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Thursday, May 31, 2018

Should I GIVE UP On Growing STRAWBERRIES?


When you do online research about growing strawberries, all the sites that show up in the first page of results make it sound easy. I even once wrote an article about how easy it was to grow strawberries. 

Because it was my first year to do so in the super-humid climate we live in, and I was stupid. 

Now, growing the actual plants is a no-brainer. But most people don’t grow strawberries because they’re going to harvest the leaves (although you can make a high-vitamin-C tea out of them). They grow strawberries for the fruit.

Strawberries + rain + humidity = FRUSTRATION!

 

What I didn’t realize until this year, my fourth year of growing strawberries, and what nobody else seems to be saying online, is that if you live in a humid subtropical climate and don’t spray a fungicide, you’re going to end up with rotting strawberries.
 
And it’s not just a matter of “oh, well, most of the fruit rotted this year. We’ll do better next year” because the cause of the rotting is a fungus called anthracnose. And this fungus will hang out in both the soil and the plant, waiting to inflict its damage the next spring. 

Oh joy, oh splendor. 

I did spray my strawberry patch with copper for several weeks. This fungicide is supposed to prevent anthracnose. However, I still had most of my fruit rot – on many berries, before they even began to ripen.

(My apologies about poor quality of the following photos - the sun was just in the wrong place when I took them. If you look carefully, you can see the rotting spots facing the camera.)



One reason is that I started spraying too late – you’re supposed to start spraying as soon as the buds start forming. I didn’t start until there were berries growing (because I hadn’t done the research on the problem until then). Another reason is that except in years of drought, our springs consist of several weeks (read: two to three months) when we have rain several times every week. We sometimes can half or more of our annual rainfall in the spring. 

And guess what causes the anthracnose to become active? You guessed it – wet plants and berries. 

Last fall, before I learned about the cause of strawberry rot, I thought that getting the plants off the ground would prevent the rot. I thought the rot mainly came from the berries sitting against the ground. If I could just get them to grow where they could hang in the air. 
My failed vertical strawberry garden - 2 rows planted on this side, another row on the other. It worked for the guy on YouTube whose video I watched, but not for me. The idea is to have a rope going through the container down into the PVC pipe. You fill up the pipe through the open end (right in the photo) and the rope is supposed to wick the water up into the soil. Well, it does, but apparently not enough for the robust strawberry plant.

Nope. Most of the strawberries there rotted, too. Number one, they weren’t protected from the rain. Number two, they were already infected with the fungus.

A few weeks ago, I almost gave up on growing strawberries. 

But I can’t. I'm a strawberry snob. See, I grew up with home-grown strawberries - sweet and juicy - and I can’t stand the hardly-ever-sweet-and-usually-moldy berries they sell in the store. Even the Whole Foods brand of frozen strawberries are often full of not-quite-ripe, or even only half-ripe, fruit. 


My solution

 

Part One

I am going to give up on one thing: the vertical strawberry garden. I’ll use the structure for growing something else, maybe spinach in the winter?

There are sixty strawberry plants there right now. My plan is to keep them alive, then at the end of the summer cut off all the leaves and stems so that only the crowns and roots are left. I’m going to pull them out of the bags and let them soak in a hydrogen peroxide solution for a few hours, hoping that will kill any remnant of the fungus. 

After the soak, I will plant them in a two- or three-bucket tower, per the instructions in the following video:
I don’t know how yet, but somehow I’m going to make a kind of umbrella over each tower so that rain will have a hard time pummeling the strawberries planted there. And then, I’m just going to see how it goes.

Part Two 

I’m also going to experiment with the strawberries in the ground. Right now I’m in the process of thinning out the plants that are in the original rows I created so that they are nine to twelve inches apart. I’m figuring five rows of ten, so fifty plants there. In the fall, I’m going to pull up any suckers, cut off all the foliage, then spray them all with hydrogen peroxide, giving the ground a good soaking of the solution, as well.
First row I thinned out.



The rest of the strawberries that have yet to be thinned.
At some point late in the year, I’ll have DH help me place a hoop over each plant, plus one in between each plant. When rain is forecast, I will drape the hoops with plastic so that no water can hit the plants or any budding berries.

Maybe. I'll have to see how feasible that idea is.

Finally, I’m going to start spraying them once a week as soon as I see the first flower on the first plant.

