Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Winter Gardening

When you think of gardening, you might think of Spring planting, Summer weeding, and Fall harvesting. The word WINTER usually doesn't come to mind, but with Colorado's unusual weather patterns, you really have to learn to think creatively.

Cool season crops like radishes, bok choy and other greens are typically planted in very early Spring and harvested before it gets hot, the plants bolt and then go to seed. In Colorado, early Spring is when we are getting our worst snow storms, arctic air blasts and blizzard conditions. Once that passes we jump right in to 80º-90º temperatures with out batting an eye. Those tender cool air loving plants don't stand a chance.

Planting in Winter makes more sense with our wacky Spring weather, but you can't just throw seeds in your regular garden bed and expect things grow in the cold. Low light, high winds and cold night time temperatures mean your plants wont sprout. If by some chance some do, they will die quickly. By planting in November or December, most likely the local birds will dig up and eat your seeds and not even bother to say "thank you!". With a little planning and recycling you can fool Mother Nature and actually enjoy some fresh homegrown vegetables while everyone else has to go to the supermarket and pick through flavorless, expensive imported produce.

This doesn't look like much, but this simple piece of plastic covering a garden bed and held up by 2 bent PVC pipes holds a little secret...

These little Chinese cabbage plants were sown in October right before our first frost.

On the other side of the grow tunnel there is more Chinese cabbage, a few spinach plants leftover from Summer, and a cilantro plant that snuck in. No doubt it was a seed from a plant that bolted during the hot Fall weather.

The key to this growing tunnel is not just the plastic sheet cover, but those recycled 2 liter bottles you see bordering the growing bed. These bottles filled with water provide important thermal mass. Thermal mass absorbs heat during the day and then slowly releases the heat in to the tunnel at night. Without the thermal mass, you might be able to extend the growing season a bit during Spring and Fall, but your odds of keeping plants alive when it gets below 20º at night are not good. The combination of the 2 liter bottles and the plastic cover create a nice little microclimate that allows some plants to grow completely out of season.

The growth rate of Winter vegetables is going to be much slower than if you planted them in warmer weather. But by already being sprouted and growing they are poised to take off once the days start to lengthen.

Any plants that like cooler weather can be used in a tunnel garden, but Chinese greens are especially suited to this type of growing method. Thinking of trying your own Winter gardening experiment? Here are some good resources to get you started...

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Predator Identified

At 5am I finally learned what is out there looking for a free duck dinner. I was an OWL!

Something moved through the back yard and tripped the motion sensor flood lights. Those lights coming on woke me up. Then I heard it calling. By the sound of the call, I have a GREAT HORNED OWL living in my corner of the burbs.

So this is one predator I can't dispatch. Like the hawk we had issues with a few years back, owls are protected. We can only use defense, no offense. Time to swap the netting for hardware cloth.

Apparently death comes from the skies around here.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Even suberbia has predators

Living in the 'burbs, you wouldn't think random hungry critters eating your animals would be a big issue, but it is. While I don't have to deal with coyotes like they do out east, the Security/Widefield area has plenty of foxes, raccoons and skunks. 2 years ago I also learned that large hawks don't mind navigating a maze of trees, power lines, fences and clothes lines if it means a free duck dinner.

The hawk attack two years ago resulted in losing two hens, one I hatched in an incubator and raised myself and the other I had since she was three days old. Our latest attack by a predator two nights ago left me with one dead drake, a hen with an injured wing and another hen with a punctured throat.

The girls will most likely recover but we will miss our little man Cartman. We adopted him this June because he was from a different hatchery as our previous drake and would provide diversity in our breeding stock. I was delighted that he was a "perfect gentleman" as far as ducks go. He always let the girls eat first...even when favorite treats were provided. He was not rough or obnoxious during mating and he was very alert and protective of the entire flock. He even got along with our younger drake and set a good example for TJ as he went through his terrible teenager phase. Hopefully TJ learned his lessons well as he is now the flock leader by default.

Security in the pen has been beefed up and instead of letting them wander lose in the covered run all night the ducks are now getting locked in to the secure night pen. They weren't to happy about the confinement, but it is better than ending up as a midnight snack.

Hubby and I looked for clues as to what kind of varmint we are dealing with. So far we are thinking fox, but we are not sure. A few claw scratches in the fencing and a piece of white fluff stuck to the wood were all we found. Along with the secure night pen, we also set out a small have-a-heart trap we already had on hand. This should take care of anything small like a skunk, ferret or young coon.

Maybe I will have to ask Santa for a game cam set up...

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Planning for Spring

There was a lot of good learning through our gardening and farming adventures this year. I figured it was a good idea to put them in writing so I wouldn't forget all those important lessons after one too many glasses of champagne New Year's Eve.

