Wild Men on the North Fork
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January 3, 2005.....Corn on our minds:
We have been wrestling with the mysteries of corn this winter. The reason why is because of the dismal failure of our corn in a very cold summer of 2004, and the success of our neighboring gardeners. Here is the problem:
We planted two varieties of corn, in two squares of plantings about May 31. One variety was Kandy Kwik, with which we had great success in 2003. The other variety was Trinity. Our neighbors planted corn that they had mostly started indoors. Their corn grew quite tall and they got decent ears from their plants. Our corn, shorter varieties both, grew much much shorter and ear production was quite limited. Kandy Kwik grew 3 to 4 feet tall (it is 6 foot corn). In 2003 Kandy Kwik grew 5 feet tall (about right for Wyoming), and we got good ear production. our 2003 planting of Kandy Kwik took place much later, on June 26 to be exact. In the square in which we planted the Trinity in 2004 we had built a fire to consume weeds. The fire sterilized the soil to the extent that the really hot spots for the fire produced no stalks of corn at all. But even the Trinity corn that was nowhere near where we had built the fire grew poorly and only attained the heights of 1 to 2 1/2 feet. We definitely did something wrong. But what?
By extensive reading I now know that we pushed the envelopes of our short-season corn way too far. Our thinking was that if we planted short season corn even earlier we would get better and heavier crops. But corn just does not work that way. I now believe that corn's first three weeks are critical to its success. The ideal planting for corn is when soil temperatures are at least 60-65 degrees (F), and (this is important) temperatures get successively warmer for three weeks in a row (I'm talking average weekly temps). What we experienced in 2004 was that temperatures got successively colder during the first three weeks (there was a day in the third week when the average temperature was 43 degrees (F)). Our late planting in 2003 (June 26) gave the corn three successive weeks of rising temperatures, and thus we were pretty successful.
Corn is a grass, of course (like the other grains). It is a kind of joint grass. Just above the seed is a section called the growth center. All new leaves, or joints, originate from the growth center. In the very early stages this growth center is below ground. As corn grows the growth center rises and emerges from below ground to above ground. In ideal conditions (Iowa not Wyoming) corn puts on a new joint (leaf pair) about every 7 days.
Corn can withstand some cold very early, even some frost, as long as the growth center is still below ground and is not damaged by the cold. Our last frost in Casper, Wyoming in 2004 was on June 1. The last average frost for Casper is May 25. A lot of literature says that corn can be planted a week to two weeks before the last frost. In 2004 that would have been between May 18 and May 25. In an average year that planting would be between May 11 and May 18. One comment on Iowa State's site about corn is that stress from cold can be ameliorated by putting down a mild fertilizer before planting, a kind of side dressing. This makes a lot of sense when you review how native americans planted corn. Typically they planted in hills into which they had already placed dead fish (a mild side dressing). Around the corn they often planted beans. We know now that the beans fixed small amounts of nitrogen into the soil for the benefit of the corn all season long. So corn is an early and steady feeder of low nitrogen fertilizer. The fish was no doubt a good supply of phosphorus (bones) for the corn too. One of my catalogs, Territorial Seed's, recommends laying down a mild fertilizer in trenches, then planting corn a few inches above it. That makes perfect sense.
Plant early, plant late, but don't mess with Mr. In Between.
So, what to plant and when to plant it? Since the first three weeks of corn are critical, an early planting (7 to 14 days before the last frost) of tall corn might just work, provided that soil temps are 60-65 degrees (F). If weather patterns hold, though, the cold weeks of June (2nd and 3rd) are going to hammer any corn planted from May 25 through June 21. Therefore if we miss an early planting we will then plant a short-season corn about June 22.
See Catalog or Package
DATE TO PLANT:
Days to Maturity for Corn
See Catalog or Package
January 24, 2005.....Heat, Capturing and keeping it:
I noticed this past summer how very well our perennial wild blue geranium plants were doing in our back yard, planted in a bed between two concrete block walls. Then I thought about how wild geraniums grow in the Windriver mountains. They usually are found beside one, or between two big rocks. This is not for water considerations. It has everything to do with heat. I also thought about how well fellow-gardener Paul Combe's tomato was doing after he planted it next to a 3 foot concrete wall. When we started planting in tires we noticed early on that some plants preferred the tires and others did not. The tires really heat up a plant's roots, even more so than than boxes/raised beds do. Some like it hot, some not.
