Mulching Your Garden

Mulching is an extremely important part of maintaining your garden. Even if you don’t have time to mulch everything or have items that don’t mulch well (such as carrots and beets), anything you can mulch should be mulched. Using mulch has the following benefits:

  • Reduces the need to water
  • Keeps weed at bay
  • Reduces the pathogens that can splash up from the ground onto vegetables
  • Adds nutrients to the soil
  • Helps worms stay nearer to the surface where they benefit the garden
  • Lessens the chance of extreme temperatures damaging vegetables

There are many theories on the proper technique for mulching. This post doesn’t compare them because the bottom line is that any sort of mulching is better than none at all. If you find a technique that works for you, by all means, use it. My technique works well for me because I can get the materials at a very low cost.

Our mulching begins by laying down two sheets of non-advertisement newspaper. There are some things you should consider about the newspaper you use. First, make sure the newsprint is printed with soy or a similar non-toxic ink. Second, never use the glossy advertisements. Even if they aren’t printed with toxic chemicals (they often are), the glossy paper tends to repel water and takes a very long time to break down. Third, make sure the paper is large enough to overlap.

Make sure the newspaper does overlap by about an inch or so as you lay it down. Otherwise, the weeds will immediately spring up through any gaps. In the past, we’ve doused the newspaper in water before laying it down, but it works just as well dry as long as it isn’t windy.

Lay hay or dried grass on top of the newspaper. Make sure the grass is absolutely dry–brown is best. If you want to use this second technique, let your grass get a little long, let the newly mown grass dry a day or two, use a rake to move it about, and then let it dry for several more days before you rake it up to use it as mulch. We allow a full 2-inches of grass or hay on top of the newspaper. Here’s what our small garden looks like with mulch in place.

Mulch01

My uncle supplied us with some square bails of hay. They work quite nicely for mulch. The hay had been rained on, which ruined it for animal fodder. You may be able to find a farmer in your area who has some ruined or third cutting hay that you can buy for a pittance. Notice how the hay covers very square inch of the garden.

There is one addition trick you must employ. The mulch absolutely can’t touch the plants. For example, look at this tomato plant:

Mulch02

The newspaper and hay end in a small circle around the base of the plant. If the mulch touches the plant, it will cause the stem to rot and you’ll lose the plant. Rebecca and I didn’t know about this little problem during our first few years and we lost quite a few plants to mildew or rot.

The small spacing we allowed still provides all of the benefits of mulching. Tomatoes are especially prone to black spots. When it rains, the rain hits the soil, picks up pathogens, and splashes these pathogens onto the tomatoes. The mulch keeps the rain from splashing. The tomatoes can still get spotted from other sources, but it’s less likely.

As I mentioned previously, some vegetables don’t lend themselves to mulching very easily. For example, both carrots and beets are planted so closely as to make it impossible to mulch between the plants. You can mulch around the area in which the carrots and beets are growing though. Potatoes are planted further apart, so they mulch just fine. In fact, unless you plan to take time to hill your potatoes, mulching them is essential to prevent the potatoes from turning green (we don’t hill our potatoesit’s much easier to lift the mulch and the end of the season and almost pick them up off the surface).

Some mulching depends on the season. For example, bush green beans mulch fine during a hot and dry summer. They’re prone to mildew during a cool, wet summer. You need to allow a little more distance between the mulch and the bush green beans (or any other bush-style bean for that matter) to allow air flow. Pole green beans and peas don’t require this spacing because the majority of the plant is on a pole or a fence.

There are a lot of interesting ways to mulch a garden. For example, some people use cardboard for the task, while others use bark. The chocolate smell of cocoa hulls is quite enticing (assuming you can afford the high cost). Some materials provide properties that our hay mulching technique doesn’t provide. However, you have to be careful in choosing a material because some materials, such as bark, will actually leach important nutrients out of the soil (using bark can leach all of the nitrogen and also make the soil acidic). We actually do use bark for our blueberries and grapes because they require an acid soil, but we never use bark in the garden. Let me know your thoughts on mulching at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

Cherry Tree Woes

Cherry trees can be incredibly hard to raise, as I’m learning over the years. We originally planted four Northstar cherry trees on our property. The description of the tree seemed perfectit only grows 6′ to 10′ tall, produces copious amounts of tart cherries, and is quite hardy.

