Georgia Garden Girl

Garden Great in Zone 8!

The First Harvest

I hope you got through last night’s storms all right. All seems to be well in my neck of the woods, but the folks over and Alabama and Mississippi are hurting again. I hope tonight’s storm is not as bad.

As I was looking for downed limbs this afternoon, I noticed them. The snow peas! The first vegetables of my spring season! All fourteen of them! Some of which were a little too small to pick but I picked them anyway! So exciting!

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Yes, there will be many more snow peas. And yes, I do long for the days of summer when I have my first Cherokee Purple on white bread with Duke’s mayonnaise. But the first harvest is a big milestone. It means that the vegetable garden is officially awake. It means that the hard work and planning are starting to pay off. And it means that I can’t continue to put off reinstalling my drip irrigation system. But for right now this second, I will savor each one of those fourteen little snow peas. Yum.

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Glorious Day!

We survived last week’s frost warning and rain and made it to Easter!  Though the day started out chilly and gray, the afternoon could not have been more beautiful.  After I worked the early shift for the mission trip pancake breakfast, attended an excellent Easter service at The Ridge, and took a walk with my trusty Great Dane Clementine, I headed outside to spend a lovely day in the yard.

As I walked around making my mental to-do list, I saw it.  My first peony blossom.  I planted peonies two years ago, but they never bloomed.  I think the cold winter encouraged the blossoms:

My First Peony Blossom

My First Peony Blossom

I also had a surprise amaryllis bloom.  I usually dig up all the amaryllis bulbs in September so I can have them blooming for the holidays (seems like they always bloom right after the holidays), but I missed this one:

Surprise Amaryllis!

Surprise Amaryllis!

After I admired the flowers, I had to get to work.  There was a lot to do!  I spent most of yesterday afternoon pulling up pansies (and weeds) to make way for summer annuals.  Today, I finally trimmed back the tea olive (I hated to cut them while they were blooming, so I just now got around to this task).  Then I planted some zucchini and basil.  Right. In. The. Front. Yard.  Yes, people, I am a rebel.  I figured 1) I’ve already got the tomato teepee, so I’m not destroying any fancy aesthetic by adding more veggies;  2) zucchini and basil are pretty; 3) there aren’t any draconian anti-vegetable restrictive covenants in my neighborhood (as far as I know); and 4) I was out of room in the raised beds.

I planted my dahlias right behind the zucchini and basil.  I had dug up the dahlia tubers last fall and then started them in pots in March. I planted all of the ones that had shoots (only one didn’t—oh, well).  I’m trying a new approach to weed maintenance: newspaper and pinestraw.  That’s right.  My Ledger-Enquirers will serve an important second purpose: weed barrier.  I have tested this approach in several areas in the past, and it really does work for about a season.  So I’ve decided to expand.

Why newspaper when the stores sell fancy weed barrier fabric?  Friends, I’ve tried the fabric, and I’m here to tell you: don’t waste your money.  Weeds are going to grow on top of the fabric after a year or two anyway.  It’s a pain in the neck to cut holes when you want to plant something in the fabric covered area.  And it’s expensive.  Newspaper just lasts a season, but it’s easy to cut, and it’s free.  If I want something a tad more durable–like for paths between my raised beds–I use cardboard or old towels and sheets that are too grungy for Goodwill.

A couple of pointers.  The Ledger-Enquirer is so thin that I just lay out a whole section at a time.  I find that it’s helpful to have a hose handy, particularly on a windy day.  After I lay a few sections of newspaper, I wet them so they don’t blow away.  Also, after experimenting with several different methods, I’ve determined that the best method is to cover the bed in newspaper and pinestraw, THEN plant the plants.  Here is the finished product:

Zucchini, Basil, Dahlias, Knock-Outs, and Tomatoes

Zucchini, Basil, Dahlias, Knock-Outs, and Tomatoes

After I got the zucchini/basil/dahlia bed done, I used a similar approach with my strawberries and onions.  I hope it works!  I’ll keep you posted.  Happy gardening.

