June 29, 2020

June Garden Photos

It's hard to believe 2020 is half gone! Time for a garden update. My garden recovered from its slow start this spring. As soon as the temps starting going up, almost everything took off and made up for lost time. So I have lots of photos to show you. Ordinarily, I would divide them into two blog posts, but June is about done, and I need a record of the garden for the month. So here it is.

The first part of June was spent finishing the winter garden harvest and cleaning things up. Then it was on to finishing the summer planting.

Harvest included the last of the multiplier onions, a sample of our volunteer potatoes, and snow peas (which are now done).

Multiplier onions and new potatoes.

I showed you our winter wheat harvest in this post, and told you about our heritage wheat harvest in this post. Here's a photo showing you the difference between the two varieties' seed heads.

Heritage Hourani wheat on the left and commercial seed wheat on the right.

We're still processing the winter wheat, so I haven't gotten to the Hourani yet. It didn't do well, so I don't have a lot of it. But I'll save it, plant it, and hope for a better outcome and more seed next year.

Of my perennials, the blackberries are done and my eight surviving strawberry plants are putting forth a flush of berries.

I tried to propagate these last year, but most of them didn't survive the dry & heat.

A pickings-worth.

We're starting to harvest some of our summer produce too.

Bush beans are producing well. I usually plant Tendergreen,
but this year I tried a new one - Provider. I got a gallon of
beans at my first picking! And that was for a 24-foot row.

Dar cucumbers, also a new variety for me. This is the recommended picking size.
They are dual purpose (table and pickling) and don't seem bothered by pests. (Yet).

Tatume summer squash, a Mexican variety that has stood up to our heat and wilt.
The small ones we eat in salads and as veggie sticks, the medium size I slice
and saute with onions & basil. The large ones are for stuffed summer squash

Seed Saving. Cool weather plants going to seed for this fall's planting: snow peas, fava beans, radishes, and lettuce.

Lettuce flowering for seed.

Purple plum radishes going to seed in the Orangeglo watermelon bed.

Clean-up has been getting cool veggie beds ready for summer planting, although there is some crossover with cool and warm weather vegetables sharing the same bed. In the photo below, I had a bunch of volunteer turnips and radishes sprout between two bordered beds.

The bed on the left is planted with peanuts and okra. On the right are snow
peas, dill, and cucumbers. Between them is volunteer turnips and radishes.

Initially, I was going to remove them because they're probably from cross-pollinated seed. But I decided to let them stay as living mulch between the two beds because the flowers are very attractive to bees and pollinators. The stalks tend to lean and shade the beds, however, so I trim them back and feed the trimmings to the goats. Win-win-win.

Radish and turnips trimmed back. Okra and peanut bed with a layer of compost.

I'll probably collect all the seed from them and use it for winter pasture. Root crops are great at loosening the soil.

After I picked those strawberries I showed you above, I weeded and mulched the bed. My problem in this part of the garden is sheep sorrel. It's an edible plant, but it tends to make a nuisance of itself.

Strawberries and garlic, weeded and mulched.

Growing: More things planted in April and May.

More tomatoes in front, the Tatume squash in back.

One thing that continues to grow slowly is the okra. This is a new variety for
me - Jing. I didn't mean to plant it with peanuts (yellow flowers) but I somehow
miscounted my beds from my garden chart and planted them on different days.

Pretty little peanut flowers. I planted peanuts last year, and they did
great until all the tender little peanut pods disappeared. Eaten?

Stowell's evergreen sweet corn. A small patch for summer corn on the cob.


Speaking of corn, I learned something interesting in the Southern Exposure Seed Exchange catalog. I learned that the original Three Sisters pole bean is a shade tolerant variety.

Cornfield pole beans for my corn patches.

I thought the seeds were pretty so I snapped a shot.

Can you see the bean seeds in a row on the left? I planted them in a shallow
trench between corn rows, popping in the seeds then covering with compost.

Two weeks later, they're happily growing between rows of corn.

