Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Autumn Urban Gardening-Better Soil vs. More Food

Daniel here: I'm feeling a tension between two desires in the garden. The tension is at least partially the product of urban gardening (or gardening in small spaces). As Fall approaches part of me wants to plant cover crops (more on that below) and part of me wants to grow Fall food (onions, garlic, broccoli, brussels sprouts, etc.). But we can't do both, or maybe we can. So, below is the result of some of my thinking in this area especially regarding the value of not planting for food and improving soil with cover crop. I would really like to hear from others who are feeling this tension or others who have advice on soil health.

Why do I want to plant cover crops? What is a cover crop? what is it good for? Better answers found here at the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service (click on the title to view the document). Below are my current answers to the above questions gleaned from the cover crop document and other resources I've been chewing on recently. They've helped me settle the tension described above.
**Buckwheat growing with eggplant behind. These buckwheat plants have been in the ground for a couple of weeks. They are 6-12" and I have no clue how tall they will grow. But the taller the better.

A cover crop is any crop grown to provide soil cover. Even if not tilled in later a cover crop prevents erosion by wind and water which is vital to preserving topsoil. Gardeners find many other reasons for incorporating cover crops into their gardens. The above reason applies to anyone who would like to prevent the erosion of vital topsoil. The primary motivation here is soil health. Good healthy soil is the foundation of good healthy food. So, what makes good healthy soil? Well it helps to think of the health and goodness as a product of cooperation or community. Differences in pH, nutrient concentrations, and other factors create a plethora of various habitats within the soil but we could break the major players into these groups:

1)Photosynthesizers-(plants)-use solar energy to fix CO2 and add organic matter (biomass to soil). They capture energy from the sun and air and make life possible in the soil. Cover crops are in this category. Note that harnessing solar power is very old not a new product of human industry.
2)Good bacteria and fungi-break down residue, retain nutrients in their bodies so that it is not leached out of the upper layers where it will be out of reach to garden plants, create new compounds or aggregates by releasing binding agents (excrement and mucus and making available resins) enhancing soil tilth and structure, convert nitrogen into more useful forms for garden plants, and compete with or inhibit disease causing organisms.
Good bacteria and fungi also protect plant roots from disease causing organisms, and enter into mutually beneficial relationships with plant roots by processing and delivering nutrients to roots.
3)Protozoa, nematodes and micro-arthropods graze on bacteria and fungi, release nutrients when feeding on them, control root-feeding and disease causing pests, and help control the bacterial and fungal populations.
4)Earthworms and macro-arthropods shred plant litter and build soil structure by producing fecal pellets and burrowing through the soil.

In general the bacteria, fungi, protozoa, nematodes, and arthropods make soil healthy for veggie plants but need their own sustenance to thrive and to process for veggies. Veggies depend on good soil and when we remove the fruit we remove some of the biomass and nutrients that went into their production. Cover crops then are fundamental to providing the food for the micro-organisms which provide healthy soil for the veggies.
**Buckwheat flowering.