Unfortunately, it also has an open structure that Yellow Bellied Sap Suckers find absolutely irresistible (yes, they really do exist). We ended up with neat rows of little holes in the trunk of each of the cherry trees. Because the birds alternated between the wild cherries in our woods and our cherry trees, our Northstar cherries eventually ended up with a disease called bacterial canker. The sappy ooze emitted by the wounds attracted all sorts of other pests. Eventually, the bacterial canker girdled the trunk and killed our Northstar cherries (well, all except one that simply refuses to die, so we let it stay there, but it has yet to produce cherries and it never has grown more than a few feet tall).

We decided to try again with a cherry that the Yellow Bellied Sap Sucker might find less inviting. This time we chose the Mesabi cherry and planted four more trees. The tight branch structure did keep the birds at bay. In fact, the trees produced 53½ pounds of cherries in 2009. However, late last year we noticed that the leaves were turning yellow in mid-summer and that the fruit yield was very low. This year we won’t receive any fruit from our cherries because they’re essentially dead, as shown here.

Cherries01

There are still some leaves on this tree, but it isn’t nearly as full as it should be and it won’t recover. All four trees have a virus they received from an insect (type unknown). There are a number of indicators. The most noticeable is that the tree has almost no leaves, yet, there isn’t anything obviously wrong such as bacterial canker. The leaves the trees do have are yellowish with darker green around the veins, as if the leaves aren’t receiving enough nourishment.

A more telling symptom is something called flux. The tree is leaking small amounts of sap (not the copious amounts as with bacterial canker). This sap is turning black as bacteria attacks it as shown here.

Cherries02

That blackish spot (circled in red) would be very easy to miss. (Each tree has many of these little black spots.) In fact, I didn’t know what I was looking at. A master gardener friend of mine pointed it out. The ants don’t miss opportunities like this though. The trees are loaded with themall looking for a free meal of sap.

The trees are actually dying from the inside out. There is a wound on one of the trees where you can see the inside of the tree literally rotting as shown here.

Cherries03

Notice how the edge of the wound has lifted upit isn’t curled tight against the wood of the tree. This indicates that the tree is trying to heal itself, but that the new growth has nothing to stick to. The new growth should be tight against the wood.

I’ll be cutting the four trees down sometime soon, drying the wood out, and using it to smoke various meats. It would be a shame to use such nice wood in the wood stove. The trees definitely won’t go to waste.

Unfortunately, I can’t plant new cherry trees in the same spot (or in the location where the other cherry trees were). In both cases, the trees have left their diseases in the ground. If I plant new trees in these locations, they’ll immediately become infected. Consequently, I’ll be looking for a new type of cherry (or cherries) and a completely different location next year. One major lesson I’ve learned is that trees of the prunus genus require significantly more care than either apples or pears.

This spot will be taken over by butternut trees next year.  We don’t have any butternut trees in our woods (they can grow in the wild), so the addition of nut trees will be nice. I know that our woods do contain hickory nuts and plan to gather as many as I can this next fall (as soon as I identify precisely where the trees are located). What are your favorite sorts of nuts and fruits? Let me know at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Planting Asparagus – Part 2

Earlier this spring, the Planting Asparagus – Part 1 post discussed some basics of getting the asparagus in the ground. Unlike many other garden plants, asparagus requires quite a bit of effort to get going. However, once planted, an asparagus bed will flourish for many years without much in the way of maintenance, so the up front effort is worth it.

By this time, your asparagus has sprouted and you’ve probably weeded it more than once. It seems as if asparagus attracts weeds for whatever reason. Perhaps it’s the trencheswho knows for certain? If you’ve only seen asparagus in the store, you might have even pulled a few of the young plants accidentally. Here’s what your baby asparagus will look like:

Asparagus011

That’s right, it looks sort of like a fern on a stem. By now you should have a number of these fern-like growths in the trench. When they get this tall, you need to start adding dirt to the trench. Don’t bury any of the branches coming off the main stem. Add just enough loose dirt (don’t pack it down) to bring the trench up to the next level. Burying part of the stem will encourage the asparagus to grow taller.

