Thursday, April 14, 2016

Late Spring Plantings

Early spring plantings include crops like broccoli, lettuce, beets, carrots, kale, etc; crops that are frost tolerant and they do well in cool weather. It is now mid-April and for much of the west, the southwest and the southeastern United States, this is the time to be planting other kinds of crops. If the danger of frost is past then other crops can be planted.

What are late spring crops? Corn, melons, cucumbers, green beans, peppers, sweet potatoes and tomatoes are all late spring crops. So what are the considerations for planting these crops? One consideration is soil temperature; generally speaking the soil temperature should be above 55 degrees. If you don’t have a thermometer probe that you can stick in the ground to get a reading, the outdoor temperature can also tell you when it’s safe to plant. If the outdoor daily highs are in the 70s and the outdoor daily lows are 50 or above, the soil temperature will be above 55 degrees.

Corn will not sprout if the soil is below 55 degrees and if the seed sits in the ground too long, it will rot and fail to sprout. You can get around this problem by stretching a strip of clear plastic over the rows of corn you just planted. The plastic will warm the soil, the seeds will sprout, and once the seeds have sprouted, you can remove the plastic and the corn will grow without assistance.

In general, the same can be said for all the cucurbits (melons, cucumbers, etc), clear plastic is an effective way to outwit Mother Nature and gets your garden going early. But melons do not need to be planted early unless you live in a cooler, northern climate and the growing season is short. In the desert regions of the west and southwest, the growing season is sufficiently long to get ripe melons before fall—and they do well in the heat so they are an excellent summer crop; and the reward is worth the wait.

Melon Varieties

If you have prepared your soil properly, have sufficient nutrients in the soil, and planted at the right time, then the remaining question is what variety do I plant? In my experience, the variety is all important with melons. A nice plump ripe cantaloupe can be very disappointing if it tastes like cardboard and has the consistency of cardboard too. Popular varieties include Rocky Ford, Hales Best and Hearts of Gold, but these varieties all have good shelf lives, which means you will find them in the grocery stores because they will last—but the texture is hard and the flavor is mediocre. The best variety for home gardeners is Ambrosia. The flesh of this melon is soft, and the flavor is beyond anything you’ve eaten before. If you grow Ambrosia, you’ll never grow anything else.

I recommend growing cantaloupes over all other melons for a couple of reasons; 1) the days to maturity is the shortest of all the melons and, 2) there is no question about when the cantaloupe is ripe, the outside color turns from green to a soft yellow color…and the step slips off the melon. This makes growing and harvesting easy and predictable.

Watermelons are the next easiest melon to grow; they love the heat, grow fast and are a delight to eat. But watermelons are a little more challenging to know when to pick them; a) the first tendril on the vine from the melon will begin to shrivel and die and, 2) the underside of the melon will turn a yellowish white color. And the days to maturity is another way to know when to pick watermelons. There are many varieties but Crimson Sweet is one of the best, very sweet and delectable. Sugar Baby is also good, Klondike and others. You may want to experiment to see which does best in your area.

Casaba, Crenshaw and Honeydew melons are excellent melons but a little harder to grow and require a longer growing season. They also do not tell you when they are ripe, so they can be a little frustrating to grow. Also, Crenshaw and Honeydew melons tend to sun scald, which can spoil the melon. Because they take so long to mature, hot summer days can scald the exposed melon skin.

Tomatoes: Here are some tomato facts you must know and respect if you want to grow tomatoes in the desert. With low humidity (all of the southwest and desert areas of the west and Rocky Mountain areas), tomatoes will not set fruit if the night time temperature is below 55 degrees and the daytime temperature is above 95 degrees. The plant will bloom but will not set fruit unless the temperature falls within these parameters. Therefore, in certain hot climates, there is a narrow window that must be met. Tomatoes must be planted as early as possible (they have little frost tolerance), so they will grow, bloom and set fruit before the daytime temperatures get above 95 degrees. And once the daytime temperatures exceed 100 degrees, the tomato plant will be severely stressed and will perform poorly; essentially at this point your tomato harvest is over.

