Thursday, December 30, 2010

Lettuce keep going

Fresh lettuce right from our garden continues to be on our evening menus.
And it is almost January. In Kansas.
The lettuce I picked a couple of days ago is almost gone. So my list of chores for the day includes “pick lettuce.” That might be a bit tricky, as the wind is howling. Gusts of up to 30 miles per hour were noted in the forecast for today.
Wind is not an ally when you must pull up large sheets of plastic to get at the lettuce.
Although the howl of the wind makes it sound bitterly cold outside, the actual temperature is over 60 degrees F. and climbing. I haven’t had a fire in our stove since late yesterday morning.
This will not last, though. Snow tomorrow and the forecast low for tomorrow night is in the low teens, with a high of 29 degrees on New Year’s Day.
Welcome to Kansas and its fickle weather.
Not that I am complaining. Last winter I got all of my exercise with almost daily snow shoveling.
At this moment I am waiting for boxes of garden seed to arrive, as I have already hit the mail order catalogs.
Lettuce -- naturally -- was a focus of my seed purchasing for the next growing season.
After reading through descriptions of dozens of varieties of lettuce, I finally settled on 14 varieties for this year. They won’t all be planted at the same time, as some were chosen for their heat tolerance and others were chosen for their ability to withstand cold. Some were put on my list simply because they look really cool or have a name that appealed to me.
Often thought of as simply a nutrition-poor base for salads, lettuce is actually fairly nutritious. It can’t compare to the nutrition in such things as kale or chard, but it is certainly not nutrition-free. The deeper the color of the lettuce, the more nutrition it has, since many of our nutrients are related to pigments found in foods. Romaine and loose leaf lettuce varieties tend to have the highest levels of nutrients, partly because sunlight can penetrate to the core leaves, giving them richer color.
The crisp head varieties, which include the ubiquitous iceberg lettuce, have significantly less of some nutrients than the other types.
Lettuce even has medicinal qualities.
That milky sap that oozes from the lower end of the middle ribs when you cut the lettuce, and is most abundant in mature lettuce plants, is where the medicinal nature of lettuce lies. It is most often used to induce sleep. The genus name of lettuce, Lactuca, and the name “lettuce” itself both are references to that milky sap.
Apparently, humans have cultivated lettuce for as long as 5,000 years. The ancient Egyptians cultivated a lettuce species that produces large seeds from which an oil is extracted. Modern Egyptians still use this plant. Ancient Romans were the ones who spearheaded the selection of lettuce varieties, the result of which is the mind-boggling number of varieties now available to us.
I am looking forward to testing and tasting these different lettuces, as well as trying new strategies in lettuce growing and being more diligent in already familiar strategies, such as thinning.
To show you that I am not absolutely 100 percent obsessed with lettuce, my seed purchases this winter also included some merely interesting vegetables, such as the Spring Blush Snap Pea (a PINK snap pea) and Salt and Pepper Cucumber (a pale colored cucumber that just looked beautiful in the catalog photo).
I will also do some experimentation this year with onions, searching for a variety that grows well here and can be stored for months without rotting.
Nobility, Gunnison, Copra and Prince are the yellow onion varieties I have selected for their reported long storage capability. Starting onion seed indoors in late January and transplanting in mid-March was successful this past year, so that is how I will test these varieties. Unfortunately, it will be a full year before the true success (long storage) can be assessed.
Stay tuned…

Monday, December 20, 2010

Lettuce rejoice

The weather since my last post has been relatively warm, so I haven't been as obsessed with the lettuce survival. We are still eating the lettuce I picked more than a week ago, before the single digit lows, so I have had not need to get into the lettuce patch. However, a couple of days after the super low nights I opened the tunnels to take the blankets off of the lettuce to give it some sun and it all looked good. Hallelujah!
In a couple of days I will need to pick lettuce again, then we'll see what it's really like.
But tonight I am celebrating the Solstice, the return of the Sun.
Lettuce rejoice!

Monday, December 13, 2010

Lettuce watch again

The low hit 7 last night, but it never went below 29 in the lettuce patch. No buckets of hot water last night, but I put sheets over the tunnels to hold in the little bit of heat the lights produce. Just a few more days and we can see how it all works.
Yes, I know. I appear to be obsessed with lettuce. There are worse things.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Lettuce watch, two

Snow thyme!
The wind is still blowing strong, but not roaring as loudly as it did last night. I don't hear the plastic rattling on the lettuce tunnels. The low last night hit 10 degrees Fahrenheit, but beneath the blanket inside the plastic tunnel it got no lower than 27 degrees. Lettuce can handle that.

