Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Know thy Vegetable

One thing that we independent studiers have discovered during our foray into the vegetable world is the importance of labeling. . Unfortunately, I have, on previous occasions, fallen victim to “Oh I’ll remember what they are after I seed them” only to promptly forget what they are or find them moved to a different space. Seeding five different varieties of tomatoes and mixing up flower seedlings with our own special variety of “nasturtium” okra has led to a fair amount of confusion and headache, as we failed to label consistently during the seeding process. With multiple folks working and watering in the greenhouse it should be a priority to delineate which plants are which.

(note the carefully labeled seedlings, including starting date and general plant name.)

Aside from identification, the labels in the garden and greenhouse give us a regular reminder of what the plants are so we can plan plantings and transplantings appropriately. Out in the garden, they also serve as markers for when the plant goes dormant. And lastly, they help guests to the Arboretum identify plants without having to ask about each one. When labeling plants, the common name may not be all that is necessary; you might would like to include the Latin botanical name for educational purposes. It may also be helpful to include other information, such as the date that you planted in order to assist with the planning of planting and harvesting dates. It should also be noted that a more long-term or permanent marker for a tree or shrub will have to be made of more weather-proof material than a vegetable marker that only needs to last one summer. In the interest of frugality and efficiency, many of the most cost-effective labeling systems require hand writing the information on the marker. If your handwriting mostly resembles chicken scratch, you might consider one of the computer or label maker alternatives. There are many commercial labeling systems available to the gardener, but you can save money by making your own using a waterproof marker and materials you might already have laying around. Here are some ideas for inexpensive labels:

  • Popsicle sticks or tongue depressors
  • Cut up old window blinds
  • Cut up plastic containers from yogurt or other foods
  • Large rocks
  • Copper flashing (available at most hardware stores)
  • Dowel sticks
  • Painted yardsticks or rulers
  • Wooden paint stirrers

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Rabbit Proof Fence

In the early 1900s, the Australian government endeavored to construct a pest-exclusion fence across the Outback in order to prevent rabbits and other animals that were deemed to be agricultural pests out of the country's pastoral regions in the west. The fence was completed in 1907 and stretched for over 2000 miles. The fence posts were placed 12 feet apart and held three wires of 12½ gauge placed at 4 inches, 20 inches and 3 feet above ground with barbed wire being added later for protection against dingos. A netting of wire was placed over this and buried to a depth of at least six inches below ground. Unfortunately, the fence became less of a priority after the Australian government introduced a virus prevalent in rabbits elsewhere to cull the population. Since death from myxomatosis can take up to fourteen days, this seems a cruel and inefficient solution, because surviving rabbits carry a resistance to the virus.

As for the garden, we opted out of biological warfare and have begun to install a netting of galvanized chicken wire on the pre-existing fence surrounding the garden. We use chicken wire that is 36" wide, which can be purchased for around $1.60 per foot from any home improvement or hardware store. This height ensures ample room to bury part of the fence around the perimeter of the garden while retaining enough material to cover spaces to the top rung of the wooden fence. It is recommended that a trench be dug about 6" deep and 8" deep. This 6" buffer will prevent the rabbits from tunneling their way under the fencing and into the garden-an integral part of wild rabbit control. After the trench was dug and the wire placed, we back-filled the trench back in with plenty of soil (especially around the posts to retain stability), The wire can then be stapled, nailed or tied to the existing posts and fencing.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Feeding the Seedlings and the Soil

On the week of March 26, students planted 16 marigold,16 painted paisy, 32 kaleidoscope, 16 alyssum, 16 celosia, 16 peruvian yellow zinna, 16 bright lights orange cosmos, and 16 memories of mona cosmos. Seeds were planted in trays with organic seed-starting mix, and placed on a heating pad set to about 70 degrees F.
Many of our vegetable seedlings, such as the cayenne peppers, jalapeno peppers, sweet peppers, and okra, have sprouted their first "real" leaves, after their first set of leaves from seed. At this stage, they need to be fed nutrients in order to grow, because there are no nutrients available in a sterile seed-starting mix. Students brewed compost tea with a biodynamic compost for the first week of feeding, and will use a diluted mixture of about 2 gallons of water with one cup of worm casting liquid for further feeding. Worm casting (poop) liquid is collected on-site at the arboretum with worms kept and fed in a bin, and is used as a concentrated premium 100% organic fertilizer. It is proven to enhance growth, provide trace minerals, and significantly increase microbial life in the soil, which plants need for development of healthy roots. Vegetable seedlings were given a "top-dressing" of sifted compost (smaller particle sizes make controlled application much easier). Top-dressing vegetables means sprinkling a layer of compost over the surface of the container, so when plants are waters, nutrients from the compost leach organic matter down to the roots. Even a little bit of compost can go a long way to inoculate the soil with microbial life that helps prevent diseases in plants.

