Sunday, May 30, 2010

Salad Days: Late May in our Chicago Roof Garden

Exploding greens this week, with some real heat in Chicago. Yes, cool-weather greens prefer cool weather, but our recent 90-degree days kicked up their growth and we've been feasting on raw greens topped with olive oil, red wine vinegar, and salt.

And occasionally a piece of smoked salmon
(French breakfast radish from the in-ground garden).

This new gazebo SIP run Art put in is shaded for a couple extra hours in the morning than the other greens run. I moved some of the greens there before the darn things shoot to seed

I wish greens lasted all summer.

The tatsoi is sweet and flavorful.

Carmona lettuce too.

Endive, chicory, wrinkled crinkled crumpled cress.

Aside from noshing, I like not having to buy this nutrient-dense food trucked in from miles away.
Big bowl o' greens.

Bruce rode over with some more heirloom tomato starts, from Green City Market.

Thanks, Bruce.

Hurry hurry: tomatoes love this heat more than I do.

I planted a bunch.

All's right with the world.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Grow Little Green Girl! Kara's First SIP

One picture tells this story best...

whose mom calls her Little Green Girl

Kara's mother Debbie wrote us last week:
My daughter loved planting the SIPs today. She really likes watering them and smelling the Miracle Grow organic fertilizer...?
Me too, Kara! I like everything about planting, from the musky barnyard scent of the fertilizer to your perky little seedlings.

There's a back story here. Early in 2010, Debbie wrote us to offer seeds from her Franchi packets. She lives just outside the city and reads our blog. We'd never met, and we were struck by her generosity.

Some of the Franchi seeds
Debbie mailed.

Flash forward to our tomato seedling misfortune. Could Debbie provide some tomato starts, she asked? Gratefully we said yes and offered to set up a few SIPs to say thanks for all the Franchi love.

Drilling out SIPs
with Art

Debbie emailed us after she took the SIPs home and planted them with her daughter:
I am so excited that Kara is excited! Underlying all this is my desire for her to eat more veggies and to understand and respect how food is grown. Even a 9-year-old can do it.
Exactly right. We think Debbie's a terrific mom and that her Little Green Girl is the future. And that Inside Urban Green has this one right: maybe Kara can take her SIP skills and share them with her classmates.

Won't it be fun to see how their gardens grow, in the ground and in the pickle buckets?

Way to go, Kara!
Send us more pix soon.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Changing the Rooftop Ecosystem: It's All Connected

Oil gushing into our precious Gulf of Mexico and beyond will likely affect our planet's ecosystem in catastrophic ways we haven't even imagined.

There are less damaging ways to be reminded of the interconnectedness of our world, though, like last weekend, when I went to the roof to get greens for a mother's day salad and found bird droppings on the bok choy. For the first time in three years of rooftop growing I had to wash what I picked.

And then I realized: we'd changed the roof's ecology significantly by introducing two beehives. Soon I saw this bird on the bee-cam--the video feed Art set up so we could view the goings on at Hive 1 and the new hive, where the Italian bees hang out.

Who was this bird with yellow breast and
what looked like raspberry sauce poured on its head?
It was snapping bees out of mid-air and also poking its head into the hive entryway--bold, in my view.

I googled the Audubon Society and was surprised to find they have a bird ID email all set up. Within a day I had my answer from David Catlin, Senior Director of Field Support at national HQ in Springfield, MO:

It's a partially-molted male tanager, most likely a Scarlet Tanager, given that the photo was taken in Chicago. First-year birds come into their breeding plumage late--which is why this one is still partly yellow-green.

The fact that these beauties (seen here in their ultimate plumage) eat bees explained the bird droppings all around both hives and on a few of our leafy greens. A few days later, I captured this shot off the monitor...

Another scarlet tanager,
a little further along in his molt?

We can never un-hitch one part of nature from another, so with bees we get birds and the products of their digestive tracts.

Occasionally I yearn for the days of growing food in living soil in a sunny garden. Our tiny in-ground plot gets six inches of compost every spring and fall, has a gorgeous texture, gets very partial sun, and is loaded with beneficial microorganisms.

It's also loaded with hungry critters
that turn the greens planted there into swiss cheese.

Again, there's no disconnecting the components of the natural world.

We've been eating the rooftop greens for weeks, a salad a day. Most are as clean as you'd get out of a salad spinner. They've been largely untouched by pests up there.

If you read us regularly,
you know we love our greens.
That's why we moved to the we could capture the 10 hours of sun needed to grow. With neighbor Bruce, we started vegetables from seed so we could experience the grand diversity of nature's offerings, not just what the big-box store had to offer.

Which makes his report yesterday all the more discouraging, especially given his extraordinary care and tending of the seedlings. Thanks to a few solid local resources, we're re-building our heirloom tomato stash and recovering our optimism.

Nature's tenacious resiliency is inspiration for those of us who grow. But can she process the gallons of poison BP continues to inject? How long before we understand we need to stop drilling altogether?