Here is a list of major benefits of using cover crops (for large or small gardens).
1)Many fruits and vegetables need lots of nitrogen. Some cover crops actually return nitrogen to the soil by taking it from the surrounding air and delivering it through the roots making it available for next years crop. We call these nitrogen fixers.
2)Cover crops introduce biomass, immediately their roots and later their stalks, leaves, flowers, and fruits to the micro-organisms who need it to live. Veggies need the micro-organisms to break the material down to make better soil for their needs.
3)Some cover crops are actually good at capturing nutrients and specific cover crops capture specific nutrients well. These nutrients would wash further into the soil out of reach of vegetables and fruit. When they are taken in by cover crops they are drawn up and out of the soil and then returned and digested by the soil life when tilled in thereby making the same nutrients available to next years crop. We call these catch crops because unlike #1 they grab up nutrients already in the ground and hold on to them.
4)Microbial activity, and all of its benefits, increase with increase biomass provided by cover crops. Increased microbial activity (at least the good kind) is better for healthy veggies for the reasons listed above and because they fight off bad microbial activity. For instance, this season I learned about Fusarium and Verticillium fungi which inhabit poor soil and cause damage to potato, tomato, pepper, eggplant, and even okra. The GM(genetic modification) folks try and produce a kind of fruit that will be resistant to these fungi which attack the new roots and clog the vascular tissue of the plants above thereby preventing nutrients and essentially choking the plant with clogged arteries. The alternative is to improve soil health so that these fungi will be managed by a strong soil immune system (good microbes).
5)Some cover crops are excellent at breaking up compacted soil, allowing air, water, and soil life into otherwise dead zones.
6)Some cover crops mature very quickly allowing for improvement of soil in short seasons or in between Winter and Summer or Summer and Fall planting.
7) Some cover crops tolerate poorer soil and more difficult climates thereby improving otherwise ungardenable soil.
8)Cover crops suppress weeds that are of less benefit to soil health.
9)Cover crops conserve water. My dad actually reported a story told by Louis Bromfield, info here, who won the Pulitzer Prize for literature and later was a real pioneer in sustainable agriculture in Ohio. He purchased dry, useless,wasted farm land in Ohio, planted cover crops and watched as springs began to appear on land which had been dry and wasted. In other words, once the soil improved, the water was retained and built up enough to begin to form natural springs again. I found this fascinating.
**Beans being used both as a cover crop and a food producer in our Spring potato beds.

The document above will give you many good recommendations on cover crops that are useful for various purposes(it also includes a list of names which I have omitted). I have planted buckwheat this summer as other garden plants mature and die. I chose buckwheat because it tolerates poor conditions, fixes nitrogen in the soil, matures quickly, and is killed by frost (this prevents me from having to worry about it returning next year when I want to plant veggies).

Legumes are considered good cover crops because they fix large amounts of nitrogen in the soil. In these potato beds we have planted a second crop of beans (picture just above). Legumes are a cool cover crop because they are good for the soil and provide food. Peanuts and soy are two other legumes which do the same. You should check out table 4 of the document listed above. For instance Austrian Winter Beans provide 144 lbs. of nitrogen, 115 lbs. of potassium, 19 lbs. of phosphorus, and 45 lbs. of calcium per acre. Wow!

Because buckwheat matures quickly I may have time to introduce a second winter cover crop. This is not possible in some climates but Blue Lupine, called a "biologic plow" for its strong deep roots, will grow straight through the winter in our climate (it is native to the North East I believe). So, before next Spring I may be able to integrate the roots and plant matter of several generations of cover crop into the soil. This will contribute greatly to the potential of the soil to produce good nutritious food for our family.

Now back to the debate over growing food or improving soil this Fall and Winter. We are compromising. I hope to get at least one cover crop on every bed but then I will select some of the beds to practice growing food through the winter and select others for cover crop through the winter. Those that work this winter will get a cover crop in the Spring preparing them for Summer. Those that receive the cover crop this Fall/Winter will be planted in the Spring. That's the best I could come up with and I can't wait till it is much harder to accomplish than that sounds. It always is.

Some other steps we are taking to integrate biomass (the materials needed for soil life) into the soil include covering the beds with hay. Hay is cheap, provides cover for the soil in the summer helping it retain water, and then breaks down and contributes to the soil quality. We also get the free mulch from tree trimmers and right now are only integrating that inbetween beds in the paths. Here is an interesting blog post at "Garden Rant" about the value of integrating wood chips into garden beds. Go to GARDEN RANT to read new evidence that wood chips can be integrated into beds counter to standard gardening wisdom. But as I said at this point we only have it in the paths. Once it is broken down I will probably shovel onto beds and add fresh chips into the paths. Last, instead of ripping root systems out of the soil when plants die I simply cut off the stalk compost it and allow the roots to decompose in their place. This causes less disturbance to the soil community and provides food for the microbial life. When the roots decay they leave air pockets for water and oxygen to penetrate.
**Trays of Fall starts getting some sun. We have improved our seed starting soil greatly with Spaghnum Peat Moss. These kale, broccoli, and cabbage are very happy.

