Almadale Farms in Collierville, TN
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Photo courtesy Peter Doran

Will Stafford is a Master Gardener and  has been an organic gardener for over  40 years and  a resident of Almadale Farms since 1997. Will's articles appear bi-monthly in the Almadale Farms Newsletter. He also writes for Nature Society News, a national publication dedicated to purple martins, and has also written for Wolf River Currents, a publication of the Wolf River Conservancy and  Diggin' It!, the Shelby County Master Gardeners' newsletter.  Will has spoken about the culture of and having success with purple martins as well as organic gardening and has done extensive volunteer work for local horticultural organizations. Will holds B. S. and M. A. degrees from the University of Memphis with an emphasis on European History and English. He has done post graduate work at the University of Arizona. Before retirement in 1998, Will was a Regional Sales and Pension Manager for the Principal Financial Group. 

If you have any questions about anything that grows, flies or crawls, send an email to Will or check out his Archive page and you'll likely find your answer.

Follow these links to — Will's Archives 
   2010, 2009, 200820072006, 2005 ,2004, 2003

Click here for Will's Month by Month Garden Tips

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Children's Vegetable Gardens

This article is a belated reply to an Almadale Farm neighbor who called me approximately one year ago regarding vegetable gardens for children and specifically what vegetables would be the easiest to grow. This is a subject that is very close to my heart.

When I was a young boy growing up in the 40's.....during the WWII era...almost everything seemed to be in short supply. As part of the war effort, the government rationed foods like sugar, butter, milk, cheese, eggs, coffee, meat and canned goods and especially gasoline. Labor and transportation shortages made it very difficult to harvest and transport fruits and vegetables to market. In order to minimize these problems, our government encouraged Americans to plant "Victory Gardens."

My family and I were very fortunate-we lived in a small town in Gibson County and gardening was not a novel idea. While most Victory Gardens were relatively small, my dad had a 1/2 acre garden and we always ate well. In order to encourage and promote my sister's and my interest in gardening, he gave each of a full row in which we could plant and grow our own vegetables. We were also expected to care for them. I remember well that my first interest was in strawberries. As a result of my dad's early encouragement, I developed a life long passion for all forms of gardening.  I'm beginning to see a renewed interest in gardening by parents and children. Almadale Farms is no exception.

Where do junior gardeners and their parents start with their gardening activities? First, pick a sunny location with good soil-six hours of sunlight is minimum. Do not place your garden in a low spot. At night cold air settles in low areas so they will be colder than high spots. The ground shouldn't be too hard (clay) or too sandy. Make sure you can reach your spot with a hose and sprinkler. Watering your garden in the morning is the best time since watering in the late evening will encourage fungus. Your garden should be located away from the shade cast by buildings and trees-especially the root systems of trees, which will steal essential nutrients and water. Tree roots will reach out at least as far as the trees' outermost branches-the so-called drip line.

Soil Preparation. Along with lots of sunlight, a successful vegetable garden requires well-prepared soil. Bad soil can make gardening difficult but any soil can be improved. The soil in Almadale Farms has a heavy concentration of clay which feels slick and does not allow easy growth. However, clay soil can be improved by adding generous amounts of organic matter such as leaves, compost, kitchen wastes, alfalfa pellets, cotton seed meal, soy meal, grass and other organic matter. I've written numerous articles on the  subject of improving soil and will be happy to share this information with you. Since most of you will be starting "from scratch" you may wish to use some of the commercial "top soil" which is widely available. While I rarely use commercial fertilizer, you may want to mix some 5-10-10 fertilizer and lime when you spade up or till your garden plot for the first time. However, soil improvement is a year around affair.

What are the easiest vegetables to grow? I think I've grown just about everything during my long gardening career but I have found the following vegetables to be the easiest to grow. Earliest planting dates are in parenthesis.

