Thursday, May 26, 2011

On Schedule

All of the bean and pea trellises are up!
By the end of May I can feel a little flurried, hurried and even panicked as I look at the list of things to be done or that should have been done. So much must be done in the garden by the end of May, which also brings many other activities, from graduations to parties that are held just because it is finally warm outside.

Pink Blush Snap Pea flower.
May always flies by and I feel windblown by its end.

This year has been no exception to the quick flight of May. Yet I feel less windblown this year -- figuratively, anyway, we've had plenty of literal wind this year. Could it be that I have actually gotten myself into a rhythm that allows me to get things done on time? Or have I just learned to let go of the things that I cannot get done?

Hiring someone to help me weed, feed and mulch our young fruit trees has helped. But I do think I have figured out a rhythm. My dance is more graceful. I move in synch with the beat.

Newly planted Echinacea angustifolia seedling.
One of the things that has me believing that I am now stepping more gracefully to the rhythm is that I have been able to tackle garden projects that are not about food crops. I've just planted  a number of seedlings of narrow leaf coneflower, Echinacea angustifolia, a medicinal flower. Several other new areas for medicinal herbs and flowers also have been established.

A flower garden that I thought would have to wait for next year, actually got planted with some zinnias, cosmos and hollyhocks. All I had to do was move a tarp and the last bits of a compost pile. Instant flower garden.

Thyme is creeping along. (Caraway thyme, Thymus herba barona)
Early this week I got all of the bean and pea trellises up. Most of the other tasks on my list can be done throughout the summer, there is no hurry. Imagine that. Being on schedule. On track. Moving in time with the music of the season.

Now, if only I can get the tomato cages made before the tomatoes need them. Will I get the betony harvested to dry before the flowers are in full bloom?
One step at a time.

I am sure that my sense of being on schedule will dim once the harvest begins coming on strong and I must spend my afternoons processing, freezing, canning, pickling, while the weeds go out of control.
But that is not now. For now I will take some time to smell the honeysuckle and watch the flowers bloom.
Blue flag iris.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011


A garden is all about plants... isn't it?
When one thinks or talks about gardening, the attention is always on the plants.
When you are actually out in the thick of things, however, it is obvious that plants aren't the only things living in the garden.

I have daily encounters with all sorts of things. Birds, of course, are the first things we encounter -- albeit rarely up close -- when in the garden. They go flitting about and announce themselves with inumerable songs and calls.
Bumblebees like collards flowers.
Bees might be the next thing you notice, since they usually buzz as they work. Bumblebees are large and slowish, with loud buzzes that actually shake the pollen from the anthers, thus facilitating pollination. Honey bees are not so loud or large, but they are fast.

Many people are wary of encounters with bees -- those with allergies understandably so -- but bees in the garden are not to be feared. Unless you sit on one, or it flies up your skirt, bees working the flowers are pretty easy going.

Honey bees like collards flowers, too.
They will protect their nests, however, and I have the memories of stings to remind me of this.
In my garden, an encounter with snakes is not uncommon. Most of them are small, either young ones or species that do not grow large. The little brown snakes that eat snails and slugs are most welcome. Others might not be as beneficial by eating pests -- ring neck snakes eat earthworms, and garter snakes like frogs, for example. Yet I do enjoy their company.
We are surrounded by rocky woodlands populated by copperheads and rattlesnakes, Kansas' only venemous snakes (we do have 2 or 3 kinds of rattlers).
Wheel bug. A bug predator.
Since we have established ourselves here, though, I have only once seen a copperhead (and that a baby) within the homestead borders. I did encounter one under a tarp  in the main orchard, but that is far from the house. Copperheads are not generally aggressive, and I just let this one be, telling it I intended it no harm. (Yes I talk to snakes and other critters.)
The other day as I was squatting in the flower garden next to the house, doing some weeding, I looked up and saw our friendly neighborhood black snake, also known as the Western Rat Snake, checking me out. It was probably following a mouse trail and was as surprised to see me as I was to see him/her.
Sorry, no snake picture. But here is a nice lady bug larva.
I see this large snake (perhaps 4 feet long or larger) regularly now. We think of it as our homestead's guardian. It goes after mice and rats that might do damage, and, from what we've been told, may be instrumental in keeping copperheads and rattlesnakes from the house and gardens.
I've come to look forward to encounters with this guardian snake, which is a long way from the screaming and running that I did as a child.