Now you’ve got some asparagus to tend, but it’s still not done yet for this summer. We’ll visit this topic again. In the meantime, let me know if you have any questions at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Garden Structures

Rebecca and I have managed to get the garden planted for the year. The contents of the garden vary each year to accommodate our personal tastes and also to ensure the larder remains full of good things to eat. This year the small garden (20′ × 20′) contains tomatoes, okra, and egg plants. Our tomato crop is a bit smaller this year at only twelve plants in the main garden (we also have two plants in the salad garden).

Like many people, we use cages to hold our tomatoes. However, the somewhat strong winds in our area have a habit of knocking the tomato cages over and damaging the vines long before they’re through for the season. To prevent this from happening, I came up with a technique for enhancing the survivability of the cage setup using electric fence posts. Electric fence posts come in a number of formswe prefer the 48″ metal variety that comes with a triangle of metal at the bottom. You push them into the ground with your foot and they hold relatively well for smaller loads. Each tomato cage requires one fence post as shown here:

TomatoStakes01

Place the posts so that they’ll oppose movement by the wind, so that little triangle at the bottom has the best chance of holding when the wind is high. The next step is to get the tomato cages in place. Put the upper ring (or third ring on a four-ring tomato cage) on the outside of the post and the second ring on the inside of the post so that the post is threaded through the tomato cage. Use cable ties to secure both rings to the post as shown here:

TomatoStakes02

You can clip off the excess cable tie using a side cutter pliers. The combination of tomato cage and electric fence post normally keeps everything in place, even in high winds. The completed setup looks like this:

TomatoStakes03

The main garden (60′ × 80′) contains a wealth of vegetables and fruit this year. Of course, you saw some of the permanent bed items in the Early Spring – The Garden and Orchard post. In addition to those items, the main garden now contains potatoes, summer squash, winter squash, snap peas, standard peas, lima beans, green beans, broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, carrots, sweet peppers, sweetcorn, asparagus, and comphrey. Later in the season we’ll probably plant beets and perhaps a few other short growth time items.

We get bush varieties of vegetables when we can because they require significantly less setup than the vine varieties. However, peas are one of the vegetables for which there aren’t any suitable bush varieties, so we need to erect a fence for them to grow on. The one mistake I made in getting fencing material is that our fence is only 30″ highthe peas really need something taller (upwards of 5′). However, we just let the vines grow over the top and things work out acceptably.

The fence has to be movable from year-to-year to allow for rotation. In addition, we don’t grow peas every year, so sometimes the little fence is used for something else (such as cucumbers) and sometimes not at all. In order to grow the quantities we need, the fence is 50′ long.

The weight of the produce demands that we use something a little more sturdy that electric fence posts to hold the fence up at the ends, so this project requires T-posts, which are considerably heavier than electric fence posts (and more expensive too). In addition, you need a T-post driver/puller to work with this type of post. If you have good chest strength, you can get by with a much less expensive T-post driver and pull the posts out by wiggling and then pulling them out at the end of the year.

We used chicken wire as fencing material. It’s inexpensive, lasts an incredibly long time if you take it down each year (ours is 12 years old now and no sign of rust at all), and the small openings are perfect for peas and cucumbers to grow on. You begin by driving a T-post into the ground and then attaching one end of the fence to it using cable ties as shown here.

PeaPost01

Make sure you use enough cable ties and that the cable ties are of the heavier variety available in garden stores. Use the fencing to help define the location of the second T-post. Drive the T-post into the ground, pull the fencing as taut as possible (using one or two helpers), and temporarily attach it to the T-post.