Tomatoes. There are multiple varieties of tomatoes but the emphasis for a first time gardener should be  on ease of planting, maintenance  and heavy bearing. Get a variety of cherry tomatoes such as Tiny Tim. Cherry tomatoes are very hardy and prolific. A stake or wire support should be used. If planted properly, you should have a new crop of tomatoes every two days. Regular tomatoes are not recommended as starters for children. Use transplants. I buy my plants at Russell's in Collierville. (May 1)

Arugula. This is a form of lettuce and is very hardy. Broadcast seed and cover lightly  with 1/2 " of soil. In the absence of rain spray lightly daily. (April 15)

Radishes. Radishes are root vegetables and  exist in shades of red, purple and white. Plant seeds 1/2' below the soil's surface with  1" between each. (April 1)

Potatoes.  Get regular seed potatoes or even use those bought in the grocery store. Be sure the potatoes have eyes which look like warts. Cut the potatoes in half-or plant whole-plant approximately 2' deep with the eyes facing upward. A late frost will not hurt potatoes. (April 1)

Spinach. Plant 1" deep for specimen plants or sow for thick growth. (April 1)

Lettuce. Lettuce is very easy to grow. Get the garden variety and sow, then cover with 1/2" of soil. (April 1)

Onions. Use sets. Plant approximately 1" deep. (March 15)

Cucumbers and squash. They are also easy to grow but runners can become intrusive. Use plants that produce the smaller varieties. (May 1)

Remember: Our weather can be very unpredictable and re-plantings are occasionally necessary. There are many other vegetables but those above are among the easiest. Teaching your child to garden now may just be the beginning of a lifelong interest in a wonderful and restful avocation.

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Feeding Wild Birds

Among my hobbies, few have provided me with more satisfaction than helping desirable birds that might otherwise perish from the absence of a ready supply of food during the winter months. Birds can normally survive most severe weather if they can find food and shelter for the colder nights. While enjoying the aesthetics of bird watching, I must confess that my feeding wild birds isn't completely altruistic, since they more than pay their way by consuming harmful insects and noxious weed seed. For these reasons I have located my feeders approximately eight feet from my 20' x 30' vegetable and flower garden and 4' from my kitchen windows.

If you are planning to become a bird patron, there is one point I can't emphasize too emphatically. If you don't plan to continue and monitor your feeding program, don't start. Birds-like humans-are creatures of habit and come to rely on their daily rations of food. If food is withheld and not systematically replenished, many may perish--especially during severe cold or when the ground is covered with ice or snow. This doesn't mean that birds are freeloaders. If you will observe closely, you will notice that they usually grab a quick, supplemental snack at the feeder and then return to their endless searching for over-wintering insects, insect eggs and seed in the yards, fields and forested areas. This is especially true of chickadees, nuthatches, creepers, woodpeckers and others. Most winter birds are seed eaters. This includes multiple varieties of finches, cardinals, doves, wrens, chickadees, titmice, juncos, mockers and jays-just to name a few.

Each section of the country has its nuisance birds. In the southeast and in Almadale Farms, I have experienced only one major nuisance-pesky, noisy blackbirds, starlings and grackles. While these pests cannot be completely eliminated, I have found one solution that will limit their numbers. After trying a multiple of feed mixtures-including cracked corn, mixed seed, sunflower and other combinations, I have settled on safflower as my primary bird feed seed. Safflower is a bitter tasting member of the thistle family. After one taste, blackbirds and the other referenced pests will normally not return for a second helping and-amazingly-have all but disappeared from my feeders. The good news is that many desirable birds-especially cardinals, finches, titmice and many others are attracted to safflower seed and not bothered by the bitter taste.

Not all birds have the same cravings. For this reason, I also use raw peanuts...since the woodpecker family and especially one of my favorites-the endangered, red headed woodpecker-like these nutritious nuts. Peanuts are also attractive to many other large non rogue birds.

You can save a great deal of money by buying your bird food in bulk rather than buying smaller quantities. I buy 50 lb sacks of safflower seed at Russell's Farm Supplyor Hall's Feed and Seed. Raw peanuts are available in 25 lb bags at Hollywood Feed. All three merchants are located in Collierville and have a variety of feed combinations.

Don't forget to locate a bird bath near your feeding stations. You will also increase the number of birds in your yard by providing a bird bath with fresh water. Wash out and refill your bird bath often. Birds make multiple uses of bird bath water-including bathing and drinking. Be generous and attentive to your feeders and bird baths.

I wish you happy bird feeding during this special Christmas season! Just think-in approximately three months, those of us who have been adopted by purple martins will be blessed by their March arrival and unmatched acrobatics. Happy birding!