Right now, about 1 p.m., it is sunny and 29 degrees. Inside the tunnel it is a toasty 50 degrees. The light snow that fell last night is still on the ground, although it is melting a bit where the sun hits the concrete on the porch.

They have revised the forecast downward, with a low of 0 degrees F tonight and 9 tomorrow night. Perhaps with a lighter wind I will be able to put the sheets over the tunnels and hold in the heat better.

Last night, at about 9, we noticed that one side of one of the lettuce tunnels had pulled loose. So we pulled on boots and coats again and put it back in place. It was the only tunnel that I hadn't put clips on, so I clipped it.

Yesterday I started looking through catalogs for varieties of lettuce that will not become bitter in summer heat and/or will stand up to cold. A bibb/romaine type called "Winter Density" looks promising as a winter crop. A heading type called "Summertime" seems like a good hot weather choice. Many other varieties will offer their own summer/winter/spring advantages.

The number of varieties of lettuce is astounding. Only the number of tomato and squash varieties rival it. Many are quite lovely to look  at. I will no doubt buy a dozen or more varieties of lettuce seed for the coming year. This isn't just about salad anymore, this is a scientific/gardening endeavor and adventure.

So this is the year I will become obsessed with lettuce. I have done it before with various types of veggies -- squash, tomatoes, beans -- and so on. I learn a lot, but the most important thing is that I find it exciting. We all seek our thrills in different ways. This is mine.
Winter gardening, my idea of adventure!

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Lettuce watch

The wind is howling and the temperature outdoors has been a steady 18 degrees Fahrenheit for several hours. The day started with a temperature just under 40 degrees F, a stiff wind and cloudy skies that were intermittently clear as the temperature dropped all day.

Although the outside temperature is in the teens, our lettuce is sitting at a relatively cozy 30 degrees inside the plastic tunnels.

Yesterday afternoon, when the temperature hit nearly 60 under mostly sunny skies, I opened all of the plastic tunnels housing our winter lettuce. They needed ventilation because the temperature inside had hit 91. I harvested twice as much lettuce as usual, so that we would have plenty, in case there were no survivors after this weekend. Tonight's low is suppose to fall to 10. Tomorrow night they say it will drop to 2. All with a brisk breeze with gusts possibly to 50 mph. Not only will the hardiness of the lettuce be tested, but so will the durability of our plastic tunnels. I hear them rattling.
Lettuce tucked all snug in its bed.

While harvesting, I did find a number of leaves that had been hard hit by the cold, The romaine and salad bowl varieties fared the best. Even the Sergeant oakleaf, which was in the bed that got exposed to the teens on the night before Thanksgiving, had quite a few good leaves. Buttercrunch is a tender, tasty loose heading variety that I really like, but it is too tender for the winter garden. A lot of it had turned to mush and slime, although many of the little hearts were good. I like the tender, pale hearts.

After harvesting the lettuce, spinach and arugula and pulling all of the radishes, I put blankets over the lettuce and pulled the plastic back over the hoops. The FedEx guy just happened to arrive that day with my recently ordered shade cloth (for the summer) and, most important, clips that I was able to use to attach the plastic to the hoops. All the better to survive the wind.

About an hour ago I put buckets of hot water inside each tunnel. When I picked up the rocks anchoring the edges of the plastic, my slightly damp gloves immediately froze to them. That's how it is when it is just 18 degrees outside. While the howling wind didn't give me much trouble with the plastic, it kept me from putting sheets over the tunnels for extra heat-holding ability.

Two buckets of steaming hot water in each tunnel hardly seem adequate to fill the area with heat, but I hope it works. Tomorrow night, I will repeat. However, it will be Wednesday or Thursday before it is warm enough to open the tunnels enough to see whether we will have to go back to buying lettuce.