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Freeze Warning!

Y’all, there is a freeze warning for parts of Georgia and Alabama tonight. Please check your forecast and take appropriate precautions if the temperature is expected to dip below 32. Walter Reeves advises us to cover tender plants (tomatoes, basil, etc.) with a cotton sheet or a cardboard box. Make sure to remove the cover in the morning when the temperature rises. See http://www.walterreeves.com/landscaping/protecting-plants-from-a-spring-cold-snap/ for more info.

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Support the Cukes!

It was a glorious Palm Sunday in middle Georgia.  The sun was shining, the sky was blue, and the temperature was just about perfect.  After an excellent church service at The Ridge, I spent most of the day in the yard.

Today, I focused on finishing my vegetable supports.  Most of the vegetables we love will sprawl all over the place if we do not provide them with some support.  And the best time to install the supports is before your sweet precious vegetables are in the ground.  I’ve admitted this before: I decapitated a tomato plant when I tried to build a support structure around it.  So now, I make sure my plants stay out of the construction zone.  Supports go in first, then the plants.

First, let’s talk tomatoes.  Most folks know that they need support.  The stores sell contraptions called “tomato cages.”  I should just buy a few of those for my tomatoes, right?  Um, NO.  Friends, those cages are great for many things, but if you’re growing anything other than a dwarf tomato, you’ll need something a whole lot taller than a three or four foot cage.  Indeterminate tomato plants get to be seven or eight feet tall (or taller).

So what should you do?  Well, you could use a simple old stake.  A long piece of bamboo or a long wooden stake ought to do it.  Just take some jute twine and tie the tomato plant to the stake as it grows.  I used the stake system (just like my Daddy did) for several years, and it worked just fine.

When I started growing more than a few tomato plants, I decided that I should look into other options.  Coincidentally, Southern Living ran an article on building your own tomato ladder (I have no clue when the article actually ran—I am usually a few years behind on my reading—but miraculously, I picked up an issue of Southern Living, and there it was).  According to Southern Living, you just get a few two-by-twos, have the nice man at Home Depot cut them to the proper size, tie them together, and stick them in the ground.  You’ll be done in half an hour.  Pretty accurate except the half an hour part.  Perhaps I’m just slow with knots.  I did LOVE the result, though.  The tomatoes grew right up the ladder (and, in the case of the Juliets and Black Plums, over the ladder and down the other side).  Maintenance and harvest were easy.  I used pressure treated wood, so I just left the structures in the ground.  Mama said the hot pink mason line I used to tie the two-by-twos together was tacky; fortunately, it has faded a bit.

Tomato Ladders

Tomato Ladders

This year, I decided to build another ladder for tomatoes and possibly pumpkins.  And I thought I’d take advantage of the southern side of my house, which gets good light.  I was greatly inspired by the book Vertical Gardening by Derek Fell.  It is an excellent book with many ideas (I’m still a little overwhelmed by all the options).  The single most important piece of advice Mr. Fell gave: use bamboo to save money!  Mr. Fell, you changed my life.  Thank you.  I do not have any bamboo on my tiny lot, so I asked my friends if they had any.  Turns out a lot of folks have bamboo, and they’ll be happy to let you come cut it.  My sweet friends Brooke and Brandon told me, “our bamboo is your bamboo,” so I’ve been up to their lovely bamboo forest twice, and I think I’m set for now.  Note: harvesting bamboo is a pretty good workout.  Make sure your loppers are sharpened before you attempt it!

I built three bamboo structures to go next to the house.  Two of them will support tomatoes, and the third will support butternut squash and spaghetti squash.  I also built one large bamboo ladder/tent structure.  The tent was originally ten feet tall, and my next door neighbors asked if I was planning to have a tribal meeting sometime soon, so I did cut it down a little.  Now, I’ll actually be able to reach the tomatoes at the top without a ladder.  My tennis coach gave me an old tennis net that otherwise would have gone into the trash (thanks, Mark!).  I put that on one side of the ladder, and that is where my pumpkins will climb.  The net-free side of the ladder is more tomatoes.

