Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Four Leaves

Yesterday we irrigated for about 7 hours. Today when I went out at noon to check on the condition of the squash bed, some of the plants were up to three leaves with a small fourth leaf starting to expand.

The growth pattern of the squash plants at this young stage is interesting. We irrigate once a week, with occasional additional waterings for a couple of weeks after planting the seeds. The squash plants puts on a spurt of above ground growth for the first couple of days after an irrigation. Then growth seems to be arrested as the soil dries down. I wish I could see what was going on under the ground during the slow growth period. Does all growth slow down, or do the roots continue to grow into the soil at a rapid rate? I'd like to think that the roots continue to grow rapidly even if the leaves and stems grow slowly. But I have seen no data.

Several hills of squash had no seedlings when I last wrote, but now there are only two or three hills with no seedlings. Some of those seedlings are growing very slowly. Here's what the patch looks like today:

I put in another half hour before irrigating to spread straw around the patch.

Total time spent on squash patch so far: 11 man - hours.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Continued Seedling Growth

This morning I counted 51 hills of the 58 with at least one set of cotyledons up. Some seem to be taking their time coming up. In some cases the first true leaf is up, and even the second leaf. The top photo is a hill of a zucchini type of squash, with the first true leaf coming to a point. The bottom photo is a patty-pan type of squash, with a more rounded first leaf. The zucchini leaves also have some whitish patches that are lacking in the patty pans, but they are hard to see in this image.

In a few weeks there will be squash for sale at the Nampa Farmers' Market!

I've done a little work in the squash bed since planting the seeds. First, I scattered sulfur pellets and rock phosphate pellets on each hill. I should have scattered them around the garden when we put the compost on, but I forgot, or didn't have time. It's OK to get them on late. The sulfur dissolves with irrigation into sulfuric acid which temporarily decreases the soil pH. Our soil is very alkaline, about 8.3. By adding sulfur, I can lower the pH for a while to something closer to a neutral 7.0 which is most plants prefer over the high 8.3 alkaline soil. It's a temporary fix; I'll have to add sulfur again once or twice this season to keep the pH low.
The lower pH also helps make iron more readily available to the plant. Iron binds with soil particles at high pH, preventing the plant from using it. The leaves start to yellow. Lower the pH and the plant can absorb more iron, and they leaves are a richer green color.

Phosphorus is not a problem in our soil generally, but I like to add a little to crops that have fruits. Once tomatoes, eggplants, peppers and squash start to flower and set fruit, they use more phosphorus. You don't want to give the plants too much nitrogen or they get very leafy and don't produce as many fruit.

I've also spread some straw over the ground around some of the squash hills to help keep in moisture. This may help bring up the seedlings that have been slow to sprout. I need to spread more straw this weekend. The straw may also hold down weeds some, but the weeds seem to grow through anyways. So, my main reason for the straw mulch is to conserve soil moisture.

Time spent so far on the squash patch:
20 minutes spreading sulfur and phosphorus
20 minutes spreading straw
15 minutes planting three additional hills, and replanting 3 hills with no seedlings yet.

Total so far: ~10.5 man hours

Sunday, July 22, 2007

What's happening down there?

We planted on Tuesday, and now it's Sunday, 5 days later. True to the seed packets, when I went out to check my garden this morning, there were squash cotyledons emerging from about 14 of my 58 squash hills. Good start!
So, for 5 days, the soil appeared barren, and then all of a sudden these fleshy green leaves have emerged. What's been happening down there under the soil?

I don't know much about seed physiology, but I googled the topic and found the first page of a 1956 review of the topic. While I'm sure that much has been learned since then, the authors describe the basic process very well. They write "A seed contains an embryonic plant in an inactive condition, and germination is the resumption of growth." Right there is a bit of a surprise. A resumption of growth. Because the growth started while the seed was forming in the fertilized ovary - part of the original flower.

"The young plant, protected by varying layers of living and dead tissue, has reserves for metabolism. In some seeds development takes place as soon as water is absorbed, but in others germination does not take place until additional requirements are met." Squash seeds are large, so they have lots of reserves for metabolism. They are the type of seeds that start to develop as soon as water is absorbed. They don't require scarification or cold treatment, for example.

"Three distinct stages are evident in germinating seeds, namely (a) imbibition of water, (b) cell elongation, and (c) increase in cell number. In a physiological sense, the start of germination depends on a coupling of respiration to growth. The established seedling results from resumption of development and its continuation through growth." So my seeds have been taking up water, increasing the size of their dried up cells, and multiplying their cells.

That's as far as I could read the article without a subscription to Annual Review of Plant Physiology.