I think we Wyoming gardeners often overlook the importance of heat in the garden. Some of our failures are due directly to this lack of consideration.
To this end I want to urge my fellow gardeners to consider building short fences to keep off the wind, and to consider planting in pvc tubes, coffee tins, and wall-o-water devices. All of these keep wind off the young plants and that is a good thing. Wind is destructive just by its power to break and damage limbs. We started using pvc tubes when, the day after setting out tomatoes, our garden plots experienced 90 mile per hour gusts. But even gentle wind can completely halt the growth of young plants by carrying off heat. One way I think about wind is to think of it as the 'Anti-Heat'. Our climate is cool to begin with. To fight that, and to fight the wind, gardeners will have to break up the wind, keep it off plants, and think about ways to provide thermal mass that can generate heat back to plants at night.
March 10, 2005:
Every morning I walk my two dogs, and each morning I am reminded of just how close planting time is. February was extremely mild and I think the driest February we have ever had. Idaho, Wyoming, and parts east are beginning the sixth year of drought while Colorado, Utah, and New Mexico got above normal snow fall. Our climate is warm and dry, so much so that I am tempted to go higher in elevation and see if the creeks are open for fishing.
I keep getting requests from folks all over the country for Big Zac tomato seeds. We have enough for our own use this year. Next year we may have to move on to a new variety if we too can not find Big Zac seeds. That is the nature of gardening. You just discover a variety that does well in your climate, and then it is discontinued. Fortunately there are over 6,000 varieties of tomatoes from which to choose.
At the bottom of this page is a planting schedule. Please feel free to use it as a guide for your own starts.
March 25, 2005:
Our tomatoes and peppers are started. Brassicas are next.
April 6, 2005:
A coworker asked me today what he should with his spinach seeds. I told him to go ahead and plant them now. Spinach, unlike most plants, actually likes it cool (peas do too). Get your spinach in before there is any serious heat. Spinach usually bolts here by mid-June; and by then the seed won't germinate even if you plant it. That is why I have substituted chard for spinach, to be able to enjoy the greens all summer long.
May 2, 2005:
One of my brother's friends is a community gardener in California. The master gardeners there have been strongly urging the gardeners to till in Activated Charcoal. Activated Charcoal is expensive, about $70 a bag, and he only needs between a tenth to a fourth of a bag for his plot. Here is my note to him:
"I was at first a bit doubtful about the value of activated charcoal.
Then I talked to my garden partners. They changed my mind. Mark McAtee is a teacher with a BS in biology, Paul Combe is an engineer with one of the local water districts. They both reminded me that municiple systems and small aquariums use activated charcoal to filter out pesticides and other carbon-based compounds that can be harmful to fish and people.
Basically activated charcoal is pure carbon looking for other carbons with which to bond. Pesticides are long carbon chains. So all that has to happen is to put the activated charcoal in contact with the pesticide, add some energy (heat) and the charcoal will start breaking the molecular chains of the pesticide.
However buying a $70 bag, and only being able to use a fraction of that, sounds impractical. Go in with other plot renters to share a bag."
May 5, 2005:
If you have not been watering your fruit trees this spring it is not too late to start. Fruiting trees and bushes really get dried out in the freeze-thaw action of our winters. If you want fruit, you'd better water.
June 9, 2005:
We have most of the gardens in now. We also have our first failure. Incredible Corn rotted in the ground, but our Kandy Korn is still viable - not up yet - but not dead either. We simply did not get enough heat to germinate Incredible. I will overplant Incredible with Kandy Kwik June 20-22.
It has been a cool June so far, in keeping with the cool May we had. On my morning walks I have been observing the bloom sequence of local plants. Daffodils come first, of course. They are followed by the Tulips, Iris, and Chokecherry. Then come the Lilacs and Spirea. When Spirea is fully blooming, it is time to plant tomatoes. Casper tomatoes have been affected by the cool weather. Many fellow gardeners have been watering as if it were warmer. The result has been yellowing of tomato leaves. If you see this, back off on the water. Let your tomatoes dry out a bit.
