Saturday, April 16, 2016

What a Difference a Week Makes!

By Mike Davis

Twenty-two degrees in NW Lower Michigan on a morning just a week ago, so the previous day’s snow melt had lost its momentum. There was some sun peeking through, though, so I took a quick walk in the back yard. A few things were awakening from their cozy winter slumber under white blankets including...

Those sweet, versatile Egyptian onions, then:
Egyptian 4-9-16.jpg

And here they were this morning:
Onions 4-16-16.jpg

The sweet, mild Spontaneo porcelain hardneck garlic then:
Garlic 4-9-16.jpg
The garlic plant in the foreground is growing from a clove harvested in August 2015, while the three smaller ones near the stake are from half-inch-diameter first-year “rounds” I grew from bulbils planted in 2014. (The green plastic pin to the right is holding an irrigation line in place.)

And now:
Garlic 4-16-16.jpg
Note especially the rapid growth of the plants grown from rounds (around and behind the stake). For photos of the rounds and bulbils, please see my 8-1-2015 post below. The tiny bulbils planted last October are also up and growing now:

And the tasty, vigorous sylvetta (wild arugula) then:
Sylvetta 4-9-16.jpg

And now (well, not so much different, but then I snipped some in the interim; it was OK but not quite as tasty as it will become):
Sylvetta 4-16-16.jpg

Oh, and by the way, it’s 48 degrees warmer than the time when the May 9 photos were taken. Spring is finally here in Northwest Lower Michigan!

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

First Harvest in the New Back Yard

By Mike Davis

OK, it isn’t much. But it was a morale boost to savor my first small taste of a vegetable grown in our new garden-to-be location.

During the latter part of October 2015, I harvested the last of the larger bulblets from my Michigan crop of Egyptian walking onions. We didn’t use them all prior to purchasing our new Ohio home, so when we were there with a trailer load of household goods in the latter part of January, on a day barely above freezing, I scratched a couple dozen bulblets into a small area along the back (east) if the house and gave them what little protection I could with a few crushed oak leaves.  The “soil” there was heavy clay, with pieces of broken brick and mortar from an old landscaping job gone bad, a few tufts of persistent lawn grass, and a few nondescript weeds. These poor onions never had a chance, I thought, as they were already quite dry when planted, and days of 20-30 degrees with drying winds did them no favors.

But earlier this week, on April 3, there they were in the cracked clay, plenty to flavor a couple salads.  The taste is similar to that of chives, but somewhat sweeter and juicier.
Onions 4-3-16.jpg
I’ll leave most of these resilient treasures in place for now, moving them into a more favorable location as time permits after we complete our move from the Traverse City area to Beavercreek, Ohio, and begin transforming our new back yard.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Resuming the Blog

by Mike Davis

The "foodgardensnorth" blog was created mainly to serve as a reference and learning aid on home and educational food gardening, much of it youth-oriented, in the northern tier of the US. Since the blog's inception, we've lost one of its two originators (and a great friend), Kirsten Gerbatsch, then a FoodCorps member and Master Gardener Volunteer especially active in school garden development, now embarking on a new adventure in the political arena.  There have been no new posts since August 1, 2015.

Recent family considerations have resulted in my decision to move from my Northwest Lower Michigan home of the last decade to a location just east of Dayton, Ohio, about 5 degrees of latitude farther south. The prospect of the move led me to consider abandoning the blog.  After all, folks from Southwestern Ohio generally don't consider themselves Northerners. But consider that my Michigan home at ~45 degrees N latitude is in Plant Hardiness Zone 5b (average low winter temperature -15 to -10), and my new Ohio location at 40 degrees N latitude is just one zone warmer, 6a (-10 to -5).

Perhaps more meaningful is the sunlight-determined growing season.  In his highly recommended 2009 book, The Winter Harvest Handbook, Eliot Coleman discussed the cessation of plant growth that occurs in winter in regions with widely varying day lengths.  Greek mythology gives us the fable of the Persephone, goddess of the underworld, whose mother, Demeter, wife of Zeus, supposedly caused plant growth to cease during the portion of the year Persephone spent in the underworld with her husband, Hades. Coleman's research showed that little growth occurs when sunrise-to-sunset times fall below about 10 hours, and he coined the term "Persephone Months" to signify those annual periods. By coincidence, my Grand Traverse area in Michigan has the same number of "Persephone Days," the 92 from November 5 to February 5, as Coleman's food-growing farm in Maine. My new home in Ohio has 73 such days, November 15 to January 27. The number of annual Persephone Days drops to zero below about 32 degrees north latitude.

