The Potato Box

Bountiful potato crops always eluded me in previous gardens, but I decided to try again this year in a raised bed. I ordered Carola variety seed potatoes from the Seed Savers Exchange and planted them in April. The vines grew fast. Potato vines are supposed to be buried as they grow, so that only a few inches stick out of the soil at a time. They are expected to produce potatoes on all the buried parts. So about two weeks ago, the plants got tall enough to start the burying process (called “hilling”). I was unprepared, surprised they grew so quickly. I was finally able to source materials, so today I built two 8″ high cedar extensions to contain the extra soil, installed them, and filled them with garden soil and compost. Already, they are so tall that I had to bury 16 inches of the plants! Hopefully I am not too late. I can almost taste these potatoes.

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The Winner Among The Weeds

When I first moved here five years ago, I was so excited to have a vegetable garden again. I had been pining for it for years, and even though I really didn’t have time for it, I tilled up a large plot of land the very first spring and planted one. I kinda-sorta kept up with it that first year, even though maintaining ten acres of land was proving to be much harder than I first expected, and my time was limited. But over the next few years, other commitments usurped what little free time I once had, and that garden – which I now call “the old garden” – grew wild. The situation has been really hard to clean up, and I don’t recommend doing this yourself. Without help from my chickens, it might take years to reclaim this as a productive vegetable garden. But despite the mess, three of my original perennials survive to this day. Only one, however, is thriving : sunchokes.

Sunchokes (aka sunroots or Jerusalem artichokes) are a delicious and healthy root vegetable that is native to most of the United States and part of Canada. They are a close relative of the sunflower, which is also native here. They are very hard to get rid of once you have planted them, and they spread. But since they’re a particularly delicious and satisfying food crop, and because they’re native here, I’m ok with that. Even without my help, this plant has out-competed most of the weeds and gradually expanded its territory each year. Although I’ve been working to reclaim the rest of the old garden this year, I’m going to leave the part where sunchokes grow alone until fall. It will be worth the wait to enjoy their delicious harvest.

P.S. The other two surviving perennials are garlic and lemon balm. Both were considerably less bountiful than the sunchokes, so I dug those up and relocated them.

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Life in the Flood Plain

“When the last tree is cut, the last fish is caught, and the last river is polluted; when to breathe the air is sickening, you will realize, too late, that wealth is not in bank accounts and that you can’t eat money.” -Alanis Obomsawin

This is my home, and I love it. Mosquitoes are everywhere, flood waters often interrupt my schedule, and none of the popular crops grow well here. But it’s wonderful. Some of the most exciting, nutritious, delicious food crops are native to this kind of habitat. And if I plant the right things, the flood waters will actually help my crops grow better by providing free fertilizers and no-work irrigation. Some fascinating animals live here too! On many a summer night, I am serenaded to sleep by a world class symphony of frog singers. I’ve met snakes and lizards and herons and eagles and fish and butterflies. It’s a challenging, but very rewarding habitat.

Bucket of litter collected from a wetland

The wetland at Strawberry Moon Farm is awash in the river about four times per year. After each and every flood, the byproducts of modern convenience are left behind in that field. Gallons and gallons of trash float in on the wild currents. If I don’t clean it up, it will float downstream to one of my neighbors during the next storm. It will become someone else’s problem, but no less of one. Large items crash in and crush our small trees: a picnic table, a fire extinguisher, hunting gear, and mounds of agricultural waste. Small items float through and cause harm to our wild friends: plastic wrappers, straws, and bottle caps.

A picnic table in an open field
Plastic Straw Littered In A Wetland

An image of one specific plastic straw became infamous last year. That particular straw was lodged inside the nostril of a sea turtle. Encouragingly, humanity is rallying together to help reduce ocean pollution and protect sea creatures like that turtle.

The straw pictured above was found here, in our wetland, in Midwestern USA. Indiana is not near an ocean, but it is home to more than fifteen species of turtles. Our rivers, streams, and lakes host a myriad of fish, reptiles, and amphibians. Majestic Bald Eagles and stately Blue Herons dive into these fresh waters every day, in attempt to feed themselves and their offspring. The plastic epidemic is not confined to the oceans. Litter is not someone else’s problem.