There are many varieties of tomatoes so it depends on what you like. Here is another truth, retailers or green house growers who tout “hot weather” tomatoes that will keep producing when it’s hot, are not being completely honest—remember the 55-95 degree principle, this holds true for all varieties except the cherry tomatoes.

Also, you should understand the meaning of “determinate” and “indeterminate” varieties. Determinate varieties will grow, blossom, set fruit but the vines will stop growing. The indeterminate varieties never stop growing; they may or may not continue to produce tomatoes but will continue to grow as long as they have water and nutrients. Thus, space becomes an issue here.

Finally, heirloom varieties seem to be all the rage, although I’m not sure why. Heirloom varieties are of poor quality, poor flavor and are unpredictable in color and shape. If you like quirky looking fruit, a novelty to show your friends, then heirloom varieties are perfect. But if you want quality, flavor and predictable shape and color, then the hybrids are the answer. Personally, I would not waste time, water and expense on growing heirloom varieties.

I am often asked what you can grow during the hot summer days. There are not a lot of good options, in the hot southwest, the 100 plus degree days stress most garden crops (except corn and melons), and although the heat may not necessarily kill the plant, it will stress it to the point that it fails to bear fruit or the fruit is of poor quality. This is why spring and fall or the best times to garden.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Using animal manure in the garden

Animal manure is the foundation of all fertilizer—worldwide; it is either applied directly to fields and gardens or it is processed to make bagged manure, or other forms of commercial fertilizer. Animal manure is excellent fertilizer, and an excellent source of nitrogen and other essential nutrients; but it has its drawbacks, its deficiencies, and its costs too.

Steer manure: is by far the most abundant animal manure and the most complete; it contains generous amounts of nitrogen, phosphate, and potassium, it also contains many of the trace minerals that also aid plant growth. Steer manure contains about 3-4% nitrogen by volume, when fresh. The older it is, the less nitrogen it contains. Part of the nitrogen in steer manure is in the form of ammonia, which is a gas, and dissipates into the air quite rapidly, so should be tilled in immediately.

But how do you use the stuff, and how do you apply it? One reason commercial fertilizer is so popular is it is in a concentrated form, comes in a nice clean bag, and is easy to apply; steer manure? Not so much. Steer manure is available from dairies, cattle farms and stockyards—and in bags at your local nursery. Some of these might deliver to you, but it’s likely you will have to go get your own, a major inconvenience—it might also be free, a major advantage.

As a rule of thumb, if you decide to apply steer manure to your garden, you would apply about 3-4 inches of manure on the ground, then till it in as deep as you can. This may seem like a lot of manure, and it is, but if you think about the distribution, you’re not getting a huge amount of nitrogen out of it, but probably enough. Also, only about half of the nitrogen will be released the first year, the rest, the following year. By comparison, a few pounds of 34-0-0 commercial fertilizer would equate to all this steer manure—and it is all available right now; but you get no organic matter from it.

Steer manure also contains quite a lot of weed seed that will sprout, so this is a negative of using barnyard manure. Some commercially bagged steer manure is “cleaned” and is free of weeds, but this bagged manure ends up being quite expensive; so that is your tradeoff.

Horse manure: has about 1% nitrogen, by comparison; but has more “undigested” feed in it, and if sawdust is also included, much of the nitrogen will be tied up in breaking down this material. Horses don’t digest feed as well as cows do, so much of the hay is just pushed right on through and ends up in the manure. If horse manure is used, it is generally necessary to supplement with a commercial nitrogen fertilizer…for some crops.

Horse manure also contains a fair amount of weed seed—so expect it. And horse manure is almost always free. Those with horses are delighted to get rid of the stuff—but you’ll probably have to go get it yourself. I always make friends with a couple of neighbors who stable horses, and ask if I can take their manure; I’ve never been refused yet.

