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Thursday, February 16, 2017

Spring Planting Has Begun!

Chris gives a lesson in seed-planting - 2015.
Well, we've come through a wet, grey January with a couple of really cold spells but it seems that spring is finally on its way. We decided to take a break from bringing Oregon State Univ. students to the gardens for winter term. Chris and I are largely caught up on major building projects and tree-planting and we didn't feel we had enough projects that needed student help. Six students can get a lot done in four hours! But we've already got lists started for the spring and hope to host at least two OSU groups.
"Anyone who thinks gardening begins in the spring and ends in the fall is missing the best part of the whole year; for gardening begins in January with the dream." - Josephine Nuese

Adri fills pots with soil.
Being the gardeners that we are, we just couldn't wait to get some seeds started. This post is about  our continued experiments with creating fertile soil using locally-sourced materials and the seeds we've started (including some links to earlier posts on how to grow some of the plants listed below).

Soil-prep: (Growing food using "organic" methods is a very dynamic and ever-evolving process. What follows are the techniques we are currently using but we won't necessarily know if we are successful until crops come to harvest. Also, a method that works one year under certain climate conditions may not be successful in years to come).
Chris adds and mixes in compost.

Because we're slowly weaning ourselves from using the rototiller to loosen soil (outside) and creating permanent beds (in the greenhouses) much of winter "gardening" involves preparing beds for spring planting.

Greenhouse Prep: In the Fall we pulled old plant material from the beds and gave them a light sprinkling of wood-ashes and a thicker coating of coffee grounds. The ashes provide many needed minerals. The coffee-grounds also boost the nutrient-content of the soil but the main reason we like to use them is that they are a favorite food for worms. With this food source, they reproduce rapidly and add their worm-poo (castings) to the soil which is an almost perfectly balanced fertilizer! In the Fall we also covered the beds (and paths) with a thick mulch (leaves, straw and fresh grass-clippings).

Llyn adds more coffee grounds.
In late January we began to we pull all the mulch off the beds and add it to the paths. It will continue to compost through the spring and summer and, as plant-roots grow out into the paths, they will be nourished by this material.

Once the beds were cleared, we added more coffee and compost, and gently dug it in a few inches. We've been absolutely amazed with how much worm activity we're finding in our greenhouse beds!

It's good to have several weeks with the bare soil exposed as the sun's heat will warm it and activate many micro-organisms. The added coffee also encourages worm-reproduction which adds more nutrients and worm-tunnels to the soil. LINK: Preparing Garden Beds - One Low-tech Way

We put the first batches of seeds on electric heat-mats with plastic covers to keep in heat and moisture. This gives a head-start to seed germination. For later batches of seeds, when there is more sun to heat up the soil, we won't use the mats.

This is what the greenhouse will look like in a short time!
Here is a list of the seeds we've started in pots, in the greenhouses:

Peas back-lit by the sun.
We started peas at the New Year but it was too cloudy and cold for the seeds to germinate (many rotted in the pots) so we re-planted mid-January. The peas are mostly up about an inch now. When they're 4"-5" tall they'll be transplanted into greenhouse beds.

Cindy with carrots - 2016.

As an experiment, we've started a small patch of carrots and beets in a greenhouse (they prefer cooler soil to germinate). Ideally, they'll be done producing by mid to late-spring leaving room in the beds for summer-crops such as tomatoes and peppers that love the heat! LINK: Tips for Planting Carrots

Burgundy Globe onions-an Heirloom variety from which you can save seed.
Onions: We like to start onions from seed as it is less expensive than buying "sets" and we have less incidents of onions "bolting" (going to seed) which means that we have a bigger harvest.  Here is a LINK to a post about growing onions from seed.

Lettuce! Can't you just taste that tender goodness?
Lettuce: Our goal this year, is to start small batches of lettuce every few weeks until it gets too hot to grow it (it prefers the cooler spring and fall weather). This way we can have enough for everyone who helps with the gardens and to share with the South Benton Food Pantry and Local Aid. LINK: Growing Lettuce from Seed.
Red Winter Kale - one of the most nutritious land-vegetables!
Kale: We have a few plants that wintered-over outside this year. We'll eat most of these spring "greens" (so sweet and tender after getting a "kiss" of frost). Kale-flowers, formed in their second year, also called raab, are also delicious and nutritious. We'll eat some of the flowers and let some of it go to seed so we have enough seed for next year.