Which of the four futures will we choose?

Friday, May 14, 2010

Bad News on the Tomato Seedlings

H2 came over and took some photos of the seedlings I started.

Not sure what's wrong with (some of) the tomatoes, but it doesn't look good.

About half of them are affected by some kind of lesion. Mold? Blight? Wilt? Mystery Funk? Take a look at Cornell's Tomato Leaf Symptoms Diagnostic Chart and let us know what you think. I'm leaning toward Bacterial Canker. If you want a second opinion, head over to the Texas A&M tomato problem solver.

About half of the tomatoes have been hit with this. After seeing how these diseases can wipe out full grown plants, we took plenty of precautions , e.g. bleaching old containers prior to using them, to prevent any kind of contamination from affecting our tomato seedlings. Somehow that wasn't enough. Right now only half of them show signs of being damaged, I'm hoping that the other half will stay healthy, but who knows.

A special note to those of you I was starting tomatoes for: While you might want to come look at our seedlings before writing them off, having a Plan B is a good idea. Here are a few other places that sell interesting varieties of tomato seedlings:

Green City Market Farmer's Market (every Wed and Saturday)

Kilbourn Park Organic Greenhouse Sale (May 15,16, and 19)

Grand Street Gardens

Lincoln Park High School Farmer's Market (every Sat.)

Some good news. The eggplants are going strong.

Peppers - anemic, but some new growth. They should make it.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Using Coir to Start Seedlings: A Cautionary Tale

In previous years, I've successfully started large numbers of seedlings in peat based potting mix. This year, in an attempt to move away from peat, I switched to a coir/perlite mix.

For reasons that aren't entirely clear, things aren't working as I'd hoped. One of the reasons for this post is to let readers who were counting on me to start their peppers and tomatoes know that the plants aren't in the best shape. For all I know, the plants will recover when transplanted into a peat based potting mix. That's my hope. If you don't want to take that chance, you might want buy your tomato and pepper seedlings elsewhere.

First, the good news. The eggplants look incredible. Even better than what in previous years I'd started in peat based potting mix.

About half of the tomatoes and all of the peppers look unhealthy. It would be easy enough to say that the coir is to blame, as it's the major difference between this and previous years; but with all the glowing reports on the benefits of growing in coir, it could just be that I bought a bad batch. Or that someone put peanut butter in my chocolate. (Huh?)

I've sent out a sample of the coir to a testing lab, but the results won't be back for a while. The peppers look anemic, though with a recent addition of gypsum (to make up for the nutritional deficiencies of coir), there is some promising new growth. The tomatoes have some funny looking lesions and aren't as "bushy" as they've been in previous years.

If you're looking for another place to pick up a few seedlings, a couple places that sell interesting varieties come to mind.

Green City Market Farmer's Market (every Wed and Saturday)

Kilbourn Park Organic Greenhouse Sale (May 15,16, and 19)

I've been hardening off my seedlings, and for those of you who haven't been discouraged by my post, they'll be ready for pick up starting this Saturday, May 15th.

I'll add some pictures tomorrow when I get my hands on a camera.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Testing and Amending Coir

I'm not giving up on coir yet......Our neighbor, Carol, has been growing greens successfully in 2 bucket SIPs using coir. That suggests to me that coir will wick water in the same way that peat does. One difference was that she bought her coir from a local source, Brew and Grow. The coir they sell is roughly double the cost of the stuff we bought from Rolanka.

I like beurmann's idea of sending out a sample to be tested for nutrient levels and excess salts. He left links to several local testing companies and generously offered to split the cost. The first test is on me, if this gets expensive I'd be happy to take him (you?) up on it.

One the same subject, thanks, too, to our friends at Homegrown Evolution for pointing me to a great, cheap testing lab for any kind of garden soil -- UMass Soil Lab. I tried calling them to ask if testing for excessive salts in coir was possible and was asked to leave a message in a full voicemail box.

I'm a little confused by what kind of test I need to have done. Take a look at one company's menu of testing options. Does coir even count as "garden soil"? A phone call to one of testing companies might clear things up.


In any case, it looks like I'll need to amend my coir with garden gypsum and epsom salts to get a soilless mix that transfers nutrients to my plants. From "tapla" at the GardenWeb Container forum -
Sphagnum peat and coir have nearly identical water retention curves. They both retain about 90-95% of their volume in water at saturation and release it over approximately the same curve until they both lock water up so tightly it's unavailable for plant uptake at about 30-33% saturation. Coir actually has less loft than sphagnum peat, and therefore, less aeration. Because of this propensity, coir should be used in mixes at lower %s than peat. Because of the tendency to compact, in the greenhouse industry coir is primarily used in containers in sub-irrigation (bottom-watering) situations. Many sources produce coir that is very high in soluble salts, so this can also be an issue.
Using coir as the primary component of soils virtually eliminates the reasonable use of lime or dolomitic lime as a Ca source because of coir's high pH (6+). Gypsum should be used as a Ca source, which will also help eliminate problems associated with coir's low S content. All coir products are very high in K, very low in Ca, and have a potentially high Mn content, which can cause antagonistic deficiencies and interfere with the uptake of Fe.
He, "tapla", gives some specific directions on how to amend the coir later in the same thread -
OK - I like peat much better, but of course it's your soil. ;o) Add 1 level tbsp of gypsum per gallon of soil or a skinny 1/2 cup per cu ft. Because you should use gypsum as a Ca source in coir-based soils, you'll need to use MgSO4 (Epsom salts) as a source of Mg, and so the Ca:Mg ratio isn't so skewed that you create a Ca-induced (antagonistic) Mg deficiency. Use 1/8-1/4 tsp per gallon of fertilizer solution every time you fertilize, or every other week if you're attempting to insure nutrients via organic soil amendments.

