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Thursday, December 1, 2016

Are edible gardens a vanishing trend

It was mid summer of 2016. My beautiful summer squash was growing in excess of what I can consume on a daily basis. I cooked some and froze some more. It was still a lot. One fine afternoon, I walked down to my neighbor's house and knocked the door. I smiled, introduced myself and told her about my vegetable garden. The neighbor was a little surprised seeing someone on a weekday at 12:00 pm on doorstep handing summer squash. As I chatted, she mentioned how she and her husband wanted to have a vegetable garden but couldn't do it anytime. The reason was the thought of too much work watering, weeding, looking after for the garden, kids, job etc. I wanted to argue against the idea but thought would be bit too much for a first meeting. So, I just nodded. The neighbor accepted my squash and told me that she loves to cook vegetables for dinner.

Many years back, I used to visit a flower garden . It belonged to one my grandparents' neighbors. On my occasional visits to the garden during summer vacations, I, along with my grandfather, would stroll the beautiful flower garden for a good long hour. My grandfather would chat with the owner, who was a tailor by profession. Rows of fragrant flowers made the garden a tropical paradise. The owner had built a wall along the perimeter of his garden to keep unwanted visitors and mischievous kids at bay. The garden was actually a hidden treasure. This was in the 1990s in a town in central India. Shops and residences were all that neighborhood had.  My trips to the garden were always with my grandfather. The owner never allowed unaccompanied kids :) Many years later I learnt that the entire neighborhood was vacated to free space for a commercial center.

Below, I have outlined reasons why people do not prefer to grow food in their backyard. I won't call these reasons myths. The purpose of outlining these reasons in details is to help alter the mindset that self-imposes these restrictions.

  1. Gardening is too much work: You sow seeds, half of them fail to germinate, some may be eaten by critters and some may succumb to harsh weather. Isn't it easier to just walk down superstore and get our grocery ? The convenience of superstore is good for purchasing a product you cannot make at home. Food items are one of them too. Not all the food products that we consume daily can be grown in one's backyard. Not everyone has a backyard. Unlike in United States, where quality control of food items is practiced and enforced on farmers and stores alike, it is not so in other countries. Citizens are depended upon whatever produce farmer's markets sell. Ideally, the food at the farmer's markets on open streets should be of top quality and fresh. However, it is not. Those who do not wish to avoid farmer's markets run to the stores. Much of the food in stores comes either from the same farmers or has traveled thousands of miles to reach stores. There is no way to know what practices farmers have used to grow food. The first and the most important benefit of growing food in your garden is the quality control and visibility of the produce from start till the end. You know the seed you are buying, the soil you are using and the harvest you are getting. You know you are not spraying chemicals on leaves or fruit. You know your tomato is not ripened in artificial mediums. For the health benefits that such a quality produce gives, I would say the cost is worth the effort.  
  2. Food is all the same: It isn't. Two tomatoes grown in different soils and with different agricultural practices are not the same. Just because it looks nice and red without blemishes does not mean it was grown with sound and safe practices. If you cannot avoid buying the produce, which I know in many parts of the world, consumers have to buy what the market sells, at least buy with awareness. As the saying goes ' All that glitters isn't gold'. 
  3. All my plants fail and die: There are lots of plants and herbs that are easy to grow in your local climate and in less than ideal soils. If we only once do the effort of finding out about them, gardening would be doable. Some cities have agriculture agents and extensions for help. It is a matter of picking up your phone and reaching out to them. Where there isn't much help and information available on gardening topics, go experiment. Buy some seeds, throw in some compost and see if it grows. If it doesn't grow, find out about what grows best in your local geography. Knowing the right conditions in which a plant thrives and providing the it those conditions and nutrients is the key to successful growing. I would like to add here that creating right conditions in poor soils can be a bit of a challenge but totally doable. It takes time though. Grow plants that thrive well and are easy to grow than growing something which you fail at. Once you get better at understanding your soil, weather and plant needs, you can grow the difficult ones. I would like to mention here that plant that take a long time to harvest (more than 4 weeks or so) are prone to pests if left by themselves without proper care. That being said, many of those plants, can have a good yield if maintained well. 
  4. Too long and too little harvest: A common statement that one very often hears is "I planted some seeds and got a handful of harvest which was consumed in a day. So much work and it was over in a day". It happens. However, even with that little harvest, you learnt what grows well. Plant more of the same next time. Plant seeds in succession. Succession planting vegetables that you love to eat is a way to ensure that you get a continuous harvest over the growing season. Additionally, you can plant quick growing annuals instead of vegetables that take a long time to harvest. Cilantro, basil, dill, rosemary and mint are some of the many quick growing herbs that survive summer and fall weather here. Many microgreens and leafy salad greens consume very less space and can be harvested in less than 4 weeks. 
  5. Ain't no time here: The worst of all the excuses is the excuse of being short on time. We all got the same 24 hours. And yes, after work, home, kids and numerous other tasks, there is little time left to do strenuous activity. We should remember that if we have less than ideal growing conditions for plants, we have to give some time to fix it.  We either hurry up or give up. When playing with nature, understanding it is better than resisting or fighting to make things work. A little reading and a little experiment is all that is needed to make it work. Connecting is nature in big and small ways is always very therapeutic. For anyone who has harvested produce from their backyard for the very first time, knows the feeling of joy that comes from it. No looking back thereafter. That said, a commitment to grow some food is not possible for every household at all times. For those that have travelling professions, or are taking care of an elderly parent or sick child, catering to a garden can be an additional workload. 
  6. The weather killed it: We all know that one day of heavy rain, winds or icy sleet can ruin all the effort in a day. Gladly, on a small garden, unlike a large farm, you can control things to some extent. Row covers of many kinds of available that when laid on plants or seed bed, offer some degree of protection from harsh elements. Growing in pots or hoophouses offers additional protection and flexibility of moving around. I have written a post on how I built my first hoop house. It is a bit more effort and additional expense but if a little effort and expense (within budget) protects something you love, it's totally worth it. Rest assured, it is less expensive than a Kate Spade handbag ☺. 

For me, growing food is a creative endeavor. Any creative endeavor when done with intent is immensely satisfying. Besides, food has connected people from centuries. Traditions and cultures have evolved around food. Growing food should not be seen as rural profession practiced by a handful farmers who are in it. Gardening, should be done with an intent to eat healthy, nourishing food while learning a skill that teaches us to be humble and respectful of mother nature. I understand that the non-availability of gardening tools and supplies can be a limiting factor in many towns and cities. Not all supplies are available in nearby shops, not all shops are a Walmart or Home Depot. Online presence and availability of garden stores isn't easy in some countries. Let's then change it. The more we start a trend which is good for our community, the more we encourage others to adopt it. 

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Gardening Lessons 2016

Winter has descended in Flemington officially. Some days, like today, are pleasant and mild and others are cold and chilly. I have cleaned my garden of plant remains, removed the fence, taken out the black plastic mulch and kept all the tools in the shed. It's like saying good-bye to a dear friend. I miss not working in the garden anymore.

