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Growing Organic Garlic

Recently Jon Belber, Education Director from Holly Hill Farm, joined us at the community garden to share some tips on growing garlic organically.

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Many of us in the community garden have already cleared our beds of summer debris and prepped them for winter and/or are still picking kale. But if you’d like to enjoy a garlic harvest next July,  now’s the time (late October through November) to get going on it.

Hardneck vs. Softneck Varieties of Garlic

Hardneck varieties of garlic grow stiff flower stalks known as scapes. They tend to be better suited for cold climates such as ours (Zone 6); in fact, like daffodils and tulips, they require a period of cold dormancy.

Without a stiff flower stalk, softneck varieties remain floppy and can be braided. In general they store for longer periods of time than hardnecks. More info on comparisons here and here.

How to Plant

  • Be choosy about what you plant! You’re more likely to have good results if you purchase garlic bulbs from a reliable source. Most of us don’t have much growing space, so make the most of it and save grocery store garlic for eating.
  • Carefully break the garlic head apart into its individual cloves, trying to keep as much of the papery coating intact. (The paper is its protective seed coat.)
  • Again, be choosy. Don’t plant any soft cloves and select the biggest cloves. The small ones will grow, but won’t be as robust as the garlic plants that start out with more stored resources. Save the little guys for cooking.

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  • Following crop rotation practices, it’s better to select a site where Alliums (leeks, shallots, onions, etc.) did not grow in the previous few years.
  • Prepare your garden bed by loosening the very top layer of soil and laying down some compost. There’s no need to do a lot of digging and disrupting of the soil structure in your garden unless it’s hard and compacted.
  • Where you are planting your garlic, run a shallow trough around twice the depth of your garlic cloves.
  • Tuck in the cloves with pointy tips up about 5 – 6 inches apart in the trough. Garlic cloves planted upside down will still grow, but they’ll have to spend extra energy orienting toward the soil surface, and you’ll end up with a garlic plant that looks like the one below.
  • Cover with soil.
  • Top with a generous few inches of mulching materials, such as shredded leaves or straw.

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    When using leaves as mulch, make sure they’re composted or shredded as above; otherwise, they can form a dense matted layer.
  • Green tips may emerge above ground around February. (Sometimes this growth appears in late autumn and then stalls; generally the plant will not be adversely affected, though the growth may whither and lose its green color in freezing temperatures.)

During the Growing Season

  • Around June, hardneck varieties of garlic produce curly flower stalks known as
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    If allowed to grow, garlic scapes curl, swoop, and flower. Too beautiful to cut? Enjoy them in a floral arrangement.

    scapes that should be removed to allow the plant to send more energy down to the bulb. Cut off this part when it starts to curl, but don’t throw them away–the scapes can be used to make a pesto, cooked and used for mild garlic flavoring, or even added to floral arrangements. More cooking ideas here.

  • Pull the garlic plants around July 15 . You can eat them right away if you enjoy assertive garlic flavor. Or cure them in a warm dry place with good air circulation, away from direct sun.  When the neck is dry and the skin papery (in about 2 – 3 weeks), they can be stored in a cool, dry, well-ventilated place (not the refrigerator). Different varieties of garlic will hold for varying lengths of time.
  • Make use of the space where you harvested your garlic by digging in some compost and planting a succession crop such as quickly-maturing carrots or green beans.

Mail-Order and Local Sources

Holly Hill Farm purchases their garlic from Fedco SeedsJohnny’s Selected Seeds is another reliable source for types that grow well in New England. At the end of October, it’s too late to purchase garlic bulbs from most mail-order sources; still, it’s worth checking out these sites now simply as a reference. Plan ahead for next fall; these sources can run out early, well before planting time.

But there are still options right now. I had good success last summer with the garlic I purchased from the organic grower at Braintree’s farmer’s market. (There’s one more market day scheduled on Nov. 17.) Hingham Farmer’s Market is still running weekly. And Holly Hill Farm is hosting a garlic festival on Nov. 3, 2018, where garlic will be available for sale and farmers will be on hand to run garlic-planting demonstrations.

How’d It Grow? The Cucamelon

After hearing a few gardening friends from different circles talk about cucamelons , I decided to give them a try this year for the first time.

