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How Does the Garden Grow Pt 1: The Garden

It’s been a while since we did an update, and I think it is about time we go in depth on how our vegetable crops are doing. This week was our first CSA drop off, and here is a picture of what our members got in their bag this week:

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Our first ever CSA share! Kale, spinach, salad, parsley, radishes, red onions, sugar snap peas, country white bread and the world famous duck eggs!

The speed at which our plants grow and the amount we are harvesting is accelerating fast this time of year, just 2 weeks out from the solstice. Hot weather also brings a plethora of insects into the garden, some friends and some foes.

The Colorado Potato Beetle (which we wrote a previous post about) has showed up and done a little bit of damage to the plants’ foliage. We’ve kept them covered and go by every few days to squish the buggers by hand, and so far it’s looking like we’ll prevent them from reproducing on our plants, keeping the population down for next year.

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Potatoes in the hill and under cover, lookin’ pretty bug-free.

Another conspicuous predator of veg is the cabbage white butterfly, which lays its eggs on cabbage-family crops. The caterpillars then munch your kale or mustards until there is nothing left but a wilted, fibrous skeleton. We are not doing a great job of keeping this one at bay, with only some of our kale and cabbages with row-cover blocking the butterflies.

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Look closely and you’ll see the cabbage white butterfly. Look closer and you will see holes in the kale.

The pests are present, for sure, but so far not enough to keep us from harvesting the quantities of things we need for market and the CSA. KNOCK ON WOOD.

The most exciting thing about this time of the year is that we are SO close to harvesting some early summer crops: potatoes, tomatoes, and squash. Other crops like tomatillos and eggplant are just now starting to flower, with promised of delectable fruits later in the season.

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Tomatillo flower.

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The babiest, tiniest squash.

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Our first tomato a-ripening on the vine. Destined to be slathered with olive oil, balsamic, basil, and mozzarella.

Weed pressure is pretty high since the soil is very warm, so we are doing our best to stay ahead of them (and not always winning). We are also trying the “stale seedbed” method for our next round of carrots and beets. The idea is to prepare the soil in a bed, then water it very heavily. The weed seeds will germinate, then we will come in with the hoe when they are very young and scratch the surface, killing most of the weeds. This means that there are little to no weeds in the carrot bed by the time they sprout, and we only have to weed the bed once or twice before harvesting.

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(Mostly) weed-free swiss chard, carrots, parsley, dill, and garlic.

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An attempt at knocking back the weeds we brought in with the hay used in sheet mulch. You can see the grass to the right.

Overall the garden is in great shape. We are staying on schedule with our plantings and happy with our yields, especially considering the poor quality of soil we started out with. Somehow the tomatoes, carrots, and garlic seem to love it! Some crops like the okra and beets are growing very slowly, however. Much more soil improvement to be done, the ducks are hard at work.

Here are some more pictures, enjoy!

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Calendula in bloom.

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Mature carrots next to peas and covered potatoes.

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Maximize the space: tomatoes, head lettuce, and basil all sharing the same bed.

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Purple sugar snap PEAS.

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Caring for Soil

The garden is wet and mucky today and after some intense weeding yesterday, we are letting things and ourselves rest until it dries up a little bit. Plentiful rain is an absolute blessing for our young onions, potatoes, and brassicas who are now glistening with beaded drops of water. However, this spring has been a bit challenging with the rain coming so frequently, giving us only a few windows in which it’s dry enough to till and prepare the soil.

So, why shouldn’t you work in the garden when the soil is wet?

Compaction!

Good soil structure is essential for growing healthy plants. Soil pores allow for oxygen and water to flow freely through the soil and form homes for the vast diversity of soil organisms. When you walk on, hoe, dig, or till wet soil, you are likely causing compaction, which causes these pores to collapse. So when you walk out to your garden and the soil sticks to your boots, resist the temptation to work! Instead, do what we did today: go inside, make some hot chocolate and read about organic pest management.

Speaking of “pests,” do you recognize this fella?

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You guessed it! The notorious Colorado Potato Beetle. We have spotted one of these on the property but luckily they have not found our patch of potatoes that are just barely poking up through the soil.

So what to do when these guys do begin to gnaw on our taters? Conventional wisdom would have us declare all-out war on them, and bring in whatever chemical insecticides necessary to eradicate the menace. But wait, these are just tiny little insects on a mission to feed themselves, have a family, and die knowing they contributed to the backyard economy.

Too often we humans appropriate the lexicon of warfare when communicating our horticultural endeavors. But by doing so, we are forgetting the goal here: promote, tend to, enhance, support, and feed life, not recklessly destroy it.

So, again, what to do? Well, the plan for now is to first spray Neem Oil, which is made from the Neem tree. The oil makes nomming on potato leaves less pleasurable for the beetles, so in theory they will find a more satisfying meal elsewhere. Simultaneously, we will cover the plants with a fabric that lets in light while hiding the plants from beetle invaders. The key here is timeliness: both of these strategies are preventative measures that are not very useful after the beetle has shown up, sat down to eat, and realized the tater salad is scrumptious.

We have traded the role of warmonger for that of the merry prankster, the one who is tricking brother beetle into letting us eat his lunch. Still not very fair for the beetle, but at least he is not being murdered and we are not disrupting the soil food web. These kind of compassionate pranks are what let natural growers conjure nutrient-dense foods out of a mess of weeds, bugs, water, dirt, and confusion.

Hope you have enjoyed this tidbit of garden minutia. We should also mention that CSA shares are still available, and please contact us if you are interested. Weekly markets start on April 25, and from then we’ll attend the Forest Farmer’s Market every week and the Grandin Village Community Market in Roanoke every other week.