Stay tuned.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Lettuce continue

It amazes me how hardy plants are. Even after experiencing several nights in the teens, some unprotected plants in the garden are green, not growing, but green.
And the lettuce experiment continues.
On Monday I picked a large basketful of lettuce. Even after some very cold nights, lots of lettuce is still good. Some of the leaves are obviously ruined. Some just have ruined bits on them. Others are as lovely and crisp as if it were a balmy spring.
Underneath the plastic, which is draped over 10-foot PVC bent to make a tunnel about 4 feet wide and 2 1/2 to 3 feet tall, large Christmas lights add a few degrees of warmth during cold nights. Buckets painted black and filled with water absorb heat from sunlight during the day and radiate it at night. This past Sunday night, when the low hit 15, I filled the buckets with hot water. The next two nights, when the lows were predicted in the low teens, I put sheets over the plastic to keep the heat from dissipating as rapidly or as much.
The sheets seem critical to keeping the temperature up.
Last week I put a remote temperature sensor inside one of the low tunnels. A receiver indoors tells me what the temperature in the tunnel is, and records the high and low every 24 hours. On the nights without the sheets, the temperature inside seemed not much different than the outdoor temperature. However, the sensor for our regular outdoor reading is about 4 feet above the ground on a tree. The slope of the land puts the lettuce beds possibly 10 feet lower than that sensor, enough of a drop that the temperature there could be a few degrees colder, since cold air flows downward.
Even with the lights on, the temperature was not much higher inside the tunnels. That was on nights when the low was in the 20s, without the extra protection of the sheets. With the sheets over the tunnels, the temperature was quite a bit different. The low inside the tunnel last night was 24 degrees, while the exterior low was 15.
Today, when the high hit 46 and the sun shone through light, wispy clouds, the temperature inside the tunnel went up to 90. But the temperature drops rapidly when the sun falls low, and trees to the west cast shadow over the tunnels.
The lettuce is heavily mulched with hay, so the roots should be relatively warm, enough to keep the plants alive. As warm as it gets inside the tunnels during the day, the lettuce might even do a little growing.
The forecast lows for this weekend are something like 13 for Saturday night and a blistering 6 (that's degrees Fahrenheit) on Sunday night, with the highs those two days in the low 20s. Ouch.
However, Thursday and Friday's highs are about 50 or a little higher. So on Friday I will pick more lettuce, do a little cleanup, water, get more buckets situated inside and put blankets over the lettuce beneath the tunnel. Then before I go to bed on Saturday and Sunday nights, I will fill the buckets with hot water and put sheets over top of the tunnels again.
My friend who had lettuce growing all last winter has a low tunnel that is taller and wider than mine. I wonder if the larger area held just a bit more heat. I don't know. She told me that on really cold nights she placed candles inside the tunnel. But she has some ground space between her lettuce and the side of the tunnel. I have lots of dry, flammable hay. No candles for me.
We'll see whether this weekend puts an end to the lettuce experiment, or whether it keeps on going.

Monday, December 6, 2010


I took these photos during a controlled prairie burn in 2004.
It all started innocently enough.
The sun shone. The temperature was relatively warm, for December.
I was just doing routine chores.
That included dumping the ash bucket. The last time I cleaned the stove was 24 hours ago. All of the coals should be cold.
As usual, I walked a few steps into the unmowed grass at the edge of our woods to dump the ash.
Fortunately, I decided to work outside for a bit, to finish putting the asparagus to bed for the winter. Otherwise I wouldn't have seen the flames as soon as they began dancing and leaping in the brisk wind. Who knows how long it would have taken me to notice the flames if I had gone back indoors.
Redcedar trees burn as if they have been doused with
After nearly 20 years as a reporter for a small town newspaper I had heard enough fire safety tips and talked to enough fire chiefs to know that the first thing I was suppose to do is call 911. The fire chiefs all told me that they would rather respond and find out you put out the fire yourself than to have the fire get way out of control before they got there. And upon seeing the flames, I contemplated running inside and calling 911 before trying to snuff the flames that were itching to burn down my woods.
However, if I took time for that, there would be no chance of me snuffing out the flames before they reached a pile of finished compost, several cedar trees (which catch fire explosively) and a pile of wood for burning in the stove next winter. If the fire moved into the woods on the steep hillside, fighting it would be incredibly difficult for our volunteer fire department. So I decided to take care of it myself.
In a situation like this (did I mention the brisk wind and dry conditions?) split second timing is critical. So that thought process made a lot of intuitive leaps, for expediancy's sake, and actually went more like this...

A 2004 controlled burn at Snyder Prairie near Mayetta. It is
one of few remaining virgin tall grass prairies and is
managed by the Grassland Heritage Foundation.
"Call 911?"
"Fight fire 'self?"
"No time call."
"Fight fire!"
I began to run toward the fire, thinking I could stomp it out with my heavy boots. Then I remembered the shovel I'd had in my hands a few moments earlier. So I ran back and got the shovel.
Wearing insulated boots and a heavy coat is like gaining 10 pounds and the run was a difficult, plodding sort. But it wasn't far.
I beat the edges of the burning area with my shovel. Tiny flames went sneaking through the short, sparse grass between the unmowed area and the house. I wasn't too worried. They would die out before they reached the house. Still, I beat and stomped them, too.
When I felt that the fire was sufficiently slowed by the beating, I ran (plodded) the short distance up a steep slope to the back of the house, pulled the hose off the rack, connected it and turned it on, then ran to the fire with the other end.
How ***# long does it take for water to travel through 150 feet of hose, anyway? I checked the connections and employed the shovel some more. Finally water came running out of the hose.
Within a few minutes all flames were gone. I wetted the perimeter of the burned area well, just in case any sparks or coals were hiding, waiting for me to leave so they could come out and play. I also drenched the pile of ash that started the whole thing.
Well. Wasn't that exciting?
I quickly finished my job at the asparagus bed and went inside. I dropped my smoke-scented clothes in the laundry and took a shower -- which included washing the smoke from my hair.
I can now add "fights fires" to the list of things I do around here.
No more will I assume that 24 hours is long enough for hot coals to die. Fortunately, this was a rather cheap lesson for me. Learn from my error.
And, just to keep the fire chief off my back, if this happens to you, call 911;)
This is the burned area behind my house. Fortunately, pretty small, in spite of
a stiff wind that blew as the flames danced.