Cucamelons–also called Mexican Sour Gherkins and Mouse Melons–resemble tiny watermelons. “Vines start growing slowly,” notes Johnny’s Selected Seeds, and, “Not particularly high-yielding.”

After planting the seeds in early June, I waited for a few weeks and assumed they’d washed away before I saw any sign of them. The emerging seedlings remained tiny for another few weeks. Some just disappeared, likely eaten as a snack by a couple of flea beetles. The vines that survived grew so slowly that all nearby plants outpaced them, shading them and further hindering their growth.

Around early August or so, I finally started seeing tiny yellow flowers.

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And by the time the fruit appeared, something else had already happened in my garden.

A cucumber explosion.

Evidently it was a banner year for cucumbers here in our area, based on the number of people at the garden talking about their great cucumber harvest. Which is great, of course. Only by the time the cucamelons finally made their entrance, I was already on the third act of cucumbers: canning and preserving.

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But here they are, like fairy watermelons, alongside a cherry tomato and a scarlet runner bean for comparison.

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Per Johnny’s instructions, I picked them when they were small, a little less than one inch. (Longer ones get seedy). Once the plants built up steam, they stretched out, clambering up the trellis and across the tops of my tall flowers. Cucamelons were tucked in all corners, though not in high numbers and not obvious among the foliage. I had to forage for them.

Their flavor? Like a slightly sour cucumber, lemony. Nicely crunchy. Their skin is a little thick. Sliced in half lengthwise, they’d probably make a nice addition to a fresh salad that I’ll be craving mid-winter. Or if I’d had enough at once, they might have made a nice jar of pickles.

A few takeaways…

  1. Given the slow start of summer in zone 6, I wouldn’t plant them any earlier here than I did, in the beginning of June. Even then, nights can still be quite chilly.
  2. I recommend protecting them under a row cover or cloche for a little extra warmth and insect defense.
  3. Just in time (hello, Frost), I’ve learned that cucamelons produce tubers that can be overwintered, which hopefully will mean a more vigorous start next season.
  4. Think carefully about space planning. The rest of your garden will travel into the future while your cucamelons stall in their own space-time dimension. They won’t grow well in the shade of other quickly-maturing plants.
  5. The cucamelon is no way to pad your harvest. It’s not like a hybrid cherry tomato, cheerfully producing early, across the full season, and in spite of disease pressure while you’re waiting for your heirlooms to come in. You may very well be weary of anything cucurbit-y by the time these guys produce.
  6. Is the novelty worth it? Maybe, and I’m willing to give it another try now that I understand more about its growing habit. I could see this plant working well in a garden where there’s not enough space for a full-sized cucumber beast. The cucamelon’s leaves and fruit are small and lightweight, unlikely to overwhelm surrounding plants if you don’t mind a little disarray and let a couple of vines ramble and find their way in the sun. Keep some sunshine carved out for it among your other plants,  and it may perform better than mine did.

 

 

 

 

The End of Open Season

It’s open season at PPCG, and we’re the targets, our gardens laid out like a giant picnic spread for deer. Tomatoes, beans, peas, flowers, beets, lettuce, peppers, zucchini, chard…more tomatoes. Tomatoes are taking a tough hit. Peppers too.

This year seems especially bad for everyone, not just a select few. It’s our ninth season in our location. The way we’re sheltered on all sides by trees, tucked away from street traffic, we can probably count ourselves lucky the deer haven’t discovered us earlier.

But let’s figure out what we can to to make ourselves less vulnerable.

Things We Can’t Do

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Deer track

Let’s get the don’ts out of the way first. Gary did some asking around at Holly Hill Farm, where he said they rigged a simple electric fence powered by a car battery. Tempting, but not especially safe in a public park.

Years ago, Christine and John S. looked into installing a perimeter fence, but quickly put that idea aside when they realized how prohibitively expensive it would be for us. Effective deer fencing needs to be a good 8 feet tall.

Products such as Liquid Fence, cannot be used in our gardens because they are not organic (#3 ingredient is Sodium Lauryl Sulfate).

Similarly, don’t hang smelly bars of soap (another recommendation I’ve read on a number of websites), which will drip down into the soil.

