A Journey to Grow a Little Food Close to Home

Friday, July 30, 2010


So...the other day I mentioned that I had not only prepped a bed for winter carrots but that I had also seeded head lettuce, arugula, spinach, and mezclun for fall. As promised, here they are nicely sprouted.

All for today. This weekend I'll be planting the winter carrots and starting the winter head lettuce. What's going on in your garden?

Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Hunt for the Elusive Zucchini

Zucchini are sneaky little buggers. They like to hide the fruits of their labors. I mean come on - how is anyone supposed to find anything in that?

Honestly - the thing is 5 feet tall with a 4 foot spread. Insane!!

If we peel back the layers...

... a tangled mess of shoots. Who can see anything in there?

Wait! Hold on...I might have spied the rare and wonderous creature.

YES - there it is :-)

I'm not quite sure if zucchini is a good fit for the kitchen garden since the plant itself takes up so much space but we love 'em! And check out the size:

That's way bigger than what you can find in the store. It's actually a problem sometimes. The plant get so huge and in the way that it hides the zucchini. Then, when it's the size of a baseball bat and you can actually see it in the middle of all of that growth it not only tastes a little 'more mature' than the young ones but also leaves you scratching your head as to what to do with the whole thing!

Another problem that I had both last year and this year is blossom end rot. It normally affects tomatoes but can also damage peppers, eggplant and squashes (like zucchini). Read more by clicking the link but get this...the cause of BER - calcium deficiency!!

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Winter Prep

I know, I know - like I said yesterday, not a lot of people are crazy enough to think about a winter garden in Wisconsin (i.e. the frozen tundra) let alone think about it in July. Tha't wat has to be done, I'm learning, in order to ensure a winter harvest. So...I prepped beds!

This one...

... had some forgotten carrots and some lettuce stragglers that were hinting at going to seed so I pulled it all out, double dug it, and added a layer of compost on top. I'm going to let it rest for a few days and then I'll plant 117 carrots on August 1st.

If 117 sounds like a strange number, here's how I came up with it. According to the research that I have found, 4 square inches per carrot is actually sufficient. That's 2 inches each way with the carrot on the middle. The bed is 22in on the short front side (top of the photo) and 42 in on the longer back side (bottom of the photo). It is 26 inches front to back. Because I am not a seasoned intensive gardener (yet), I though I'd build in a little room for error and plant at 1 carrot per 5 suare inches (or 2.5 by 2.5). This means 9 carrots in the front row and 17 in the back row. With staggered planting and 7 rows in between the front and back, there is room for 117 carrots! We shall see...

I did prep a small portion of another bed for some late fall salad greens.

This one was actually where the nibbled peas were (see yesterday's post). I followed the same process here - remove the old plants, double dig, add compost. This time, though, I seeded right away. On the left, I'll have some head lettuce, on the right...some spinach. Toward the front (bottom) there will be a little loose leaf mezclun, and toward the back (top), some arugula. This should cover us for salads from the end of August through the end of October. I'll post pics when the plants sprouts.

*I have to admit that I did not plan well with the succession planting of the lettuce - we have actually run out! By the time this new planting is ready to eat, we will have had a 7 week window with no lettuce. Live and learn, I guess. Will get it right next year*

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Transitions and carrots

I actually thought that I was crazy the other day. It is July 27...and I'm thinking about the fall and winter garden. Who in their right mind would think about winter in July? A year-round grower, that's who!!

From what I have learned, the first winter crop that needs to be planted is carrots. I prepped a bed that will have a cold frame on it so that I can plant it on August 1st. In order to do that, I had to pull the last of my baby carrots.

That's right - I grew baby carrots!