When you live right up against nature all of the time, you change. You begin to see things you encounter in a different light.

The first time I remembered encountering ladybug larvae, I found them on some eggplants. They are rather fierce looking and I assumed they were up to no good and started killing them, but my conscience stopped me before I got them all.
 Imagine my chagrin when I learned that they are voracious aphid eaters.

Praying mantis. Close encounter of the bug kind.
I have long ceased to be fearful or even startled upon encountering snakes in my garden. They have become simply part of the family, as have many other creatures. From the earthworms, to the frogs, to the lizards, to the birds, turtles, snakes, coyotes, deer and so on, I encounter something different every day. Living from this land isn't just about the plants we put in place, it is about cohabitating with many things, weeds, pesky bugs, potentially dangerous critters, as well as the many benign and beneficial things we encounter.
We continue to learn to appreciate the things with which we share this land and to appreciate their places in it.
Through this appreciation of other things, I learn to appreciate my place in the midst of it all.

Swallowtail butterfly encounter.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Aphid Anxiety

Ants "farm" aphids for their "honeydew." The presence of ants
can indicate the presence of aphids.
Imagine my chagrin when I pulled back the row cover to find that my lovely crop of arugula had been heavily infested with aphids. This wasn't just a few aphids here and there, it was aphids, aphids everywhere.

Also under the row cover were my winter spinach, new spinach and some lettuce, none of which had the level of infestation (or any that I could tell at the time) as the arugula. A big question mark appeared over my head. Why the arugula?

I cut down all of the arugula and soaked it in a sink full of water. Draining and filling the sink again. Then draining and rinsing. That seemed to get all of the aphids off, as I didn't find any when I used the arugula later.

Many people would reach for an insecticide of some kind when faced with such an infestation, but I like to let Nature take charge. The row cover came off to allow the lady bugs and lace wings, and whatever other things eat aphids, access to this veritable feast. It wasn't long before I saw shiny red lady bugs and even some of their fierce looking larvae crawling around in the spinach and lettuce. My heroes.

Lady bug comes to the rescue for aphid control. Wish I could have
gotten a shot of their dangerous looking larvae.
Aphids are relatively easy to control. A hard blast of water will knock them off. A spray of instecticidal soap, or a spray made with garlic and/or cayenne definitely discourages them. Those things also discourage aphid predators, so I took no further action. The aphids have moved into the spinach and lettuce next to the arugula, but it is a light infestation and lady bugs are on patrol. All is well.

While row cover thwarts the advances of many plant-eating insects, aphids are not repeled. I have found heavy infestations on my cole crops under cover. A solution exists, however. Plant onions.

Last year I planted onions along the edges of the broccoli, kale, collards and cabbage beds to make more efficient use of the space. One small bed of kale and collards did not have onions planted in it. The kale and collards in the no-onion bed eventually were covered with aphids and I had to get rid of them. The other cole crop beds with onions in them remained virtually aphid-free.

So, you see, I am not really anxious about aphids. Not with onions, lady bugs and lace wings on my side.

Friday, May 20, 2011

The Lettuce Report

Carmona. A butterhead type. Resists bolting. Stands up to heat and cold.
It's back.
This past winter you were spellbound by my adventures in growing lettuce through the winter.
You cheered when the lettuce survived bitter cold.
Winter lettuce under plastic with lights on a string for warmth.
You cried when the lettuce finally died.

The lettuce saga has been revived. On Tuesday I picked a large basket full of lettuce, mostly romaine. Instead of cutting off the whole plant, I just take the largest leaves and let the rest grow.

