Category Archives: Gardening

On My Wish List

It isn’t like I don’t have enough to do, between a full-time job, a house, several gardens, ten chickens, a hyperactive Australian shepherd, a rather demanding and expressive calico cat, and a whole nother life as a musician. But I catch myself daydreaming about the same “I wants” over and over again. Some of them will come sooner and some in far-off futureland, but they all will become, at one point or another, part of my little claim in the homestead realm.

Honeybees: This one may come sooner than later. I’m still getting educated and will have to make some investments in equipment and bees, but I’d like to install a hive at my house, especially for the pollinators, and another one at my parents’ house up in the mountains where I grew up, so that I can have my sourwood honey. No, I haven’t discussed this with them. (Hi, Daddy! What do you think about some bees in the orchard?)

A solar-powered pump for my rain barrels: I love my 220 gallons of the wet, which I run into my garden via soaker hoses. But sometimes I’d like those hoses to flow with a little more oomph. And in my never-ending quest for energy independence, I want my oomph off the grid. Here’s the little gadget I long for. Look for it on a rain barrel near me before this growing season ends!


Angora Rabbits: You can hold them and snuggle them and comb and brush out their long, beautiful fur, which can then be spun into the softest yarn you’ve ever touched, which the can be knitted into the softest garments you have ever worn. Also, did you know that bunny poo can go straight from the bunny into the garden as an excellent fertilizer without risk of it being too “hot” for the vegetation? Bonus! I’m still doing my homework and research, and plus I probably should learn to spin.

Nigerian dwarf dairy goats: This one may be a longer-term project, like after I retire and therefore have plenty of time to care for and milk dairy goats every day. There are some definite challenges with goats, but then there is milk, cheese, more excellent poo, and general adorableness. They aren’t going to get scratched off my list any time soon.

What’s on your wish list?

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Filed under Feasting, Gardening, Making things

Overwintered

The mild winter this year has meant a winter greens bonanza in my garden. Back in August I started kale, swiss chard, salad mixes, beets, arugula, and cilantro. Everything came up and thrived through the winter. The parsley just re-seeded itself.

I’m a big believer in late-summer plantings of cool season vegetables. Allowing them to winter over—to get a start in the early fall warmth and then kind of stop growing with colder weather and go into hibernation—brings them back with a vigor you don’t see in crops seeded in the spring. It’s something we southern gardeners can do more easily than the northern ones, and we should take full advantage. This year, the growing didn’t really stop, however. Everything just got hardier and more persistent through the cool weather.

Then as made that early turn into spring, things started to go a little crazy. Really, it started with the cilantro.

The parsley saw what was going on and decided to get in on the act.

I really have no idea what to do with that much parsley. And that’s just one of the many mounds that have volunteered.

I have been harvesting baby kale all winter long and eating it mostly fresh in smoothies, but the warm weather has instigated a sudden growth spurt.

I have been picking pounds and pounds of Swiss chard—I think my best crop ever. Here’s what I came inside with last Saturday.

And the salad greens.

The arugula thrived through the winter but bolted when the warm temps hit. The chickens, however, have chowed down on arugula blossoms, not to mention all the weeds I have been pulling up. It has made their egg yolks richly yellow, almost orange. We have all feasted on the greens of this season!

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Filed under Flockkeeping, Gardening

Seedlings . . . Nothing More Than Seedlings . . .

Longtime readers of this blog may recall my unfortunate run-in with a rat in my potting shed a couple of years ago. Ultimately, it was Rat: 1, Me: 0. The damn critter dug up and ate all my tender seedlings under the grow lights. I tried protecting what was left with duct-taped plastic covers, but the sauna that created was too much for them.

Until I can varmint-proof my potting shed (and I’m working on that!), I have had to move my seedling production center indoors. And this year, so far, so good, though I realized a little too late that the flats were too far away from the light, so my seedlings are a little leggy, but they will be ok. Here is my set-up.

I outfitted an old plastic parson’s bench that was in my attic (thank you, grandparents!) with heating mats and grow lights. Each flat goes on a mat, under a light. The flats stay covered with the clear plastic lids and the lights stay off and the mats on all the time until we achieve sproutage, at which point the covers come off and the lights and mats go onto a timer. On for 12 hours, off for 12 hours.

At that point, I also set up a small fan to blow a gentle breeze onto the seedlings. Air circulation helps them become hardy. No hothouse vegetables tolerated in my rough-and-tumble garden!

As the second set of leaves appears on the seedlings, I move them to the garden window in my kitchen, where they receive direct sunlight. An open window on nice days encourages them to get more comfortable with outdoor environments. And I constantly check the soil for moisture—too much leads to dampening off; too little turns them into microscopic twigs.

And as they mature, I move them into my Growcamp, my little greenhouse/covered garden. There they will harden off—that means they will gradually become accustomed to outdoor life—and hang out until all danger of frost has passed and they can go into the ground.

Here’s what’s in my flats this year, by the way:

  • Three kinds of tomatoes
  • Two kinds of sweet peppers
  • Two kinds of hot peppers
  • Three kinds of basil
  • Two kinds of marigolds
  • Two kinds of zinnias
  • Pingtung Eggplant

Seeeeeeeedlings . . . whoah-oah-oah seeeeeeedlings . . .