With the above and many other considerations in mind, I was still undecided on whether to resume posting articles in this blog. However, support and offers of participation from friends and family have been very encouraging, so we will give it a whirl once my wife and I get established in our new Ohio home. I'll assume that "north" has a rather broad definition.  In fact, we would be very interested in receiving contributions for posting from accomplished food gardeners representing a large area of the Northern US within a quite expanded definition: territory within USDA Zone 6 or lower (0 degrees F or lower minimum winter temperatures), or areas with at least a couple months of annual “Persephone days.”

We'll be comparatively late in getting a start on a backyard garden in Ohio this year, and even later in beginning the hoped-for relocation of my retirement "career" as a volunteer from Michigan’s Master Gardener program to Ohio’s. For starters, here's the central part of our new back yard where I intend to develop a small vegetable and small-fruit garden:

Back yard Dec17 930am.jpg
The photo was taken about 9:30 AM; the neighbors' small shed (right of center) is about straight east from the camera. Obviously, our garden will be somewhat "sun-challenged,” and the north-facing slope means a slower spring warm-up. Also, with an average slope of about 7 degrees down from a lawn to the south where various chemical lawn treatments may be used, possible contamination from runoff and spray drift may be of concern. Initially, I'll have comprehensive soil testing done; I collected soil samples earlier this week. The soil is heavy, but the presence of numerous earthworms was a hopeful sign. Beginning in mid-April, I'll plot the areas of the yard with various sun exposure times, plan a garden style and layout with thought to appearance as well as safety and productivity, and report on that process here.  As always, reader comments and suggestions will be very much appreciated.

Happy April Fool’s Day to everyone! I'm claiming this as my own special holiday!

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Critters, Garlic, and Sunshine

First the critters. We've identified two. One is our really close neighbor, the woodchuck, or groundhog. Just a few feet from the southeast corner of our garden at the Historic Barns Park, there's a typical groundhog hole that keeps growing in size, perhaps adding on an extra bedroom and bath in anticipation of a growing family. I'll have to admit that I admire the perseverance of the inhabitant, as the ground in that area is so heavily compacted that I can't get digging fork tines into it deeper than about 3 to 4 inches, yet the spoil from the hole is accumulating rapidly. Here's a heavily cropped photo, just good enough to show an eye peering out at us, waiting for us to leave so that 'lunch' will be unguarded. 

The second invading critter is, as we suspected, a deer that appears to enjoy the challenge of a perimeter fence with the top wire about 8 feet above ground. Hoof prints where there were once healthy beet plants provide conclusive evidence. In both cases, the prosecution rests. Now it's up to us to take appropriate countermeasures against these habitual offenders, at least before next year's garden gets underway.

Ah, but the critters don't bother the garlic, so there's a story of success and further promise to be told. Yesterday, I dug the first of this year's Spontaneo (a Northern Italian porcelain hardneck variety) in my home garden, planted 10/11/2014. It looks quite good, although not quite as large as usual. The bulbs, mostly with 5 cloves each, will average a little under 2.5 inches in diameter. On the same day I planted last year's cloves, I planted about 70 bulbils from a couple plants on which I had allowed the scapes to grow to full height and produce flower heads.

The following numbered photo series illustrates my experiment in propagating garlic cloned from a single parent plant. In case you're thinking of trying this, warning: patience required.

