Monday, July 28, 2014

6 reasons to use pine needle mulch in edible gardens

I use pine needles in between my wide rows in the edible gardens.
Here are some of the reasons for using pines needles in wide-row edible gardens. (Read my post "Wide row planting & trench composting" for the details on this planting method.)

Pine needle mulch:
1) does a good job at limiting weeds.
2) doesn't form a crust, so even a light rain filters to the soil and doesn't roll away.
3) is easy to handle and remove when it's time for a crop change.
4) lasts for 2 or more years.
5) does not significantly acidify the soil below.
6) is free if there are pine trees in your neighborhood.

Corn salad, red-stemmed spinach, and garlic growing in wide rows in a winter bed. The pine needle mulch is 4 or 5 inches thick in the trenches between the rows. For crops like onions or garlic I mulch the whole row with about an inch of pine needles—the crop will grow right through it.
Use a very light layer of pine needles over the area where you've planted seeds. Here  I removed the smaller okra seedling and left just one to grow in this space around my okra swales, because you don't want to crowd okra. I always plant 2 or 3 seeds in each spot to make sure I get at least 1 good plant, especially when the seeds are older.
When ready to plant, use a leaf rake to clear the pine needles away. For this garlic, I'm ready to create the wide rows and to dump my kitchen scraps in the bottom of the trench between the rows. Note the wood chips on the path next to the garden.

This batch of needles contained a fair amount of soil after I removed it from the bed, so I raked the whole wad of needles across the lawn to clean them up. As a bonus, the freedom lawn receives an addition of compost.
I collect pine needles from the neighborhood
streets--after a storm is especially fruitful.
Then I keep a pile of them near my gardens.
Down by the lake, a longleaf pine drops its foot-long needles. Easy to rake and great for mulch. My husband mows every other week, so before he mows, I often head down there to collect a new batch.

Why not wood chips?

I've written before about using arborists' woodchips in the landscape, but I don't use them in my edible gardens for two reasons.

Wood chip mulch:
1) is impossible to remove completely once it's laid down. For other uses, like paths and more stable gardens, that's not a problem, but it doesn't work well with all the activity of changing crops at the end of the season.
2) depletes nutrients as it comes in contact with the soil microbes. Again for path mulches, this is an advantage for keeping down weeds, but we work so hard to increase the nutrient level in our edible gardens, why compromise it in any way? Eventually, the chips decompose and add nutrients and humus to the soil, but not at first.

Getting ready for fall...

Yes, it will be 6 weeks or more until I'm ready to start planting the cool weather crops, but there will be some end of summer crops like squashes, cucumbers, sugar snap peas and maybe tomatoes. It was time to turn under my marigold cover crops into their beds, so they'll be ready for the next set of crops. Read about my multi-year marigold experiment: Results: the nematode experiment. 

These two vegetable beds (with their marigold cover crop) are ready to be turned.

There is a Chinese fringe bush at the north end of this bed. Each year I remove its roots that are encroaching into the garden space.
I lay in unfinished compost on top of the marigolds and then
I'll add back the original soil.

First I pull the marigolds and weeds, and then I rake away the pine needles with a leaf rake. I raked the pine needles from this bed across the lawn as shown in a photo above to get rid of the embedded soil. Then I dug out about 5 or 6 inches of soil from the whole bed into the big cart. This bed is about 6.5 ' by 5' and I filled the whole cart. I laid in the marigolds, some grass clippings, topped it with a wheel barrel load of almost finished compost. (Completed or finished compost will not have any recognizable pieces of the original materials. This batch still has some leaf mold and small sticks and chips.)

Then I shoveled the original soil back in place and smoothed it out. I added another half load of compost on top of the soil. Finally, I covered it with pine needles and added wood chips in the walking areas around the bed.

In a few days, I'll turn the next bed.

After burying the marigolds, compost, grass clippings and layering back the original soil, I mulched the whole bed with pine needles. It will sit until fall when it'll be time to start the cool-weather crops. FYI, the downspout shown here, runs into a French drain that runs next to the sidewalk and is released into one of my rain gardens. The rain water then heads down to the lake in an open ravine.

The squash is done, so it was time to turn the marigolds into this bed, too.

