Garden

How to plant Asparagus Organically

Planting asparagus is labor intensive. Or at least it is in my garden beds built on half-century old rocky fill dirt. Additionally, since the holes cannot be refilled for a few weeks, the excess dirt also needs to be stored somewhere. When siting your garden bed, remember that asparagus have a life spanning decades.

I don’t know if I really need this disclaimer, but my farm will not be seeking organic certification due to the immense financial burden that doing so has become. There are also some philosophical reasons from which you will be spared…for now at least. But I hope you agree that my methods fit the bill!

Asparagus needs to be buried deep. Eight inches to be exact but in my case, I dug deeper to remove and rocks that might inhibit root growth. They also need a wide hole in which the crowns can be adequately spread. 12 inches to be exact.

So the procedure is as follows.

Items required:

  • Shovel
    • also a digging iron in my case. Blasted rocks!
  • Asparagus Crowns
    • Nourse farms has by far the highest quality nursery stock that I have come across. However they sell them in 25 crown increments
  • Organic soil amendments
    • I minimize these typically. As the depth required at planting took these plants in to the heavy structured subsoil, I did use a handful of organic manure and humus (NPK- .5:.5:.5) per plant. It was $1.79 per 40 pound bag at walmart. 1 bag was enough for 25 plants.

Procedure:

  1. Eliminate existing weeds or turf to limit competition for nutrients.
    1. This step was taken care of when I built my garden beds using the lasagna method
  2. Dig the planting holes
    1. 8 inches deep, 12 inches in diameter, 12-18 inches apart. I efficiently used geometry (well, trigonometry) to my advantage!
  3. Amend the soil as needed
    1. I put half of a handful of organic manure and humus into the bottom of the hole in a cone shape to better accommodate the form of the crowns.
  4. Place the crown flat in the hole. Roots down, the crown where the roots come together and where the sprouts will originate up. The roots need to be spread out evenly covering the diameter of the hole
  5. Refill the hole ONLY until the crown is buried
    1. One half handful of the organic manure and hummus was placed on top of the crowns, then normal garden soil to finish burying the crown.
  6. Irrigate if needed
  7. When the sprouts are a few feet tall and have become ferns, refill half of the remaining hole.
    1. 100% of my plants had germinated within 10 days
    2. Refilling the hole will generally be 2 or 3 weeks after planting
  8. After another two weeks have passed, refill the holes completely

Here are some pictures of the process:

1. Building the garden bed in a manner that eliminates the turf. Done in the November before the spring planting season:

IMG_20150125_144610

2 and 3. Planting holes dug. Note my soil amendment bag to the left of the frame, bundle of crowns up top.

wpid-img_20150529_170241.jpg

 

 

4. Plant the crowns. I am so sorry and I realize this may be the step with the greatest potential for confusion. I failed to photograph it as it absolutely covered my hands in muck. So I am borrowing this image from this planting guide published by the University of Minnesota Extension. Place the crown into the hole so it is in this exact shape:

5. Bury the crown. This image shows the newly germinated shoots so it was taken 6 days after planting. However the depth to bury the crown is accurately depicted:

wpid-wp-1434126160761.jpg

 

6. Water the plants, no image needed.

7. Refill the hole when the plant has achieved a few feet in height.

wpid-img_20150529_170258.jpg

 

8. Have not completed this step yet, will update with a picture when I have!

 

 

Thats it! After two seasons of unharvested sprouts, you will enjoy 20-50 years of early spring, fresh, nutritious greens harvested before most other plants have come out of winter dormancy!

Advertisements
Standard
Garden

My lasagna method for establishing garden bed without tilling

With incredibly well established crabgrass, killing it organically in order to create garden beds, tree planting sites, etc. seemed like quite a challenge. As time is on my side, I elected to lasagna garden!

The concept is simple.

  1. Existing plants (turf) are mowed down as low as possible.
  2. A biodegradable barrier is put down to smother out the existing turf. I used cardboard as businesses are happy to give it away but brown paper bags and even multiple layers of newspaper are adequate.
  3. Compostable layers are laid down on top of the biodegradable barrier: Anything compostable: mixed nitrogen/carbon (green/brown) material, manure, mulch, etc.

Working simultaneously with the composting materials from step 3, the layer in step two smothers out the established turf before composting both that now dead plant material and the barrier itself. Between the organic matter used in this procedure and what is provided in the roots of the existing, smothered plants, the worm and microbe activity will be exceptionally high yielding quality soil for planting in the following season.

Don’t forget to remove all tape, glue and staples from the cardboard. Also avoid glossy cardboard as it is coated in plastic.

Here are some pictures of my process.