Styrofoam and a Medicine Bottle Littered In A Wetland

Feeling outraged or depressed or disillusioned will not change our situation, so let’s not waste our energy. There are simple, specific things we can all do to spark positive change in the world. Start with your own community. Take care of your own trash. Pick up litter where you see it (if you can do so safely). Ask your friends to do the same. Pack out your trash when you go camping or hiking rather than leaving it in the woods. If you can avoid consuming single use plastics, do so. If you can’t, try to dispose of those plastics in a responsible way. Recycle what you can recycle and build ecobricks. Secure the lids on your trash cans so your discarded items don’t blow away. And plant trees. Did you know trees are one of the Earth’s natural filters? Not only do they help clean the water and protect the soil, but they also help us catch our mistakes as they float or fly by. They give us a chance to clean those things up before they float farther downstream.

Escaped Plastic Flower Arrangement
I can almost always find a synthetic flower arrangement or two in this drainage ditch near my home, across the street from a cemetery. Well-meaning people often adorn the graves of their loved ones with arrangements like this one, but the wind blows them away into natural areas where they may end up causing significant harm. Please consider honoring your loved ones with biodegradable arrangements instead.

We Earthlings are dealing with a lot right now, and much of it is beyond our control. Taking responsibility for my own consumption and waste is something I can control. Taking responsibility for yours is within your control. It’s a positive step we can take to make the world a better place. Things that once mattered, still matter. And maybe they matter even more now. Let’s care for each other in this way.

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Farming the Woodland

When we look at garden catalogues, almost every plant description mentions “Full Sun”.  Almost every common food plant seems to require it, but there are many exciting, delicious, and beneficial crops that prefer shade.  That’s important information, because the mature trees and woodlands that are most often responsible for creating that shade are tremendously valuable.  If we view our trees as a hindrance to our gardening and farming efforts, then we become more likely to remove them, or to avoid planting them in the first place.  When we truly understand the ecosystems trees create, we can enter into a mutually beneficial partnership with them.  Furthermore, many of these shade-loving food crops are native to Midwestern USA.  When we grow native food plants, we nurture not only ourselves but also the beautiful community of wildlife, birds, butterflies, and other insects that depend on those plants.

A Smattering of Deep Shade Crops:

  • Ramps (native)
  • Ostrich Ferns aka Fiddleheads (native)
  • American Ginseng (native high-value medicinal crop)
  • Edible & Medicinal Mushrooms (native and non-native varieties)
  • Nuts or fruits from the large trees creating the deep shade (native and non-native)
  • Maple Syrup (the best syrup trees (sugar maple & red maple) are both native!)

A Sampler of Woodland Edge Crops (part shade):

  • Blackberries (native)
  • Black Raspberries (native)
  • Red Raspberries (not native)
  • Violets (Native violet leaves & flowers are great in salads. Non-native sweet violet flowers are used in perfumes, candies, and flavor syrups.)
  • Red Mulberries (Morus Rubra – native. Not to be confused with the more commonly found invasive white mulberry Morus Alba.)
  • Grapes (several species are native)
  • American Elder (Flowers and berries are used for food and medicine. Native.)
  • Spicebush (Bay Laurel relative. Leaves are used for tea, and berries are used like allspice. Native!)
  • Sassafras (Bay Laurel relative. Leaves are an important ingredient in gumbo (file).)
  • Honeyberry (non-native but non-invasive fruit crop)
  • Wild Strawberry (Fragaria virginiana, native)
  • Stinging Nettles (The stinging mechanism deactivates when cooked properly, and then they are a delicious and highly nutritious vegetable. Some nettles are not native, but Urtica dioica subsp. gracilis is native!)

Woodland cultivation poses different advantages and different challenges than full sun gardening. Some special considerations include:

  • Cleaning up downed trees and limbs after storms
  • Maintaining access paths to the planting areas
  • Removing invasive species
  • Removing poison ivy
  • Reducing Mosquitoes

It’s a fascinating topic and we’re just getting started. I look forward to learning more and more about woodland gardening as I gain experience, and sharing that new knowledge with you here. I hope you’ll try a shade crop or two if you have a woodsy spot on your property! And more importantly, I hope you’ll look at trees as garden friends rather than foes.

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Blackberry Winters and Thermal Masses : 5 Tips To Protect Your Summer Garden From Spring Frosts

Blackberry Buds

As the warming sunny days of April enchant us into delusions of summer, many gardens are planted before May. In some lucky years, we get away with it. But nearly as often, a late frost comes to claim our tender plants. Midwestern folk tales call this the Blackberry Winter, because it usually comes around the time blackberries flower. That time is now. And that frost is tonight. The forecast predicts a frigid 26 degrees by tomorrow morning. In this article, I will share five tips you can use to help protect your tender plants from frosts- whether the frost be blackberry, or other.