A bulletin from Washington State University explains a little more: "The first sign of germination is the absorption of water -- lots of water. This activates an enzyme, respiration increases and plant cells are duplicated. Soon the embryo becomes too large, the seed coat bursts open and the growing plant emerges. The tip of the root is the first thing to emerge and it's first for good reason. It will anchor the seed in place, and allow the embryo to absorb water and nutrients from the surrounding soil."

So, tomorrow we'll give them some more water, and the rest of the seedlings should be up in a few days, respiring, photosynthesizing, and multiplying their cells into a young seedling.

Thursday, July 19, 2007


In China, ducks are introduced into rice paddies as a form of insect control. They forage around the rice plants, and leave good fertilizer behind in the process. Then, after the rice harvest, the ducks are harvested as well. At least that's what I've heard.

When a pickup pulled into our driveway yesterday afternoon with a large box of pink flamigos, I knew that there was no escape. We were being flocked, apparently along with three other households in the neighborhood. It's the Kirkpatrick Memorial Community Church's fundraiser to benefit the Community House Renovation and Maintenance Project. Flocks of pink flamingos have been showing up all over Parma and the surrounding countryside to spend the night grazing on lawns. Donation options are as follows:

Minimum fee for flock removal is $25.

Designation fee of $25 will send the flock (or up to 4 flocks of 24 birds @ $25 per flock) to a friend.

Grazing fee of $25 per day per flock is assessed should you wish your flock to stay a few days.

Insurance for the prevention of large pink birds = $50.

It's a coercive form of fund raising, but I must admit that it's kind of fun to drive around town and see where the flock of pink flamingos is roosting. Plus, it's a good cause. My noon time yoga class meets in the Community House, I often vote there, and lots of other events take place there.

I happened to be home when the birds arrived, so I had the opportunity to decide where they were going to graze. Our lawn is mostly hidden from the neighborhood, but there is a large mowed patch of our South garden where I recently finished harvesting spinach. It is visible throughout our little Leigh-Z-Acre subdivision. I asked to have the flock placed there.

They look like they belong. I keep hoping that they are bending those long necks when I'm not looking, and pecking at the earwigs that are the bane of my garden. Or leaving a little dung fertilizer.

So, we are letting them graze here at Pollinator Paradise for an extra day. While here they took a shower under the sprinklers. Being a tropical bird, I hope they appreciated the extra humidity.

Thanks for visiting my garden, Pink birds! And thanks to Sue and Shelly who must be exhausted from hauling these birds around from one grazing site to another.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Planting the seeds

Getting seeds into the ground is a critical moment, and I always breath a sigh of relief once I've accomplished that task. No matter how well prepared the ground is, until the seeds go in, there is no potential for a crop. Once the seeds are planted, my garden is all potential.

Monday morning I finished preparation of my squash patch by firing up our trusty Troy-Bilt Pony tiller and tilling in the compost. Generally I let John handle the tilling, but this time I did it myself. Well, actually John got the tiller started for me, but I took over from there. I'm proud of myself, since playing with machinery is not my favorite part of gardening. The Pony is a relatively lightweight easy to manage rear-tine tiller,and I was able to turn without too much struggle, although my arms have been aching ever since.

Once tilled, I spent a couple of hours raking the garden smooth in preparation for planting. Then I marked the ground where squash would be planted in hills 3 - 4 feet apart.

By the time I finished, it was hot enough that I had to retreat indoors, but that's ok because the final task before planting was to sort through my squash seeds. Too late to plant the winter squash this year. I'll save those seeds for next year. Still, I had 13 different varieties of summer squash to plant. Some of the packets are as old as 2004, and they may not germinate, others were purchased new last year and should still be viable. The packets varied in the numbers of seeds left. I spent an hour or so Monday evening creating a map of the squash patch to expedite planting.

Last year I had a small USDA Farmer Rancher Grant to study the effect of harvest frequency and fruit size on yield of the plants. I had 40 hills of 4 different varieties for that experiment, with the varieties randomized throughout the garden. This year I hope to repeat part of that experiment, with one yellow and two green zucchini varieties. This time I will have fewer repititions of the experiment - not enough to allow for statistical analysis, but should give me a idea of what is happening. The varieties involved in the experiment will be Butterstick (Territorial Seed), a yellow zucchini, and two similar green varieites: Cashflow (Johnnys Seed) and Revenue (Territorial Seed). I don't have enough of either green variety to use just one, so I planted 3 hills of each. I plan 3 harvest treatments. One hill will be harvested as mini squash, one as regular ~7 inch fruits. A third hill will have a mixed harvest strategy: leave one fruit at a time to grow to 7 inch, and harvest the remaining as mini squash.

