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Winter Pruning

bug on berries

I feel like I am saying this all the time – winter is a sad time for the gardener. But this is the natural way; the tomatoes get smaller as the summer heat is blown away by the refreshing autumn air, the trees shed their leaves & soon the snow will be falling. Though the winter is an off-season (until we get some land with high tunnels or greenhouses :)) it is one of the most critical seasons for reflecting, planning, & executing a great next season.

There is great pain in destroying all that you created to support your garden, but also great satisfaction in looking back to all that we harvested & enjoyed, and the lessons learned along the way. Just from clean-up I learned 1 thing – I am never using bamboo as a staking method for tomatoes again. Bamboo is a go-to stake because of cost & the sustainability factor, but I ran into a few issues:

  1. Insert the thicker end of cane into the ground, not the skinny end. Once the tomato plants got loaded up with fruit, the weight coupled with wind & rain, caused some of the stakes to actually snap!
  2. A little too flexible for the Florida Weave Trellis (check it out here).
  3. What do I do with all this used bamboo?? Once the season was done, I pulled out the bamboo stakes – 50 from the tomatoes & 60 from the peppers. The labor wasn’t difficult, it’s just the clean-up & disposal that takes time. And the fact that the stakes can’t be reused makes me feel wasteful – even though bamboo is one of the fastest growing plants on the planet.
  4. Tying & securing plants to stakes is another area I want to modify. Next year I’ll be moving my plant tying to a Max Tapener Machine – basically, it holds plant tie ribbon in a dispenser & with one hand you can secure a plant to a stake. The tie holds up to the elements, but the main challenges we kill with this machine are labor for plant tying & saving money switching from the ADC bands I’m currently using.

As a gardener, you want to reuse everything; to be the most sustainable & resourceful steward of the land that you can possibly be. But this isn’t always the case. You need to pull yourself from your emotions & throw your old & consumable supplies away to prevent the spread of disease from this year’s plants to next.

When you think of a gardener, you probably envision someone covered in dirt and who isn’t afraid of getting dirty – you wouldn’t think it, but cleanliness of the garden is the first thing on their minds – and it starts in the off-season.

Winter is about reflection, but it’s also about pruning the excess from your life in order to facilitate growth. We must clip dead limbs & branches from our trees & shrubs, opening the plants to more sunlight exposure, managing excessive growth in some parts of the plant, and encouraging new growth in other parts.

It isn’t only the plants that need pruned. Take a minute to examine where you’ve grown so far this year – is it where you wanted to be? Why not? What grew unexpectedly from your inputs & maintenance throughout the year? Or maybe, what stunted your growth?

The most important thing to realize through all of this is that the environment had less of an impact than you think, or less than you want to think. In the case of overgrowth, is this “good” or “bad”? What were your goals? If you wanted to grow, then “overgrowth” is just your first reaction to growth because you’re not sure how to manage it; how to deal with success. There were so many areas you excelled, shouldn’t you leave all that success in place to grow & thrive naturally? We are so scared to cause a flaw, that we would rather let it grow untamed & without a purpose other than rampant growth. You need to take a look and say, this was a great year – what can I remove from this success to make the next year even more successful. It is so hard to cut branches from a beautiful rose bush – but it’s just as painful to watch it grow without a purpose, plan, or care for the aesthetic pleasure.

And in the case of stunted growth we can only ask “why did this happen here”? Is the environment to blame for this?

With my garden, stunted growth came in 3 forms.

  1. Lack of irrigation for plants in Root Pouches. Due to the wet start to the season, I did not set up drip irrigation, so watering depended on hand watering with hose attachments.
  2. Lack of growing space or planted too densely. With the trends of square foot gardening, vertical growing, etc. all touting the benefits of packing plants in & increasing the yields per square foot. This works for certain crops, but not as well for tomatoes that seemed to need a little bit more room – I do this every year because tomatoes start so small & then just grow like crazy and jungle-ize the garden.
  3. Growing location. Growing too closely to other plants cuts down on air circulation, water circulation, and light. This can leave some plants without the proper ventilation, too wet, or too shaded. Next year we’ll only interplant with manageable options like garlic planted with tomatoes.

