Sunday, August 16, 2015

Fall Happenings

The stunningly tall August garden makes me feel a little short.

The garden has definitely turned a seasonal corner.  In July the days are growing shorter each day but the soil is nice and warm; leaving the garden for a week in July may well spell the end of your gardening year.  In July the weeds seem to spring from the soil fully formed and half grown, overnight.  But then in August the balance of power turns back in the gardener's favor.  It takes energy to grow after all, and there just isn't as much sunlight as there used to be.  This time of year the plants are all frantically trying to produce seed - weeds and crops alike following some genetic program warning them that it's now or never- and I spend most of my time picking, or clearing away the things that are spent to make way for fall crops.  There are insects everywhere: mosquitoes, grasshoppers, squash bugs, cucumber beetles, harlequin bugs, stink bugs, ladybeetles, swallowtail butterfly larvae, and more, racing me and the plants to the finish line at the end of the summer.  How fascinating the life-and-death melodrama playing itself out in a boring, dried-up, late summer garden.  How fortunate that my life doesn't depend on winning.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Spring Happenings

Chickens snacking on a giant weed clump from my garden
Since I haven't been blogging much this spring, you've missed a lot.  For one thing, we lost that beautiful red hen in the last post.  I went outside one day and noticed she was looking a little off.  The next day she was worse.  Not knowing much about chicken disorders, I decided she might be egg-bound, a condition where an egg gets stuck inside the reproductive tract.  Sometimes the egg breaks, which then leads to a fatal infection.  Following the advice of Dr. Google, I gave her a warm bath in a storage tote, and applied glycerin to her cloaca.  It looks like she did pass an egg after that - a very calcified egg and a lot of liquid appeared inside the coop - but she died that night anyway.  It was very sad.  Since we now only had five I decided to just keep them all.  I wanted only four but didn't want to sell one all by herself.  So now we are swimming in eggs! 
Colorful tulip display in the former home garden bed

One of my favorite bulbs from the former owner's bulb garden
On a brighter note, we've had a beautiful spring for flowers.  Clematis, irises, and a few late tulips are blooming in my yard right now.  We had quite a few tulips this year, thanks to two years (make that three now) of free tulip bulbs courtesy of the landscapers at N's employer.  Every year they discard the tulip bulbs after they're done blooming and N brings them home for me.  There's quite a variety of colors now - yellow, orange, pink, purple, dark purple, and bright pink.

"A" rushed inside the other day to tell me "Mama, your Christmas tree is growing!"  I wasn't sure what this meant, but finally figured out that he was referring to my new pear tree, a Christmas gift from my sister M.  She insisted I name it "O-----".  It is a standard size tree, so I put it in my old home garden bed, which is now half shaded by the fence (and 1/3 by a neighbor's tree).  Other things that have been transplanted due to the fence: blueberries, raspberries, daylilies, irises, and hostas.  More to do still, always.

And the fence!  Oh we have been enjoying the fence! 

Purple Passion asparagus, blanching to green as it cooks
I've been picking asparagus, cilantro, and lettuce. The strawberries have put on a feast of berries so big I'm afraid I'll never be able to pick it all.  I think they'll come late this year, maybe the first week of June, and bear heavily from all the spring rain.  I transplanted some of the runners to another bed and when this year's harvest is done I'll pull out the ones in the current bed, which has had strawberries in it for three years.  I've also planted lettuce, carrots, beets, kale, sugar snap peas, and tomatoes.  There is some very healthy garlic in my garden - I think it'll be a good year for that, too.  The garlic bed is only half full, so early this spring I took a bunch of seeds I was going to throw out and poured them over that bed instead, then mulched it with straw.  Now I've got choi, lettuce, onions, broccoli, cabbage, and carrots growing in there.  I picked two handfuls of choi the other day.