I mixed the rest of the varieties throughtout the patch surrounding the experimental hills. Last year my experiment included two patty pan varieties: yellow "Sunburst" (Territorial Seed) and green "Starship" (Territorial Seed). What I learned was that the patty pan varieties sell well as mini squash, but don't sell well when allowed to grow as large as 4 inches across. This year I'll pick them all as mini squash and not bother with the experiment. Several other varieties will be harvested exclusively as mini squash, including round zucchinis "Eight Ball" (green, Johnny's Seed) and Floridor (yellow, Johnnys), Papaya Pear (Territorial Seed). I'd like to plant Flying Saucer, but I'm out of seed this year.

I also have seeds of a couple of interesting zucchini types, including "Magda" , "Costata Romanesco", and "Zephyr "(all from Johnny's), and a few "Raven" (Shepherd's Seeds - these are old and may not germinate).

The pivotal moment for my squash garden came yesterday (Tuesday) morning. Took my map into the garden and placed 3 - 4 seeds at each of the spots that I had marked the night before. After covering the seeds with about two inches of soil, I drew a circle around the spot to mark the hill. All together, I planted 58 hills. I left three spots empty in case I manage to find seeds of "Flying Saucer" or some other interesting variety in the next week or so. At the west edge of the garden I added a row of cucumbers.

And then - we watered! Turned the irrigation water on for about 3 hours before our neighbor claimed the water for his lawn. It was enough to get the seeds started germinating. The seed packets indicate that the young cotyledons should poke their way out of the soil in 5 - 10 days. It will be 40 to 60 days before the plants produce fruits. 50 days from today most of my plants should have fruits ready to harvest. With any luck I'll have squash for market on September 8.

Meanwhile, I hold my breath and cross my fingers that the miracle of germination goes smoothly.

Time spent on the squash patch:
~2.5 man hrs tilling and raking
~2.5 man hrs. planting seed
Total so far: ~9.5 man hours

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Preparing the Squash Patch

Here it is mid July, three weeks after the summer solstice, and I'm just getting around to planting my squash patch. As a market gardener who sells squash at the Nampa, Idaho Farmers' Market, that's quite late. Squash can be planted as early as mid-May here, certainly by the beginning of June; by now I would have squash fruit for sale at market like some of the other produce vendors. But I'm routinely a late squash planter. Last year, like this, I spent much of May and June in Pasadena helping my Mom recover from surgery. Bad timing for a gardener, but mom's recovery is a priority.
There is an advantage to planting late. I miss the first generation of squash bugs. In years when I have planted squash in June, by mid to late July I am battling these hard to control pests with jars of soapy water and dustings of diatomaceous earth, and if I'm not vigilant, the bugs will get the best of my squash plants. But if I plant in mid July, the first generation squash bugs have gone elsewhere and their offspring don't get far enough to bother my late plantings. It's a good tradeoff for missing a few markets early in the season.

This week we got the garden prepared, and next week I'll do the planting. Husband John was in charge of tilling the plot to turn under what remains from last fall's cover crop of alfalfa and the accumulated weeds from spring. Then we were faced with the daunting task of spreading composted manure. Until this year we've relied on our trusty wheelbarrow for this task, but in the July heat, that task is exhausting and timely.

Fortunately our new neighbor, Frank, came to the rescue this year with his new toy: a tractor with a front end loader. It took him a couple of hours Tuesday evening, and no straining muscles, to reduce our compost heaps to the ground, and leave piles around the garden. John raked the piles smooth.

Our composted manure pile comes from a local feedlot, Mann Farms, only a couple of miles west of us. They were the Idaho Family Farm of the year in 2006. I have to acknowledge that they are not organic, hence my produce doesn't qualify for organic certification. But, I prefer to get my manure locally to save the cost of transportation (a substantial cost these days) and to help the local CAFOs (Confined Animal Feeding Operations) dispose of their wastes in a sustainable and ecologically sound manner. This stuff is great. My garden soil is low in nitrogen, but add a couple of inches of composted manure, and my crops look great. You'll see.

With the manure spread, it was time to water. John is in charge of irrigation, so he has set up several gear-driven popup sprinkler heads along the edge of the garden. We gave everything a thorough soaking yesterday, Wednesday. That will get the weed seeds on the surface germinating over the next few days.
On Sunday or Monday we'll get out the tiller one more time, and till in the compost as well as the sprouting weeds. Then, it will be time to put the seeds in the soil. Watch for more next week!
Time spent on squash patch:
Moving compost to patch: ~2 man hrs.
Raking compost: ~2.5 man hrs.
Total time spent on squash patch: ~4.5 hrs.