If your thinking that cover crops are just for the "serious gardener" or the large scale operations think again. Cover crop seeds are generally cheap and can be bought in larger bulk quantities by mail order. I am going to recommend Southern Exposure Seed Exchange for several reasons, but they have a limited variety of cover crop choices and it may be worthwhile to shop elsewhere. However, they are in the South and there are few good seed producers working in the South. They are very fast with shipping and we have had good success with their seeds.
Cover crops can be planted rather easily.
1)I removed the top layer of hay from our beds,
2)I lightly disturbed the soil with a rake, and then just cast or sprinkled the seeds lightly over the soil. This works because the seeds are cheap and most will find their way into a crevice. Most small seeds only need a 1/4" planting depth. This way you can cover a larger area quickly.
3)Then I placed the hay back on top and watered. The watering helps to cover the seeds but certainly some seeds don't get covered and don't generate. The seedlings will push right up through a light sprinkle of hay no problem.
4)If you plant in the heat, yep I did, make sure you water regularly until the seedlings are well established. In general cover crops are tougher than garden veggies, but keep an eye on them. They'll let you know if they need a drink.
**Ellen is holding my new 4 lbs. bag of buckwheat seed from Southern Exposure. She recommends you try a cover crop this Fall or next Spring to give even the smallest garden an extra boost.

My info on soil critters was taken from a useful book my dad bought me years ago at a gardening conference in Boone. It is called SOIL BIOLOGY PRIMER. It's an incredibly helpful introduction to the basic members of the soil community, their functions and roles, etc.

Last, due to my extreme fallibility there may be errors above. Don't hesitate to send a correction, ask a question for more info or clarification, or send us info you have found useful. I'll do what I can to field questions. At this point I'm having fun doing the research. No, this is not my PhD.

Until next time.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Another harvest and other summer fun

I like to use the blog as my gardening journal. Here is what we harvested this weekend. It is always a fun challenge to figure out the best ways to eat/cook all these veggies. Not sure what I'm going to do yet, but we'll probably have pizza, stew, stir fry, and salsa throughout the week.
Gardening is not the only thing we've been doing in recent weeks. We spent a day on the river in downtown Columbia...
These are the traditional rock jumping pictures. Remember the ones from last summer?

We've also been going to the free Saturday night concerts in downtown Columbia. They are always fun. We bring a quilt, picnic, frisbee, and books. Frisbee throwing is a lot harder than it looks. I'm not much better than the girls, but we all have fun trying. We usually stay until it gets dark. The bands are not always great but sometimes we get to hear really good musicians. I haven't been bringing my camera but the one time I did the only picture was this one that Ellen took of Daniel and me. We are nice and hot since it is probably 9o something degrees (remember these are evening concerts!). Not a great picture of me but we were having fun.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Another summer harvest

Our Sunday harvest included figs, squash, cucumbers, okra, cherry tomatoes, green peppers, eggplant, and cantaloupe. We've enjoyed having most of at least one meal a day coming from the garden.
The peppers in this picture above are in addition to the ones I posted yesterday. We are getting lots right now. I've also got cherry tomatoes here but I had already harvested and given away a large bowl full the day before. That's about the amount of okra we get a day. So with these ingredients and the onions and garlic we got earlier in the summer we have been making some tasty okra and tomato dishes. We are still getting a few squash but not as many as before.

Figs! That's a homemade fig newton behind the bowl of fresh figs. They are so nice and sweet. I had never eaten figs before moving into this house. We have 1 large, 1 medium, and 3 small fig trees in the back yard (the 2 bigger ones were here when we moved in.) I have really grown to love this sweet and nutritious snack from the yard.
Pictured above is one of each of a few things we've been enjoying lately. First is the pepper relish I wrote about in the previous post. Haven't tried it yet. The cucumbers are in the middle. I have to tell about these because this is another thing that I have learned to love this year. I never liked cucumbers until we started eating them like this. Some people call it cucumber salad. Some add onions, and/or tomatoes. In other words there are tons of ways to eat these fresh picked cucumbers. I keep them in a jar in the fridge. When Daniel brings them in every day I chop them up and put them in these quart jars of half vinegar and half water. Sometimes I add a little salt and/or sugar. We put them in smaller containers and take them on picnics and Daniel brings them for lunch. We have eaten a ton of cucumbers this way and really enjoyed them.