This winter I purchased seed for 14 different types of lettuce with varying degrees of tolerance to heat and cold. As the season progresses, the type of seed I plant will change. 
This was suppose to be RED Deers Tongue.

So far, I have made three succession plantings of lettuce. The first planting was made in early March, under plastic hoop houses. The plastic was later replaced by a heavy row cover. The row cover is off of one of the beds, which also has spinach and arugula. I removed the row cover after finding the arugula heavily infested with aphids. But that's another post.

Green Salad Bowl
Germination of the spring lettuce has been spotty, leaving gaps in the rows. Do I get some areas covered too deeply? Or not covered well enough? Do the beds not remain damp enough? I don't know why germination is so poor. The Super Jericho romaine has been a champion, though. It has germinated well, when others didn't. This is quite a robust variety.

Other varieties planted in March were Carmona, Red Deers Tongue and Green Salad Bowl. All are said to stand up well in cold and heat.

Super Jericho Romaine truly is super!
In April, the second planting went in -- May Queen (I just like the name), Royal Oakleaf (keeps coming back after cutting), Buttercrunch (tender and tasty) and more Super Jericho Romaine. The third planting made in early May finished off my Super Jericho seed. The other varieties planted then were selected for their resistance to bolting and tolerance of heat: Red Sails, Merveille de Quatre Saisons (aka Marvel of Four Seasons), Merlot (a rich red leaf) and New Red Fire. These were planted in what will eventually be the shade of tomatoes.

Buttercrunch, way too crowded. But I hate thinning.
The next planting will go in a spot where they will be shaded by okra. I will plant these heat resistant varieties, plus one or two more, maybe.

I bought seed for a crisp head lettuce called Summertime. By its name, you can pretty much guess it is suppose to stand up to hot weather. I have never grown crisp head lettuce (the common iceberg is a crisp head type), so I'm feeling a little wary. I will probably start that indoors and set it out as transplants -- if it is not too late.

Anyway, only time will tell if these so called heat resistant varieties really do stay sweeter when the temperatures remain in the upper 80s and 90s.

The third planting is just now sprouting.
Writing this, I am beginning to wonder if we will have too much lettuce. Once the spinach quits, the lettuce will be our only salad green. So maybe not. Maybe it is a good thing the lettuce is germinating poorly.

Growing leafy greens, such as lettuce, means feeding them well. The soil was enriched with compost and horse manure before planting. During the growing season, I will give them supplemental feedings of fish emulsion or manure tea. Of course, that may be mere fantasy on my part. I have a tendency to get distracted and procrastinate these things.

This survivor from last fall made a pretty
effect as it prepared to flower. And it was not
really bitter.
Come fall I will plant the more cold tolerant varieties. I am eager to see if the Winter Density Romaine does as well as Super Jericho. The fall/winter lettuce will first be protected by heavy row cover, then by plastic. I do not know whether I will use the lights again, or the black-painted buckets of water for warmth on the colder nights. I may mix it up and see what really works. Throwing sheets and blankets over the tunnels at sundown definitely helps stabilize the temperature inside.

This is probably enough about lettuce for now. I don't want you to tire of this saga before it really gets started. I will keep you updated on how the different varieties fare.

For now, lettuce say, "Farewell."

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Unexpected Harvest

Today I spied this brilliant indigo bunting just outside the window.

The Lettuce Report is coming soon.

As (unusually good) luck would have it, I had my camera in my hand. I had just picked it up to download photos for this blog. The first shot with my short lens gave me a tiny bird in the middle of the frame. Fortunately, the bunting was busy eating seeds or bugs and I had time to change lenses for this closer shot. The gray day and rain-dampened grass made the colors stand out fabulously.

Not the largest head, but a beauty.
Which goes to show that you should always be ready for the unexpected on the farm. For example, on Tuesday morning I had planned to pick spinach and lettuce, then plant the eggplants. After harvesting a couple of pounds of spinach and a pound and a half of lettuce, I peered through the row cover over the broccoli beds to see if anything was forming. To my surprise, the broccoli was ready to cut.