Llyn with Broccoli-2009
Broccoli: We're experimenting with growing some of our broccoli crop in the greenhouse this year. It doesn't like a lot of heat but we hope to have it done and harvested by late-spring when the heat begins to build.

We use milk-cartons or large soy-milk containers as collars.
Celery: Celery takes a very long time to grow, especially at first. Once it establishes a long and extensive root system, the upper part grows more rapidly. Commercially-grown celery is one of the more highly-pesticided crops so it's good to grow your own or buy "organic".

The collars - pictured above - provide pest-protection, cause the celery to grow up-right and "blanch" the stalks so they are more tender.

These potatoes, with their short, stout sprouts, are ready for planting.
Potatoes: Each year we try new methods to grow potatoes. Potatoes have a natural dormancy period and will begin to sprout once this period is over. They need to be planted within a month or so of sprouting or they will begin to shrivel and won't be as viable. We have a lot of clay in our soil and it can stay cold and wet until late spring. Many times we have had our seed-potatoes rot in the ground before the last of the spring rains drain.  This year we are going to plant two rounds of potatoes; a first crop inside the greenhouse and a second one outdoors in late spring. This later batch will provide storage potatoes and perhaps even seed-potatoes for next spring. Here is a LINK to a post on preparing potatoes for planting.

Re-potting a tomato seedling.
Tomatoes: It's always a tricky dance to start seeds early enough to have the longest growing season but not so early that you have to keep transplanting the 'starts' into larger pots until it's time to put them in the ground - using your precious time and potting soil. For the second year in a row we will plant all 90 (or so) tomato plants inside greenhouses so we started our first batch of seedlings in early February. Later we'll start more tomato seeds that we can share with people in our community.
Saving Seeds: We save and re-plant over 85% of our own seeds. Developing this skill is fun and very rewarding. The seeds you save yourself will be adapted to your own micro-climate and soil conditions. One of the advantages of having a community-garden organized like the Sharing Gardens (with all of us growing food together; no separate plots rented by individuals and families) is that you can coordinate seed-saving and isolate varieties that might 'cross' and give you impure seed. LINK to saving your own seeds

Chervena Chuska peppers. If peppers are pulled up in the Fall before the first frost, and hung indoors, they will continue to ripen on the plant.
Peppers: Like the tomatoes, we finally have enough indoor greenhouse space (2500 square feet) to grow most of our peppers. This extends our season for growing by at least a month. These heat-loving plants require warm soil to germinate so, when starting the seeds (even in a greenhouse) we put them on an electric heat-mat. Our seeds typically break through the soil in 8-10 days.

Chris has been painting a new sign for the Food Pantry.
Winter's not over yet! Though the days are growing longer and signs of spring are all around, there's still plenty of time for creative projects, baking and other activities that must retreat to the background in the height of the garden-season.

...and Llyn's been having fun in the kitchen baking pies and bread and muffins!
The Sharing Gardens is located in the southern Willamette Valley of Oregon and is considered Zone 7b by the USDA. Click here to find your gardening zone. To find a planting guide for your area, do a search on-line. Most agricultural universities offer guides specific to their regions.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

An Act of Purest Magic...

OSU students preparing garden beds - Sharing Gardens -2016
Most of us would agree that humanity is facing some of its greatest difficulties of all time. The enormity of the challenges can lead to feeling overwhelmed and stifle our ability to act. Recently, we stumbled across this short video by Gregg Braden who succinctly outlines a simple shift in focus that points the way out of the mess we're in.

Gregg Braden is a New York Times best-selling author and  internationally renowned as a pioneer in bridging science, spirituality and the real world! A former earth scientist and aerospace computer systems designer,  Braden is now considered a leading authority on the spiritual philosophy of ancient and indigenous traditions throughout the world. He’s shared his presentations and trainings with The United Nations, Fortune 500 companies, the U. S. military and is now featured in media specials airing on major networks throughout North and South America, Mexico and Europe.