I have been following the political turmoil for past week in USA. These were the first presidential elections I came across that were very bitter and took people to streets in some cities. For some, the president-elect is a welcome change, for others he doesn't represent the true American values. I am merely an observer. The 2016 elections are over, it's time to put our feelings aside and move on.

I want to summarize all that I learnt from my garden this year. The following points might be helpful for those who have some space and are eager to start growing some of their own food. Writing down helps me take an account of my journey through the year. What I thought of about having a garden was so different than reality. I was new, the land was never used before, the city was new to me and I had physical limitations. There were things that I hated doing (like weeding in 90 degrees weather) and some that were pure joy (harvesting zucchini and sweet corns).

I had a 10,000 sq ft garden space in front my house (rental). I started seeds and transplants in March and ended harvesting by October. Lemon was the first seed that I sowed in a pot. When I planted the first lemon seed in the pot, in my mind, I had imagined a 6 ft tall lemon tree in my backyard with lemons hanging low from it.
Dreamy lemon tree
One among the many daytime musings that I do :) The lemon seed turned into a 2" seedling in two months after which it died due to neglect. No more lemons for me.  I moved on to grow other vegetables. I am a firm believer in learning by doing and learning by observing. What I learn while doing is so much more than by reading book. Books and other means of education should supplement one's own learning, not replace it. My two cents.

  1. Planning is an extremely important component of gardening vegetables.  Vegetables are tender crops and need the right conditions for healthy growth. The right soil, right moisture, right temperature and best sunshine. April was still cold here and it wasn't until May 2016 that I started building garden infrastructure. June saw emergence of a few seedlings. I should have planned better for weather before sowing seeds or starting transplants. Cost was my prohibitive factor. Season extension requires significant investment in materials. I realized that it is better to put irrigation, fencing and other things in place in garden in cooler months of spring than in summer. It becomes extremely difficult to work outside in summer when days get hot. Tasks like weeding are difficult to tackle when temperature outside reaches more than 75 degrees. If I were to do things differently, I would have put all the required things in place by end of April. By required things I mean compost, mulch, irrigation setup, fencing and a garden layout. IF YOU HAVE A SMALL GARDEN, it is always a good idea to plan how and where you want to grow your favorite edibles. Examine the area for slope, ease of access, sunlight and drainage as you think what vegetables you plan to grow.  Some vegetables like summer squash require more area to grow than others like cilantro and basil which grow beautifully in small spaces. Do your planning in spring (March and April) than in summer. 
  2.  It is difficult to access the right soil temperature for proper germination and growth as a beginner. 60-75 degrees is ideal germination temperature for many crops. When direct seeding in the ground, knowing when the temperature is in the ideal range is tough. This fall, when I expected cabbage to grow and thrive during the cool days, all of my five cabbage plants died because of frost. Even after covering the young cabbage plants with a row cover, the strong cold winds took the toll. I should have either covered the cabbage plants with a thick row cover or used white plastic sheet over hoops to cover them up. Better yet, grow things in greenhouse. Cold frames are expensive and not feasible for larger areas. I wouldn't want to build them on a rented place. If you have a knack to build things, go ahead and assemble glass cold frames to protect small crops from extreme temperature fluctuations in fall and winter. Ventilation is must. I would also like to say that sometimes extreme rainfall followed by dry spells adversely affects the fruits of plants. 
  3. Some plants were just more difficult to grow than others. I grew onions, garlic, tomatoes, corn, eggplants, cabbage, okra, summer squash, cilantro and mint in my garden this year. The vegetables grew with varying levels of success. A few onions came out really good with big red bulbs. I planted Red Witherspoon onion variety. Most of my onion bulbs didn't mature. It was partly because of hot summer and partly because of incorrect planting time.  CABBAGE and SPINACH were difficult to grow. Partly because they were most susceptible to diseases and were attacked by pests. I failed to understand the specific nutrient requirements at various stages of growth for these two plants. In summer, they were stressed. Simply applying compost wasn't enough. 
  4. Nasty pests. Pests are ' A Basket of Deplorables' ;) I read a lot about what causes them and ways to combat. Soil chemistry and presence of weeds play a role in pests' life cycle. When a plant does not get enough of all the nutrients from soil, it looses it's ability to fight the pests. If there are too many cruciferous weeds growing all around the plant, pests will come. While I actively removed as many weeds as I could, doing this job in the heat of summer for 10 vegetable rows was tough.  If you have a pest problem and are new to gardening, you may have to use organic sprays to combat pests initially. They are widely available in Home Depot, Lowes and Walmart (as well as online on Amazon or other garden supply stores). However, all of them turn out to be expensive in the long run. Spraying anything on plants is more of a curative measure to combat pests than a preventive measure. Planting companion crops that deter pests and keeping land free of unwanted grass are the most effective cultural control measures to avoid pest problems. A healthy plant that gets all of it's nutrients from soil is so much more resistant to pests than an unhealthy plant. 
  5. Weeds: Weeds in my garden was something that I tackled in all the wrong ways possible. When my garden area was first tilled, big chunks of sod still remained in the garden. The sod took roots in the soil in a few weeks. In two months, my garden was more grass than vegetables. I used a trimmer to trim the grass and weeds. It helped but after every rainfall, the weeds grew more. By September end, I gave up on weeding. My summer crops were mostly harvested by then. I would like to point that even though I had put plastic sheet on almost all of my vegetable beds, perennial weeds like crabgrass took over the beds. Crabgrass grows through rhizomes and each bud that puts itself in soil, grows roots. The only way to kill perennial weeds is to either solarize it (by covering it under black plastic) or take it out individually from the garden. A TILLING equipment has to be in place to keep the weeds from taking roots and keeping the land clear. No-Till gardening proved difficult to practice in first year. Tilling breaks the soil structure and if done repeatedly, causes damage to the soil. However, when working on a land that has not been used before or where grass has been growing for years, I think tilling is necessary. A simple wheel hoe or a walk behind tractor is best if you are gardening bigger acres. Next year, I plan to use better tools and techniques to combat weeds. 
  6. Unwanted critters: Raccoons, groundhogs and rabbits enjoyed feasting on vegetables all summer long. It was disappointing to see okra plants being devoured by raccoons overnight in spite of fencing. My six foot tall fencing was only good to keep deer at bay. Unless your fencing is dug a few feet underneath the ground, chances are, rabbits and other critters will eventually find a way to their food. If you in an urban area where animals are not a problem, you may not require fencing. Squirrels don't do much damage. 
  7. If this is your first year growing vegetables in a garden, grow the easy ones first. Easy ones depend upon your location, climate and availability. Here, I found herbs were easy to grow and required less maintenance than vegetables. Cilantro grew like a charm in summer. It self-sowed from seeds again in fall at the same place.Mint, spreads like a weed. I use mint a lot in summer. I experimented with Holy Basil and Thai basil in garden. Both grew wonderfully. Basil is a heat loving crop, it died down after the first frost on October 11. 
  8. Sunlight - there is no substitute to it. I planted seeds in seed trays for a few summer crops. Since April was cold, I put the seed trays inside my house where it was warm enough to germinate. After germination, when the seedlings needed sun, I transfered them in hoophouse to grow. There were a couple of times in April when I forgot to bring the seedlings inside at night. The next day, they died. Hoophouses do not raise the temperature enough if it already in 30s and 40s outside. If you do not have a window sill that receives sun for at least 5-6 hours in the day, there is no point growing seeds as transplants. You can use grow lights under which seedlings can be grown. The grow light replicates  the wavelength of sunlight and helps the plant grow. It is a slightly expensive setup and is good for microgreens and other tender plants. I did not use grow lights so cannot comment on their setup costs and ease of use. 
  9. There is a cost to everything. My total expenditure for the entire garden season was close to $2000. I planned to put only $500. Gross miscalculation on my part. The biggest expense was the equipment rental from Home Depot. I rented a rear tine rototiller (walk behind) for a week and used it to clear land and prepare beds in April. Another $200 were in wasteful expenditure (fancy pots, extra seeds, too much of this or that). Most of the other expenses were rightfully needed. I had written a separate post earlier in the year on costs incurred in garden. For a small garden (less than 5000 sq feet), plan to spend only on soil (manure, some compost etc), a few tools, seeds, hose pipe, some kind of mulch and row covers. Depending upon the type of crop you will grow, you may require trellises (for tomatoes, beans etc), stakes and other infrastructure setup. There will be expenses along the way. Choose materials that make your work easier and solves the garden issue you are dealing with. 
  10. Love what you do and enjoy the beauty. Gardening feels best if you love to tend to things and dig the dirt. Wear gloves but get ready to spend a few hours a week to get dirty. Plant a few flowers of your choice and that grow well in your region in specific seasons. 
I look forward to next year with many more ideas to implement in the garden. Better techniques, better plan and more success. Gardening is fun when done with a team of enthusiastic gardeners. It adds to your energy. The most valuable lesson was to learn to work with nature and not against it, keep frustrations and ego aside and stay humble. I am always open to hear about farming/gardening experiences from enthusiastic gardeners.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Fall Gardening