And I’ll see how it goes. Hopefully better than it’s been going. But by 2020 I may be growing strawberries indoors.

Desperate times call for desperate measures. Especially when you’re a homesteading strawberry snob living in a humid area.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

The Back To Eden Method Is Destroying My Fruit Trees!


The first summer we lived here (2014), life was pretty easy. Throughout most of it we had at least an inch of rain every week. Toward the end of it I started thinking about adding to the apple, peach, and fig trees we brought with us. Next spring, we added a mulberry, a pomegranate, three jujube, two Chinese chestnut and two almond trees. (No partridge, and the pear trees would come later.)

The summer of 2015 was much drier. In case you don’t know, we are not on the water grid and therefore water everything by hand. No drip irrigation system to flip on and off whenever the trees need a drink. And fruit trees are thirsty animals. 

It was a lot of work keeping them alive, and I was about to give up on buying more trees when I learned about the Back To Eden method.

Long story short, this is a method of gardening using several inches (even up to a foot) of wood chips as mulch. This supposedly eliminates the need for fertilization, and significantly reduces the need to water. So I eagerly purchased more trees, and J and I got at least eight inches of wood chips put around all the trees. 

But I had a choice to make. Howard Garrett, the guy famous for teaching organic gardening in the state of Texas – and also an arborist – says not to put mulch right up against the tree bark. I’d learned to respect his advice and knowledge over the past few years, but Paul Gautchi – another arborist and the dude who put the Back To Eden method on the map – says to go ahead and shove the mulch right up against the tree bark. 
 
By the way, did I mention that the area where Paul lives gets way less (like one-sixth) of the amount of rain that we do here in southeast Oklahoma?
 
You would think that – plus my longer acquaintance with “the Dirt Doctor” (as Garrett is known) – would have made my choice obvious. 

Well, congratulations for thinking. Wish I had. 

A few weeks ago, I blamed our high humidity for the blossom end rot on my apples, the sooty canker on my mulberry trees, the fireblight on my Asian pears (which are supposed to be resistant to that disease), the black rot on my grapevine, and the peach leaf curl on my peach trees.
 
And then, the leaves on my one cherry tree started turning yellow and falling off. I knew it had contracted a fungus. A brief search online offered four possible diseases. I went outside and looked at the trunk near the ground. Sure enough, sticky black goop was oozing out if it.

The tree had phytophthora root and crown rot. The remedy? Pull all the soil away from the crown and roots at the surface, and maybe the fungus will dry up and not kill the tree. Disgusted, I dutifully pulled all the mulch away from the trunk of the tree.

And this is what I saw:

J and I promptly pulled the mulch back away from all the other fruit trees. I hope it’s not too late for the cherry and Asian pear trees. The others will be all right, but as far as a fruit harvest I’ve lost all but one apple and probably more than half the mulberries we could have had. Not to mention every single Asian pear that I so painstakingly thinned out about a month ago.
 
And it’s all Paul Gautchi’s fault!
 
Or…maybe it’s my fault. Possibly I should have used my noggin a teensy bit better. 

Well, I’m using it now, and it’s telling me to take food-production advice from someone who lives in a very different climate from you with a grain of salt.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Great Gobs Of GOUMIS! (How And Why To Grow Them)


Ever heard of goumi berries? No? Welcome to my world about seven years ago and prior. I first heard of them on a prepper podcast where the podcaster was listing different fruits to try growing. Being into permaculture, his emphasis on the bush that produces them was that it fixes nitrogen into the soil, as do legume plants. 

Three years after planting my own four sticks labeled “goumi” into the orchard, I’ve come to appreciate them for much more than the benefits they bring to the soil. 

Advantages of growing goumis

Goumi branches up close and personal.

Advantage #1

They do great in our humid subtropical climate…without getting sprayed with a fungicide. They seem to be completely immune to every kind of fungus out there – unlike the strawberries, peaches, Asian pears, mulberries, apples, grapes we’ve planted.

Advantage #2

Their size is manageable for even small backyards. They stay relatively short, six to eight feet tall – no ladders required during harvest – and you space them four to seven feet apart, depending on whether you want a hedge or not. If you plant them four or five feet apart, however, you will probably need to so some pruning once or twice a year.

Advantage #3

This goes hand-in-hand with the first advantage: they are low-maintenance. Unless you have to make them conform to a small space, they don’t need pruning and they can be grown in a wide range of soils.