At this point, you can add electric fence posts every four or five feet. Begin at one end and work toward the other end. Always pull the fence taut, using a helper to make it possible to attach the fence using cable ties. Use four cable ties minimum and make sure you use a double cable tie at the top (one cable tie slightly lower than the other) to keep the fence from sagging too much as the peas or cucumbers grow as shown here:

PeaPost02

Eventually, you’ll get to the other end of the row. At this point, you can reattach the fencing the T-post, if needed, to remove any slack. Your fencing won’t be completely straight, but it’ll look nice and provide good structure for the peas. Here’s my completed fence:

PeaPost03

Of course, the garden is far from complete. We’re weeding between the rows now and will then add mulch. More on these tasks in another blog post. In the meantime, let me know if you have any questions at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Planting Asparagus – Part 1

The asparagus is up in our garden now. You have to look carefully because it’s easy to miss the little spears when they first appear on the scene. Our bed seems to be a bit behind the others in the neighborhoodat least one of our neighbors reported seeing the asparagus poke up a week before we saw ours. Even so, this is usually the time of year that you begin to see the asparagus. Here is what the young asparagus typically looks like.

Asparagus01

You can see the asparagus spear about in the center of the picture. Over the last several years we’ve decided that we really need to plant more asparagus. Having just one row in the permanent bed isn’t sufficient to meet our needs. Yes, we have more than sufficient for meals in the spring, but there is nothing left to freeze for later useeven if the later use is sometime during the summer months.  So this spring we decided to plant some more asparagus.

You can plant asparagus seed, but we’ve never had very good luck with it. What we’ll get instead are two year old roots when we can or year old roots when we can’t. The roots come in a bundle of about twelve. The roots are attached to a crown. Make sure you pick a sunny spot for your asparagusit loves the sunlight. Here are three asparagus roots attached to a crown.

Asparagus02

In addition to the bunch of roots, you need a good spade. Most experts recommend planting asparagus in a mix of soil and compost. Because our soil is heavy with clay, we used pure compost from our compost heap. The best advice I can provide is to have your soil checked by your local testing facility (making sure to tell them precisely what you intend to plant) and then ask advice on how to proceed with your specific soil.

The procedure for planting roots of any age is the same. You begin by measuring out a trench that will allow two-feet for each root in your bunch. If you have a standard bunch, that means digging a trench 24-feet long. The trench is 16-inches deep and about 6-inches wide (the width of your spade is fine) as shown here.

Asparagus03

The mulch is important. We use hay mulch to help control weeds, keep the ground moist, and reduce the amount of erosion/filling that occurs when it rains. This is actually last year’s mulchwe’ll do some clean up and add new mulch for this year. Fill the bottom two-inches of the trench with loose compost and/or soil. Don’t pack it downkeep things loose. Splay the roots in the trench two-feet apart. Make sure the crown is pointing up as shown here.

Asparagus04

Carefully add eight more inches of compost and/or soil over the top of the roots. Of course, this leaves six-inches of that trench uncovered. What you’ll do is wait for the asparagus to come up. As the new asparagus grows, you’ll fill in the trench a little at a time until the trench is full. This step takes until mid-summer in most cases, but could take more time.

I’ll visit this topic again as the summer progresses. In the meantime, let me know if you have any questions at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

More Spring Weather

Our weatherman predicted rain with a slight chance of snow this Saturday, with an emphasis on slight. So it was without any hesitation whatsoever that I planned to be snowed in the next day. Fortunately, it wasn’t as bad as all that. I think we ended up with about an inch or two that quickly melted as shown here:

Snow02

However, I do start to get worried about foul weather this time of year. Of course, there are my flowers to consider, but usually they hold up well. Even though my spring flowers look a bit crunched here, they sprang back up later:

FlowersinSnow

More important are the fruit trees. Fortunately, none of them were blossoming yet this weekend. In years past, I’ve had the blossoms get damaged by late spring frostsreducing my harvest later. Of course, the same thing can happen when snow or other weather elements keeps the pollinators inside and not out pollinating my trees. I hope that we don’t get more weather of this sort now that my trees are in the bud swell stage. All this led me to think of a haiku:

Crystal form that shows
Winter has not flown away
Spring is on the way!

