Thursday, March 24, 2011

Another Fine Spring Day

Freshly sprouted blackberry leaf.
All of the pruning is done!
I just finished the black raspberries. They were a mess. Last fall I tipped a lot of the canes so they wouldn't bend down and take root at the ends. I was not diligent enough and found many rooted ends today.

But they are done.

Two days ago the I finished the elderberries, and did the red raspberries and blackberries, coming away with no loss of blood, in spite of wearing flimsy gloves and a light shirt. Blackberry thorns are vicious, not to be approached without caution. So I am lucky to have only a few pokes and scratches.

Chickweed between the stepping stones.
While doing the pruning and later some weeding (it starts early) I found some little bits of chickweed here and there. Considered a weed by others, I consider it a wild green. When it is larger, I will harvest it and put it raw into hot dishes to wilt slightly rather than cook.
Nettles grow everywhere.

Since the freezer is almost bereft of kale and other garden greens, I harvested a basketful of nettle tops to add to my lunch of kidney beans. Nettles (they do not sting after cooking) are highly nutritious as a cooked green or tea. About mid-summer, when the corn is knee-high and the nettles are 3 feet tall and aching to bloom, I will cut the nettles down and use them to mulch said corn and other vegetables.

Silly apricot tree.
While they are a nutritous food for me, nettles also provide many nutrients for plants and make a great addition to the compost heap, as well.

Before you go planting nettles, though, take heed. They are a member of the mint family and so spread as rapaciously as most mints. Nettles are not timid and a single cutting can quickly overtake a small area.

Cleavers also are sprouting, and can be used as a spring green when young.

Oh, and look here. The apricot tree is blooming. Just in time for this weekend's freezing lows. That's the reason apricot harvests are so unreliable in Kansas. Their blossoms frequently get frozen.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011


The turkey vultures have returned.
Here in Kansas they're also known as "turkey buzzards."
And they are back.

You know what that means.
It really is spring.

Vultures are a constant summer time presence in the skies above our hilltop farm.

Regardless of the revulsion you probably feel right now, I love them.

Ugly and ungainly on the ground, they are beautiful, pure poetry in the skies.

They play against the background of blue, riding the air currents. Swooping and rising...
Dancing with the wind. Silent and unflapping.

Here in Kansas they are as much a part of summer as heat and tornado watches. I only wish that my photos could convey the peace and poetry of their flight.
Another return... crocus.
The white crocus are in bloom, meaning spring progresses. First, the yellow crocus bud and bloom. Then the purple. Now, the white and soon the varigated ones.

The prairie anemone, aka pasque flower, has opened its purple blossoms.

And yesterday, when I planted nearly 300 little onion seedlings, I went barefoot in the garden.
Barefoot gardening has returned.
Yes, spring has returned.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Lettuce Do it All Again

It's Alive! One of two lettuce plants that survived the winter.
The Moon is in the second quarter in Cancer, so today is a great day to plant broccoli, cabbage and the like. However (Surprise!), a forecast for partly sunny and 50s after a SLIGHT chance of rain overnight turned into snow overnight and a high of 41. Less than an inch of snow fell by the time our alarm rang at 5:30 a.m.., but it is still falling. Fickle weather means spring has truly arrived in northeast Kansas.

We covered the areas where I intend to plant with plastic so it wouldn't get too muddy for digging. However, it looks doubtful that I will plant today. Tomorrow looks promising, though. At least we won't need to shovel this snow, as the high will top out over 50 tomorrow.

Last year I planted broccoli and cabbage just before we got several inches of snow, then planted the cauliflower after the snow. (I can't believe I deleted the picture of the cauliflower planting in the snow!) Each bed of broccoli and other cole crops will also contain rows of onions. This makes good use of the space and will help with pest control. Last year, one small bed of kale and collards was the only bed of spring cole crops that did not have a companion planting of onions and it was the only bed of cole crops that got aphids.