Friday, November 26, 2010

A Very Lettuce Thanksgiving

Lettuce growing in low tunnels covered in plastic, with Christmas lights to warm the tunnel on cold, cold nights.
By Sandra M. Siebert
‘Twas the night before Thanksgiving and our little house
Had been cleaned top to bottom by me and my spouse.
We’d washed all the windows and shook out the rugs,
Dusted the corners and vacuumed up bugs.
All in preparation for feasting day guests.
Even the garden had been specially dressed,
Draped with plastic and hung with lights on a wire,
And blanketed with hay (I hope it doesn’t catch fire).
All to keep warm our lovely green lettuce beds,
As visions of winter salads danced in our heads.
Exhausted by the work we went off to our rest,
So cozy and snug in our little nest
As the wind howled and the temperature fell deep.
Then all too soon I was abruptly shaken from sleep…
“The plastic’s all torn and flapping about,”
My spouse announced in almost a shout.
“But it’s only 1 a.m.,” I loudly uttered,
This perky red romaine survived
 in the low tunnel with no lights to warm it,
Then threw back the covers and angrily muttered.
I pulled on some clothes worn the day before;
Grabbed coat and boots and stormed out the door.
The sky was so clear and the stars they shone bright,
A large gibbous moon gave us plenty of light.
The plastic wasn’t torn, just pulled loose from is mooring
By the gale that blew as we were happily snoring.
I took a long peek at the lettuce inside.
It was wilted and frozen, I was sure it had died.
We put back the cover and anchored it firmly with stones,
Then went back to bed with a chill in our bones.
Buttercrunch and green salad bowl.
Feasting day came, as did the guests and their bounty.
It must have been the best feast in the county.
The tables were laden with turkey and dressing,
Sweet potatoes and green beans; then after the blessing,
We all laughed and ate and got stuffed to our eyes.
Then there were brownies and cookies and, of course, pumpkin pies.
Thirty guests had come, as well as a surprise one or two,
And the hours of Thanksgiving Day really flew.
I gave our poor frozen lettuce no more thought
Until the next day, when I felt that I ought
To go out and see how it and other things had fared.
Had it been killed by the cold or had it been spared?
As I lifted the plastic what did my eyes behold?
But lovely lettuce, perky and laughing at the cold.
I shook my head in utter disbelief,
Then laughed, in spite of myself, in great relief.
The old winter sun shone warm and bright
As I went back to the house, my heart full and light.
Lettuce today and tomorrow as well,
With spinach and arugula and a story to tell.
So lettuce give thanks (please pardon the pun)
For blessings large and small, every one,
For family and friends and gardens to grow things,
Children and grandchildren who like playing on swings,
For spouses willing to go into cold winter nights
To save the salad and to plug in the lights,
For all of these things that make life so sweet,
For all of the guests that make the gathering complete.
With this one last wish I will close,
May all of your feast days be full of good cheer,
And may love, laughter and lettuce last all through the year.
Green romaine and red salad bowl.

Saturday, November 13, 2010


Daikon growing in the garden.
Daikon fermenting in a quart jar.
Two quart jars full of fermenting daikon now sit in my sewing room. This is my first attempt at lacto-fermentation -- using whey, lactic acid -- to ferment vegetables.
It is not my first attempt at fermented foods. My only two attempts at saurkraut failed miserably. I believe I know why they failed, but I have been reluctant to attempt it since. However, this past summer I received information on how to use whey obtained from plain yogurt for a nearly fool-proof fermentation.
In a few days, when the daikon is supposed to be done fermenting and I can check on my success, I will pick a nice cabbage and try sauerkraut again.
Fermentation of foods -- from sauerkraut, to wine, to vinegar -- has a long, long history. It was perhaps the first method of preserving food available to humans, with the exception of dehydration, perhaps.
No doubt both of those methods were discovered accidentally. I do not want to imagine the stomach aches and such that were suffered as humans tried to capture those techniques.
Proper fermentation of foods depends on the right microorganisms colonizing the food and doing their thing. Lacto-fermentation, which introduces the microorganisms that have already properly fermented milk, is supposed to squeeze out any of the wrong microorganisms that caused my original attempts at sauerkraut to go rotten.
One of the keys to fermenting, I've learned, regardless of the method, is to keep the vegetable materials completely submerged in liquid. Which means that if you can't create enough liquid by pounding the you-know-what out of your veggies, you must add water.
Until now, all of my successful pickling has used vinegar. Which is not fermentation, although one uses a fermented product -- vinegar.