  • Buy row covers. Row covers will keep the white flies from turning the kale, brussel sprout and cabbage to goo. This will be disappointing to the ducks who think bug infested vegetables are a delicacy, but they will just have to get over it.
  • Don't worry about overfilling the raised beds. As the season goes on the dirt and compost cooks down and you will end up adding more dirt and/or compost anyway.
  • Tomato cages are useless if you properly feed the 'mater vines. Our tomatoes were so vigorous they outgrew the cages and ended up as a tangled mass which made harvest a total pain. Arched cattle panels would be a much better way to tame the vines and make harvesting easy.
  • Be prepared for late season diseases. Powdery mildew and wilt will eventually find your squash plants, so be prepared to treat with a homemade milk spray.
  • Tree roots are your garden's enemy. No matter how well established the tree and how deep the tap root, it will take the easy path to water. Trees will send out surface roots in a thick stringy mess that will suck all the water out of your veggies. Raised beds with a root barrier, whiskey barrels or even hay bale planting can combat that. I am going to try a few hay bales and beg for a few whiskey barrels for Mother's Day.
  • Squirrels are evil. And smart. They figured out the Have-A-Heart trap and I can no longer catch and relocate. Also a Daisy BB rifle will NOT kill a squirrel (particularly the fat, fluffy ones around here) unless you manage to catch one asleep and beat it to death with the rifle butt. Since they sleep 40' up in the air in the neighbor's trees, that isn't going to happen. If we ever expect to get pumpkins, we are going to have to use hardware cloth and build cages to keep the squirrels out.
  • Don't be afraid to experiment! I had great success with my sweet potato test. I found a plastic Little Tykes toy box for $5 at a garage sale, painted it black and filled it with dirt. I was able to grow sweet potatoes that are actually more suited for a much warmer climate. I also used a wooden box and filled it with feed bags filled with dirt for more sweet potatoes. Next year I will actually buy a variety designed for colder regions to hopefully get an even better yield.
  • Diatomaceous earth is not effective on all bugs, but it does work well on flea beetles. Sprinkle on the ground before planting things likes radishes to disrupt its reproductive cycle and save your plants. Reapply periodically to keep them at bay. DE is worthless for white flies. Just use row covers for those white fly favorites like kale and cabbage.
Gardening can be a pain, and it can also be very rewarding. The last year was a mixture of both, but it was a great experience and I really look forward to next year!

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

2010 Farm Wrap Up

It is hard to believe another year is almost gone. Work has been hectic so the farm and blogging got a little neglected. We also suffered an aphid and white fly attack which wiped out our kale and jersey cabbage crop. For some reason the red cabbage was fine so we still had some to harvest.

The tomato patch was a big success and we had plenty for eating fresh, drying and canning as spaghetti sauce. The varieties we grew were black plum, roma, heirloom rainbow, Cherokee purple, and pink climbing tomatoes. The best producer was the black plum. They are also an excellent size for drying. The heirloom rainbow variety was terrible. It vined all over the place and there were only a few, pathetic orange tomatoes that dried out before they could even get decently ripe. The romas did well but this turned out the be the favorite variety for the pill bugs. The ducks got quite a few pill bug infested romas for snacks. They appreciated the extra protein. The Cherokee purple were ok. Pretty good flavor but slow to ripen and they had a tendency to split despite a pretty consistent moisture level. The best flavor for eating fresh came from the pink climbers. While the yield was not high, the taste was awesome. We are more than willing to give these a place in the garden again.

We did ok on the summer squash. There was a fairly steady supply of Italian, yellow, and black zucchini. The plants did get powdery mildew late in the summer, but the plants were pretty much done by that point. As for the winter squash, the squirrels got most of those. We did end up with a rather tasty orange acorn squash. More squirrel protection will be needed next year if we ever expect to get pumpkins, butternut or spaghetti squash like we planned.

The melons were good (see previous post for Collective Farm Woman review) but we didn't get nearly enough. The Charentais melon we harvested was delicious. Imagine a cantaloupe with a spicy aftertaste and a heavenly melon scent. That is as close as I can get to describing this delicious melon. We have more seeds and will definitely giving both the Collective Farm Woman and the Charentais better spots and more space in the garden. These were also subject to squirrel attack so hardware cloth covers are in the works.

We had cucumbers, beans, and alpine strawberries pretty steadily throughout the growing season and even managed a couple clusters of corn. The corn was part of an experimental 3 Sisters garden which uses corn, beans, and pumpkins on the same hill to assist each other and promote weed suppression. Our tiny plot did do rather well so we will expand the 3 sisters concept next year. The corn variety we planted was Golden Bantam Sweet Corn. We save and dried all the kernels so we will have more to plant in spring.

We had a really good pear harvest as well as quite a few apples. Apparently we were faster than the squirrels this year so actually had enough to eat fresh, dry and canned. One grape vine produced very well while the other took the summer off. It had been trimmed back the previous year. There were not many grape producing shoots left. The growth of the vine this year was phenomenal and all those new vines will give us grapes next year.

On the critter front, we had a coturnix quail hatch out 3 chicks, one of which made it to adulthood. Since coturnix quail usually don't set a nest and this was her first time, it is still quite impressive. The survivor, which almost died when he escaped the hutch and couldn't get back to mom, is named Zombie. Zombie is a boy so we will be finding him some girlfriends ASAP. Hopefully his mom will try and hatch out another batch next season.

Our duck total for now is 7. We kept 3 ducklings from the Spring hatch, 2 hens (Prairie Dawn and Abby Cadabby) and a drake (TJ). We also gave the drake that fathered those 3 ducklings away and adopted a new drake (Cartman). A friend is going to do a test hatch for us to make sure he is doing his job.

Even though it is now December and we have had plenty of hard freezes and even a little snow, the gardening isn't done. We are building cold frames and hope to grow some winter greens. Stay tuned for updates!