"Marrying who I am with what I do -- earning a life, not just a living -- has been an act of the purest magic, aligning me with some raw power in the universe, giving me strength to stay up late, get up early, do what I'd never do just for the money." Sy Safransky - Editor - Sun magazine April 1984

Monday, January 9, 2017

Winter at the Sharing Gardens

Our newest greenhouse - the Sunship - Sept. 2016
Greetings everyone! Here we are heading into our ninth year with the Sharing Gardens, Can you believe it? From our humble beginnings at Alpine Park, with an 80'x80' garden-plot, an 8'x8' greenhouse, a handful of tools and willing spirits we've grown to the thriving, expanded project we are today.

In the beginning, we didn't even have pictures to use on our website so borrowed photos Chris had taken in previous gardens. LINK to first Post - A Seed is Planted Our readership has steadily grown over the years and is currently experiencing a surge in readership that peaked with over 17,000 site-visits in December 2016 alone! It has tapered off slightly since this peak but we are still averaging 300 visits per day. These visits come from all over the planet both for practical gardening knowledge and for inspiration about the power and joys of generosity.

Home-grown dinner!
This post features info about what happens at the Sharing Gardens during the winter months. Enjoy! From December through about mid-February, activity in the gardens is minimal. Here in the Willamette Valley of Oregon, our winters are typically cold and rainy (with occasional snow and freezing temperatures) and the shorter day-lengths mean that any plants that are still growing in our greenhouses (kale, fava-beans) just maintain their current size, without adding any growth until days get longer.

So, just what DO we do to prepare for the coming Spring?

Because we practice a style of gardening that requires deep mulch, even in our greenhouses, the winter is time for preparing beds. Preparing Garden Beds - One Low-Tech Way-LINK
Our largest greenhouse with tomato plants on left, peppers and fig-trees on right. October 2016.
As the season comes to a close, and the last of the summer crops have been harvested, we rake away the left-over straw from the paths of the greenhouses. We remove cages from the tomato and pepper plants, cut them off at ground level and cut them stems up in 6" - 8" pieces and put these pieces in the paths underfoot. The stems are too course to decompose by planting time which is why we don't cut them in the garden beds. Cutting them speeds up decomposition and, by the time plant-roots are reaching out under the greenhouse paths, the stems will be almost entirely broken-down.

The next step is to cover the paths with the straw raked off prior to cutting up the plants. Clear any remaining straw, or plant matter off the greenhouse beds. The garden-beds - where we'll be planting in the spring - are generously sprinkled with coffee-grounds, and a dusting of wood-ashes.

Greenhouse beds covered in 1/2' coffee-grounds and a light dusting of wood-ashes.
We have been experimenting with creating greater soil-fertility using coffee grounds and wood-ashes. Coffee grounds are available for free from most coffee-shops; they're grateful to have someone come pick them up! And though they're not sustainable, they are a free resource at this time. For some reason, red-wiggler worms (also called manure worms) just love coffee! If you spread it liberally on your soil, they will migrate to find it. Their worm poo (castings) provides many nutrients that plants love and the tunnels they make help aerate the soil. Wood ashes should be used sparingly; they are very potent but provide a bounty of minerals to the soil.

Worms love coffee grounds!
Coffee grounds provide generous amounts of phosphorus, potassium, magnesium, and copper. They also release nitrogen into the soil as they degrade. When we have it, we spread it about 1/2" thick. We also layer it into our compost piles. Coffee grounds - Will They perk Up Plants - LINK

Wood Ashes provide all necessary nutrients except nitrogen and sulfur.  We use ashes from our wood-stove (that heats our house). We use only newspaper to start the fires and burn pure wood. We don't burn anything with paint; no ply-wood or other man-made products so the chemicals in them don't get into our food-chain. We sift the ashes to remove any big chunks, nails or screws. Be very careful not to use too much! We put just the lightest dusting in our beds. Do not use wood-ash to make a potting soil. It is caustic to worms and will alkalize your soil so use only a little and wait before planting seeds or seedlings. Do not use around acid-loving plants (like blueberries, or in potato-beds). Article from our local University Extension Service: Wood Ashes Can Benefit Lawn and Garden