Pickles, pickles, pickles!
Pickling is a great way to preserve excess vegetables and even fruit that you have no room to freeze or do not want to otherwise can. Canning vinegar pickles can be done with a boiling water bath, unlike regular canning of non acid vegetables, which requires a pressure canner.
Pickled cucumbers and long beans.
You can pickle pretty much any vegetable or fruit. Just find yourself an all-purpose booklet on pickling and once you get the hang of it, the sky is the limit. I use the recipes for the proper proportions of water, vinegar and pickling salt, then let my imagination run with the seasonings.
The most common pickle is cucumbers. I used to just pickle my excess cukes, but they were usually soft and mushy -- tasty, but soft and mushy.
This year I planted pickling cucumbers (which can be eaten as fresh cukes if they get too large) and picked them small, about 4 to 5 inches long.
Pickled peppers.
This year's pickles are crispy as well as tasty. When the okra and long beans came in too fast to cook right away and I started running out of freezer space I pickled them, as well. We eat lots of salads and all of these pickles are great with them.
A couple of weeks ago when we got more freezing weather I decided to let the peppers go. So what was I going to do with all of those green bell peppers? I pickled 12 pounds of them. I also pickled some green tomatoes.
So now I am graduating to actual fermentation of vegetables. These fermented foods even have some health benefits, if you don't put them through the high heat of canning and kill off the beneficial microorganisms. They must be kept in cold storage.
Who knows, maybe next year I will even try to ferment cucumber pickles.
At some point, my fermentation efforts will move on to hard cider (when the apple trees are producing).
For now, though, I will wait for my daikon relish.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Compost Happens

My current 4-bin composting system.
Compost is the staff of life. Whether you build piles of debris to make compost, or let stuff compost right there in the garden, everything grows better with compost.
Compost is right for every soil type. If you have tight clay soil, compost will loosen it up and help it drain better. If you have loose, sandy soil, compost adds bulk and helps it retain moisture. If you have just-right soil, well, you can make a good thing better with compost.

Can you find the compost heap in this picture? It is hidden by all the pretty things that came up from seed in the materials heaped for composting.
Composting is easy. All you have to do is pile stuff up and it decomposes, eventually. The right mix of materials, water and turning will make it break down more quickly, by providing more oxygen, nitrogen and other stuff for the microorganisms doing most of the work. These microorganisms create heat as they work and various types work best at different temperatures. The temperature of a compost heap can exceed 160 degrees, which kills many seeds and disease-causing microorganisms. However, beneficial microbial activity decreases and even ceases when it gets that hot.

A frequently turned compost heap made with plenty of nitrogen-containing materials will melt snow and steam in the winter. My compost piles do not do this, however, as I employ the cool ("lazy gardener's") method.
Cooler, slower composting yields a material that is richer in disease-fighting fungi and other beneficial microorganisms. Nitrogen content also is higher in compost made by this slower process. It is your choice whether to work it hot or cool, it all depends on how quickly you want it. A hot pile can be ready in as little as a few weeks, while a cool pile can take 6 months to a year. Personally, I am patient and have other things to do besides turning compost.
Decomposition is conducted by the life cycles of various types of microorganisms, bacteria, actinomycetes (a type of bacteria), fungi, protozoa (one-celled animals) and rotifers (some kind of microscopic organism). But earthworms and other larger critters also play a roll in digesting and excreting organic matter.
A professional nursery worker once told me that compost would be good for my apple trees, but wouldn't provide much nutrition. That is false. Compost contains lots of nutrients, as well as beneficial microorganisms. The nutritional value of the compost depends on what materials are put in it and the process by which you make it, as well as whether you let it sit uncovered and let the nutrients leach out or oxidize.
It would be a waste of space for me to go through the "proper" composting process here, as millions of other Web sites can enlighten you. I have put links to several of them at the end of this post.
My tips for composting are 1. Cut up or chop materials as smaller pieces decompost more quickly. 2. Avoid putting materials containing lots of seeds, or heavily diseased or pest-infested materials. 3. Turn or just poke the pile occasionally to improve air flow. 4. You don't need a fancy bin to keep it in. And 5. Don't be afraid of it. Just do it.
This summer I built the 4-bin composting system in the top photo. Before that, the compost heap was just a big pile with 8-foot tall sunflower stalks and such. Smaller piles are easier to turn and work with.
Our new tractor. Isn't she cute?
Now, however, we have a small tractor with a front loader. I now have the capability to create big piles of debris and turn them with the tractor's front loader. So my composting practice will change, again.
Composting is a dynamic process. There is no reason the pile has to stay in one place. In fact, you can make a compost heap over an area that you want to convert to a garden bed. After you've composted there for a few months, the grass and weeds will (mostly) be smothered and you will have some nice, rice soil for planting.
Following are several links to sites about composting. The first is to a great article from Mother Earth News. Practical, helpful information. The article has several pages, so be sure to click "next" when you are done reading the page until you've read all 10 tips.  Next an article by Paul James, the Gardening Guy, from HGTV's "Gardening by the Yard," followed by a link to an episode with composting info. I love Paul James. Now a few more links, just for good measure.

