Sunday, March 25, 2012

We Have Met the Enemy...

And he is some kind of jerk, honestly.

(Ed. Note: Stacia is away this week on a work-related non-vacation, so we are temporarily the all-Greg show. We apologize for this and will be back to our regular staff by the weekend.)

So this afternoon I set off into the backyard to putter around the garden for a bit, and couldn't help but notice the lovely carpet of light purple flowers that had recently sprung up. As we may have noted in the past, the portion of the backyard nearest to the house is very well shaded, to the point that grass can barely grow there. Great, I thought, some sort of ground cover to fill in for the grass. It looked a bit like this.

A little while later, I was weeding and was naturally closer to the ground. As I came upon one of these plants, I decided to take a closer look.

A few purple flowers, but then I noticed those kind of fluted, bugle-shaped leaves. A bit of a shudder came over me, for I had just finished weeding a particularly weed-infested bed, and I was pretty sure I recognized this guy. As we had turned the soil over in these beds and busted things up, a lot of weeds had gotten buried and were only now starting to poke up through. Some, with very similar looking leaves, would almost always snap off at the stem rather than giving up any roots. To get the whole weed, you had to really dig down crazy deep. How deep? Well, here's one from the soon-to-be broccoli bed.

Not too bad, right? No flowers yet, and truly much more compact.Well, take a look at the monster root structure on this beast, and check out the size of the hole it took to remove it.

Yowza. I had never met this creature before, but it seems to be something comparable to the aptly named creeping charlie. Its leaves aren't quite a match (per some internet research), but it shares those similar flowers and the unpleasant ability to reroot or regrow from pieces of root. In any case, I double-checked, and we've got the regular creeping charlie too.

(Ed. Note: They're actually wild violets, as friend Discknits pointed out in the comments. Thanks!)

So if you're not willing to poison your yard or garden courtesy of Monsanto (and we're not), you're left with two options, apparently. Use borax, which is "natural" but still really toxic, or just weed really well, making sure to get the whole root. Today I did the latter in the broccoli bed, and I'll have to check back in a few days to see if any of them have grown back, like a plant version of Reptilicus (awesome movie, by the way). We intend to eat out of this soil in the future, so we're really hesitant to put down any herbicides, natural or otherwise. We shall see in a few days just how much of a pain this plant is going to be. I am hopeful, but I'm bracing myself for the possibility of a drawn out battle.

But not all our flowers are bad! Just this week, some other "volunteer" plants sprung up in the front beds, apparently put in place by one of the former owners of our house. This one's even prettier, and I'm pretty sure I won't have to fight with it. :)

Have you had creeping charlie? Can we beat it, or are we doomed to a future of pretty flowers that are determined to destroy our garden?

Sunday, March 18, 2012

March (Gardening) Madness

As you may recall from our last post, we said our farm has been growing in more than one way. And while it's hard to top the excitement of seeing plants sprouting up where you've sown a few tiny seeds, recent developments come pretty darn close. We've been working like crazy the past few weekends to take advantage of the mild weather and get most of our garden beds prepped for the upcoming season. But to truly appreciate the magnitude of where we are, we had to take a look back at where we came from.

Our first garden bed, built and placed last October. The former owner's playset is still standing in our way. We took that down late last year to make way for more garden.

Last weekend - the previously mentioned garlic bed and cold frame have been joined by four more raised beds.

At the end of the day today, we've got a grand total of 11 raised beds for a whopping 336 square feet of plantable space! And we're not even finished yet! There's still a chicken coop to be added, and four more vegetable beds. By the time we're done, we'll have almost as much square footage of garden as we had living space in our first apartment. So, yeah, we've definitely been doing some growing.

Right now most of these beds are empty, but we've already got crops planted in three of them. There's the garlic we started last fall, the cool-season vegetables we planted last weekend in the cold frame, and just today we filled a box with onion sets. Onion sets are mini onion bulbs that have been started from seed by a nursery company (in our case Earl May). As a gardener, the only thing you need to do is put them in the ground and keep them watered. By the end of the season, each set will have grown into a full size, home-grown onion. This is a great project for the beginner gardener.

Another really fun plant for beginners and veterans alike is one we have in the cold frame: radishes! Radishes may have a love-them or hate-them flavor, but almost everyone loves to grow them for one particular reason. We started ours last week, and now...

Almost every last one of them has sprouted! Radishes are great because they're traditionally the first vegetable to plant outdoors, first to sprout, and first to harvest. These little guys will be ready for us to enjoy in less than a month. And whether you can't get enough of that peppery flavor, or just can't stand it, radishes signal that the gardening season has begun in earnest. And that makes the hard work of the past few weekends worth it.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

We're Off And Growing!