1 - Raise garlic as usual, but allow some to produce bulbils. First dry freshly harvested hardneck garlic bulbs in a shady location with good air circulation (e.g., a garage), then store it in a dark place or a paper bag (prevent premature sprouting). Select the best of the bulbs for planting. Separate those into individual cloves and plant in early autumn, about 6 inches apart and 2 inches deep, and mulch with a few inches of straw. (Here at about 45 degrees north latitude, I get good results from planting in early October.) 
2 - As those garlic plants grow during the summer, their flower stalks ("scapes"} begin to curl. At that time, about the first of July here, remove and use most of these; they're juicy and delicious, and their removal generally results in somewhat larger bulbs.
3 - To propagate from bulbils, allow a scape or two to remain. It will straighten upward and grow to form a flower head in which its bulbils grow. We tie our straightening scapes loosely to bamboo stakes to make sure they don't blow over.
4 - A single flower head of our porcelain garlic typically produces 70-100 bulbils about the size of grains of wheat. When they're clearly loosening in the flower head, gently remove them and spread them out to dry right along with the year's harvest of garlic bulbs. Once dry, they will keep until spring if needed.
5 - Plant the bulbils an inch or so apart, about 1/2 inch deep, at your preferred garlic planting time. Mulch lightly with straw. Keep carefully weeded the following spring; it can be difficult to tell the tiny garlic leaves from blades of grass.
6 - Carefully dig and dry the small single 'rounds' of garlic the following year at harvest time; I dug mine yesterday. Most are between 3/8 and 1/2 inch in diameter. I planted about 70 bulbils last year and found 55 rounds this summer; I could easily have missed a few smaller ones in sifting through the soil. I'll dry these and replant an inch or so deep this fall, hoping for some multi-clove bulbs next year and larger ones the year after that. 

As soon as I get this posted, I'll be out enjoying the lovely sunny evening. Yes, we need rain, predictions of which have been grossly exaggerated of late, and yes, that and the heat have adversely affected our gardens this summer. But blue skies smile as we hold the garden hose, ever so grateful that our friends at SEEDS have led the way to installation of a strong, reliable, solar-powered water system for their garden and ours.

How wonderful is the sunshine!

Monday, July 13, 2015

Win Some, Lose Some....

Last week I harvested the first two kohlrabis of the year from our home garden, both the variety 'Delicacy White.'
The two plants were virtually identical when planted side by side, about 10 inches apart, in some of my best soil but with no amendments besides last year's compost. The one on the left is the only one that split; all the others are gorgeous, ranging from about 2 to 3.5 inches in diameter, tender, and sweet! I've read that uneven watering is the main reason some kohlrabis split, but I figure this one was just trying to teach me a lesson: that plants will do as they choose.

I quartered and peeled them, although the outer portion near the top of the 'pretty' one was so tender that I could have left some of it in place. The center of the lower stem area was fibrous and tough, so a small portion had to be removed. Kohlrabi greens are also quite edible, excellent in soups and stir fries, with a pleasant, mild flavor and soft texture not too different from my favorite kale variety, Red Russian (a variety of Brassica napus, species that includes rutabaga and rape, versus Brassica oleracea, which includes cabbage, broccoli, kohlrabi, and others). We enjoyed our first kohlrabi harvest in a simple mixed green salad. This week, I'll combine it with some other vegetables (mainly root crops) and try it roasted with garlic infused olive oil and a dash of my favorite balsamic vinegar.

In our 'demonstration' garden at the Historic Barns Park, though, we've only 'demonstrated' what can happen to kohlrabi and others of the Brassicaceae family left unprotected from the local critter population. (We have yet to identify the culprit.) Here are representative portions of what's left of our radish and mixed Brassica beds after some unknown invader did some premature harvesting. Two small kohlrabis survived the onslaught. Next year, we'll install some easily removable critter-resistant barriers around our most vulnerable growing beds.
And that's gardening!  We win a lot more than we lose, and when we lose, we learn; and that's a win in itself.

Friday, June 19, 2015


Well, almost.  After a host of delays, many weather-related, all 22 raised beds and 8 of the 10 buried pots in our demonstration garden at the Historic Barns Park contain vegetable or pollinator-attracting plants in some form.  The following is a list of the vegetable varieties we're growing this year, bed by bed:

