As we leap over Feb. 29th into March there is actual gardening to do, instead of merely thinking about it. The flu-like bug making the rounds left me weirdly wiped out. In fatigued fashion I have been gradually tidying up my house and went, broom in hand, into the forlorn and dreary area that was my greenhouse/sunspace in January; now, in strengthening February sun, it is cheerier, cleaned and swept, with plants in bloom, some re-potted, up-sized and pruned, and the benches re-arranged.
Depending on where your are Island garden is located there about 11 or 12 weeks until the frost-free date; the warming trends make it guesswork. The heat mat is unrolled, wiped down and checked out, along with its thermostat. Rehabbed is the dual bulb combination clamp-on lamp. Of the pots of tulips snoring away in the cellar for the required rooting time, several were ready to return to daylight. Retrieving the seed collection from the beer box down cellar signals that sowing in earnest is about to begin.
The recent record recall of 143 million pounds of US beef underscores the need for reform of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's food safety regulations. The abuses prompting the beef recall took place under the noses of USDA inspectors at the plant and would not have been reported were it not for an undercover video made by the Humane Society of the United States. According to Reuters, Caroline Smith DeWall, a director of food safety at the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest, said, "I know USDA is doing a really good job downplaying what happened here... This isn't a little thing. This was a fundamental failure of their inspection program."
If we mean to safeguard ourselves from the food safety crisis facing the U.S. (e.g., Mad Cow, spinach, repeated Botulin and E. coli outbreaks, thousands sickened, hundreds dead - and this is not stemming from mishandled potato salad at the local potluck, as some wag quipped,) we all need to undertake a greater share of growing our own food. There are other reasons for taking a hard look at food quality and security. One of them, "SHTF," is an all-purpose umbrella acronym that becomes familiar if one visits any of the many frugal forum Internet sites.
Grow more of your own
Demonstrating resourceful lifestyles is Harvey and Ellen Ussery's website, themodernhomestead.us which I have visited over the course of the past year or so. Their articles also appear in "Backyard Poultry," and several other periodicals. Harvey's pithy essay on "How We Eat" alone is worth the visit to the website.
The Usserys claim their two acres supplies about 85 percent of their food, the rest coming from local suppliers. Central to that are a greenhouse and two large vegetable gardens into which a great deal of organic matter is incorporated, as well as perennial forest gardens grown in accordance with permaculture principles. The Usserys are proponents of no-till gardening and cover cropping, and abhor uncovered, open soil. They buy no fertilizer.
In particular their ideas (similar in some ways to the Solviva plan) about sustainably combining poultry housing, cold weather greenhouse crops, and worm composting seem to have been carried out cleverly and tidily. (The Modern Homestead is in Hume, Virginia, hardiness zone 6b; MV is in hardiness zone 7a.) In a 20- by 48-foot greenhouse adjacent to vegetable plots, the Usserys successfully house about four dozen mixed poultry, millions of worms and row upon row of appetizing winter greens and vegetables.
When they need to till in an area of cover crop, or heavy weeds, or even pasture sod they want to convert to new garden ground, they use electronet fencing and chicken power to do the tilling. They pile on all manner of organic matter, especially hay in winter, and let it remain on top of the soil. The poultry are welcome to scratch around in this mix, eat the insects, and add their droppings during the off-season. The Usserys start almost all of the their vegetables inside, harden them off, and plant out the seedlings by pulling aside the organic matter lying on the soil's surface and plugging them in. Only a few crops, like carrots, are sown directly in the ground.
Award winners for 2008
The All-America Selections, Fleuroselect, and other trade organizations have announced their award-winning selections for 2008, and as always there is something enticing for everyone. An Island favorite annual is osteospermum, because it performs so well during our drawn-out autumns when there might be frosty nights before The End. Many will have noticed that South African daisy flowered plants - gazania, venidium -- close when the sun goes in. 'Asti White,' a white with blue center, seed-sown variety that blooms 17 weeks from sowing, remains open in cloudy weather! The uniform plants thrive in a sunny garden, reaching about 17 to 20 inches tall and wide. 'Asti White' plants adapt to growing in containers, preferably 6-inch pots or larger. Bred and produced by Goldsmith Seeds, Inc.
The AAS winner eggplant 'Hansel,' is a compact eggplant ideal for limited space growing (containers) as well as in-ground gardening, while remaining extremely prolific and with the ability to hold on the plant without becoming bitter. 'Hansel,' by Seminis Vegetable Seed, bears in clusters of three to six fruit. They mature early, about 55 days from transplanting into warm soil. This is about ten days earlier than the comparison eggplant. The fruits can be harvested at finger size or may be allowed to grow on to a normal ten inches or so, with no loss of quality.
Appealing to me is Fleuroselect medal winner Lavandula angustifolia 'Ellagance Purple,' an introduction of Kieft Seeds. It sounds like a godsend to lavender lovers, flowering the first year from seed. The purple flowered form, joining blue sister plant 'Ellagance Sky' which won gold in 2006, produces uniform, bushy floriferous plants about a foot high by a little less wide. It has narrow silver foliage. A bonus factor is its short "seed to sale" cycle.
A red oakleaf lettuce introduction, available at Scheeper's Kitchen Garden Seeds is 'Danyelle,' notable for its increased heat tolerance. Anyone gardening on MV knows how exasperating it is to synchronize lettuce and tomato production to create the perfect salad. Typically, by the time the tomatoes are ripe, summer heat has made the lettuce tough, bitter or bolted; 'Danyelle' sounds good to me.
Harvey Ussery would have us all try radicchio: "kicks lettuce's butt."