Newspaper columns by Marion Owen
Organic gardening, recipes and healthy lifestyle stuff since 1996
From how to grow purple potatoes or make an awesome, almond-pumpkin pie, to mixing a batch of salt dough for sculpting a model grizzly bear, I 've covered a lot of ground since 1996. But my weekly columns aren't published on the Kodiak Daily Mirror's website. So I'll share them here. And rather then attempt to post 12 years worth of columns, I'll post them a handful at a time.
Though small by most standards, our garden yields about 400 salads each year for our dinner cruises, along with carrots, beets, herbs, potatoes and other crops for the household. Visitors are welcome to tour our garden. Just call ahead (907-486-5079).
Winter Blues Not Good for Greens (Dec. 16, 2008)
Have you looked at your houseplants lately? We're not the only ones who suffer from the winter blues.
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD), also known as winter depression or winter blues, is a mood disorder in which people who have normal mental health throughout most of the year experience depressive symptoms in the winter.
What's the cure? One solution is to use your Alaska Airlines miles to fly to Mexico for some toe-wiggling in warm beach sand. Another fix is to incorporate some light therapy in your home or office, since seasonal mood variations are believed to be related to light.
The holidays are particularly tough on plants. Not only is it winter, but we tend to move houseplants away from windows and other light sources to make room for the Christmas tree. Question is, does this hurt the plants?
To some degree, yes. In order to put up our holiday decorations we often resort to rearranging the furniture (honey, wouldn't it be easier to leave the furniture as is and rotate the house?) I'm being a little goofy here, but if Christmas occurred in June, this wouldn't be an issue because of the longer days and more intense light.
But winter is a different animal and light decreases in winter, which directly affects plant growth and health.
Keep this in mind when moving plants around during the winter. All plants require some light (energy) whether natural or artificial. Generally speaking, flowering plants prefer stronger light; foliage plants will tolerate lower light conditions.
Mood lighting: Good for humans, not plants
During the holidays your household may also prefer to dim the lights a little lower in order to enjoy the colors of the season. That extra 3 to 4 hours of reduced lighting that your plants would normally receive coupled with the possible plants’ movement to lower light areas can cause your plants problems.
How do you know when your plants are starved for light? They will tell you themselves. If you don't believe me, check out the following symptoms found in a houseplant suffering from light deprivation:
+ Weak, elongated, pale green growth: In fancy horticultural terms this is called etiolation, the most easily recognized symptom of lack of light.
+ Abnormally small leaves: You may find that the new leaves are smaller than the existing ones.
+ Bending toward the light: All plants lean toward their light source over time, but if the leaning is exaggerated, the plant probably isn't getting enough light. (Regardless of the season, it helps to give your plants a quarter turn now and again.)
+ Lack of bloom or poor flowering: Plants need more light to bloom than they do to simply grow. A mature, healthy flowering plant that fails to bloom or blooms weakly or sporadically probably isn't getting enough light.
+ No growth or abnormally slow growth: Many foliage plants react to insufficient light by growing slowly, or ceasing to grow altogether. (Don't confuse this downturn in growth with a plant's normal winter rest period.) They simply live on their stored energy (like a salmon does when it enters fresh water to spawn), sometimes for months, until they use it all up, and then they begin to show other symptoms of insufficient light.
+ Leaf loss: Plants typically drop old leaves, but if you notice leaves falling off abundantly, you can suspect lack of light. Low humidity, as in a home's environment during the winter, can also cause leaf loss.
+ Root rot or stem rot: I once had a nice spiky-edge plant of unknown heritage, which kept my Seattle apartment looking more cozy during the dark of winter. I killed it with kindness, in that I over watered it and kept it in a daylight basement-type room on the lower level. Conditions, needless to say, were too dark and too moist.
So here's what I learned: plants that receive too little light can't absorb water properly and their potting mix remains excessively moist, leading to rot. And that's exactly what happened to "Spike." One day, he was looking fine and dapper. Then one morning I glanced over and noticed it had keeled over in the night, rotten where the stem meets the soil. Which goes to show that sadly, the end result of a long-term lack of light is a dead plant.
How green is your thumb?
Here's something else I learned: People and plants are joined together in the gardening process. Plants receive the care and nurturing they require to thrive, and gardeners find in plants' growth, a confirmation of success. There's soil preparation, watering, sowing, transplanting, watching and waiting -- all of which require patience -- which are rewarded when a plant sends up a new shoot, blooms and so on.
A special give-and-take partnership forms and gardeners carefully watch for changes and signals: dull, limp leaves mean water more thoroughly, or provide more light; slow growth overall might call for more organic plant food. "Throughout this interplay, gardeners become deeply involved, learning the language by which plants express needs," says Charles A. Lewis, author of Green Nature, Human Nature: The Meaning of Plants in Our Lives. "The better that language is understood, the greener becomes a gardener's thumb.
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Lessons Learned from the Gardening Season (Dec. 8, 2008)
As I stare at the mat of ankle-high greens in the raised beds, metal salad bowl in one hand, kitchen shears in the other, I think to myself, "It's time."