Don't believe that they are baby...take a look here:

I love these little things. Some are just your regular variety baby carrots but the purple ones are a variety called 'Dragon'. The Dragon carrots taste the same but the purple makes them a little more fun :-)

As fun as it was to pull these short carrots from the ground, I don't know if I'll ever grow baby carrots again because they take up too much space for what they give. With any carrots that I plant in the future, though, I will definitely be careful on the spacing. Some of the carrots never matured because I was not watchful as I thinned. As I plant the winter carrots, I am going to try to get the spacing correct from the beginning so that I won't have to thin.

According to Eliot Coleman who gets 12 carrots into a 30in bed (watch 3-part series), if I space my carrots 2.5 inches apart when I plant them, I should be good and not have to thin. Eliot learned this technique from studying the late 1800's market growers of Paris. Since his farm is in the same zones as my kitchen garden (USDA Zone 5/6, AHS HEat Zone 3/4, 43 degrees north latitude), I should be able to follow his guidelines.

More to come as I plant for winter...

Monday, July 26, 2010


I thought that everything was going good with the garden until I caught a furry little creature nibbling.

I woke up this morning, looked out of my kitchen window and saw a rabbit happily sitting in my garden munching in my pea patch. When banging on the window did not phase him a bit, I ran outside waving my hands in a frenzy and chased him away. I was too late. however. My peas were nibbled.

Peas are not supposed to look like that.

They are supposed to look like this:

These peas are growing in another garden spot in the yard that the rabbit has not yet found. I guess I'll be putting up fencing all around the garden because once rabbits find a tasty spot, they keep coming back!

I'm so dissapointed :-(

One good thing, though. That close-up of the nibbled peas shows me that I really need to sift that soil - look at all of the pebbles!! Some peat might make it a little lighter too. When I prep the bed with double digging this fall, I'll be sifting rocks and adding peat!!

Friday, July 23, 2010

Rain and Tomatoes

So...it rained last night.

A lot.

The news reported 2 inches in 20 minutes in some places. My rain guage told me that we recieved 4 inches! While good for the plants, I am afraid that I might have lost yet more lettuce :-(

While dodging the last of the drops this morning (yes, I had to go out and get my morning garden fix), I did find more tomatoes.

I'm actually really excited about the tomatoes because last year I got NO RIPE ONES!!! The plants were only able to muster the strength to produce gnarled mutant green blobs. I'm pretty sure that it wasn't hot enough.

This year, though, plenty hot!

I am noticing that the cooling effect of Lake Michigan is making it quite difficult to grow anything heat-loving. The peppers are doing OK because I put them next to a south-facing wall. Otherwise - no dice.

The cool plants, however, work WONDERFUL! How is your garden doing? Are you getting enough rain?

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Potatoes in the Kitchen Garden

Yesterday I wrote about potatoes, their seeds, and how they are typically grown. I ended the post on the note that some might question the potato's place in the kitchen garden given the space that it normally takes to grow them. Often viewed as a field crop, potatoes have a unique property that allows them, with a little planning, to be successfully grown in samll areas. This property is the ability to convert leaves and shoots into roots when covered with soil.

Typically, potatoes are planted in rows and, as they grow, are 'hilled.' This means that as the plant gets larger, soil is periodically piled around it to protect the little potatoes from the sun. Unlike most plants, potatoes do not send roots down into the ground. Rather, the seed potato marks the bottom of the root system. Potatoes, you see, grow up!

In this image, the seed potato was one of the potatoes at the bottom of the bunch. The others all formed either around or above the seed.

All of this hilling takes up space in the garden or in the field and makes getting a lot of potaotes tough in a small area. The trick is to grow them in a different way. Because potatoes grow up and because, as I said before, they are able to magically turn leaves and shoots into roots when covered in soil, the best way to grow potatoes in small spaces it to grow them vertically.

Enter the potato box.

This ingeniously simple little device allows potatoes to grow vertically and allows them to convert their leaves and shoots into roots and thus form more potatoes in the same space!