Probably Our Best Option: Barriers

UMassAmherst notes that the best way to protect a garden is to install some kind of physical barrier to keep the deer away from the crops. Since we’ve already ruled out a perimeter fence, that leaves us with…

  • Bird netting. It’s probably the cheapest option, found here at Home Depot for around $7.

 

 

I’ve used this at home to protect some plants from squirrels. It’s fiddly to use and easier to install if you have a second set of hands. One of our gardeners laid this product neatly over their entire plot, and it seems to be working out well. As plants grow, taller supports can be used to lift the netting (though you may need a bigger or second piece of netting).

 

 

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Another one of our gardeners wrapped this product around the perimeter, and yet another draped it over specific plants she wanted to protect.

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Here, bird netting is wrapped around a plot and supported by plastic and bamboo posts. Both this product and the one below are fine enough that they won’t cast significant shade in our small plots.

 

⇒⇒⇒If you decide to use this netting, please make sure it’s secured. It’s very difficult to see, it’s a tripping hazard, and does a very bad number on our mower.

 

  • Plastic mesh fence. This product is made of a heavier, stiffer plastic material that can be wrapped around your garden and hooked onto/supported by U-posts. I installed this by myself and thought the hardest part was pounding in the stakes. Remember to plan how you are going to get in and out of the garden. Here, I left an opening near a walking path and secured it with a strip of “tomato velcro” for ease. In addition, because a deer could still lean into the garden to nibble on plants, I wove a tight piece of plastic-coated wire around the top.

 

 

So far it’s worked: no more crop damage and limited hassle getting myself in and out of the garden. Also, the mesh is unobtrusive enough that I don’t feel caged, but sturdy enough to function as a trellis for peas and pole beans.

The biggest downside is the cost, between $50-$60, plus the cost of the U-posts.

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Deer climbed right into Joe’s raised bed and helped himself to Swiss chard, tomatoes, and beans.

Another important factor to note: deer can easily jump over a fence that’s 4-ft high, the size I used. But also, they apparently (1) don’t like enclosed spaces and (2) like to have a clear landing space when they jump. Still, there’s no guarantee. From Joe’s raised bed next to mine, it’s an easy leap into my lettuces. Parkour dining. Maybe I’ll pound in a few wood stakes near the center of my plot to give them pause before they make the leap.

One other way to make either kind of barrier–the bird netting or the heavier fencing–more effective would be to add some kind of “flag” to help the deer see it, so they don’t blunder into it and get spooked, which would likely result in a lot of damage to structures, plants, and maybe even deer too. Worse than a few nibbles. (Ever seen the movie Tommy Boy?  This. Scene.) (YouTube link)

 

Might Be Worth a Try: Deer Repellents

  • Once a deer gets a taste of a crop, it might  be difficult to apply any smelly/distasteful/frightening product that’s safe for you and strong enough to stop deer. Also, these types of products must be used very consistently. Are you willing to put in the effort and accept that they are more likely deterrents than guaranteed barriers?
  • I know at least one organic grower who uses PlantSkydd, which is OMRI-listed. It’s primary ingredient is dried blood meal (cow and/or pig). For the best chance of success and your own safety, follow all directions carefully, and note that it must not be applied to “edible parts of fruit, vegetables, and other food crops.”
  • Predator urine (Amazon link) might frighten off a deer. One source indicated this was the most effective offensive scent.
  • Border your garden/targeted plants with herbs that deer don’t like, such as oregano, lavender, and rosemary.
  • Human hair, collected and hung in the garden in nylon stockings might also frighten off a deer, but remember the deer in our area are likely quite used to humans.
  • Motion deterrents, like pinwheels and dangling disposable pie pans or CDs are img_20180629_080123739easily installed. I put these in the category of “it can’t hurt to try.”
  • Ultrasonic noisemakers may be effective until a deer becomes accustomed to them; also, they may work best when paired with a visual/motion deterrent.
  • Solar-powered predator lights (Amazon link), again, may be most effective when paired with other deterrents.

Crop Selection

Another option is to choose to grow plants not favored by deer. I’ve had good luck with tomatillos, ground cherries, eggplant, herbs, onions, and some flowers such as dahlia, zinnia, cosmos, tickseed, snapdragons, and calendula. For more ideas, see here and here.