It's a beautiful evening today...cloudy, breezy and so green outside. I am gonna miss this million dollar view when I move out of this house.

Fall brings with itself new opportunities to garden. Cool weather crops should be in the ground by now. If you cook and use things to flavor your main dish, then plant garlic in your garden now. It doesn't take lot of space in the garden and easy to grow from bulbs. Garlic should be sown in the garden now for a summer harvest. Garlic comes in two varieties, hardneck and softneck.
Here is the difference between the two in details:
Here are some tips to grow garlic

I grew store brought garlic in spring this year. I planted garlic in April (it was cold then) and it was ready for harvest in July. Although the garlic came out good, the bulbs were very big.
Lesson learnt: Store brought varieties of garlic bulbs may not produce superior quality bulbs. Without giving garlic bulbs a cold treatment (during winter months), the bulbs may not grow big.

Unfortunately, my spinach is not germinating well in ground at this time. October 11 was the first day of frost here. I planted spinach three weeks before Oct 11. Only 2-3 seeds germinated out of 30 or so seeds that I planted. I have covered the spinach with row covers at this time to protect them from frosty nights. Cold ground may be the reason that spinach is not germinating well.

I once again planted cabbage in the garden. Remember that my cabbage wasn't a huge success in spring and summer. It not only took spring planted cabbage a long time to grow big, it was also attacked by all the pests of the world. I am taking more precautions this fall to not let this happen.

Happy fall gardening.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

A tale of three crops - Tomatoes, Eggplants and Okra

Warm days, cool nights
Changing color of leaves all bright
Garden invites to sow more seeds
Come oh girl, I am still awake
Sow something which you can reap

Fall is a beautiful time to spend in garden. With cool mornings, I am able to spend more time in the garden. The sun doesn't hurt as much as it used to in summer. I am still merrily harvesting summer crops. Okra, eggplants, tomatoes. I want to talk about what it took to grew these three summer crops this year.

German Red Beefsteak tomatoes
The story of tomatoes
This year I grew two heirloom varieties of tomatoes. The name of the varieties being Hungarian Heart and German Red Beefsteak. Heirloom variety tomatoes are absolutely delicious, colorful and huge in comparison to hybrid varieties. The fact that heirloom varieties are from non-GMO seeds makes them extra special. The downside is they require more care and maintenance, are more susceptible to diseases and their skin cracks when they grow in size.

These tomatoes were juicy and delicious. I used these tomatoes in curries and soup. Still thinking more ideas to use them.

Tomatoes are susceptible to attack from tomato hornworm and/or cutworms. These pests take a bite out of your tomato and can make them look unpleasant (and unmarketable). Occasionally, these pests can also get inside the ripe tomatoes. Due of sudden fluctuations in temperature and rainfall, for heirloom variety tomatoes planted in the garden, cracks can develop early on during their growth. Calcium deficiency can also take a toll on tomatoes and cause end rot. Fungal diseases like blight are another threat to these fruiting plants. Early blight is causing some yellowing of leaves of my plants at this time. The growth of the plant doesn't stop but I noticed early or late blight spreads fast. 
Another issue that I faced with heirloom tomatoes was ripening. It's September but not all of the hanging tomato fruits have ripened. It's like they are hibernating. I went to one of my tomato plants one evening and whispered to it "Buddy, hurry up !". Temperature fluctuations and uneven water levels are a major cause of tomatoes not ripening with time. In the last few weeks, the temperature fluctuated from 89 degrees during daytime to 50 degrees at night. There is a black plastic mulch surrounding the tomato plants in the garden. The mulch helps retain moisture levels. I used this black plastic mulch along with these garden staples. In a garden, such a mulch is very helpful. It is easy to install and remove by hand and curbs weeds.

The tale of Okra
Besides the fact that I love cooking okra from time to time, okra is easy to grow in a garden. It doesn't require stakes to support (unlike tomatoes) and doesn't take a lot of space to grow. Despite most of my okra plants already devoured by rabbits, the three surviving plants are still giving me excellent quality okra. Okra has a unique taste from other vegetables. Cook it with dry spices on slow flame to best enjoy it's flavor. Okra can also be stuffed with herbs and spices and roasted on slow flame for a savory dish. Cook it uncovered and it won't become slimy.

Since my okra and tomatoes were frequently eaten by critters the entire summer, a few weeks earlier I order this cage trap to catch some of the nasty critters. I should have ordered something to catch the critters or keep them at bay. I thought the fencing was enough. It wasn't.

I would have loved a bountiful harvest of okra. Lesson learnt: Loose fencing or netting cannot prevent rabbit, squirrels and groundhog from have breakfast in your garden. The critters can crawl from underneath a net at any time.  If you have a garden in an area frequented by small animals, I highly suggest to use a cage trap to catch these animals and release them at a safer place away from your garden. This is a more humane way of getting rid of critters.

