I returned to the Sunshine State a few days ago, just before an early snowstorm deposited an inch of the white stuff on my driveway in Conesville. I was not at all unhappy to have missed that first dusting. I had just put a three inch layer of straw on my asparagus, carrots and beets, hoping they will overwinter for an early harvest next April. The wet snow will hopefully hold the straw in place. I also mixed a full bale of peat moss with the soil in one of my raised beds and added about 20 pounds of rabbit manure on top, for good measure. All vegetable gardens will benefit by the addition of organic matter such as peat moss or compost. Tilling a three, to four inch layer, into the topsoil each fall, is perhaps the most important step you can take to maintain or improve your garden soil.
The 1,438 mile drive to Bradenton, Florida was mostly uneventful, but a bit more expensive than last year, with gas prices ranging from $3.59 in New York, to just about $3 in South Carolina and Georgia. Florida is about $3.20 right now. That works out to about 40 gallons for my thrifty Subaru, costing me about $130 for the drive. The fall foliage in the mountains of Virginia and North Carolina was peak, making the drive more enjoyable. It is cool here, by Florida standards, with morning temperatures in the low 50’s, but 70’s in the afternoon.
I brought down some of the onions that I grew from transplants, set in the ground on May 21. I prefer growing transplants to onion “sets” since they seem to perform much better for me. Most seasons the onion tops start to topple over by early August, signaling harvest time, but this year some of them continued to grow right up until November. These “Sweet Sandwich” onions grew very well for me, as usual. Some of the bulbs weighed a half pound! I also stuck a half dozen scallions, purchased at the supermarket, into my window box in mid-May. I harvested fresh scallions all season long from these six plants, since cutting the tops back just allowed them to grow new tops.
I planted Yukon Gold and Norland potatoes also on May 21 and they also grew very well. By August, I noticed that critters had made tunnels in many of my raised beds, including the potato bed. I saw chipmunks and moles going in and out of the holes, but I did not give them much thought. Moles are carnivores, eating worms and grubs and not plant roots. Chipmunks will eat almost anything and everything in the garden, including insects, but they are generally not considered a major pest of root crops.
I was dismayed to spot a vole using the tunnels though in late August and when I finally got around to digging the potatoes, in October, 90% of them were partially eaten. I should have harvested in August, before the voles moved in! I had hoped to bring 30 pounds of spuds down here with me, but I ended up with only about 2 pounds!
My next planting was on June 6, when I transplanted 4 more “Big Beef” tomatoes and also direct seeded zucchini and winter squash from seed I harvested from last year’s winter squash crop. A few days later I set out my “Marketmore,” slicing and pickling cucumbers at the bases of my six foot tall, tomato cages, made out of sturdy, steel, re-wire. I have used the same tomato cages from more than 40 years now and they should last forever, although “forever” for me is not likely another 40 years. The cucumber vines climb the tomato cages allowing me to “double crop” the same space each year. This system works well for me, but occasionally, I will miss seeing a hanging cucumber amongst the tomato foliage in inside the cages until it is 1 foot long. . The cucumbers did well with the first harvest on July 28 and they pretty much continued to grow right up until October. I know some readers have problems with cucumber plants succumbing to disease or insect pests which transmit disease each year. The trick to getting a good cucumber harvest is to spray them as soon as set out and keep spraying them weekly, with a fungicide, until they start to set fruit. I do the same for my tomatoes with excellent results.
My first tomato harvest was on Aug. 7, for both the early transplanted ones (May 21) and those I set out on June 5. The two week planting delay did not delay the first harvest at all, once more, demonstrating that there is little point in setting out tomato plants before the soil has warmed to 70 degrees or higher.
Reach Bob Beyfuss at firstname.lastname@example.org.