Monday, March 28, 2016

How to Grow Asparagus

Vegetable gardening is fun, easy, and the extra work is enjoyable. One of my favorite vegetables to grow is asparagus. The crisp snap of a well grown asparagus spear is music to my ears. It is said that you can grow asparagus anywhere in the United States, except for where it is very hot. I have a bit of news for you! I live in Texas and we saw temperatures reach over 100 degrees for approximately 26 days during this summer. My asparagus is thriving and I'd like to share with you how I grew my stand.

I live in what is called the "Blackland Prairie" in North Central Texas and the soil here is certainly heavy black clay. Although asparagus loves to live in a sandy loam soil, it will survive in heavy clay soils. You should make sure that there is sufficient drainage. Once planted, mulching with finely ground finished compost to maintain soil moisture is a must.

Previous to setting out one year old crowns, purchased from a reputable garden supplier, I turn in about 6 inches of quality compost to a depth of about 12" through a process called double digging. For best results, the best soil ph range should be about 6.5 to 7.0. Make sure you test your soil before planting, so you give your asparagus the best chance to produce for years to come.

Planting and Fertilizing
Buy quality plants! Purchase plants that are at least 2 years old. Set your plants into a trench 6" deep. Cover them with about 3" of soil. As the spears start to grow, cover with more soil until the trench is full. This is when I use a finely ground finished compost as a mulch. I usually plant multiple rows about three feet apart. At planting time I use a standard vegetable fertilizer, spreading about 3-4 pounds per 100 square feet. I'll also fertilize in late July with about 1 pound per 50' row.

Disease and Insects
Your plants can be affected by Frusarium wilt. This disease is brought on by too much moisture. Typically in Texas, it comes with summer rains in July through August. It is best to just remove infected plants as there is no control available.

Rust disease can be seen as small orange patches on asparagus spears and on the fern part of the plant. Rust is usually caused by high humidity and warm temperatures, so pick a rust-resistant variety. There are many rust resistant variety's available.

Asparagus beetle can become a menace to more than just asparagus in your garden. The beetle is small and cylindrical shaped and black with yellow markings. You may also see them on your bush beans and squashes. I watch for the beetle when my spears start to break the soil. I usually hand pick the beetles, however, if necessary I treat with a vegetable garden insect killer that lists asparagus and asparagus beetle on the label.

My first focus would be to try to introduce beneficial insects into the garden to control soft bodied insects like aphids instead of just applying a pesticide. I would also consider insecticidal soaps for thrips as well.
In early spring the spears can turn brown. This is usually caused by extremely cold weather, frost or freezes. The problem can be best controlled by removing the damaged spears and mulch with straw when you know the nighttime temps will plummet.

During the growing season
My main focus is to maintain even moisture to the asparagus plants. Their roots will reach into the next row, so keep the entire growing area evenly moist. Fertilize in the same manner; evenly. You may side dress your plants with your summer feeding, but I usually make a broadcast type of fertilizing for even coverage as well.

I started off with one year-old crowns, but spent two very patient years waiting to harvest. It was well worth the wait. Then I limited my first harvest so that I would not remove too many spears that were needed for crown support later in the season. In the third year, I harvested for a longer period of time because I had many more spears come up earlier. Once you get past that third year, you can usually harvest for a period of up to two months or more. 

Stop cutting the spears when they start to get thinner and the temperatures start to rise significantly. I cut my spears at the soil level. Let the rest of the plants that grow this season grow into full grown plants. These will provide food and strength for next seasons spears.

Preparing Asparagus
Although there are a multitude of recipes for asparagus, my favorite way to cook them is on the grill. I will steam them for just about 4 or 5 minutes, and then throw them on a very hot grill to put sear marks on them. The searing/grilling just brings out the flavor.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Quick Composting: The 14 Day Method

Starting a compost heap is easier than you may think. Getting compost to the finished stage, quickly, is just as easy. Follow these steps and you will have completely finished and ready to use compost in just 14 days:

Day 1: Loosen up the dirt area with a heavy pitch fork or roto-tiller where you want the compost pile to live for the next two weeks. Saturate the ground with water and let it soak in.

