Monday, November 28, 2011

Research - An Informative way to select cultivars that will Beet the competition

A Cylindra Beet in my garden
I love beets. Especially butter beets. It took me a while until I found a beet variety that I liked. Most were round and became hard quickly. Being a gardener that does not like to take chances, I prefer to research my vegetable varieties before growing them. Some vegetables, such as finicky tomatoes and cucumbers in the summer must be researched based on an individual’s climate. However, I can use information about other more forgiving crops, such as beets, from researched conducted in another climate. That is why I like the following websites. The first is Cornell’s Vegetable Varieties for gardeners, which gives individual gardener’s advice on specific crops from various regions. The second is Dave’s Garden Plant files, which also gives gardeners the opportunity to rate a crop. And finally, the grand finale is a searchable database of results of test growing of individual vegetable cultivars from The University of Saskatchewan in Canada. In any case, it was from the Saskatchewan searchable database that I learned about the incredible productivity and taste of the Cylindra, Formanova, or butter beet. And I am so glad I did.

To those who ask about gardening in Tucson I say, "It is a science". That is yet another reason for my blog title. Though this is true for growing many things here, growing beets is a cinch. If you give beets enough water when they are starting out you can start them in early September-October when it is 90 degrees outside and they will happily grow until March- April when it is 90 degrees outside again. How I wish my other crops grew as easily as beets! Another plus about beets is that you can eat both the top and the bottom- though we usually give away the tops to another family (whose children appreciate them more) after my family has our first serving of them.

Think tender buttery texture in the form of a beet.

Even this beet possessed a smooth texture.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Direct Seeding versus Transplanting

2009 Tomato Transplants - Notice the Clipboard.
Which is better – direct seeding or transplanting? Direct seeding of course. Some say that direct seeding is the only way to enable a plant to reach its full potential by preserving an undisturbed taproot. Additionally, some farmers assert that direct seeded plants resist frost better and produce an earlier or larger crop than transplants do. My viewpoint is that direct seeding is the preferred method for growing some plants. Direct seeding is the way to go if you are dealing with the curcubit family. Squash, cucumbers, and melons do very well direct seeded and have difficulty with being transplanted after about a week of growth. Often the roots go into shock and take several weeks to recover, if at all. If peat pots are used and the transplant’s roots are handled very gently the plant may recover and grow again. Otherwise it may be more beneficial to use a hot cap to get a head start on cucubit seedlings. Beans, peas, and carrots also do well being direct seeded because of issues involved with their roots.

Another school of thought is that transplanting is beneficial because it allows you to get a head-start on the garden. This is especially true for tomatoes, peppers, onions, and brassicas such as cabbage, broccoli, and cauliflower. These plants often take a long time to mature and do not go through shock if transplanted correctly. I have been growing tomatoes from seeds for a while because that way I can control what varieties of tomatoes I grow. If pests are a problem direct seeding can help you get plants off to a good start before they would have a chance to munch on your little seedlings. Growing from transplants can reduce the time between crop harvest and a new crop. This can increase overall productivity given the ground is still fertile and disease-free. Both of these problems can be aided by the practice of effective crop rotation. Though transplanting may appeal to gardeners who prefer to have attractive and productive garden beds it can be expensive to always buy starts and can lead to potentially unsustainable gardening practices.

Tomato in 2" soil block with deep dowel hole

Tomatoes – The First Trials

Better Boy - A Hybrid Variety
When first starting with tomatoes I bought starts from a local grocery and hardware store. Early Gird, Better Boy, and First Lady 2 were some of the first hybrid tomato varieties I tried. Each cultivar (specific vegetable variety) did okay but not great. Better Boy seemed to take the heat and be disease resistant. I was able to produce nice looking plants but had some difficulty in producing the anticipated quantity and size of tomatoes. Not many tomato varieties do well here in Tucson. Perhaps it is because we hardly ever see weather between 70 and 90 degrees F. My desire to grow hybrid tomato varieties decreased the more I realized that I could not grow “true” fruit using hybrid tomato seed. After learning this I decided to pursue a more sustainable approach and limit my growing to open-pollinated tomato cultivars. In spring of 2009 I planted Glacier, Cold Set, Fireworks, Zhezha, Super Sioux, Buckbee’s 50 day, and Neptune. Most of the varieties did poorly. Glacier  and Buckbee’s 50 day couldn’t take the heat though Buckbee’s 50 day did better on fruit production and disease resistance, cold set can grow fast but can’t take the cold, when disease approached Fireworks went up in smoke, Zhezha produced 1-2 small fruits, Super Sioux could take the heat but produced little, Neptune could take the heat very well but produced little to average. Zhezha and Neptune were the only 2 determinates I grew. They are both true determinates- dying immediately after producing their 1 crop of fruit. Even if I put a plant on the east side of a structure the unforgiving sun quickly taught me that any plants in exposed pots will have their roots pasteurized by about 2 pm in the afternoon- if not sooner.