That's right, our urban farm is really starting to show signs of growth. And in more ways than one. Let's just say that it was a very busy and active weekend; so much so that it's taken til Tuesday night to find time to write about it! To start with, we headed back to our garden area and found these beautiful green shoots coming up out of the ground.

Those are from the garlic we planted last fall. We planted two varieties, and so far every single clove of Georgian Crystal has some leaves poking up through the mulch. Strangely, not one of the Chesnook Reds has appeared yet, but different types of a plant can have different times to germinate. No need to panic yet, and if nothing else, we're looking at 25 heads of garlic minimum, if we can get them through the growing season. They don't need any maintenance so far, but it won't be too long before they generate long stalks (scapes) that we'll have to trim back. For now, we just wait.

Next we headed over to the cold frame we built, for our cold season crops. It's been a weirdly warm spring so far, so it was over 65 degrees outside when we lifted up a glass pane to check the temperature within.

It might be a little hard to see on the photo, but that's our thermometer reading nearly 100 degrees! It was actually 110 when we first looked, but we lost a little bit of temperature while taking the picture. And honestly, that's fine. 110 degrees is way warmer than we needed for our first few veggies of the year, so we took one of the panes off to vent a little bit. Since it's going to be in the mid-to-high 70s all this week, we'll keep that panel off so we don't cook our seeds. If it were a more typical spring, we'd probably need the glass to capture some heat during the day so things don't freeze overnight.

Even though it's unseasonably warm, we're still starting with cold-hardy crops. It's March in the Midwest; for all we know it could still snow again! For that reason, we stuck with the early season basics in our cold frame.

Spinach, from Burpee, an old packet from the year we first started gardening. Some radishes we nabbed at a bigbox store a few years back. And that guy in the middle is a newcomer. Mache, also known as corn salad, is a supremely hardy salad green that you can supposedly grow well into the winter. Neither of us has ever eaten it before but it really sounded like a good option to try. And we found seeds from Botanical Interests, a neat family owned seed company that prominently refuses to use genetically modified plants. We're eager to see how they turn out.

We planted these seeds into a third of the cold frame box and gave them a good drink of water. The idea is to wait a week or two before planting the next third, and so on for the final portion. If all goes as planned, the harvest times should then be staggered as well, and we'll have a longer window in which to eat all our produce.

So there you have it. We're now up to five types of vegetables that have either sprouted or at least been planted. Garlic, broccoli, spinach, radishes and mache. That sounds like the start to a pretty tasty meal, and it was a good accomplishment for the weekend to get it all going. But believe it or not, that wasn't our main task of the past few days. There was also quite a bit of construction going on. Stay tuned later this week for an update on some pretty significant groundbreaking. Being an urban farmer sure keeps you busy, but it should all be worth it as our plants (and plans) continue to grow!

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Shedding Some Light on our Seedlings

Once again, our broccoli seeds didn't need near the 7-10 days predicted on the seed packet to sprout. Within about 3-4 days of planting, several of them had already popped up out of the starting medium. When that happened, we turned off the heat mat and needed to add light. There is a window nearby, but at this time of year in Iowa there isn't near enough sunlight. When that happens, the seedlings literally have to reach for the light, growing tall and spindly.To augment the natural light, we decided to rebuild our grow light from last year.

If you haven't already seen it, the grow light we built is a simple PVC pipe structure. Anyone can build one just like it with minimal tools and a few dollars expenditure of pipe. Here are all the pieces laid out on the floor.

We have three pieces of 1" PVC pipe that are just a bit longer than our light fixture, vertical pieces a few feet long to suspend the light, and two side assemblies that gave us enough width to accommodate seed-starting trays. Those were just made of two shorter pieces joined at a T-fitting. The only slightly tricky part was cutting the pipe; we borrowed a special pipe cutting tool from a friend, but it could have been done with a saw, too.

Here's the grow light frame all put together. We simply pushed the lengths of pipe into fittings (6 elbows and 2 tees) so it can easily disassemble for storage. The top piece of pipe has a couple hooks screwed into it at the right spacing to match the chains from the light fixture.

Our light fixture is a regular 4 foot T8 fluorescent hanging shop light. It holds two light bulbs, and if you really wanted to go nuts, you could buy special (i.e. expensive) full spectrum bulbs designed for growing plants. But you can achieve almost the same effect by using one "warm" and one "cool" white light bulb. This gives the plants nearly all of the light spectrum that they actually use, and doesn't cost a fortune. For just starting seeds, it's a good way to go.

The light should be hung just above the plants, again to prevent them from having to reach for it. Since our light is on a chain, we can raise or lower it by hooking different links to the top bar. These babies need a lot of light, so rather than relying on our memories to turn the light on and off, we've got it plugged into a basic timer to provide 16 hours of light a day. All that leaves us to do is keep the little broccoli plants well watered and they should be fine until we need to transplant them.

For now, the plants seem to be doing pretty well! It's a long way from edible, but it's a start!