One of two baskets full of broccoli.
 So, instead of planting eggplants, I spent much of the rest of the morning harvesting broccoli heads and greens (the leaves of the broccoli plant are tasty, too). Eleven pounds of broccoli heads and 9 pounds of greens. Yesterday, I spent much of the afternoon steaming and freezing that harvest, four gallon size bags of heads and two of greens. Now I will wait for little side shoots to form on the broccoli, and for the remaining leaves to get large enough to harvest.

The equipment dirtied during the freezing frenzy last night has yet to be cleaned. We decided to sauna, watch a video and leave the kitchen cleaning undone until this morning, when I am stuck inside due to the much needed rain.

A pile of broccoli greens.
 I also was excited to see that some of the cauliflower is starting to form heads and the cabbage heads are swelling. Our main crop of these cole veggies will go in this fall, when they will mature during cool days. Then I will turn some of the cabbage into sauerkraut and put a lot of greens away in the freezer for winter use.

I did plant some of the eggplants on Tuesday afternoon, and the rest went in yesterday morning.

If only all of the unexpected things on the farm were as delightful as those detailed here.

Monday, May 16, 2011

But It's May!

Valerian's sweetly fragrant flowers. A sure sign it's May.
Last night was a hold-my-breath-and-hope-for-the-best night.
I checked the weather report right before turning in and found that they had lowered the anticipated low by 2 degrees and warned of "patchy frost."
What? It is the middle of May!
My tomatoes! My peppers!
The tomatoes were planted in late April, shortly after our average last frost date. I expected it to be cool for a while, so covered them with a "frost blanket," an extra heavy row cover. I would have waited to plant them if I would have known the temperature was going to drop into the mid- to upper 30s a couple of nights later.
Old-fashioned iris, with a fragrance like the first breath of fresh air.
The tomatoes survived the brush with a "patchy frost," but many have spotted leaves. I don't know whether it is disease or an expression of unhappiness about the weather. They keep growing, though. So I will dose them with  fish emulsion, then spray with an organic fungicide, to see if that gets rid of the spots.
Early last week, I figured the weather was safe enough to plant the peppers.
It was just after 9 p.m. last night when I saw the caution for "patchy frost." I was tired after serving tofu chili, roasted carrots and asparagus, and spinach salad to my family, topping it with flourless chocolate cake in belated honor of Ivy's 3rd birthday; then watching presents being unwrapped, taking the said 3-year-old down to the pond to throw in rocks and then sliding down the slipper slide.
So I did not go out and cover the tender plants. I have extra peppers, I rationalized. If they were lost to frost, I could replace some of them. As for the tomatoes... I could probably find some nice heirloom plants at the farmer's market. The eggplants are still safe on the front porch.
This morning the temperature fell to only 39 before the sun popped over the trees, not exactly happy pepper weather, but not pepper-frosting weather. The gamble was won.
Juniper berries are swelling.
While the middle of April is our average last frost date -- when we usually see the last frost -- the middle of May is our "frost free date," the point at which we can actually feel certain we'll have no more frosts. I remember one year, though, when they warned of possible frost during Memorial Day weekend at the end of May.
The forecast for this week looks more promising, with temperatures in the 70s and thunderstorms rolling in during the latter part of the week. We need both warmer temps and some good rain. I planted lots of seeds last week just before a "rain" that gave us only 0.15 of an inch. Not enough! We've got new trees and blueberry bushes, as well as newly planted peppers, that need plenty of moisture.
Hoping we're finally in late spring, I will plant out the eggplants today or tomorrow. The garden is always a gamble. If we don't get an extra late frost, we could get hail. Or drought. Or too much rain.
You've got to roll the dice sometime, and just hope you don't lose everything.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Sometimes You've Gotta Be Ugly

Showy primrose. Lovely.
We are hosting a 3rd birthday party for granddaughter Ivy on Sunday. It is nearly a month late because of various scheduling obstacles, but the time has arrived.
That means we'll spend tomorrow mowing and trimming outside, and cleaning inside.
It also means my husband will probably ask me again how long the large pieces of plastic weighted down with boards and rocks must stay in place.
"At least until the end of the month, until I am sure it's dead," will be my reply.
Until what's dead? you ask.
The showy primrose.
I don't blame him for wondering when the plastic can be removed. It's ugly, I agree. And it is at the front of the house, where everyone sees it. However, I am not removing the plastic until I am certain the primrose is good and dead. Long gone. Pushing up daisies. Not before the battle is done and the war is won.

