The tale of the worm bin celery

parsley flower

This is related to my recent post about our flowering radish. It’s a tale of botanic dumpster diving and another reason why you should let your food plants go to flower when you can.

Last year I threw the crown (which is to say, the bottom) of a celery plant in my worm bin. I probably should have chopped it up for the worms’ sake, but I didn’t. Later, sometime in the fall,  I rediscovered the celery crown. Instead of rotting in the bin, it had sprouted leaves and looked surprisingly vigorous. So I pulled it out and popped it into an empty space in one of our raised beds.

I didn’t have much hope. Celery doesn’t like our climate much, and I consider it one of those plants which is easier to buy than to grow.

To my surprise, the plant did quite well, though it did have a feral quality to it, despite its mild domestic origins. It didn’t grow fat, moist stalks which can be used to scoop up peanut butter. It grew stringy, dark green stalks which tasted powerfully of celery. It made excellent stock, and chopped into fine pieces, it was good in soup, too. Since I don’t eat much raw celery, this suited me fine.

All winter long I used this plant as the basis of my cold-weather cooking–chopped onions, carrots and celery in the bottom of every pot. It was a real treat not to have to buy celery for such a long time, and to have that flavor available whenever I wanted it. I should add that the leaves were just as flavorful as the stalks

As a side note, I’ve heard of a breed of celery made to work precisely this way, called cutting celery, but I’ve never grown it intentionally. The celery in this post looks very much like my homegrown “cutting celery.” Perhaps commercial celery wants to revert to this?

Months later, the hot weather arrived, the celery started to bolt (that is, send up flower stalks). When a plant bolts, it puts all its energy into flowering. At that point, its not much use to us as food. I was sad to lose my bottomless celery supply, but I was excited about the flowers.

Pollinating insects love celery blossoms. Actually, they adore the whole family of plants to which celery belongs, called Apiaceae or Umbelliferae (which I tend to call Umbrella Fae, which is wrong, but right in my head). This family includes carrots, celery, dill, coriander, fennel, Queen Anne’s lace, etc. If you can let any of this family bloom in your garden, do.

The parsley flowers grew almost as tall as me, and they were surrounded by clouds of tiny insects every day –shy, tiny little pollinators that I can’t name.

I love to let things go to flower and seed in the garden, because it is a way of giving back to the rest of nature. Flowers for the insects, seeds for birds. And by giving back, you help balance your garden. We’ve had significantly less issues with destructive insects since we learned to let our garden go a little wild.

Sadly, this celery never got to seed, because it collapsed under its own weight one day. Its thick, hollow stalks folded and the head of the plant fell to the patio.  I had hoped to save a little seed and try to grow a plant the next year from scratch. But now I’m thinking I’m going to throw a whole crown of celery in the worm bin this fall, and hope this happens all over again.

collapsed parsley plant

Watering 101

standing water in a bed

This is watering 101. Those of you who have been gardening for a while have probably learned this the hard way. Those of you just starting out may find it helpful.

Soil lies.

It looks wet, but it’s bone dry a fraction of an inch beneath. Or it looks dry on the surface, but it’s actually quite wet below. Or it’s wet, but only for one inch down.

The only way to find out if you’ve watered your garden enough is to stick your hand into the soil and make sure. You can’t garden without getting your hands dirty.

This is one reason why one of the most common questions, “How much do I water?” is one of the hardest to answer. The answer will vary, depending on your soil, the weather, the method you use to water, how often you water, and what you’re growing. In the end, you just have to use your hands and your common sense to figure it out. There is no formula.

In the picture above, you see the surface of the soil in one of our raised beds. This is imported soil, the kind that comes in bags. It doesn’t hold water in pools like clay soil does, it doesn’t sink in fast as it would in sandy soil. It’s actually pretty tricky to water because it seems like it should sop up water well, but I think all the organic matter in it actually slows absorption.

At any rate, I’d been watering this bed for some time with a sprinkler hose, waving it back and forth until I got bored. The water sunk in at first, then started to pool on the surface, and the pool lasted for a long time. At this point, a beginner might think she’d watered enough, but I’ve been fooled often enough before.

I reached down into the bed and scraped at the soil. A fraction of an inch beneath the wettest area, the soil was still perfectly dry. That’s what I tried to capture in the picture below–see all that dry soil? It was just beneath the surface of the puddle.  I wasn’t done watering.

dry dirt under water

In general, you need to be sure that the soil in the bed is evenly moist.  Not soggy and soppy, not dry, but pleasantly moist and springy. Over-watering can be problem as much as under-watering. If you know your soil tends to hold water, it may pay to dig before you even start watering. You may find you don’t need to water at all.

In a regularly watered bed, the deeper you dig, the more retained moisture you are likely to find, but the first few inches dry out fast. Older, deeper rooted plants don’t mind this so much if the top dries out, because they can reach deep for water, but if you’re dealing with young or shallowly rooted plants, you have to be very careful with the first five inches or so. Don’t trust your eyes. Trust your hands.