Eggplants Speak

If you ever want to test your patience growing summer annual crops, put a few seeds of eggplant in your garden. These purple beauty could take forever to produce fruits. Summer had been fairly hot in New Jersey. After transplanting 22 seedlings of Tadifi eggplants purchased from Baker Creek Heirloom seed company, I waited and waited. The plant, in it's initial stages of growing, was attacked by beetles (Potato beetles or Japanese beetles, whatever were they). The plant wasn't entirely eaten by pests but there was significant leaf damage at one time. Note that it did not stop the growth of the plant. I reluctantly applied Sevin once on the leaves to kill the nasty pests. I almost thought the plant has died but thought of taking it out from garden. As a gardener practicing organic methods, I wouldn't have applied Sevin dust on my eggplants had I known a more immediate way to control the beetles that were chewing the leaves of eggplant. I sprayed Neem oil on the leaves and another home-made insecticidal soap to get rid of the leaf eating pests. Both weren't very effective to deter pests though they did provide temporary relief.  I couldn't cover the eggplants with a row cover since the hoops that I had were not of sufficient height. Plus without drip irrigation in place, removing the row cover every now and then to water the plants was a bit troublesome.
After two long months, my eggplants produced flowers and two weeks later, fruit. I couldn't have been happier. I am glad I didn't uprooted the eggplants when I was unhappy with their slow growth. Lesson learnt: keep emotions in check :)
I gave two applications of leaf compost to my eggplants during the months they were in garden. I thought it was useless but I was wrong. Composting helps. The plants remains healthy, get their nutrition and are better able to survive pests.

These three were a bulk of summer crops that I grew in my garden (besides zucchini). I gave my best shot at these plants. The hot and humid days of summer at times prevented me from removing the weeds around plants in an effective way. In a garden, there is always more to do and more to learn.

I am taking it a little slow in fall. But the garden doors aren't yet closed. How did my garden change since the end of summer and what's next for fall...more to come in next post.

Share your pics of garden. I would love to hear what your home garden speaks and how you care for your plants.

Monday, August 15, 2016

The days are getting shorter

After an abundant summer squash harvest and a delightful harvest of sweet corn, the heat wave and rains took over a lot of my gardening enthusiasm. On some day here in Flemington, New Jersey, it became difficult to tend to the garden after 9:00 am due to excessive heat. Out of the five things that I plan to complete in my garden in a morning, three gets done and two are always left behind. I get heat related headaches with too much glare from sunlight. A couple of times I thought of waking up at 5:00 am to get started in the garden at about 6:00 am and finish things by 9:00 am. Never happened.
Summer crops are still growing in my garden. I already planted spinach and cabbage in seed trays for a fall harvest. I am hoping I will get spinach in fall after the disaster it was in spring. I knew what I did wrong. Eggplants have been a huge disappointment in my garden. They are just not producing fruit. A possible reason could be a lot of leaf damage from potato beetles. After trying oil sprays, dust and row covers to protect those young plants, I still couldn't rescue them much. Eggplant is still in the garden but just not growing fast. And for some reason, my Brunswick cabbage plant has been very slow in forming heads. The spring planted cabbage plant, after being rescued from beetles and aphids and butterflies, has lost it's will to grow and is beating itself up in the summer heat. It screams to say 'It's too hot for me !!'. The days to maturity for cabbage is usually 90-100 days depending upon variety. Since I planted my cabbage in May, which was a little late for a spring planting, it is taking it's own sweet time.
And the critters greet me every morning. The rabbit and some groundhog like creature ate away okra leaves and most of my newly planted yellow pepper seedlings. The netting has to be very thorough and tight and dug inside the ground in order for it to be effective. This would require one to dig a trench and secure the net 8-12 " under the ground and then seal it off. I didn't have the means to dig the trench around 10000 sq feet of garden space. Renting a trench digger was expensive. I skipped it altogether. When I started the fencing project, I tied the fence to posts along with perimeter of the garden, I put some heavy sod to keep the bottom part of net in place. My entire garden area is fenced but a little space from cuts in the netting allowed the critters to make their way inside and enjoy the bounty. I will be careful about it the next year when I will have a bigger space to garden (more to come on that later).

Tomatoes are growing and should be ready to harvest in a week or so. A few pods of okra is harvested every few days. Mint and basil are spreading their smell in garden and in my kitchen (Hello, iced mint tea). A few onions have been harvested and a lot more are still in ground.

I took it a little slow in summer and let nature do it's work. A garden however needs regular monitoring. Otherwise, as I learnt, the nasty crabgrass (a kind of weed) can spread itself very quickly. Had I excavated the garden area before putting it to use, the weed problem would have been much less severe. Some weeds are so widespread in my garden that I just can't fight with them. With plastic and cardboard mulch, I have tried to keep weeds at bay from taking over my crops.

This is my first year gardening and am excited to learn about gardening, nature and the symbiotic relation between various elements of the ecosystem.

Happy gardening for the rest of the summer. The days are getting shorter.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Connect with your local food grower

There couldn't be a better time than this decade for small businesses to reach their customers in more than one ways. Who hasn't heard of the buzz about hyper-local small farms, farm-to-table movements, support for local farmers and multi-million dollar investing happening in tech ventures supporting agriculture. While we all like to drink and dine at a high-end restaurant that uses the freshest ingredients in it's menu, it would be nice if we can bring some of that fresh produce  to cook our everyday meal. There are more than one apps and/or web platforms today, besides Facebook, that allow you to connect with local food growers who would like to share their excess produce with you.

Local food should not always be limited to that which comes from a recognized, well-established farm. There may be a neighbor four blocks from your house that grows some fragrant basil. Instead of rushing to the grocery store, it might be worth connecting with other gardeners in your neighborhood that can share their excess produce with you. Wouldn't that be called supporting local food ? I bet. The tendency to go to grocery store comes from the need to shop conveniently. Grocery stores are a one-stop shop where you get inside the walls and get out with a truck load of food (some of which can be highly over priced, herbs, for example). But with a tad bit of effort, you can get fresher food, from a known source along with the fun of receiving food from someone who grows edible produce responsibly.  Your local gardener may not be certified organic or someone who is GAP (good agriculture practises) compliant but then you know who he is, how he grows and what he puts in it's soil. So you decide, by actually looking, and not reading labels and believing in certifications, whether or not that produce is good for you or not. In no way am I suggesting not to go to grocery stores or defy what certified labels say. My own grocery bill sometimes exceed $300 a month. I have tried my hands on online grocery delivery services like Fresh Direct that deliver food at your doorstep. I used in mostly in winters when it was too cold to go out (or too lazy to leave a blanket). In my experience, these services have limitations of how much one can customize their food order. Moreover, at times, the quantities that come in a single order are miserably less. But again, it is convenient.

Try your hands on apps like LocalCarrot, which helps you enter your zip-code and find people who are growing some produce near you. RipeNearMe(common mostly in Australia) and The Farmer's Garden ( are similar web platforms. Invite your friends who grow food in their backyard garden to share their produce with you and others in the community. Log in to these apps to see if you can get fresh thyme leaves from someone in your own neighborhood. Encourage someone who you know is growing something edible to use these apps to share his/her excess produce.