A few days ago I opened all of the winter lettuce beds and found two surviving lettuce plants. Lettuce, spinach and arugula seed were planted in two of the former winter lettuce beds, with hopes of early greens. We already have a couple of rows of spinach that wintered over that need only a little bit of growing weather to be big enough to harvest. Salad days are on their way.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Spring is Around the Corner

The sun shines, promising warm temperatures for the day.
The tomato seeds I planted on Sunday were sprouting already on Wednesday.
Yesterday we pruned all but three of our fruit trees. It was chilly. It was breezy. It was cloudy.
It was wonderful. It was fun. It was glorious.
I did this task alone last year (and required stitches when the new pruning shears sliced through my thumb).
Yesterday, not only did I have the company of my husband, but we were assisted by someone with more knowledge and experience in pruning.
I felt fairly comfortable with pruning last year. Yet it was good to have someone with us who could wield the pruning shears with such confidence. Someone who cut more than I would have on some things and less on others. Someone who gave me a better understanding of how to train branches to proper angles.
We not only pulled upright branches into horizontal, which favors fruiting, we pulled "stacked" branches over to fill in spaces. We brought the unruly apricot into line. The too proud sweet cherry tree got its come uppance.
Today I will work in the warm sunshine pruning the three peach trees. The plastic will come off all of the lettuce beds. I will pick spinach, pull back hay, assess the viability of any surviving lettuce plants, water them and possibly even plant some lettuce seed, before replacing the plastic to encourage early spring growth.
Today I will spread compost on the beds where peas will be sown.
Today the chores are spring chores.
The official first day of spring is less than two weeks away.
My heart soars.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Snow again

  When our last major snowfall blanketed us with several inches of snow, I vowed to take no more winter photos. However, when I saw flakes as big as saucers (only a slight exaggeration) falling today I had to snap a few shots, although they do not do justice to the scene.
  I was fussing over the seedlings on the light shelves when I looked out the window.
  Giant, giant snowflakes mixed with the rain. In the otherwise gray woods, a blush of red showed, indicating the trees were ready for blooming, leafing, growing. A distinctively Spring scene.
  The melancholy melody on the stereo seemed eerily appropriate. Chills went through me.
  This was the type of moment in which one must pause.
  Be here. Be now.
If you look closely you can see the blush of red in the branches,
signaling the return of sap in the spring.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Can it Be Spring?

A view of things to come.
Crocus are blooming. Spinach is reviving. Birds are singing. The tomato seeds are planted. It is spring.
Just two days ago the tomato seeds went into the flats. This is probably the latest that I have ever started the tomatoes. Usually, they are started before the end of February. Last year, I made the mistake of starting them in the middle of January. They outgrew their pots twice and I planted them a little early to avoid having to put them in larger pots yet again.
When I visited a local nursery on the first of March last year, the owner told me that she was planning to start her tomatoes in a week or so. So I've changed my ways.
This means I won't have to pot up the tomatoes more than once, or not at all if I start them in 2-inch pots instead of little cells. Another advantage is that by the time the tomatoes are sprouting, the flats of cole crops and onions will be on the porch or in the garden.
The cole crop and onion planting should commence one week from today, weather permitting. The planting beds have been prepared and I have started the "hardening off" process during which the young plants acclimate to the outdoor sunlight and temperatures. Set plants outdoors for several hours each day, gradually increasing the time they spend outdoors. This should occur over a period of approximately two weeks, although less time works if they are protected a bit in the garden.
Maybe this week I will plant lettuce seed in the plastic tunnels that housed the winter lettuce. Spinach already grows in a couple of them and will be of harvestable size soon. Very soon. A few of the lettuce plants actually survived the winter, so they should also provide a few leaves in short time.
Time already feels short. Can it be March for real? I had barely gotten myself into a winter schedule, starting on projects I don't take time for during the gardening season. Now it's time to start focusing on a growing season schedule.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Tomatoes I Have Known