Radish Surprise

radish close

A volunteer radish–I think it is a daikon–sprouted up in a little clear pocket of our yard. We let it go, ignored it. It grew bigger, and bigger, and bigger. Usually a radish is harvested early, so we never see how big they can get.

This one got huge, then burst out into hundreds of tiny purple flowers. Hummingbirds, honey bees and all sorts of flying insects visit it all day, every day. It has become one of the queens of the garden.

The picture below is horrible. The radish plant really is quite pretty,  the equal of any ornamental flowering shrub–but as bad is the picture is, it gives you some scale. See the bales of our straw bale garden behind it?  I think it must be pulling water from there, which accounts for its size and longevity. It’s gone a little past its prime now– a couple of weeks ago the blooms were thicker.

By the way, radish blossoms are tasty food for people, too.

radish flower

Straw Bale Garden Tour Part I

In this vide we take you into the backyard for a tour of our straw bale garden.

We started rotting the bales in late April by adding blood meal. In May we added a balanced fertilizer and started planting the bales. In the video you’ll see the veggies we planted in early June.

The soaker hose you see comes from Home Depot. I’m pretty sure it is this stuff.

Every other week I add some fish emulsion to a watering can and hand water the plants to make sure they have enough nutrients.

Leave your questions in the comments.

Straw Bale Garden Part V: Growing Vegetables

basil in straw bale garden

It’s too early to call my straw bale garden a success but, so far, the vegetables I planted in the bales are growing. I got a late start on planting–I put in the tomatoes, squash and basil in mid May/Early June–just in time for the cloudy, cool weather we have here in early summer.

raised bed vs. straw bale tomato

Check out the difference between the tomato I planted in a bale on the left, compared with a tomato in one of my raised beds. The tomato in the bale is doing a lot better.

mushrooms in straw bale

The bales are home to organisms that support healthy vegetables: mushrooms and worms. When I dug into the bales to plant some chard seedlings yesterday I found a lot of worms. I had thought that straw bale gardening was like hydroponics–essentially fertilizer added to a growing medium. But the presence of worms and mushrooms indicates that well rotted straw bales are more like the kind healthy soil that supports a web of soil organisms that, in turn, help vegetables grow.

squash in straw bale garden

Some of the plants, like this winter squash, I planted as seedlings.

cucumber in straw bale garden

Others, like this cucumber, I sowed directly into the bales by making a little hole and putting in the seed with some home made seedling mix.

Again, the vegetables in the bales are doing better than veggies in my two remaining raised beds. The reason, I believe, is that the beds are depleted and the compost I added to them was low quality.

While more resource intensive than growing in the ground or raised bed, straw bale gardening has a lot of advantages for the beginning gardener. Integrating fertilizers into a straw bale is a lot easier than making high quality compost and a lot faster. While not a long term strategy, I’m looking forward to trying straw bale gardening again.

How is your straw bale garden doing?

Picture Sundays: A Keyhole Bed and Straw Bale Garden in Texas

keyhole and straw bale garden

John W. from Kerrville, Texas sent in some pictures of his garden. John says,

This is my first year to use compost tea.  I am growing plants in two Keyhole Gardens, self watering 5 gal plastic buckets and two hay bales (coastal Bermuda hay) that have a wooden framework on top containing bulk landscaping compost from a local nursery. My plants are growing super fast and my tomatoes are loaded.  This looks to be the best garden I have ever had.

Judging from the fencing it looks like you’ve also figured out a way to deal with the deer. Thanks for the pics John and good luck with the garden!

Self-Irrigating Gutter Update

strawberry gutter self watering container

We’ll get back to our thoughts on responses to the Three Headed Hydra of Doom tomorrow, but for today we’re going to take a quick break for a practical post: Self-Irrigating Strawberries!

This spring I built a self-irrigating gutter (SIG) using two gutters based on a video by Larry Hall. You can see my original post about this project here. Essentially, it is a gutter filled with potting mix, sitting on top of another gutter filled with water. Every eight inches there is a 3 inch perforated pot filled with potting mix that hangs down into the water filled gutter. For mulch I used re-purposed billboard vinyl scavenged from a dumpster by my neighbor Ray.

The SIG works, but there have been a few problems. My strawberries, I believe, have a fungal disease called red stele (Phytophthora fragariae) which came either from the soil that came with the starts or from the planting mix I used. If I want to grow strawberries again I’m going to have to thoroughly disinfect the gutters.

rain barrel with timer

The SIG is hooked up to a 55 gallon rain barrel. Unfortunately the lower gutter leaked around 50 gallons of stored rainwater down into the garage below (our house is on a hill and the garage is at street level). To prevent this problem in the future I put a manual irrigation timer on the barrel so that if there is a leak, I won’t lose all the water at once.

If I were to do this project again, I’d also use a refinement that Larry Hall just posted in the video above. This improvement on the design replaces the lower gutter with a 4-inch drain pipe. The drain pipe is easier to keep water-tight. And instead of using a gutter filled with soil I might use a series of pots (an idea that’s also in the video)–gutters are too shallow for most plants.

Despite the problems, I would call the project a success. In fact, I may expand my gutter system out onto the rest of the garage roo.