 

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New “Tent” Ladder for Pumpkins and Tomatoes

Now that you know about some great ways to support your tomatoes, you may be wondering what you can do with those tomato cages.  I use a three sided, four foot tall tomato cage for my cucumbers.  It works great!  And I use those round tomato cages for sweet peppers and eggplants.  They’re also great for monarda (bee balm).

Good Use for "Tomato" Cages: Peppers and Eggplants

Good Use for “Tomato” Cages: Peppers and Eggplants

The only other special support I use in the garden is the support Daddy and I built for my pole beans (it also comes in handy for snow peas).  The support is basically a frame of one-by-twos with kennel wire stapled to it.  It would be cheaper to use netting instead of kennel wire, but I had the kennel wire left over from another project, so I went ahead and used it.  The two bean supports I have were built four or so years ago, and they are still in good shape.

After I worked on the support structures, I finished planting my vegetables.  Then I spent some time weeding (surprise!).  While I weeded and planted, I came across some Japanese beetle grubs.

Japanese Beetle Grub

Japanese Beetle Grub

They are not “good bugs,” so I killed them.

I’m pretty wiped out from today’s work, so I’ll sign off.  Hope you had a marvelous weekend.  Happy gardening!

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Haiku for Chinese Snowball Viburnum

Beautiful blooming
Chinese Snowball Viburnum
takes my breath away

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Why I Play in the Dirt

As I wandered around the yard last night looking at all the work that needs to be done, I took a little time to look at the flowers. After all, I spend a ton of time gardening so I will have beautiful flowers (and healthy fruits and veggies) to enjoy. Here are some of my favorite blooms from yesterday.

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Fun with Hypertufa!

Last Saturday, I attended an exciting workshop on hypertufa at the Columbus Botanical Garden.  Toni Fogle, a lawyer-turned-hypertufa enthusiast, taught a gaggle of ladies and one gentleman how to craft our own (relatively) lightweight stone-like containers.  We had a super time getting dirty and sculpting our vessels.

Ms. Fogle learned how to make hypertufa from her mother, who makes hypertufa containers for the Cox Arboretum in Dayton, Ohio.  Ms. Fogle now lives in Columbus, is a member of the Azalea Garden Club, and hosts hypertufa workshops at her home.  She repeatedly emphasized that she is not an expert, but she sure seemed like an expert to me.  She had an answer for every question, and she really knew her stuff!

So what is hypertufa?  It is a popular medium for making garden pots, troughs, and ornaments.  It has a stone-like appearance but is much lighter.  Hypertufa is made of Portland cement and peat, plus either perlite or vermiculite (and maybe sand, depending on the recipe).  And when you’re molding it, it’s like Play-Doh for grown ups, y’all.

At our workshop, we used a formulation comprised of 2 parts Portland cement, 3 parts peat, and 3 parts perlite, plus a handful of fiber mesh.  A couple notes on the ingredients.

  • First, I’ve mentioned before that some gardeners are concerned that peat is becoming an unsustainable resource, so I wondered whether a peat substitute could be used.  Short answer: yes, though the quality of the finished product may be different than a container made with peat.  If you’re concerned about peat, you can use coir or a fine grade composted bark.
  • Second, I wasn’t sure where to get fiber mesh, which is a reinforcing fiber used in concrete.  Turns out you can buy it at amazon.com.  Or if you know someone who works in construction, they can probably sell you a bit—it only takes a pinch to make a hypertufa container.
  • Third, if you want to buy perlite and vermiculite, the big box stores will charge you an arm and a leg for a tiny bag.  If you want to pay an arm and a leg, I suppose that’s your journey.  But if you want to be thrifty, go to your local feed and seed store.  Columbus folks can just go across the Chattahoochee to B.W. Capps in Phenix City—you can get a 4 cubic foot bag of perlite for $17.50 and a 4 cubic foot bag of vermiculite for $17.99.

