Weather Roulette

Ugh, the weather these days. In Shelby, March was one of the warmest on record. People have been cutting grass for over a month, planting gardens (some of which already have corn stalks a foot high), and sneezing their heads off because everything is blooming early. Still, I didn’t take the bait. I diligently looked up the average last frost date for Shelby, April 14, and planned months ago to set out my young heirloom tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, and peppers a few days after that. And so I did.

Now, on the morning of April 24, 2012, we set a new record low for all April 24s in recorded meteorological history: 34° F.  This previous record was held by April 24, 1893.

The official temperature is taken five feet above the ground, and since cold air sinks, the temperature at ground level is colder, say, 32° F.  Of course, at 32 ° F frost forms and sure enough patchy frost covered the ground this morning. I didn’t want one of those patches to settle on and kill my plants, so last night the garden looked like an army of misfit boxes and flower pots in ranks across the field, protecting the plants. As far as I can tell, my plants came out unscathed, but my truck didn’t, as I put a small but deep scratch on it when I was backing up in the dark to return from the garden. Ugh.

On a brighter note, meteorologists are forecasting a cooler summer for the southeast because of El Nino.

Natalie was a little upset I used our good beach towels.
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Now Spring Has Clad The Grove In Green

Now spring has clad the grove in green,
And strew’d the lea wi’ flowers;
The furrow’d, waving corn is seen
Rejoice in fostering showers

– Robert Burns

Spring is always full of new things and the most vibrant shades of green. Despite the sniffles, sneezes, and itchies…..this spring is particularly exciting. There are lots of new things taking place and growing up around the farm – there’s never a dull moment and always plenty to do.

We are adding three new chicks to our flock this year.

Dangerfield – Golden Cuckoo Marans


Zillah – White Plymouth Rock

Quigley – Easter Egger

We’ve got over 200 new blubs of garlic growing in the garden….plus over 200 onions….and at least 100 carrots.

Not to mention all of the new tomatoes, squash, watermelons, and peppers at the house waiting for their day to move to the big garden.


New leaves on the apple trees.

And the house….waiting for new paint.

Starting Seeds

Last week, we started our garden indoors with onions, lavender, and rosemary. Both lavender and rosemary take almost a month to germinate, so starting them early is a necessity if they’re going to be ready for planting by April 12, the date of the average last frost. To start them, I’m using little two inch pots made of strips of newspaper. I made them with this wooden pot maker: http://www.amazon.com/PotMaker%C2%AE-The-Original-Pot-Maker/dp/B00062ZNXQ  Once I got the hang of using it, the pot maker worked really well.

our newspaper pots

Although onions germinate quickly, they need an extra-long growing season, often five months or more, so giving them a head start indoors can ensure plenty of time to develop from seeds to scallions to nice, respectable onions. This year, we’re planting Red Creole Onions, an heirloom variety well-suited for the South.  I was surprised to learn that the South’s most popular onion, the Vidalia Onion, is actually a hybrid, not an heirloom. Although Vidalia Onions taste great, I wouldn’t be able to save seed from year to year if I grew them.

okay, worms look gross, but their castings are black gold.

For starting the onions, I used plastic cell trays, and out of 72 seeds planted, 68 germinated. I should also give kudos to my red wigglers. They’ve been working hard all fall and winter eating vegetable scraps, and I now have enough worm castings to fertilize my seedlings in a few weeks once dampening off is no longer a threat. Dampening off happens when new seedlings shrivel up due to various fungi. To prevent this, gardeners use sterile soil media to start seeds. This sterile soil media lacks any nutritional value for plants, so gardeners often water with a weak liquid fertilizer or compost tea to meet the seedlings’ nutritional needs. In a few weeks, I’ll use a compost tea made from worm castings—that is, my own natural MiracleGro 😉

Sultry Sunflowers

Recently we’ve had plenty of rain and wind, even tornadoes, in our area, and last week the sun disappeared altogether. This week the sun is predicted to return, but I’m ready for the return of sunflowers and the warm weather that accompanies them.

Last year, Natalie and I planted sunflowers for the first time and found them very easy to grow. In fact, the sunflower seeds we planted came out of a bird seed mix, and they germinated and grew quickly. Once, I read in some gardening book that you should always plant sunflowers in your field to act as a watering gauge. If the sunflowers start wilting, other crops will soon follow.

Garden box sunflowers

We planted our sunflowers in a garden box facing south where they received the hottest afternoon sun. Even in the heat, they were slow to wilt and seemed to thrive without much extra water, so I don’t know— maybe sunflowers aren’t the best watering gauges.

I do know that our sunflowers were a big hit with gold finches and bees. The gold finches would often eat the seeds hanging upside down on the flower head. Although I saw a few honeybees on the sunflowers, they seemed more popular with a small brown and yellow bees. At any one time, fifty of these little bees might be gathering pollen and nectar off of the same sunflower head.

There’s an online project called the Great Sunflower Project (www.greatsunflower.org) in which you’re supposed to count the number of bees, during a fifteen minute timespan, that you see on a sunflower each month. This year, I think I’ll do that. It will be interesting to see if my new honeybee colonies work the sunflowers like the little native bees did. I’m going to plant a lot more sunflowers this year, so hopefully there will be enough pollen and nectar to go around.  I saved the seeds from last year’s sunflowers, and I’ve also ordered some new heirloom sunflowers seeds called the “The Evening Sun”: http://rareseeds.com/flowers-n-z-1/sunflower/evening-sun-sunflower.html

Well, even though it’s cold outside, all this sunflower talk has at least got me thinking warm thoughts.

Old Tradition for a New Year

cash money

In keeping with tradition, I ate collards and black-eyed peas yesterday. The collards represent cash money, and the black-eyed peas represent coins. By eating them on New Year’s day, I’ll supposedly bring in a lot of cash and coins this upcoming year.

I grew two types of collards this fall: southern and Vates’. The southern collards are the ones I remember growing up, and by remember I mean remember smelling. The smell of cooking collards can linger in the air and memory, and it was this pungent smell that deterred me from eating them. When I’ve actually worked up the nerve to eat collards, I can say they taste a lot better than they smell, though I still prefer black-eyed peas on New Year’s day.

Both the southern and Vates’ collards grew well, and both made it through several hard frosts to New Year’s day. Last year, our neighbor grew a big garden of greens, but he lost most of the greens early because it was such a cold winter. Southern collards have thick, leathery leaves and are renown for their hardiness, but the Vates’ collards have also withstood the cold nights.

As far as taste goes, I wasn’t able to tell much difference in taste between the two varieties. The biggest difference was in appearance. The Vates’ collards have a crinkly leaf margin and the southern collards have a smooth, spinach-like leaf margin and texture. To most people though, a collard is a collard, and you either love them or hate them–regardless of the variety.

Southern collard on left; Vates collard on right