Reader Questions: Growing Salad in Summer Heat

Today’s Reader Question comes from Kate in Virginia:

I need your ideas on growing salad throughout the summer. My lettuce bolts when it gets hot outside and my spinach just stops producing. Do you have any recommendations?

Great question Kate! The Mid-Atlantic gardening region warms up quickly in the summer and we’ve already experienced 90+ degree days and it’s only the first week of May. As you know, salad greens are cool season crops that enjoy temperatures above freezing but below 70 degrees. A few spikes in the thermometer won’t put an end to your salad greens but sustained hot temperatures will. So what can you do to keep the temperatures cooler?

Do you have any lightly shaded areas that you can use for growing salad? Not dense shade but a nice cool, lightly shaded spot. I know that my yard has several pockets of cooler growing areas…your landscape probably does too. Take advantage of these areas by tucking a few salad greens into empty spots.

Consider creating your own shade. There are several ways that you can accomplish this. Do you have any potted plants that you could place near your salad greens to cast shade on them? Or can you grow your salad greens in easily movable containers that you can move to shade when the temperatures climb?

growing saladAnother way to create shade is with shade cloth. Shade cloth is used extensively in the nursery industry and it’s practical to use in your veggie garden. Create some hoops out of PVC and secure your shade cloth to it for instant shade. Here is a link to Gardener’s Supply where a 6′ x 12′ piece can be purchased for $27.95. If you have a nursery grower near you, give them a call to see if they have any shade cloth that they’d be interested in selling…often times, they have scrap pieces lying around that are too small for their beds but may be perfect for yours.

Let’s talk about plant selection. Try to find an heirloom seed supplier that is located in your gardening region…they may have varieties of salad greens that have been selected to perform better in the heat. Since you’re in Virginia, take a look at Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. They’re located in Louisa and have a variety of romaine lettuce, Jericho, that grows well in our summer heat. If you’re looking for spinach that will keep on keeping on, try Red Malabar spinach. It’s a vining type that needs to be trellised so it will take up less room in the garden too. Southern Exposure recommends growing them on your pea trellises…as the peas finish growing, the Red Malabar spinach will take over where they left off.

I’m sure that other Mid-Atlantic Gardening readers have other creative ideas for growing salad in summer heat. Please leave a comment below or e-mail me at stacey@midatlanticgardening.com. If you enjoy being part of the Mid-Atlantic Gardening community, join our e-mail list (upper right hand corner of this page), become a fan on Facebook and follow me at Twitter. Happy gardening!

Reader Question: Unusual Vegetables

Today’s Reader Question comes from Reggie in Clinton, New Jersey:

I enjoy reading your posts about the vegetable garden. I’m going to try your method of lasagna gardening in one section of my garden this year. I hope that it works! Since I’m trying new ways of doing things this year, I would also like to try some different vegetables. I’ve always grown tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers but I’d like to try some new things. Any recommendations?

Do I have any recommendations…is water wet? Nothing gets me more amped up than the veggie garden. To think that you can plant a seed the size of pinhead and then you are able to harvest that plant a couple of months later, that is inspiring! Let’s talk about some of the more unusual vegetables. For other Mid-Atlantic Gardening readers, some of these veggies may not be new to you but I’m sure that you’ll find one or two that you haven’t grown before.

SWISS CHARD – this a plant that is grown for its foliage. If you harvest it when it’s young, you can use it in a variety of ways. It can be added to salads or used in stir fries. If you can’t seem to harvest it before the leaves get too large (that’s the lazy gardener in me shining through), you can dehydrate it and add it to soups and sauces. It’s a great way to sneak more veggies into your family’s diet. You can either sow seed directly in the garden or start seeds indoors. As a side note, the cultivar ‘Bright Lights’ is used as an ornamental plant and it looks great in mixed containers.

 

unusual vegetable

Photo courtesy of www.appforhealth.com

GARBANZO BEANS – if you’re a fan of hummus, you’ll love growing garbanzo beans. Otherwise known as chickpeas, garbanzo beans are relatively easy to grow. They are a legume, which means that they can take nitrogen from the air and fix it in their roots. Pretty cool. If you have a section of your garden that receives light shade, garbanzo beans will flourish there. Down here in Virginia, the hot summers can be a bit overwhelming for them so they appreciate a bit of afternoon shade. Sow them directly in the garden as they don’t transplant well.

