Thursday, March 26, 2009

Potatoes... and more potatoes!

For many Hampton Roads gardeners, March - St. Patrick's Day, actually - is the folklore target date for planting cabbages, potatoes and onions. Many happy Foodies have been enjoying the new "gourmet" varieties of potatoes available through local growers, farmers markets and CSA subscriptions. On the other hand, it can be difficult for home growers to find any but the most generic seed potatoes at garden centers.

How many kinds of potatoes are available? I checked in at The Potato Garden online to see their variety list. It is amazing. Take a look:

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Women's Land Army

You've seen this poster here on the website - you know I love it! Turns out I'm not alone. A new account of the Women's Land Army, Fruits of Victory, written by Elaine Weiss, is now available. The Women's Land Army of WWI was formed of 20,000 women who took to the fields to keep America (and Britain, separately) supplied with food and farm products.

They wore uniforms, as the poster shows, lived in camps and broke ground for significant women's issues by insisting on working an eight hour day and receiving the same pay as men (in 1917?! Outrageous!). The "Farmerettes" lived in work camp barracks, entertaining themselves with camp songs (the Land Army Song was composed to the Battle Hymn of the Republic) and sharing stories and supplies. To the amazement of skeptics, the women not only maintained but exceeded the former output of the male farmers.

From the publicity for Fruits of Victory:
Imagine a spunkier, and more controversial, Rosie the Riveter--a generation older, and more outlandish for her time. She is the "farmerette" of the Woman's Land Army of America, doing a man's job, in military-style uniform, on the rural home front during WWI.

"During the war she was the toast of Broadway, the darling of the smart set, a star of the wartime cinema newsreel, and highlight of the Liberty Loan parade. Victor Herbert and P.G. Wodehouse wrote songs about her, Rockwell Kent drew sly pictures of her, Charles Dana Gibson created posters for her, Theodore Roosevelt championed her, the New York Times wrote editorials about her, and Flo Ziegfield put her in his follies. And then she disappeared. "

What a great story! I'm hooked!
Fruits of Victory: The Woman's Land Army of America in the Great War

Monday, March 16, 2009

Marching through March

Cherry blossoms, March 20th.

Undeterred by the chilly winds, grey skies and constant drizzle, the fruit trees and vegetable gardens are sprouting into spring. In the farm orchard, the Santa Rosa plum is in full glory - a cloud of white blossoms! - although its companion, tag long gone, shows only a slight bud break. This is the general routine with our plums, showing that we did a poor job of selecting appropriate cultivars for pollination. Not only does the Santa Rosa bloom too early for its pollinator, but it also tends to spring into flower at the first warm spell, leaving the blossoms open in the chilly, wet March weather without a pollinating bee or butterfly in sight.

Meanwhile, the apple orchard's flower buds are still tightly closed but the Asian Pears are starting to show some tip color. I'd like to get a light dose of dormant oil with Neem on each of the trees before the flowers can open but it will not be possible until the rains stop and the trees dry out. It's important not to spray any materials with insecticidal properties (Neem) while the trees are flowering - one does NOT want to be killing the poor pollinating bees, already in crisis from bee colony collapse. The ornamental cherry trees are all coming into flower and the clouds of pink blossoms are delightful.

Beautiful, mahogany-red new leaves are coming out on the thornless blackberries, encouraging me to fertilize them all a bit. No buds out on the raspberries.

In the veggie garden's raised beds, the cabbages are starting to look frisky but they won't make a St. Paddy's day feast this year. After having great success with fall starts left out over winter, the poor plants took a hard, hard hit this year when the temperature in April shot down to 6F. Now they are rallying and the onions and garlic have shot up 4-6" in the last couple of weeks. Sugar pod peas are up and I know they will shoot skyward at the next warm spell.

In the currently unheated greenhouse, fairly well cleaned after the total disaster with the soot from the malfunctioning kerosene, the tubs of lettuce and mesclun seedlings are becoming lovely with assorted green and red leaves. Spinach is coming up, although my attempt to use up the last of the saved seed from a couple of years ago gave me only about 30% on the planting. That's okay, it will become enough for us.

The tarragon has delicious new growth, the rosemary is in full, beautiful blue flower and the oregano is regaining its flavor. Interestingly, our oregano does well over the winter, staying green although growth stops, but the flavor is very insipid. The true, strong "italian" flavor doesn't return until the temperature comes back up. The catnip is up, up and enticing the neighbor's cats.

