Monday, January 30, 2012

Area 52: Growswell

WARNING: No flavors were harmed during the growing of these life forms.

Date: January 30, 2012
Time: 5:27pm EST
Location: A tiny vegetable garden in southeastern Virginia

Description: A humble backyard gardener, eager to add some flavor and nutrition to his evening salad, harvests a carrot. The carrot pulls easily from the fluffy composted garden soil. He shakes off some loose soil, trims the top, and then rinses the carrot. A textbook appearance. Eager to eat a second carrot out of hand while preparing his salad, he reaches back into the garden. He tugs on a green stalk, but the root does not budge. He pulls harder, and the carrot only seems to resist even more. "Feels like this thing is gripping the earth," he thinks to himself. After uttering a few foul oaths and grunting harder, the gardener finally extracts something unfamiliar.

Uncertain of what he just harvested, he holds the unknown item under a bright beam from a spotlight on the house for a closer inspection. The hair on the back of his neck suddenly tingles and stands on end, and his skin crawls with goose bumps. A dull thump is heard as he drops the thing at his feet. A shriek rings out into the night. "Dear god what is this thing?!"

Fearing that he has created a monster, the gardener runs inside the house, bolts the back door, and turns off the lights. After taking a few seconds to gather his thoughts and steady his breathing, he realizes there is only one logical reason for this aberration: It was deposited in his yard by creatures from another planet!

In a panic, he dashes back outside and scoops up the perfect carrot and anomalous beast. He snaps a quick photo to document the alien creature. He saves the picture on a memory stick. He wants proof of its existence. 

Then the gardener hears a knock at his front door. Already panicked, he begins to get suspicious. The gardener stashes the memory stick in his dirty laundry basket and runs back to his kitchen, camera in hand. Suddenly, government agents come crashing through the front door, their silhouettes illuminated by the glow of a dozen unmarked black Chevy Suburbans. Simultaneously, he hears the thump of propeller blades overhead and men in black fatigues swing down on ropes and smash through his windows. Special Ops troops surge into the fenced yard and begin shooting at all vegetables in the raised beds. 

It was over in seconds. The camera was destroyed and the broken bits confiscated. The gardener could find no trace of the perfect carrot and its deviant alien counterpart. Completely gone. Scientists quickly followed with all kinds of analytical gadgets, probing and sampling the soil and confiscated vegetables. The interrogation began, but was brief. Regardless, it took the boogeymen mere minutes to set up a safety perimeter and restrict all access to the newly designated AREA 52: Growswell.

AREA 52: Growswell, VA.

"Why Growswell," the gardener asked? 
"Because that thing grows well here," the agent said.
"WHAT grows well here?!" the gardener yelled. Before he could even finish his sentence, they were gone.

After the agents left, the gardener returned to his laundry basket and fished out the memory stick. Fearing for his own safety, but fearing for the safety of the planet if he didn't tell his story, the gardener uploaded the picture of his carrot and the extra-terrestrial being to his blog to offer proof of its existence.

A Chantenay Red Core carrot of classic appearance and creature from another planet.

The image of the alien grown in the gardener's backyard has now gone viral, carrying with it the intrigue it rightly deserves. Shrouded in mystery, the backyard vegetable garden alien now stands tall amidst the ranks of fabled beasts like Sasquatch, Loch Ness, the alien sighting at Roswell, and the carrot mustache. But know this: Nothing is as scary, intriguing, or mysterious as AREA 52: Growswell.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Movin' On Up -- New USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map

The USDA recently released a new Plant Hardiness Zone Map (

2012 USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map.
What type of data is this mapped based upon, and how is it different from previous years? Here's what the USDA website states:

"Zones in this edition of the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map (PHZM) are based on 1976–2005 weather data. A trial check did not find that the addition of more recent years of data made a significant difference in the definition of these zones. Each zone represents the mean extreme minimum temperature for an area, calculated from the lowest daily minimum temperature recorded for each of the years 1976–2005. This does not represent the coldest it has ever been or ever will be in an area, but it simply is the average of lowest winter temperatures for a given location for this time period.

The previous edition of the USDA PHZM, revised and published in 1990, was drawn from weather data for 1974–1986. The longer period (30 years) of data was selected by the group of horticultural, botanical, and climatological experts who led the review of the latest revision as the best balance between smoothing out the fluctuations of year-to-year weather variation and the concept that during their lifetimes, perennial plants mostly experience what is termed "weather" rather than "climate."

