Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Uhhh...What is This Thing?!

I was poking around my raised beds and noticed about three or four of these weird things.  I have no idea what they are.  Maybe some type of fungus?  They are brown, fairly thin walled, and curve back toward the middle of the growth.  They are ribbon-like in appearance and the edges are raised much higher than the center, which is smoother and flatter than the slightly bumpy exterior.  They are currently approximately 5" in diameter. I don't know how long they have been growing.

Unidentified mystery growth near my garlic plants.
It would be great if they were edible, but at this point I have no idea.  They are growing in fairly close proximity to the wood side frames of the beds.  It has also been quite wet (lots of rain the past 3 weeks) with a warm week and then two cool weeks.

Any thoughts and/or suggestions would be much appreciated.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Seedlings and Cuttings

I got my seed starting operation off to a late start this spring.  It's now been a few weeks since I started them in trays over heat mats in my shed.  Here are a few pics:

Tomato seedlings with condensation inside the plastic domes.
Borage.  It's a good companion plant for tomatoes and has edible flowers.
A variety of very young pepper seedlings.
I know, I know, plastic is bad for the environment.  But I prefer using plastic trays and cells rather than peat because peat always dries out and gets crusty.  I just clean the plastic and re-use it each year.

I also started a TON of cuttings thanks to much assistance and information from Sybil and Rob.  I am attempting to root approximately 100 fig cuttings of the following varieties: Celeste, Blue Celeste, Hardy Chicago, Alma, Italian Golden Honey/Lattarula, Osborne Prolific, Magnolia/Brunswick, Strawberry Verte, Violet de Bordeaux, and Panache/Tiger.  I am rooting the cuttings in plastic cups (with drainage holes) filled with perlite and a pinch of potting soil.  Sybil recommended a mix of 50:50 perlite:vermiculite, but I was in a pinch for time and money and opted to use what I already had in my shed. Aside from some moisture management, there isn't much for me to do until they start to root in a bunch of weeks.

Assorted fig cuttings in cups of perlite.  I placed them in trays to make it easier to move them outside for watering.
If you look closely you can see some green growth emerging from the tips of the cuttings.  I'm less concerned with top growth and more concerned with root growth at this stage.
Sybil also presented me with cuttings of loquat (interesting evergreen edible) and che (relative of mulberry).  Although I've never eaten these fruits or attempted to grow them, it's a new opportunity to branch out of my comfort zone and try something new.  So I've got them in cups too.

Loquat cuttings with the leaves trimmed to reduce transpiration.
Che cuttings from a beautiful shrub/tree that looked similar in structure to a Japanese Maple.
I have no idea what I'm going to do with this many cuttings.  Even if I only achieve a 75% success rate with rooting I'm still going to be dealing with about 75 new plants.  Yikes!  Looks like I've got birthday and holiday gifts covered for a while, as well as a few extras for a plant sale.

Good Question

A reader named JPL asked me a very good question the other week:

"How close does your garden come to feeding your family? I can calculate the raised bed space you now have, but what about the rest of the homestead?"

I can state definitively that my current garden does not provide ALL the fruit and veggies my wife and I eat.  Fortunately I am only growing for two people, but that is still a very large task.  Only 1/2 of my .09 acre property is planted with edibles.  The other 1/2 contains the footprint of our home, a 12' x 22' shed, and a front yard which is landscaped with flowering shrubs and bulbs. So I guess I'm really working with .045 acres.

In back I currently have five 4' x 8' raised beds, and I'm expanding them for increased veggie space.  Last spring (when I started the garden) through fall we did not purchase a cucumber, pepper, or tomato.  We had a surplus of them all.  We also had pounds (no exaggeration) of basil for pesto, etc.  Beginning in August I transitioned the garden to fall production by planting carrots, radishes, beets, lettuce, chard, onions, and kale.  The lettuce performed poorly, but everything else thrived.  We ate chard all winter; harvested kale like crazy and still have a full bed of kale; consumed an entire bed of carrots (appx. 200); devoured beets, etc.  Despite the great harvest, we still purchased a few key items on a regular basis: lettuce, onions, potatoes, and some herbs.  Onions and potatoes take up a fairly large amount of space in a garden so it's almost easier for me to purchase them rather than grow them.  All in all I guess we made out pretty well with the veggies, yet we were not completely self-sufficient.

I also have a variety of fruit trees and berries planted in the back yard that offer fruit at different times of year.  Although many are younger plants, they still produced a few fruits last year.  This season I'm hoping for a decent harvest of each variety of fruit because the plants are maturing and growing very well.  Here's what I have, listed in the approximate order of production:

Blackberries - This will be their first year of production so I should have berries from May-June.
Raspberries - Last year they fruited at two intervals, June-July and September-October.
Peach - Last year I harvested 8 peaches of poor quality from my one and only tree in July.  They didn't receive enough irrigation.  This July I'm hoping to double that number and have better quality.  If the tree under-performs, I may replace it with a low maintenance tree like another pomegranate.
Fig trees - I have six different varieties planted in the ground and I can expect a very reliable and fairly large harvest from July - October.
Pomegranate - My tree finally produced its first four fruits last November after 4 years of growth from a tiny cutting.  Again, hoping for a much bigger harvest this fall because the tree is growing very well.
Citrus - My potted citrus trees put out lemons, limes, and calamondin oranges from December - February.