I started near the okra (by the bench) and had a load of kitchen scraps ready to compost, so those went into the bottom of this bed for some extra nutrients.

Except for the okra, garlic chives, and the Greek oregano in the foreground, the beds have been turned. The outside bed was turned a couple of weeks ago and so I will probably start planting in that bed first when it's time.

Early in the spring pines also drop their male catkins (sex organs). These break down much more quickly than the pine needles, so if I rake them up, I use them to mulch my blueberries or in the compost pile where their acidity will be neutralized.

For further reading on pine needle mulch:
From Dave's Garden: Pine Needle Acidity: Myth or reality?
On Wildlife Gardeners' website: Pine Straw (Pine Needle) Mulch Acidity: Separating Fact From Fiction Through Analytical Testing

Amazing summer clouds just before sunset last week.

I hope you are enjoying the summer clouds and are planning for your fall garden of edibles. Why not purchase my book to help you get started? Organic Methods for Vegetable Gardening in Florida.

Green Gardening Matters,
Ginny Stibolt

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Harvesting corn: Down on the farm

A guest post from my grandson Weber who is working on a farm in Delaware this summer. 

Summer at Magee Farms: Part Two

(Summer at Magee Farms: Part One)

Hi everyone – I would have sent in another post sooner, but once we started the sweet corn harvest, I have been working 12-hour days and haven’t had time to sit down and write this. I certainly was not expecting how busy it was going to get. After these first two weeks of harvest, I have much greater appreciation of all the work that goes into large-scale farming. In this post I am going to talk about the life of the corn – how it’s harvested, what happens to it at the packingshed where I work, and where it goes to be sold. 


The corn starts here out at the field. I usually stop by wherever they are picking a few times a week just to make sure everything is up to par in terms of food safety.

This is called a mule train, and it is an incredibly efficient set-up. I wasn’t able to get a good picture of this apparatus because the workers are not too keen on having their picture taken. This mule train is essentially a tractor with two “wings” like an airplane. Workers follow the wings to harvest the corn by hand. They then throw the corn up into the “wing” where packers put the corn into crates. The crates are then stacked on the truck that is towed behind the mule train.

Before the pickers are sent into the field, the tassels of the corn are cut off by a topper, which is an elevated tractor with rotating blades underneath it. This way, the workers can be seen and it makes it easier for them to do their job. Trying to get through all of the large leaves on a plant taller than the workers is a nuisance, especially after it has rained. In addition, the "wings" on the mule train have a certain clearance as well

A cornfield shorn of its tops is being hand-picked by people walking behind the mule.
Note: Usually there is just one ear per stalk, or maybe two.

Once the truck is full, it disassembles from the mule train and arrives here at the packingshed where I work. The corn is unloaded onto the dock of the packingshed and awaits labels. I’ll get more into these labels in my next post.

A field truck is ready to unload at the packingshed.
The crates of corn are strapped to pallets.

These are the pallets of wood crates filled with fresh corn. There are usually 18-20 pallets on each truck that comes to the packingshed. Each pallet has around 42 crates and each crate has around 48 ears. On a typical day, we can see 5-7 of these trucks - it’s a lot of corn!


Once the corn arrives at the packingshed, it has to be cooled down. When the corn has been sitting outside in 90-degree weather, the heat that is left in the corn can cause it to spoil quickly. The corn is in this cold water bath for around 50 minutes to an hour to get the internal temperature to 50-55 degrees.
Corn is cooled with cold water and once they are cooled, they must be refrigerated.


After the hydrocooler, the corn is loaded into refrigerated tractor-trailers to get shipped all over the east coast - even all the way to Texas!

The corn is quickly transferred to these refrigerated trucks after cooling.

In my next post, I’ll be going more in-depth about my role in all of this as a Food Safety Officer, and I’ll show you a bit more of what goes on behind-the-scenes.

Weber Stibolt, University of Delaware '16

Thanks for sharing, Weber! 

Green Gardening Matters, 
Ginny Stibolt

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Terrible taro and other invasives

The taro removed from the bulkhead garden.

Removing invasives, sooner rather than later

Just this last April, we redid this weird bulkhead space to fix a slumping problem. At the time, I thought I'd removed all the taro roots and corms (Colocasia esculenta) and the soil we used to fill in the space was from another area of the property with no taros. So in just these few months, they've rebounded. I pulled this whole bouquet from this space which is approximately 4' x 4'.  I'll have to check for new growth more often. I also pulled out some native elderberry  (Sambucus nigra subsp. canadensis) volunteers, which are small trees.