I like to wait until after Mother’s Day weekend to plant my tomatoes and peppers (unless I plan to protect them), because these plants are very tender and blackberry winters have bitten me before. But my potatoes are already growing in the ground, and although they can withstand light frosts, the young vines can be damaged by temperatures below 29 degrees. I also planted a few cucumbers last week against my better judgement, and they’ll need serious protection tonight. In my cool season garden I have onions, kale, collards, kohlrabi, and cabbage. Those plants should be mostly fine, but 26 degrees is right on the borderline of cabbage’s cold hardiness, so I’ll add a light covering to that bed just to be safe. A quick google search should inform you of the frost tolerances of any other plants you might have in your garden.

Tip #1: Water Well. This strategy is important for all types of plants. Wet soil can retain heat better than dry soil, so by ensuring your soil is well watered before a frost, you can add a layer of protection. I suggest watering before adding any sort of frost covering unless your soil is already moist.

Tip #2: If only light protection is needed, use a fabric covering. You can use an old sheet, or you can purchase floating row cover fabric. Floating row cover fabric is sold specifically for farm and garden purposes, and is usually rated to a specific temperature. Fabric coverings can be draped directly over the plants and anchored to the soil with rocks, bricks, or earth staples.

Tip #3: For more frost protection, I use 6 mil clear plastic sheeting, such as might be found at a hardware store in the vapor barrier section. But if you use a plastic covering, it’s important that the plastic is raised above plants instead of resting directly on them. Use hoops, buckets, or anything else you can find to elevate the plastic above the level of your tallest plant. Plastic is also easily carried off by a strong wind, so make sure it’s weighted down very thoroughly.

A low tunnel I built in one of my previous gardens from PVC pipe, 6 mil clear plastic sheeting, and 2×4 bottom weights. I should mention that the 2×4 weights weren’t strong enough to keep the plastic in place during wind storms, and I ended up adding rocks to anchor it more solidly.

Tip #5: Add thermal mass. A great thermal mass material will absorb heat from the sun during the day, and then release that stored heat during cool periods. In a garden situation, water is by far the best and most available thermal mass material. I save empty gallon jugs to fill with water and place throughout my garden for this purpose, but I’ve also used 5 gallon buckets with great results. There’s a product called “Wall O Water” that creates 360 degree water-based thermal mass around a single plant, and the manufacturer claims it will protect a plant down to 16 degrees! I don’t think I’ve ever tried it in weather quite that cold, but I have used these for years and I can say that they’ve handled whatever the weather has thrown at them and they have the benefit of being much more convenient and user-friendly than any of the other protection options. They work from exactly the same principles as the gallon jugs of water though, so don’t feel like you have to go out and buy fancy items just to have a successful garden. For more information about thermal mass, this article is very educational! Note that the water must be placed out during the day to give it a chance to store warmth. In a pinch, if you don’t have time to set them out in advance, you can fill the jugs with very warm water from your tap.

Gallon jugs of water are added under the plastic covering for extra thermal mass
Gallon jugs of water are placed around potato plants before adding the plastic covering. These potato plants are too numerous and too closely spaced to benefit from “Wall O Water”, so they will be protected by gallon jugs of water + 6 mil plastic sheeting. The gallon jugs also have the benefit of lifting the plastic away from the tender plants.
Plastic covering is placed over four gallons of water and potato plants.
These “Wall O Water” plant protectors are made up of many narrow tubes. Each tube is filled with water, and then the protector is placed around a single plant. The thermal mass of the water protects the plant inside very effectively, even in very low temperatures. This is one of the very few “garden gimmick” products that I actually use and recommend (perhaps the only one). If they’re not in your budget, or they’re not the right fit for your plants, then the gallon jugs of water under plastic covering work similarly well.
I’ve added 6 mil plastic sheeting over the trellis in this bed that contains the Wall-O-Waters. The plastic will seal in the heat of the Wall-O-Waters for the benefit of the other plants in that bed that would be otherwise unprotected. This extra layer of protection shouldn’t be necessary for the cucumber plants directly protected by the Wall-O-Water.

Tip #5: For even more protection, add an extra layer. Have you ever noticed that if you go out into the depths of winter wearing a t-shirt and leggings under a big bulky coat, you actually feel colder than if you had a tight layer of wool thermals under jeans and a lighter coat? Two layers of plastic with an air gap between them will far surpass the protection of a single layer. The air gap can be created with a layer of bubble wrap, or by adding a physical separation like an outer hoop structure. If you also add thermal mass inside, your plants will ultra-protected. That level of protection isn’t needed tonight for our 26 degree cold snap, but it’s a useful strategy that can help you grow plants all winter long.

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