Looking at the above list, I'm optimistic that my wife and I will have different varieties of fruit to harvest from May 2011 - February 2012, leaving a 2-month gap from March-April.  Add the vegetables to this list and it's a fairly substantial amount of production from a relatively small space.

Did we succeed at growing everything we ate?  No, but we proved two things.  One, we were capable of reducing our overall reliance on others for our food.  And two, we were able to do this in a relatively small space.  What's the moral of this story?  I don't know.  But if we had let ourselves be limited by our perceived lack of space for growing sufficient produce, we never would've succeeded at proving ourselves wrong.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Figs, Olives, Grapes, and Other Italian Plants

This may be one of the longest blog posts in internet history, so here goes...

Recently I was lucky enough to take an 8-day trip to Italy.  I visited Rome, Florence, Tuscany, and many other small towns in between. Saw all the major sights, enjoyed unbelievable food, and had a great time.  What surprised me most (aside from the entire experience) was the abundance of fig trees, citrus, olives, grapes, and other beautiful plants scattered all over the country, not just in the vineyards of Tuscany.  Figs were literally growing out of stone and marble walls in Rome.  The following umpteen hundred pictures show the landscape and these plants:

Massive fig tree near the Spanish Steps in Rome.  This tree is about 25-feet tall and begins growing down the hill from where I took this photo.
Well manicured garden in Vatican City with very large potted citrus. Unfortunately you can't access this garden. I snapped this picture from inside the Vatican.
Multi-trunk fig tree growing directly across the street from the Colosseum.  There were a few of these within a couple hundred yards of each other.  
Fig tree (just right of center) in the Roman Forum.
Fig tree in the Roman Forum from a different angle.
Same fig tree in the Forum from a 3rd angle.
Smaller branching fig tree growing from the rocks near the Spanish Steps in Rome.
Orange trees lining the street in central Rome.  I took this pic from my hotel room on the 4th floor.  They grew large and healthy all over the city.  And of course everything within arm's reach was already plucked and devoured.
Vineyard at the 16th century Castello d'Albola in Tuscany.  They produce acclaimed Chianti and Cab Sauv, as well as sublime olive oil.
More neatly pruned and trellised grapes at Castello d'Albola in Tuscany.
Olive trees near Radda in Chianti.  Famers were in the process of pruning the olive trees and burning the cuttings.  You could see and smell small plumes of smoke all over the countryside.
More olive trees.
Even more olive trees.
Approximately 20-foot tall fig trees at Radda in Chianti, Tuscany.
A close-up of the same fig tree in Radda.  I don't know what type of fig it is, but it was easily the most dense and multi-branched fig tree I've ever seen.  Hard to imagine enough light would reach the interior of the tree to ripen figs in the summer.
The fig tree is located right by the road.  You could easily harvest ripe figs from your car in the summer.
I spotted this beautiful blooming tree at a local ceramic maker's shop in Tuscany.  I couldn't figure out what it was until I saw the remnants of the previous year's bounty on the ground beneath the tree.  Almonds!
Almond blossoms. Bees were buzzing about the tree pollinating the flowers.
More almond blossoms clustered together with the ceramic shop in the background.
Grape vines across the street and up the hill from the ceramic shop.  Trellised vines as far as the eye could see, all over the countryside.
I don't know hold old these vines are.  They were not the youngest or oldest vines I saw, but were probably somewhere in the middle.
They prune the vines to maintain growth and productivity.
Close-up of recently pruned grape vine.
The skyline of the small medieval town of San Gimignano in the provence of Siena, Tuscany.  It was a cold and cloudy day.  Note the very large fig tree in the lower left-hand corner of the picture.  
Close-up of the large fig tree in San Gimignano.  Note the old wooden ladder leaning against the trunk of the tree.  I wish I was there in the summer to climb the ladder and sample the fresh figs.
I hope you made it to the end of this post without being bored out of your mind.  Yes, the art, architecture, and culture of Italy are out of this world.  But at the same time, the variety and abundance of plants nestled within this historic setting are no less impressive and equally as beautiful.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Fresh Air and Water

It was a mild and sunny day so I decided to open the roof of my convertible.  Okay, a bit of an exaggeration, but I have been keeping my hoop house / low tunnel plastic tied open for the past few days.  I folded and tied the plastic to the center PVC pipe with twine in order to allow rain to soak the beds.  I decided to keep it open since the weather hasn't dipped below freezing recently.

Raised bed with plastic covering tied in place.  Arugula is growing in the center and lettuce seedlings are also growing in this bed.
The weather forecast for the next 10 days varies between the mid-30s and low-60s.  No sign of really low temps but I will leave the plastic fastened to the pipe.  The weather in Virginia in March and early April is very unpredictable.  I will only remove the setup when we are definitely in the clear of snow and hard frost, which may be a few weeks from now.