Thursday, January 5, 2012

A Few Loose Ends

Happy New Year, everyone!  My conscience has been nagging at me to follow up with results from several things I've written about over the last year or so.  I'm not good about getting around to posting about things I say that I will.  So I figure I'll clear my backlog with the first post of the year and then I can get back to semi-regular posting.

Leek seedlings
Last spring I tried a somewhat fiddly method of starting leek seedlings, with the aim of encouraging them to grow long and tall before they were transplanted out.  The idea was that a long seedling, transplanted deeply, wouldn't need hilling to make the plant develop a nice long white section, which is the best part of the leek.  Well, it worked and it didn't.  The seedlings indeed grew long and tall.  I duly transplanted them with just a couple inches of their full length showing above the ground, and then ignored them for the whole growing season.  Disappointingly, when I dug up a few this fall, they had very minimal white parts.  It seemed to me as though the plant turned anything planted below the soil line into root.  So this was a bust.  Hilling seems to be required to grow beautifully long white leeks.  I'm still looking for the best way to do this in my long narrow garden rows. 

Tomato trellising
Remember my enthusiasm to try a new tomato growing technique that I learned about at last year's PASA conference?  I've got results.  The trellising system worked fairly well as the plants grew tall.  It took some diligence to keep up with pruning extra branches and clipping the remaining ones to the wires.  The problem came when the plants started setting fruit and bulking them up.  I had all my trellises in short rows, which meant that only two 7' stakes were holding up three tomato plants each.   Gradually the weight of the plants pulled the stakes in towards each other, making all the wires sag.  This could be only minimally remedied by adjusting the wires at the stakes.  Next year I plan to grow my tomatoes in longer rows, with stakes every ten feet or so.  Since all but the end stakes will be supporting plants to either side, the growing weight of the plants should exert equal pulling in both directions, so that the stakes remain upright.  I may try angling the stakes outward at either end of the rows to give them more resistance.  The sagging wasn't a disaster, but it looked kinda shabby and cut down on airflow around the plants, which might have been a very bad thing in a blight year.

I've become a fan of burdock, aka gobo, for its delicious flavor and its soil amending properties.  When I wrote about them more than a year ago, there was some question in the comment section as to whether or not the parts of the taproot left in the ground would regrow in the spring and form a new plant.  The results this spring were negative - in the sense that I saw no plants emerge above ground where we'd dug out the roots.  This is a positive as far as I'm concerned though, because it means we can have our soil amendment and eat it too.  Those portions of root that are too deep to dig out rot in place, adding organic content to the subsoil and greatly improving our clay soil in the process. So burdock is not forever once you plant it, provided you harvest the root.  Those roots we didn't harvest definitely came roaring back this spring, ready to set seed.  And this is not a plant whose seed I want to save for myself, thank you very much.  It took more than one severe cutting down to the ground to encourage the plants to call it quits.  Burdock produces a fair bit of biomass in the second year, and the greens are marginally of interest to the chickens.

Acorns sprouting and different oak species
This one is owing for quite a while.  In fall of 2010, I aggressively gleaned acorns from oaks in parks and off my own property to use as feed supplement for my laying hens.  I went for a certain oak species that produced beautiful, large, meaty acorns, and I managed to gather some 60 pounds of them.  Unfortunately, it was mostly wasted effort.  The acorns that looked so big and worthy to me did not pass muster with the hens. They pecked rather half-heartedly at them after I crushed them by hand.  It was my mistake.  Since they obviously enjoyed the taste of the small, poorly looking acorns produced by the oak tree at our property line, I assumed that the acorns that look so much better to my eye would please them just the same.  Not so.  There are more than five hundred species of oak in the world.  And there's enormous variation in the tannin content of the seed of different sorts of oak tree, and even between individual trees of the same species.   Tannins give a bitter flavor to foods.  These compounds can be leached out of acorns well enough to make them palatable to humans, but that's not a process I'm willing to go through for the chickens' sake.  Some acorns are naturally "sweeter" than others, and obviously the oak on the edge of our property produces tasty ones.  So I've gone back to only collecting these rather sad looking acorns, which the hens do appreciate.  My advice is to definitely run a test on any acorn available to you before you go to the trouble of collecting more than a handful.  See if your livestock will eat the acorns from any given tree, and don't rely on appearance as an indicator of feed quality.