Do Nothing

Maybe it’s obvious, but doing nothing is also a choice. It’s all right if you don’t want to go to the expense and hassle of installing barriers, etc.. Nothing in PPCG’s rules indicates that you have to take any measures against deer; we only require that you maintain your plot organically.

One Final Note

For best control, remember some facts about deer.  They are afraid of anything new, yet learn quickly and adapt to your strategies, so try several repellents and rotate them.”


Sources/ For More Info

Preventing Deer Damage from UMassAmherst

Keeping Deer Out of the Garden from Bonnie Plants

Deer Deterrents–Scents from U of Vermont Extension, Dept. of Plant and Soil Science

Nonlethal Deer Damage Abatement Techniques–Deterrents from Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control

Deer Proof Gardens: 4 sure-fire ways to keep deer out of your gardens from Savvy Gardening

Deer-Resistant Plants from Old Farmer’s Almanac

Deer-Resistant Garden Vegetables from SFGate Home Guides

How to Build a Plastic Mesh Deer Exclusion Fence from Purdue Extension

 

 

 

 

 

In Case of Drought…

For a few weeks now, my favorite meteorologist/horticulturalist Dave Epstein has been tweeting about how dry it’s been. (That rain we had Monday night amounted to barely 1/10 of an inch.) Though the Northeast Regional Climate Center declared the entire northeast drought-free as of May 3, rainfall amounts in Boston have fallen below average for about the past month, which is making me think about (1) how to get our gardens established and healthy now while (2) not wasting any water. (Below, the green line is our cumulative total, up to June 18; the maroon line above it represents “normal.”)

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I know I’ve mentioned the advice to water less frequently and more deeply, once your plants are beyond the seedling stage. When the surface of your garden soil is kept continually moist through shallow, frequent watering, your plants’ roots are happy enough hanging out where the water is, leaving them susceptible to drying out if you head to the Cape for a weekend.

But if you like numbers as much as I do, you might still be wondering “how much” and “how often” to water.

One inch per week on average is the number I often see. That’s around .62 gallons per square foot of garden per week.

Here’s the rough math…

  • Most of our gardens are 72 square feet, which means we should be giving them around 45 gallons per week. (That sounds like a lot to me, but remember we’re talking about averages here. You may get away with less if your plot is shaded, etc..)
  • It took me 40 seconds to fill a 1.5-gallon watering can using my normal hose setting and pressure. (Your time might be different, depending how you use the hoses.)
  • 45 gallons/1.5 = around 30 watering can fill-ups. At 40 seconds each, that’s 20 minutes of hose time per week. Again, that’s an average amount.
  • You can also try setting tuna cans in multiple locations around your garden and stop watering when they’ve fill to the desired amount.

But there’s more to consider. The soil in New England tends to be sandy and rocky, which means water percolates relatively quickly, beyond our plants’ active root zones, no matter how deep they go. One 20-minute session per week would likely waste a good bit of water and leave your plants dry.

UMass Amherst suggests that watering twice per week should be ample for well-mulched vegetable gardens–for us, about two 10-minute watering sessions–without factoring in rainfall. Or, if you’re using tuna cans, water twice to 1/2-inch.

It takes practice knowing what works well at your particular site/with your particular plants. Every year is different, too. (I’ve been at the same plot for almost ten years, and I’m still figuring it out.)  Though morning or evening watering is best, keep an eye on your plants and go ahead and water right away if your soil is dry and your plants are looking droopy on a hot afternoon. Note that squash and cucumbers will wilt under heat stress.

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How about rainfall? Here’s our new rain gauge, all nice and level and very empty. For now. When we get rain, we’ll have a better idea of how much water we need to supplement in a given time period.

Old Farmer’s Almanac points out that sometimes the best time to water is right after a rainfall–especially short, light ones–to ensure water penetrates deep.