In addition to the ingredients, you’ll need safety equipment, mixing container, a sturdy table, a plastic tablecloth, a form, some plastic bags grocery store bags with handles, and a large plastic trash bag for each form.

  • Safety equipment.  Hypertufa involves concrete, and you don’t want to breathe in concrete dust or get it in your eyes or your jewelry/watch.  So when you are mixing the hypertufa ingredients, leave your jewelry and watch inside and wear safety glasses, a dust mask, and gloves.  You can ditch the glasses and mask while you’re molding the hypertufa, but keep on your rubber gloves.
  • Mixing container.  You need a place to mix the ingredients.  A wheelbarrow or a large plastic container will work.
  • Sturdy table.  It is important to have a sturdy work surface so that your hypertufa doesn’t jiggle a lot while you’re making it.  Jiggling leads to cracks.
  • Plastic tablecloth.  Ms. Fogle recommends plastic tablecloths from the dollar store, although heavy duty plastic drop cloths will also work (but they’re more expensive).  The tablecloth has two purposes.  First, it covers your workspace so your table doesn’t get messy.  Second, when you are finished molding your hypertufa, you will use the plastic tablecloth to cover it.
  • Form (or not).  You can do free form hypertufa, but the workshop did not cover that. We learned how to make hypertufa using a form.  I used a small plastic bowl that was fairly rigid.  You could also use a plastic flower pot, a sturdy plastic bag (like a cat litter bag), or even a cardboard box.  If you are using an “outside in” approach (molding the hypertufa on the outside of your form), make sure your form doesn’t have a lip.  If you are using an “inside out” approach (molding the hypertufa on the inside of your form), make sure your form isn’t too rigid.
  • Plastic grocery store bags.  You need a plastic grocery store bag or two to cover or line your form.  The handles will make it easier to pull out your form when your hypertufa is dry.  If your bag seems flimsy, use two.
  • Large plastic trash bag.  You will use the bag to wrap your hypertufa for drying and seasoning.

Once you have your gear, you’re ready to start!  Before you mix the ingredients, have your form prepared—it should be covered in plastic grocery bags and sitting in your large plastic trash bag.

My Form: a Small, Plastic Bowl

My Form: a Small, Plastic Bowl

My Form: Wrapped and Ready to Go

My Form: Wrapped and Ready to Go

Mix your ingredients and slowly add water until your mixture is the consistency of cottage cheese.

Mixing the Hypertufa

Mixing the Hypertufa

Then, when you start, you must keep going until you’re finished.  Build from the bottom of your form, keeping a depth of at least 1.5 inches, especially at the corners.  You will be tempted to press the mixture with your fingers, but Ms. Fogle recommends focusing on using your thumb to tamp down the mixture while using your fingers simply to hold it in place.  If you get puddles of water, you’re squeezing too hard!  And when you get to the bottom of your vessel, make sure it is flat.  You can use your finger (or a dowel) to check the depth and make a drainage hole.

Getting Started

Getting Started

Finished!

Finished!

More Hypertufa Artisans

More Hypertufa Artisans

After you finish molding your hypertufa, the waiting begins.  Carefully fold the garbage bag over your hypertufa and then fold the plastic tablecloth on top of the garbage bag.

Wrapped and Waiting

Wrapped and Waiting

Ms. Fogle emphasized that you should not tinker with your hypertufa for at least three days.  After three days, you may remove the form (go slowly; note: after a tugging gently, mine popped right out).

Ready to Remove the Form

Ready to Remove the Form

 

My Hypertufa!

My Hypertufa!