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Filed under Gardening

Hoop Dreams

Regular readers of this blog know of my ongoing war with the evil squirrels who are intent on decimating my garden. My best defense so far has been the squirrel-proof net tent, which has covered the garden bed closest to the house for 2 1/2 years. It has worked magnificently, but tough luck for the several other garden patches I have growing in other parts of the backyard, exposed to the wiles of these demonic creatures.

The largest of these areas is a 20 x 25 bed next to the chicken coop. It’s too big for a giant net tent like the one next to the house, so I  usually grow crops back there that the squirrels aren’t likely to be interested in—peas, beans, arugula.

I decided, however, to see if I couldn’t take advantage of that area for a winter garden this year, to give the SPNT bed a rest. But instead of enclosing the whole area under a net, I decided to cover just a portion of it with hoop houses. I’ve seen hoop houses work on a smaller scale, mostly over raised beds, and I could see no reason why they wouldn’t work for a longer bed about five feet in width.

Off to Home Depot I went for ten-foot lengths of PVC, foot-long sections of rebar, zip ties, garden netting, and spring clamps.

Supplies

And here’s what I did with all of that:

The rebar went into the ground in pairs five feet apart, spaced about every four feet.
I bent the PVC over and secured each end on the pairs of rebar.
Over the bent PVC I draped the netting and secured it with the zip ties. I left a “tent flap” on the front as a entrance and secured it with spring clamps.

Inside the hoop house I have planted kale, Swiss chard, and cilantro—all things that the squirrels of eee-ville dug up and ate when I planted them in that area last year. I’m pleased to report that a few weeks after I built the hoop house, everything is thriving unmolested. Here’s what the kale looks like today.

I have started a second hoop house but haven’t yet covered it with netting. All my fall seedlings are planted out, so I have nothing to plant in that space until spring! I’m hoping that will be a great space for tomatoes, eggplant, and peppers next year.

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Filed under Gardening, Making things

Southern Urban Homestead FAIL

Typically I am pretty good about owning up to my disasters. It’s a whole nuther thing, however, to own up to them on a public blog. But I’ve decided, as a character-building exercise and to show that perfection is not the goal in this ongoing quest of mine for balance and bounty in the city, to fess up to some of my most spectacular flops. I hope you enjoy them and won’t think less of my skillz.

Blackberry Rude (as opposed to “Cordial”)

Last year I went crazy with the blackberry picking. I made jams and cobblers and stuck some in the freezer for fruity desserts at the holidays. And I still had about a half gallon of berries left, so I decide to steep them in some vodka and sugar with a few spices. I had visions of Anne of Green Gables and the delicious raspberry cordial she mistakenly served to her bosom friend, Diana, in a chapter titled “Diana is Invited to Tea with Tragic Results.”

Tragic results indeed. Eight weeks later I strained the blackberries out of the liquid and bottled it all up. It was so pretty–dark reddish purple and clear in the jars. I was imagining creative cocktails, ice cream concoctions, and just some tasty sipping. What I got, however, was cough syrup. Ew. I think I just overdid it with the cloves. They overpower the flavor. I can’t bring myself to dump it all out (that was good, expensive vodka), so let me know if you have a cold. I have a  home remedy to share.

The Soap with Ugly Dead Things In It

I really should stay out of Michael’s stores. I accidentally come home with all sorts of little fake crafty things that are unnatural and useless, such as the glycerin soap making kits, complete with blocks of glycerin and cute little plastic molds in the shapes of hearts and stars. It was supposed to be easy: melt the glycerin and pour it into the molds. But no. I had to make it a little more complicated by adding some herbs and essential oils.

Maybe my mistake was using fresh herbs. Because guess what? Glycerin soap does not preserve lavender, eucalyptus, and rosemary as fresh green, succulent leaves. No, the sprigs of lovely shrivel and turn brown, emanating dark, gooey halos suspended in the hardened soap. Best to leave the soapmaking to those who know what they are doing.

Persimmon Poo

When I gathered the persimmons from a nearby tree last fall, I had a vague idea in my head about persimmon butter. Finding nothing helpful in my home canning and preserving books, I googled around and learned, first off, that persimmons don’t have enough acid to be canned without growing yourself a healthy crop of botulism. So I settled on freezer butter. And here is why googling can be bad for your health: I took a recipe here and a recipe there, made some substitutions, added some spices, took a few calculated risks and short cuts. Cooked it down, put it in jars, processed it, stuck it in the freezer.

The day I concocted this mess, my parents were visiting. I showed my father one of my jars of persimmon butter. My dad is typically a poker face, but when he peered into the jar, well, let’s just say his look betrayed his skepticism. “That looks interesting,” he said. A few weeks later I opened the freezer and pulled out a jar of “persimmon butter.” Rather than the brilliant autumnal gold I was expecting, it had turned sort of brown–a bad sign I chose to ignore. I thawed the jar and opened it. The substance within had shrunk away from the sides of the jar and thawed into a dry, solid chunk of you-guessed-it.