There's always so much to do in the spring.  May is for planting - that's what I always tell N.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Chicken Update

Only the Barred Rock hen avoided this shot
My chickens are 21 weeks old!  It has been a long haul with these ladies - they are pretty unlucky chickens.  They were delivered unceremoniously to my doorstep while I was at work.  One of them became tangled in the netting I used to cover the brooder and almost strangled to death.  Five got wiped out by the opossum.   And then this long, cold winter with the water in their coop and run constantly freezing.  They've been through a lot.  I've been hoping they would start laying some eggs soon so I could be reassured that they were not scarred for life.  And then...this morning...bam!  An egg.  A pretty big one, too.  The last batch laid only small eggs at first, but whichever of these lovely ladies produced this morning's beauty is at the head of the class!

(Side note: Last Sunday I spotted a raccoon in the yard in the middle of the afternoon.  I chased him off, but of course he came back.  After last Thursday's snowstorm I came out to find tracks all around the chicken coop, looping crazily a couple times around the backyard, and then right back over the fence again.  But he didn't get into the new-and-improved chicken run!)

I'll have to sell a couple of these hens soon.  There are too many of them for the space they're in, and I honestly could never use six chickens' worth of eggs anyway.

This Red Star is my favorite candidate for laying the first egg.  She's always been the biggest of the bunch, and the feed store owner says Red Stars are "egg-laying machines"

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Spring is Here

Last weekend our daytime temps finally got above 40 degrees, prompting a frenzy of seed-starting activity at my house.  I dashed over to the store to buy new seed-starting trays, fetched the lights from the basement, cleaned the bulbs, hung the lights from the plant hooks we installed in the guest bedroom for this purpose, and fetched the soil and compost from the shed.  Then I had to take a break while the potting soil thawed - it's been cold here!  (I gave some of it a little help in a warm oven.)

While I was waiting I transcribed my paper planting calendar (circa 2013) into Google Calendar.  Then I planted lettuce, broccoli, cabbage, and onions.  I'm a bit late on some of them, but not too bad.  The lettuce came up last night.  As I write this snow is piling up outside again, but it is officially spring at the M residence.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Tromboncino Squash Have I Loved

Stored tromboncino squash.  The one at the top left has a little frost damage.

I've never grown any squash in Maryland that didn't have problems with borers, squash bugs, or both.  They are just a fact of life for an organic grower in Maryland.  Squash bugs are nasty little beetles that suck the juices out of your squash leaves and stems.  They're extremely shy (though fairly large), so usually the first time they attack your garden you don't see them until it's far too late.  Borers, on the other hand , burrow into the base of your squash plant just above the soil line, and then crawl up the stem, eating everything in their path so that the rest of the plant usually dies of thrist.  Between the two of them I only got about two weeks' worth of summer squash in 2011, despite hours of hand-picking squash bugs.  That's what first prompted me to try tromboncinos - the catalog said they were a squash-bug-resistant zucchini substitute!  ("Hmmm..." I wondered skeptically.  "Do they just not taste good?") 

They were so lovely and vibrant and productive that first year that I actually thought they hadn't been attacked by borers, until I went to pull up the plant at the end of the year and the stem crumbled in my hand.  See, tromboncino has this lovely habit of putting down good, strong secondary stems about every 8ft.  The borers infest the main stem and they simply get their water from somewhere else.  As for the squash bugs - I guess maybe the tromboncinos don't taste good because I don't see nearly as many squash bugs on them.

As a zucchini substitute, it turns out to be somewhat lacking, IMO.  The flesh is more melon-like than zucchini, and it overcooks easily to turn into green mush on my grill. 

However, tromboncino has other uses.  It purees really well for use in quick breads, and will produce by the basketful in the heat of summer under constant attack.  I planted a 4x20 ft bed mixing these with parsley and probably harvested more than 50 green tromboncinos.  What's more, if you don't pick them in time they are even tastier ripe, and store well as a winter squash.  The ones pictured above are the last of my stored squash from last summer; the little one in the middle is starting to dry out, which prompted me to cook the rest and freeze the meat.  (For comparison, my pumpkins started to go in December under similar conditions.)  Even the seeds were delicious - somewhat brighter than pumpkin seeds, with slightly less meat. 