I know, dear. It is ugly.
When we moved here nearly four years ago, no garden beds had been prepared. The only hospitable places for the bits and pieces I transplanted from the garden I had lived in for the previous five years, were right next to the house. I had considered this a temporary siting for the plants. For most, it became permanent. Some have been divided for use elsewhere, and others are just now being moved to other locations.
Knowing the invasive nature of the showy primrose (Oenothera speciosa) I did not plant it in the ground, but kept it in a pot. That winter, I sunk the pot (as well as those containing comfrey and some others) into the ground to protect the roots from cold.
The next spring, much to my chagrin, the pot contained no sign of showy primrose. However, the plant had somehow crept out of the pot and into the soil around it. It immediately began consuming real estate.
Showy primrose is a beautiful flower. A mass of the large pale pink blossoms is quite lovely to behold.
But once the blooms are gone, it is not much to look at. And it is not just invasive, it tries to take over everything. Oh sure, other plants come up through it. Just look at all the weeds. It makes weeding more difficult and doesn't look pretty when the flowers are gone. Ugly, in fact.
The showy primrose hasn't gotten too uppity in this spot.
Other priorities have kept me from dealing with the primrose in a dramatic way. I've just had to be content with holding back its borders. Yet it continued to gain territory.
So this year, I decided something had to be done. I knew it would get ugly.
A couple of years ago I planted a couple of bits of the primrose in a little decorative spot in our gathering area, by the fire ring, where it had less cushy conditions -- hard clay soil, for one thing. At first I thought it was going to die. It rallied, although it has not exhibited quite the enthusiasm for conquest as the stuff in the flower bed. Perhaps I speak too soon, but it's wanderings won't be as unwelcome there as in the flower bed by the house.
Primrose with one of the stone people.
Last year I saw bees visiting the primrose blossoms, so before I laid the plastic, I dug up a few bits and have planted them in a grassy area near the beehive. They'll have plenty of tough competition for space, so I don't expect it to spread much.
I spent part of a day rummaging for large bits of plastic -- the packaging from my large rolls of row cover, heavy trash bags, etc. It's only about an 8x8 foot square, but that's a lot of area. I weighted edges with scrap lumber and rocks.
Every so often I find a bit of green peeping out from the edge, but I crush its advance.
It has been in place about a month, maybe more. And I'm not removing it until I am sure it's dead.
I know it's ugly.
Sometimes, you've just gotta go there.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Tastes Like...

Rain on a collard leaf.
A rainy day gives my body a break from the shovel and allows me to blog a bit without feeling guilty.
Late April and the whole month of May are busy times in the garden. Planting is in full swing and everything is sprouting, budding and otherwise getting ready to produce berries, leaves, flowers and so on.
Collard flower bud.
Last fall's kale and collards are still providing us with just enough greens that we don't have to buy greens. But these plants are getting serious about flowering and setting seed. I keep nipping off the flower bud stalks, but they just keep growing more.
I was simply discarding the flower buds, but the other day I paused. Kale, collards and broccoli are essentially the same plant. They are just different cultivars selected for different characteristics, from what I understand of their biology and geneaology. Kale and collard flower buds and flowers look just like broccoli flower buds and flowers, they just grow in much smaller clusters.
Couldn't I just eat these flower stalks I keep cutting back? We eat the greens off of the broccoli, so why not eat the flower buds from the collards? The worst thing is that they wouldn't taste good.
Columbine flowers. Pretty, but can you eat them?
So I cut one and took a nibble.
It tasted like...
Needless to say, all the other flower bud stalks will go into the basket with the greens.
Collards. Many parts are edible. (For those who remember Euell Gibbons.)

