Friday, December 13, 2013

2013 All Purple Harvest

In early April, when Tucson’s average high temperature rose above 80 degrees, I put out my All Purple Sweet Potatoes to start growing slips.

A few All Purple Slips I transplanted though I will probably not transplant next year.

With some EM-1 my slips really took off by mid-may
Slips can take a long time to start – especially if being grown indoors. That is why I have been working on a new way to start my slips outdoors. Though I have greatly improved my method for growing sweet potato slips, I believe that my sweet potatoes do much better when I wait until May 1st to start growing out slips.

My second harvest of sweet potatoes required a flashlight to procure

When the time finally came to harvest my All Purple sweet potatoes from the garden, I had to do so a little at a time. It is difficult to harvest a sweet potato that can mature over a foot below the ground, and doing so requires loose soil and some dedicated time to feel through the soil by hand.
Some of my first harvest of All-Purple Sweet Potatoes

Some of my second All-Purple Sweet Potato Harvest
One of my larger All-Purple Sweet Potatoes
Another large All-Purple Sweet Potato.
By the end of my harvest I felt both good and bad. It seems that the quality of this variety of sweet potatoes decreased from going into the ground so early. A few of the larger sweet potatoes did not exhibit the color or texture I would have expected from this variety. On the other hand the harvest of 95 pounds was a nice way to finish my summer garden harvest.

Some of my second All Purple Sweet Potato Harvest. Can you find the nickle?

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Gardening When it Counts by Steve Solomon

Should you want to be a self sufficient gardener and you have some time on your hands, I would highly recommend picking up a copy of Gardening When it Counts by Steve Solomon. This book does a good job overviewing many of the techniques required to be able to live off the land, as long as your climate produces a moderate amount of rainfall. Though I do not agree with everything Steve Solomon says, I feel that he has very helpful thoughts on various subjects of gardening and the general ideas in his book are good.

A Definite Good Read, but filled with opinions

The general premise of Solomon’s book is that there may be a time in the future in which Gardeners are faced with an inadequate source of irrigated water and/or fertilizer but will most likely have access to seed and land. One of the chapters that covers this subject, entitled “Watering… and Not” includes a very helpful table with plant spacing (based on average rainfall) and plenty of helpful ideas when planning out growing vegetables with minimal water.

Along the same lines, another chapter entitled “What to Grow and How to Grow It” contains pictures of roots on a 1 foot grid from Weaver’s Root Development of Vegetable Crops. These root pictures are very helpful to gardeners because they show how to grow crops based on how their roots grow and the amount of space each root system requires. The “What to Grow” chapter also included some very helpful hints on growing, including what to expect from specific vegetable varieties and some information on inbreeding depression.

To refute a point Solomon makes about seed companies - my lettuce (lower right) is very strong viable
 seed from SESE while my beets (top right and barely visable) seem to be growing poorly from seed sold
by Territorial. Both packets were planted the first season after receiving seed packets and the beets received
 more sun. The germination of the beets was poor and I will have to work on this beet variety to keep it going.
Territorial has sold me some high quality seed in the past. I use this illustration only to make my point.

There is a chapter that highlights making a good balance of nutrients in the soil and another chapter that highlights the use of raised beds based on berms rather than on borders. There is a chapter about seeds and growing seed as well as a chapter about composting.

Overall, if you have read and enjoyed any of Carol Deppe’s books or are interested in some basic fundamentals of sound gardening – then this is the book for you. Even though I did not agree with a few of the things Solomon wrote (raised rather than lowered gardens for dry climates and his negative views on Southern Exposure Seed Exchange) I would have to say that the book had some good ideas that were based on years of experience in a couple climates.

Update: I just found you can access an ebook edition that has some of the pages - if you would like to preview it before you dedicate any finances to this text.

Monday, December 9, 2013

The Dingess Purple Sweet Potato

Two Slips survived to make some beautiful sweet potatoes
Dingess Purple Sweet Potatoes were probably one of my favorite sweet potatoes to harvest this year. This was not only because the plant exhibited vigorous growing vines to begin with, but because the harvest is of marketable size and shape. Unlike the All Purple, which may root a foot under the surface, this variety tends to root near the top in more round tubers - making harvest much easier.

The younger slips and vines of the Dingess Purple can be hairy in appearance.

I would like to say that Dingess Purple will be one of my main varieties for next year, but I still need to do a taste test and rate each of my varieties accordingly. Though there is some anecdotal information about the taste of this variety on Tomatoville, there is nothing like doing a taste comparison to determine what variety will work best for the long-run.

My Dingess Purple Crop just as it came out of the ground.

