The Southern Agrarian

Southern Agrarianism and the culture of the Old South

Category: Garden (page 1 of 6)

One Acre Makeover

At some point last year, it became clear to me that I needed to make some major changes here on our one acre homestead. If your place is already exactly what it should be, then you might want to skip reading this post. Otherwise, perhaps you’ll find a bit of inspiration here.

The Problem:

  • The garden was not set up for efficiently maintaining it. As the years start adding up for me, making it easy to maintain becomes more important.
  • The garden irrigation system had underground pipes through the garden area, and that’s a really bad idea when using a powerful roto-tiller. Running over a pipe creates quite an interesting fountain in the garden.
  • The trees that provided some shade were old water oaks. In this part of the country, they are really more like giant weeds. They don’t produce anything and they tend to rot from the inside out (just as nations and cultures do), and it goes unnoticed until a storm comes along and blows it over – sometimes taking other things with it.
  • The bee hives that I set in the garden were OK until the bees got in a cranky mood at the same time that I needed to work in the garden. Keeping bees means you’re going to get stung once in a while, but you never really get used to it no matter what anyone says.

 

The Solution:

  • The patchwork garden design became a single rectangular block. The duck pen, the bee hives, the bananas, and the pineapple patch – gone. The duck pen was moved back out of the garden area, the pineapple plants were transplanted to a single row along the perimeter fence, the banana plants cut down and dug up, and the bee hives were moved away from the garden.
  • The irrigation system now consists of two rows of overlapping sprinklers along the sides such that every part of the garden is covered by at least two sprinklers. All the irrigation pipe and one electrical conduit were removed from the garden area.
  • All of the oaks were removed. It wasn’t cheap, but it takes heavy equipment and it needed to be done. With the yard now opened up, I planted peaches, apples, pears, pomegranates, persimmons, figs, avocado, and plums. I would rather spend my time here watching the young fruit trees grow up than watching the old water oaks rot and die. At this stage of life, watching the young grow up is one of life’s greatest joys. Think grandchildren.
  • The bee hives were moved to the side of the house. It is an area that is otherwise unused, and there are no doors on that end of the house. The bees are happy and so are we. I also reduced the number of hives from ten down to three – plenty enough for pollination and some honey.

 

Future posts will detail things like planting the fruit trees, the bee hives, etc. For now, I’ll let the pictures tell the story.

 

The Water Oaks come out


The buried pipe comes out


Banana plants are next to be removed


Stakes mark where a row of fruit trees will be planted


Fruit trees being planted

Grow What You DON’T Eat

Cotton from the garden

Fruits and vegetables are what most folks think of when they think of gardening. There are, however, other things that are good to grow, but are not for the dinner table. We’ll go into each of these in more detail in future posts, but I wanted to get you thinking about what non-food plants you might want to try growing.

  • Winter Rye – Used to add organic matter to the soil. It also helps control the nematode population, protects the top surface layer of soil, shades out weeds. I had my garden planted in this over the past Winter. It was used as a calibration crop to compare different areas of the garden and to add organic matter to the soil when it was tilled under in the Spring.
  • Cotton – Mainly just a fun crop for most of us. On the other hand, it is a vital component in society and open-pollinated seed stock must be preserved. Each year, I grow a few cotton plants just to keep a supply of seeds and to show visitors where their clothing comes from. The variety I grow – Red Foliated White – is a beautiful plant. The cotton yield from this open-pollinated variety is nowhere near as high as what commercially-grown cotton yields, but I’m not interested in growing commercial hybrids.
  • Luffa Gourd – Sold in stores as Luffa Sponges, they are great for scrubbing in the shower. They also make a great utility scrubber. The very young fruit and flowers can be eaten, but I’ve never tried eating it. They produce numerous beautiful yellow flowers, so we have them planted along the front fence this year.
  • Velvet Bean – This vine was a very commonly grown plant along with corn in the days before cheap fertilizer. It fixes Nitrogen in the soil, supports tall plants in high winds, and shades out weeds with its kudzu-like growth pattern. An interesting side note is its use as a treatment for Parkinson’s Disease.
  • Gourds – Used to make bird houses, water dippers, crafts, and other items.
  • Moringa – This one is a sort-of-food plant (actually a tree). High in vitamins and minerals, the leaves are dried, ground into a powder, then used as a food supplement. This is a very fast growing tree and is often kept pruned to bush size to make harvesting easier.
  • Marigolds – In addition to it’s beautiful flowers, it repels insects when planted among other plants.

What have you grown that isn’t for the dinner table?

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From Yard To Garden

New garden area with cow manure added, and part of the peat moss added. Note the barren soil in the foreground – even weeds have a hard time growing here.