Turkey manure: has a nitrogen content of about 9%, triple that of steer manure, so it is “hot” stuff, and you must be careful in applying it or you will “burn” your young, tender plants. The Moroni, Utah turkey growers sell a “turkey mulch” that mixes turkey manure with sawdust or other wood products. This makes an excellent manure/mulch for the garden—but it’s expensive, and must be trucked in. Because some of the nitrogen is tied up in breaking down the sawdust, it makes a great fertilizer and mulch for the garden.

However, turkey mulch (also true for chicken manure) has very little phosphate, potash, or the trace minerals; so what you’re getting is nitrogen and excellent mulch. But turkey and chicken manure has very little weed seed in it, so this is a plus.

Chicken manure: All that is true about turkey manure is true with chicken manure also.

Pig manure: pig manure has about double the nitrogen of steer manure, but because it contains different bacteria than other animal manure, it becomes a very slow release nitrogen and generally takes two to three years before you get all the nitrogen from it, so it is a poor fertilizer for nitrogen; it also contains less organic matter than does steer or horse manure.

Overview: fertilizer does not need to be expensive, but it can be. Commercial fertilizer is not cheap, but very convenient, and easy to apply. Turkey manure is an excellent fertilizer and compost but is also expensive. If you’re resourceful you can get all the steer manure and/or horse manure you want for free—but labor will be required.

If you choose to buy all the expensive gardening materials, you might well have $14.00 tomatoes, but if you’re resourceful you can produce the best tasting and largest tomatoes around—at a fraction of what you will pay in the store.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Organic vs Inorganic

This piece is an attempt to make sense of the organic vs inorganic approaches to gardening. In one sense it’s an opinion piece because, it is my opinion. But I grew up on a farm, and have been a gardener for many years. There are many theories and practices being applied to gardening these days. Nearly everyone employs some practices from a variety of these approaches to gardening. Organic gardening, like many terms today, is a bit deceitful, because it assumes that only it (organic gardening) employs the principles they espouse. In fact, all gardening, and agriculture in general, employs elements of organic and inorganic agriculture.

Organic horticulture is the science and art of growing fruits, vegetables, or ornamental plants by following the essential principles of organic agriculture in soil building and conservation, pest management, and heirloom variety preservation.
I believe organic gardening has been oversold and under-delivered. I also believe commercial agriculture has been unfairly demonized. Many false claims and accusations have been made with regard to this debate. I won’t go into all of them, but will touch on a few.

First, organic purists now declare that in order to be an “organic gardener,” you cannot use pesticides, herbicides, commercial fertilizer, or human waste.

Second, consider the fact that without commercial fertilizer, worldwide food production would be cut nearly in half; the ensuing result would be mass starvation. So can commercial fertilizer be all that evil?

Third, if you also eliminate chemical pesticides and herbicides, worldwide food production would fall by another fifty percent, relegating most of the world’s population to perpetual starvation. There is a reason commercial fertilizer, pesticides and herbicides exist, and mankind is the beneficiary.

Fourth, commercial fertilizer is not “synthetic” nor is composed of “poisons” and “harmful” stuff.
This is not to say that as a home gardener you must use commercial fertilizer, herbicides and pesticides—it isn’t necessary. But if you don’t use commercial fertilizer you must be very smart and active about replenishing your soil with manure, compost, green manure or some form of crop rotation.

Pesticides: If you don’t use some pesticides, you must accept the fact that peaches, pears, cherries, and apples will all be worm filled. Dormant oil, and other oils are effective pesticides, and they are not poison or harmful to humans or the environment. Pesticides are designed with just enough poison to kill a tiny bug. Check the percentages of active ingredients on the label, they are miniscule; meaning if the pesticide is only potent enough to kill a bug weighing less than a milligram, you could likely drink the entire bottle and it would have no effect on a human being.

But in the home garden, little if any pesticides are necessary, except on some fruit. No cool weather crops need pesticides (broccoli, onions, beets, carrots, lettuce, tomatoes, etc). And melons and all cucurbits can be managed without pesticides. However, the corn borer or earworm must be dealt with or much of your corn will be ruined by worms. A little oil on the silk is effective against the earworm, or a mild pesticide is effective, and harmless to humans. It is the silk that needs the pesticide, and that pesticide never gets to the kernels we eat.
Home gardening can be successful without the use of herbicides, however; but you will have to put in a little extra time and labor in order to keep your garden from being taken over by weeds.