After harvesting the first Dingess Purple potatoes, I became concerned that the interior may not contain a dark enough flesh. To determine the general color of this variety I cut a cross section of a smaller potato to see how it looked.

Dingess Purple Color looks good.

A long Dingess Purple Sweet Potato


A decent-looking Dingess Purple Sweet Potato

Though the harvest was not as much as it could have been (compared with the Purple Delight), it was over 15 pounds. Dingess Purple does an incredible job producing sweet potatoes that are just the right size for the market. As long as the flesh of this variety exhibits good taste and texture I will be growing this variety for many years to come.

The Dingess Purple Vines produced mostly marketable Sweet Potatoes

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Purple Delight Sweet Potato Harvest

Before I was even finished harvesting last year’s sweet potato crop, I began to plan out how to trial my sweet potato varieties for this year. The delay between placing my order in November and receiving the sweet potatoes in a battered priority shipping box in May provided me time to think about how I could prepare to have a better harvest this year.

My poor-looking Purple Delight Slips

The battered priority mailbox that contained my sweet potato slips

My first encounter with the sad-looking slips I received in mid-May left me wondering if they would make it a week, let alone a season, in my garden. Having seen a slight improvement in the growth of my All-Purple Sweet potatoes in April with the application of EM-1, I decided to add some EM-1 to the plot. As the slips finally established themselves I honestly expected very little but still held out hope for the best.

My Purple Delight sweet potato slips (to the left of the bush bean)

The harvest of root crops can be both exciting and scary - in that the gardener has no idea what good (or bad) could possibly lie just under the surface of the soil. The longer the span of time the crop requires to mature, the longer the gardener is left to imagine how the tubers are growing, with only the top of the plant to give any clues to the health of what lies below. Revealing what lies under the ground is like unwrapping a large gift, not knowing beforehand if it contains something really wonderful or something you would rather give away.

The area that the Purple Delight covered is in the foreground

The Purple Delight Vines take up roughly 1/5 of the area on the bottom left

Because my life has been so busy I have not really had the time to take harvesting my sweet potatoes seriously until a few days ago, when I realized that the night temperatures would soon dip below freezing. My first priority was to determine how well the new purple varieties had grown and I wanted to harvest these two varieties first, so that I could compare them to my All-Purple variety. From cleaning out some vines in the area of my Purple Delight sweet potato vines I soon found enough potatoes outside of my garden bed to start filling up a bucket.

A few Purple Delight potatoes I harvested outside of the garden

Soon thereafter came the moment that every gardener either hates or loves: digging to find out what is in the garden bed. Here are a few pictures I took while digging around:

Are there any Sweet Potatoes in there?

Pulling out the first Sweet Potatoes

I think I found something

A closer look (the black thing is a soaker hose)

Exposing a few more potatoes, the next day.

Accessing sweet potatoes sometimes requires me to dig a little

The Purple Delight Sweet Potato Crop

Over time I have developed three main criteria that I aspire to have my sweet potato crop meet: Large production, high quality dark flesh, and marketable size and shape.

This potato turned up to be a bit too big to easily sell

My favorite potato retained its beauty and high quality flesh even at a large size

 As shown in the pictures, the Purple Delight produces well (48+ pounds from one root ball) and the exhibits a very dark purple color. Although the shape and size of roots varied greatly there seemed to have been very few (if any) “woody” roots.

The over 48 pounds of Purple Delight Sweet Potatoes

Overall, I would have to say that I have been very pleased with the Purple Delight sweet potato. Of all people, I would have never dreamed at the outset that the scrawny slips from a battered box would produce so well.

Note: Purple Delight is also known as Alabama Purple. I will definitely be doing some taste testing in the future!

2013 Orange Sweet Potato Harvest

This year’s Orange Sweet Potato crop may look very poor, but given that it was crowded out by other varieties it did well. I was not expecting much more than 5 pounds from this variety and that is about what I got. Of all my sweet potato varieties I have grown, this simple orange one is very good and I will most likely be allocating more room to these sweet potatoes next year.

A small harvest, but given the space allocated the vine produced well

Monday, December 2, 2013

Garden Cutbacks

With all the cutbacks going on in the government and within companies, it is nice to know that I can control when I want to cut back my summer garden. Having two gardens can be nice in how much food I can produce, but the drawback comes when the older garden encroaches on the newer one and insects migrate from one garden bed to the other.

A few buckets of marketable (top) and unmarketable (bottom) purple sweet potatoes
Note - the lighting in my waterheater closet makes them look red.

Because I can garden year-round the frost turns out to be a welcome relief from insects and the problems they cause. Leaf-hoppers, spider mites and cucumber beetles – all of which can cause disaster in my garden - tend to die off after the first frost.

