Winter Gardening in Arkansas (Garlic, Kale, and More)

Mr. Code Junkie and I went back to his parents’ for Thanksgiving for a week and a half and we ate our weight in juicy turkey and delicious stuffings. It still feels like the parents’ house is the best since they have a stocked fridge full of wonderful surprises while our fridge looks like a college student short on money.

I had hoped my garden would hold up while I was gone because for a while there, it really was doing wonderful. The bak choy is producing every single day, the tomatoes are growing mad, and so are the peppers that I started in October! I had thought about putting a hoop house on this bed while I was gone but I looked at the forecast and it says it will go down to 30 degrees Fahrenheit (-1 Celsius), and I thought my plants can handle it.

Well, they did not.

According to my friend, the week we were gone, the temperature dipped down to 20 degrees Fahrenheit (-7 Celsius). Of all things, my calendula and lupine survived. The bak choy is struggling a little, but kale and cabbages seem to love the cold very much. 

I built a hoop house after watching this video by James Prigioni on Youtube and mine came out quite like his! Although I feel like his bed is probably a lot sturdier. According to Prigioni, the hoop house adds a zone and half which makes my zone (6A) 8 and a half! 

The garlic I planted in the fall (October-ish) all sprouted because we have had a fairly warm fall here in Northwest Arkansas. I forgot who recommended this seed company called Southern Exposure, but I got my garlic and some other seeds from this company and my sprouting rate has increased drastically compared to the seeds I buy from nurseries, or worse, Home Depot. I realized you can click on the little sun icon on the left column of the website and it shows all the seeds that are suitable for the South-East region (which isn’t exactly where I live but close enough). You can also filter by “Certified Organic,” “Heirloom,” and “From Small Farm.”

 

I recently got chatting with one of the guys who run a local orchard, and he introduced me to this rather rare fruit I have never heard before, pawpaws. This opened up a new door for me to explore all the fruit-growing hipsters of the world. After discussing with him, I decided to buy two Pawpaw trees and try it out. It takes 3 years for these trees to fruit, so I can practice my patience while I wait. I also read up on these from a book called For the Love of Pawpaws by Michael Judd. Apparently, my trees are descendants of the famous trees they cultivated from the University of Kentucky! They are supposed to taste like bananas + cantaloupe but each tree may produce a slightly different flavor of the fruit. And even crazier, there are pawpaw festivals

The reason I never heard about Pawpaws is that they have a very short shelf life (2-3 days) and cannot be transported like bananas, strawberries, and other fruits. The only way you can taste a pawpaw fruit is if you have a tree, or have a friend who has a tree! 

While there isn’t a lot going on in the garden in winter, I spent my time planning out next year’s garden layout! Learning from this year’s successes and failures (mostly failures and some dumb luck), I paired up different types of vegetables that are companions with each other, and only plant veggies I like to eat. I don’t know who I was kidding, planting beef-steak tomatoes and cucumbers thinking I would convert into a vegetarian overnight.

It is the time of year where we reflect, slow down, cook soups, spend time with loved ones, and gather our hopes for the new year (though we should always do all of these things!). I hope you are cherishing what you have and taking a break from the normal busy life to enjoy a bit of gardening in the winter.

3 Things I Learned from Starting My Own Garden

1. Temperature is key to seed germination, but good seeds are also the key.

When I first started gardening, I’d feel very discouraged after sowing 2-3 seeds of one plant and it never came up. I bought a heat mat, and babied the seedlings so much. I thought there couldn’t possibly be more that I can do.

Seeds have a life, just like all living things, even though it’s not moving. Some seeds are bad, and some seeds never germinate (i.e. from hybrid plants). Sometimes saving the seeds you bought more than 2 years before decreases the germination rate drastically as well. It’s not your fault if you did everything right but the seeds don’t sprout.

The key to battling seed germination disappointment is to:

  1. sow a shit load of seeds. You will be so happy something has sprouted and forget about the ones that didn’t.
  2. buy variety of seeds (different vegetable seeds, herb seeds, flower seeds, and different varieties of the same plant also helps). 
  3. buy potted plants and don’t have to worry about seedlings! Although this route is a little more expensive. I bought 3 tomato plants from Sam’s this year because I did not germinate my seeds in time to grow. Totally worth every dollar I spent.

2. Don’t follow the rules. Experiment and fail fast.

Some people argue one should prune tomatoes, others argue not. Some people put down cardboard to kill weeds, others use fabric weed barrier. Each group is strong believers of their methods and points out the other method’s flaws. It’s hard to decide who to listen to when you start gardening. Looking back, I would take everything with a grain of salt, and experiment with your own environment. 