Neptune can take the heat!

Buckbee's 50 Day - An all around good variety

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The First Cucumbers

My journey to growing good cucumbers has been a bit of a long one. No one ever told me, when I first began gardening in Tucson, what kind of cucumbers might actually grow here. One book that I read cited the “Armenian” cucumber as a good pick for this area but after a couple people told me they dislike the taste I began experimenting with other varieties. I grew White Wonder, a pickling variety, and Marketmore 76 before I found something that might work. Then I tried Suyo Long. Very heat resistant, very tasty. In fact – in my book it remains one of the best tasting of them all. Unfortunately it turned out that Suyo long is also very susceptible to some form of root rot. Otherwise, if grown in isolation, it is a disease and heat resistant tasty variety. The pictures below are from my old house and my new house. They represent a few of the varieties that I have grown.

White Wonder Cucumber. Not that remarkable.

A spring cucumber garden at the new house

Suyo Long with very nice big leaves.

The Suyo cucumber grows while others fail

A mouth-watering Suyo Cucumber

Monday, November 21, 2011

After Pit (or Trench) Composting and thoughts about Solarization

Solarizing my Winter Garden after Composting

I am a fan of pit (or trench) composting because it does not make the area look ugly and because it is so easy. Just throw things in a hole, rotate them often, then keep adding things until you get soil that is good enough to plant in. It turned out to not be too easy or disease-free. Though- if you are trying this kind of method I would recommend starting with a whole season of squash vines and mustard greens before planting anything else. Squash vines because they don’t care if the pile is still hot and mustard greens (brassica juncea) to resist disease.

After several partially successful sessions of solarizing soils I have come to the conclusion that there are better disease management possibilities including using a cover crop. One recently growing area of study is biofumigants such as one species of mustard greens (brassica juncea). This involves using various part of the mustard green in greatly reducing a disease until it reaches controllable levels. My current winter garden, with  just a small group of mustard plants is demonstrating a very significant difference in how well my plants are growing. I was afraid I was going to lose some of my artichokes but growing mustard around them has completely subsided my reoccurring septoria! An analysis by the U of A Extension program gives a good overview of what is being learned in this new and exciting field of biofumagation research.
Mustard Greens fighting my Septoria. Go Mustard Greens!


Saturday, November 19, 2011


Digging is good work for the young and healthy
In reading the book or watching the movie “Holes” you develop a good sense of how difficult it is to dig out dirt in a hot arid environment. Admittedly it was difficult for me but it could have been much worse. In many locations around Tucson people commonly complain of hard packed dirt and of caliche - a hard collection of minerals (primarily calcium carbonate). I would not be surprised if caliche was the main ingredient in concrete. Often trees and other deep-rooted plants will perform poorly if the gardener does not break a hole through a sub-surface layer of caliche to allow for water drainage. I borrowed a neighbor’s caliche bar – a metal rod with a spike on one side and a wedge on the other – and used it along with my shovel in digging my winter garden bed. While digging I encountered quite a few small ½ inch to 1 inch chunks of the caliche but found the process to be otherwise uneventful. Soaking the area with water the night before digging always helps.

Before I began digging I laid down my blocks to the perimeter desired. I removed soil down to the 2 foot mark, leaving enough dirt on the inside of the garden bed to be a good foundation for my underground weed block. To create my weed block I “planted” blocks vertically in the ground on the inside of the garden perimeter and cut a metallic insulation material to fit snug against the outside of the planted (vertical) blocks. Thus the Bermuda grass would be blocked from getting its tendrils into the garden by the metallic insulation and by the vertically planted blocks on the bottom and by the horizontal block perimeter on the top. I cannot stress enough the long-term benefit of keeping out weeds from the beginning. It is wonderful.
To go with picture: Digging is good work for the young and healthy.

Finding a site for my Family and the Garden

From the very first time my wife and I decided to buy the house we currently live in I was looking at the area that I could use for my garden. Flat was a big requirement. Another requirement of mine was to have a good amount of South-facing sun for the winter. I wanted something with west-side shade for the summer, but I was sure I could grow shade, if needed. We settled on a home with a usable interior and an exterior that needed some help. It was in a cul-de-sac in walking distance of an elementary.