As much as I expanded my garden over the past several months, I still ran out of room. The solution? Turn an unused part of the backyard into garden. The problem is that this unused part of the yard is so infertile that even weeds have a hard time growing there. That makes this more of an experiment than just a routine garden project. Here’s what I’ve done:

  1. Used the BCS Two-wheel Tractor with tiller attachment to rototill the area. I went over it twice in both directions. I raked and picked up the assorted roots and weeds (and a beautiful piece of heavy green glass from some long-ago bottle).
  2. Watered it very heavily. In addition to adding much-needed moisture, this greatly improves the ability to work the soil.
  3. The next day, I added cow manure and peat moss. It was mixed in using a Mantis tiller with the tines reversed so that it just mixes things up without digging deeply.
  4. More watering, with the ducks “helping”.
  5. Marked out the rows and planted Seminole Pumpkin seeds.

 

Ducks just can’t pass up the opportunity to play in the water.

I had planted some Seminole Pumpkin seeds in the main garden area, but decided I’d rather put more okra in. Seminole Pumpkin can take up a huge amount of space as it spreads out. It won’t hurt if it spreads out in this new garden area, but it would have shaded out other plants in the main garden area.

As I said, this is really an experiment to see what it takes to turn a small (11′ x 19′) patch of barren ground into a fertile garden. We’ll take another look at it later in the year. In the mean time, the main garden is starting to have green where there was once only dirt.

A lesson to be learned here is that if I can turn this piece of barren sand into a productive garden, then anyone can find a place to start one.

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What’s In The Garden Now? June 1, 2016

Eggplant in the foreground and tomatoes in the background.

Eggplant in the foreground and tomatoes in the background.


I’m always interested in hearing what others are growing in their gardens, so this post is about what is in my garden now. But first, a note about what my priorities are and how I choose what to grow:

  • Sustainability – Everything that I plant in my garden is open pollinated. Savings seeds is just as important to me as the vegetables that go on the table. Hybrids are not even considered when picking varieties.
  • Resilience – Rather than start with “What do I like?” and then try to make it grow here, my strategy is to ask “What will dependably grow here?” and then find ways to prepare it so that I enjoy it. (See the section on Squash below for any example).
  • Organic – I avoid the use of any chemical pesticides or herbicides. I’m not fanatical about it, but it’s been many years since I used any chemical pesticides on the garden. When needed, I use BT and Neem Oil, which are both organic pesticides that are safe to apply immediately before picking and eating.

Eggplant – This is a hot-weather favorite that keeps on producing through all but the very hottest summer days. In the past, I have always gone with Black Beauty, but this year I am growing the Florida High Bush variety. My hope is that, based on the description I read, the plants will be stronger and less likely to be blown over in a wind, yet still have the good taste and texture of the Black Beauty. This variety was developed in the 1940’s for commercial fields, and the objective was to keep the fruit up off the ground. So far, so good.

Tomato – What’s a garden without tomatoes? Several years ago, I did some fairly extensive testing for taste, quantity, and general quality. I grew several varieties and kept careful records. I counted the yield from each individual plant, and I wrote a number on the individual fruits and gave them to friends and relatives and asked them to rate them by various criteria. The overall winner was Homestead 24. That has become my standard tomato variety and I see no reason to change. There will be some other varieties that may taste slightly better or have other desirable qualities, but – all things considered – the Homestead 24 beats them all.

Bell Peppers – I’m trying a new variety this year: Chinese Giant. As the name implies, these are a very large fruited pepper. I have read that if thinned (something I haven’t tried yet), they can reach 5″ – 6″ in length and width. My previous variety was California Wonder; they were good, but I wanted to try something new.

Okra – Another great hot-weather producer. This year is a test of a strain of Clemson Spineless called “Heavy Hitter”. In the past, I always went with regular Clemson Spineless, but when I read about Heavy Hitter, I had to give it a try. Heavy Hitter has a different branching pattern which results in more branches – and thus more fruit – from each plant. It was developed by Mr. Ron Cook in Oklahoma. If it works as I think it will, I’ll be doing whatever I can to help promote this strain of okra. This was planted quite late since I wanted to put it in some new ground that had been lawn up until a few months ago.

Squash – I suppose this one doesn’t really belong here since I turned the entire crop under two days ago. In previous years, I decided “No more squash” because they were always ruined by worms boring holes and ruining the fruit. Stubbornly, I wanted to give it one more try. The first few were great, but then the worms came (I avoid the use of pesticides wherever possible). Not wanting to feed the worms, I used my BCS tractor with the roto-tiller attachment to turn that part of the garden into dirt. Next year, I’ll go back to planting Seminole Pumpkin and use it as a squash.