Genuine Cornfield Pole Beans growing in the shade.
Lamb's quarters in there too, which I harvest as a green.

They aren't stretching out for some sun. I'm amazed! I actually prefer pole beans to bush beans because the leaning over and squatting to pick them gets tiring. With pole beans I can stand up and pick.

And here's my third sister.

Long Island Cheese Squash, another of my slow growers, I planted it when I
planted the corn. Not having a decent rain for the past month hasn't helped.

From the same catalog, I also learned about an easy to shell corn variety called "gourdseed."

Texas Gourdseed, a bi-colored long-toothed dent corn. 

12 days later...

I planted them later than the sweet corn to avoid cross pollination,
but growth so far is sporadic. I'll replant the bare spots, today. 

Once they are tall enough, I'll plant cornfield beans in this patch too. Their third sister is Candy Roaster squash, although you can see a Tatume vine in the background in the above photo.

Last pictures - sweet potatoes. These have been slow to sprout this year, so planting is late. I have two varieties, Vardaman (purple leaves) and Nancy Hall (green leaves with purple veins).

Growing sweet potato slips on the back steps next to sweet basil and coleus.

Both stored well this past winter. In fact, we had the last of them as oven-roasted sweet potato fries the other day. This is notable because my sweet potatoes usually develop black spot, which hastens their demise. But we didn't get that last year. A testament to my soil building efforts? I hope so.

Nancy Hall sweet potato slip. I'm tucking them into my
collard bed the same way I did my tomato transplants.

OBSERVATION: I planted these in my winter collards bed. One end of the bed still grew collards and clover, the other was pretty much empty of plants. Both ends were heavily mulched with wood chips, and I also want to note that I hadn't been watering this bed. I started at the unplanted end and noted that when I dug down, the soil was very dry. In the living plant end of the bed, I discovered that the soil still retained moisture. I can't explain the mechanism behind this,  EDIT: I take that back, I think I can explain it. Mycorrhizal fungi harvest moisture elsewhere and transport it (and soil nutrients) to plants in exchange for liquid carbon. My observation points to the validity of keeping living roots in the ground as much as possible, and is confirming my new approach of gardening by the four soil health principles.

Finally, that's it! For now, anyway. Your turn. How does your garden grow?

June Garden Photos © June 2020 by

June 25, 2020

An Experiment with Planting Transplants

Last month, while I was deciding where to plant my tomato seedlings, I wondered if downsizing my garden several years ago had been such a good idea, after all. It certainly makes it easier to keep up with work-wise, but because my winter and summer gardens overlap, space is sometimes a little tight in spring and fall. As I stood there with my tray of little tomato plants, I thought about the principles of soil health.

I blogged about these last fall (that post here). Four of those principles apply specifically to my garden, and I've changed how I garden because of them.
  1. Decrease mechanical disturbance
  2. Keep soil covered at all times
  3. Maintain a diversity of plant species
  4. Keep living roots in the ground as long as possible
I looked at my bed of heritage wheat, which had made a poor showing. I realized there were enough spaces in the bed to put the first of my transplants. I cleared out little places for them, pulled any unwanted weeds (left as mulch), wrapped each tomato seedling with a cutworm collar, and tucked it into its new home with a trowel.

Fortunately, there weren't a lot of weeds to pull. This is partly because the bed was well mulched (soil health principle #2), but also because some of what was growing there I no longer consider weeds. I left a number of plants for soil principles #3 and 4—diversity of plant species and living root in the ground. Plants that got to stay: wheat and oat plants, clover, chickweed, wood sorrel, dandelion, vetch, violets, heartsease, plantain, chicory, and hop trefoil. All of these are useful plants one way or another.

The partial shade from the neighboring plants seemed to protect the transplants from the sun while they established new roots. I watered daily until they started to grow well. A couple of weeks later I gave each little tomato plant a dose of compost.

After I harvested the grain and cut back the stalks, Dan helped me put up a cattle panel as a trellis. Then I mulched the entire bed with wheat straw and wood chips.

Rain has been good and they are starting to flower. That's happy!