This week we will close in the end of the hoop house and start, belatedly, our tomatoes and other veggie seeds that require a heated environment.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Garden Updates from the Farm

When we started the Useful Gardens website, I promised that I would share the progress of our gardens here at the farm in Blackwater, just to give everyone some basis for comparison (good and bad) and a jump-off point for your own garden planning.

Well, here is this spring's first crisis. The kerosene heater we used to the hoop house warm to protect the lettuce and greens malfunctioned during the night. When we came out the next morning to turn it off, the greenhouse interior looked like the inside of a chimney - solid black, greasy soot. Over everything. Luckily the young plants had been covered by sheets for extra protection and were not coated. As soon as the weather warmed, the plants went outside and I tackled the first stage of the cleanup, removing the inside layer of poly sheeting so badly coated with soot. I stopped midway and took this photo, figuring that you might enjoy (ha!) seeing the mess I had to contend with. The clear plastic visible is the outer layer of a (formerly) bi-layer insulation. The black streaks are on the inner layer, now being removed. The mess is everything I tossed onto tables and out of the way.

Now, surely this is going to make someone feel better about whatever discouraged them in the garden this month.

Monday, March 2, 2009

March - The Cruelest Month

"Up from the sea, the wild north wind is blowing
Under the sky's gray arch;
Smiling I watch the shaken elm boughs, knowing
It is the wind of March. "

-- William Wordsworth, Written in March

It would be hard to describe our own weather for this first week of March any better than Wordsworth, who must have written those words during a very similar storm. We are under true gale conditions, a frozen, snowy Nor'easter in full progress. Although my own very southside location here in Blackwater/Pungo did not get the snowfall, we are "dusted" with frozen rain, getting colder - even in the daytime - and I am watching the heavy rain puddles freeze as I type. Forecasters are calling for "record cold" tonight, but I'm skeptical - we've already been at 6 degrees out here and it doesn't look clear enough to drop lower than that tonight. If it does, then the snow should be welcome to those of you who have it - it will insulate your plants against the cold. Snow doesn't hurt daffodils and spring plants at all, except as a heavy weight squashing them down, and snow cover insulates plant roots against temperature variability. I would have loved a nice snowfall over my poor cabbages.

Variable is going to be the key for weather ahead - forecasts are calling for high 60's come next weekend, meaning we are well into the March weather rollercoaster that does more damage to plants than a solidly frigid winter ever does. Inspect the trunks and main stems of young apples, pears and other fruit trees to make sure the warm sun hasn't expanded the cold and frozen bark, still thin on young trees, until it splits - usually on the south side. Painting trunks with white latex paint helps, so do those ventilated tree wraps*. If you see bark splits forming, treat them by coating with dormant oil spray (horticultural oil) - even by rubbing in some vaseline. Keep an eye on the bark throughout the season - those split lines can become entry points for bark beetles and other pests.

This is another good point for a nice, thick garden mulch - it prevents freezing-and-thawing from heaving plant roots out of the ground and modifies the soil temperature.
* [I don't like leaving tree wraps on throughout the growing year. Too many beetles and other damaging pests can "hide out" under the wraps, damaging the stem unseen. In addition, certain wraps prevent air flow, encouraging dampness, mildew or rot and restrict plant growth.]

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Heads Up! Spring Veggies and Fruits are In!

I notice that the early spring vegetable plants are in at the garden centers - cabbage, greens, broccoli, onion sets. Fruit trees and fruit plants are also available, both potted and bare-root. This week will have been great for those tiny veggie plants in their six- or nine-packs -- get them before the weather warms up next week because the garden centers do NOT keep them watered. They dry out instantly and just a few days of stress will set the plants back for the whole season. Ditto bare-root stock.

Word to the wise - before you buy fruit plants, check to make sure that the varieties being offered actually do well in this area. Most of the Big Box garden departments have a regional buyer but that "region" may be all of the state or even all of the southeast. Consequently, you will generally find the main two or three "known" varieties - not those that actually flourish here. I'd like to say that the locally-owned garden centers are better about tailoring their stock to the area but I've seen that it's often not true. If you are not sure about a variety you see for sale, check over at the Useful Gardens Gardeners' Group at for suggestions.

McDonald's Garden Center on Independence Blvd in VA Beach generally has a nice selection of fruit plants, including figs and asian persimmons - always worth a look. As with all the garden centers, if you make it clear that there are interested customers, they will increase the % of edible plants they provide so don't be shy about asking!
Enjoy the snow and wait for the warmup,