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Posts Tagged ‘autumn’

Picture This from my Small Kitchen Garden

My small kitchen garden is almost down for the winter. Because there is so little left to do out there, I’ve spent much time lately using my camera to record the change of seasons. While composing shots, I’ve had two thoughts:

1. There is a lot of food out there drying on stalks, vines, trees, and bushes; wild animals will not go hungry. In fact, I might be able to forage enough to carry me though several weeks of winter.

2. So much of what looks dead or dying holds all the promise of life for the coming spring: leafless trees with tiny leaf buds, berries drying around seeds, pods rattling with next year’s babies… autumn is when nature stages things for the big show.

The End of the Line

One of the many gardening blogs I try to follow—Gardening Gone Wild—runs a monthly photo contest called Picture This. I happened in to that blog yesterday and saw that November’s Picture This contest theme is “The End of the Line.”

The theme relates to the ending of the growing season, and reading the Picture This guidelines provided me with a new spin for many of the photos I’ve taken. I picked one to submit to the contest. When I created the photo, it was about the play of sunlight among the pampas grass clusters, on the lawn, and in the orange leaves of the one tree still holding leaves. But recasting the photo under the theme of “The End of the Line” refocuses my attention on so many elements…

Here’s my photographic interpretation of the garden theme, “The End of the Line.”

Thank you for visiting Your Small Kitchen Garden blog.


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Tomato Strife in Small Kitchen Gardens Everywhere

A cluster of tomatoes illustrates the ugly progression of late blight through my small kitchen garden. I’m losing about a bushel of tomatoes to the horrible disease.

It’s not news to anyone who owns a small kitchen garden: This has been a challenging year for gardeners in North America. I’m sorry if this was your first year planting a kitchen garden; I hope the aggravation wasn’t enough to discourage you in coming years.

The south western United States experienced sustained heat and dryness; I heard complaints from gardeners that they couldn’t keep plants watered and cool enough to get decent harvests.

The Atlantic coast and clear out to the Midwest had crazy, sustained rains and cool temperatures. Especially in the north—from New York up into Canada, rain drowned the roots of vegetable plants, and the cool temperatures slowed growth.

Late Blight and Tomatoes

Perhaps worst of all this growing season: Late blight, the fungus that created the Irish potato famine in 1845, shipped along with tomato seedlings to big-box garden centers all over the eastern United States. Late blight thrives in the cool-wet, and for the most part, tomatoes didn’t have a chance.

I completely fell in love with these tomatoes in 2009. Shaped like peppers, they grow quite large. They are so devoid of moisture that they float in water where beefsteaks and other slicing tomatoes sink. They taste terrific. Sadly, the last twenty or so still in my garden are infected with late blight.

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, late blight is an American export; someone accidentally introduced it to Ireland. I long ago learned that the late blight fungus is pretty much always on-hand, waiting for the right conditions to kick it into action. A gardener’s best defense against late blight is culture:

  • Provide good drainage— If drainage is good, air movement around your plants’ roots is also good; and good for the plants..
  • Minimize moisture— Water only as much as the plants need; I haven’t met a vegetable plant that wants its roots wet constantly.
  • Control moisture— That is, focus watering on the soil near plants’ roots; don’t use sprinklers and spray nozzles that soak foliage with every watering.
  • Don’t crowd plants— You can plant things closer than seed packages recommend and you’ll get great production… as long as everything else goes right. I understand the risks of crowding and I take the lumps when they come… but please choose a level of pain that’s acceptable to you. Crowding traps moisture, blocks air flow, and provides easy pathways for insects and diseases.
  • Make sure air can circulate freely— If there’s a lot of air movement within your garden plot, plants will tolerate crowding better than they will in a well-sheltered area.
  • Rotate crops— Don’t plant the same crop in the same area two years in a row. Ideally, figure a three- or four-year rotation; don’t repeat tomatoes in the same space for three or four years if you can avoid it.
  • Follow a crop only with crops that aren’t closely-related— Tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, and eggplant are all related closely enough that if you plant one in a specific area this season, none should go in that area next season. Please check my small kitchen garden store for books that will guide you to responsible choices for next year’s crops.
  • Prevent the spread of disease— Remove sick plants quickly. Bag them and toss them in the garbage, but don’t compost them.
  • Plant seedlings grown locally— Best of all: learn to start your own plants from seeds about four-to-six weeks before you put them in your garden. If you prefer to leave that hassle to someone else, at least find a local nursery or garden store that starts its own seedlings. The farther you go for your live plants, the more opportunities the plants have to acquire unwanted pathogens.

Gardening Lucky

I feel pretty confident in guessing that this bell pepper is inflicted with late blight. I had been anticipating a second wave of peppers to harvest in early autumn, but the very difficult growing season had other ideas.

I got very lucky this season:

  • I started all my plants from seeds for the first time ever.
  • The micro climate of central PA was cool but “wet enough” meaning we got rain when we needed it, but not to excess. I’m quite sure it was low temperatures that caused the most trouble.
  • Despite heavy crowding, my plants showed no sign of stress until late August.
  • By late August, I’d already harvested about 3 bushels of tomatoes
  • Late blight spread very slowly in my garden; it seems to have missed the potatoes, though it seems to be damaging some of my peppers.