 

unusual vegetables

Photo courtesy of www.blog.gardenerd.com

CARROTS – no, this plant isn’t going to wow your gardening friends when you show off your unusual vegetables. Unless you grow one of the cultivars that produce purple carrots…or white carrots. Dig up one of those for your friends and they’re sure to be impressed. Consider growing ‘Cosmic Purple’ or ‘Lunar White’. If you’re more into reds, ‘Atomic Red’ is a great choice. Who knew carrots could be so exciting?

 

unusual vegetables

Photo courtesy of www.packetseeds.com

LEEKS – if you enjoy using onions while cooking, consider growing leeks. They impart a sweeter flavor than onions and are easy to grow. Plant them and then harvest when you need them. Leeks are tolerant of cold weather so you can leave them in the ground throughout the fall and winter. Just add soil around the stalks to blanch them further.

 

unusual vegetables

Photo courtesy of www.avalongardens.org

TOMATILLOS – I love Mexican food. I could eat it morning, noon and night. Of course I’d probably be as big a house if I did…something in my brain is hard wired to continue to eat long after I’m full. If you share my love of Mexican food, give tomatillos a try. They require pretty much the same conditions as tomatoes and I’ve heard of people growing them to replace tomatoes if they have disease issues on their maters. One of my favorite Mexican sauces is salsa verde…it’s the tomatillos that give it the delicious flavor.

 

unusual vegetables

Photo courtesy of www.liseed.org

HERBS – Speaking of Mexican cuisine, grow cilantro to add to your salsa. Grow parsley to add Vitamin A to your dishes. Rosemary is a perennial herb that tastes scrumptious with chicken. Oregano is also a perennial that is mandatory for Italian cooking. Basil adds flavor to any dish that it’s added to. Chives are also perennials that are delicious with potatoes.

 

unusual vegetables

Basil photo courtesy of www.fuoriborgo.com

OK Mid-Atlantic Gardening readers, what unusual vegetables do you grow in your garden? Leave comments for Reggie in the section below or you can e-mail me at stacey@midatlanticgardening.com. If you enjoy being part of the Mid-Atlantic Gardening community, join our e-mail list, become a fan on Facebook and follow me at Twitter. Happy gardening!

 

Did You Know? You Don’t Have to Till Your Garden

tilling your garden

Here is an example of our vegetable garden mulched. Look! No weeds (in the areas we had mulched when this picture was taken)

I’m excited about today’s post! It deals with tilling your vegetable garden and anything dealing with the vegetable garden gets me excited. Growing up we always had a vegetable garden and part of the spring chores before planting involved tilling. The tiller we had was a front tine tiller and only the adult men were allowed to run it. Being a girl that believes she can do anything a man can do, I convinced my stepdad Don to let me have a chance. I’m sure he chuckled to himself as he fired it up and explained to me how it worked. He warned me that it was hard to control but I just knew that it wouldn’t be a problem for me. As the tiller dragged me around the garden bucking and barely breaking the soil surface, I conceded that Don was right…using a front tine tiller was work for a grown man.

Fast forward years down the road and I purchased a rear tine tiller. This thing was like a Cadillac as compared to the front tine tiller of my youth. I tilled effortlessly, often with one hand. I loved the fluffy soil that resulted. I could plant with only the assistance of my hand…no shovels required. It was like a dream. I started learning more and more about vegetable gardening and came across what is known as sheet mulching or lasagna gardening. With these methods, you don’t till your garden. At all. Never. Ever. Could it be possible that you can retire the tiller altogether? Let’s take a look at how it’s possible to never till again. And we’ll look at some of the advantages and disadvantages.

Sheet mulching or lasagna gardening, or any of the other names that it goes by essentially works like this:

  1. Add compost in a layer on top of the soil
  2. Add newspaper or cardboard on top of the compost
  3. Add more compost on top of the newspaper/cardboard
  4. Add mulch on top of the compost

 

You may be wondering where the plants are in this mix. The answer is that it depends. You can either plant and then add the layers or you can put down the layers first and then plant. People often get freaked out trying to figure out how to plant in these layers but it’s actually quite simple. If you are planting seeds, pull those layers back enough to plant your seeds. Don’t cover them up with mulch…leave the hole open. As the plants grow up, add the mulch back around the plants. If you are starting with plants, pull the mulch and compost back. Use a razor knife or other implement to make a hole in the newspaper/cardboard and then plant. Add the compost and other layers back and you’re done. It’s so easy that it seems too easy to actually work. But it does. Let’s look at advantages and disadvantages of this way to plant.