Saturday, October 30, 2010


Nasturtiums grow at the feet of the peppers.
Sometimes things die, and sometimes you just think they do. My nastturtiums revived with moisture and cooler fall temperatures after a combination of high heat and no rain nearly killed them. I removed all of the crispy, light tan leaves and cut the plants back to the new growth in August.

Today, they are lusher and more beautiful than ever.
Nasturtiums are not only beautiful, providing edible flowers and leaves, but they also help deter some garden pests, including squash bugs (!) and cucumber beetles, I recently learned. Next year they will be companions to my cucumbers and squashes.

This year’s nasturtiums grow along the mounded gardens at the feet of peppers and tomatoes. A little more information about nasturtiums and some recipes that include them can be found at this Web site,

Friday, October 22, 2010

Fading Days of Autumn

The fading days of autumn
Fall gently on the soul
Like elm leaves
Silently releasing
And floating softly
To the ground.

The golden light
Illuminates the red
On the sumac branch
More vibrantly
Than can be seen in summer.

The fading days of autumn
Rattle against the soul
Like wind in the cottonwoods,
Swirling and tumbling,
Skittering in a rush
To nowhere in particular.

All the garden explodes
Into colorful bloom,
One last, glorious shout
Before winter rakes
Its scythe across
The land.

The fading days of autumn
Seep into the soul
Like frost settling to the ground,
And we draw ourselves
Together for warmth.

The sharp moonlight
Breathes ghosts across the sky,
Illuminating the path
To forever.

We contemplate the garden's demise
And watch the resurrection
of flowers withered by summer's heat,
Forced to face our own
Withering and rebirth,
As the fading days of autumn
Fall upon the soul like rain.

Poem is the work and property of Sandra M. Siebert

Monday, October 18, 2010

Queen of the Night

The Night Blooming Cereus has a spectacular bloom larger than a softball when full open. Like most night-blooming plants, that flower is highly fragrant. All the better to attract pollinators in the dark.
I have had my small specimen of Night Blooming Cereus, Epiphyllum oxypetalum, for about three years. A week or more ago I noticed its long, pink flower stalk.
Add caption

The long, pink calyces wrapped around the swelling bud like ribbons in a work of modern art. I wish that I would have photographed the various bud stages, as they are almost as beautiful as the bloom.
The long pink petal-like structures on the back of the bloom were wrapped around the unopened bud like ribbons.
On Saturday, I noticed that the bud had become all white and was swollen, looking ready to burst. I move the otherwise unassuming-looking plant from the north side of the house to a more prominent location, where we could catch its brief blossoming.
The long, curved flower stalk is the first indication the plant will put on one of its rare blooms.
Fortunately, we did not have to wait until after midnight for the bud to open and release its intoxicating fragrance, but it was still quite late in the evening. By morning, the blossom had loosely closed and was beginning to wilt. I don't know how long I will have to wait for it to bloom again.
In the photo below you can see some of this epiphytic cactus' flat leaves -- or stems, it's difficult to say with cacti. Epiphytes take their nutrients from the air instead of from their roots. The roots are mainly to hold the plant in place and to take in water.
Epiphyllum oxypetalum is but one of several plants that go by the name Night Blooming Cereus.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Accidental Garden

Sometimes you get things you don't plan for. These two thick patches of collard greens came up spontaneously in new beds created for red raspberries. The seed was in home-cooked compost that was spread on the beds in late summer. I was going to pull out all of those "weeds," but it has been so long since we've had homegrown greens, and we eat lots of them. You can see the few raspberry canes I've planted in the forward bed.