Note on taro (aka dasheen): it was brought from Africa by slaves and then again in 1910 by the US Dept. of Agriculture as a potato substitute for the south. Big mistake. Several people suggested that we include it as a crop in "Organic Methods for Vegetable Gardening in Florida," but I refused. If it's invasive, we should not be encouraging people to grow it. Another interesting feature of this plant as a crop, is that every part contains calcium oxalate crystals, which can irritate your mouth and other tissues. To prepare the corms to eat, you have to boil it in at least three waters and then grind it to a powder.

While I was working on the taro removal, my husband was cleaning out the area between the intake pipe for the irrigation system and the bulkhead. A nice stand of ferns had colonized the area. I decided to replant them along the bulkhead where the turf grass didn't grow well. After standing back to look at the reconfigured space, we decided to remove the turf from the whole area for easier mowing. And here I thought we got to scratch a small item from the giant gardening to-do list, but no, it became a bigger task. Has that ever happened to you?

After my husband cleared out the ferns and other plants that were growing between the intake pipe of the irrigation system and the bulkhead, he cleaned out as much of the built up soil to make this space less attractive for new plants to set up camp there. You can see the pump in the background. A few of the removed ferns with their squished roots and rhizomes.
After looking critically at this space, my husband and I
decided to remove this ridiculous chunk of lawn between our boat-lift bulkhead and the neighbor's concrete pad.
The sticky clay soil under the grass made this job much more difficult.
I had some tropical sage (Salvia coccinea) that needed to be removed from the edible gardens where I will be turning them under with marigolds in a couple of weeks. (See below.) So I added them in front of the previous garden space to make this more of a butterfly garden. There is no gutter for the boat lift bay roof, so we placed a board along the drip line for easy access to the bed and to protect the soil. We mulched the whole area with about three inches of arborists' wood chips. We've had them since September, so they are well-composted.
Testing the placement of the drip board with a hose attached to the irrigation pump. The finished product—for now. Yay!

A couple of side adventures from the bulkhead task...

Whenever we see these invasive snails in the lake, we smash them with a shovel and add them to the compost pile. Just think of all that nice calcium. Treasures found in the chip pile.

In the edible beds

Our come again cabbage is still going strong after 7 months of harvests. I first wrote about this stub of a store bought cabbage in January. I harvested four medium-sized heads and an untold number of leaves. While it looks a little moth-eaten now, the leaves are still sweet! A volunteer tropical sage amongst the okra. I allow these pollinator-attracting plants to grow pretty much where they sprout in our edible gardens. I transplanted a bunch of volunteers from a bed that's ready to be turned to the new bulkhead garden space.

Even though it's been shown to be invasive,
nandina is still for sale and widely planted.

Are you harboring this invasive in your yard? 

Get rid of it now, not only is it displacing native plants in natural habitats, it's also poisoning birds like the cedar waxwings. It's also poisonous to your pets.

I posted this photo on Facebook and it was shared by more than 100 people and seen by more than 5,000 people. There were many comments including people who said that their nandina had never hurt anything and birds even make their nests in it.

The thing is that if a plant has been determined to be invasive, it has already done damage in natural ecosystems. It's not someone's idealistic whim, but a rigorous procedure. See the Florida Exotic Pest Plant Counsel's (FLEPPC) website for more information.

As homeowners we can do our part by keeping them out of our yards so that our birds don't carry their seeds to nearby wild areas. Invasives, both plant and animal, have cost billions of dollars (both pubic and private monies) annually. Don't be part of the problem: don't buy invasive plants, and remove them ASAP from your property.

Beautiful Florida natives!

A beautiful flatwoods sunflower planted itself in my
wildflower garden.
The first beautiful scarlet rosemallow of the season at the edge of our front pond.

Summer skies in Florida!

A hazy beginning to the day after a heavy rain. This is a color photo, but you'd hardly guess that.

After a hazy sunrise (see above) the sunset over the lake was beautiful.

Summer clouds before the storms

Summer clouds on the same day...

