Bring on the Broccoli

The thing I love the most about gardening is the whole growing process. I love to see how something comes from such a small plant or seed and what it can turn into. Unfortunately, when you plant everything at the same time you end up with an abundance of the same types of vegetable all at once. Obviously the scale at which I currently garden isn’t ever going to be conducive to producing all of my own food, but it is nice to be able to grow as much as I can.

This week my first vegetable other than lettuce was ready for harvesting. I planted four broccoli plants and they were all ready to harvest this week. I decided to use half now and safe the other two for later. As I have mentioned before I am going to try different types of food preservation this year. Broccoli isn’t something that is canned so this was another easy one that can be frozen.

Harvesting the broccoli is very simple, cut the head of florets with a few inches of stalk from the plant with a sharp knife. If your broccoli is a variety that produces off shoots and possibly additional heads of broccoli don’t cut away the part of the stalk that contains the new shoots.

To prepare broccoli for freezing you must first cut it into uniform or bite size pieces.

Put leaves and any unhealthy pieces of the plant in your compost bucket, and make sure you’ve removed any bugs or caterpillars. Wash the pieces of broccoli well and then put them into a pot of boiling water to blanch.

Blanching helps preserve the food longer by delaying the enzyme deterioration process within the vegetable.* Boil the broccoli pieces no longer than 3 minutes. Once you drain the boiling water put the broccoli immediately into a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking process.

Once they have cooled put the broccoli in freezer zip top bags and remove as much air as possible or use a food sealer if you have one. Don’t forget to label the bag with the contents and the date and your extra broccoli should be ready for the freezer.

*Blanching info from “How to Store Your Garden Produce” by Piers Warren

Raised Bed Gardening: Hardiness Zones, Cool Weather Crops, & Gardening Plans

After preparing your soil and raised bed you have to decide what to plant, and when to plant it. To know when it is acceptable to plant in your area you should determine what hardiness zone you live in. This basically tells you what types of plants will survive in your area. Adjust that knowledge to how the weather is at the current time. Seed packages and plant tags will also give instructions for when it is appropriate to plant. For cool weather plants instructions may say: plant in early spring as soon as the ground can be worked, or for warm weather plants, sow after all danger of frost has passed. Some instructions include maps with a range of months that it is appropriate to plant in.

Here is a link for the USDA plant hardiness zone map. Zone maps are usually more beneficial for perennials than vegetable gardens, but it’s interesting information nonetheless.

In the Piedmont of North Carolina, the winter of 2011-2012 was very mild, and most people have had their cool weather plants in the ground for a few weeks if not longer. I planted mine in early April. Cool weather plants are plants that are more tolerant to cool nights and most are somewhat frost resistant.
Common cool weather plants are cauliflower, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, peas, lettuce, onions, carrots, radishes, garlic, spinach, turnips, beets, and many others.
After deciding what I wanted to plant I had to plan a space layout for my vegetables. With a limited amount of space in a raised bed things can overcrowd very easily and the smaller plants will get shut out from the sun and either die off or have a less productive yield. Last year I made the mistake of planting peppers beside of zucchini, so the peppers were quickly hidden, and didn’t start their growing season until after the zucchini had finished its season.
It is important to pay attention to the plant label as far as how tall the plant is going to be. Shorter plants should be planted on the sunnier side or end of the bed so that they are not shaded out by taller plants.

Larger plants such as broccoli, cabbage, or Brussels sprouts need to be placed one per grid square.

Where as smaller plants such as head lettuce can fit four plants per grid square.

Plants such as onions or leaf lettuce can fit from 8 to 16 plants per square, it’s important to research what you’re planting to make sure you don’t overcrowd your plants.

I am a somewhat of a visual learner so I like to draw a plan with a grid so I can decide where I want to plant everything. It’s also a good idea to take advantage of online resources that allow you to plan your own virtual garden. Some of these websites also have the benefits of telling you how much of each item to plant in the grid space and give planting instructions.

My favorite online resource is a retail site that offers a free gardening planner.

I keep a yearly garden journal that includes a diagram of what I planted to include each plants complete name and variety, where I put each plant, and the dates I planted. I will look back at the varieties that I liked and locations that worked the best when I plan the garden next year.
I will admit the warmer weather this Spring convinced me to go ahead and plant some warm weather plants such as peppers, herbs, potatoes, and beans, and now we are experiencing another cold snap. Be prepared to cover your plants when frost warnings occur, and expect some plant loss for varieties that are not frost hardy. Try to cover your plants with pots, old jugs, or sheets. If you use plastic make sure the plastic is not touching the plant because it will kill or damage the plant. I used plastic, but I kept it raised off of the plants by putting empty pots underneath the plastic. The most important thing to know about gardening, is that no two years are ever the same and each season you will learn something new. Sometimes you learn what not to do….