Measuring 6 feet between beds (4 foot bed plus 2 foot aisle). These dimensions are simply my preference. Being 6’4″, there is nowhere I can’t easily reach in a 4 foot bed. Plan your garden beds to your preference!

wpid-img_20150508_121111.jpg

 

Fill with compostable layers (composting manure in my case) then mulch with whatever you have available to inhibit weed growth. I also planted a cover crop of red clover as an experiment. It seems to be germinating best where the compost is old or where some soil was mixed into the manure compost such as where I excavated to install root barriers in the middle of some garden beds.

 

wpid-img_20150511_164800.jpg

 

In retrospect, I can use old pictures to show the process from start to finish!

Lasagna bed being built in November of last year:

IMG_20150125_144610

 

Asparagus planted into that bed in May. All but the very top layer of manure had composted:

wpid-img_20150529_170241.jpg

3 weeks later in June:

wpid-img_20150529_170258.jpg

I also use this method for establishing flower beds or tree planting sites. Here is a little filbert (hazelnut) seemingly content in his lasagna bed:

wpid-img_20150512_183217.jpg

Standard
Garden, Side Projects

Subterranean Aquaponics? (Brainstorm Session)

Season extension is typically the first step market gardeners take to increase productivity. On my farm, the garden production will be kept simple for the first year but that doesn’t stop brainstorming future innovations.

Aquaponics has always fascinated me. Being a very low input system, the fish feed the plants and can in turn feed me or be processed into fish meal which is the most expensive part of the chicken ration. Chickens can also be directly integrated by using their litter to feed composting worms, which in turn can feed the fish. So if economics ever shifted that placed higher commercial value on tilapia than the chicken, the model can easily be scaled to place fish into the lead role the aquaponics model.

Unfortunately winters here in the Shenandoah Valley, and the rest of Virginia west of the tidewater region, can be harsh. Any economic gain from aquaponics is quickly negated by energy expenditure to provide heat to keep the fish healthy.

Recently, my friend Brauck shared some innovative gardening practices. Plans for a $300 Underground Greenhouse that produces year-round sent the wheels in my head into motion.

The gist of the plans are to dig wide trench 6-8 feet deep in a southern-exposed location, pile the removed earth on the north side of the trench, and seal the trench with transparent greenhouse plastic. A visual representation is pulled from the link above:

Using geothermal energy (thermal mass of the earth) to regulate temperatures while adding trapped solar energy give such potential to this design. Even in winter a tiny solar arrangement could supply power to pumps. If this arrangement provides a stable enough environment while reducing or eliminating energy needed for heat, aquaponics may move from fantasy to viable to profitable.

Standard
Garden

Garden Planning: Filling Out Rest of Shade Row

The western most row of my garden will receive the most afternoon shade. As a result, the rest of the space not occupied by hops crowns will be planted with more shade tolerant plants.

Mother Earth News and this chart gives options for shade tolerance and produce (all errors and typos preserved from source):

 

Crop Shade Notes Growing Tips
Arugula At least three to four hours of sun per day. Arugula welcomes shade, as this crop is prone to bolting as soon as the weather turns warm if in full sun.
Asian greens At least two hours of sun per day. Asian greens such as bok choi (also spelled “pac choi” and “pak choi”), komatsuna and tatsoi will grow wonderfully with a couple hours of sun plus some bright shade or ambient light.
Chard If you grow chard mainly for its crisp stalks, you will need at least five hours of sun per day; if you grow it mainly for the tender baby leaves, three to four hours of sun per day will be enough. Expect chard grown in partial sade to be quite a bit smaller than that grown in full sun. Baby chard leaves are excellent cooked or served raw in salads.
Culinary herbs At least three hours of sun per day. While many culinary herbs need full sun, chives, cilantro, garlic chives, golden marjoram, lemon balm, mint, oregano and parsley will usually perform well in shadier gardens.
Kale At least three to four hours of sun per day. You’ll notice only a small reduction in growth if comparing kale grown in partial shade with kale grown in full sun.
Lettuce At least three to four hours of sun per day. Lettuce is perfect for shadier gardens because the shade protects it from the sun’s heat, preventing it from bolting as quickly. Often, the shade can buy a few more weeks of harvesting time that you’d get from lettuce grown in full sun.
Mesclun One of the best crops for shady gardens. Grows in as little as two hours of sun per day and handles dappled shade well. The delicate leaves of this salad mix can be harvested in about four weeks, and as long as you leave the roots intact, you should be able to get at least three good harvests before you have to replant.
Mustard greens At least three hours of sun per day for baby mustard greens. Mustard grown for baby greens is best-suited for shady gardens.
Peas and beans At least four to five hours of sun. If growing these crops in partial shade, getting a good harvest wil take longer. Try bush and dwarf varieties rather than pole varieties.
Root vegetables At least four to five hours of sun per day for decent production. Beets, carrots, potatoes, radishes and turnips will do OK in partial shade, but you’ll have to wait longer for a full crop. The more light you have, the faster they’ll mature. Alternatively, you can harvest baby carrots or small new potatoes for a gourment treat that would cost an arm and a leg at a grocery store.
Scallions At least three hours of sun per day. This crop does well in partial shade throughout the growing season.
Spinach At least three to four hours of sun per day. Spinach welcomes shade, as it bolts easliy if in full sun. If you grow it specifically to harvest as baby spinach, you’ll be able to harvest for quite a while as long as you continue to harvest the outmost leaves of each plant.