My observation is that the tomatoes thrive as part of a polyculture, so I'm going to call this experiment a success.

How about you? Are you doing any garden experiments this year?

June 21, 2020

Summer Grain Growing: Rice (I Hope)

In my last blog post, I shared our winter wheat harvest with you, plus some about the cutting and threshing process. Wheat yields quite a bit of straw, and we have a plan for that too.

First load of wheat straw.

The plan is to follow the wheat with a rotation of rice. I got this idea from Masanobu Fukuoka's book on natural farming, The One Straw Revolution. He alternates a rice crop in summer with cool weather grains in winter. He adds clover to the seed and mulches it with the straw from the previous crop. With this method he has very few problems with weeds and has developed rich, fertile soil with no other additive than a scattering of chicken manure over the straw to help it decompose.

My rice seed came from last year's rice growing experiment which, unfortunately, I harvested too early (the same mistake I made the first time we grew wheat). So I have some doubt as to whether or not the seed is mature enough to grow (hence, the "I Hope" in the post title.) Doing nothing will produce nothing, however, so I decided to go ahead and give it a try anyway.

I broadcast the seed and then Dan cut the wheat residue (and weeds) with our mulching mower.

He's cutting the remaining stubble, weeds, and a patchy spot where I
removed the heads from the standing plants. Made a good mulch layer.

Ordinarily, I would let the goats into the patch after harvesting to eat down the weeds and glean any seed heads they could find.

The little patch of grass in the corner is spring planted wheat (another experiment).

Impending rain and shortage of temporary fencing nixed that.

The idea with the straw is to spread it as a covering mulch, not a smothering mulch. To do that it must be spread in a scattered fashion rather than aligned as a mat.

I started with the barest corner of the patch. As we continue threshing the wheat and making more straw, it will cover the rest of the field.

So there it is at present. It's an experiment, so I don't know what to expect. We'll learn something from it one way or another, that I know for sure.

June 17, 2020

Wheat Harvest

June is wheat month. I plant our wheat in the fall (winter wheat) and it's ready to harvest in June. Cutting and gathering takes the good part of a day, and once harvested, processing takes up the rest of the month.

Wheat is ready to harvest when most of the plant has turned golden brown and the grains in the seed heads are hard. If they can be squished between one's teeth, they aren't ready yet. From  experience, we've learned that harvesting too early makes it difficult to thresh. Wait too long and the heads shatter, i.e. the seeds fall to the ground on their own. The trick is getting a patch of nice weather at the right time to do the job. Because we only get to do this once a year, we're still learning.

The stand was patchy but the seed heads were the largest and fullest we've ever grown. Not all of them, but most of them.

Processing is easiest if the grain heads are lined up, but scything leaves cutting helter-skelter. To cut grain for threshing, a grain cradle is traditionally used.

Trouble is, no one makes these any more, so it has to be a DIY project. There are lots of ideas out there, and Dan has experimented with some of them, but none with satisfactory results. Scything with a cradle takes a slightly different technique, and since we only get to try a new idea once a year, it's a slow road to figuring it out.

One problem we had this year was that the ground was still very soft from recent rains. Many of the wheat plants were pulled out by the roots. Another problem is that not all of our plants were the same height, so getting the heads lined up in neat bundles was near impossible. We end up removing most of the heads by hand. You may think that's an awful lot of extra work, but it's actually a matter of where we put the work; either in separating the heads or in extra winnowing because there is more chaff in the grain from the stalks.

We've tried a number of methods for threshing, but so far have had the best success with our thresher converted from a small yard mulcher. You can see that in this post. The only drawback is that it tends to break some of the grains. This year Dan tried something different.

It's two short lengths of chain on a paint stirrer. The seed heads are put into a 55-gallon food grade barrel, and the chains beat the seeds out of the heads.

Winnowing is next. That's the process of blowing away the chaff to get the wheat berries. I do this with a box fan, as you can see by scrolling down toward the bottom of the threshing post. Winnowing is quickest with the least amount of chaff. By only threshing the seed heads, we have less chaff to winnow.