 

Early Spring – The Orchard and Bud Swell

A lot of books, magazine articles, and gardening aids talk about bud swell, but then don’t show you what it looks like. I imagine the authors think that its obvious as to when bud swell occurs, but most people really aren’t sure. Our orchard finally had bud swell this past week. Here is an example of the early beginnings of bud swell.

BudSwell01

Notice that the outer brown wrapping of the bud has broken, showing the green underneath, but that the bud is still tight. In other words, the bud has swollen. Now these buds are starting to get just a tiny bit past bud swell.

BudSwell02

These buds have completely broken out and they aren’t quite as tight as those seen in the other picture. Both pictures were taken on the same day, but they’re of different tree types. The first picture is of a Luscious pear, which blooms slightly later (about two weeks) than the Ure pear shown in the second picture. We use the Luscious tree fruit to make pear nectar (a kind of juice with lots of the fruit included), pear sauce, and wine. The Ure works better for pear chunks and pear butter. Most important of all, the Luscious and Ure pollinate each otherpear trees aren’t self fertilizing for the most part.

Many of the activities in the orchard hinge on bud swell. For one thing, you should stop any pruning at bud swell (at least, I always do to keep the trees from bleeding to death from larger cuts). This is also the time of year that I spray the trees with a lime/sulfur spray to control various diseases, including woolly mildew, a constant pest in our area. The lime/sulfur mix smells absolutely awful, stains clothing terribly, but it does do the job. It’s also not that terrible from an environmental perspective. We try to use green methods wherever we can to control problems with the trees. This spray probably isn’t the organic solution, but it’s also not something that’s going to poison the environment (at least, as far as I know). More on the trees later! Let me know about your early spring orchard activities at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Ongoing Education

I was talking to one of the local children the other day who somehow had the idea that getting out of high school or college was the end of the educational process. After all, you immediately go to a job at that point and use the knowledge you’ve gained to make a living. He seemed to think it quite funny when I corrected him by telling him that I learn something new every day. Of course, education is ongoing. Anything that isn’t growing is dead and a form of growth is the increase of both knowledge and wisdom.

Of course, I do obtain daily increases in knowledge. The art of writing technical books is embracing a strategy of learning all the time. I read voraciously, subscribe to word builders, and conduct experiments to see just how things really work (as contrasted to the theoretical discussions in the books and magazines I read). The very act of writing involves learning something new as I discover new ways to express myself in writing and convey information to readers. I’ve picked up books I wrote early in my career and am often appalled at what I considered good writing at the time, but it was good writing given my experience, even though it would be unacceptable today.

Learning is part of every activity in my life and I relish every learning event. So it was this weekend that my wife and I packed our lunch and sent to Get Ready…Get Set…Garden! We look forward to it every year. This year we took classes on hostas (for fun) and horseradish (as part of our self-sufficiency).

Before we went to class though, we just had to spend a little time looking at some of the displays. A personal favorite of mine was the gourds:

Gourds

I’ve always wanted to make some bird houses, but never quite have the time. They actually had a class on the topic this year and I was tempted to take it, but that would have meant missing out on the horseradish class, which I considered more important. Here’s Rebecca and me standing in front of one of the displays:

JohnandRebecca

Well, onto the classes. I found out that there are over 2,000 varieties of hostas, which I found amazing. They originated in Japan, Korea, and China.  It takes five years on average to grow a hosta to full size, but it can take anywhere from three years to ten years depending on the variety. I found out our place for growing them is perfect, but our watering technique probably isn’t, so we’ll spend a little more time watering them this summer. Our presenter went on to discuss techniques for dealing with slugs and quite a few other pests. Most important for me is that I saw some detailed pictures of 50 of the more popular varieties that are easy to get in this area. I’ll be digging out some of the old hostas in my garden and planting new as time allows.

The horseradish session was extremely helpful. I learned an entirely new way to grow horseradish that involves laying the plant on its side for the first six weeks, digging it up partially, removing the suckers, and then reburying it. The result is to get a far bigger root that’s a lot easier to grind into food. I can’t wait to try it out. Of course, our instructor had us sample a number of horseradish dishes while we talked. I’m not sure my breath was all that pleasant when we were finished, but I enjoyed the tasty treats immensely.