 

Another consideration is shade-tolerant currants. However I will reserve these to grow on the garden boundary fence that get the most shade from the tall silo.

Peas are removed from consideration as they are already planned to be grown with corn and sunflowers in more sunny spots. Herbs deserve their own post so they will not be included here either.

The shadiest row has an abundance of space so both salad greens and highly marketable plants can be included. Considering brassicas reported affinity for rhubarb means that mustard (for greens and seeds), collard greens and kale will be experimented with in the spring while cabbage, broccoli, brussel sprouts, cauliflower can be added in the fall. Additionally, columbine flowers and numerous salad greens will be planted adjacent to rhubarb and compared to those grown away from the plant.

Therefore I will be filling out the shade row with Arugula, Chard, Kale, Lettuce, Mesclun (as a premixed salad that can be harvested directly as a mix), Mustard, and Spinach. Lettuce is really the only plant with varietal considerations so it will be planted in thirds: 1/3 will be iceberg (head) lettuce, 1/3 will be romaine, and 1/3 will be batavia. Considering aphids, companions will be planted along side the lettuce, but I have not yet determined which herbs or flowers to use.

Quickly weighting the plants by preference gave me the final amount of 1 square foot spaces to dedicate to each plant. Spacing requirements were determined entirely from this PDF from Virginia Tech.

Here is how the shade row looks all mapped out with spring plantings:

ShadeRowTeaser

 

Standard
Garden

Perennial Species Highlight: Rhubarb

Initially, I turned my nose up at rhubarb because I have never used it…ever. I’ve had rhubarb pie once every few years but to my knowledge, that was the only use for the plant.

Turns out the plant has a lot of uses, including being a great companion plant and producing a refreshingly tart water drink. In fact, it is reported that the toxic compounds in rhubarb leaves can be made into a spray that is fatal to aphids (PDF, page 5). This site, Golden Harvest Organics states that rhubarb helps brassicas which is a great family of crops for both marketing and cold weather growing. Therefore kale, cabbage, brussel sprouts etc. Additional non-brassicas like chard, carrots, garlic, onions, lettuce, arugula and other greens can be successfully grown. Additionally rhubarb, like asparagus, is harvested very early in the spring and can provide that initial spurt of cashflow to start the season. Lastly, its is an extremely easy plant to grow so it should suit my Virginia location well.

Specifically, 6 rhubarb crowns will be planted far apart. The vacant space in the bed will be filled with the suitable species listed above and companion planted as needed. Low space requirements for all of these plants mean that they will be planted in 1 square foot sections and varied for diversity.

Another desirable characteristic of rhubarb is that is can be propagated very easily. Simply, the roots are split and replanted. If they prove to be successful sellers in the Shenandoah Valley or produce a noticeable difference in the neighboring plants, more rhubarb crowns can be produced in the future from the initial stock.

For the first year, here is the plan for rhubarb:

RhubarbTeaser

Standard
Garden, GIS Planning

Perennial Species Highlight: Hops

Beer has been around since some guy in ancient Mesopotamia left grains or bread sitting in water around 10000 BCE. The first appearance in recorded history are in reliefs on Egyptian tombs or in the Epic of Gilgamesh and the first chemical evidence of barley beer is from before 3,000 BCE from jars in Iran. Bitter local herbs have always been used to counteract the sweetness the grain fermentation yields, but in modern times the added anti-microbial properties of hops have made them them almost the sole bittering agent used around the world. The craft beer boom of the last few decades have capitalized on the aromatic and flavor characteristics of some varieties as well.

Hops are vertical vine climbers and will be grown up the front of the barn. While enjoying full sun, they can get scorched with too much afternoon exposure so hopefully they will enjoy the trellises hung from the barn rafters 25 feet overhead while getting some afternoon shade from the structure. If they shade the open section of the barn, awesome! More than anything I just want them to grow UP and not outward on ground level. They will be contained by root barriers like these: 24″ x 100 ft.  or 18″ x 100 ft. Rhizome plantings are used to produce female-only plants as males plants pollinate the flowers causing them to seed which destroys their use in beer.