June 16, 2005:
We have experienced three warm days in a row. Until now the most we have had is one warm day at a time. I have had emails from folks in southern and southeastern Idaho. They too have had a very cool growing season thus far. The brassicas love the weather, as do the root crops. But corn, peppers, and tomatoes have to have heat, and aren't getting enough. Perhaps this warm spell will last.
Everything is in now. I will be replanting this weekend. In particular the corn need it. Both kinds we planted failed.
July 11, 2005:
Our nights were so cool for so long that many seeds, planted directly into the garden, had a hard time germinating. Many Casper gardeners, including me and my partners, have had to replant two and three times. Particularly hard hit were some bush beans, some squash, corn, and particularly cucumbers. We got so frustrated that we started pickler cucumbers in partner Paul's heated and covered starter. In three days the plants were up. We acclimated the plants for two days, then took them to the garden plots. As it turned out, by then we had experienced some blistering heat and many cucumbers were coming up. Now we have up to three slicer cucumber plants in the space we had planned for one. Lettuce was planted June 10 as per normal. But it is very slow coming. We planted corn in hills and it is a total failure. I will never plant corn in hills again. The problem with hills in Casper is that our soils have far too much clay, and the clay seals water off from the corn. We never had this problem when we planted corn in flat areas and then hilled after the corn was well up. We have already planted the corn area with squash and pumpkin, and will use some of the ground to experiment with germination methods, to be applied to next season's corn.
August 16, 2005
Our cold June continues to haunt us. Some varieties of tomato are simply not where they usually are by this date. In our beds the determinate tomatoes are outperforming the indeterminate by quite a bit. It does look like we will get some cucumbers for pickling, but not as many as we would like.
September 3, 2005
Once a year, toward the end of the season I figuratively go through our garden plots and rate how each variety grew. This is a tough task this year because we had such a cold June that nearly ruined the rest of the growing season. But I will push on. Here are those remarks.
SMALL TOMATOES - Sweet Baby Cherry, Red Pear, Black Plum, and Yellow Pear - all were late developing. We are just now starting to get small tomatoes to ripen.
LARGE TOMATOES - We still do not have many ripened tomatoes. The determinate tomatoes have been impressive in production and we will increase these, both in numbers and percentages next season. About a third of our tomatoes this year have been determinates. Valentine (Indeterminate) is producing heavily and Goliath (Indeterminate) is coming on strong. It is easy to forget how well Goliath does at the end of the season when other tomatoes are slowing down. Goliath simply does not stop. It has been way too cold to get much off of Old German (Indeterminate) and Black Krim (Indeterminate). Of the determinates we like the toughness and disease resistance of Corona and Empire compared to Bush Early Girl. We are convinced that our generally good production is due to our trimming on the the plants.
ONIONS - Alisa Craig and Ruby Red outperformed Candy. All were purchased as plants. They arrived in good shape. When they arrived we immersed the bulbs in water and set them into the refrigerator for a day. They were then transplanted into temporary beds for several weeks before we transplanted them again into tires in the big beds. I would rate Alisa Craig and Ruby Red as successes.
BROCCOLI - Came on later than normal and grew smaller than normal. Production, though, has been good and consistent since we harvested the central heads. Side-shoot production is always heavy on Packman Broccoli. We grow 20 plants. In a tough season that seems to be about right to feed our three families. In a good year our 20 plants produce so heavily we give half the broccoli away.
CAULIFLOWER - We are harvesting the Fremont as it comes on. It is large, dense, delicious, and very smooth when cooked. We like it a lot better than Snow Crown. It looks like we will get Artica later, but in time to can with other vegetables in our 'garden mix'.
CORN - A complete and unmitigated failure. We have learned though how to start corn in peat pellets indoors in the spring. So next year, no matter how cold, we should get some corn.
SQUASH/PUMPKIN - I am withholding comment until we see final production. But I will say that we have been harvesting the Summer Squash (Zucchini, Gold Rush Zucchini, and Patty Pan), Heart of Gold Squash, Sunshine Squash, and Autumn Gold Pumpkin.
CUCUMBER - Did not germinate through three plantings (cold). Then we germinated them indoors in peat pellets and threw them in the plots 5 days later (July). We just now have plants big enough to produce. So it will be a real race between the cucumber plants and the frost. We have put up only 2 quarts of pickles so far, and those were National Pickling, not the Cool Breeze. We are just starting to eat Sweet Success slicers. Next year we will start all cucumbers indoors in peat pellets and set out.