The idea of a truly sustainable community should come from an interest to consume food that is grown near you and support growers, big and small, who put effort in growing the best quality food there is. A local food grower may not have the capacity to fulfill all your produce needs, neither can it offer the convenience of a grocery store. He can, however, offer you small amounts of food that he has grown with all his attention and is happy to share it just for the joy of it. It makes real difference in the taste of food on your table when it is harvested fresh and has traveled just a few miles to be in your kitchen.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

A huge squash harvest

How happy can a huge first harvest from your very own garden make you. Anyone who has grown food in their backyard gardens know the happy feeling. That is me today. Bright and beautiful harvest of lots of summer squash...makes me merry. It was my second harvest from garden today of this lovely vegetable. The first harvest was done two days earlier.
Summer squash for me was easy to grow, resisted pest problems and grew fast. It proved to be such an ideal crop for someone with no green thumb. I cannot eat them all and am planning to share some with friends. Hopefully, they can grill, saute or bake this summer delicacy this coming 4th of July weekend (healthy eating anyone?) . I will.

Happy Gardening.

Summer harvest..lettuce, cilantro and squash

Cocozella di Napoli (an Italian heirloom summer squash)

Monday, June 20, 2016

Stay healthy and keep gardening

As rewarding as gardening is, it can also be hard. Many gardening activities require us to bend our neck and back. What happens when you constantly put your body in incorrect posture ? The neck and back vertebrae may lose their curvature, or you may get a pinched nerve in cervical or lumbar region. Makes me think if gardening is really a healthy profession. Unless one is using all mechanized machines, bending and manual work are hard to avoid. Instead of saying "It's part of the job and if I can't do it, I am not fit for farming", correcting things and taking care of oneself should be done intently to be our best selves. In every profession, there are times and situations which take a toll on our bodies. Slowing down to think what can be done to minimize the stress on body without missing the things we love to do, should as much be a priority as the profession itself.

The thing that is hard to escape while working in a garden or farm is the bending involved. Seeding - bend, digging- bend, lay plastic mulch manually- bend, weeding - bend more. This happens more in a garden that is new and was never used before. Weeds and grass in first year in such a garden take over the land in no time.

Injury, aches and sprains can be avoided/minimized by taking certain measures in addition to giving your body a rest. While working long hours outside already burns calories, other forms of activities are needed to keep one's body in a good shape. Sitting in a slouched position in front of a TV with a chilled beer in hand while resting from outdoor activity isn't doing any good to your body (I am not saying don't drink chilled beer). Keeping your body fit for work requires a bit more effort. A daily routine of exercises like pilates or yoga does wonders to the entire body. An hour of these exercises after an intense day of work in the garden or farm is a good daily practice. Additionally, summers are a good time to take an evening stroll after a hard day of garden work. Walking keeps spine supple.

And for the sun..... I prefer working early mornings or late evenings. Mornings are peaceful, evenings are cool and refreshing. This is not just to avoid sun tan. Tanning is not my problem, sun-burn and rashes resulting from it, is. Skin is our largest organ and it takes the most burn from everything we expose ourselves to. I prefer to cover my head while working in hot sun. If we do however decide to work in the afternoons, keeping oneself hydrated is a must. I am sensitive to sun and get headaches when exposed to direct sunlight for more than an hour (as much as I love beaches, I can't enjoy much at a beach on sunny days). Hence, I try hard to protect myself from strong sunlight whenever (and however) possible. Protective clothing is a must even if we slather sunscreen like mayonnaise on face and neck. This pair of work gloves I purchased an year ago worked extremely well for me. Most stores do not sell gloves for small hands. Not all of us like to wear gloves while working in the garden. The touch of soil feels nice to hands. I agree. I wear gloves to keep hands a little clean especially if I am handling perlite, lime or neem oil.

Is there a way to avoid the constant bending for long hours everyday ? Depends on the kind of garden and frequency of tasks involved. Permanent raised beds may prove better for one's back than sowing directly in soil. I do not have the raised beds.  (I didn't want to build permanent immovable structures at this time) While doing most of my garden chores that involve bending, I prefer to sit cross-legged on a mat than stooping over in an arched position. It is an easy position and does not put strain on my knees and back. (The mat saves me from ant bites) I do this while seeding too. For tasks like seeding, having a table that is waist height or above to keep the materials will avoid bending over repeatedly to fill soil in seed trays. Buying a stool is another good option to support back and knees. Most plastic stools break from your own weight. Some stools, like the one I brought here, are robust, move easily and have a little storage space for tools. However, they are hard to assemble and when fully assembled, have a height which is too high (Except maybe sitting on the stool and doing pruning or watering).

Remaining healthy and strong is something we all must consciously practice as a life long habit. Our ability to do things that we love depends on how much our bodies can support. Poor posture for a period of time leads to conditions in which pain management remains the only option. Taking care of the body is a prevention that is better than wandering for a cure.

What do you do when you work outside for long hours ? I would love to hear thoughts.

Stay strong, healthy and enjoy all that summer has to offer.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Lettuce love and summer crops growing in the garden

Lettuce is a lovely and versatile crop. One of the first crops to be harvested in early summer, lettuce adds that crunch to an everyday dinner salad. Lettuce and cilantro are the two crops I could harvest so far. To anyone that grows food in their backyard, the first harvest of crops is so exciting. It is the result of your hard labor. The first harvest becomes a delicacy in that sense.

I transplanted lettuce in the ground around April 24, 2016. The young seedlings were surprisingly hardy in fluctuating weather of early summer. Winds, rain, took it all. I grew a french heirloom variety of butterhead lettuce, the seeds of which were organic. I made sure I grew the lettuce without the use of any harmful chemicals. When dry spells of summer winds started in May, I found some pests hovering around the lettuce. Spraying a home based insecticidal soap solution was the only thing that I used twice in last 40 days before harvesting lettuce. The solution worked pretty well and stopped pest infestation before it becomes unmanageable. I read online quite a lot when I need help on certain topics. One common argument I often come across is that using insecticidal soap solution is not entirely organic since soap itself is synthetic. I agree. However, I think it is better than store brought organic sprays and protects your crop from pests damage pretty well. As a beginning farmer, it would have been disheartening to loose all of your crop to pests. Some cultural or biological control has to be done if pests are imminent. Some measures, like growing a variety of flora around your garden, are wonderful ways to attract beneficial insects that eat the bad bugs but it takes time to implement a garden rich in diversity. If pests damage is happening now, one can't wait for beneficial flowers to bloom and parasitic wasps to come and pray the bad bugs. Spot treatments have to be done sometimes. It is also important to understand that stressed out plants suffer more damage than healthy ones. Stress, it seems, is bad for every living being, plants and humans included.

Covering young plants with a row cover or tulle also protects them from insects and birds. In my garden however, I am still in the process of building infrastructure to have a set up for all row covers on every vegetable. My focus will be to provide row covers or netting for brassica crops first before anything else.

I transplanted 22 eggplants today in a new bed and a few Hungarian Heart tomatoes in another bed yesterday. I could only plant 8 Okra seeds out of 30 that I seeded. Blame it on poor germination and a probably a few human errors of sowing deep and watering unevenly.