Same varieties are recommended to be planted no closer than 3 ft’ apart while separate varieties should be no closer than 5 feet apart (source). Soil ever allowed to dry completely will likely kill the plants growth for the year so heavy mulching and regular watering will be applied. I’d like to branch out and see which varieties grow well here in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia using organic methods but here is my starting point.

Sticking with my garden theme of focusing on growing plants I will personally use (or help the plants I enjoy), I will grow mostly Cascades and Willamette hops, with smaller plantings of Magnum/Zeus (CTZ) or other High Alpha Acid Percentage (AA%) hop meant for bittering. I’m going to try out a rhizome of Sunbeam Golden hops as the leaves are beautifully yellow and they prefer partial shade. I’d love to grow Simone or Amarillo hops but their genetic information is patented and I could not sell them let alone obtain rhizomes. There are literally zero recommended companion plants as they would most likely get smothered by the spreading hops roots. I plant to toss in some marigolds, a sunflower or two and some potted basil to determine the best companions myself.

Using the growth requirements mentioned above, the mapping part is as simple as adding the data to each grid. Here is a peak into the GIS database which represents where to plant the individual rhizomes.

HopsTeaser

HopsTeaser2

Standard
Garden, Side Projects, Uncategorized

Forbidden Fruit, the interesting story of the currant and pine trees (Ribes genus)

At 22 years old, I first heard of this family of fruits. Geography of Wine actually fulfilled one of my core elective requirements for my degree. Ever the most eccentric of professors, John Boyer recommended we throw a wine tasting party as an assignment fulfillment but the catch was to include everything you may encounter in wine, from various fruits to dirty gym socks to barnyard hay. Preparation to identify even the worst and erroneously produced flavors of wine was weighted equally to the pleasurable and inviting flavors. My quest to track down all of the fruit flavors was an adventure in itself. Unripe persimmons from my now-farm-site were used to demonstrate astringency and tannins but it was the Currants that proved most difficult to find. I was able to order red, white and rose currants online but black currants despite being an oft cited flavor in wine profiles were nearly impossible to find. Natural curiosity begged the question: why? Illegality was the first curious attribute of these fruits that was encountered. Were they psychoactive or invasive or any of the things that would lead to a federal ban?

Pinus strobus, the eastern white pine was once found extensively from northern Georgia to northeastern Canada. Europeans recognized the lightweight, tall, straight growth as forming ideal ship masts (source: Dendrology lecture with Dr. Seiler at Virginia Tech). Continued recognition as an ideal timber species led to Europeans shipping pine specimens to be grown in european nurseries (source) while continued harvest of native stands caused massive deforestation by the late 1800’s (source). Consequently, specimens were shipped backed to re-establish stands in the depleted native habitat.

Specifically, Lord Weymouth was a prolific gardener and arranged for the importation of white pines into Europe in 1705. By affixing “Lord” to “Weymouth Pine”, he subsequently stole the common name from the first european to discover the pine in current-day Maine, George Weymouth. A shipment from France to British Columbia in 1910 brought a fungal pathogen to North America that went undetected for 11 years allowing it to spread extensively (source). White pine blister rust, the fungus (Cronartium ribicola) had first appeared in Germany (Source). Further investigation revealed that the Ribes genus of gooseberries (thorned) and currants (not thorned) provided a host for the fungus to complete its lifecycle. The resulting native Ribes removal cost an estimated $150 million shown below:

Three-man crew eradicating Ribes in northern Idaho. (Courtesy U.S. Forest Service, copyright-free) Retrieved from http://www.apsnet.org/edcenter/intropp/lessons/fungi/Basidiomycetes/Pages/WhitePine.aspx

Thus the North American shortage of currants is adequately explained.

While the federal ban was lifted in 1966, many state bans are still in effect to various degrees of enforcement. Here in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, the state enforces the ban by preventing nursery sales of natural strains of black currants. Hybrid black currants and all other colors are perfectly legal. Check on your state regulations regarding the issue. No complete state guide exists currently so I will compile one as time allows as a reference.

As the case with any prohibition laws, the government has created a market that is both ripe and untapped. Europe has a billion dollar industry in yogurt, jams/jellies/preserves, liquor, teas, smoothies and any other use for berries that can be filled by the unique flavor of currants. While the American market is ramping up and in its infancy, currants seem to fit the bill for obscure, nutritionally packed and strangely flavored to become the next rage in the health food industry. As such I hope to have a few plants established if currants do become the next rage as they take 3 years to produce substantially. Boundaries in the garden will be the starting point as they are a fantastic plant to grow along fence rows and can thrive in afternoon shade!

 

 

Standard