Cotton – I like planting cotton every once in a while just to have it. This year, I planted Red Foliated White Cotton that I got from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. The stem parts of the plants are red – an interesting color in the garden – and it produces a short staple white cotton. What do I do with it? Not much. It is just interesting to grow, and there are plenty of folks who have never seen cotton growing.

So – what do you have in your garden now?

Cotton blossom, Red Foliated White Cotton.

Cotton blossom, Red Foliated White Cotton.

Getting To Know The Scuffle Hoe

Three Scuffle Hoes

Three Scuffle Hoes. The one on the right is made by Rogue Hoe and is built to last a lifetime.

My cousin introduced me to the Scuffle Hoe, and I’m grateful that he did. The Scuffle Hoe is a rather specialized tool. It does an excellent job of getting rid of small, just-emerging weeds in loose soil. The sandy soil that we have here in this part of The South is ideal for using this tool – especially when it is dry.

The Scuffle Hoe is used by sliding the blade just a bit below the surface to cut the weeds off below the ground level. If the soil is dry, that makes it easier to use, and the weeds dry out very quickly so they can’t take root again. It is much easier to control than a regular field hoe when working close to garden plants. Think of it as a maintenance tool intended to keep your garden clean. Use a regular field hoe for the big stuff.

There are two basic types of Scuffle Hoe, and they both work the same way. One uses a blade (shown on the left in the above photo, also known as a stirrup hoe) and the other is a triangular blade. So far, both have held up well, but I suspect that the triangular design is the tougher, more durable of the two.

If you haven’t used one before, make it a point to get one and try it out. If you have very hard packed soil or heavy clay, wait until you’ve improved the soil before trying to use one. If you start out with a clean garden, a Scuffle Hoe will make it easy to keep it clean.

Peaches in Florida

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Until quite recently, the idea of successfully growing peaches here in north central Florida was little more than a dream. New varieties have made that a reality. The photo of the peach shown above was taken today (May 10, 2016). If I’ve ever had a sweeter peach, I sure don’t remember when. It was like taking a bite into peach-flavored sugar – and I mean that in the best way possible. I planted these trees in December, 2014 (17 months ago).

Peaches developed for low chill requirements have all the flavor and texture of the best standard peaches, but they tend to be smaller – especially if they are not thinned to one fruit for each six to ten inches of branch. I have planted two different varieties – Florida Prince and Tropic Beauty. Florida Prince is now fully ripened, and the Tropic Beauty fruit is still green, which means the season is spread out more. A big advantage that the early ripening Florida Prince has is that the fruit ripens before insects become a real problem here – something that I was concerned about when I first planted them.

Peach trees are every bit as beautiful as most ornamental trees, so consider adding some peach trees to your orchard. I’ll be writing posts on how to lay out a fruit tree orchard, how to plant the trees, and more on some of the other varieties of fruit trees that we have planted on our one acre homestead.

What kind of fruit trees are you growing? Please reply and let us know.

One Thing Leads to Another

It’s been quite a while since I have added a new post here. It’s been far too long, so here’s a quick overview of what we have been doing for the past few months. I’ll be posting details of these projects and more.

IMG_1970_phatchTree Clearing – We had over twenty old water oak trees and a few palm trees removed from the property. Water oaks are like weeds – they grow quickly, drop branches, make a mess, then rot and die. I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life watching old trees rot and die.

IMG_2016_phatchTree Planting – With the water oaks removed, I now have open sunny areas to plant fruit trees. There are now rows of pears, apples, peaches, persimmons, figs, and pomegranates. I’ve planted plenty of trees in the past, but most of them were planted the wrong way. I learned how to correctly plant a tree to assure that it doesn’t have problems several years later.

IMG_2825_phatchHoney Bees – With the prospect of having fruit trees that will need pollinating, and a vegetable garden that needs pollinating, I’m now a beekeeper with five hives. I’ve joined the local beekeeping group (there were about 40 members present at the last meeting). My wife and I attended the two-day Bee College, put on by the University of Florida.

IMG_2450_phatchDucks and Chickens – After many years of keeping chickens, I have switched over to ducks. I had planned to keep both, but the ducks have worked out so well, it just made more sense to only have the ducks. We’ll have some posts about the pros and cons of ducks and chickens. It’s probably not the best choice for everyone, but it might be for you.

Garden Experiments

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If you’ve been growing your own food for any length of time, you already know that there is a whole lot more to it than putting seeds in the dirt and waiting for harvest time. Those who buy a can of “Survival Seeds” and set it in a closet “just in case” are going to be severely disappointed – and hungry.