Fertilizer: It is important to understand that nitrogen is nitrogen, and it really does not matter where you get it. If “religiously” you refuse to use commercial fertilizer, then you must get it from some other source or accept small, spindly plant growth with reduced production. Where it rains a lot, nitrogen is not an issue because the rain pulls nitrogen out of the air and provides adequate amounts of nitrogen, in places like Washington and Oregon. But we don’t get enough rain here to even consider that option.

The next best source of nitrogen is manure, cow, horse, chicken or turkey; or any other animal manure. But most home gardeners do not have enough animals to provide enough nitrogen for their own gardens, so it must be obtained elsewhere. Throughout most of Asia, human waste is the primary source of crop fertilizer. Organic purists in the U.S. would be horrified to use human waste, but in most of the world, it is the primary source of nitrogen. Most of the rice grown in Asia is fertilized with human waste.

Commercial fertilizer is often called “synthetic” fertilizer, but that is a false characterization. There is nothing synthetic about commercial fertilizer. Is not nitrogen and phosphorus organic? Nitrogen is everywhere. Potash is mined; it’s a naturally occurring mineral. Phosphate is mined; it is a naturally occurring element—not to mention steer manure is loaded with both. “Chemically, these nutrients are identical to nutrients derived from an organic source.” (from

Commercial fertilizer is also demonized by environmentalists because, they say, it leaches into the ground water and into rivers and lakes and poisons or contaminates them. This is blatantly untrue. It is true that all fertilizer, commercial, natural, organic, or otherwise, leach into ground water; but so what? What is the difference of nitrogen leaching into the streams and lakes, and rain dropping tons of nitrogen into rivers and lakes? Nitrogen is not a poison, and neither is phosphorous or potash, they are everywhere in the earth and they end up in the water whether man has anything to do with it or not.

Environmentalists are now attempting to demonize carbon…of all things. Carbon is essential to life; it is not a poison, or a pollutant. Increase the amount of carbon in the air and all plants will have more growth, and food crops will have greater production—why is that bad? And for that matter, raise the overall temperature of the earth, and food production goes up, disease goes down, and people are healthier and happier. And some people are freaking out because the earth’s temperature might be rising? We should hope it is.

Not too much goes to waste in today’s world, almond hulls are made into feed for animals, cottonseed is processed for feed for dairy cattle; and…the contents of sewer sludge is used in a variety of ways, including making commercial fertilizer—all organic stuff.

Plowing and tilling: Plants need air to grow, above ground, and below ground. The notion that plowing or tilling the soil is destructive or “kills the soil” is nonsense. If soil is never turned or plowed or tilled, it becomes so compact the roots get no air, bacteria do poorly, the soil becomes sluggish or dead (sterile), and plants don’t grow or produce well. The notion that soil should not be disturbed, that farming damages the soil and the environment is a false environmental notion driven by another false notion that we would all be better if man was not here at all.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Pecans, Pecans, Pecans

My pecans trees had a heavy set this year, and our harvest reflects that. My experience with pecans is limited, but here are my observations.

The 2010 Spring was cold and wet, summer was late arriving; consequently, I believe the pecans were late maturing as well, at least that is my observation. In past years, the pecans filled out, began opening up, and falling to the ground 2-3 weeks earlier than they did in 2010. My first harvest was November 15th, 2-3 weeks later than previous years.

We also had an early, hard freeze in mid-October. Then in December we had days and days of rain, plus snow, followed by extremely cold weather. We had a few days when the daytime high did not get above freezing--while the pecans on the ground lay on wet ground and covered by snow. I'm sure this was not good for the pecans.

A large number of my pecans came down in a strong wind, following much rain, the night before it snowed. In mid-January, the tree shaker came and brought down the rest of them. Clearly, those that stayed on the trees and came down with the shaker, were of better quality.