1   - Tomatoes: Amish Paste, Siberian Tiger, African Queen, Golden Jubilee
2   - Tomatoes: SunGold, Sunpeach, Mountain Magic, Cherokee Chocolate
3   - Beans, bush dry: Hutterite Soup
4   - Beans, bush snap: Royalty Purple Pod; and beets: Detroit Dark Red & Lutz Green Leaf
5   - Carrots: St Valery, Muscade, & Rainbow; and turnips: Hakurei & Purple Top White Globe
6   - Beans, pole snap: Fortex & Northeaster; and carrots: Nutri-Red & Bolero
7   - Cabbage: Late Flat Dutch
8   - Peas, shell: mix of Green Arrow & Recruit
9   - Garlic, Spontaneo (planted Oct 2014); and peas, snap, Sugar Sprint
10 - Cabbage: Stonehead
11 - Beans, bush snap: Provider
12 - Cucumbers: Straight Eight; and lettuce, leaf: mix of several, e.g., Black Seeded Simpson, Lolla Rossa
13 - Potatoes: Kennebec
14 - Potatoes: Dark Red Norland
15 & 18 - Flowering plants: penstemon, monarda
16 - Beans, pole dry: Good Mother Stallard
17 - Beans, pole dry: Speckled Cranberry
19 - Onions: Patterson, Bridger
20 - Eggplant: Bride; peppers: Gypsy & Intruder; and cabbage: Late Flat Dutch & Tendersweet
21 - Kale, Red Russian; cabbage turnip: Naone Rosse; and kohlrabi: Delicacy White & Grand Duke
22 - Radish: mix of several, and daikon: Summer Cross
- Also in buried 5-gallon pots -  a mix of ornamental flowers; chives; Greek oregano; garlic chives; parsley; and an heirloom summer savory or ‘Bohnenkraut’
- Beside the bulletin board - sunflowers: Tarahumara White Seeded
- In two wide rows just south of Beds 11 & 12 - buckwheat (mainly to attract pollinating insects)

At this moment, we have two empty buried pots, and we’re hoping some generous Volunteer will find a tasty herb to put in them--then we’ll have our garden fully planted!

We’re always happy to welcome visitors to the garden, including an occasional monarch butterfly. (Well, maybe not the Colorado potato beetles and definitely not the squash bugs--we’ve agreed not to grow squash this year.)  We’ve asked that a good portion of the surrounding meadow not be mowed until late autumn, as it contains numerous common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) plants and we’re trying to get a couple other locally native Asclepias species started to further support the monarchs and attract pollinating insects. That’s why, as shown in the photo below, our garden is surrounded by mostly “weeds.”  Otherwise, the garden is representative of that one might do safely and at low cost in a sunny back yard--definitely more interesting and productive than lawn grass.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Youth Gardening at Its Best

Yesterday the Leelanau Community Garden came alive! More than 40 “Greenagers,” outstanding students from Traverse City West Middle School, came to the Garden to weed, apply compost, prepare growing beds for planting, and plant thousands of vegetable seeds and more than 100 plants that will provide much-needed fresh, organically grown produce to needy Leelanau County residents throughout the coming summer and fall.

The students were divided into a number of teams, each assisted by a Master Gardener Volunteer. The teams were chosen completely at random, so it was amazing to see them almost instantly transform into efficient, cohesive units. I was fortunate to be one of those volunteers, an especially gratifying experience since the five young people who worked with me proved courteous, considerate, and wonderfully dedicated and proficient gardeners. It seemed almost miraculous that a neglected, weed-infested garden was transformed in a mere two hours into a system of neat, precisely planted plots. The garden will soon be producing beans, cabbages, cucumbers, onions, peas, peppers, summer and winter squash,  and a variety of different tomatoes to be delivered to a local food pantry.

Thank you so much, Greenagers!

Monday, May 11, 2015

Shoot(s)out at the MG Corral

Shoots, roots, and rhizomes, that is. Today began the annual battle against quackgrass and other villains at the Master-Gardener-run ‘corral’ behind the Barns. Here's one of the casualties, hanging from a post along with one of my trusty weapons, the other being my antique digging fork. We’re steadily weeding out the enemy!

As in the past, we’re off to a bit of a slow start at our demonstration garden at the Historic Barns Park, but in this our third year at this wonderfully located public site, good progress is evident. The weeds are getting fewer now, and this year’s planned expansion to 22 small raised beds will be much easier than installation of the first 15 thanks to a year of keeping much of the soil in the new area under a mulch of straw on brown cardboard. And we have a reliable water supply now thanks to superb leadership by the Traverse City/Garfield Township Recreational Authority and our great local nonprofit organization SEEDS. We’re especially excited because soon that water system will be driven by a solar array--energy independence at last!