I have a nice collection of books about growing food and raising small livestock. They are the starting point, not the final authority. I routinely discover that what works great for one person (or the author of one book) just doesn’t work when I try it. The answer to that is experimentation. You have to try it yourself. You have to compare different groups with only one or two variables. You have to keep careful notes. None of these things are particularly fun or easy, but the results are always worth the effort.

Do you test your soil? Do you keep notes on what you have added and how the plants react? Sometimes it is almost impossible to keep track of (What went into that last batch of compost you added?), but make notes anyway. The notes might not be used, but wouldn’t you hate to end up with that perfect season and not know what was in the soil, when the seeds went into the ground, what the variety was, and where you got the seeds?

One of the keys to effective experimentation is to reduce the number of variables to as few as possible. That’s one reason why I like to always start my seeds in individual pots. I always plant more than I anticipate using; that way, I can plant only the best seedlings and they are all relatively uniform. The ones that look weaker than the others are culled. Any that are remarkably more vigorous than the rest are tagged in the garden to see if they carry that trait through to maturity. If so, that’s a plant that I’ll save seeds from (and, of course, make a note to that effect).

Don’t just plant a garden – improve your garden. Make it your goal to have each year’s garden better than the last year. Experiment, test, take notes, and adjust.

What have you experimented with? How do you keep your notes organized? Leave a reply about something you’ve tested in your own garden.

Seed Handling

When planting large seeds, such as squash, pumpkin, beans, etc., it’s easy to just grab a small handful of seeds and set them in the soil. If you’re using a row planter, it picks up one seed at a time and spaces them out quite nicely. When it comes to handling small seeds and placing just one seed in a pot or a soil block, how do you pick up and move that one tiny seed? I have tried several methods and have settled on some tools that work well for me.

I have been using the Gro-Mor Mini-Wand Vacuum Seeder for several years now, and it still amazes me how such a simple tool can make such a big difference. The vacuum seeder uses a vacuum bulb to pick up one seed at a time and then release it when needed. It comes with several tip sizes that can be used for different size seeds.

There are several different designs, and I’m confident that there are others that work just as well as the one that I’m using. The important point is that you need a specialized tool to efficiently handle tiny seeds. You don’t want to waste seeds, and you don’t want to plant more than one seed in a single hole. A good seed dispenser will solve that problem.

I am using a different soil mixture for this batch of seeds. This is two parts ordinary potting soil with one part Perlite.

Using the Gro-Mor vacuum seed dispenser to plant bell pepper seeds.

Using the Gro-Mor vacuum seed dispenser to plant bell pepper seeds.

A small number of seeds are placed in a cup. The seeds are then picked up and moved, one at a time, into the seed holes.

A small number of seeds are placed in a cup. The seeds are then picked up and moved, one at a time, into the seed holes.

A different type of seed dispenser being used to cover the seeds with medium Vermiculite. I then use a misting nozzle to wet the surface without disturbing the seeds.

A different type of seed dispenser being used to cover the seeds with medium Vermiculite. I then use a misting nozzle to wet the surface without disturbing the seeds.

A Different Way to Start Seeds

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My standard method of starting seeds has been to use soil blocks – a molded block of soil with no container to keep it together. I have excellent results with them, but they tend to be rather fragile and require extra care to make sure they don’t fall apart. In addition, the process of making them is a bit more labor-intensive – not a lot, but it’s enough to cause planting to be put off until a larger block of time is available.

Yesterday, I planted a tray of 50 seeds using 2″ cube seed pots (Note that although the product is great, their delivery time is very slow). Unlike so many seed starting containers, these are a heavy duty plastic that should last for many years with decent care. Fifty of them fit perfectly in a standard 1020 (10″ x 20″) seedling tray.

After filling and compressing the soil into the seed pots, I soaked the soil well. After an hour to let the moisture work its way through the soil, I used the end of a Sharpie marker to push a small indentation into the soil in each pot. The seeds were added (one per pot – I try to avoid multi-seed planting), and then covered with some medium Vermiculite, then lightly watered again.

This batch included 20 Bell Peppers (California Wonder), 20 Egg Plant (Black Beauty), and 10 Squash (Early Prolific Straight Neck). As I usually do, I drew up a diagram of the seeds in the tray so they would not get mixed up. Popsicle sticks mark the borders between different seed types. The trays are now setting on the seed heating pad and covered with a clear plastic top to retain moisture, so I should see green in the next few days. As soon as they begin to sprout, the tray will be moved under the lights.

Like much of what I do here, this is an experiment. I mixed a small handful of organic fertilizer in with a 5 gallon bucket of ordinary potting soil. There was nothing precise about this – my goal was to have a quick and easy way to plant the seeds. This was an experiment of necessity, since this should have been done at least a month ago.

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