A note too about storing the acorns you do collect.  Do not keep them in plastic bags or buckets, even if left open and uncovered.  The acorns give off enough moisture so that the ones on the bottom will start to sprout in just a week or two.  A canvas or burlap bag will breathe enough to prevent this, as will baskets made of wire or natural fibers.

If there's something else I promised to report back on and have forgotten about, please remind me.  I'll do my best to follow up!


Frogdancer said...

I'd love to feed acorns to my hens. I wonder where I could find an oak tree near me...?

Anne T Jo said...

We had success growing leeks in plastic window boxes (in the garden, not the window). They don't take up more space than a narrow row, and you just keep adding soil as they grow. I imagine it would be easy to build something along the lines of a raised bed, but the boxes are handy because you can dump out the soil when you harvest.

louisa @ the really good life said...

Thanks for posting these updates - I had your leek idea on my to-do list to try this year but now I know it's probably not worth it. I had also intended to follow your lead and glean acorns this year but there weren't nearly as many around this year so I didn't do it in the end - I'll definitely make sure to check the girls like them before making a haul next year. :)

Happy 2012 btw!

S and family said...

I have to laugh at your picky hens! My hens will anything I don't want them to eat, and if I have an abundance of something, I'm guaranteed that they won't eat it! Silly hens.

Brad K. said...

Just curious -- did you taste the acorns? Do the hens prefer the same flavor that you do? That might give you a simple pass-fail check to evaluate any acorn source you come across.

My neighbor has an oak that gives big walnut-sized acorns. They tasted green, three weeks ago. Perhaps your large acorns weren't quite ripe?

On the tomato trellising, I have considered a top-brace, a sturdy stick or pole between the supports. The grasshoppers beat me to the tomatoes last year, I was going to try it then. Here is hoping for next year!

Blessed be.

Christine said...

Why don't you want burdock seed? I planted some last year (after reading your post), harvested a few and left the others. Should I bother trying to dig these in the spring? Is there anything useful about the ones I left, besides organic material for the soil? I thought having them make seeds would be a good thing. Thanks!

Kate said...

Frogdancer, take a walk in a large, older park near you once the trees put their leaves back on. Oak leaves are fairly easy to recognize. Or wait until late summer/early fall and check out where the acorns are falling. They should be easy to spot.

Anne, that's a good idea. I have had success digging a trench and transplanting the seedlings in there, then filling in the trench as they grow. The problem is what to do with the dirt I dig out of the trench in the meantime. If I leave it sitting to either side of the trench, then I can't plant anything while the dirt is still sitting there. It's a technique that makes for gorgeous leeks, but I resent the loss of garden real estate.

Louisa, oh, good! I'm glad I updated then. I would hate to have someone follow a failed experiment that I should have reported back on. As for acorns, I've seen the drops vary enormously just in the past few years. 2010 was a mast year, and a year or two before that there were none at all. The deer took that year pretty hard.

S, yes, hens can be remarkably fussy when they have wide discretion to choose their own diet. I take it as a good sign that they're not lacking for nutrients.

Brad, no, I didn't taste the acorns. I suppose I ought to, for the reason you stated. No doubt my tastebuds can report fairly well on relative levels of bitterness. If acorns ripen after falling, then I doubt that it was the case that the acorns were underripe. I held on to the acorns and tried a number of times to get the hens interested. If they don't ripen after dropping, well, then there's not much I could do about that. I thought of a top brace for the tomato stakes as well. It may come to that for the end stakes in my rows next year. We'll see about that. Hope you get to enjoy your own tomatoes this year.

Christine, the "bur" in burdock is for the burrs they produce - the ones that inspired velcro. The burs are the seed pods of the plant, so saving the seed would involve harvesting and processing burrs. I'm all for seed saving in principle. But in this case I'll take a pass as long as there's a seed company willing to do that tedious work for me. When the shit comes down, I'll bite the bullet an do it myself. Until then, buying burdock seed is money well spent in my book. When the plants you left come up in the spring, you can cut back all the greenery and use it as a mulch somewhere. The greenery lies fairly flat on the ground, so it should help keep down weeds around other plants. You can also offer it to any livestock you have. I haven't found the chickens hugely interested in it, but they'll peck a few leaves now and then.

Anne T Jo said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dmarie said...

gotta love a post that mentions gleaning acorns. I'm picturing all the exercise that entails! btw, thx for the leek update especially.

Kate said...

Dmarie, you're welcome!