A unique and viable approach to establishing local food self-reliance and building stronger communities.

Tuesday, March 19, 2024

And then the rains came!

Well folks, in the past month or so, the southern Willamette valley where we live has been under repeated waves of deluging downpours that have swelled the watershed drainage at the back of the land to a shallow creek over fifteen feet across. In the fourteen years that we've grown food on this land, there was only one other winter with such persistent and extreme flooding. I'm not sure how much extra housework we got done (above) but we are so very grateful for our greenhouse/grow tunnels which have allowed us to get a jump on starting seeds. The other big weather challenge we faced since our last post was a four-night stretch of sub-freezing temps.

This post is about how the food we started to grow in early January has fared and the ways we've mitigated these extremes in the weather. This post also includes many live LINKS to seasonally relevant articles. Enjoy!

Rain is always a challenge here in the winter so, even though this was a rainier winter than average, it hasn't really slowed us down too much; we have hundreds of veg-starts and perennial herb and flower plants already thriving in pots, and hundreds more plants already in the ground. 

Chris planted our first carrot crops on January 5th in the greenhouse raised beds he completely rebuilt in December. They're doing beautifully.

By mid-January, Chris began starting other cold-tolerant crops including beets, lettuce, kale, collards and cabbage. We make all our own potting mix and use re-purposed tofu containers, with holes drilled in the bottoms to germinate seeds and 'pot-up' the seedlings once they're big enough (right).

Chris re-built all our raised beds in our two main greenhouses during December. He managed to save the wonderful soil we'd already accumulated over the years. Every winter we also add more of our amazing home-grown compost, generated right in the greenhouse paths. (LINK: How we grow...Veganic Community-based gardening) Note: Rows of red and green lettuce in the beds behind him and in front of him, and potted seedlings in the path he's crawling along. This pic was taken March 6th.

This pic was taken just four days later on March 10th. Everything is growing so well now! Red Russian kale on left with Four Seasons red and Slo-bolt green lettuce above the kale (LINK: Planting Lettuce (or other cool-weather loving crops) from seed). The dominant seedlings in the GH path are cabbage and more kale plants, primarily for sharing. The white specks in the raised bed to the right are perlite which is a natural material derived from volcanic glass which helps soil drain better LINK: Perlite. It's the only commercial additive we use in making our potting mix. We also mix it into all our greenhouse raised beds.

In between the heavy downpours, we have had a couple of sunny stretches that allowed the land to drain and dry out enough to harvest some grass clippings. Leaves and grass are all we put in our greenhouse paths. These turn to compost over the full garden season and we harvest the compost in the autumn to use throughout the gardens (LINK: Making Your Own "Veganic" Potting Soil in Your Greenhouse Paths - Using Worms )

Though we've had to cancel close to half the Monday share-giver (volunteer) sessions this winter due to inclement weather, we have had two dedicated folks who seem to be just about as crazy for gardening and the fellowship that it brings throughout all the seasons as Chris and I - Donn and Suzanne. I know that all four of us have really looked forward to being together on Monday mornings with our hands and knees and hearts touching the Earth. If you're local and itching to get your hands in the dirt, here's info about joining our share-givers (volunteers) this spring.

Here's Suzanne on Feb. 12th, planting lettuce starts. These are the same ones shown in the pics above. They're really growing fast now. Soon, we'll start harvesting a leaf or two off each one for fresh salads.

We've had two large donations of firewood this season. Here are Donn and Chris splitting oak and cherry which will dry through the summer and be ready to use next season. Donn loans us the use of the hydraulic splitter and helps with the collecting and splitting of the wood and keeps much of the wood to heat his home too.

Winter garden-time often includes wonderful conversations around the wood stove in the Sunship-greenhouse. We use the wood ash throughout the gardens and orchards to mineralize the soil. (LINK: Coffee Grounds and Wood Ash for Soil Fertility)

COLD! Aside from the epic January ice storm that we wrote about in our previous post (LINK: A Love Like That! Historic ice storm...) we also had a severe cold snap a few weeks ago with several nights in a row where temps dipped into the high 20's. This put our greenhouse potato crop at high risk of frost damage.

In 2023 we experimented for the first time with growing potatoes in our greenhouses. We had a bunch of potatoes sprouting from the crop we'd harvested in October of 2022 but it was still too cold and wet outside to plant them. The experiment was a success so we repeated it this winter. 