So, we're still threshing at the moment. I'm anxious to get on with the rest, so we can make some flour and taste our new wheat!

Next time, I'll show you what we're doing with the wheat patch, now that the wheat has been harvested.

Wheat Harvest © June 2020 by Leigh

June 13, 2020

Solar Project: How's It Going?

Our solar project was to put my freezer and a small chest refrigerator on solar energy. We started with the freezer (last January) and added the fridge toward the end of March.

My freezer and upright chest fridge on our back porch.
The fridge was converted from a freezer—how to here.

Since getting both appliances off the grid, we've gotten two electric bills. We're now averaging 11 kWh per day. To put that into perspective, back when we used the HVAC for heating and cooling, we averaged about 25 kWh per day. After we quit the HVAC in 2015, our average usage dropped to 18 kWh per day. Until now. 😎 I'm excepting our numbers to go up during summer because we rely on ceiling and box fans for cooling and to keep air circulating in the house. Plus, I use my electric stove more in summer for canning.

The other thing we've been curious about is how long our battery bank will last during a string of cloudy days. We've had a lot of those lately, which has given us the opportunity to answer that question. The battery bank lasts pretty much as long as I calculated—about two days. But the panels still produce at least some electricity on cloudy days, and our charge controller optimizes that, so I can't simply count cloudy days. I have to keep an eye on the battery bank to make sure we don't drain it too low.

One method to monitor the battery bank is by the batteries' state of charge (SOC). Technically, this refers to the specific gravity (i.e. chemical composition) in each battery cell, but bank voltage gives an approximate idea of what's going on. This varies by battery type and manufacturer, so my figures are pulled from our battery user manual.
  • 100% SOC is 12.73 volts
  • 90% SOC is 12.62 volts
  • 80% SOC is 12.50 volts
  • 70% SOC is 12.37 volts
  • 60% SOC is 12.24 volts
  • 50% SOC is 12.10 volts

The SOC is measured when the batteries are neither being filled nor powering something. So the best time to get the most accurate reading is at night when neither appliance nor cooling fans are running. (The charge controller, inverter, and battery box vent fan all draw their energy from the batteries too.)

About 10 a.m. on a partly cloudy day with the inverter fan running.

Typically, folks say not to let the batteries drain below 50%. However, they will last longer if not drained even that low. I keep my eye out for 12.4, which is about 75% SOC. If the voltage is that low at bedtime when nothing is running, then I turn the inverter off for the night and wait for the batteries to refill the next day. A refrigerator is said to keep things cold for 24 hours with no electricity, and a freezer for 3 days. So as long as I don't open them, I have a time window to work with. If it's darkly overcast the next day and the panels aren't putting out much, I plug the appliances back into the grid. They are on a power strip, so if I need to plug into the grid it's easy to do. If the grid is down, well, then I have to move on to plan B, just like everybody else.

So far, we've had one power outage this spring due to high winds. I was so thankful my freezer and fridge were still running.

Things that help us get the most out of the system.

1. Adjusting the panel array angle to get the most sun.

We've been adjusting the array angle every two months. This enables us to take advantage of the sun's seasonal position in the sky and make the most electricity we can. (How we do that in this post, "Adjusting Our Solar Panels.") Here it is for June -

Array angle adjusted for early June.

Here was the angle for January -

Array angle adjusted for late January.

Quite a difference, isn't it?! Makes me glad we abandoned the idea of installing them on the roof, where they would be pretty much fixed. For quick angle adjustment in the future,  I've been marking the channel strut with the number of the month by the slot.

Positions marked for June and April.

2. Something else that helps is keeping an ice bottle in the fridge. It's a two-quart juice bottle, and it takes days to defrost, which helps keep the fridge temperature cool.

The interior must be wiped out occasionally because of condensation.

I know several of you were curious as to how this was working out, so there's my report. I hope I covered everything you were interested in. If not, just ask. For anyone interested in the whole story, it starts here.