Environment wasn’t necessarily my issue, but how I was using my environment. In the garden, and in life, our first reaction is to create MORE. More is better, more plants = more tomatoes = more salsa = more tomatoes to sell. We did get MORE, but the quality of the plants eventually suffered. Bugs are natural & expected, and were controlled for organically with Neem Oil, Hot Pepper Wax, & Diatomaceous Earth. But the fungus & disease is what got the tomato plants in the end. We harvested a ton that we used for salsa, pico, spaghetti sauce, chili, and anything else we could use them for, but would we have harvested longer with healthier separation of the plants? Or was the disease already present in the soil?

These questions lead me to envision what my future garden would look like – and I’m not even quite sure what that will look like next year. It seems like every year that I garden on, I narrow my growing focus. The first year I grew everything from broccoli to watermelon & this past year I cut the varieties, but still had:

  • Lettuce
  • Tomatoes
  • Green Peppers
  • Jalapeños
  • Habaneros
  • Raspberries
  • Garlic
  • Onions
  • Dill
  • Basil
  • Cilantro
  • Oregano
  • Mint

Okay, so that seems like a lot, but the onion, garlic, and lettuce were mainly in the spring, we didn’t add mint or oregano until late summer, and our main focus was Tomatoes & Peppers. Right now I’m tossing around the idea of growing a slew of peppers next year. There are so many different varieties that I have never tried & think it would be a great talking piece for the Farmer’s Markets.

Leave a comment below with what you want to see me grow!

The garden does have some current tenants – raspberry plants in their first year, blackberry, some garlic, and tree seeds that I planted in Root Pouches. Those trees are: Paper Birch, Japanese Flowering Cherry, Boxwood, and Blue Spruce. These seeds need to be vernalized; exposed to the cold in order to induce seed propagation. I hope that they’ll be okay in the Root Pouches they’re growing in, but may cover them with a frost blanket before deep winter sets in.

I am really excited to see what happens next year. This is my first foray into growing trees & I feel like a “real grower”. That and I feel confident & curious enough to grow just about anything. I truly believe that the garden is my one small step for Dan-kind – I’m just preparing for my giant leap!

Learn more about that Giant Leap here & help support us by becoming a member of the Gardening 4 Gains Community Garden below!

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5 Ways to Extend your Growing Season

Gardening is a great hobby – it gets you outside, keeps you active, and there’s the great reward of fresh veggies! Of course, towards the end of summer, and as we drift into the fall, we know the fateful ending of the gardening season with the coming of football & frost.

However, you are still able to grow a wide variety of things through the fall. Some crops are frost-tolerant – spinach, kale, and garlic will even be more flavorful through colder weather or after a frost! But, if you are deep into Autumn & fear a hard frost, or even a freeze, you may want to take some precautions to protect your plants – or you can drastically extend your growing season with some of the following options.

  • Frost Blankets are a great option in the beginning or end of the season to provide protection from frost. Heavyweight frost cloth offers 10° of protection, so your plants should be safe down to almost 20°! Be sure to secure the blankets to something, or hold them in place with stone or bricks so that they don’t blow away.

    Image result for frost blanket
    Credit: pineislandfeed.com
  • Low Tunnels are basically mini-greenhouses that range from 4-8 feet wide & could be 100s of feet long. These tunnels can be covered with greenhouse poly (plastic), frost blanket, or even shade cloth in the summer. Low tunnels help you get a jump-start on the season & can help to extend your growing seasons as well. If you go this route, it’s also smart to run some irrigation through the tunnels to keep everything as low-maintenance as possible.

    Image result for frost blanket
    Credit: reformationacres.com
  • Coldframes can be a more-advanced unit like this one pictured below with an arm that automatically raises to vent, to something as simple as an old window nailed onto a makeshift frame – as long as it keeps the frost off & keeps the plants above freezing, you’re good!