In my experience, they are somewhat drought tolerant, as I only give each bush about a gallon of water once or twice a week during the dry part of summer and though the leaves do end up looking stressed, the next spring they grow back bigger and more prolific than ever.

BUT…you have to understand two things. First, the bushes have more than six inches of wood chips around them (touching the trunk, the Back To Eden way). Second, because of where we live we begin harvesting in mid-May. Unless the area is suffering through a drought, we get probably half of our annual rainfall March through May, so the bushes get plenty of natural irrigation up until the time of harvest. This will not be true in many northern areas, where goumis are typically not ready to harvest until August.

Which brings us to the next advantage:

Advantage #4

Wherever you live, the goumis are ready to harvest before or between the harvest time of other fruits. This means two things: first, you’re not slaving away having to harvest several types of fruit at once, and second, you’ve got some kind of fresh fruit coming into your house at a time when you normally wouldn’t.

Advantage #5

Goumis are a great source of nutrition. From the website page http://foodforest.co.nz/goumi/:
Goumis are high in vitamin A and E, bioactive compounds, minerals, flavinoids and proteins. Their lycopene content is the highest of any food and is being used in the prevention of heart disease, cancers and in the treatment of cancer. Cooking the fruit increases the lycopene content. The fruits and seeds are an excellent source of essential fatty acids as well which is very unsual for a fruit. The seeds are also edible although somewhat fiberous, and are especially high in proteins and fats.

Advantage #6

Goumis are self-pollinating. So if you only have room for one bush, you can grow just one bush. HOWEVER, they will produce more if you have one variety that helps to pollinate the variety you have.

Advantage #7

Both the flowers and the berries are attractive, and will cover the whole bush (especially if you have more than one variety for cross pollination). The blooms are rather odd-shaped, but put off a wonderful aroma that will attract bees from miles around. And after the berries form, as they turn from green to orange to red they add a brilliant, beautiful splash of color to the landscape.

Of course, goumis aren’t the be-all-end-all perfect fruit.

Disadvantages of growing goumis

**1. Goumis freeze to death in temperatures below minus ten Fahrenheit. So if you live in a USDA growing zone less than zone 6, you’ll have to pass on goumis.

**2. The berries taste sour. Perhaps close to the tartness of a sour cherry, although not as unpalatable as a crab apple. For that reason, while you can eat them raw (unlike elderberries, which are toxic if eaten raw), they are generally used to make jellies, pies and sauces. I primarily use them in smoothies, throwing in a handful or so to add nutrition. But I have to make sure the other fruits in the smoothie are plenty sweet.

**3. The branches have an occasional thorn. Not enough to make harvesting difficult or a literal pain, but enough that if you have small children running around you may want to wait until they’re older before you plant any.

**4. The berries overripen quickly. On the one hand, overripe berries are actually sweet. On the other hand, they may get smushed between your fingers when you try to pick them. Regardless, the short harvesting window means you can lose a lot of berries quickly if you don’t stay on top of picking them.

**5. About a third of the volume of the berry is a soft pit. If you’re eating it fresh, you can swallow it, chew it (it has a gum-like feel in the mouth), or spit it out. If you’re cooking it for jelly or whatnot, you have to strain the pits out. The pits are inconvenient, whichever way you look at it.


Now, if I haven’t totally turned you off on these easy-to-grow bushes…

Where to buy goumis

If you live in growing zones 6-9, there are several places online that sell goumis bushes. We use Raintree Nursery to buy all our fruit trees, bushes, and vines.

How to plant, grow, and harvest goumis

Plant your young goumis the way you’d plant any young fruit tree: in well-drained, amended soil. The depth of the hole should be from the bottom of the roots to the where the “trunk” begins, and the width should be twice that of the root ball.

After planting, if the soil is dry give it about a gallon of water or so.

So far, the wood chips we use for mulch seem to be providing our goumis plenty of nutrition. If you choose not to use the Back To Eden method, the bushes would probably appreciate an application of cottonseed meal in the spring before the flowers open.

Water in the usual way. Generally, that means in the absence of an inch of rain, giving them a deep watering once a week. In order to get established, young plants will need a lot more water their first year (especially if not mulched with a lot of wood chips) than during succeeding years.