Potatoes are very susceptible to the cold and, if their leaves get frosted hard enough it can either cause the potato to form a hollow in its center, or even kill the plant outright. So, since the greens have grown above the leaf mulch, on any nights that are even approaching the freezing mark, we have blanketed them in three layers of a polyester cloth specifically designed as an agricultural "row cover"...

...followed by a tarp.

So far, so good! (Image: March 18th)
WET: As I mentioned above, rain is a normal part of a western Oregon winter! We are so incredibly grateful that we have so much of our gardens under the protection of our greenhouses (just under 3,000 sq/ft). The water line that goes from our well to the spigots in our gardens is not, however, cold-proof! At the first sign of a hard freeze (usually in late November) we have to shut off and drain the garden's water lines. This means we must rely on the collection of rainwater for our seedlings throughout the coldest part of the winter.

Chris, setting up a row of rain buckets to capture this free gift from the sky...

The buckets lined up under the drip line of our garden shed roof fill the fastest (above). Those are food-grade soy sauce buckets a friend scored from his work in a deli. The racks above are storing bamboo poles. Bamboo rots really fast if in direct contact with wet ground but otherwise will last for many years (we harvested this bamboo in 2011).

Here's a walk down memory lane! Here's the same side of our garden shed before we built the bamboo racks. Chris made the sign for our original garden site in Alpine (2009/2010).

After collecting water in the buckets we pour it into large trashcans and dip out of these to fill our watering cans. The willow branches (above) are said to add a mild 'rooting hormone' to the water which we figure probably helps all our seedlings to do well.

But, as the saying goes, "along with rain, come the rainbows!" (Actually, I've never heard that saying but it seems a good segue - teehee). Here are a few of our favorite Sharing Garden rainbows from over the years: Enjoy!

The greenhouse pictured is, fittingly, named the 'Ark'!

This picture of a double rainbow is taken from our front yard, looking north. The building behind the gorgeous fall trees is the old Methodist Church which was bought by the S. Benton Food Pantry (one of the charities we donate to) and converted to a community center.

Here's a view of the front of our house.

...and here's a rainbow that appeared over the first greenhouse we built at our current site shortly after we finished it in 2011.

And lastly, here are some seasonally relevant posts for fruit and vegetable and flower gardeners:

For vegetable growers, starting plants from seed:
Starting lettuce, cabbage, broccoli, kale and other cool weather-loving crops - from seed.
Starting Seedlings Directly in Greenhouse Raised Beds 

If you're not growing vegetables but you want to help the pollinators in your area, here's a useful post: Why growing sunflowers is great for bees...and how to grow and process sunflowers for birdseed and sprouts

If you have grape vines and need some tips on pruning:
Best Video on Pruning Table Grapes!

And lastly, a profound and moving Ted Talk video by Peter Owen Jones: Beyond Nations, Ownership and Competition

Monday, March 18, 2024

Why growing sunflowers is great for bees...

...and how to grow and process sunflowers for birdseed and sprouts.

Sunflower Pollen - Pro-"bee"-otics for Bees!
This is a post about the varieties of sunflowers we choose to grow, how we grow them and process them for winter use.
In reading an issue of National Wildlife recently, we came across an article about the health benefits to bees of sunflower pollen. With populations of many bees on the decline, they need all the help they can get! Apparently sunflower pollen reduces the infections of some varieties of bees from two widespread parasites. Previous research had "linked both types of parasites with slower colony growth and greater mortality rates". Scientists compared the effects of sunflower pollen with pollen from different types of flowers and "none of the other pollen had the same effect".

But, "while sunflower pollen may provide (the above mentioned) medicinal benefits, it is low in protein and some amino acids," say researchers in Scientific Reports. They conclude that sunflowers should be supplements rather than the main source of the insect's diet. "Bees do best," the scientists point out, "when they have access to a variety of flowers". *Source below.

