Tuesday, June 14, 2011

"Teenage" Quail

The coturnix quail are 2 1/2 weeks now. Since they can be laying eggs as soon as 5 weeks I guess this makes them teenagers. Their baby fuzz is almost gone and so far they all look like girls! One may surprise me, but i guess it is time to start thinking up girl's names.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Bale Fail

One of my experiments for this year was growing vegetables in straw bales. It is a pretty simple concept. Instead of planting in the dirt, you add a layer of dirt to the top of an aged straw bale and plant in that. This allows you to grow in areas with bad soil, lots of rocks, or other challenging garden situations.

Since I had a rather "challenged" area near the north fence in the front yard, I thought straw bales would allow me to grow some veggies rather than waiting a year as I beat that spot in to shape. I planted some peas after giving the straw bales time to age, adding good soil and keeping the bales moist.

While a few of the peas sprouted, it wasn't long before I knew something was not right. They grew about 2" and then stopped. Some started to turn yellow. Thinking the frequent watering had depleted the nutrients in the shallow soil layer, I gave it shot of compost tea. It seemed to help a little bit, but only a few pea plants started to grow again. The rest just sat there looking all pathetic.

While I was prepared for extra feedings, the extra time to age the bales, and the possibility of frequent waterings due to the porous nature of the bales, I had not counted on the wind. The constant, hot, annoying, ridiculously strong winds we have been hit with since early in the year. I have lived in this area for over 25 years and I have never seen a year like this. Chicago, often called the windy city, has nothing on Colorado. The whole state is a giant wind tunnel right now.

Even when watering two and 3 times a day did nothing to keep the straw bales moist enough to get many of the plants to sprout or to get them to a productive size even if they somehow did. There was no reason to keep pouring good water and fertilizer after bad. I went ahead and cut open 3 of the bales. They were as dry as dust on the inside when they should have been damp and started to break down and look more like rich soil. Even a bale I had wrapped in plastic as a last ditch attempt to get it to stay somewhat wet for more than 5 seconds was dried out. Straw bale gardening in a hot, dry climate was a total fail.

I did have an area where instead of plants growing on soil on straw, I had soil in an indented area surrounded by loose straw. The straw acted as a wind break and allowed plants to sprout in that dimple that didn't emerge on top of the bales. If you live in a windy area, think of your straw more as a wind block and not as a soil substitute, and you should avoid the bale fail I experienced. Over the next few days I will finish cutting open the hay bales and use the straw to mulch in other areas so it wont be a total waste.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Colorado Sweet Potatoes

Colorado is not the first state that comes to mind when you think of sweet potato production. Since sweet potatoes need such a long, warm growing season, California is where most of the nations sweet potatoes come from. Of course, this fact didn't stop me from trying to grow them at high altitude last year.

While Colorado has plenty of warm, sunny days, what is doesn't have are nice warm nights. This effectively makes us a short growing season state. (think Minnesota with fewer mosquitos, less water and better scenery). But I had been experimenting with extending growing seasons with hoop houses, mulching, thermal mass, etc... and thought sweet potatoes would be a good test of my nature-cheating skills.

To start my test, I bought an organic garnet sweet potato from Vitamin Cottage in February and set it up to produce slips. By April I had plenty of healthy, good sized starts. Since I needed to buy the plants more time to make it through our short growing season, I set up some growing containers, painted them black to absorb more heat, and made little green house type tents to go over the top. I also added some 1 liter bottles filled with water and placed them around the starts. This set-up protected the plants through the weirdness that is Colorado in the Spring and I was rewarded with  pretty good harvest all things considered.

Not bad for a first try! While I considered my experiment to be a success, I was not looking forward to coddling sweet potatoes again this year. With a full-time job, ducklings hatching and baby quail coming in, potato pampering didn't even make the TO DO list. I had also done some research over the winter and discovered there are actually several varieties of sweet potato specifically tailored to growing in colder climates.

I spent several months trying to find sources for these potatoes and had quite a hard time. While your typical seed store has the long season varieties, the short season potatoes are not as well known or as widely distributed. Sandhill Preservation Center carries some, but you have to order assortments. Plus their order form is confusing and I really wanted Korean Purple sweet potatoes, something they didn't offer. Fortunately I stumbled upon Abundant Acres. They had a great selection of early season sweet potatoes and I decided to give them a try. 

By the time I discovered their website, they had already sold out of the Korean Purples so I settled for an order of Violetta and an order of Carogold sweet potatoes. I wasn't sure exactly what I was going get as far as quality, but I figured I would be brave and take a chance. Even though I paid in March, they do not ship until you are past the last frost date for your region. I finally got my order last week.

The Violetta plants were strong, thick and robust. Unfortunately the Carogolds looked like they had been stepped on by elephants. The leaves were nothing but mush. The box didn't look damaged, so I am not sure if there was a packing accident or if the weird hot weather got to them. I sent off an email to Pam at Abundant Acres with photos showing the damage and they replied immediately and sent replacements. Only a few days later the new plants arrived and they were in much better shape. 

Overall the Carogold plants are more delicate than the thicker, more robust violettas, but both sweet potato varieties are in the dirt and now doing well. I am pretty excited about growing a sweet potato more suited to my climate and should get an even better harvest than I did from my garnet sweet potatoes last year. The customer service at Abundant Acres was wonderful despite the initial plant issue and I will definitely be ordering from them again. So remember folks, growing sweet potatoes isn't just for Southerners and Surfers and we can grow them up here too.