The last jar is blueberry jam. We do have blueberries in the yard but not enough to make a batch of jam. The girls and I went out to a blueberry farm near Columbia and got over 2 gallons--somewhere around 18 pounds. We enjoyed them fresh, in muffins and scones, and in cobbler. I also made 10 pints of blueberry jam. We have opened these and they are delicious!

Ellen's showing you a berry from our largest blueberry bush in the yard. We have 5 but only one is big like this.

The last of yesterday's harvest is the juicy and sweet cantaloupe. There are 5 pictured here and we have already eaten 5 or so. I also put our first huge butternut squash in this photo which we harvested a couple weeks ago. I threw in some cucumbers for color:)

Finally, here's a picture of the pretty okra flower (notice the bee flying in). We are sad to say that our okra, along with several other plants such as tomato and potato, have a fungal disease. Maybe Daniel will fill you in on the details later. We are just now learning about it and trying to figure it out, but we will not be getting as much okra as expected this year. It's a learning experience and we are learning a lot!

Friday, July 17, 2009


I couldn't help but take a picture of this beautiful bowl of peppers we harvested from the garden last week. I made them into pepper relish last night and put up 4 pints for winter. I think it is going to be very hot relish since I used tons of those little thai peppers that you can see in the bowl. Those things are soooo hot!

Friday, July 10, 2009

Painting and planting. House, shed, and garden updates

I'll start with the shed. Daniel put a new roof on while we were at the beach a few weeks ago. Then he painted it purple and brown. It looks so much better and very cheerful next to the garden.
Next is the kitchen. I couldn't decide on a color. It was a pale green color. Here it is while I was sanding and trying out 4 different colors. I thought I could be bold and use a nice blue or rusty red, but I was too scared.
I went with a neutral taupe/tan color. Next I'll be sanding and painting the cabinets and replacing the hardware. Sorry about the bad pictures but you get the idea of the color.

In the garden we've (I really should say Daniel since he does about 95% of the work) made quite a few changes. He cut down all the bush beans that were finished then cut out the brussels sprouts that didn't do much. He pulled out all the potatoes and planted more bush beans. He has also pulled out the tomatoes that got blossom end rot (or some disease) and has planted a cover crop of buckwheat in all the empty spaces.

This is the bed of bush beans. You can see how he has put lots of wheat straw on the bed. The beans are growing right up through it.

Here's a shot of the buckwheat coming up through the straw. There's a cabbage and some peppers still at the end of this bed. We've harvested 3 medium cabbages and have loved having that for a change. There' s still a few out there.

Here's a close up of the okra. I'm sorry that flower is not open. I could grow these plants just for the flowers because they are so beautiful. We've got a lot of okra but not too much yet. I've really enjoyed it this year cooked in everything -- soups, sautes with pasta or rice, on pizza and of course deep fried.

Here's a few butternut squash on the vine. Daniel already harvested a large one a week ago. I haven't cooked it yet since it stores well.

The watermelon, okra, and sweet potato patch.
We have four o'clock flowers in several spots around the yard. Most of them are yellow, some are pink and some are like this one below.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Home for July

My goal is to stay in Columbia for the month of July. We did a lot of traveling to visit family and friends over the last few months. It's not as though I think about my year in advance and plan to be out of town every other weekend, but with good friends and family scattered across the eastern U.S. I have come up with good reasons for road trips.

Life at home is full. We are continuing our "school work" so the girls spend time every morning learning math, recorder, and reading good books. We are also going through a history curriculum called The Story of the World and we'll be doing nature studies and filling our nature notebook. The afternoons are usually open to swimming, errands, playgroups, or free time. So here's a few fun pictures of the past week having fun with friends.