A challenging and beautiful root crop that I planted in pot this year was Ginger. Ginger is less famous in kitchens than garlic. However, it is an extremely nutritious root, is used widely in teas and adds a little heat when put in curries and Asian stir-fry vegetables. I use ginger generously in my morning tea and in many other recipes.  While ginger is a tropical root and cannot be grown on land here in zone 6 of northeast USA, I wanted to learn to grow this root crop in home. I started researching about growing ginger in home and what it needs for an optimal growth. There is very little literature available for growing ginger in USDA zone 6. I had a hard time finding anything about growing ginger in university publications of Rutgers, Cornell and other universities in the east coast. It seems not many commercial scale small farms, even those with greenhouses, grow ginger for the market. While stores stock up local produce in summer, there is absolutely no locally grown ginger that supermarkets stock.

I purchased an organic ginger root from store, washed it and put it in the potting soil in a big pot on March 21, 2016. The shoots started coming up in a few weeks. Since ginger requires lots of sun and warm weather to grow, I had to keep the pot outside in shaded sunlight everyday until harvest. Protecting the potted ginger from winds can be a challenge. There were many sunny and windy days in summer that required extra caution when placing the ginger pot outside. Ginger takes around 10 months to mature. I harvested in November which was too early harvest. I got very little additional root growth.

Summer is exciting. Seeds are out in the garden, the weather and growing conditions are yet to decide the successes and failures ahead.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Everyone is out in the sun..including the critters and a turtle

The lost turtle
It's summer here and I am loving it. The squash, onions, garlic, lettuce, cabbage and fenugreek are all growing well. Yesterday, out of nowhere, I had this little visitor on my property. Came from nowhere. I thought it would go away on itself but I discovered this morning it was still wandering like a lost kid. So I picked it up from the driveway and put it near a little stream which flows by my property. Hopefully, it will find it's way.

With summer, the plants, grass and weeds are getting a chance to soak the sunlight. Since my land was a grass lawn earlier, the grass on bare areas like paths between beds and fence edges, grows fast. Yesterday evening, I picked up my grass trimmer and cut the grass near my corn plants. Today, I covered the area I cleared yesterday with cardboard. The corn is growing tall and I removed the row cover over it today. Clearing the grass and covering that area with cardboard will prevent more grass seeds from filling the corn bed. While in earlier weeks of last month, I spent a lot of time doing hand-weeding, I figured it wasn't feasible for me during the heat of the summer. The grass takes over fast, especially on land where cover crops have never been grown. So, the grass trimmer. A portion of my garden is covered with cardboard mulch and the rest will be covered with plastic mulch in next few days. The grass is too big to lay the mulch directly without trimming it.

Critters are something that were unexpected and invaded my spinach plants.
Ugly aphids
Green aphids underneath leaves

A little powdery mildew on squash leaves
  I prepared my own insecticidal soap mixture and sprayed on the young spinach leaves to kill the ugly black and green aphids. I only did it once last week. This week, I just used a strong mist of water to clean the leaves of spinach.  While it did control the aphid population, some damage to leaves is already done. I am not expecting much spinach growth because the aphids have made many leaves curly and yellowish which is beyond repair. I also purchased Neem oil from Home Depot to use as spray in case my home-made insecticidal spray does not work. I haven't used the oil for insects but will use it on squash leaves to get rid of powdery mildew. The spinach was direct seeded on the bed. The aphids and other pests lie dormant inside the soil and emerge when food is available. Buggers ! I will try growing spinach again in fall this year. I planted some mint and basil near the spinach beds yesterday. Mint is supposed to repel insects as they don't like it's smell.

I have planted a lot of wildflowers all along the edges of the fence. The wildflowers attract beneficial pests and butterflies that pray on the harmful pests. The wildflowers have not yet bloomed in my garden. For now, the damage control had to be done manually. I noticed in my garden that aphids have also taken over many of the Lambsquarters weed plants (that are everywhere in the garden). The issue with removing them by hands is that the ants, which are aphid lovers, crawl on your hands quickly while you remove the Lambsquarters weed. Eww !!

Inside the hoophouse, tomatoes, eggplants, cabbages, onions and strawberries are growing in trays. They are far from being transplanted yet, especially, the slow growing Alexandria Strawberries.

More to come in coming weeks. Let me know your feedback in comments below.

Happy Gardening.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Gearing up for summer, the learning continues

There is still chill in the air. The strong winds blew away the cardboard sheet mulch from my vegetable beds. Redoing a task isn't fun.
On the sunny side, the garlic is growing strong and healthy. So is lettuce. Fenugreek, that was direct seeded two weeks ago, has started to sprout but it is little scared to get out from it's seed in today's windy weather. A row cover is helping it survive. The month of May this year has been very odd. It hasn't been very warm and the nights get chilly.

I am no fan of winds. A slight breeze is okay but gusty winds that blow away efforts of my work in the field isn't my friend. I am beginning to realize the immense amount of patience it needs to grow a vegetable farm or home garden. I admit, coming from a technology background, I am used to getting results as soon as I hit the Enter key on keyboard. Or I would love to tweak a code or configuration to have the results I want. Alas, I cannot do it with the slow growing spinach in my garden or the many onion seeds that died on me without giving a sign. Only 9 onion seedlings are left.

One of the many non-weather related reasons for why onion seedlings failed can be accounted to critters. My garden was unfenced until two days back. Groundhog and rabbits all thought they were welcome. Some seedlings were not hardened well before planting outside. Lesson learnt.

Row covers seem to do a good job of protecting my recently planted seedlings from winds and rain damage. Although rains press the covers down, it still protects the plants from dying. At times though, I am short on things to press the cover down. I am using some old sod that was lying around and empty milk cartons to hold the row cover in place.

A lot of grass and weeds in the garden after last week of rains. Weeding takes away a lot of my time from other things I want to do in the garden. Many things, including sowing new seeds, gets postponed on days I do weeding. Many of my beds are covered with cardboard mulch and compost (except spinach, cilantro and fenugreek which are direct seeded). It is the paths and the edge of the beds where the grass keeps growing if not checked. The dandelions, though they look nice with their yellow flowers, are difficult to control in garden. They are everywhere. For the grass that grows along the edges of beds, I take a scissor and cut it down short. It takes time and a lot of neck and back pain. This first season dealing with weeds is a tough call. I do not know what could be an easier and cost effective way to deal with weeds. The two measures that I am taking for my farm is using cardboard mulch and black plastic mulch for beds. For paths, I wanted to use wood chips but I have a big garden and buying wood chips from stores will prove costly. Let me know how you control weeds in your garden.

Happy gardening.



Lovely squash..they are now outdoors

Spinach bed covered with row cover

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Short growing season..challenge accepted

Sometimes I complain. Like when it is May and windy and a bit like spring outside. After five long winter months, I am waiting for summer. I am waiting for warm days and cool nights and a temperature where all that I have planted outside can thrive without costly protective measures.

Just 56 degrees
As humans, we want to control things. When we cannot, we hope for things to get better. We call it optimism. It doesn't help but only keeps your hopes high and makes you feel good about future.