You can use a steel brush to smooth the surface (Ms. Fogle says that she usually doesn’t bother with this step: “I’m not fancy, I’m lazy”).  And then, after that, you need to let the hypertufa season.  In other words, let it sit for a month or 45 days covered in plastic (you may want to spritz it with water occasionally during the curing process).  Then you can burn off any fiber mesh “whiskers” (Ms. Fogle uses a grill lighter; if you have a blowtorch, go for it).  Finally, allow the container to weather outdoors for several weeks.  This is not a quick process, but I’m sure it will be worth the wait!

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Weekend Update

It was an exciting weekend at my house.  The weather was gorgeous, and I was able to get a lot of work done in the yard.  I also attended the hypertufa workshop at Columbus Botanical Garden—I’ll give you an update on that as soon as I pick up my beautiful creation later this week.  But I know you’re on pins and needles wanting to know what garden tasks I accomplished this weekend, so here is my report.

It is the busiest time of year for me.  I am a procrastinator by nature, so I usually put off important garden prep work until the last possible minute.  Last year, I didn’t even start building my tomato ladders until after my tomatoes were in the ground.  Big mistake.  I decapitated a poor little Cherokee Purple when I dropped one of the “rungs” on it.  And I ran out of steam when it came to weeding an area where I was going to plant tomatoes, so I decided that I would just till it, put down newspaper, and hope for the best.  Well, the newspaper did work for a while, but it was no match for the aggressive encroachment of the dollarweed a/k/a pennywort a/k/a the weedy bane of my existence (for me, the only weed worse than dollarweed is chamberbitter a/k/a little mimosa a/k/a gripeweed a/k/a just plain horrible awfulness).

This year, I am determined to do better.  And I am happy to announce that I appear to be on the right track.  Mainly because the soil temperature hasn’t reached a consistent 65°F, so I haven’t wanted to plant my veggies yet and I’ve had more time for prep work (thank you, cold snap).  If you’re not sure whether your soil is warm enough for you to plant, you can just use your meat thermometer.  Or you can check http://www.georgiaweather.net/.

Anyway, my two main tasks at this point are (1) weeding and (2) building supports for my vegetables.  This weekend was a perfect time for both tasks.  The ground was still soft from last week’s rain, so weeds came out of the ground fairly easily and the supports went into the ground without a herculean effort.  So I weeded and weeded and weeded.  Then I tied together a lot of bamboo.  And then I weeded.  Then I selected the twenty-one tomato plants (out of the fifty or so I started from seed) that will live in my yard this summer.  And then I weeded and weeded and weeded.

You may wonder why I spent so much time weeding.  First, I have a lot of weeds.  I’ve been lazy about eradicating weeds in the past, plus the two yards behind mine are basically jungles whose weeds send their seeds into my yard.  Darn them.  Second, if I’ve only learned one thing in my six years as a homeowner/aspiring gardener, it’s that there is no substitute for good old elbow grease when it comes to weeding.  I’ve tried weeding-by-tiller.  But I still have to pull up the weeds to prevent re-infestation.  I’ve tried a weed-whacker.  But I wasn’t getting the roots, so the weeds grew back, plus it was easy to maim the plants I wanted to keep.  I’ve tried an herbicide.  But I accidentally injured or killed some of my good plants when I did.  So for me, old fashioned pulling is the way to go.  Which means I actually have to do it or I’ll be overrun with weeds before the first tomato plant sets fruit.  At times, I feel like Sisyphus—but instead of a boulder and a hill, I have weeds.  But if I keep up with it little by little, surely I will prevail.  And there is good news on the horizon: some researchers in Nebraska are creating a robot to pull weeds.  I am not making this up: http://www.npr.org/blogs/thesalt/2013/02/14/171817006/when-resistance-is-futile-bring-in-the-robots-to-pull-superweeds.  Y’all need to know how much I love my three Roombas.  So when iRobot comes out with a weed pulling robot, I am going to buy it.

In the next week or so, I will continue weeding, and I will put down some mulch.  I will also finish my vegetable supports and then plant my baby vegetables.  When things are presentable, I’ll post some photos!

Happy gardening!

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