So, what are your educational experiences like? Do you grow every day? Let me know at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Fall Damage Revealed in Spring

Each fall we till the garden up and plant winter rye. It’s amazing stuff because it sprouts in fall and survives the winter months to continue growing in spring! There are a number of reasons for planting winter rye:

  • The ground cover holds the soil in place and reduces erosion.
  • It fixes nitrogen all winter long and acts as “green manure” when we till it in later in the spring.
  • Having something planted in the garden shades out the weeds, so we aren’t fighting the weeds as much.
  • Winter rye drinks up the excess moisture, so we can get into the garden earlier (without sinking up to our knees in mud).

There are probably other reasons for growing winter rye, but these four are the reasons we take time to plant it. Unfortunately, we had an early frost this last fall. So, the winter rye sprouted, but didn’t have time to establish itself before the frost hit. As a result, unknown to us, the winter rye died. So our garden is unprotected this spring and I’m already seeing evidence of erosion as shown here.

Erosion

There isn’t any time to plant more winter rye now. So, we’ll control the erosion in another way, by placing hay bails on the downward side of the garden slope. Using the hay bails will slow the water flow and at least keep the soil in the garden. Of course, the point is that nature doesn’t always cooperate with our plans, so it’s important to have a Plan B (the hay bails in this case).

The hay won’t go to waste. Later this spring, when everything is planted, we’ll use the hay to mulch the garden. Mulching reduces the need to water and keeps weeds under control, but more on that later. So, what do you do to control erosion and keep weeds under control in your garden? Let me know at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

Early Spring – The Garden and Orchard

Spring really begins to take off with the introduction of new growth in the garden. Our permanent bed has a number of items in it; some start early, while others wait a while to make their presence known. About the earliest arrival in the garden is the rhubarb; a favorite of mine. Nothing quite matches the sour taste of rhubarb, especially the first growth of spring. Rhubarb looks like little red balls when it first appears, and then you begin seeing leaves like these shown here:

Rhubarb

Of course, it’ll be a while before I’ll enjoy any fresh rhubarb. I’ll show you how it looks later. One of the ways I like it best is freshly picked with just a tad of sugar. It’s also good in rhubarb rolls and we make wine from it (among other things).

Another early arrival are Egyptian walking onions. They’re called walking onions because they literally walk from place to place in your garden. The top of the onion sprouts a seed head. When the seed head become too heavy for the stalk, it ends up on the ground and replants itself; no extra work on your part! Here’s what the walking onions look like in the garden:

WalkingOnion1

When these onions get large enough, I’ll dig up just a few and enjoy them very much as I would green onions. The Egyptian walking onion tends to be a little stronger and a little larger than the green onions you buy in the store, but you can use them precisely the same way. Here is a patch of ground that shows the seed heads as they appear in spring:

WalkingOnion2

Each one of those tiny little heads will become another onion. We should have quite a wealth of them this year. The Egyptian walking onion is our second taste treat from the garden. The first taste treat is horse radish. The horseradish isn’t quite up yet; at least, it isn’t far enough up to tell what it is. Normally, you’d dig it up this time of year though, grind it up, add some vinegar, and enjoy.

Another spring delight is asparagus. I’ll be sure to upload some pictures of it when it comes up. Asparagus is planted very deep and doesn’t make an appearance yet for at least another two weeks (probably longer).

Part of the springtime ritual is pruning the trees. We have 32 trees in our orchard. This last Saturday we pruned the apples. Each tree has a unique pruning strategy and you’ll find that pruning strategies differ between gardeners. Here’s a typical apple tree after pruning.

Apple

See how the apple looks sort of like an umbrella or perhaps a gnarled old man? The approach we use works well for hand picking. It’s an older technique that many modern orchards have replaced with a technique better designed for picking apples from a truck.

We prune our apples every other year; the off year. Apples produce well one year and then take a bit of a vacation the next year. Yes, we’ll get some apples from our trees, but not as many as on a good year. Of course, prudent canning techniques ensures everything evens out. What sorts of spring delights do you experience? Let me know at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.