If you have the space for a boisterous squash in your garden, this one is a great choice.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Seed Ordering 2015

Every year my seed ordering gets a little bit simpler.  I remember one year I ordered seeds from three different sources, not counting the garlic supplier.  The following year I prepared complete order "plans" for each supplier, compared costs, and ordered everything from the cheapest source.  (A decision I later regretted.  Garden space and work are far too valuable to throw away on bad seed.)  The next year I split my order between two suppliers because I really wanted strawberries.  Then last year I limited myself to a single supplier (plus garlic in the fall) and bought whatever I couldn't get or didn't want from them at the local big box store.  (If you just want the most popular hybrid variety, the big box store is cheaper and decent quality in my area.)

Additional simplifications:
  • I alphabetized my stored seeds, rather than trying to sort them by season.  Much easier this way.
  • I plan the garden, throw out the really old seeds, and do a complete inventory of the remaining seeds before I start ordering, so that I never fail to order something because I think maybe I already have enough.
  • After the order is written, I give myself a little time to whittle it down.  (For example, by remembering that I have dried sunflower heads on the back porch packed full of - apparently - 100% viable seeds.)
Ten out of ten of the "harvested" sunflower seeds sprouted.
I save the extras from most seed packets for 3 years.  Some herbs, like dill, are more like weeds than garden plants, and the seeds come in packs with practically a lifetime supply - those I will save longer if last year's germination rate seemed good.  Some of the smallest seeds (carrots, onions) I replace every year, as their germination rate decreases quickly and they are pretty much a complete loss if the first planting doesn't go well.  (I have read that lettuce seed should also be thrown out, but have not found that to be true.)  Some plants I will save my own seeds from, if I've not planted a hybrid: beans, cilantro, and grains come to mind.  I don't save seeds from plants that frequently suffer from blight in our area, like tomatoes, or seeds from the squash family, as they always disappoint.  And this year for the third year in a row I will be growing my own sweet potato slips in my kitchen window.  I may try to do something similar with potatoes, if I can find a place to plant them.

So, 2015 has officially started!

Monday, December 8, 2014

New Chicken Waterer

I added a new crazy garden project to my list - a new, diy chicken waterer  The old one was starting to crack in places and the water in the basin at the bottom froze a couple of times last month, making me think this might not be the most convenient part of my chicken-keeping system.  A quick internet search for diy chicken waterer and I came up with lots of pictures of waterers you can make yourself for about the same cost as the cheap plastic one I'm replacing.

The waterer is basically a bucket with little nipples in the bottom that work sort of like those upside-down bottles you put on the side of a hamster cage, except the chickens have a little lever they can nudge instead of having to push in a little ball bearing.*

I drilled two holes on opposite sides of the bucket, in the bottom, wrapped some teflon tape around the threaded parts of the nipples, and screwed them into the bottom of the bucket.  The entire project was finished in less than ten minutes. 

I was a little worried the hens wouldn't know what to do with it, but their instincts served them well - they quickly started pecking at the new, shiny metal things in their run, then gulped in surprise when water came out.  Boom!  Lesson learned.  This morning when I went out to open the coop they can running out and went right to the waterer.

That little red thing she's pecking at is where the water comes out.

We already owned the bucket, purchased during our water supply outage back in 2011, and the cinder block came from some trash that was dumped at the end of our street last year.  The only things I had to buy were the bucket lid and the nipples, and so far this super-cheap solution is one of my favorite crazy garden projects.  I'm pretty hopeful that it will resist freezing, since it can hold a lot of water and any ice that forms should float to the top.  I'll let you know how it works out.

I would like to find a way to make it look a little nicer, so if you have any suggestions, let me know!