Henderson Pink (left) and Moonglow tomatoes grow with a companion
planting of nasturtiums (in front).
Tomatoes, tomatoes, tomatoes.
Do Americans love any vegetable more than the tomato?
Oh, probably, but it is the one vegetable that most gardeners or would be gardeners yearn to grow. Even those without garden space grow tomatoes in large containers, all so they can get that fresh-picked flavor that you just can't find in the grocery store.
A basket of Brandywines.
The tomato was cultivated as a food plant in Central America by the Aztecs for perhaps 2,000 years or more before Columbus sailed the ocean blue. Yet it was not considered a food plant by many European settlers in North America until the mid- to late 1800s. The Italians were the first Europeans to embrace the tomato as a culinary plant (recipes appear in an Italian cookbook in 1692). But most regarded it merely as an ornamental.
Since the tomato gained favor in American gardens a mere 150 or so years ago, it has been selected and hybridized to the current point where we have hundreds, perhaps thousands of varieties of Solanum lycopersicum (aka Lycopersicum esculentum). Although the list of tomato varieties I have tried seems rather long, I have barely scratched the surface.
Henderson's Pink and Moonglow tomatoes mixed in with long beans.
In 1997, I first planted what is now my favorite tomato, the pink Brandywine, often designated as Sudduth's Brandywine to differentiate it from the black, yellow and red Brandywines. Contrary to popular rumor, it is not an Amish variety, but was developed and saved through several generations of a family.
Brandywine produces a moderate number of large-medium to large bright pink tomatoes. They are prone to being misshapen and to crack, but are the best-tasting slicing tomatoes.
Henderson's Pink, which I tried last year because a friend gave me a couple of her starts, was similar in size and color, without as much cracking and misshapeness. The flavor was good, as well.
Black Krims are green on top when ripe (right) the top and
bottom ones on the left show the deep coloring of the Krim.
The middle one is probably a Brandywine.
Moonglow is a medium to large yellow tomato that did well for me last year. It has a nice, smooth flavor.
Black Krim is another variety that I first tried in 1997. It's deep, rich flavor and color make me keep growing it, although it does not produce that well. The last two years in particular I have had trouble getting much from Black Krim. I am not sure why. Still, I will have a few in the garden again this year. Maybe a little more compost will help. Black Krim is an early season variety, producing well before the Brandywine.
A basket of Sun Golds and another yellow tomato.
Sun Gold is an orange-yellow cherry type with a flavor that tempts even those who don't like tomatoes. It is quite prolific, coming on early and staying on late. I put in several plants because we get lots of requests from non-gardening acquaintances for these tomatoes. Other small yellow tomatoes I have tried include Banana Legs, Gold Nugget and Yellow Pear. They all had their charms, but Sun Gold outshines them.
Furry Yellow Hog. Don't know why it's called that.
One medium sized yellow tomato that I tried a couple of years ago came as a gift with my seed order. I went ahead and planted the tomato because I couldn't resist having something called Furry Yellow Hog in my garden. That tomato did not impress, however. Too bad.

This Amish Paste tomato got a little horny.
 The canning tomato I've chosen is Amish Paste, not a true paste tomato because it is a little too juicy, but a great canner just the same. Its fruit is much larger than the Roma (which I also have grown). Last year's plants were quite productive and provided me with most of my sauce, in spite of there being several other tomato varieties in the garden.
In 2009 a friend gave me a plant that produced very small little pear-shaped tomatoes that were a deep brown-red with purple or "black" overtones. It was a nice tasting, productive tomato that dried well. But he can't remember its name, so if I grow it again it will be by accident.
Unripe Amish Paste on the vine.
Silvery Fir Tree is a pretty plant with very finely divided leaves that looks nice as an ornamental. It produced typical orange-red fruit with an ordinary flavor. I didn't consider it worth another chance.
Striped German is a large, red and yellow striped tomato with a nice flavor, but it suffers from some of the same issues as Brandywine.
The currant tomato -- red and yellow -- is a different species from these other large tomatoes. It grows well and has such a short season that you can direct sow seed in late April and still have a crop by the end of the summer. The marble-sized fruit have a fresh tomato flavor and make a wonderful snack food.
Leaf of Furry Yellow Hog.
I have also tried two varieties called Sibera and Santiam, but it was several years ago and I remember nothing about them. At that same time I also grew White Wonder, which produced a white fruit. The little I remember about it is that many of the fruits cracked and rotted before they made it off the vine.
I am sure that I have planted other tomato varieties, including common hybrids, such as Better Boy, Early Girl and such, but I don't remember anything about them and didn't take notes. I prefer growing heirlooms, even though their production is less than the hybrids, as a rule. I favor the flavor of most heirlooms. And isn't it really the flavor we are after? Besides, heirlooms are usually open pollinated, so that you can save your own seed. Not so with hybrids.
This year I will get to know two other heirloom varieties, Abraham Lincon and Box Car Willie. Will either one win a permanent spot in my garden?