ADVANTAGES

  1. It eliminates the need to till your garden. Take a moment to contemplate this statement alone. Over time, tilling can degrade the tilth of your soil. It also stirs up all of those beautiful colonies of microorganisms that you’ve worked so hard to develop. Leaving the soil life undisturbed is enough reason for me to not till my garden.
  2. It reduces weeding to a reasonable level. I think that one of the reasons gardeners throw their hands up and walk away from their veggie gardens is the weeds. As summer wears on, the weeds outcompete your plants and eventually you have to hunt through the weeds to even find your plants. It doesn’t have to be that way!
  3. It reduces water needs in the garden. The second reason that people walk away from the garden is watering. Let’s face it…in the Mid-Atlantic gardening region, by the time the tomatoes start producing, the rain stops falling. And you are left watering a garden full of weeds. That’s discouraging to even the most seasoned gardener.

 

DISADVANTAGES

I can think of only one. If you are going to use wood mulch, you can’t till the garden while the wood is intact. If you do, your soil structure will be worse off then when you started. Make sure that you want to garden this way for years before you apply your wood mulch. If you are unsure that you want to garden this way for years, I think it is a wise recommendation to try a small portion of your garden using this method. After your first season, I think you’ll be convinced that this is the way vegetable gardening is supposed to be.

So go ahead, give it a try. Keep me posted on your efforts and let me know how your garden progresses. One word of caution before you begin…you’ll need to figure out what you’re going to do with all of your spare time that you used to spend tilling, weeding and watering your garden. Leave me a comment below or e-mail me at stacey@midatlanticgardening.com. Happy gardening!

April 16, 2012Permalink 9 Comments

Seed Starting 101 Part 3: Lighting

 

As we have discussed in Parts 1 and 2 of Seed Starting 101, providing the right amount of light for your seeds can be a daunting task. The number of footcandles on an average summer day outside is around 25000 whereas the number of footcandles in a well-lit office drops dramatically to 125. In case you aren’t aware, footcandle is a way to measure light intensity. So what type of lighting should you use to get your seeds off to the best start?

seed startingIt all depends on what you want from your seed starting adventure. If you are interested in just getting them large enough to put in a cold frame, a set or two of fluorescent shop lights will serve you well. If you want to move up the sophistication chain, consider LED (light emitting diode)lighting. LED lights are very energy efficient and last forever. OK, not forever but it will seem that way in comparison. These are the same lights that the new stoplights are composed of. They will provide ample light for your seeds; the only drawback is that they are more expensive initially. You can pick up a set of shop lights for around $25 whereas a small LED light will cost a couple of hundred dollars. You can probably find a better price by shopping around online but even still, it won’t be $25.

The grandaddy of all the lighting systems is the metal halide light. But again, the cost of the lighting is prohibitive to the average gardener. Costing upwards of $500 each, I won’t bother to expand more on this lighting. If you choose to go with flourescent shop lights, what can you do to get the most light out of them for your seedlings?

  1. Replace your light bulbs each year. The light quality diminishes each year and for a $10 investment, you can ensure that your seedlings are off to the best start.
  2. Use warm and cool bulbs in your fixtures. Plants need a combination of wave lengths to do their best and that’s what your aiming for.
  3. Keep your lights within inches of your seedlings…not 12″ or 8″; hang them 1″-2″ above the tallest seedlings and adjust them upwards as the seedlings grow.
  4. Leave your lights on for 16 hours each day. Mine are actually programmed for 17 hours right now and the plants will be fine. What you don’t want to do is leave them on 24/7. Plants need to sleep too (this is when the process of respiration takes place).
  5. Aluminum foil. This may sound like a bizarre solution but it works. It helps immensely for those poor little seedlings on the outside edge of the flats. They are the ones that lean in to try to reach the light in the center. By draping aluminum foil over the lights so that it touches the table on both sides, it creates a more reflective environment and also keeps the heat in. I leave the ends open so that air can still circulate.

 

I’d love to hear the creative ideas that other Mid-Atlantic Gardening readers have for increasing the light that your seeds receive. Leave me a comment below or e-mail me at stacey@midatlanticgardening.com. Click here for Part 4 of Seed Starting 101. Happy gardening!