As a result, many of my pecans did not fully open up, or did not open up at all. Still, I harvested 165 gallons of pecans in the shell, this is more than double my previous largest harvest. Even so, I'm certain there were at least twice that many pecans that I discarded, that were moldy, black, not opened, or with only partially opened husks. So I believe I could have easily had 300 to 350 gallons of pecans, had the weather been more favorable, and they all opened up properly.

I have already shelled 33 gallons (85 pounds) of pecans. I have given pecans away to our kids, neighbors and friends. Still, I have about 25 more gallons of pecans to shell.

In shelling the pecans this year, I make the following observations:

1. The shells are harder, thicker, and more difficult to break.
2. The shells did not break free of the meat, as in previous years, consequently, I have a lot more pieces and broken halves than in the past. These pecans are good, tasty and of good quality, just not nice full halves.
3. The pecans that remained wet, under the snow, etc; had thinner shells, black in color (mold?), and a smaller, poorer quality meat. I think shells that remain wet, become porous and the meat dries out and shrinks in size.
4. The pecans that remained on the trees were not affected by the rain and snow, those on the ground were. Because of the snow covering the pecans on the ground, I was not able to harvest them for nearly a week, once the pecans were on the ground.
5. Even with the significantly heavier set of pecans, I did not notice a reduction in the size of the pecans (as with other fruit), pecan size was excellent.

Still, it's kind of amazing how tough pecans are, even with all the adverse weather, rain and snow, and lying on the ground, the meat is pretty darn good.

I have read that pecans have an alternating pattern of heavy yield, then light, then heavy. Other gardeners in this area dispute that. My 2008 harvest was heavy, my 2009 harvest was very light, and my 2010 harvest was very heavy. I have Mahan soft shell pecans. Maybe the variety makes a difference, but so far my trees are on the alternating cycle.

Monday, November 1, 2010

2010 Gardening Review

Gardening for this year is about finished. But it was an outstanding gardening year, a cool, wet spring, and little evidence of curlytop, provided us with an abundant harvest.

I just finished a great green bean harvest, we ate, canned, and gave many away to family and friends. I planted the beans on August 15th, began harvesting the first of October, and finished the harvest on October 27th.

I finished my corn harvest on October 4th, and we canned (freezer) much of the harvest.

I still have tomatoes producing in the garden (Ropac and Columbian), along with spinach. I have been very impressed with the Ropac and Columbian tomato varieties. These varieties produced early, heavy, through the summer, and into the late fall; easily the best producer in my garden. I like their flavor, they didn't crack, and didn't contract curlytop. I will plant these varieties again next year.

The cool, wet spring made for an excellent spring and early summer garden, and the summer wasn't too bad either. The fall has also been nice. The lack of too many violent winds has helped all growing season. My pecans, maturity wise, are behind prior years, but my trees are loaded with large, plump pecans--they just took a little longer to mature due to the cool spring and early summer. But I expect a huge crop. The wind only blew off a small percentage of the pecans, so my losses are small.

I had a wonderful pomegranate crop, we juiced most, got about 5 gallons of juice. I have both sweet and sour pomegranates and I juice them all together, it makes a nice tart, but not too tart, blend of pomegranate juice that we will enjoy until next October. I have three sour pomegranates and five sweet. Three trees are the original, old Toquerville pomegrantates (whatever variety that is). They are dark red and sweet. I planted three sour varieties, and two sweet varieties. All trees produced fruit this year, though the two sweet varieties I planted are still quite small. The sour pomegranates obviously grow faster than the sweet varieties. Just interesting.

I experimented by planting some late beets and Great Lakes lettuce, in September. I don't think the beets will make. The lettuce may still make, if not, it will be ready to take off when spring comes.