For the past two months we'd been enjoying gourmet greens, sown the first of September by shaking out the remains of some 15 seed packets over bare soil. It's a great way to use the last few seeds you never quite got around to planting. Though the beds face due south to optimize the sun's rays, every little bit helps. Thus, I set up PVC hoops and draped and stretched with preformatted plastic to protect the seedlings from wind-powered torrents of rain, sleet, and snow.
Inside the plastic tent, a remote sensor beamed the temperature to the main unit sitting on a placement on the kitchen table. If the weatherman called for freezing temps, I covered the hoops with another layer of plastic or bed sheets.
The seedlings did fine, reaching 4 to 6 inches in height, but as the days grew colder and shorter, they stalled out like a broom standing in a corner. I couldn't expect the greens to keep growing much more (after all, I can't totally control the weather), but I'd been able to help it survive.
Still, with my "den mother" concern, I knew it wouldn't be easy to clip the last crop, thereby calling it quits for the winter. The idea of buying lettuce, mustard greens and kale from the grocery store only gave me heartburn. On the plus side though, it also gave me the determination to refine next year's season extending methods.
Cold Frames to the Rescue
For one thing, I've vowed to track down some glass windows to set up as cold frames. I'll ask around and check in periodically with Hunter Roesler at Second Hand Kodiak (1416 Selig Street) to see what he might have in stock.
Cold frames are one step above PVC hoops and plastic in that they have better insulating qualities. The ideal cold frame, which is essentially passive solar collectors has a slanting "roof" with the high end toward the north, so the sun's rays strike the glass at about a 90-degree angle, and water and snow slide off easily. In general, a lid with a slope of 35 to 45 degrees catches the most sunlight, although a 55 to 60-degree slope traps more autumn/winter sun in our latitude.
Cold frames are very handy: They are used to extend the season for spring or fall crops, or keep frost off late-ripening crops. In the spring, they can be used to harden off seedlings before planting them out in the garden. You can also save your refrigerator space for food and use your cold frame for giving spring bulbs their cold treatment before forcing.
I also plan to use cold frames to re-start spinach the way Bruce and Midge Short do in their Anton Larsen Bay gardens. In early September they sow spinach seeds. The seedlings are able to put on about four inches of growth before the cold weather knocks them down to the ground in a way that the average gardener would think they were goners, done, dead, finished.
But Bruce and Midge are not your average gardeners; they think outside the box, or should I say, inside the cold frame. I'm not sure if they add a protective layer of say, spruce boughs, but nonetheless, come late winter, the spinach starts growing again and provide giant fronds of spinach by late March.
Giving Square Foot Gardening a Chance
Last year, in response to the question, "What edible crops are the easiest to grow in Kodiak?" the Sustainable Kodiak's Food Group put together a list of the Top 12 Foods to Grow in Kodiak, which consisted of kale, broccoli, carrots, potatoes, Swiss chard, onions (green and bulb types), lettuce, spinach, radishes, peas, garlic and mustard greens.
When you read over the list and visualize the plants you realize just how varied the crops really are, from frilly carrot tops to climbing peas. I got to thinking of the different textures, shapes and colors the plants provide. Then I pulled an old book off the shelf; a book I'd held on to, but never really cracked beyond an occasional shuffle through the first few pages.
The book is called, "Square Foot Gardening," by Mel Bartholomew. Interestingly enough, Mel's publicist called me a couple years ago, hoping I'd do a book review for them. I didn't give it a serious, second thought, until now…
Since moving to a smaller lot with limited gardening space, I have to "grow smarter." Fortunately, the mild fall weather allowed us to build 10 new raised beds using 4 x 6-inch lumber. Which means the raised beds are 18 inches tall and no wider than 4 feet so I can reach in from either side. We filled -- layered -- them with manure, compost, seaweed, leaves, soil, fish meal, and kitchen scraps until they were rounded at the top to allow for shrinkage. The design of the beds is perfect for square foot gardening which is a very efficient way to garden.
In square foot gardening, you build up your garden in a series of squares. Each square is 12 inches by 12 inches, an area of 1 square foot. Each square holds a different vegetable, flower or herb. How many plants are placed in each square depends on the particular variety, how big the plants get, and how far apart they should be planted in order to develop properly. For example, a square would hold 4 lettuce plants or 16 carrot seeds or 1 broccoli plant.
The author says square foot garden "really is easy to maintain, basically because it sets physical limits for us ahead of time." Thus, it's less work and not so overwhelming. As for looks, Square foot gardens take on a checkerboard pattern and are very attractive.
One of the main reasons I plan to try square foot gardening methods has to do with pests. Studies show that large expanses of a single crop are more likely to succumb to an onslaught of pests, like slugs and aphids, where they can cruise, munch and otherwise damage without interruption. By breaking up the crops into smaller blocks, pests become confused and discouraged. And I'm all for anything that will confuse a slug's thinking process!
Finally, I plan to turn our working garden into a teaching garden where visitors, including our B&B guests, can learn about gardening in the North. Small signs will be placed in each bed, describing the "what, how and why" of the different plants. My inspiration for doing this came from this fall's gardening class at Kodiak College where, when asked why he or she was taking the class, each student said it was to learn how to grow food.
We all get set in our ways and resist change, but sometimes change is necessary and helpful. So I promise to keep you posted on our garden's progress as I play with and adopt new ways to grow more food. If I'm lucky, I'll have a positive report for Mel Bartholomew's press agent.
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