    Image result for coldframe
    Credit: gardenersedge.com
  • Hoophouses – A lot of people group coldframes, hoophouses, & greenhouses into the same category, but there are some distinct differences. In the grower world, coldframes would usually reference an overwintering house – or a spot where trees are stored over the winter to keep them from breaking their dormancy too early. Hoophouses are greenhouses that do not have any climate controls – they are passively heated by the sun & passively cooled by roll-up sides, doors, and other ventilation.

    Image result for hoophouse
    Credit: nrcs.usda.gov
  • Greenhouses, on the other hand, are climate-controlled grow-houses. There is heat provided from the greenhouse plastic or covering, or there is cooling by fans, evaporative cooling, control of humidity, irrigation, fertilizer – most every variable can be controlled & that’s the point – to really dial in on the growing recipe that the growers knows will yield big results.

    Image result for greenhouse
    Credit: ggs-greenhouse.com

Not everyone has the money for a greenhouse or hoophouse, but the other alternatives listed above will help you cheat death-by-frost for a few weeks at least.

There’s only a few months out of the year that we can garden successfully, so why not extend that time a little further & extend the cycle of fresh vegetables in your kitchen?

Hope this offers some beginning tips – please let me know if you have any further questions & I’ll be happy to help!

Also, check out the Gardening 4 Gains YouTube Channel here! Feel free to leave suggestions for future videos & blogs below!

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My Late-Summer Salad Garden

Raspberries & Lettuce

My late-summer garden will be dedicated to salad. Right now I am still tending 45 tomato plants, 50 pepper plants, and 6 raspberry bushes that are lost in the tomato jungle.

Earlier in the season I had radishes, lettuce, garlic, onions, basil, cilantro, and dill but after I harvested them, I just stuck to tomatoes. I’m really not sure why I planted so many. My initial thought was that it would be a hit at the local farmer’s market – but I haven’t been to one yet. That may have to happen soon because I have no counter space left due to the Tomato Takeover!

Besides that, Kyla makes the best pico, spaghetti sauce, and chili from the ingredients we’ve grown this year. It’s true what they say – nothing compares to homemade tomato sauce with homegrown ingredients!

So to supplement the tomatoes, jalapeños, habaneros, onions, and garlic, I’ll be growing herbs like Basil & Cilantro to make our salsas & sauces even more authentic. Also throwing in some greens to increase our vegetable consumption to more than just tomatoes!

Keep in mind that this is a garden to be harvested in the Fall – you want to pick vegetables that are cold-hardy & that will be harvested before the frost (check out my cold-hardy vegetable list here!)

  • Basil
  • Beets
  • Carrots
  • Cilantro
  • Kale
  • Lettuce
  • Onions
  • Radish
  • Rainbow Chard
  • Spinach
  • Turnips

I know what you’re thinking – Beets? Rainbow Chard? Turnips? Why?

Honestly don’t think I’ve ever had Beets or Rainbow Chard – so trying them fresh is one factor. Rainbow Chard is one of the most colorful things you can grow in the garden, I just hope that we like it! I think we’ll like the Beets, but I’m just growing those to live up to my girlfriend calling me Dwight Schrute! (from the TV show The Office).

Turnips, on the other hand, are the unsung champion vegetable of the garden. Someone I work with said it best, a turnip is what happens when a radish & a potato have a baby. That is really the perfect description for the taste, texture & everything. So how do you  use it? We like to chop them up in beef stew, use it in chili, or in a stir fry – basically the same way you would use a potato.

Please comment if you have any other Turnip, Beet, or Rainbow Chard recipes or recommendations!

A small section of the garden has been cleared of wild tomatoes & cucumbers and is ready for the sowing of the salad. We have a ton of rain on the way this week so that should help get everything saturated & germinated for another round of garden bliss!

Hope this helps keep your garden growing into, and well beyond, the fall!

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What to Plant at the End of August

Cucumber pollination

It’s the end of August here in Ohio – the nights are cooling off, tomatoes & peppers continue to produce fruit to no end, but you still have the itch to keep planting.

