Saturday, April 14, 2012

Spring Planting is tough on an old man


If it wasn't a labor of love, I don't think I would go through this every spring. I am convinced that to want to have a garden this size, knowing full well that it is only you and you alone to maintain it, you have to be either very strong or very crazy. And I can assure you I am not very strong.

Busted my hump this last week. Let's see what was on the agenda, oh yea, keep the seedlings watered, till the garden, over and after day until the winter rye was incorporated and the consistency of the dirt was what I wanted. The winter rye ground cover was at least 12" tall when I tilled it under. It should add a tremendous amount of organic matter to the garden soil.

Let's see what else, I planted onion sets last weekend after the initial couple of tilling passes. It was a struggle to get the little onion sets in with all the clumps that are in the soil after only tilling a little bit. It takes days of tilling to get the clumps out. And that is IF you can get them out. The problem with onion sets is they are small, and need to be planted at only 1" depth. Not an easy feat if your soil is not fine, and mine never is when the onions need to go in. And that is another thing, onions it turns out are supposed to go in 4-6 weeks before the last frost date. That would mean I should have been planting them a month and a half ago. A month and a half ago, I was cutting trees down on my back fence row. I was no where near ready to get into the garden yet. So finally, late as it may have been, I got the onion sets in last weekend.

Onion patch just planted

Tough to plant just one inch deep

Then to make my life just a little bit harder, it turns out again that potatoes are traditionally in by Good Friday. That is news to me. Good Friday was last week. Ok, so I got them in tonight, what an effort that was...I learned a new technique for planting potatoes that I wanted to try and it was not easy. Finally finished right at dusk.

I then began the hateful job of preparing the Carrot bed. Now let me state right here and now, DO NOT decide to grow carrots. Carrots do not tolerate any obstacle in the soil that is in the way of it's growth. That includes simple dirt balls. Anything at all in it's way as it grows, and it doesn't take much, causes the carrot to fork, misshape, bend, twist and otherwise become malformed. My wife tells me I am crazy, (see the pattern here), she says that her parents grew carrots in rock hard soil all through her childhood. As far as I am concerned they must have been magic carrots. All my carrots last year looked like misshapen aberrations.

So it was then that I decided that if I wanted to grow nice big straight carrots like I see in the supermarket, I was going to remove all the obstacles in the soil.

Remember I said, either very strong or very crazy, and I reiterate I am not strong.

So here is today's carrot bed prep progress:

The first couple of shovel fulls. This is back breaking work, only 74.25 cubic feet of garden soil to sift. I do not recommend wanting to grow carrots. It's crazy thinking

Check out my sifting screen. I built this over 10 years ago, and I simply replace the screen whenever it wears out.

Note all those clumps, carrots will NOT grow straight with those clumps in the soil

Look at that wonderful sifted soil you end up with, what a bitch it is to get to this point

Two hours into it

This is what it looks like before I remove the soil to be sifted. This will not support good carrot growth

What it looks like after sifting, this will absolutely support good straight carrot growth


Adding sifted compost to the mix

Four hours into it

A few days later, another hour, now five hours into it

Finally done, 5 man hours to get to this

The first layer of sphagnum moss goes in

The first layer of Builders Sand goes in
Mixing the first layer

Adding the last layer

8 man hours later

Finally ready for planting

If I don't get the kind of carrots you dream about I am going to be really upset

 So the first day of sifting I got within about an hour of being done sifting  (actually turned out to be three more hours of work until I was done) when the rain came in. I quickly covered the pile of sifted dirt with a tarp to keep it dry. Allowing it to be rained on now, when it is straight sifted soil would be disastrous, it would turn into a big pile of cement. It has yet to be amended and cannot be allowed to get wet at this stage.

When I am done sifting, the next step is to amend the soil as you replace it into the bed. This means adding material to the soil to both keep it from turning into cement when it get rains on, and to make it so it will remain a light an fluffy medium perfect for carrots to grow in. Which I guess is saying the same thing twice.

This means mixing in Sphagnum Peat Moss, Composted Cow Manure and Builders Sand. Now Builders Sand also known as All Purpose Sand, is NOT Play Ground Sand. It is much courser than Play Sand. Make sure you use the correct kind of sand, you don't want Play sand.

These components, sifted garden soil, Sphagnum Peat Moss, Composted Cow Manure and Builders Sand, mixed in the appropriate percentages will produce the perfect medium for growing carrots.

At least I hope so....

