Preparing for Spring

Spring may seem and feel like it is a long way away, but we start our preparation for the gardens in the late fall.  After the last crop is harvested we immediately start preparing our growing beds and rows for spring planting.  We address two concerns with our preparation,  augmenting the soil and protecting the soil.

We start by removing all plant waste from the beds and rows.  Some gardeners like to leave plant material where it is in the garden over winter and have it rot into the soil.  In our area it tends not to rot completely over the winter and it would be necessary to till the plant remains into the soil or remove it entirely.  We prefer not to till excessively so remove the plant material to composting bins in the fall and clean up the growing areas.  Removed plant material will one day return, but as rich compost.

The soil in New Brunswick tends to be acidic.  Pelitized lime was added to selected areas based on middle and late summer soil analysis and crop observations over the summer.  We use the lime sparingly so the pH can be gradually raised over the next few years.  IMG_9182All other augmentation used our own compost and shredded leaves.  All raised beds and raised rows got  a generous one inch layer of our home-made compost plus a layer or two-year old leaf mold.  Each fall we gather and shred leaves from the property and add around forty to fifty bags of leaves collected from nearby towns.  A ride-on mower is used to clean up and shred the leaves on the property and a 5 HP shredder tackles the bags providing enough leaves to replenish the leaf mold bins and provide protective mulch for the soil.

All growing beds and rows are either planted with annual rye and or covered with a six-inch layer of shredded leaves to protect against winter erosion.  The IMG_9181annual rye is cut and incorporated into the top layer of the soil in the spring.  By planting time next spring, the leaves will have started to decompose and all we do is pull them back “scratch till” and plant.  Wait for seedlings to develop or set out your hardened off plants then push the shredded leaves back as mulch for the start of the growing season.  All non growing areas of the garden are protected with a generous layer of old hay or straw, whatever is available.  By using old hay we have avoided problems with weed seed germination.  This layer protects against erosion and builds a mulch layer to stifle early weed growth.

Our fall preparation for spring is done and the gardens put to bed awaiting the first blanket of snow.  Seed catalogs are arriving and the gardening planning for next year begins.

What is the Best Way to Grow Your Potatoes?

A Simple Way to Get High Yields of Potatoes

Thursday, May 07, 2015 by Barbara Pleasant – Categories: mulch, potatoes, containers
Potatoes in straw mulch

It’s no secret that I love growing veggies – potatoes in particular – so it upsets me that so many people are getting sad results when they try growing potatoes in novel ways. I just spent an evening watching videos of people who planted potatoes in various enclosures, grew beautiful plants, and then harvested two handfuls of small, knobby potatoes.

It was not their fault, because this is what usually happens when potatoes are given growing conditions that are much warmer and drier than would occur under normal circumstances, normal being the consistent cool, moist conditions six inches (15cm) underground. I learned this twenty years ago, when growing potatoes in towers made from old tires became a passing fad. The soil-filled black tires heated up so much that the plants lost interest in making potatoes (I harvested five), which never happens in my garden.

The Problem With Growing Potatoes in Containers

Indeed, researchers in tropical climates have found that when soil temperatures rise above 75°F (25°C), potato plants signal their

Potatoes in bags

roots to stop making tubers. Instead, the plants may rev up other reproductive strategies, like developing more fertile flowers, or popping out little green potato-like organs on the main stem. Daytime heating of roots is one reason why potatoes grown in above-ground containers may fail in warm summer climates. Potatoes can take warm air temperatures, but when the roots warm up too, productivity plummets.

A second problem with growing potatoes in towers, pots or bags is the dwarfing effect caused by the containers. The plants sense that they are growing close together, which makes them produce numerous small tubers rather than a few large ones. Large containers or broad bins relieve this crowding a little, but consider: When the Master Gardeners of San Francisco, CA (a potato-friendly climate) compared the productivity of ‘Carola’ potatoes grown in beds, bins, bags and pots, these are the numbers from the final weigh-in:

Growing Method Average Yield Per Plant
Mulched raised bed 2.38 lb (about 1 kg)
Wire bin 0.70 lb (0.32 kg)
Plastic pot 0.62 lb (0.28 kg)
Potato bag 0.58 lb (0.26 kg)
Burlap bag 0.25 lb (0.11 kg)

You can follow this link to see the thoughtful work done by Canadian garden blogger Isis Loran, but spoiler alert she has not found a potato growing method to rival the hill-and-mulch method, which involves simply growing potatoes in the ground, and mounding loose soil and mulch around them each time you weed. “I loved that I could just rake up or hill up more soil & straw as the plants got bigger. It was much easier in my opinion than trying to add soil to the pallet container or rolling up the burlap bags,” Loran writes.

“Potatoes

Loran gardens in a cool maritime climate like that of the British Isles, where potatoes tend to prosper no matter how they are grown. Research by the Royal Horticultural Society has found that variety does make a difference when growing potatoes in containers. When 21 different varieties were grown in 40-litre (16-inch diameter) green plastic potato bags, these varieties were the strongest producers: ‘Casablanca’, ‘Golden Nugget’, ‘Sharpe’s Express’, ‘Maris Bard’ and ‘Lady Christi’.