One of the things I enjoy watching / learning the most from gardeners all over the world is to see them experiment with different soil type, different seeds, different time to sow seeds, sowing multiple seeds in one place, dig vs. no dig in the garden, burying fish heads in the ground, etc. 

3. Stick your fingers in the mud and get dirty!

This was probably the hardest thing for me to learn. I am a bit of a neat freak. Ever since I was little, I like things organized, neat, clean, and tidy. To get my hands dirty and use my hands to dig, plant, and pull out weeds was a challenge. I used to wear a pair of gloves to go out into the garden and found that to be soothing as I have a barrier between me and the dirt. Recently I have watched many experienced gardeners use their hands in the garden, whether to pull weed, or making a hole to sow seeds, or harvest. I thought I’d give it a shot. It was hard to adapt to at first but as time went on, I felt a lot more connected with the garden and plants. I know some people even went a step further and talk to their plants. I am not quite there yet but I do feel like my plants like me more now that I tend to them everyday!

Mistakes I’ve made during my short period of gardening:

  • Trying to transplant seedlings by yanking them out of the soil instead of flipping the pot upside down and dump them out in order to not disturb the root, or accidentally break the stem
  • I tried cutting the leaves on leeks I grew, thinking they are like Bak Choi and will keep growing new leaves from within. This is probably not the best way to eat leeks. Eventually it just dies and stops producing more inner leaves.
  • I tried planting a sprouted sweet potato, and it was dug up by some rodent and eaten. Should have checked on this sweet potato every once in a while, and probably not a good idea to throw it in the garden in the dead of winter hoping it would grow some sweet potatoes.
  • I was very “stingy” using the seeds like they are precious commodity. The germination rate would never be 100%. I don’t know why I was hoping each seed would grow up like Jack and the Beanstalk. Now I multisow my seeds after stumbling upon Charles Dowding’s youtube channel.
  • I tried using the soil I have in the backyard without mulch or compost, thinking that all soil are the same (I also didn’t think I need to buy “expensive dirt” from Home Depot). Composted soil makes life SO MUCH easier. Currently, I am using cow manure and leaving it in the garden for a couple of days for the worms to compost it a little for me. I also use the potting soil from Miracle Grow with the cow manure. In the future, I’d like to buy compost in bulk from my local soil company.
  • I tried only grow only one thing at a time, being the perfectionist I am. Looking back, I don’t know why I didn’t grow more stuff in the same period of time! Plants die; there are weaker ones, ones more susceptible to disease and fungi. Sometimes it’s just pure luck when the raccoon decides to visit at night and stamp on the seedling and killing it.
  • I tried germinating seeds from pure vermiculite. It works on some seeds but not others. I think because vermiculite does not hold water as well as compost, smaller seedlings struggle to stay moist and dies after germination. I now mix compost with vermiculite to germinate seeds.

What’s the biggest thing you’ve learned from starting your own garden in this pandemic?

 

May Garden Update, Food Forest, and more

It’s hard to believe it’s only been a month since I started randomly planting things. Here’s what I planted in mid April.

The chamomile didn’t make it. I am not sure how to take care of them after they sprouted. They all seem to die just a few days after sprouting. So that’s something to learn next time. If you have any suggestions, please comment below or send me a note!

The sprouting potato from Walmart is doing amazing in the garden. This is a potato that we had in the pantry for weeks and forgotten to eat it. So it sprouted in the pantry. I dug a hole in the front of the garden bed thinking it would probably be dug up by squirrels and eaten (like the sweet potatoes I tried to plant last year). Surprisingly, the potato is growing REALLY WELL. 

I planted these leeks into the ground after harvesting just the leaves a couple of times, realizing that’s not how you harvest leeks. I am waiting for them to flower and go to seed, and replant them again in the summer.

The tomatoes I got are from Sam’s Club. They were grown plants (about 2 inches with flowers) and I planted them in around end of April. There are three kinds I tried: Husky cherry red hybrid tomatoes, Cherokee purple heirloom tomatoes, and Heatmaster hybrid tomatoes.

Hybrid tomatoes’ seeds will not germinate next year so they are just going to end after this year’s harvest. I am hoping the Cherokee tomatoes grow well, and I can collect some seeds from this plant for next year. I learned about determinate/indeterminate tomatoes just this morning, and how to prune them. Here’s one of my favorite gardening guy talking about setting fruit with tomato plants to make sure you get the tomatoes!

The sunflowers are growing really well so far. I germinated them around the same time with the zucchinis and they’ve grown a lot more than the zucchini. They are also seeds from my friend who grew them locally. So I hope they will do better in this soil than others. They tend to have long stems shooting up when they are young, so transplanting is slighting hard. I killed all of them last year because I accidentally snapped these stems (they are so tender!). This year, I waited a lot longer for the stem to firm before moving them anywhere which seem to have helped.