March 1, 2012Permalink 1 Comment

Friday Free For All: Wood Chips vs. Hardwood Mulch

 

What a great Friday at Mid-Atlantic Gardening! I was able to give seeds to one of our readers, Elizabeth, from New Jersey. The seeds are Tomatoes Mortgage Lifter, Amish Paste and Golden Sunrise, Eggplant Casper, Cilantro Slo-Bolting and Cucumber Mandurian Round. It feels so great to give back to the readers that inspire me to keep writing posts. I have to admit that there are days when I say to myself “I’ll skip writing today’s post” but then I’ll receive feedback from you all and that keeps me moving. To all of my readers, I feel compelled to say “Thank you. You all are awesome!” OK, on to the post for today…

wood chipsA co-worker approached me Monday and asked a question that I feel is very important to answer. He wanted to know if applying wood chips instead of conventional hardwood mulch was OK for plants. My answer was a resounding yes. While double shredded hardwood mulch may be more pleasing to the eye, the soil and its organisms don’t care what you put down, so long as you put down something. Remember, as a gardener, you want to grow beautiful healthy soil that will feed your plants with much less effort than it takes to feed the plants and not the soil. Does that make sense? If your focus is on feeding the plants with synthetic fertilizers, you are not feeding the soil. If you instead feed the soil, you are rewarded with plants that derive their nutrition from what the soil provides for them.

Some people fear that mulching with fresh wood chips will rob the soil of nitrogen and that is a legitimate concern. What those same people fail to realize (and I was one of those people for a long time by the way) is that the nitrogen the microorganisms consume to break down the organic matter is still there, it’s just tied up. At a later time, the nitrogen will be available to the plants and it will be in a form that is naturally occurring. And it’s free too. No more applying fertilizer every spring…instead you can apply organic matter and grow your soil. If your plants become too chlorotic for your liking in the time that it takes your nitrogen to become available to the plant again, you can apply blood meal which is around 12% nitrogen. It will be a quick shot of nitrogen that will green up your plants.

Like I said earlier, it doesn’t matter what you have to mulch with…just mulch. If all you have available are leaves from the woods, use them. It would be nice if you could shred them up before using them…they’ll stay in place better and won’t pack down and form a matted layer. If it’s good enough for millions of acres of forests, it’s good enough for me. If you live near a farmer and he has straw that has spoiled, offer him a few dollars and he’ll probably accept your offer. Just make sure that it’s straw and not hay as hay is full of weed seeds. If you have trees removed from your garden, take the wood chips and use them…your tree guy will thank you too since he now doesn’t have to dispose of them. Just about any type of organic matter that you can think of will benefit your garden. I tend to be a little thrifty so I’m always on the lookout for cheap or free sources of organic matter…whether it be wood chips, leaves, manure or straw, I’ll take it! I love hearing how resourceful other gardeners are…leave me a comment below or e-mail me at stacey@midatlanticgardening.com. Happy gardening!

 

Plant Profile: Yard Beans (Vigna unguiculata ssp. sesquipedalis)

 

I have quite the exciting plant for us to look at today…it’s the bean that goes by many names, including yard bean, yard-long bean, snake bean and asparagus bean. I was first introduced to this plant by a co-worker that hails from Trinidad. When I was discussing planting my veggie garden last year, he recommended that I give this one a try. He said that it was very popular in “the islands” and could be used like a green bean in dishes. I gave it a try and found that it is indeed like a green bean, but it’s more like a green bean on steroids.

Before we discuss the culture of the yard bean, let’s look at where it is originally from. Yard beans are known as dow gauk in China, thua chin in Thailand and sasage in Japan. It is native to southeast Asia and is popular in Asian and Mediterranean cultures and is now catching on in the U.S. as well. While it is often thought of as a “green bean on steroids” it is actually a closer relative of cowpeas, or black-eyed peas. Either way, the culture of them is the same.

Yard beans, as my Trinidadian friend calls them, are best sown directly in the ground about a month after the last frost…take a look at this post if you’re not sure when your last frost date is. Plant the seeds about 4″ apart and 3/4″ deep along a trellis. Yard beans are prolific growers so make sure that you plant them somewhere where they can grow to their hearts delight. Ten foot tall yard bean vines are not out of the question, but they will fall back down on themselves and continue to grow. Our trellis was about 6′ tall and they did just fine. They are able to tolerate a wide range of soils (except wet) so nearly everyone should be able to squeeze a few into their garden. They have a leg up on green beans in that they will produce all season if they are harvested regularly…no succession plantings are needed with yard beans which means one less thing to do in the garden.