Today we had a great surprise: one of our local gardening friends donated 20 like-new, heavy-duty tomato cages, some of which we’ll use at the Barns and some at the Leelanau Community Garden this year. Such a fine donation is especially appreciated since our basic garden operation is entirely volunteer-financed. Thank you, Chuck!

Next steps: assembling new raised bed frames, adding compost, loosening the soil with a digging fork or broadfork, adding organic soil amendments based on our soil test results expected this week, and planting. What great therapy! We welcome visitors of all ages and plan to offer informal seminars this summer, open to anyone interested in joining us as we garden and learn.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Recycling Latte Cups

About a week ago, I did one of the most distasteful jobs of the spring. When I plant tomato seeds in cell trays to start raising the year’s plants indoors under fluorescent lights, I always use three seeds per cell.  As soon as most have germinated, I thin to two tiny plants per cell; then when all have their first true leaves (different from the cotyledons, or ‘seed leaves’), I do the final thinning.  With two healthy, nearly identical plants in each cell, it’s agonizing to choose the “winner” and snip off the “loser” with sterilized scissors--but it must be done. I base these decisions mainly on the stem diameter and strength, not the height of the plants. Shown here are plants in a 24-cell tray, now reduced to one plant per cell, partially hardened off by spending increasing times outdoors each day for a week.

Today I’m transplanting my first tray of plants into paper cups saved from lattes I've consumed over the past year. Tough duty, but I always manage to accumulate a few dozen. For details on transplanting techniques, see the METHODS & MATERIALS page in this blog.  Here’s a typical plant before and after transplanting; note that I've removed the seed leaves and covered the stem to a point slightly above their former location.

Now for the final hardening off.  These were started on April 15 (25 days ago) and should be ready to plant in one of their garden destinations during the first week in June, about 7 weeks after starting. At outdoor planting time, the top halves of those labeled latte cups will begin the last phase of their useful lives as cutworm collars around the stems of the plants they've helped nurture. I’ll bid a fond farewell to most of the bottom halves of the cups, although if some have survived in fairly good shape, they might do for starting next year’s pepper plants. I hereby resolve to empty even more new latte cups before next spring.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Egyptian "Walking" Onion Harvest

I just had to have some onion for today’s salad, so I dug the first of this spring’s perennial Egyptian ‘Walking’ ones. Stems averaged about ⅜ of an inch in diameter, and they were just a little tough, so they had to be cut into quite small pieces to avoid adding an unpleasant texture to the salad; but they tasted delicious!

Egyptian onions have extensive, succulent root systems. Even these early ones required a good bit of tugging on a digging fork with tines pressed at least 8” into the soil to pull them out.  Shown here are the roots from just one stem; the root mass for these six closely spaced stems was a tangled ball about 10 inches in diameter. For the person patient enough to wash them carefully and snip them into tiny bits, or better, to puree them in a blender, the roots can add a wonderful spicy flavor to an otherwise bland salad dressing.

So, you ask, how can I grow these earliest of delectables?  See for a summary. I honestly don’t recall where I got my original start of these perennial onions, but if you’re reading this, you can do a quick online search for information.

Plant the bulbils (top setting “seed” starts something like the “sets” you can buy everywhere this time of year) in the fall, and harvest just a few in the spring but let the remainder grow another year. By the following spring, you’ll have a nice onion patch like this:

Harvest what you wish, but leave some for the future. By mid-summer, your onion patch will have clusters of bulbils atop each plant:

By early autumn, these will have matured and may even send out shoots on which additional bulbils will form. At this time, the largest of the bulbils can be harvested for pickling, or for the luscious flavor they’ll add to soups or stews.

As winter approaches, the top stems will die and fall to the ground, allowing bulbil clusters to touch the soil up to a couple feet from their parent plant stems. There a new plant will be seen to have ‘walked’ to its new location. Are these bulbils hardy in northern climates, you ask?  The average February temperature  in my region was just over 9 degrees F, but here’s a bulbil cluster that lay on the ground all winter, now sending forth roots and shoots.
By next spring, a new bunch of tasty green onions will have grown at this spot!