BEANS - We are finally getting good bean production. We like the toughness of Royal Burgandy. But Top Crop will outproduce it. The pole beans Helda and Stringless Blue Lakes are producing but are not very tall (cold).
LETTUCE - We had difficulty getting lettuce to germinate (cold). Of the lettuce, we are getting best production from Olga and Simpson Elite.
CHARD - We did a mix of chard this year, and it has been great.
CARROT - These just jumped up 2 to 3 inches in height. That is the last step before they put most growth into the roots. I am confident that we will get a lot of carrots this year.
MELON - Watermelon is a complete failure this year (cold). Primo Musk and Sun Jewel (Smooth Skin) are struggling but will give us a few melons before frost.
PEPPER - Big Bertha, Cherry Pic, and Fat N Sassy are all doing well considering the cold. Super Heavyweight is nothing to brag about. We will want to increase the Fat N Sassy next year. We are getting good production from Jalapeno and Thai hot.
GARDEN HUCKLEBERRY - Production is retarded this year. We do not know if we will get ripe berries before frost ... another race like the cucumber.
September 8, 2005
FAILURES IN 2005:
Our biggest failure this year was the sweet corn. It was so cold in June that we did not get germination. Also, we planted in mounds or hills. This kept the water off the seed and it did not get enough water for germination. These two factors combined to give us a real disappointment. Another big disappointment was the Heavyweight bush bean from Burpee. It simply did not germinate in our cold June temperatures. We replanted with Top Crop bush bean and we have been eating beans from these plants. I would count Old German and Black Krim tomatoes as failures due to lack of June heat.
SUCCESSES IN 2005:
All our cucumbers had been planted three times and were failures. But then we got the idea to start these plants in peat pellets in a heated starter unit. Three days later we had plants up three inches. In five days they were set into the plots after being hardened off for two days. We are now getting cucumbers and have put up 12 quarts of pickles. That does not sound like much, but that is three more quarts than we put up all last season, and we have weeks left to our growing season. This is even more impressive when you consider that we did not set these plants out until July 11. As an experiment, we started corn in peat pellets, in the grow box, and five days later set them into the beds. Of course we will not get corn, but we know now that we can start corn at will and set it out any time we want next season. We are also considering starting the melons, squash, pumpkin, and beans this way. We have even speculated about starting carrots and lettuce.
A pleasant surprise came this year with the determinate tomatoes. We are very pleased with them. They are a great success story. Valentine Tomato (an inderterminate) is also a big hit this year. We like it as well as Goliath. Goliath is coming on strong, as is usual for it in the latter part of the season. In a bad-tomato year our production is going to be just fine. Our trimming definitely helped production of tomatoes. I would count the production from Packman Broccoli as a big success, and also the production we are seeing from Savoy Cabbage and particularly from Fremont Cauliflower. Fremont is a big hit with its size, consistency, and flavor.
September 14, 2005
We have had light frost this morning, and last. We covered the cucumbers last night with light plastic, and still saw some slight damage this morning. It is a footrace now between vegetable production and the frost.
October 3, 2005
We have been getting light frosts often. So we have harvested 90 percent of the garden plots. Carrots, Broccoli and Garden Huckleberry remain. We ended up getting 30 quarts of pickles from those cucumbers that were planted July 11. We are very pleased. One interesting note is that the cucumbers up on low trellises have not suffered from the light frosts. The cucumbers all on the ground have suffered a lot more from frost.
Here is the yearly review of Squash and Pumpkins (See also September 8 below):
Gurney Giant Pumpkin: 1 Tire with 3 plants - got 1 pumpkin. Will not grow again.
Autumn Gold Pumpkin: 3 Tires with 9 plants - got 5 pumpkins. Will reduce to 2 Tires next year.
Sorcerer Pumpkin: 1 Tire with 3 plants - got 3 pumpkins. Will expand to 3 Tires next year.
Kakai Pumpkin: 1 Tire with 3 plants - No Germination. Will plant again.
Bon Bon Buttercup Squash - 2 Tures with 6 plants. Production OK in cold season. Will plant again.
Green Hubbard Squash - 1 Tire with 3 plants. Did not get any production. Will plant again
Table Ace Acorn Squash - 2 Tires with 6 plants. Limited production, not as good as Bon Bon Buttercup. Will plant again.