nutrient deficiency for tomato seedlings:
Following up on a comment from Mary Jo about the red/purple hue that some of our tomato seedlings have developed, several sources on-line point to a nutrient deficiency. A lot of people notice that tomatoes do better in warmer temperatures. One possible reason for this is because when it is 60 degrees or less on a regular basis, tomatoes cannot absorb potassium properly and develop purple stems and leaf undersides. The Colorado State University extension has a useful website for spotting and diagnosing tomato problems which suggests that red tomato leaves and stems (in the early season) with cool weather and no bug problems indicates a phosphorus deficiency. However, after looking at some color photos of mineral deficiencies in tomatoes, this points us in the direction of a Nitrogen deficiency because our tomato seedlings are not dwarfed or stunted in their growth, and do not have curled or crinkled leaves like the photo examples of potassium and phosphorus deficiencies do.

When double-digging the new beds for the spring garden, students will amend the soil with greensand, a natural material that formed and was deposited in marine environments during various stages of the earth's history. It is used in organic gardening to add potassium to the soil that is available to plants.

In any case, we noticed today that the roots are beginning to peak-a-boo out from the water holes on the bottom of their containers, so we re-potted them into bigger pots. Using a framed sieve, we sifted a bucket-full of compost and used the finer particle sizes as a filler soil for the new pots. Sifted compost has demonstrated significant advantages for seedlings as they germinate and develop roots. The compost has excellent water drainage, and when used in the garden with a mulch of hay, also retains essential moisture in the ground. Mary jo refers to this compost as "jet fuel" because her home garden plants respond so dramatically to its application. We will keep a record of how the tomatoes respond to this increase in organic matter.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

UA to use compostable bioplastics

Students were watering and inspecting the cabbage, beet, pepper, tomato, eggplant, chive, lettuce, basil, and cilantro seedlings in the greenhouse at the UA arboretum, when suddenly Kenny, arboretum systems manager and friendly garden collaborator, comes in with a grin across his face "I gotta show you guys something!" Leading us into the office, Kenny explained that he had spent a few hours speaking with a representative from Nviroplast, a company that has spent the past 9 years researching and developing a 100% compostable and biodegradeable alternative to petroleum based plastics.
Nviroplast (n-vi-ro-plazt) adj. 1. A natural, biodegradable, compostable, eco- friendly packaging alternative. link
The University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa is the first, and only (so far) university in Alabama to take this on, thanks to the folks at Bama Dining. Not only that, but the plan is for the company to soon have headquarters in Alabama! Kenny said they are looking to set up shop in a city with low employment opportunities. Students poked and pulled on the large trash bags, grocery bags, napkins, cups, and plates to test how they bend and break. The material is stronger than plastic, and in 180 days will break down with natural enzymes in the ground or a compost pile, unlike petroleum plastics that are toxic and take years, and years, and years... to decompose. Kenny started a trial run with the products this week, so we will see if the material actually does what they say it will do. Since Bama Dining is already giving their pre-consumed kitchen scraps to the arboretum for composting, these materials will potentially provide inputs for local compost instead of waste products for landfills. only the "waste" products of the corn are used to produce these materials, so no corn is diverted from animal or human feed. It seems like a more efficient use of a material that would be destined for the waste bucket anyway (in the current system of agricultural production). Yet, if it is based on the unsustainable farming of corn in the USA, we should be wary. Regardless, this provides an alternative to petroleum based plastics that does not contribute as much to environmental catastrophe, sounds great! Thank you UA for getting on board with this project.

Austin Creel models the cutting edge, compostable cup with the Alabama letter design on it. Made from corn starch. 100% non-petroleum based.

Students are wondering if this company is planning on making ground cover out of this material to use as an alternative mulch to plasticulture. If this were layed over a vegetable patch, weed suppression would still be effective, and after the season is through, a farmer could work it back into the soil or let it decompose gradually, adding organic matter back into the soil. Another possibility for farming with this material is to make little seed-starting containers that you can directly place in the ground when transplanting without removing the plant from the container - however it would probably take too long for the plastic to decompose this way.