We pretty much lived off our garden all summer long (June through October). It was the best eating we've had in years. I believe Americans will be forced to grow more of their food in the future--if they want to eat. Agriculture in this country is in trouble, government regulations and price controls have made agriculture marginally profitable. Most dairymen are on the verge of bankruptcy, the government continues to punish farmers, environmentalists have all but declared war on agriculture and are determined to eliminate large scale agriculture, which means there will be food shortages in the future. I don't say this to be an alarmist or to sound like a political rant; but we all need to understand that growing our own food will be critical in the next few years, at least. Gardening is not easy, you can't just throw the seeds in the ground and come back later and harvest the crop. Gardening takes a great deal of knowledge, patience, work, good timing, a little luck, and a lot of faith.

It's time now to begin preparing your garden for next year. Till in all your leaves (except for walnut leaves), grass clippings, and other compostable material. By spring, it will all be decomposed and ready to grow you a great garden.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

September Gardening Report

Gardening has slowed down considerably. I did harvest my O'Henry peaches, as pictured here. I also harvested our Asian pears in September. These are wonderful, round, crisp and juicy pears. My final grapes were harvested and juiced (concord). We are currently harvesting my final corn crop. We canned (froze) about half the harvest, and continue to eat this wonderful sweet corn from the garden. My fall green beans are about ready to pick, and I still harvest some tomatoes, bell peppers and Anaheim peppers.

Because of worms in the peaches the past two years, I sprayed my peaches three times after they began showing color, and did not have a single worm. The harvest of both the Elberta and O'Henry peaches was excellent for me. The only remaining fruit for me are a few Golden Delicious apples, and pomegranates. My apple tree is small and set only a few blossoms and apples.

My pomegranates are also about ripe. Last year we juiced most of our pomegranates and have enjoyed the juice all year long. I have both sweet and sour pomegranates, and when mixed with Fresca, makes a wonderful and healthy drink. I mix both sweet and sour pomegranates together, and it makes a wonderful blend for zesty drinks.

I'm looking forward to the pecan harvest this year. My trees are loaded heavily with large pecans (my harvest was quite light last year). The winds have been light, so not many have fallen prematurely to the ground. I also noticed the pecan aphids were very light this year, very little sap and drippage from the leaves.

I am already tilling my garden, tilling in corn stubble, grass clippings, chicken manure and other compostable material. All my fall leaves will also go into the garden, if tilled in, they will be completely decomposed by spring.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

August Gardening Report

August has been a heavy production month for me. Tomatoes, peppers, cantaloupes, casabas, watermelon, corn, and peaches. In terms of weight, August is easily the heaviest production month of the year (those melons add up in a hurry). My melons are about done producing, though I have a few cantaloupes and a few watermelons still on the vine.

A few observations and conclusions:
1. Moving my drip lines away from the base of the melons clearly helped keep the squash bugs down; I had some, but they were never much of a problem.
2. Placing a couple of drops of vegetable oil on the corn silk early in development, clearly keeps the bugs and worms out of the ear of corn.
3. I planted Striped Klondike, Crimson Sweet and Green River watermelons. The Striped Klondike were easily the best flavor, they were so sweet and delicious. Even the small Klondikes were tasty. The Green River melons were a disappointment, though I did plant them late.
4. The Ropac and Columbian tomatoes easily out-produced the Celebrity and Better Boy varieties--and they're still fairly loaded with tomatoes.
5. The casabas were disappointingly small, but good flavor, and we had more than we could eat.
6. In the past, I have not sprayed my fruit, but both previous years nearly all my peaches had worms. So this year I sprayed, only at the first sign of color. I sprayed three times, two weeks apart--and I have no worms this year. I used a vegetable safe Spectracide product.
7. My peaches (elberta) were a couple weeks later this year than last, but we did have a cool spring. But it's a great peach crop for a three year old tree. My OHenry variety ripens later, but they look good too, and I sprayed them also and see no signs of worms.
8. My pecans are also maturing later than last year. Last year in mid-August they were completely filled out, this year on September 1st, they are still not completely filled out. I have a heavy crop, and hope they still fill out large.

I planted spinach today (Sept 1st), planted green beans on August 9th, and fall corn on July 20th.

If you have empty space in your garden (have taken out completed crops), begin tilling in mulch, compost, manure, etc. The ground is a great place to compost, from now until Spring planting.