Despite the good luck, in just two weeks, my tomato plants have gone from late-season production of gorgeous fruits to overwhelming melt-down with nearly every fruit showing ugly brown lesions. I’m used to harvesting tomatoes up to the first frost, but this weekend I’ll be pulling all the plants and stuffing them into a plastic bag for garbage pickup.

Keep On Gardening

This was an unusual year! It is my first in fourteen seasons at this address where disease has taken hold… and some of those years were far wetter. My guess is that the temperature was the biggest villain in my garden’s problems; summer seemed to last about two weeks. Those weeks fell between three months of early spring and the sudden onset of autumn.

So, don’t be discouraged. Chances are, next season will be “normal…” and if not, perhaps the season after that will be.



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Frost in my Small Kitchen Garden

The first frost of autumn sits lightly on yesterday’s grass clippings: the most recent addition to my compost heap.

The season has turned in my small kitchen garden: there was a significant frost last night. Living in hardiness zone 5b, I hope that you zone sixers have several more weeks of growing season ahead… and I’m jealous of you zone seveners, eighters, niners, and tenners (oh, the cool stuff you can grow in zone 10). Fortunately, the weather forecasts had warned of frost, and I’d taken steps in case they were right.

A Defensive Harvest

It doesn’t take deep cold to kill tomato plants, but they may survive a minor frost. I never take that chance. So, yesterday I picked every tomato that appeared to have any chance of ripening. Some were already partially ripe, while others were completely green. Why had tomatoes ripened on the vine in my small kitchen garden? Because I’m lazy.

Some months ago, I explained why you shouldn’t let tomatoes ripen on the vine. I harvest by that philosophy. However, I planted far more tomato plants than I needed this year, and after making and canning more than three gallons of tomato sauce, I lost interest in doing more… until I heard the frost warning. I couldn’t let all those tomatoes go to waste.

Frost completely destroys basil. So, I cut off a dozen or so plants yesterday, and set them in a bowl of water to hold them over so I can use them today. I thought I’d finished with tomato and mozzarella salad, but it’s too good not to make up one more bowl full. Dill and lettuce I ignored; they don’t mind frost. In fact, I’m expecting another solid week or two of growth on the lettuce plants… I’ll use the dill to make pickles this week or on the weekend—I’ve never made pickles, and I like trying new things.

My Dining Room Table

During my transition from fall gardening to winter sloth, a lot of stuff lands on my dining room table. That’s where I always ripen tomatoes. Now, along with ripening tomatoes, there is a bouquet of basil, a platter of butternut squash seeds, and a paper towel dotted with tomato seeds. These will move on before Thanksgiving.

We’ll eat some tomatoes and sauce or toss the others. The basil will go down with the tomatoes we eat. I’ll put the seeds in the refrigerator in a week or two to convince them it’s winter. In March, I’ll plant the tomato seeds indoors for transplanting to the garden in May. I’ll plant the squash seeds in the garden in June as the spring pea plants begin to expire.

Is Your Small Kitchen Garden on Break?

Is it tempting or sad to think that time has run out this year for gardeners? Actually, it’s wrong to think that time has run out. There’s still much time to do useful things in a garden. I’m going to plant a pear tree soon; later today, I’ll place an order on line and have the tree shipped to me (I’ve been posting quite a bit lately about planting pears).

End-of-season tomatoes, tomato seeds, squash seeds, and a bouquet of basil are prominent on my dining room table. Yes, that’s also a dying Venus fly trap that followed my wife home from the gardening store about a month ago.

If you’re not planting fruit or other perennials, this is a great time to start a new garden. Lay out new planting beds, cut and remove sod, build raised bed gardens, and condition the soil so it’s ready to work at the earliest possible moment in the spring. Some annuals like to start in the fall so they have a head start in the spring, and some seeds winter over just fine so they can pop the moment the soil thaws. I’ve never planted annuals in autumn, so I can’t make recommendations. I have had volunteer plants show up in my garden, and those lead to a few suggestions.

Annuals to Plant in Autumn

Planting cilantro and dill now will likely result in early sprouting in the spring. By planting, I mean to get the seeds in the ground as you would in the spring, but don’t water them and encourage them to grow. Actually, established, young cilantro plants may stay green well until mid winter, and they’ll start growing as the air warms in the spring.

I’ve seen onions winter over and start growing in the spring with no special attention. I’ve also had volunteer tomatoes, squash, and gourds start in my garden, but I wouldn’t plant those in the fall; I want squash to sprout in late spring, and I’d rather plant tomato plants (rather than seeds) after the last frost instead of waiting for seeds to sprout several weeks later.

I’ve heard you can plant some varieties of broccoli in the fall… come to think of it, I once left several “spent” plants in the garden one year, and they started growing again the next spring. I wouldn’t chance this with any common variety; look for hardy, slow-growing plants—and maybe the supplier can confirm they’ll winter over OK outdoors. I’ve also heard peas planted now—or later this fall, will start growing when the soil thaws, and I’d be very tempted to do this… but I never have. If I think of it, I’ll put in a test row this fall and tell you what comes of it next March or April.

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