The story is the same in the US. In Wisconsin, potato lovers involved in the Kenosha Potato Project have found that ‘Calrose’ and ‘Charlotte’ tend to produce larger potatoes than other varieties when growth in soft-sided pots or bags.

How to Mulch Potatoes

Any biodegradable mulch is a good mulch for potatoes, though once-popular straw can be a problem because of price and pesticide contamination. I use both grass clippings and weathered leaves since that is what I have, and I especially like the way leaf mulch keeps the potatoes’ root zones cool, moist and free of weeds. A recent research project from Rutgers University showed that plants produced prettier, more uniform tubers with leaf mulch, and it’s fine to combine materials when mulching potatoes, for example by layering leaves with grass clippings. The important thing is to keep a light-blocking blanket of organic material between the shallowest tubers and the sun.

“Potatoes

The best time to start mulching potatoes is when the plants are ankle high and in need of their second weeding. Use a sharp hoe to nip out weeds, and then mound loose soil around the plants so the crown of the plant becomes snugged in with an additional two inches of soil. Then start layering on the mulch, and keep adding more until the plants begin to fail.

At this point you can feel around beneath the mulch for some tender new potatoes, and start harvesting all of the potatoes from your most advanced plants. As I pull individual plants, I often move the mulch to the centers of neighboring plants that are still growing and in need of as much mulch as I can muster.

When it comes to growing potatoes, the simplest method is the best.

Barbara Pleasant

Soil – Our Organic Gardening Learning Curve Part I

We have moved in an organic direction with the vegetable gardens for the past five years. We decided that if we are going to grow vegetables it makes sense to make the effort to produce great tasting, nutritious vegetables free of artificial fertilizers, pesticides, and other chemicals. It was a moving back to the land kind of idealism of growing and processing our own food that made the concept attractive.
We heard all the excuses about lower production, insects will prevail, and it is too hard to go organic. Our wish to have healthy great tasting food, however put us to work researching garden methods that would be productive, low maintenance, and incorporate organic production.
We decided to start with raised beds. The “upper garden” now has eight raised beds and we have started using Square Foot Gardening. Two years ago the “lower garden” was started. It is a 30’ by 75’ area and is developing as a Raised Row Garden.  A section of the lower garden is for experimenting with other techniques. An earlier post describes our summer 2015 experiments including Straw Bale Gardening.

Lower Garden
Lower Garden

Here are some things we feel are important if you are going organic.
1. Learn about your soil
2. Learn about natural organic fertilizers
3. Learn how to protect your garden and keep it healthy

 

Today’s posting, Part I of our Learning Curve addresses soil.
1. The structure of Soil is the foundation of organic gardening. It is necessary to know as much as you can about the soil’s texture, pH levels, and the eco-system.
Texture relates to the components that make up the soil. The three main components are sand, silt, and clay. The percentage of each in a soil sample will determine the texture of the soil. Soil structure can range from sandy and loose to clay and compacted. Soils high in sand content tend to drain quickly and not hold moisture needed for growth. Soils high in clay content do not drain well and hold too much moisture that can lead to root rot and kill your plants. A “feel” test can help determine your soil texture. Sandy soils will feel gritty and when moist will not clump together. Silt soils feel powdery when dry and will clump loosely when damp. Clay soils will clump tightly when squeezed and will mold together when damp.
Healthy soil also has organic matter supplied by decaying plant and animal waste. Healthy soil has that nice earthy aroma that gardeners thrive on. The organic matter is necessary for plant nutrition and feed for the living micro-organisms living in the soil. Everything from microscopic bacteria, fungi and beneficial insects make up the soils eco-system. The soil needs to be alive! Repeated use of commercial fertilizers over the years can “kill” the soil. The soils eco-system is the basis of organic gardening.

Time to recall your high school chemistry acids and bases. The pH scale goes from 0 to 14 with 7 as the mean. The pH of the soil is important as it will determine the plant’s ability to use nutrients in the soil. Most vegetables need a pH level around 6.5 in order to uptake the available nutrients in the soil. pHHome test kits are available at your garden center to test your soil pH. We test each bed and row every year and plant or adjust the pH accordingly. Adding lime to the soil will raise the pH level decreasing acidity. Adding sulphur to the soil will decrease the pH level decreasing the alkalinity. Be sure that the additive you use is approved safe for organic gardening. More on plants and the effects of pH on nutrient uptake and soil pH modification can be found here.
Soil structure is so important to the success of the organic garden that we constantly amend the soil. Successful organic gardening means making your own compost, lots of it and adding to the growing areas. It means planting cover crops as “green manure” and most importantly, testing and monitoring your growing beds. Always remember to keep records of your results.
The more you improve soil structure the healthier your garden will be. Healthy plants are disease free and less attractive to detrimental insects. The stronger your soil structure the lower the labour needed to enjoy your own nutritious, chemical free fruit and vegetables.
We are still learning and have a long way to go yet. Should you wish to dig deeper into soil structure, check out Phil Nauta at the The Smiling Gardener.

In the next post, we share our learning and experiences with natural fertilizers and tips to keeping a healthy garden.
Still waiting for the snow to go!
Tom and Di