As a gardener, seeing your plants grow well in the care of earth is like seeing your own child in a happy place. I love to watch plants dance when a gentle breeze brushes them. That's how they learn to adapt with the weather outside. However, the windy and not-so-warm weather in this part of the world is, in my opinion, not ideal for growing food year-round. A lot of protection and measures have to be taken by a farmer or gardener in order to protect plants from wind damage or untimely rains. Such measures might not be a great deal in a small garden but one wishes it would be better if things were simpler. Big commercial farmers, hence, put huge investments in greenhouses to protect tender plants from weather extremes. Not the most natural way of growing food but protects your investment in a farm. For a small farmer or home gardener, the costs can easily add up when you put money in purchasing things to protect rows of plants. These can include row covers, mulches, small hoophouses etc. It is, after all, the weather than makes a plant grow. A little too harsh and the plant may die. Even for cold hardy vegetables like the ones from brassica family, some degree of protection is needed when plants are in early stages of growth. The seedlings of such crops may tolerate cold but harsh weather is a different game. Young seedlings planted outside most often need a degree of protection from weather extremes. I learnt this when I saw the leaves of onion sets planted outside drooping after weeks of strong winds and rains. I applied a row cover over them today fearing they won't survive this weather for long. I planted the onions, cabbage and lettuce outside a few weeks back hoping they now need more sun and water than what I can provide them inside. Tired with the task of moving the seed trays in and out of hoophouse every other day (there were frost advisories in April), I decided to direct seed spinach, cilantro and fenugreek outside.


  • Spinach: it didn't germinate well when direct seeded. It was either attacked by pests, seedlings died of winds or seeds didn't germinate at all. Birds also stole some seeds off the ground. 
  • Fenugreek: I used store brought seeds of fenugreek to experiment. I wouldn't use them again. The fenugreek grew but it's leaves(which is what is eaten) weren't as healthy and of right size as they should have been. I will experiment with fenugreek again next year with better quality seeds. 
  • Cilantro: grew well. It spread it's aroma in abundance in the garden. I used the leaves in soups, curry and home-made dressings. I stored some seeds as well. I would have stored more seeds from the plan had it not caused severe sneezing when I was near the plant for 10-15 minutes to remove seeds. Couldn't continue doing it. 

Is merely five months of good warm weather good enough to farm for food ? Surely, one can grow a lot of annuals but not the easy way and with a lot of uncertainty. The strong cold winds have woken me up late at night only to worry about what might happen to the little plants outside. Surprisingly, they take the cold but too of it, and I can see the signs of distress. Farming a little somewhere south (sans tornado threat) would have been more rewarding. There is so much more one can grow in a garden when the weather is mild.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Hello Spring..what is growing in the garden

I love cloudy days. I can walk outside with no glaring sun, I love the cool breeze and the rolling fields in the neighborhood are a bliss to watch. From grass to trees, groudhogs to cayotes, everything is waking up from hibernation. April has been cold so far. A couple of days of warm weather followed by cool days and cold nights. In those few warm days, I managed to set some cool season vegetables outside. Everyone who gardens knows what a delight it is to watch your plants grow and trees bloom in spring, especially when effort has been put in setting them up in your garden.

I prepared plant beds early this month to set a few early season vegetables in the ground. I put compost in the beds, weeded them and also covered them with cardboard sheet mulch. So far, cabbage, lettuce, onions, garlic, cilantro, watercress and spinach have found their happy place in the lap of mother earth. Hopefully, they will do well.

A bit on sheet mulching. For my garden, I did it the simple way this year. I bought old cardboard in bulk from someone who was selling it for free on craigslist (drove 50 miles to get the cardboard). I removed any staples, pins and tape from the cardboard, opened them and laid them on my beds for the entire length of the beds. On top of the cardboard, I put a layer of leaf compost and some heavy sod to hold the cardboard in place. I didn't had too many stones on the property so sod was the only thing that I could use to press the cardboard.

I found that young the young seedlings did surprisingly well in the ground in harsh weather days of April.  At one eventful night when wind gusts of 40 mph blew my small hoophouse and a fix was done at 3:00 am, I woke up the next day to find all little transplants doing well in the ground. I couldn't exactly understand the reason but I was happy. There is something about being in contact with the earth that holds them together. The seedlings in trays or pots if subjected to strong winds and fluctuating temperature would have died. A few earlier sets of basil, watercress and cilantro indoors did die when accidentally left them hoophouse on a really cold night. Basil is a warm weather herb and I understand it can't tolerate cold after a few sets died. I need to make a mistake twice in order to learn a lesson from it.

I am sharing a few pictures of how my garden looks like at this time. On any given day, I prepare two beds and make them ready a week before transplanting my seedlings in ground. I punch holes in the cardboard and plant my transplants into them. There is obviously multiple ways of preparing beds, some more efficient than others. Cost though is a factor that I have to keep in mind during my first year. Let me know in comments below how do you take care of your early spring crops.

Happy Gardening.

Cilantro and watercress in one bed
Garlic shoot..just sprouting


The little cabbage

Spinach bed direct seeded. Lots of grass on the bed.


Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Materials used for starting a vegetable garden

Since I started gardening, I have spent quite a lot on material costs. My gardening endeavor started in late february this year when I sowed a lemon seed in pot. From the day, the first seed was sown in the pot up till now, the garage and house are stacked with things I purchased in last two months. What surprised me about myself was I ended up spending more that I thought even before the first seed ever sprouted. The materials that I purchased were necessary to get things started. I have been extra careful not to purchase things that I don't need for garden. At times, you make purchases as you go and some unforeseen costs. I wanted to share a list of materials that I have purchased so far and get your feedback on what I could have avoided as an unnecessary purchase. The size of my garden is around 10,000 square feet. I planted 10-12 different vegetables and herbs. In a later post, I will share my detailed inventory costs.

  1. Agribon Row Cover (for protecting seeds and young plants from critters and birds. Is excellent in offering protection from harsh weather elements. I have spread it out on cabbage plant and it is doing a good job of protecting the cabbage from butterflies and other flying insects. Totally worth the money)
  2. Spray Nozzle
  3. Hose Pipe
  4. Small flower pots (brought them to plant basil and give away seedlings to friends and family. I liked their color and size.Not much use as a necessary garden supply)
  5. Growing Trays
  6. Plastic cells for starting seeds
  7. Single pot (for planting ginger)
  8. Hoop house materials
  9. Seeds
  10. Garden Labels
  11. Fish Emulsion
  12. Potting Mix
  13. Pitch Fork
  14. Spade
  15. 20 Fence Posts
  16. Deer Fence (300 ft)
  17. Woodsaw
  18. Hammer
  19. Trash Bin for food scraps
  20. Wheelbarrow
  21. 10 yards leaf compost
  22. Agricultural Lime 
  23. Rototiller (rental for one week)
All of the above materials were purchased for gardening. Did you purchase similar materials for your vegetable garden ? Where do you think costs could be cut down ? Feel free to add materials you used in your small farm or vegetable garden that you feel were worth the investment.


Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Preparing land for an edible garden

It's April, officially spring and here is a check on weather. The weather today is similar to what it was in the months of January and March. I don't feel spring yet.

The not-so-spring-weather did not deter me from taking first steps to converting a grass lawn into something useful. Grass is useful but needs to be removed to prepare land for growing food. In doing so, there were a few missteps that happened and their remedial actions I took. Continue reading to know both sides.