Swimming at Lake Murray with a group of friends. The girls loved being in the lake and playing in the waves.

The kids making funny faces and taking a short break while picking blueberries at a farm in Lexington, SC. We'll go back at least one more time to get more and make jam. Picking fresh fruit (especially strawberries and blueberries) is one of my favorite things to do. I love being outside and surrounded by the smells and colors of fresh berries.

Fourth of July was spent at our home with some friends and fireworks. Our friends brought over the slip and slide.
It is a Kruidenier tradition to splurge a little on fireworks twice a year at New Year's and July 4th. I didn't get any pictures of the big ones that Daniel lit and we all sat back and enjoyed, but here's one of the crew playing with sparklers.

I'll be posting a garden update and some photos of our recent house/remodel projects soon!

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

some favorite recipes of the summer

I ran across this summer squash soup recipe from the fatfreevegan blog while looking for new things to do with all the yellow summer squash. I tried it the other day and it was delicious and very quick and easy. Basically you just saute onions and garlic add equal parts squash and potato and a few spices and boil till tender. Then puree it all. Click on the link for the full recipe and try it--you will not believe how good it is until you do.

I served it with one of my other favorite recipes for drop biscuits. This is a great recipe because it only has 5 ingredients, there is no kneading or rolling out, and they only cook for 8 minutes. You might be able to find the recipe online but I got it out of my cookbook called The Joy of Vegan Baking. These is by far the best biscuit recipe I've found. My biscuits always turned out hard and small but these drop biscuits are great every time.
1 2/3 c flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
2/3 c non dairy milk
1/3 c canola oil or melted nondairy butter
extra melted butter for brushing top of biscuits about 2 minutes before removing from oven.

Heat oven to 475 and grease a baking sheet
mix flour, baking powder, and salt. Add milk and oil and stir until just combined and moistened. It will be very thick and sticky. Use 2 spoons--one to pick up a walnut size ball of batter and another spoon to scrape off and drop on the baking sheet. Bake until bottoms are golden brown about 8 mins. Brush tops with melted butter a few minutes before taking out.

Zucchini Bread is another thing I make at least once a week. I love this recipe because it has flax seeds as an egg substitute, and I substitute apple sauce for the oil and leave out about a quarter of the sugar. Obviously changing those two things decreases the amount of fat and calories but the sweet bread still turns out scrumptious. I use up about 1 large or 2 medium size zucchini and even add a small yellow squash sometimes. Don't get me wrong though, I don't believe in hiding these veggies and disguising them in our food. Everyone knows exactly what they are eating and although lots of people (especially kids) look at me like I'm crazy when I offer them zucchini bread, most people come back for a second helping! This recipe also came from the Joy of Vegan Baking but I altered it a bit. We eat it for breakfast, lunch and/or dinner.

3 tablespoons of ground flaxseeds or 4 1/2 teaspoons of Ener-G egg replacer
1/2 cup water
1 cup canola oil or half cup oil and 1/2 cup unsweetened applesauce
1 tablespoon white vinegar
2 cups sugar (I use 1 to 1/2 cups per batch)
2 teaspoons vanilla
2 cups grated zucchini (I mix yellow and green squash)
3 cups flour (I use 2 white 1 whole wheat)
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup chopped walnuts
1/2 cup raisins

Heat oven to 325 and grease 2 loaf pans or muffin tins. I like to double the recipe and bake them in two 9x13 inch baking dishes.

Combine flaxseeds and water in medium bowl. Use a mixer or blender or mix with whisk really fast for 2 minutes. Whip until thick and creamy. Add oil, sugar and vinegar and combine. Stir in zucchini and vanilla. In separate bowl sift (I never do but should because we bite into little balls of bitterness every once in while) flour, cinnamon, nutmeg, baking soda, baking powder, and salt. Add nuts and raisins if using. Stir dry mix into wet until just combined. Pour into baking dishes. Bake 60-70 mins for standard loaves, 30-45 mins for muffins or 9x13 dish. Check for doneness by inserting toothpicks.