Sunflowers are also powerful bioremediators
, meaning they can absorb and accumulate heavy metals and toxins from the soil, effectively detoxifying it! IN the following article it is noted that, "after both the Fukushima and Chernobyl nuclear incidents, sunflower fields were planted across the affected areas in an effort to absorb radiation, then were harvested and disposed of safely." Cool, huh!? (LINK:U.Va. Undergraduate Researcher Studies Sunflowers’ Power to Clean Up Soil)
A border-row of Mammoth Russian sunflowers.
Sunflowers are one of our favorites. They're beautiful and easy to grow. They provide wonderful pollen for insects and home-grown bird-seed for our feathered friends. And, the seeds can be used to grow delicious, nutritious sprouts for winter greens.
Planting Sunflowers - direct seeding: Sunflowers can be directly sown, a few weeks before the expected last hard freeze (a light frost won't bother them). Push them into soil about 1/2" - 1" deep. If you have jays or crows in your neighborhood, you might need to cover the starts with row-cloth or some other protector until they're rooted as birds do love the seeds and, if they watch you planting, they may wait till you're not looking and dig them up (we've had this happen to us in the past). In order to avoid this problem, we usually start our sunflowers in pots and transplant later.

We've had young children help us plant large patches of sunflowers. It's a fun garden activity that's hard to get wrong. You may need to thin out your patch after they germinate so each plant has enough room to grow (3'- 4' between each plant on the tall varieties!).
Planting Sunflowers - transplanting from pots: We usually start our sunflowers in pots and transplant them out. This way they can have a strong head start. We plant two seeds in each 3" pot, at opposite corners and, after they germinate, either pinch one off, or carefully re-pot them so there's just one plant in each pot. Plant seeds about 1/2" deep. If you're going to divide and re-pot, don't wait too long as sunflowers have extensive root-systems and you risk damaging the plant if the two starts' roots become intertwined. Keep plants in a place protected from wind and full sun for a few days while they adjust to their new pots.

When you are ready to transplant outside, put plants outside your greenhouse for 5-10 days so plants are "hardened-off by exposure to wind and cooler nights before you put them in the ground.
Plant 'starts' in the greenhouse. Zucchini plants in foreground.
The tall varieties of sunflowers we grow need full-sun, wide spacing (3'-4' between each plant!) strong staking - so they don't fall over and shouldn't be over-watered.

Placement: If you plant a whole row of them, keep in mind that they will shade smaller plants, and block overhead sprinklers for watering. We almost always plant ours along the edges of garden beds so they get watered along with our other crops.

Watering: Sunflowers, if planted early enough that they can follow the water-table downwards through the summer, they can do well without much supplemental watering. Beware of over-watering as they can grow too fast, get top-heavy and fall over.

Staking: The tall varieties of sunflowers will almost certainly need staking.

Sometimes we'll drive an individual stake in the ground next to them; a 4'-6' metal stake is best. Drive it deep into the ground. Tie sunflowers to stakes with cotton strips.

Sometimes we'll erect a bamboo tri-pod , stake it and tie two, to three sunflowers to each one.

We've also grown sunflowers in long rows between tall stakes with heavy wire run between them. Attach wires at 3' and 6' heights and tie sunflowers to them with cotton strips.

Sunflowers can also be tied to fences with cotton strips to keep them from toppling.
This is a trellis we made by stretching strong wire between two fence posts. Here, Cindy is tying up bamboo poles to trellis bean-plants but this same kind of trellis would work for a row of sunflowers. For sunflowers, stretch two wires; one at about three-feet above the ground, and the other at about 6'. Tie plants to wires with cotton strips.
A bean-tipi (with scarlet-runner beans) and Mammoth Russian sunflowers growing beside it. They are each tied to a separate 4-foot wooden stake.
Varieties of sunflowers we like: Most years we just grow two varieties of sunflowers: Mammoth Russians and Autumn Beauties. The Mammoth Russians make good bird-seed for bluejays and other large seed-eating birds, and they are also great for growing sprouts, a delicious and nutritious source of winter "greens" (LINK to post on growing sunflowers sprouts). They can get extremely large (10' or higher) and will usually require staking so they don't topple in the wind when their heads are heavy with seed.

Mammoth Russian sunflowers can grow huge! You can see why it's important to stake them so the don't fall over when they're heads are full of ripe seeds.
Autumn Beauties also make great bird-seed for smaller seed-eaters and their range of colors from yellow through orange to a russet-brown make a beautiful border "hedge". They have many heads on one plant that ripen over the course of the season and though their individual flower-heads are quite a bit smaller than Mammoth Russians (6" vs 12" - or more) the plants themselves can get as tall as the Mammoths and will also require staking. They too need three to four feet between each plant. Autumn Beauties also make great cut flowers if you have a heavy, deep vase but beware, they drop a lot of yellow pollen on whatever surface they rest upon.