Building one of these boxed is quite simple because it should be small (no larger than 3ft by 3ft) and it can be built with standard sized wood available at a local home improvement store. I would recommend using a non-treated (no nasty chemicals)but rot resistant wood like cedar, redwood, or cypress. While more expensive than treated wood, the box should last a number of years and will not leach anything harmful into the soil or the potatoes.

Here is a example of how to build one of these.

Step 5 is absolutly critical to the success of a potato box. As the potatoes grow, soil has to be added to the box. By covering the leaves and shoots of the plant, the plant is tricked into forming more potatoes. Also, you wouldn't want to eat any potatoes that have been exposed to the sun - they'll be green and they'll make you sick. If you follow these directions, plant 4 potatoes evenly spaced in in a square. If you decide to build bigger and step up to a 3ft by 3ft box (36in by 36in), again plant 4 potatoes in a square but put a 5th in the middle becasue of the extra room.

Unofficial reports state that 5 potato plants grown in a 3ft by 3ft box can yield as much as 100 pounds of potatoes!!! Given that the average American consumes about 45 pounds of potatoes each year, 1 box might be all that a family needs.

Remember, potatoes attract bugs and soil deseases that are super-hard to get rid of. Rotate the soil in the box each year with soil from a different part of the garden to be sure that all of the critters are kept away from the potatoes.

For those who don't want to take on the project of building such a box, pre-made potato bags are a great option!

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Tomatoes on my Potatoes?!?!

So...I woke up this morning and headed to the garden for the morning watering and I spotted something that shocked and confused me - clusters of tomato-like...things...hanging from one of the potato plants!!

My mind raced as I tried to figure out what they could be. I know that potaotes are a part of the Solanum (or nightshade) family along with tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant, and I know that hybrids of potatoes and tomatoes have been created in order to grow both veggies on the same plant but what could be going on here? I have regular, run-of-the-mill potatoes - not some strange variety of genetic mutant!

I knew that I needed to be careful and do my homework because of that darn nightshade family. When in doubt, I decided, Google it! It took some time and some digging but eventually I tracked down an explanation. I had seed pods!! They are rare.

Potatoes are native to the high altitudes of the Andes mountains in South America. When grown there, the potatoes are harvested, saved, and sent all over the world for sale as seed potatoes. They are typically sold in paper bags and have little sprouts emerging from the eyes. The planting proceedure is simple - slice the potato so that each sprout is separate from the others and has a chunk of the potato attached. Then plant. There are no seeds involved in potato planting - only cuttings...or so I thought.

On rare occasions, potatoes apparently form pods of true seed. This seed can be collected and can also be used to grow plants (though it may take 2 seasons to see results rather than 1 with the cuttings). How neat is this - my plants did something unusual!!

On another note, some might question the growing of potatoes in a kitchen garden given that they normally take up quite a lot of space. The trick, though, to growing this great food staple in a small space is to use a potato box. More to come on that and on seed saving.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Number One

Wow - I'm actually doing this!!! Let me start by saying that I wish now that I had begun this five months ago when I started this year's garden. So much has happened that now I will have to go back and find a way to squeeze it all in.

I suppose that the best place to begin is with right now. Why am I writing this and why now. I suppose I am writing it for two reasons.
First, I made a garden log for myself this year in M.S. Publisher and recently learned that my OpenSource Suite can't open .pub files. So...I will have to wait until the year is over to archive it as a pdf. If I blog about it everyday, though, I will always be able to go back through the records.
Second, I guess, is that phrase that teachers in elementary school would always say: 'If you have a question chances are so does someone else so don't be afraid to ask.' For me, I have found in the past months that if I experience something, other gardeners are quite interested in hearing about it. Since I tell them, why not tell everyone? Then, we can all learn from each other!

For now, I am not sure of how I will schedule posts other than one about every day. In the future I may have themes for different days but, for now, let's see how a daily record flows.

Know that I will always try to leave out non-gardening topics such as politics and religion but gardening opinions and lore may creep in occasionally.

Be sure to check out the sidebar links for more info on Kitchen Gardens.