Sunshine Squash - 2 Tires with 6 plants. OK production. Will plant again.
Confection Squash - 1 Tire with 3 plants. OK production. Will plant again.
Heart of Gold Squash - 2 Tures with 6 plants. Production OK in cold season. Will plant again.
Rumbo Squash - 1 Tire with 3 plants. Long vines and no squash whatsoever. Will Not Plant Again.
Patty Pan Squash - 1 1/3 Tires with 4 plants. Good production in a cold season. Will plant again.
Super Zuc Zucchini Squash - 2/3 Tire with 2 plants. OK production in a cold season. Will plant again.
Gold Rush Zucchini Squash - 1 Tire with 3 plants. Good production in a cold season. Will plant again.
November 17, 2005
We have the carrots harvested now, and jam made from the garden huckleberry. We pickled some of the Fremont Cauliflower in September. It is as good pickled as it is fresh, and I consider it the best Cauliflower I have ever tasted.
Here is a link to Bill Simpson's page. Last fall I visited him and came away with the conviction to plant determinate tomatoes for at least a third of our plants. This season he tried planting in tires, and I think he likes them.
November 23, 2005
I have already received three seed catalogs. I love them, love reading about the new selections and considering whether older selections might meet our needs now. But one really has to read descriptions carefully. If you want heavy production you have to read carefully to insure that you get that. I have read that plants have 'vigorous vines' before. But that does not mean the plants set on fruit heavily, does it? If you want a pepper with thick walls read carefully to insure that a pepper selection does. The seed catalogs will not lie to you. What they say about plants is generally true for gardens at least one zone up and 2,000 feet down from Casper, Wyoming. Results here may differ wildly from what the catalogs say. But the catalog folks are in business to sell you seeds, and they are going to cast their products in the best possible light. Readers beware!
Bill Simpson has described, in his most recent note, how he has been using tires. It is a very original approach. I recomend that you read this and consider the method for your own use.
November 30, 2005
One of the most attractive aspects about gardening in a community garden is the opportunity to exchange information. I have found, over my many years of participation in community plots, that every gardener, no matter what his or her experience in gardening, has something to teach me. I always try to keep my mind open because I have learned that in gardening you can never know it all. Moreover, humans are so inventive that you just never know but that the gardener with whom you are talking has just discovered the next 'big thing'.
On a trip to Oregon a few Falls ago I dropped in on a small seed catalog operation owned and managed by a delightful couple. My visit lasted a couple of hours, and I noticed that information was flowing both directions. They were very interested in the challenges of high-altitude gardening and which varieties they sold performed well here in Wyoming. From them I learned of two tomato varieties which we still plant today: Sweet Baby Girl and Valentine.
The email I get from working on these pages also stimulates me. It was a bit over a year ago that I got an email from Bill Simpson. He quickly invited me out to see his garden northwest of Casper. That was an eye-opener. His approach to gardening is very different from my own, yet he is very successful. I was so impressed with him that I added a page amongst all these others dedicated to him. I came away from that visit absolutely convinced that from this time onward we would have to make at least a third of all our tomatoes determinant.
My fellow gardeners at the plots have directed me toward many new varieties. Right now I can tell you that purple carrots are becoming very popular with them. One good gardener in particular bade me investigate Totem Tomato because he has had great success with it. I think we will grow it next season. This last season a fellow gardener grew Incredible sweet corn. I had been considering it before the season. Now that I have seen his grow, I am going to give it a try.
And so it goes. We work, we study, we exchange information, we learn. There is always something new to learn.
December 22, 2005
I have added links to a vendor who is new to me: TomatoBob.com. This vendor specializes in heirloom tomatoes and also caries heirloom vegetables.
Here is a degree days chart for the 2005 season. The 'DD' shows how many cumulative degrees we have experienced above a chosen point. For my chart that point is 50 degrees farenheit average daily temperature. I have chosen that point because I have observed that little or no growth occurs below 50 average degrees. Our strongest growth occurs when nighttime lows are 50 degrees or above. How cold has the growing season been? To date, it seems that 2005 is going to be a bit warmer than 2004, but very much cooler thatn 2003 or 2002. Here is a comparison chart of degree days.
Here is the degree days chart for 2005:
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