I had to cut these sweet potatoes back to make room for my winter garden

It is time for cutbacks - to my summer garden!
Even though frost can create a burden in harvesting my summer crop, the harvest allows me to take an inventory of what worked and what didn’t. For example, much of my All-Purple sweet potato variety did not produce as much as I had anticipated – though some others produced very well. I am still harvesting so I will be sure to post updates.

What could be under the carpeting in the walkway between my gardens?

As stated in my post about the All-Purple sweet potato, the juice of purple sweet potatoes can be used to determine pH of a substance. In this case, the water in the cup is from some purple sweet potatoes that I steamed. Notice the dark green color. Tucson water is definitely full of minerals and alkaline.

Cooked All-Purple Sweet Potatoes with Tucson water on the left

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Gardening for Geeks by Christy Wilhelmi

Occasionally I will encounter a gardening book that will present completely new or detailed information that is not found in many other places. But for the most part, when I pick up a gardening book, I often find the book catalogues the ideas presented by others in various books and publications rather than introduce a new concept. Although Gardening for Geeks by Christy Wilhelmi fits much more into the second category than the first, it is still worth a read. Much of what I read in this book, although compiled from other works, included some good summaries of already existing reading material.
It was definitely worth looking through this book.
Even though many of the gardening methods presented in this book, including square-foot gardening, are really good sometimes I wonder how much they get what happens in my region, such as the high potential for insects and disease to completely wipe out a bed of lettuce or tomato plants. It is not that writers of gardening publications are purposefully misguiding readers, but when you live in an extreme climate it can be easy to feel that garden book authors just don’t get it. That being said, some of the biointensive methods, such as the French Intensive, hexigonal planting  and the 60:30:10 method really interested me. Even without knowing much about the French intensive method before digging my 24 inch deep mostly compost beds, it seems as if I am doing many of the same things that the French intensive method promotes.

The most helpful bit of information I learned about was from a book called How to Grow More Vegetables by John Jeavons. According to Jeavons (as cited by Wilhelmi) a gardener can make their garden much more sustainable if they grow utilizing a 60:30:10 formula for sustainability. The premise of this sustainability formula is to have the land produce food for both the gardener and the garden. Apparently it should be able to produce enough food for one person by utilizing only 4,000 square feet of garden space. The way this formula works is to commit 60% of garden space to crops that return large amounts of carbon and nitrogen back into the soil such as grains, fava beans and cover crops to create mostly biomass to be composted and some food. At the same time, 30% of the garden should be designated for high-calorie crops, such as potatoes, sweet potatoes, parsnips and Jerusalem Artichokes. Lastly, Jeavons says that 10% of the garden space/time can be devoted to tomatoes, peppers, squash, lettuce, carrots, etc.

My high-calorie sweet potato crop knows no bounds as it grows into the alley. (=

While I have slowly moved towards a method like John Jeavons’ biointensive method I never thought that it could be related to biomass. Many of the 60 and 30% crops deserve more time and room in the garden because they are much less work for the organic gardener in relation to pests and disease than because they “environmentally friendly”. Though most intensive gardeners may scoff at the idea of dedicating so much of their plots to corn and potatoes, perhaps they will decide to raise more grain and high-calorie crops when times get tough and they require a garden that is more self-sufficient.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Admiring the Mighty Luffa

During the time in which I am waiting for my winter garden to grow and my summer garden to freeze I occasionally visit other gardener's plots to observe what they are growing. Recently, while walking around the Tucson Organic Garden (TOG) plot located near central Tucson I noticed that most of the summer plants were gone and small winter beds were still in their infancy. Amidst the younger plants was a plot that seemed to still be growing a summer crop. In this plot there was one plant which displayed interesting leaves, which from the distance resembled grape vines, that immediately caught my attention. This mighty plant was none other than the luffa gourd.

The Mighty Luffa Gourd

The majority of the plants that grow like weeds here in Tucson either produce thorns or are generally unpalatable. This is definitely one good reason to initially be hesitant of this plant’s taste and texture. Besides, this plant is used for making natural sponges just as often as it is used for making food.