My lot with the current garden plots

We moved in mid-May on my daughter’s birthday. I tried salvaging some of the boards from where we had lived previously but the new house had termites anyway- and I didn’t want to encourage them any more than needed. So I left the boards in the alley. There were a lot of blocks in the yard, so I figured I could use them for the perimeter of my garden, as needed. One of the things I really hated about my first garden’s perimeter was the constant fight with Bermuda grass. I have not defeated Bermuda grass but some of the methods I adopted in making my new gardens have really aided in subsiding the flood of the unwanted turf.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

While making my first Garden

My Old Garden in the early spring.
Given the fact that I do not have money to pour into my garden (I’m a teacher) my need to be creatively resourceful is relentless. For my first garden, I found slats of wood that someone was giving away for free. With a few of these I shored up the sides of my garden in my attempt to keep Bermuda grass out. Once those were installed I dug at least 1’ down and put compost under the 1’ of soil. After amending the soil with sulfur and fertilizer I made rows and put newspaper on the bottom of the rows. On either side of the newspaper I ran my soaker hoses. Then on top of the newspaper (on the trough between the rows I laid the rest of the boards that I didn’t use for the sides of the garden. To keep from compacting the soil I walked on the boards, sometimes like a circus tightrope walker. Once the bounds of the garden were set and the soil was prepared I got set on planting.

Some of the first things I planted in my winter garden were Green Globe artichokes, Purple Dragon carrots, Tyee Spinach, and Chartwell Lettuce (a Romaine variety). I also planted some Fallstaff Brussel Sprouts to the dismay of my whole family. Lesson learned: Don’t plant any food crop the family does not want to eat.

Fallstaff Brussel Sprouts
I really miss growing carrots. Purple carrots are fun and very tasty. I think I’ll try growing some again for seed this coming year. I’ve just got to remember to pull out the little ones and let the big ones grow for stronger seed next year!

Purple Dragon Carrots

If you ever get a chance, Little Marvel Peas are great to grow.

Little Marvel Peas
 Some pics of the Spinach and Chartwell Lettuce. My wife loved the Spinach and the lettuce was a big hit with everyone I shared it with.

Tyee Spinach, Chartwell Lettuce & Carrots

Then there was the artichokes. I figured the adults could eat the larger tough leaves and that we could save the heart for the youngest children. My thinking paid off well. Our kids loved them. One day my oldest son was describing to me his favorite vegetable. It took a while, but then we figured out he was talking about artichokes!

Green Globes can get quite large
The beauty of the Artichoke

As you may notice from the pictures a good 1/4 to 1/5 of my garden area was taken up by the compost pile. Deciduous trees usually drop their leaves here between the second week of December and February, depending upon the weather. It usually took half a day just to rake them up and collect them into bags to store for later composting. I used leaves, coffee grounds, and manure from a local horse ranch along with some added kitchen scraps to make my compost.

Garden with old compost pile (lemon grass in the left corner)

Monday, November 14, 2011

My "Old" Garden

My inital garden was in a relatively flat area on the mid-east area of Tucson. We were renting at the time, but our landlord was very willing to let me dig up the ground to plant a garden. It began as a compost pile. One day I threw some store-bought cantaloupe into the pile and that is where my garden began. In the time leading up to us moving from this site I learned several lessons.

The first lesson I learned was to not grow in native soil. I would amend and amend my soil with compost time and time again just to have it quickly revert back to its light-colored brick hard consistency. The second lesson came from growing plants in containers. I quickly learned that the sun cooks anything above the ground and that, for the purposes of insulation from dramatic temperature shifts and water conservation, the best solution would be a lowered garden bed. In a conversation with another member of the Tucson Organic Gardeners (TOG) noted that you cannot grow in the soil here and said that the best thing to do would be to grow in straight compost. At the time, I agreed. I hope to expose some of the benefits and drawbacks of such an approach as I relate how a compost garden worked for me.

The Winter Garden at our old house

The Summer Garden at our old house

Welcome to the Scientific Gardening Blog

Welcome to my Scientific Gardening Blog!
This blog is devoted to the study of effective gardening techniques required to boost the productivity of my organically-managed home garden. Having grown up in the Silicon Valley in Northern California my memories of gardening involved mostly weeding and eating. The question, “Will this grow in my garden?” was never a concern as much as the question, “Can I keep down the weeds and can we eat as much as our garden will produce?” In retrospect, my earlier attempts at gardening were very minimal as my interests were devoted to other things at that time. For some reason I have always needed some kind of hobby or something to focus my efforts and attention on. A few of my past hobbies have included learning about cooking, nutrition, alternative energy, raising reptiles, and raising praying mantises. My last hobby, raising mantises, became a bit too much when my wife Mel, with our fourth child on the way, requested that I focus my efforts on a less time-consuming pastime.

So now I research ways to improve my garden so that it can be more self-sufficient in producing organic produce for my family. My inspiration for my research comes not only from written literature but is more often informed by my observations of the condition of my garden. My drive to continue learning is grounded in the realization that as my learning expands I become more enlightened about the limits of my knowledge. As Thomas Jefferson said, “Though I am an old man I am but a young gardener.”