More information that suggests that adding gypsum is the way to go -
Coconut coir, a by-product of the coconut industry, has been promoted as an alternative to peat moss in soil-less media. Sphagnum peat moss has long been a standard component of soil-less media, but some people have expressed concern that it is a non-renewable resource. Although it does not appear that world peat resources will be in short supply for a very long time [nevermind the habitat loss and release of sequestered carbon, ed.] , coconut coir may have characteristics that make it a useful component of soil-less media mixes. Coir has been considered to promote excellent plant growth but there are few rigorous studies that have compared it with peat moss control plants. However, ten years ago, Meerow (1994) found that growth of Ixora coccine was significantly reduced compared to growth in a sphagnum peat moss control. Vavrina (1996) found that there were no adverse effects of coir to tomato and pepper transplants, but a subsequent study in the same lab (Arenas et al., 2002) found that media with more than 50% coir had reduced growth compared to peat-grown control plants. They suggested that a high N immobilization by microorganisms and a high C:N ratio in the coir may have caused the reduced growth. Lopez-Galarza (2002) found that root development of strawberry plants grown in peat moss was better than in coir in some, but not all, studies. Handreck and Black (2002), in a comprehensive textbook on soil-less media, review the chemical and physical properties of coir dust that are being sold in Australia. They indicate that since all coir products have extremely high K contents and low Calcium contents, it is critical to add a source of Ca to improve plant calcium uptake. Since the pH is already close to 6, liming materials cannot be used because they would increase the pH above optimum. Handreck and Black says that “Therefore, all coir-based media must be amended with gypsum, which also overcomes their low sulfur status.” [emph. added] Ma and Nichols (2004) recently reported that the problems with coir extend beyond its high salinity. Their data indicate that high concentrations of phenolic compounds in fresh coir are at least partly responsible for the growth reductions observed in other studies. Several studies at the USU Crop Physiology Laboratory indicated that monocots grown in coconut coir were extremely chlorotic and stunted. The objective of this study was to see if there are differences among plant species and types of coconut coir compared to growth in sphagnum peat moss.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Round 2: Coir vs. Peat in a Sub-Irrigated Planter (SIP)

On April 12th, I planted four SIPs--shown at left in the pic above--with the same control group of greens--tatsoi, bok choy, chard, rapa--and fertilizer.

The variable was that each SIP had a different soilless mix. Three weeks later, the early results are in.

SIP #1 - 30% one yr old mix (coir/earthworm castings, peat) from my potato box experiment, 50% 3 yr old BAACTO (peat based) potting mix, 20% perlite.

SIP #2 - 70% Three year old BAACTO potting mix, 30% added perlite

SIP #3 - 40% Three year old BAACTO potting mix, 40% coir, 20% perlite.

SIP #4 - 70% coir, 30% perlite.

I bought the coir from Rolanka and reconstituted it with water. The wetted volume is what is referred to in the above formulas. According to the literature, it is a superior growing medium as well as an eco friendly substitute for peat. Which is why I want it to work.

After these initial tests, my sense is that, unfortunately, the coir doesn't perform as well as potting mix. A maximum of 40% coir seems to be a good bet. Of course this could change, it's still early.

We'll keep doing tests on other types of plants throughout our growing season.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Rooftop Beehive 2: Good News on a May Morning

Catching up on beehive news...

We welcomed our second hive the third week of April. Noam returned April 24 to release the Queen from her holding chamber in Hive 2.

Art got this beautiful picture
of a bee emerging from her cell.

(click to big it up)

Today we checked to see if the Queen was laying...

...and she is!

I wanted to take more photos, but a zombie bee would not leave me alone, despite my protestations that I was a friend to all bees. I got a sting about one inch west of the botox zone between the eyebrows and had to leave the scene for a while.

It was a minor occurrence, and possibly wearing shorts and a t-shirt on this fine May day was a poor decision (still--my face?). Next time I'll take Erik's advice to heart...

PS: if you're thinking about hosting your own bees, or even if you're not, read this stunning report from today's Guardian:

"Disturbing evidence that honeybees are in terminal decline has emerged from the United States where, for the fourth year in a row, more than a third of colonies have failed to survive the winter."