  

  

Do Not Neglect The Cucumbers

Generally I am a successful cucumber grower. I make nice, fluffy, generous hills and enrich them with buckets of compost. I mulch deeply and water often. I make lots and lots of pickles. This year, I got cocky. My cucumbers, I told myself, would know what to do. So I made a few hills, stuck the seeds in, and proceeded to neglect them.

What I got was an infestation of squash bugs that chewed everything I had planted to a withered crisp. I saw the first few appear and instead of picking them off and dusting with diatomaceous earth, I decided my historically vigorous cukes would fight the good fight and win . . . simply by virtue of being my cukes. But no, the squash bugs won, and I got no cukes this year. Here is what they looked like. Try not to cry.

A few careless mistakes, a few risks gone bad, a few lessons learned. But there are no morals to be drawn here. Just laugh, please, and if you happen to figure out persimmon butter, please share your recipe.

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Filed under Gardening, Making things, Putting Up

Micromanaging

Yesterday's kale.

Yesterday afternoon, in 95-degree temperatures, I harvested kale, broccoli, Swiss chard, and sugar snap peas. All of these are considered cool-season crops, and I have been impressed by their persistence as late spring has slammed us with some relentless midsummer temperatures this year. The greens and broccoli keep producing when by all rights they should bolt, flower, and go to seed. The sugar snap vines keep sending forth new blossoms when really it’s time for them to wither and brown.

What is going on here?

I’ve been reading a little about microclimates. A microclimate receives a kind of exemption from the rules of the USDA plant hardiness zones, which tend to govern gardeners’ decisions about what and when to plant. (Do you know your zone? If you live near me, you’re in Zone 7b. You can find your zone by zip code at the National Gardening Association website.)

Chard, broccoli, then the glimpse of a reddening tomato a few feet away.

Back to the microclimates: sometimes there are factors, or structures, or topographical/landscape features in tiny, specific areas where the rules simply change. Take my gardens, for example. I have lots of beautiful old oak trees on my lot, and I have had to work hard to plant around the prevailing shade. So while my veggies get enough sun every day to thrive, they do not get a ton of sun. There are little areas in my garden beds that stay pretty cool, and that’s where the kale, chard, peas, and broccoli are.

On the other hand, a mere six feet away, closer to the northern wall of my house, which gets lots of summer sun and therefore radiates heat, the tomatoes are starting to turn red—another microclimate.

As we gardeners encounter the exigencies of global warming, we are going to have to learn to microclimate manage. Therefore it’s probably a good idea to become more aware of the particulars of our own microclimates. Take some time to just study your garden beds over time. Experiment and compare. And do some reading. The best explanation I have found on the internet of microclimates is here, on the Cornell University Department of Horticulture website. The article begins with a great little piece of wisdom from one of their extension agents:

In the real world, we garden in microclimates, not hardiness zones.

Get to know your microclimates!

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Filed under Gardening

Broken Tree

Readers might recall that back in the late fall I set two apple tree whips into the little strip of earth between the sidewalk and the street in front of my house. I chose that location deliberately, because I very much like the idea of sharing those fruit trees with my neighbors. In fact, while I was digging the holes, Anna, the eleven-year-old girl who lives next door, watched me with curiosity, asked what I was doing, and ended up helping me backfill the holes with soil and compost around the root balls.

Baby apple tree with new growth

I was delighted when those two twiggy  saplings began to show some signs of life. Green shoots emerged from brown bumps — first tentatively, then with a rush of vigor. I went out in April and looped string over the branched of both trees, then secured the string down taut in the ground with bent pieces of wire coat hangers to encourage the branches to grow horizontally, prompted by this comment on my original post about the trees.

And then one day, heartbreak. I came home from work to find that the top third of one of the trees had been broken off. By someone or something, I don’t know. On purpose or by accident, I don’t know. But someone had tried, strangely, to put the tree back together. The broken top of the trunk had been propped back up and was listing crazily to one side, held in fragile place by the strings, which had been haphazardly rearranged. I took the broken-off part into the house and put it in a jar of water, where it remains, even though the leaves are beginning to yellow. I haven’t been able to let it go. And for several days after, I couldn’t even look at the broken tree, it made me so sad. I think my feelings were hurt.

What amazed me, though, was that I wasn’t the only one distressed by the fate of that little tree. Over the next few days, many neighbors stopped me to tell me how upset they had been, too — that they had been keeping a fond eye on those trees since I had planted them. I had left the nursery tags on them so that passers-by could note that they were Fuji and Gala apples. Unbeknownst to me, folks had been as thrilled as I was to watch those green shoots emerge. They were curious about the web of string stretching the branches out as they grew. I wasn’t the only one with visions of a little apple festival on our street in the fall. And the sadness we all shared over the broken tree really was a kind of grief, as if a neighbor had suffered an injury.

The good news is that while the broken tree looks a little funny, I think it’s going to be just fine. It continues to push out new spring growth. It is shorter than its mate, but I’m hoping what it lacks in height it will eventually make up for in girth.

Even without apples — even before they bore a single leaf — those trees are already bearing a kind of fruit. I think they are off to a fine start.

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Filed under Community and Citizenship, Gardening