The only watermelons I harvested this year came from this vine that came up on its own in a flower bed that had been the site of a compost heap last year. Compost heaps are a rich source of these "volunteers." We've always got something growing at the edges of the compost heap.

Although the watermelon and collards were accidental, I always plan for some things to set seed and sprout in the garden each year. The arugula plant below is from seed that fell from the spring crop. These "self-sown" seeds always produce before the ones I plant.
The flower and herb garden also is full of things that I depend on to self sow each year. Poppies seem to do better this way. I also always have nigella, calendula, thyme, sage, dill, coriander and others from last year's upstarts. The ornamental amaranth below is a descendant of several generations of plants that come from self-sown seed (seed dropped to the garden directly from the plant).

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Survivor's Tale Ends

Yesterday morning the thermometer said 37 degrees. That's not quite down to freezing, but I think I saw patches of frost on the straw mulch in the south garden area.
Nothing seemed affected by the frost, except the watermelon vine at the back end of the north garden.
When I went to the bottom of the hill that afternoon, however, I found that the sweet potato vine growing below the dam had been seriously affected. It would have been a mass of blackened foliage, if some hungry deer had not eaten off most of the leaves. The few leaves that were left were black and shriveled.
So I trudged back up the hill and got the broad fork and bucket so I could dig.
This is not an unusual end to a sweet potato in Kansas.
But this particular vine has a tale. It is the single survivor of 12.
I planted sweet potatoes in late May on a Monday, at the beginning of what would turn out to be an unusually hot, dry week. I watered the 12 little starts, mulched them well and even put some row cover over them to protect them from bunnies and deer, give them a tiny bit of shade and slow moisture loss.
Then I pretty much forgot about them as I prepared for a long camping weekend.
When I returned from camping I remembered the sweet potatoes and how long they had gone without anymore water. I pulled off the row cover in panic to find just this one survivor.
Several weeks later, while weeding that garden area, I found three more puny, but alive survivors.
Funny, though, after the weed camouflage was removed, they got eaten off by deer or rabbits. The first known survivor had its leaves nibbled off, too, but unlike the other three, it continued to grow.
By late summer the surviving vine had covered most of the area where the sweet potatoes had been planted. It had suffered neglect when first planted, and extremely hot weather later in the summer. I did water it during that time because I was watering the nearby fruit trees and berry bushes.
After the frost damage, I sunk the broadfork's teeth into the soil and heard an ominous crunch. When I pulled it out, a piece of a rather large sweet potato came out. I dug out a couple more pieces of that one, plus pieces of another large one. I was digging about a foot away from the base of the vine, so I thought I would miss them all.
I found a couple of small potatoes and two larger ones that actually came out whole. Not much of a harvest.
Maybe I missed some, but I dug and dug and found no more.
And with that, the survivor's tale ends.
Now it's time to plant the garlic.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Sowing Oats

  "What's that grassy stuff in your gardens?" People ask me at this time of year.
  It's oats.
  While I very well could be growing the oats to make nutritious tea from the immature seed or oat straw, its purpose in the garden is to provide temporary cover for the soil -- a cover crop.
  Oats are my favorite cover crop. The seed is readily available at the local co-op or feed store, either as seed oats or as feed for horses. Oats germinate and grow quickly, so they can be planted throughout spring, summer and fall to follow almost any vegetable crop. Oats will be killed by temperatures lower than the mid-20s, but the brown plants still provide sufficient cover.
  If you want a small grain that provides green cover through winter, plant winter wheat or winter rye. They sprout more slowly than oats, so need to be planted sooner and will take more effort to “terminate” in the spring.
  Why does it matter whether the soil is bare? Why not just clear the garden and be done with it?
  Bare soil is prone to the erosive forces of wind and rain. Sunlight also oxidizes nutrients in the soil, which not only reduces the nutrients available to plants but might even contribute to greenhouse gases as oxidized carbon in the soil becomes carbon dioxide.
   Then why not just throw on a layer of hay or straw mulch? As the mulch decomposes it also adds valuable organic matter to the soil, which loosens it, helps improve both water retention and drainage, and adds a few  nutrients.
  The value of cover crops goes beyond adding organic matter to the soil. Their roots “trap” nutrients so they don’t leach from the soil in rain and snow melt. Then the nutrients remain available to your vegetables the following season. Mulch can't do that.
  Rotating small grains -- such as oats, wheat or rye -- with tomatoes helps reduce some diseases, such as verticillium wilt. Some, such as mustards, also help control damaging nematodes and other pests. Mulch can't do that, either. Using legumes as cover adds nitrogen to the soil. Mulch certainly can't do that.
  K-State has a great publication on using cover crops in vegetable growing ( I