True to their name, yard beans will grow to 36″ long but they are best harvested when the pods are 12″-15″ long. At this length, they are sweet and tender. If they are allowed to grow larger, the pods become tougher and less flavorful. If they get to this point, you can allow them to mature in the pod and use them as a dried bean. Unfortunately, many of our yard beans grew so fast that they were well beyond the 12″-15″ limit when we got around to harvesting them. You have to be diligent and harvest them every day or two to be able to use them in the same manner as a green bean.

The only issue that I had with yard beans was the aphids. Holy sweet goodness…the aphids were on the beans like white on rice last year. I’m not exactly sure why they decided all of our beans were delicious but they were certainly prolific. If we had been able to harvest the beans appropriately, the aphids could have been washed off and the beans would have still been perfectly edible. Toss them in with onions, summer squash and butter for a quick delicious side dish.

There are several varieties available including Chinese Red Noodle, Purple Podded Yard Long Bean, and Stickless Wonder which is a bushy form. I grew Bacello last year and couldn’t have been more pleased with the results. Let me know if you have grown yard beans before. Leave me a comment below or e-mail me at stacey@midatlanticgardening.com. Happy gardening!

 

Plant Profile: Mandurian Round Cucumber

 

Mandurian Round cucumberI’m so excited to be able to tell you about the star of last year’s vegetable garden: Mandurian Round cucumber. While everyone knows what cucumbers look and taste like, this little jewel is different in so many ways. Let’s talk about its appearance first. Mandurian Round cucumber is, you guessed it, round. Its skin is variegated with green and white and has a fuzzy texture to it. The fuzzies wash right off when you’re ready to enjoy the cucumbers with a meal. They are best consumed when they are no larger than the size of a baseball. They will grow to be the size of a football if you let them, but at that point the skins are tough and they don’t have the delightful sweet taste of the smaller ones.

Their taste is sweeter than a conventional cucumber and they are unbelievably crunchy. My favorite part of them is that you don’t have to peel them before eating. See, I’m a lazy cook…while I enjoy fresh vegetables, I enjoy them a lot more if all I have to do is wash them and eat them. Even the simple act of having to peel a “normal” cucumber is enough to make me move on to the next vegetable. There were many evenings when my husband and I would wash the cucumbers and then sprinkle them with sea salt and freshly ground pepper as a side dish. While ranch dressing makes everything better in my opinion, the Mandurian Round cucumber can hold its own with just a little S&P.

As for the culture of the Mandurian Round cucumber, it’s really no different than other cukes. It enjoys full sun and consistent soil moisture for the best production. I grew mine on the ground last year as they are touted as being a bush form instead of a vining type. In my experience, they did vine but the stems only reached about 5′ in diameter. I didn’t notice any tendrils, which is the way that conventional cukes climb. The arms of the Mandurian Round cucumbers were easily tucked back onto their allotted hill if they became a little unruly.

While Mandurian Round is described as a cucumber, it actually belongs to the melon family. Cucumis melo is its botanical name, whereas “normal” cucumbers go by the name Cucumis sativus. For you, this means that it is naturally burpless and won’t become bitter as it ages or if it doesn’t receive the proper amount of water during fruit formation.

I have a story about how popular this cucumber is with those who have sampled it. My husband and I have a vegetable garden at a friend’s house as we don’t have enough sun to sustain a veggie garden at home. Our friend took some of the Mandurian Round cucumbers to work to share with co-workers since we were inundated with them when they were in full production. His co-worker enjoyed them so much that she called grocery stores all over the Richmond area looking for them, but no one carried them. They are definitely a specialty crop that hasn’t caught on with mainstream grocers but that shouldn’t stop you from trying them in your garden. The seeds are available from Gourmet Seeds where you can purchase a packet of 80 seeds for $2.89. That’s a small investment for such a delicious bounty of cucumbers, don’t you think? Let me know if you have any experience growing Mandurian Round cucumbers by leaving me a comment below or e-mailing me at stacey@midatlanticgardening.com. Happy gardening!

December 28, 2011Permalink 9 Comments