Because this map was created digitally with GIS technology, it has a higher level of resolution and can show smaller areas of zone delineations than ever before. For example, cities tend to hold more heat because they have large amounts of concrete and blacktop, so a city or town may be assigned to a zone warmer than the surrounding countryside. Higher elevations tend to be colder than surrounding lower areas, so the top of a mountain may be an area of cooler zones. A location near a large body of unfrozen water may provide milder winter weather and be in a warmer zone."

So what does this mean for gardeners in Virginia, particularly the Tidewater area? Minor zone changes for some gardeners, probably not too much change for most other gardeners. Here is the detailed map of Virginia reflecting the above changes:
2012 USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map for Virginia.
Many of the inland areas and some outlying coastal areas retained their previous zone designations. But it is interesting to note that GIS technology has allowed the USDA to define smaller zone delineations than in past versions of the map. 
.09 Acres is located in Newport News, Virginia, two blocks from the James River and near the end of the Virginia Peninsula. The southern exposure of my neighborhood on the north bank of the James River and warmth-retaining properties of the river and Chesapeake Bay are factors that influence my hardiness zone. In previous years, I was in Zone 7b. The new map has moved up my location a notch to 8a, reflecting these characteristics and suggesting we have slightly warmer winter lows than indicated on past USDA hardiness maps. In reality, my fenced/protected backyard is likely another half-zone or zone higher, reflecting an even more defined micro-climate.
It is important to note that there are always variations within these types of designations, but the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map can be a helpful general reference for gardeners. 
Did your hardiness zone remain the same or change from the past USDA map? Do you provide micro-climates for your plants to stretch the boundaries of your hardiness zone? Or do you say, "Phooey to all this this scientific mumbo jumbo! Mother Nature does what she wants and I have no control over her whims. This arbitrary designation doesn't mean a thing to me or my plants."
I'm looking forward to hearing your thoughts.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Back in the Garden Again

My apologies!  It's been well over a month since my last post. The holidays and an INTENSE workload really put a dent in my gardening and blogging time. In the past 6 weeks I've done little in the yard and nothing with the blog.

Considering my neglect of the garden during this period of time, I expected Mother Nature to force me to tighten my belt a notch or two by wreaking total havoc on my tasty veggies and herbs. I imagined hard frosts, harsh winds, and cold dry air conspiring against me. I pictured languishing lettuce, crusty carrots, and beat up beets.

What did I find? Beautiful broccoli.

Calabrese broccoli head approximately 8" in diameter. This plant was grown in a glazed ceramic pot.
Don't think broccoli is beautiful? How about now?

Calabrese broccoli head.
This head of broccoli looks almost like a coral reef you'd expect to see off the Florida Keys rather than in a backyard garden in Newport News, Virginia. This plant was grown from seed in a large glazed ceramic pot. I mulched it with a thick layer of wheat straw after it germinated and haven't fussed over it since then. Yes, I hand-picked a few caterpillars but did little else. It is also growing smaller side shoots that I will only cut after I harvest the main head.

What else did I find that I didn't deserve? A cool cover crop.

Diego standing guard over a 4' x 8' bed of winter rye and hairy vetch cover crop.
I purchased Wren's Abruzzi Winter Rye and Hairy Vetch cover crop seeds last September from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange at the Heritage Harvest Festival at Monticello. I mixed and planted them in a 4' x 8' bed previously occupied by my Inchelium Red garlic. The seeds germinated easily and very quickly filled the bed. It's a vibrant addition to the otherwise muted colors of the winter landscape. I plan to cut and till the cover crop into the bed in early spring before planting tomatoes in late spring.

The cover crop is also important for another reason I did not anticipate. Dogs are natural foragers, and my two dogs often ate grass in my previous yard to aid in digestion. By successfully smothering my grass, I unintentionally eliminated one of their favorite diet supplements. Last summer, I often found my dogs sampling different weeds and other greens because they were looking for a suitable substitute for their favorite but now missing forage. As soon as the cover crop germinated and grew, Diego would regularly run over to the bed and dine on selected shoots of Winter Rye. He still does, seems to love the stuff! So in a way, it's a happy system. Soil feeds cover crop; cover crop feeds soil, dog, and future plants; plants feed human; human feeds cover crop to the soil; repeat. My only concern is that Diego doesn't get comfortable dining on whatever he choses from the raised beds. That could be a problem.

Maybe I'll construct a bone-shaped raised bed for dog edibles...then again, maybe not.

The broccoli and cover crops are just two of the many reasons why Diego and I are beginning to appreciate winter gardening more than summer gardening. There is little to do after planting and germination other than to harvest the rewards of Mother Nature. No toiling, no tilling, no sweating.

Many other veggies are doing very well despite my neglect, but I'll save them for another post. Hope all is well in your gardens.