Thursday, November 20, 2014

To Bed for the Winter

Regarding the title: the gardens, not me, although based on the November’s weather so far, the idea doesn’t sound too bad.

I’ll start with the Leelanau Community Garden (LCG)--a significant Leelanau County community resource about to be lost unless new leadership emerges, hopefully from within the local MSU Extension and its Master Gardener Volunteer program.  This year, Lead Volunteer Kathy Lewis and a precious few other Volunteers managed to coax more than 870 lb of fresh, organically grown produce out of the garden, only a couple hundred pounds below that of years when irrigation lines were still functional and volunteers were more numerous.  The great one-day efforts (May 29) of over 50 “Greenagers” from Traverse City West Middle School helped tremendously in getting things started, but from there on, few Volunteers were on the scene.  Kathy deservedly received the award of 2014 Master Gardener of the Year for Leelanau County, based mainly on her outstanding effort and leadership in literally saving the LCG from complete failure.
Greenagers at the Leelanau Community Garden
One thing we’ve learned from our experience at the LCG is the importance of water-conserving gardening methods.  The soil there is mostly sandy with some heavier gravel in a few of the beds.  The available flow rate from the old dug well there is less than 1 gal/minute, and the 10+ year old drip tape wasn't even close to usable.  And even Kathy found it difficult to hold a garden hose in one hand while planting or weeding or mulching or harvesting with the other.  Sometimes working alone, she probably didn't average more than about 120 gal/week of water on roughly 1600 sq ft of growing beds, or the equivalent of roughly 0.14 inches/week.  Several factors contributed to the relative success.  First, we've added a good bit of compost over the years; now I would estimate average organic matter at somewhere around 5%, so the soil structure now provides much-improved water retention.  Extensive use of straw mulch helped keep soil temperatures from reaching extreme highs and lows, and reduced evaporation rates.  Minimizing tillage reduced evaporation losses (and carbon losses).  Also, plant varieties needing more water and plants in critical fruiting stages were given priority.

Special kudos to Volunteers Rick George, Kathy Pilon, and Ellen Lapekas for their excellent work at our MG/SEEDS Demonstration Garden at the Historic Barns Park in 2014!  Two huge anticipated upgrades for next year there are plans for installation of a reliable, environmentally friendly water supply; and the prospect of Kathy Lewis joining our our effort.  Our outstanding nonprofit organization SEEDS (Ecology + Education + Design) is currently conducting studies on a solar-powered water system we hope will be installed in time for most spring planting.  Our success this year was made possible by Rick’s carrying in many jugs of water and hand watering our 15 growing beds (about 374 sq ft).  I estimate our maximum water use to be almost exactly the same as that at the LCG, about the equivalent of 0.14 inches/week.  This year we’re planning to expand our growing area to 542 sq ft, and we hope to water at a rate up to about 200 gallons/week, or the equivalent of about 0.6 inches/week, about 40% of estimated requirements for the remainder of the food gardening areas at the Park.
5 lb of Kennebecs
And on the Home front, 2014 brought really good onions, garlic, late broccoli, cabbage, kale, and tomatoes, germination problems with beets, carrots, & parsnips, very poor quality cucumbers.  Favorites this year were Red Russian kale; Golden Jubilee, Sunpeach (F1), Sungold (F1), and Mountain Magic (F1) tomatoes; Rainbow carrots; and, as always, Provider beans.  Voles ate the tops off of lots of the root crops--even radishes--and all green beans lower than about 8 inches above the ground.  I guess we need a cat--but that's not going to happen, so I’ll have to use better low fencing with 1/4 inch hardware cloth next year.  I hadn’t grown rattail radishes for several years, but this year I truly enjoyed their tasty pods in salads.
L to R: Mountain Magic, Sunpeach, and Sungold
1 lb 12 oz Candy Onion
Lessons learned:

  • We need to do a better job of keeping the soil moist around newly planted seeds to improve germination.  Once a day is not always enough.
  • More careful screening and longer “finishing” times of compost are needed to decrease “borrowing” of nitrogen by soil organisms as they continue breaking down organic matter, particularly any wood chips in the mix.  (We would prefer not to use wood chips in compost at all.)
  • Tomatoes are heavy, and jute twine weakens quickly outdoors.  We need to be more thorough in pruning and supporting our indeterminate tomato vines.
  • For best quality, we should harvest more frequently. especially our green beans.
  • Potatoes need to be covered with more soil and/or heavier mulch layers as they grow to prevent “green tops.”  This is especially true in soils that are “fluffy” and subject to significant compaction by rain.  Next year we’ll try planting in shallow trenches and filling those in with soil as the plants grow, then continuing to aff straw mulch during the summer.