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

May, we continue

The buddha by our door, with sweet woodruff at his knees.
Yesterday turned out to be quite a lovely day, in spite of a (possible) frosty beginning.
The tomato plants are fine. The asparagus is fine and rising rapidly. I picked another half pound yesterday, even though I'd picked that amount on Sunday. Asparagus season is here.

Sweet woodruff.
 The sweet woodruff is in bloom, a true sign that May has begun. This lovely flowering ground cover prefers areas with shade. The small stand that I have gets late morning and afternoon shade, but is exposed to the full morning sun. Which causes it to faint a bit in the summer. Once we've got the root cellar built and the other development to the north of the house done, I can build a shade garden there, with woodruff and hostas. For now, however, I just take advantage of the little bits of shade I can find.

The perennial woodruff is related to cleavers, that grasping little annual weed that pops up in early spring. I use cleavers in tinctures to cleanse and support my lymphatic system, which is part of the immune system. You can see the relation between the two plants in the way their leaves are situated in whorls around the stem.

Woodruff is used to flavor May wine, which is traditionally drunk on May Day, May 1. Cheap white wine is steeped with woodruff, lemon, strawberries, and whatever else happens to be in your particular recipe.

When dried, woodruff has a delightful vanilla-like scent. Although it prefers moist soil and looks delicate, it will survive some drought and other adverse conditions.

Mystery flowers in a tree.
A couple of weeks ago I was down by the sauna and, looking out into the naked woods, wondered what those dark blobs were along the branches of a small tree. Upon closer inspection, I discovered deep purple, bell-shaped blossoms.

This looked significant. With flowers of that size, it had to be a wild fruit of some kind. Most of the native wild fruits with which I am familiar bear white flowers in the spring -- such as the wild plum and service berry. I could think of only one other native wild fruit tree, one which had never been identified for me. So when I looked in my Kansas tree book I went straight to...

Paw paw flowers.
The paw paw.

Last fall, a friend had posted on a social Web site that he was searching for a place to go pick paw paws and put them in a basket. I was sure we had to have paw paws in our woods, but I didn't know what one looked like. After finding this one near the sauna, I noticed another one in the woods by the swing set. I had wondered for the past two summers what that small tree with the large leaves was. A paw paw.

I tied bright cloth to the small trees so I would know them later and could check them for fruit. I have never eaten paw paws, but apparently they are perfectly ripe for about five minutes, before which they are inedibly green and after which they are rotten.

However, feeding myself from the land means taking advantage of wild foods when you can, not just planting them. So I will invite my friend over to pick paw paws this fall -- if these bear fruit.

When the leaves started unfurling on the paw paws, I noticed a small one that hadn't bloomed, and of a size that could be fairly easily transplanted. Hmmmm.....

That thought lingering, I must leave you. It is just after 7 a.m. and the sun has popped up over the trees. Time to head outside. The world was filled with gray light already when we rose at 5:45 this morning. Another sign that May is here.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Bringing in May with a Brrrr!

Mayapples in our woods.
So, it is the second day of May and I wake to frost on the car windows, even though the thermometer says 35. I hope the frost blanket over the tomatoes was enough to protect them. I will check them this afternoon, when they have had time to assimilate the effects (if any) of the frost. The frost will just make the collards and kale sweeter. The blackberry and raspberry buds were still tightly closed last time I looked, so they should be fine. Last night, I noticed more asparagus of a pickable size, although I had just been a picking that morning. I don't know how susceptible they are to light frost. Guess I will find out.

I will check all those things later. Now I've got to throw on heavy work clothes to head down below and work in the orchard. A couple of neighbor girls (teenagers) are coming to help me weed and feed and mulch. By "neighbors," I mean that they live within two or three miles of us. The term is used differently in the country than in the city. One girl is saving to buy a horse and the other wants money for a trip to France. They get to start their job here on a very chilly morning.

The forecast declares we'll have patchy frost again tonight. After that, the weather looks more May-like. I hope it sticks.