Luckily, there is still a ton of stuff you can plant!

Being in zone 5, our last frost date is approximately mid-October – that means we’ve got about 2 months to get growing! With ~60 days, you won’t have enough time for corn, potatoes, or tomatoes, but there are a few options.

Cold-weather crops

  • Arugula (rocket)
  • Beets
  • Collards
  • Carrots
  • Cauliflower
  • Celery (mild winter climates)
  • Chard
  • Coriander (Cilantro)
  • Fennel
  • Kale
  • Kohlrabi
  • Lettuce
  • Mizuna
  • Mustard greens
  • Onions (bulbing)
  • Onions (bunching–standard onions harvested before they form bulbs).
  • Pak choi (Bok choy)
  • Peas
  • Radishes
  • Spinach

Below is a little more detailed cool-weather crop breakdown I got from Bonnie Plants:

Cool-weather crops are broken into 2 categories – Hardy & Semi-Hardy.

Hardy – can tolerate hard frost of 25-28°F. Collards, Kale, & Spinach can handle low 20s and teens in some cases! The beautiful thing about cool weather crops is that they are more flavorful when grown under these circumstances – you know this first-hand if you’ve ever had Spinach in the garden when temps hit 90-100! Image result for tongue out emoji

  • Broccoli
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Cabbage
  • Collards*
  • English peas
  • Kale
  • Kohlrabi
  • Leeks
  • Mustard greens
  • Parsley
  • Radish
  • Spinach
  • Turnip

Semi-hardy – can tolerate 29-32°F

  • Beets
  • Carrot
  • Cauliflower
  • Celery
  • Chinese cabbage
  • Endive
  • Irish potatoes
  • Lettuce and gourmet salad greens
  • Radicchio
  • Rutabaga
  • Salsify
  • Swiss chard*

*Tastes better in winter, but will grow well through summer.

Grown in 60 days

Arugula 30-40 days to harvest
Basil 35-45 days to harvest
Beet 50-65 days to harvest
Cabbage 50-65 days to harvest
Carrots
55-75 days to harvest
Cilantro 60-75 days to harvest
Collards 55-60 days to harvest
Cucumbers
55-65 days to harvest
Garlic 90-110 in ground all winter
Kale 45-60 days to harvest
Kohlrabi 55-65 days to harvest
Lettuce 45-60 days to harvest
Leek 85-105 in ground all winter
Mustard 30-50 days to harvest
Green bunching onion 55-60 days to harvest
Snap Peas 55-60 days to harvest
Radish 25-40 days to harvest
Spinach 37-50 days to harvest
Swiss Chard 50-60 days to harvest
Turnip 45-60 days to harvest

Planting a garden at the end of the summer is something I enjoy for 2 reasons:

  1. Watching a whole new growing process from seed-to-salad or seed-to-sandwich is my favorite process in the world. It is so amazing that 1 tiny seed can turn into a meal, or part of a meal. Growth isn’t limited to spring if you know what to plant & when to plant it.
  2. A whole new batch of fresh veggies! I didn’t grow much other than Tomatoes, Jalapeños, and Habaneros this year so it’ll be nice to get fresh Spinach, Lettuce, Radishes & other salad-friendly veggies back in rotation.

First Fall Frost

As is noted above, most of these crops are somewhat frost-tolerant – some vegetables will even be more flavorful after the frost! But, if you are deep into October & fear a hard frost, or even a freeze, you may want to take some precautions if you want to extend your growing season even further.

Please let me know if you have any questions about starting your garden & I’ll be happy to help!

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New House, New Garden

The past few weeks have been a blur; so hard to believe that I now own a home. I was on the house hunt for about 2 months. Thought I wanted to buy a house in my hometown, but then kept getting hung up on the “what ifs” and the anticipation of the future. I stopped looking for a couple weeks, got my mind right and just started making a list of houses I wanted to see. I found quite a few that were in my price range, had good potential for a few key areas: live-ability, garden-ability, & a good investment – that way I could worry about the future in a more realistic way. If the “what ifs” came to fruition, you have to be able to turn a house around and hopefully profit.