Chris adds leaves to the greenhouse-beds - about 6" is ideal.
Next we add a thick layer of leaves, a layer of straw and, if we have it, green-grass clippings and more coffee grounds. Ideally we cover each garden bed with a layer of carpet, or cardboard - to keep in moisture and hasten decomposition, but sometimes we just leave the rows open to the air. All this organic matter is slowly eaten from below by worms and fungi and bacteria. In the spring, these beds will be ready to plant our new crops.

December 2016. Note trellises for winter-peas, a re-purposing project from an old chicken-coop (from left, to center). Light-green carpet covers row in lower-right corner.
Winter is also a time for pruning our fruit trees and blackberry bushes. Pruning helps fruit trees stay healthy and productive. Almost all our fruit trees were mangled by deer in their first year and a half so we still haven't had much fruit from them yet. Most of them have lots of fruit-spurs this winter so we're hoping that 2017 brings more fruit. In a few years' time, our 3-dozen apples, pears and plums should yield enough surplus that we can share the bounty with local food-charities.

 August 2016. Here is our first harvest from an Asian pear we planted in 2014. Not much, but they sure were delicious!
We've been enjoying herbal tea made from rosehips and fennel-seeds we grew and dried. Here are rosehips from rosa rugosa a hedge-rose that grows well in our climate that we started from seed three years ago.
October 2016. In mid-Autumn, we mulched most of our outdoor garden-beds with leaves and straw so they will be ready for planting in the spring. Chris looked under this straw just last week and found many worms! Even though the ground is saturated from winter-rains, the worms thrive at the surface where the straw meets the ground.
January/February is the time to plant biennial, root-crops for seed.
Carrots, beets and onions all produce seed in their second year so you must save them in your refrigerator or a root cellar and re-plant them to grow-out for seed. We plant them in gallon pots in January or February and than transplant them into the ground later in the spring. Seed-harvest occurs through much of the summer-months.

Tomatoes, peppers and squash make a bright compost pile!
We continue to build our compost piles. We don't have as much material to add to them at this time of year as the garden-debris has mostly been collected. The bins we are filling now won't be ready to use in the gardens till summer-time but you can never have too much!

We continue to process food for long-term storage. Llyn likes to make pumpkin-pie filling for freezing. In early January she noticed some of our Provence squash was showing signs of rotting so she had a marathon session and froze ingredients to make 22 pies. Yum! Making Pumpkin Pie from Scratch - Recipe - LINK

Baking Provence squash, a favorite for pie! Yes, it really is that orange, and so sweet!
Winter is also time for indoor-construction projects. Below, is a wood stove that Chris made from a kit that comes with legs, a collar and door for the stove. Holes must be cut out of the barrel using a metal-cutting saw. We purchased a used barrel from a food warehouse and Chris discovered that the barrel we bought for $4 had almost a gallon of honey still in the bottom which he drained and we enjoy on our toast!

 Here's a wood stove that Chris made from a kit.
Cleaning and lubricating hose-fittings, valves and timers so they'll be ready to use in the spring.
Each summer we dedicate a sizable amount of garden space to crops that store well: winter squash, potatoes, beets, carrots and storage onions to name a few. We want to be able to augment the Food Pantry's fresh produce offerings for as long as possible when their donations from other local sources begin to diminish. To be honest though, by the time all our share-givers receive their share of winter crops, the only thing we really have surplus for the Food Pantry is winter squash. Perhaps in future years we'll be able to increase our output, or other local gardens will join us in the project and dedicate a row of their space to storage crops to share.

Last week we delivered the last of our winter-squash and hot-peppers that we had saved to share with the Food Pantry. Because we plant our peppers and tomatoes in greenhouses, we can harvest them after everything outside is drooping and dying from heavy Autumn rains. We do have to harvest them before the first hard-freeze or they'll rot on the plant, even in the greenhouses. Our last harvest this year was December 6th!