Your first layer should be at least five to six feet wide and as long as you think you can physically handle every three days. Start making alternate layers with grass clippings or other green wastes, then brown materials like straw, dried twigs or shredded bark or mulch. Include household vegetable scraps and manures as well.

Wet each layer, adding just enough moisture to soak the layer thoroughly. Build your layers at least five to six feet wide at the base, building up in a trapezoid shape to at least four feet square at the top of the pile. 

Continue to layer and moisten the pile. Build the pile up to approximately five feet tall. Wet down the entire outside surface, once your pile is complete.

I've covered the outside of the completed heap with a thick layer of manure that then gets wet down. Since I raise rabbits, I have a ready source of manure on hand. Drive a six foot tall stake into the ground. Don't drive it too deeply, as you'll$AWFE70SOxREiP9muTf8_egG9GCALzU4E2w4ADSO5,st$1308941070862824,v$1.0))&t=blank-D&al=(as$12cmpur49,aid$9YpGDUJe5p4-,bi$712209051,ct$25,at$0)need to remove it in a few days.

Day 2: The pile should begin to heat up. With the mass of the pile, more than one cubic yard, the pile will heat up on its own. The pile will begin to break down and you'll notice some settling. If you stick your fingers in around the stake in the center of the pile, you can feel the warmth. Ideally, you need the heap to heat up to at least 140 degrees to start killing off bad pathogens. Don't let it get much hotter than that, or you'll start killing off the good bacteria.

Day 3: First chop with a mattock or a turning with a pitch fork! Remove the entire outside layer of material and put it out of the way for now. Chop the rest of the pile, making sure you get a thorough turning of the material. Replace the material that was the outside layer into the center and wet it down. Put the pile back up around the stake, one foot at a time and wet down each foot tall layer.

Day 4 and 5: The heap will start to break down and settle once again. It will get hot, heating up to 140 degrees again. Use a thermometer to check the temperature. Remove the stake to allow for good air movement from the center of the pile.

Day 6: Second Chop! Repeat Day 3 steps. Add water as needed. Re-set the stake into the center of the pile.

Day 7 and 8: The heap will be smaller still, as it breaks down. Continue to check the temperature.

Day 9: Third chop! Repeat Day 3 steps. Add water as needed. Re-set the stake. You'll notice that I have moved my pile into a bin area to help the area look a little neater.

Day 10 and 11: You'll notice the original material has decayed very well, but is not quite ready yet. Watch your temperatures.

Day 12: Final Chop! Repeat Day 3 step. Re-set the stake and wet down the outside surface lightly.

Day 13: At the end of the day, remove the stake and check the temperature of the pile. It should be below 110 degrees.

Day 14: At the end of the day, you should be able to use this compost. You can screen the material or just use as a side dressing for your fruits and vegetables or to make a bigger compost pile by layering compost between the green and brown layers.

Making compost with this 14 day method is easy, but is more difficult and time consuming the bigger the pile becomes. Keep your pile at a manageable size of about one to one and a half cubic yards. You'll find great joy in the physical work-out, and even greater joy knowing you just kept your yard wastes out of the landfill.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Growing Sweet Potatoes From Your Own Rooted Cuttings

When you place a sweet potato into a mason jar full of water, new stems and roots will grow from the potato. It may take a while, so be patient. I poke three toothpicks into the potato to hold it upright in the jar. Keep the jar filled with more water as it is used by the tuber and it evaporates.Once you start to see little white "nubs" on the side and bottom of the potato, you'll know that roots will be growing out soon.
I took cuttings, some rooted and some not, from my two sweet potatoes that have been sitting in these jars full of water for the last few months. It is obvious where you should make your cut with the stems that have roots on them, but a non rooting stems should be cut below the leaf (where you see little root "nubs" ever so slightly protruding from the stem (just below each leaf). 

I cut anywhere from 1/4 to 1/2 inch below the leaf junction so that when I place these cuttings into another jar of water, I have a few nubs ready to grow more roots.

When these non rooting cuttings have some root growth on them, I'll plant them out into the garden bed. It may take a few more weeks to get some roots on them, so a little more patience is needed. Once rooted, plant the stems 2-3" inches deep and in rows about 18-24" apart in soil amended with compost.