So in the end, I added the following back into the excavated bed:
  • All the sifted garden dirt
  • 160 lbs. of sifted top soil
  • 160 lbs of sifted composted cow manure
  • 66 cubic feet of sphagnum peat moss
  • 400 lbs. of builders sand (aka, all purpose sand)

So to summarize:


I plant a cover crop of winter rye every year. I believe it adds nutrients back to the soil and above all else it adds significant amounts of organic material to the soil when you till it in. I usually allow it to be a foot tall when I till it under. It makes tilling a bit more arduous but is well worth the extra effort.

Not the best picture, but you can see the winter rye in the foreground. This was back in March, it was a foot high when I tilled it under in April

I want to till the soil not to dust, God forbid, if you do that it will turn to cement at the first hard rain. But I want it fine enough to get my seeder through it. I want it to be fine, yet have a certain amount of small golf ball size balls and smaller of soil. This will allow me to run my seeder through it as needed, yet will allow the appropriate amount of air pockets in the soil. Plant roots need air just as much as they need water and soil.

This is the consistency of soil I am after when I till

This is good, fine but not dust

This is my baby, this makes tilling a garden of this size possible

By the way, I researched seeders and found that the best seeder, the one I would want is a JPH-U Jang Seeder, it's beautiful and only costs $800 friggin dollars, DOLLARS!! For a garden seeder! But it is the only one that looks like it was made to last, rugged, with heavy material, it is beautiful, but $800!! That's ridiculous. So I bought a cheaply made Earthway 1001-B Precision Garden Seeder with 6 Seed Plates. I will see this year if you get what you pay for. The one thing the Jang states that it will do, that the Earthway can't is the abilility to work with just a very small amount of tiny seeds. The Earthway will plant small seeds but only if there is a large quantity in the hopper. It won't work with say an ounce or less of small seeds for instance. This ability is still not worth $800 to me. I will plant the small amounts by hand.

Slightly less than an $800 Jang

If it holds up, and does what it is supposed to, I'll be pleasantly surprised.

It usually takes a round of tilling each evening after work for 3-4-5 days depending on how wet or dry the soil is. The rule of thumb is that you shouldn't even till until you can take a handful of dirt from about 4" down, compress it in your hand and then when you poke it with your finger, it breaks apart easily. If it clumps and doesn't break apart easily when poked, it is too wet to till. We have had a very dry spring, so the ground was very much ready to be tilled. Even so, it is still damp 8" to 10" down, so you end up doing a round of tilling, allowing the soil to rest and dry until the next evening, hoping that the sun will be out the next day to help dry it, and then do another round of tilling, allow to rest and dry, another round...well you get the picture. So after a few or more days of this, the soil consistency becomes, well luxurious if you ask me. Fluffy, fine more or less, and full of air. That is my philosophy on spring tilling.

Planting Onion Sets:

Now when I talk about Onion Sets I don't mean little scallion onions, I am talking about the kind of onions you see in the supermarket, large 6"- 8" yellow Spanish, Sweet White Onions and large Red Onions. I found what I think is the best supplier of onion sets for these kind of onions. Here is where I get mine:, I wouldn't buy my onion sets anywhere else. They actually grow them, their not a clearinghouse like all the rest of the places that advertise onion sets on the Internet.

Onions need to be planted shallow, no deeper than 1". At least 6" or more apart in the row to allow for the largest onion growth. They also need to go in very early in the spring, I have learned that should be in March. I have yet to get my onions into the garden in March. Dixondalefarms sends wonderful directions for planting with their product. I do not follow it exactly but you should.

You can see the Red Onion Sets in this picture

Planting Potatoes:

Most of the suggestions for planting seed potatoes states to plant them 2" - 4" deep and as they grow to hill them. I did that last year with success. This year, I found web sites that suggested digging a 4" wide, 8" deep trench. Place the potatoes in the trench and cover with only 2" - 3" of soil. This is the same technique used to plant Asparagus crowns. As they grow push more soil on top, enough to cover the green growth by half, never more or your kill the plant. As the potato plant grows, keep adding soil to the trench 2" or so at a time until the trench is filled in equal to the surrounding soil level and the green growth is well above the soil level. So this was what I did tonight, and it was not easy to dig those trenches, of which I needed five trenches 9' long. But I did it, the potatoes are in, only one week behind schedule and we shall see how it turns out.

Trenches dug ready to except seed potatoes

Better picture. These were not easy to dig

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