The last of summer-harvest! Dec. 2016.
We are so grateful that the winter solstice has passed and that days are getting longer! In another six weeks (mid-February) it will be time to start seeds again for cool-weather crops (onions, cabbage, broccoli, lettuce, to name a few). Still plenty of time to finish our pruning, paint some more signs, clean and organize our garden-sheds and workshop and perform other maintenance tasks.

August 2016. Can't wait for next year's tomatoes!
The Sharing Gardens project is a unique model of community garden that is 100% non-commercial, uses local materials for soil-fertility, provides thousands of pounds of free produce to local food-charities and encourages gardening as a way to increase wildlife habitat. 

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Time for "Peas" on Earth!

Planting peas in a greenhouse for early-harvests.  

Pea-seedlings - a promise of delicious, sweet nibbles to come!
If you have a greenhouse, and live in a similar climate as the Sharing Gardens (we're in zone 8a, according to the USDA zone map) you can start your seeds in pots right at New Year's, and then transplant them into greenhouse beds by mid-February. Seeds started in pots in mid-February can be transplanted to outside beds in March. If previous years are any indication, by starting our first batch of seeds now (New Year's) we'll be eating peas by late March and on into April - at which point the peas we plant outside the greenhouse will begin producing and carry us through May or June!

You'll need:
  • Seeds (link to article on saving your own pea-seeds)
  • Soil
  • 4" pots (6" deep) - the deeper pots give more time before plants become root-bound.
Fill pots to within a half-inch of the top. Gently tamp down soil so it doesn't settle too far when you water it.

Poke two seeds, in opposite corners, about the depth of one knuckle (3/4" or so). That's two seeds per pot. This gives each plant enough soil to germinate and grow to several inches in height before you transplant. Cover the seeds with soil so they're not exposed to sun. Water them gently. Do not over-water. Seedlings can rot if soil is too damp.

Note: Since having written this article, we have now shifted to planting two seeds per pot but do not have photos to reflect this.
Keep the potted seeds protected from marauding slugs by putting them up on a table, or putting a milk-carton collar around them. (Link to post on Re-Purposing Things - including milk-cartons as collars). If you're planting in January, you'll need a greenhouse to protect them and keep soil in pots warm enough for germination. If you wait until mid-February, pots can be outside in a sunny place, protected from north winds.

When they are at least 6", and no longer than 12", you can put them in your garden, or greenhouse beds. Best to wait until their root-systems are quite dense in the pots -- almost "root-bound". They will be easier to transplant without damaging the plants. On the other-hand, if you wait until the stems are too long, you risk breaking stems during transplanting so it's a matter of finding the right balance.

Pea-seedlings in pots.
Transplanting: Plant each 4" pot (with its two seedlings) about 8"- 10" apart with bamboo stakes or other climbing trellis in between each clump of starts. Pea-plants are not typically transplanted but sowed directly in place. They are very susceptible to shock so be gentle with the roots and stems. Best to have your trellis in place before you transplant so you don't injure roots driving in the stakes. If slugs are a big issue in your area, planting them in the milk-carton collars can make a big difference. We also typically sprinkle about a teaspoon of iron-phosphate ("Sluggo") around each bunch of plants. This is an organically-approved way of dealing with slug/snail infestations in your garden. (LINK to article about iron phosphate).

The plants will go through a little stress from transplanting but once they acclimatize to their new environment they'll be well along the way to yielding a bounteous and long-term harvest!

Good idea to have trellis in place before you transplant peas (so you're less likely to damage roots).
John and Llyn transplanting pea-seedlings outside, in early to mid-spring.
Sara picking peas in the greenhouse in April.
Pea-vines headed for the compost pile. Peas, being legumes are able to add nitrogen to your soil through a symbiotic relationship with organisms that grow on their roots. This will help improve your soil, particularly if you leave the roots in the ground when you cut down the "greens" to add to your compost pile.
Growing food together, grows community too!