the seedling grows and forms leaves. The plant later forms silk and tassels out. After fertilization, ears of corn form and eventually ripen. A certain number of growing degree days will have accumulated at each one of these stages.

Insects, since they are cold-blooded, also require heat to grow and progress through their stages of growth: egg, larva, pupa and adult. Like plants, at each stage a certain number of degree days must have accumulated before that particular stage is reached. That gives farmers and gardeners a tool to help predict when an insect pest might arrive and cause damage.

So now that we are two weeks behind at the very beginning of the growing season according to the calendar, what does that mean for us in a practical sense? One way of looking at it is: insect pests have no choice in the matter. They are already two weeks behind in any development they might have made during a normal year and even further behind if this were a warm April. Gardeners will most likely be planting their gardens at pretty much the same time, say near the end of May. If the trend continues, conceivably it would mean gardeners will have a two week head start ahead of the insect pests.

It will be interesting to see how this cold start to the season plays out.

Bob

 

February 1, 2018

A local interpretation of Groundhog Day

Growing up in a rural area of southern Michigan, I had a chance to absorb a lot of our local farm culture. Back them there were plenty of old-timers who, in their younger days,  had farmed their acreage with teams of horses. Those gray-haired farmers had plenty of advice and time-worn proverbs to pass along. One that stands out for me is the meaning of Groundhog Day.

I don’t know the history of  Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney but the town has so successfully managed to turn Groundhog Day into its own event that many people don’t even know, or care, that this minor holiday has been around way before weatherman Phil Connors got caught in that time-loop in Pennsylvania. The first time I ever heard of the town of Punxsutawney was on an episode of  The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. I’m not sure in what context it was, I just thought it was funny to hear a cartoon character say “Punxsuatawney Pennsylvania”.

Most of the farmers in our area had some sort of livestock, often it was dairy cows. They would grow corn and hay as feed for their animals rather than purchase it off site from somewhere else. That meant storing feed on the farm; dried corn, still on the cobs, in corn-cribs and hay up in the second story hay mows above the livestock area on the ground floor. Farmers could easily judge by eye how much their livestock were eating.

Feeding livestock through the winter could be a challenge if the previous growing season’s harvest was below normal. Groundhog Day was, according to those farmers I knew, the half-way point of winter. By that they meant, if you still had half of your feed or more left in storage by Groundhog Day, you will make it through to spring. If not, then potentially you would run short of feed.

In our rural elementary school, Groundhogs Day was a fairly big deal. Our teachers never mentioned the practical side of the day but we did learn about the whole six weeks before spring thing. My classmates would come in to school on the morning of February second and excitedly report if they thought there was enough sunlight for a groundhog to cast a shadow.

I still use this day as reminder when I look in my deep-freezer and estimate how much frozen garden produce I have left from last year’s harvest.

Bob

 

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