Autumn Beauty sunflowers...So beautiful against a blue, autumn sky! A favorite for bees and birds alike.
Saving seed: Sunflowers easily cross pollinate. If you want to save seed to plant next year's sunflowers, be aware that they are quite prone to cross-pollinating with other varieties. So, if you were to grow both Mammoth Russians and Autumn Beauties nearby to each other, the seed you save would have a high probability of being a mix of the two varieties. Though we've had good luck with growing pure Mammoth Russian seed, the Autumn Beauties (even if they don't cross with other varieties) tend to become less colorful with each generation. For these reasons, we usually just buy fresh seed each year.

When to harvest seed: If you're just growing the flowers for their beauty and you don't care about saving the seed, you can leave them standing for as long as you like, well into the winter. Birds enjoy them for winter perches and will happily eat the seeds right off the heads. But, if you wish to save seed to feed them later in the winter when natural forage is harder to find, here's how to do it:

Processing the seed: As autumn approaches, it is important to regularly monitor the ripeness of the seed. Sunflowers ripen from the edges in towards the center. Periodically pull a seed out and crack it open to see if the seed inside is fully formed. Notice if the birds are starting to eat them. If the birds are starting to eat them but they're still not ripe most of the way to the center, we sometimes cover the heads with a paper sack or a mesh onion-bag.The onion-bag is preferable because it allows the pollinators to continue to have access to the less-ripe seeds and more of them will be pollinated.

Onion-bags are great to protect seeds you're saving from being eaten by wild-life, or fruit from being harvested before the seeds are ripe. (Pictured: green-peppers ripening for seed).
Processing Autumn Beauties: Once the seeds are ripe, we cut the heads off and lay them on shelves in our greenhouse and turn them up-side-down or cover them with screens (to keep the birds from getting to them). We leave the Autumn Beauty heads to dry completely without removing the seeds. Then, over the course of the winter we place the dried heads outside for the birds to enjoy.

Llyn, laying Autumn Beauty sunflower heads face-down (to protect from birds) to dry.
Processing Mammoth Russians: The Mammoth Russian seeds we remove right away. This is easier to do before the heads dry. Remove the ripe seeds by rubbing them free with your thumbs. We usually use gloves as it can be a bit rough on the thumbs!

To remove seeds from head, use your thumbs to rub them into a tray.
Another reason to process the seed soon after harvest is that the seeds can mold due to the high moisture content of the flower heads. If it will be awhile before we can process them, we often cut off the fleshy backs of the flowers heads. By the way, this is a very relaxing process and a favorite autumn task for share-givers (volunteers) to enjoy while sitting around in the shade at the end of a busy morning out in the gardens.

Processing sunflower seeds is a favorite autumn task. (Crates of Delicata squash in the background.)
Even young people enjoy this quiet meditative task.
The Mammoth Russian seeds will almost certainly need more drying after they've been removed from the flower head. Be sure they are thoroughly dry before storage or they will mold and be ruined. Small quantities can be dried in a food-dehydrator. If the air is not too humid in your greenhouse at time of harvest, spread the seeds on screens or in shallow card-board boxes but be sure to protect them from birds and rodents while they dry with screens on top too. We've also put the seeds into shallow baskets and dried them on shelves above our wood-stove.

Feeding the birds: Autumn Beauties: Just put whole heads out on your table-feeders, or string them on a wire between two posts or trees.

Mammoth Russians: We buy millet in the bulk-food section and mix it with the sunflower seeds and put it on a table-feeder or directly on the ground.
Chickadees love sunflower seeds!
(Photo credit: www.wallpaperup.com/45606/sunflowers_1920x1200_wallpaper_Animals_Birds)
Growing your own sprouts: Here is a post we wrote about growing your own sunflower sprouts.

Sunflower sprouts for winter "greens". You'll need a sunny window or greenhouse but their delicious, sweet, nutty taste and high nutrient-content are worth it!
Herbicide contamination: Sunflowers are very susceptible to certain herbicides (see our post about herbicide contamination from un-composted horse manure).

Hopefully this post will inspire you to add some sunflowers to your summer garden. These glorious plants have given us much pleasure and they're sure to please you too! 
Though this farmer in Scotland is growing sunflowers too far north for them to set seed, his 250,000 plants must produce an incredible source of food for all the pollinators in his area! LINK: Farmer Creates Massive Sunflower Trail Growing 250,000 in a Pattern Out in His Fields

* Source: National Wildlife - Feb/March 2019, p 8.