A sepia-toned sunrise preceded a day of rain. No gardening took place on this day.
I hope to see you soon at my presentation at the Fleming Island Library in Clay County on August 12th at 10am. the Fleming Island Garden Club coordinated this event, but it's open to all.

Garden early in the day during the summer!

Green Gardening Matters,
Ginny Stibolt

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Removing lawn and other adventures

Special Summer Appearance:
My presentation is "Organic GardeningYou can do it!"
Aug. 12th 10am at Fleming Island Library in Clay County.
1895 Town Center Blvd, Orange Park, FL 32003
(about 7.5 miles south of I295 & Rt 17 exit)
This event
is open to the public and has been coordinated
by The Garden Club of Fleming Island.
Clearing the rest of this section of lawn.

Digging grass...

After putting it off for some time now, I finally finished removing the lawn in front of the shed. I started removing this part of the lawn last fall when I planted the coreopsis. My post on fall seedlings shows the beginning of this project.

It's not an easy task to rip up well-established turfgrass, but I was side-tracked numerous times. I'll plant some more wildflowers in the area near the coreopsis, but this is a major traffic area for gardening work, so I'll add a thick layer of chips to form a wide access path. I'll probably add more containers as well. More on this project later. But here were some of my distractions:

A quick young scarlet snake slithered out of the grass where I was removing it and quickly slid back in. You can tell that this is a scarlet snake because of red on black "a friend of Jack." The poisonous coral snake is red next to yellow "can kill a fellow." This shy snake is quite common in this area, but is rarely seen because it burrows in the ground looking for reptile eggs to eat. A true snake in the grass!
A green darner dragonfly with a large meal--a moth eaten. Poison ivy next to the rain barrel platform. It was probably deposited by a bird sitting on the platform with a nice dollop of fertilizer.
You can't see me... ...not me either.
Ooh look, a skipper butterfly... I think I'll walk down to the lake. I wrote about our slump area repair and I thought I had cleaned out the invasive wild taro, but no... Another item on my ever expanding to-do list. :-) Maybe I'll see something interesting down by the lake when I tackle it.
Planting the walking onion scapes.

Walking onions

Last year, my walking onions were dying out after 5 or 6 years in one location, so I moved what was left of them to my herb garden. I rinsed the bulbs totally clean before planting them and I have not harvested any of their leaves. This spring they produced some scapes with groups of new bulbs. I divided them so I could plant the single bublets. This fall, I'll divide the adult plants to further expand the crop. Then I'll start cutting the leaves again. I will mulch the area with pine needles this week before the weeds come.

I moved the walking onions to herb garden last year--that's our back sidewalk at the bottom of the photo along with a sprinkler head. At the left you can see the Greek oregano, some scarlet sage seedlings that I left, and to the right, and not seen here is a large rosemary bush.

A revisit to a roadside meadow in Putnam County

In May this scene was yellow with tickseed, now it's mostly red with blanket flowers. The farmer's flowers have been made into hay.
On May Day, I stopped by this roadside meadow that was totally yellow with tickseed coreopsis. See my field trip post for photos of what it looked like two months ago. On July 4th, this meadow was still beautiful, but different.

A blanket flower (Gaillardia pulchella) hosts a wasp killer.

Storm's a-comin' at a roadside meadow in Putnam county.

A painted lady butterfly visits the black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia mollis) in that same roadside meadow.

A Jacksonville sunrise

A subtle sunrise over the St Johns River with a pink seashore mallow coordinating with the show.
The moonflowers fade at sunrise, while the mallows are ready to welcome its daytime pollinators.

Closer to home...

The summer sky is fantastic this year. What you can't see in this photo are all the bees and wasps working the cabbage palm flowers. There must have been a hundred or more. This is across the street and a good place to take sky photos without wires.
Our front pond a few years ago. Looking from our end of the pond toward the neighbor's end. I have replaced the turfgrass that grew right down to the edge of the pond with a buffer zone of mostly native plants.
See my latest post over on Native Plants & Wildlife Gardens blog The joys of a Florida Pond for more photos of the pond and its visitors over the years. Next month I'll continue the pond adventures with the actions we had to take to save our pond. I hope you are enjoying the summer as much as I am.

Green Gardening Matters,
Ginny Stibolt