  Usually a cover crop is cut down and “terminated” before it can flower. At this stage, the residue will break down quickly and you do not risk it setting seed and resowing. However, some cover crops, such as clovers and buckwheat, are lovely when in bloom. Others, such as cowpeas, provide their own crop for your use.
  Winter rye gets quite large when left to put on seed heads and can be quite difficult to pull out at that time,so cut it and use as hay mulch. Other tall cover crops also can be cut as “hay” mulch.
  Ideally, oats and other small grains are mixed with appropriate annual legumes in fall or spring. The quick growing oats protect the legumes until they get well established. For the best nitrogen-fixing, legume cover crops should be “inoculated” with a special bacteria that helps them transform the nitrogen in air and soil into a more plant-usable form.
  Mixing annual legumes with the oats takes additional planning because the seed is not as readily available. It often must be purchased by mail order or special ordered by the farmers cooperative or seed store. Some annual legumes are best suited for winter cover (crimson clover, Austrian winter pea), others as summer cover (berseem clover, annual white sweet clover, Canadian field pea). Many other annual legumes can be used as cover crops, but do not work well in mixes with grasses (grains). Whether you want a winter or summer cover also determines your choice of other covers.
  Buckwheat, neither a legume or grassy grain, is a great summer cover crop. I planted it this spring around some of my fruit trees and in garden areas that did not get planted to vegetables. According to the Extension publication, buckwheat is not drought tolerant, but another source said that it is at least moderately drought tolerant.
  In my experience this summer, the mature plant tolerated at least some drought, surviving three weeks of 100-plus degree temperatures and no rain in August.
Pretty buckwheat flowers attract bees.
  Buckwheat, and a few other cover crops, can grow so quickly and thickly that they out-compete and smother weeds -- when planted in the proper conditions.It also needs warm soil. The buckwheat I planted in April germinated only sparsely, while the buckwheat planted in a little warmer soil in early May did quite well.
  It can be sown throughout the summer, but does need some moisture to germinate.
  My method for planting the buckwheat and oats is to scatter the seed on loosened soil and rake in, then scatter on a light mulch of hay or straw to hold in moisture and keep the seed in place. You also can plant them in furrowed rows.
  Buckwheat blossoms are beautiful and highly attractive to bees. A friend told me that buckwheat is her favorite cover crop because is attracts so many beneficial insects. Buckwheat honey is an excellent cough suppressant, although most people will find its flavor too strong for use as a sweetener or topping for cornbread.
  The flowers are so attractive to bees that you might want to keep buckwheat from flowering while cucumbers, squash and melons and other pollinator-dependant vegetables are in bloom. Or the bees might ignore them in favor of the buckwheat blossoms. Young buckwheat greens also can be used as a green vegetable.
  Usually when you incorporate a cover crop into the soil you should give it a couple of weeks to decay before planting anything else. Buckwheat decomposes so rapidly that you can plant almost immediately after taking it down. Soon I will plant garlic in one area where buckwheat is growing. I will simply cut back the buckwheat, throw on the compost and plant the garlic right in the buckwheat stubble.
t focuses on the commercial vegetable grower, but the information is easily adapted to smaller scale gardening.

Monday, September 20, 2010

A Study in Fungi

Under the elderberries

It was a cool, misty morning on Cedar Springs Farm yesterday. A gentle calm following the previous night's energetic storm that dropped nearly an inch and a half of rain, as well as bringing hail and incredible lightning. I even heard rumors of a tornado warning at one point.
I stepped out into the damp morning, camera in hand with the intent of capturing a few flowers in digital splendor.
Then I noticed some medium sized fungi growing in the hay mulch around the elderberries. So I began shooting fungi of all kinds.
Fungi are remarkable forms of life. They are not plants, but have their own domain. The fruiting bodies that we see above ground, the toadstool is the most classic form, are but the tip of the iceberg.
Below the surface, the fungi's threadlike mycellia cover large areas, especially where the soil or litter has gone undisturbed for a long time.
Fungi sometimes are disease-causing, but many are vital to soil and plant health. They live in symbiosis with plants, attaching to roots and in essence stretching those plant roots even further, sharing moisture and nutrients. When planting our fruit trees, berries and even many of our vegetables, we sprinkled in a special mycorrhizal powder to inoculate the roots with the proper fungi that will help them grow healthy and strong.
One of the reasons to move toward low- and no-till gardening methods is to preserve the valuable fungal mycellia. If you must till, do it in the spring, when the mycellia have an opportunity to grow back.
I did not attempt to identify any of these fungi. I simply wanted to share with you their beauty.

These little fairy cups (my name) crowd together.

Closeup of a tiny "fairy cup"

Tiny little "fairy bowls" complete with dumplings.

These remind me of balls of dough rising.