A few more tips:

  • Compost!  The organic matter in compost will help retain water.
  • Mulch! Use a couple of inches of materials such as straw, shredded bark, chopped-up leaves, seaweed, hulls, newspaper, or compost.  Natural materials, in contrast to plastic mulch, for example, add organic matter. (See above.) Keep it away from the base of your plants to discourage rotting.
  • Keep your gardens weeded. Don’t make your plants compete with weeds for nutrients and water.
  • Consider intensive planting (reducing the spacing between plants, as appropriate) to create shaded cover over your soil. In some sections of my garden, I don’t have room for mulch because the plants are tightly spaced.
  • Old Farmer’s Almanac makes a case for cultivating your soil–roughing it up to help the water soak in. Cultivation may well help in the short term, but in the long term, it may damage your soil structure and lead to more problems with water penetration; also, I’m not sure how well you can cultivate if you’ve applied mulch.

Remember, too, that your plants will need less water as summer moves beyond typical peak water needs in July.

Of course, no matter how carefully you pay attention to amounts and measurements, nothing beats poking a finger down into the soil a couple of inches to see how dry it feels. Is it damp enough to stick together? Try holding off.

Whatever methods work best for you, start planning now. Just in case.


Sources/ More Info…

Food Gardening with Less Water (from the University of California’s UCCE Master Gardener Program, folks with experience dealing with severe water shortages)

A More In-Depth Look at Food Gardening with Less Water (from the same group above)

How Much Water Does My Food Garden Need (again, same group; focuses on the math)

Advice on Efficient Outdoor Watering, from UMass Amherst

Old Farmer’s Almanac tips (includes a chart showing approximate water needs of different types of vegetables)

More tips from Old Farmer’s Almanac

What is evapotranspiration?

Weather data (Northeast Regional Climate Center; I spent way too much time playing with weather charts on this site)

National Weather Service

Braintree’s Water Usage Phases

 

 

 

 

 

Queenright

Queenright. “Of a colony of social insects, especially honeybees: possessing a queen.”

I would love to talk about the potential broader uses for the word ‘queenright,’ but since this is a community gardening blog, I’ll stick to the information I’ve been reading about honeybees and beekeeping.

Here’s the new hive that’s been set up at PPCG by a local resident. To my untrained eye, the bees look all right. I’ve enjoyed watching them come and go and now have a better understanding of the word ‘beeline.’ These gals don’t bumble around.

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Most of the bees in any hive are workers, females who do the work of collecting pollen and nectar, among other tasks. They can, for example, lay unfertilized eggs, which become male bees.

Male honeybees, drones, are far less numerous and exist for one main purpose: to mate with a queen.

A queen (one per hive) will lay fertilized eggs that are capable of becoming workers or queen bees, depending on how they are tended by the worker bees. All of the larvae start off being fed a substance called royal jelly for a few days; then, all the bees destined to become workers get switched to regular old pollen and honey, the stuff of of the plebeian masses. Should the hive need a new queen, the selected queen-to-be gets a continued diet of royal jelly.

The key here is that for the first few days, any larva from an egg laid by a queen can be turned into a queen. As long as there are young larvae from fertilized eggs available, a new queen can be made.

Can you guess where this is going?

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Pictured above, the beekeepers are inspecting the hive at PPCG, searching for, among other things, the queen. Apparently she’s gone. Why? Maybe she flew off to mate and got eaten by a bird or met the grill of a car (no joke, here’s a study on insect deaths by vehicles). The consultant beekeeper (above right) mentioned that around 30% of queens who fly off never return.

So a queenless hive is not an uncommon problem, but the hive at PPCG is looking like it’s not going to create a new queen on its own. In addition, it’s producing no new female workers to keep everyone fed and maintain the hive. I’m skimming over details here; hives are fascinating, complex systems. When one part of the system goes wonky, the whole thing can fail.

There is another option if the queen doesn’t return. A new one can be installed, within another short window, which means the beekeeper will have to purchase a mated queen and go through a process of introducing her to the hive. It sounds tricky, but if she gets installed properly, the hive will be queenright again.


For further info…

More details on queenless colonies here.

Lots of great info on honeybees and beekeeping. (University of Arkansas)

Honey bee waggle dance (3-minute Smithsonian video)

Watch a honey bee hatch (short National Geographic time-lapse photography)

Beginning Backyard Beekeeper (It’s not easy getting started. Growing a Greener World episode)

Honeybee decline (link to USA Today)

Another perspective (honeybees, shm-oneybees: a little vinegar from NPR)

The decline of flying insects (opinion piece in the New York Times)

A bee’s POV? This novel by Laline Paull has been been on my TBR pile.