As I mentioned earlier, if you use the Back To Eden method, the bushes will not require as much irrigation.

Goumi bushes will produce nothing the first year, but for us they began producing their second year. Sometimes you have to wait until year three. They are ready when they are red-orange to red and give a little when you give them a gentle squeeze. Either the stem comes off the branch with ease, or the berry will slide off the stem with ease. In other words, if you need to pull to take it off, it’s probably not quite ripe.
Two to three cups of goumi berries after about 35 minutes of harvest.

What to do with goumis

  1. Eat them out of hand.
  2. Blend small amounts in smoothies. I have a Vitamix so I just throw the whole berry in, pit and all. Despite the power of this blender, however, you still end up with quite a few pit filaments that you need to either swallow or pick out of your mouth.
  3. Include them in a homemade juice recipe.
  4. Make jelly (recipe here - and no, I am not the Emily at the end of the page. ;) ).
  5. Make a sauce.
*********
There you have it: my take on the glory of goumis! :)


Saturday, May 12, 2018

Growing Lettuce Indoors, Easier Than The "Easiest" Way


I was brimming over with enthusiasm when I wrote this post about indoor gardening; specifically, how to grow lettuce indoors. Living where we live, lettuce has a very short growing season either side of the year and absolutely cannot be grown in the hot summer without instantly turning bitter. Also, the sandy soil refuses to stay moist unless I water two to three times a day (or we have a decent rainfall every other day). 

So I started growing lettuce inside as described in the post linked above, with net cups containing coconut coir and the lettuce plants sitting on top of a bed of pea gravel in a plastic cup.
See the plant roots coming out the holes in the net cup as I hold it above the larger plastic cup. The dead leaf is normal, as I've harvested from that plant numerous times (in other words, it's old).

The pea gravel in the larger plastic cup, on which the net cup sits.

This method definitely works, but I found as the plants grew larger that I was spending more time than I wanted watering them. Instead of just watering once or twice a week (on one video I watched of a similar method of indoor lettuce gardening, the gardener said she only had to water once a week - ??), I was watering them every second to third day. It’s tricky to pour water in between a net cup and a plastic cup, and it was even trickier to do with the lettuce on the top shelf.

So my enthusiasm for growing lettuce indoors began to wane quickly. It all but disappeared the first day I had to clean out the plastic cups when the first batch of lettuce started to bolt. It took me thirty-five minutes to clean out twelve of them, including pulling the lettuce with its roots out of the net cups and rinsing off the pea gravel (which you’re supposed to do to get rid of any algae that has grown).

I’m sorry, but I have better things to do with both my time and with water – a precious resource in any event, but even more precious to us because we are off the water grid. No well; we collect rainwater in three rain tanks, two rain barrels, and a small pool.

What happened next?

I decided there had to be an easier way to grow lettuce inside. I noticed that when I start lettuce seedlings in the net cups on a plant saucer, they would grow roots out well before I placed them in their final home and did just fine. 

Also, I knew that with lettuce, as long as you allow some of the roots to have access to air, the plants won’t drown and the roots won’t rot. 
 
My solution? 

Skip the middle man!

The plants in net cups do just fine sitting in water. So why complicate it?

Here’s what I’m doing now:
Lettuce in net cup sitting right in water at bottom of plastic box. Weird thing on the left is a rotted leaf from next plant over.

Lifting up a net cup so you can see it better.

Yep. The net cups sit at the bottom of a plastic storage tub, and I keep between a quarter and a half inch of nutrient solution (water with hydroponic fertilizer mixed in) at the bottom of the tub. It takes hardly any time to add more water, because I’m just pouring once. I don’t have to fight with cups and net cups. 

As you can see, the lettuce is doing just beautifully.

And, of course, I won’t have to ever wash any more pea gravel ever again!

Two disadvantages

So far, I’ve discovered two disadvantages to this method. First, the net cups being light weight and the lettuce plants causing them to be top-heavy, they are prone to tip over. You have to check them at least every other day and make sure all the cups and plants are upright. Otherwise, you’ll end up with rotting leaves.

Speaking of rotting leaves…since the cups are so close to the water, some of the leaves will grow down and get wet. And, yes, rot. But I think these two disadvantages outweigh the work the dual cup method requires.

Oh, one more thing: I’ve got a mostly-full bag of pea gravel for sale… ;)