All of that aside, I made a list of about 10 houses from Tipp City to Piqua – my hometown is Sidney which is just north of Piqua and I had seen about 6 open houses and wasn’t finding anything that spoke to me. A few of the houses really peaked my interest, but it wasn’t until the last house where I really felt that “I’m home” feeling. Ironically enough, my realtor sent me an email the morning of the day that we were going out to visit houses, and it was the first day that my current house was on the market. That was the only one that I looked at in Piqua, and was the last one on the tour that day, and I just knew that it was the one. Attractive price point, good potential house that didn’t need a ton of work – just basic maintenance, some paint, and a vision for the future projects.

Of course my starred project was the garden. Everyone who came to my house complimented the size of the backyard and my only reply was “yeah, it’ll look a lot better once I rip up all this grass for the garden”. And so I did.

New Garden

I started digging the first bed out with my all-steel AM Leonard spade (15” blade) and learned that the soil wasn’t too bad on the top layer – but a decent amount of clay and found a few rocky patches, including what I think are 2 arrowheads. Because of the amount of clay that was deeper in the soil, I incorporated sphagnum peat moss into the areas where I was planning beds – just enough to fluff the soil and break up some of that clay.

My first garden at my first house was the first time that I’ve planted a garden with someone; Kyla of course. We planted a pretty good-sized garden:

-4’x18’ strip for late-season tomatoes and cantaloupes. I’m thinking about trying to train the cantaloupe up a stake, never tried it before but excited to test vertical farming out!

Then there is the U which consists of:

-4’x22′ with the first 6 feet of the bed dedicated to the future growth of a golden raspberry bush and then 2 rows of cucumbers 16 feet long. One variety is called Pickle Barrel Hybrid and I will set up a trellis for that side, while the other row is a variety called the Picklebush and those – as you might have guessed – grow more like a bush.

-4’x16′ is the size of the bottom of the U and that has 2 rows of corn called “Baby Corn Bonus”. This should be harvested in 30-40 days and will be awesome in a stir fry! Also have a few rows of Garden Beans – had some for dinner tonight and they taste awesome, nothing better than a good homegrown meal!

-3’x22′ completes the U and I filled that with a mixture of “Space Hybrid Spinach” and “Dwarf Blue Curled Vates Kale”.

-A 4.5’x20′ rectangular “I” sits inside of the U and that is loaded with herbs: Bouquet Dill, Cilantro, Greek Oregano, & Dark Green Italian Parsley. We wrapped this bed up with a colorful mixture of Carrots & German Giant Radishes.

Here’s the status on the Garden of Gains II:

Tomatoes: growing strong and recovering from the 90-100+ degree days we have been having the last 7-10 days.

Cantaloupe: starting to expand their reaches and they have their “feelers” looking for something to hold onto – hopefully I can train them up a bamboo stake and save some space.

Cucumbers: sprouting and looking healthy!

Beans: sprouting quick & strong

Radishes: wouldn’t be surprised if every single seed I planted germinated within like 3 days of planting

Spinach & Kale: starting to peak through

The Rest: other things I planted should be coming up within the next couple of days, especially with all the much-needed rain we have gotten the past few days and hopefully we will get a little later in the week as well. No other method irrigation compares with a good soaking rain.

I’m happy with how the Garden of Gains II has shaped up so far. This is a pretty good-sized garden but the planting flew by with Kyla there to help out. Usually I garden alone, but it is definitely nice to share your passion with someone you love. And you learn a lot about each. You work together. You build something. You are assisting in the creation of something. The key thing is that you do this all together – as a unit, as one. Or at least that’s how it was with me and Kyla. There is never a moment when we can’t find a solution to our problems. It doesn’t mean that we don’t encounter problems, but when both people strive to be the best person for their person then you have a special relationship.

We are all just out here Gardening for Gains.