The Luffa Gourd plant looks a little like Grapevines
It seems that the bees really enjoy the luffa flowers

Though I have heard that the luffa fruit is very light and spongy in texture and is similar to squash in taste, I am currently of the mindset to not attempt sauté up a luffa for dinner. Knowing that my children are reluctant to try eggplant, perhaps the best approach is to ask someone with experience in growing and cooking this vegetable up to invite me over for a sample before I commit to growing this vegetable.
An immature Luffa

Though my instincts tell me that this plant may require lot of preparation in cooking for a decent taste to be achieved, I am awed by the beautiful appearance of the leaves and fruit that this vegetable produces.
The Luffa Gourd flowers are very pretty

Thursday, October 31, 2013

A Tucson Planting Guide for the Organic Seed Saver

Years ago, after many failed attempts to understand gardening in Tucson I made this little guide for myself, which consists of 3 charts. Please note that I am not saying that this is the "definitive" guide to growing plants in Tucson. Rather, this is an attempt to better understand how to plan out my gardening.
With the first chart I was attempting, on my part, to understand when to plant, how long I could expect plants to take to germinate and grow. First, it lists some "general" planting dates. But more importantly it then lists the optimal soil germination temperature (in parenthesis). Knowing the soil temperature allows the gardener to note the current conditions, rather than relying on a calendar that may not be as accurate. 
The next set of numbers underlined in the third column lists the days until you can expect to notice seedlings popping out of the ground. Lastly, the chart tells the amount of time you can expect until you might see a harvest. Plants that are grown over the winter months under less light will take longer to grow.

Contained in the second chart (on the upper right) is a basic guide to NPK ratios of various amendments. All amendments will vary – so I take this with a grain of salt.
Finally, the last chart of this guide (on the lower right) concerns seed viability. Why, you may ask, might this information come in handy? Any gardener wishing to have some hope of self-sufficiency recognizes that a major component to being independent in a time of need is to have control of his seeds. Knowing how many years a gardener can keep seeds in a cool dry place enables the gardener to plan the frequency by which each vegetable variety must be grown.
On a side note - If people would focus less on complaining about big agricultural companies such as Monsanto and more on saving seeds we would not have to worry about the negative side affects that such large companies could create. A gardener who possesses quality water and soil and employs appropriate gardening practices can determine her skill at saving seeds by the quality of the vegetables harvested from her home-saved seeds.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Bringing Back the Winter Garden

Little things in life can sometimes make a huge difference for my overall wellbeing. When I fallowed my winter garden last year, to take care of the needs of my family, I never imagined that it would affect me psychologically. When times are tough and things everything seems to be going wrong, going out and seeing the growth of the plants is a real morale booster. After leaving my winter garden to fallow last year this small strip of sun baked soil is making a comeback.

Little Viroflay Spinach Seedlings Sprouting up

Recently, the school district I live in had a fall break which enabled me to have some time. This break, along with my wife lovingly taking the kids for a get-away gave me some time to get my winter garden set up. However, getting my garden set up turned out to be a little more complex than I had initially anticipated. The first in planting in my winter garden came with accessing that portion of the yard. The sweet potato vines had grown into the winter garden over the summer and I didn’t really want to cut them down. After talking with one of my daughters about the issue we decided that some unused water barrels would do just fine in lifting up the vines enough to clear out the area in the winter garden.
Rather than pruning the sweet potatoes I lifted them up with water barrels
My next dilemma came in working with the soil. The soil was incredibly airy and soft. In preparing my soil I leveled, then tamped down the soil to ensure that any water put into the ground would not run off onto the nearby Bermuda grass. Though trampling and tamping down regular dirt can be very detrimental to the structure of clay soils, it is very beneficial when working with an airy organic material-based soil. If the soil is too airy, then it can quickly evaporate leaving seeds to dry out. My last major undertaking in preparing my garden was the complex task of hooking an elaborate system of regular hoses, soaker hoses and Y-joints up to my garden timer. After getting all of that set up I finally was able to plant!
Some Jerico Lettuce seedlings

Though I was very concerned about plants sprouting I discovered, soon after planting that I saw small spinach leaves coming up. Spinach usually requires a cooler temperature – so this was good news for the rest of my seedlings. I then noticed the Jericho lettuce, with its delicate green leaves, seemingly sprouting up overnight. The beets and carrots have been coming up too – but the real celebration came when my first artichoke seed sprouted. For the last 3 years I had been waiting and trying to grow artichokes and had repeatedly failed by planting seed from an established seed company that turned out to be completely unviable. A more recent failure with growing artichokes from seed came when I had sprouted some seed in early September only to have the seedlings wilt during a hot September afternoon as a result of temporary problems with my watering system.

Peas, Onions and Carrots sprouting up
What I am trying to relate at this time is that I am looking forward to this winter's garden. I hope to let my children pick peas from their garden and have me experiment with McGregor’s beets in my garden. It is my belief that when life becomes complex and overwhelming there is wonder in taking a minute to go outside and watch the plants in my garden grow and flourish.

An Artichoke Sprout at last.