The area of my house that I chose to use as a vegetable garden was covered with grass. It was not used for active agriculture in many years. The good thing about that was there were no residual fertilizers that affected the soil. The downside was the soil was too hard to work and acidic and needed amendments to make it suitable for growing vegetables. Most soils in New Jersey are slightly acidic which makes them ideal for growing peaches, blueberries and other fruits.

In an attempt to cut costs and get the work done in less time and effort, I asked a farmer (who works for my landlord) to till the half acre plot of land that I was planning to use by his tractor. The sod on the land was hard to remove and so I thought a first pass by tractor would make the land clean and clear (or so I thought). The farmer agreed to do the work for me. I was happy with my resourcefulness as I got the work done for free. However, the land, with grass on it, after being tilled, looked like this.

Sod clumps all over

Results of bad decision 

A total disaster ! Tilling land without first removing the grass made trench like rows with the tractor's tines. The heavy sod that was dug remained as is and the whole thing, which was done in 25 minutes, later required many hours of work. It looked bad and felt bad. Isn't it common sense to get the grass removed first before tilling. Well yes but in my head I had a picture of the land being plowed nicely so that the grass would churn in the soil and after tilling, the land would become a sod free area ready to be seeded.  I felt a little angry at the farmer too who tilled the land. Couldn't he just advice not to till the land without getting the grass removed. On top of that, when the man stepped down from his tractor, he looked at me and said, well now you have to do the work to prep the area. I wish he just quietly left the scene without uttering a word after creating the mess. 

Common sense comes in small packets and it has to come at the right time to make sense. Apparently, a lot of common and uncommon shining itself after making a mistake. And so mistakes are good. For next few days, I waited for the weather to get better so that I could work the above area and make it more suitable. The weather didn't get better and seeing the mess from my living room window everyday was shattering my spirits. I researched a little on how I could use a hand tiller to till the land and make it more even. It may work. 

A couple of days later I went to Home Depot and rented a rear-tine self-propelled rototiller. 
Honda Rear Tine rototiller

Renting wasn't inexpensive but it was the only shot to fix the land. To explore other options, I thought about calling another farmer who was ready to fix the land. The cost of renting a tiller for a week or calling someone to do the work for me were almost same. Having someone else do the work would have made things so much easier and faster. However, after what happened to my land by the unwise decision to have someone else do the work, I wasn't sure if giving the land in another hand one more time was wise. I wanted to learn the basics of tilling land and doing it myself would help me understand the rototiller and the effort involved in using it. 

I rented the above rototiller for a day but ended up keeping it for a week. The first few hours of using the machine were spent in figuring how to bring the tines of the tiller into action. A whole day of rental cost spent and the tiller wasn't yet put to action. So, like I always do, sat on my computer and searched the keywords "why does my Honda rear tine rototiller not work". Turned out it was a minor thing that I was missing. The big boy was in the game. 

Using a tiller like above isn't all that hard. However, maneuvering it through an uneven piece of land with heavy sod is a work. Since the tiller was only about 2 feet wide and I was using it to till 10,000 sq ft of space, it wasn't difficult to figure out that this would be a time consuming task. I had to lift a few chunks of heavy sod from the path of the rototiller by hand as they would prevent the tiller from moving forward and there was a danger of damaging the tines. The machine turned out to be very handy and useful in making the land even and breaking down big chunks of grass. I left around 12 ft of space from the edges of the plot for accessibility and staying away from any utility lines. Seeing the tiller do it's wonderful work of breaking the sod on second day was so relieving. I tilled one third of the plot each day. The work should have been done in three days but cold spell of weather along with rain made working outside unsuitable on few days. At the end of six days and sore hands and shoulders, the land looked like this. 

The plot of land is much more even and workable. It is not entirely free of grass but in a shape where it could be put to work. I did not throw away all the sod that was removed. I put some in my compost bin and put aside some more for using it further in the season. I will write another post on how I plan to use the sod. The grass that still remains on the tilled land isn't all that bad. It's earthworms' food and an active ingredient of biological soil activity. Eventually, the grass will decompose in the soil. It may cause weed issues in hot summer months but I cannot be sure about it at this time.

A better approach to prepare a grass lawn to a vegetable garden would be to first remove the sod entirely by either using a sod-cutter or better yet, calling your nearby landscape designers. Landscapers do a good work of putting grass and also removing it. They do not however till the land (mostly). Once the sod is removed, using a tiller would be much quicker and easy. The rototiller is a handy equipment for garden and farm. It is best suited for small plots of land. I could have rented other machines to make things easier but nothing would have been cost-effective. I do not want to buy heavy equipment for my garden in my first year.

 I gave myself a dinner treat on the evening I completed the work of fixing the uneven, messy land. The entire effort was worth it. My next step is to amend the soil to make it more suitable for growing vegetables. More to come in next post.

Share your feedback in the comments below.


Friday, April 1, 2016

Indoor growing...a health check

It's been more than three weeks since I planted different vegetable seeds and I am excited to share their progress so far. There have been a couple of failures in the way but for most part, the seedlings are growing well (as you can see in the pictures below). I think that the seeds are growing slower than usual at this time of the year (or maybe my patience is running out).

The little lemon

 Lemon, well, of course, takes years to grow. Still, I am growing lemon just for the love of it. I am growing my lemon in Miracle Grow Nature’s Care Organic potting mix from Walmart.  The potting mix is good though it does not contain anything that will add porosity to the soil. Hence, while using this potting mix for my plants, I had to add Perlite as a growth media to promote adequate water drainage in the soil (I didn't use Perlite in lemon though). 

I read somewhere that Mayer lemon is the most preferred variety to grow indoors. I didn't use Meyer lemon for my experiment since I wanted to take the challenge to grow a store brought variety from seed (not sure of it's name). If it succeeds to grow a bit this summer, I may gift it to a friend who lives in tropical side of the country to take care of it next season. If it doesn't, well, lesson learnt.

I am also growing basil for my garden. Basil is a warm weather Mediterranean, sun loving plant and it's still cold and stormy here in New Jersey every other week (far from a Mediterranean weather).The little seedlings of Genovese basil have sprouted well in this weather and will continue to grow as the weather gets warm.

The little basil

Fenugreek and cilantro turned out to be a disaster last month. Fenugreek died one day without any warning and cilantro grew spindly. However, the second plantings of both is growing well. I was careful in not exposing cilantro to hot sun and keeping the soil moist (not wet). Cilantro was trickier than I expected. One set of seedlings has long stems and few leaves. The other set of Cilantro is short, firm and with a good set of leaves. I can't say for sure why the difference in growth patterns of the two sets.
Cilantro..growing well

Beloved fenugreek

 I will learn the rules of the game sooner than later. When you are dealing with living plants, soil, weather and the entire growing ecosystem, you are dealing with a living system. Living and growing systems are hard to manage. I can only provide the right conditions for a plant but I will have to leave the rest to the nature. Lessons in gardening come from trial and error, hits and misses. I will give these seedlings a little boost of plant food in next couple of weeks to replenish the nutrients. More updates on what I use as plant food for seedlings later.

Ground Cress..first set of true leaves beginning to sprout

Cabbage..just a week old