Wednesday, March 13, 2024

Starting Seedlings Directly in Greenhouse Raised Beds

Update: January 2024: We had such good results from this experiment last year that we've already started some seeds this year. Every year is different but we hope to have bounteous, early crops to show for our efforts again this spring.

(originally published - May 2023). Last year (2022) we experimented with starting seedlings, to be transplanted to other beds, right in our greenhouse raised beds. This worked quite well for several crops including: lettuce, broccoli, kale, collards, onions and cabbage. They are all plants that transplant easily and will germinate in relatively cool soil. These seedlings were started in rows with seeds planted every 1/2" or so.

Chris starting seeds directly in greenhouse raised beds.

The advantage of this, over starting seeds in tofu-containers (below) (LINK) and "potting them up" to larger six-packs or pots is that it's easier to keep the seedlings uniformly watered and their roots are less likely to get overcrowded. The disadvantage is that, without a bottom-source of heat (electric mats), heat-loving plants like peppers or tomatoes may not germinate in the cooler soil. So, we'll still use heat mats for them.

Seedling starts in tofu containers. We drill holes in the bottom for drainage. This is the way we used to start all our seedlings. These are then potted-up into larger pots.

With our new method, as long as the soil is warm enough, we save time and effort and the roots of the seedlings have much more room to grow than if they were in tofu containers.

Once the seedlings germinated, and grew large enough, we carefully transplanted them into larger pots, or directly into another greenhouse-raised bed.

Lettuce plants started in greenhouse raised beds and transplanted to another raised bed to grow to maturity,

Over the years, our raised bed soil has become a perfect medium for seed-starting. We can use it to fill pots and transplant starts into those pots to grow them out for later transplanting outside:

Our beautiful soil. Every year we supplement it with compost created in the paths between the raised beds, a sprinkling of wood-ash and coffee grounds and, in recent years we've added perlite too to aid in water retention.

Beautiful, healthy broccoli plants, started from seed in raised beds and transplanted into pots using soil from our raised beds.

This year, we are taking this experiment one step further. Chris decided to see if he could germinate some of the same kinds of seedlings, using this same method but in mid-January. (This is about a month earlier than what's suggested in our local planting guides!) So far, things are looking good.

Chris planting seeds on January 13, 2023. He planted: three kinds of lettuce, bunching onions, Sweet Spanish, Burgundy Red and Cippolini onions, Toscana kale, chard and arugula.

Because we're regularly getting nighttime temperatures in the low 30'S F and high, daytime temps have been in the 40's to 50's, Chris experimented by putting black plastic bags over the seedlings for several days before they emerged above ground. This raises the soil's temperature whenever the sun is out, and holds the heat in at night. Seeds need a minimum temperature to sprout but don't need light until their first leaves emerge from the ground.

Arugula seedlings (from seed we saved ourselves!) emerged after just five days. Chris checked the seedlings daily and, as soon as the first leaves began to show he removed the black plastic. The lettuce-seedlings emerged just a few days later.  (As of January 25, everything has germinated except the onions and the chard. Either the soil isn't warm enough or the seed isn't viable. We shall try and plant them again and either wait till the soil is warmer, or use heat mats for bottom heat.)

Once up, the seedlings need light but also appreciate protection from cold nights. Here we've covered them with re-purposed plastic lids found at the recycling center!

So far, our early-planting experiment seems to be working well. It's always a gamble getting seeds started this early but, since we have plenty of seed, if even a fraction of the plants grow to maturity, it will be worth it.

Update - May 2023: Here are some pics for how these experiments in early seed-starting in raised beds have fared...

This lettuce was all started from seed in raised bed 'nurseries' as described above; then transplanted at proper spacing to mature. These lettuce seedlings were started in mid-January. We began eating individual leaves off the heads beginning in March which provided plenty of these fresh greens for us and our volunteers. Here, April 17th, Chris is seen selectively harvesting alternate heads to share at the Food Bank (so the remaining heads have more room to grow).

Here is a picture of the same bed on April 24th. That's 'Slo-bolt' lettuce on the left, potato leaves beginning to appear in the center row and Chris planting Sweet Spanish onions on the right.

Here are two boxes of lettuce, harvested and ready to be donated, in front of our Ark greenhouse. As of early May, the two greenhouses have yielded over 60 pounds of the most beautiful, tender, tasty lettuce imaginable! A successful experiment, wouldn't you say!