USDA Soil Maps Online

Screen shot 2013-05-22 at 2.24.20 PM

Attention soil geeks. You can access USDA soil maps online here. Ninety-five percent of US counties are available with the rest promised soon. The web interface was pretty slow with my connection, but I’m looking forward to playing around with this tool. There are also archived soil surveys that you can access much faster here.

Biochar: Miracle or Gimmick?

Biochar-and-Pyrolysis_1

Cornell University illustration showing biochar as a means of sequestering greenhouse gases.

I’m always skeptical of what I call the “notions and potions” school of gardening. Every few years there is some new substance touted as the secret to a lush vegetable garden. One such substance is biochar, a kind of charcoal used as a soil amendment.

The University of Minnesota Extension service is in the midst of a four year study to test the use of biochar in vegetable gardens.

Preliminary results (which you can read here) show benefit for some crops such as kale, but a decrease in growth for others such as asparagus.

The more we learn about biochar, the more we need to learn. From an overall standpoint, there appeared to be some benefit of using biochar in the nutrient-depleted sandy soils at the Andover site for some crops. Yet, there was a decrease in growth in some plants and higher yield in others. In the Arboretum and St. Paul campus sites, we noted similar results, but more crops seemed to decline with biochar than without it.

There’s nothing new about biochar. It was in use by native peoples in the Amazon region before Columbus. Hopefully this study will help clarify what types of soils and what crops benefit most from its use.

Do you have an opinion about Biochar? Leave a comment . . .

And thanks to Michael Tortorello for sending me the link.

White Sage and Bees and our other sage friends

bee in sage

One of my favorite plants in the garden (I’ve posted about it before) is in bloom right now: the white sage, Salvia apianaSalvia apiana means “bee sage” and boy howdy did they get that one right. This sage puts up tall spikes covered with small white flowers that bees can’t resist. Unfortunately, our white sage is situated right by the garden path. So these days, every time I go into the garden I have to squeeze past the leaning spires, praying I won’t be stung, because the plant is thick with bees. Covered. It hums.

Now, these workers are so busy that they don’t have time to be aggressive. For instance, they let me stand around taking blurry pictures of them working, until I got the one above. But stings happen by unfortunate mischance in crowded conditions. I suppose I could cut back the spikes, but whom am I to interrupt this passionate sage & bee love affair?

Besides, it’s really pretty. The spikes are about six feet high, but delicate, like fairy lances.

white sage spires

Here is a pic of the white sage as seen from our back door. I decided to leave in the wheelbarrow and some buckets of who knows what, and The Germinator ™ for scale.  Right now this salvia is the star of the garden.

white sage off our patio

All the sages are blooming now, actually.  The ability to fill the yard with huge, wildly fragrant sages is, to my mind, one of the principle inducements toward living in Southern California. I enjoy the aromatics of our Mediterranean and native chaparral plants as much as the bees do. Here’s what we’ve got going right now–and I think I’m going to add more this fall.

Below is our native black sage, Salvia mellifera, just coming into flower. The bees like this sage, too. (They like all sages). This one arranges its flowers in little sipping cups for them. It has dark green leaves, which is less common than greyish foliage in the native sages. It brings reliable dark green foliage into the garden, and the foliage is powerfully fragrant. If you want to mellow out or soothe sore muscles, you could try throwing a a branch of this in the bath.

black sage blossom

Our other native sage, Cleveland sage, Salvia clevelandi, lives a harsh existence out in the front of our house, occupying a formerly barren strip of sun baked clay above the black roof of our subterranean garage. The heat out there has moved its time clock along at a faster pace than the mellifera in the shady back yard. The blossoms are almost spent on the Cleveland. I’m not sure what else could live in that spot, except for prickly pear, so I’m very happy it’s been so sporting about growing there. And of course, bees like it.

sage garage

We also have an expanding patch of clary sage, Salvia sclarea in our back yard. This sage is native to the Mediterranean. I planted this one on a whim, to fill a temporarily empty spot, but since then it has spread and really established itself as a player in the garden and now I find I’m just going to have to keep it and work around it. Most of the year clary sage is about knee high, with big, thick, fuzzy green leaves. But in the spring it sends up flower spikes to compete with the Salvia apiana. They are really gorgeous.

clary sage flower

The flowers are structured like the white sage flowers, but bigger. This particular shape seems to make bees giddy with happiness.

clary sage leaf

Above are the big fuzzy leaves and a flower that has yet to open. And below is the shape of the flower spikes. The spikes stand chest high, but like to fall over, like this one:

clary sage

Clary sage has medicinal uses, but I’ve not tried it for anything myself. I’ve also heard you can make fritters of the leaves….which is interesting. Of course, I’d eat just about anything if it was made into a fritter.

And last but not least is my culinary sage, tucked in with some thyme and mint, and beleaguered by the nasturtium. It’s not flashy, but its strong and knows what it’s about. It’s also indispensable in the bean pot.

culinary sage

Do you have a favorite sage? Do you have any recommendations for my next round of planting? I’m thinking about adding at least two more to the grounds of our estate.