Raised Bed Gardening: Weed Barriers, Soil Selection, and Marking The Grid

Ok, so you’ve built your raised bed. Now what? It’s important to make sure that you place your bed in a sunny level spot, with a few feet of space around each side so that you can easily plant and harvest your crops.

I purchased a roll of weed barrier and cut two strips to fit the length of each bed. The weed barrier was placed on the interior of the box; one strip was not wide enough for my boxes so I slightly overlapped the two strips in the middle. I lifted the wood and tucked it under the edges pulling it out a few inches on all sides. Weed barrier is not mandatory, but it will decrease the likelihood of having to weed your garden throughout the growing season.

Because I have started with two new beds, the small amount of compost I have been able to make myself isn’t enough to fill both beds so I purchased a load of soil from a local supplier. It is a mix of soil and composted yard waste. Types of soils that are acceptable for raised beds are: top soil, potting soil, compost, or a mix of any of those. You do not want a compact or dense soil, so it is best to use a soil that has a mix of compost, vermiculite, or sand in it. Any of those will help to improve drainage.

I filled my beds full within about two inches from the top of the board. I sprinkled in a pellet fertilizer when about half of the soil was in, raked the fertilizer in, and then sprinkled more on top and raked again. That’s just how I like to do it; it isn’t a proven method or anything…

If you’re trying to go an all organic route, there are many types of organic fertilizers on the market. When I worked in organic greenhouses, we had aquaculture projects that gave us the availability of fish emulsion which we added to our watering process every few weeks, unfortunately I don’t currently have that available. So the fertilizer I use now is just your standard non organic Miracle Gro continuous release 3 month pellet. I encourage you to shop around and see what you like best. Composted manure or mushroom compost are both good options as well. However, you would never want to use fresh manure because the nitrogen content in fresh manure is too high and your plants would burn.

So now that I have my soil fertilized and in place I marked my beds so that I can keep my growing areas organized. I use a 12 inch square as my planting guide. My raised bed is four feet wide by eight feet long. The four foot board is the interior board so it is a true 48 inches long. The eight foot board is the exterior board so the length of actual interior space is 94 inches long, not 96 inches.

I measured a piece of twine long enough to staple it on the top of each end of the board, for each length and then just used that piece as a template to cut the rest of the string. I needed three long pieces and seven short pieces to make 32 squares.

Take a staple gun and staple a piece of twine on each 12 inch mark on the four foot board, going across to the matching 12 inch mark and staple on the opposite board. When measuring to mark the eight foot board I started at 11 inches instead of 12, and then went up 12 inches for each string after. This will make your first block and your last block both 11 inch blocks.

If you’re gardening in a larger area plants are traditionally placed more than 12 inches apart but in a raised bed, plants are generally placed a little closer.

Next time we will discuss hardiness zones, planting cool weather crops, and how to plan the space layout for your plants.

Getting Started In Raised Bed Gardening: Building Your Raised Bed

It’s mid March, and for me that means a case of Spring Fever.  As a fan of playing in the dirt it also means that its time to prepare for my 2012 garden.

Last year I began a style of gardening which was new to me: Raised Bed Gardening.  I was amazed at how easy it was to maintain, and how many things I was able to grow in such a small area.  I was also surprised at how simple it was to build a raised bed.  This year I decided to add two more raised beds to my yard, so back to the home improvement store I went.

Before you build a raised bed you need to determine the size limitations of your yard.  A flat area that receives a good amount of sunlight each day is key to a successful growing environment.   Decide the dimensions that are appropriate for the space you have available and buy the lumber accordingly.  You don’t want to make the bed more than 4-5 feet wide because you want to be able to reach in to plant and harvest without having to walk in the bed; however, it can be as long as you like and have space available for.

They say nowadays that treated lumber doesn’t contain chemicals, but I made the choice to go with untreated lumber.  Do whatever you personally feel comfortable with.   For my boxes I bought 3 boards which were 16 feet in length and 12 inches wide.  I had the boards cut into four 8 foot boards and four 4-foot boards.  The handy fellows at the store will be more than happy to cut the boards to the lengths that you need and load them into your car.  I also purchased 8 L-shaped brackets and a box of 1 ½ inch length wood screws.  If you don’t have a drill, you may want to borrow one, or you could just use nails although I think wood screws are a sturdier option.

For aesthetic purposes I checked the boards to see which sides had markings or factory print on them and made that the interior side which would be covered by the dirt.

I took each 4 foot board and screwed a bracket mid way up the board on the interior side of the board.  The bracket should be touching the edge of the board on each end of the board, but not going over the end.

I then raised the 8 foot board, made sure the edges lined up so that it would be as square as possible and then screwed the bracket into the longer board.  I repeated that process on each corner and voila it was done!

Next time I will review weed barriers and how I chose my soil.