Wednesday, April 18, 2012

A Healthier Vegetable Garden

I am way behind in my vegetable garden updates.  We pulled these from the garden in early March.

They are parsnips, and no, we didn't forget about them.  They are supposed to be sweeter if you plant them in the summer and let them sit in the ground all winter.  They are also supposed to be bigger.  I should have put a measuring tape in the photograph so you could see just how puny they were.  The ones in the middle, once peeled, amounted to the size of a baby carrot.  

We also pulled last summer's leeks from the ground last weekend.  They weren't eaten earlier because they never grew to be very big, and the waiting turned into winter and then spring.  Still, I roasted them with salmon following Martha's instructions, and we had one very nice meal.

Do you see a trend?  These have been good reminders that we need to figure out how to improve the health of our vegetable garden.  Stunted growth is a common theme.  So are evil bugs.  Our local garden center has been offering a spring lecture series, and I finally caught one on vegetable gardening a couple of weekends ago.  I've also been reading my Vegetable Gardener's Bible.

Now armed with good knowledge, we are taking five steps toward improved produce:

1. Test the soil.
I finally got around to using the kit I bought last year, but the results were...uh, inconclusive. You have to mix the soil with water and pour a different chemical in each vial and then compare the colors of the soil mixture to the colors on the chart. I spilled some of the chemicals and our vials looked like slightly tinted dirt, so I wasn't able to make any reasonable matches. There are better methods for testing- sending soil to a lab- but I already have a pretty good idea of what we need based on good advice and past failures.  At the garden center they assured me that everyone in our area has the natural problem of too much acidity, so we want to sweeten the soil (raise the pH) by adding some hydrated lime. I also learned that the reason our butternut squash plant grew big beautiful leaves, but no fruit was probably too much nitrogen.  The only way to remove the nitrogen is to grow plants that will suck it out of the soil. I'm wondering if this is something that will fix itself over time as we continue to grow things in this space. 

2. Attract the good bugs early.
We planted this rhubarb at the back of the garden, where it will grow to be about 4 feet wide and 3 feet tall.  When it blooms next month, it invites all of the good bugs to our party before they settle in for the summer at someone else's house.  It's a hardy perennial and should last 30-40 years, so I feel that my $15 was well spent.  We're also planting shrubs and perennials around the west side. 

3. Interplanting. 
This is the garlic we planted last fall.  Growing lots of varieties from the onion family confuses the pests and keeps them away from the stuff the like.  I learned that flea beetles hate onions, so I now know where to put the arugula.  We aren't growing any actual onions, but we've got garlic, shallots, scallions, leeks and chives, and I'm spreading them out around the garden. We're putting borage- a flowering herb- near the tomatoes to repel tomato bugs, and nasturtium near the cucumbers and zucchini to discourage squash bugs.

4. Fertilize.  Yeah, yeah, yeah.  The food needs food.  After the plants come up, we need to water with a liquid fertilizer at half-strength around the base of the plants.  I used an organic liquid seaweed fertilizer and fish emulsion on some of the vegetables last year, and I am going to buy stock in the stuff this year. I'm also looking into less expensive alternatives.

5. Monitor.  Before I water in the morning, I'll check the undersides of the leaves of the plants as they start growing, and remove the eggs of bad bugs before they become a problem.  That's the goal anyway.  We'll see how it goes.

We've planted two kinds of peas and some arugula so far, and I'm going to add spinach, kale and shallots this weekend.  Last year's scallions are still growing thanks to the mild winter.  Does anyone have any recipes that use a ton of scallions?

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