Monday, November 28, 2011

Late Night in the Garden

I check the weather forecast almost every time I get online, which means I often check it several times a day -- because I might look for the daily highs one time, then look at the lows, then have to check again because I can't remember what the precipitation chances were. And then they change. Quite regularly. Especially when cold fronts are involved. Supposedly, cold fronts are less predictable than warm fronts.
Winter Density Romaine.
Anyway, I was winding down after a busy day on Saturday evening and checked the forecast (for the first time that day, actually) a few minutes before guests were to arrive.

I was not pleased when I saw that Sunday night's low was supposed to hit 17 degrees Fahrenheit.

"Ack! My lettuces!" was my immediate response. The weather had been quite lovely for November. Cold enough for a fire in the stove, but not so bitter I had to worry about the lettuce and cabbage and other cold-weather vegetables in the garden.

I knew the hard weather was coming, however. By Thanksgiving last year, I had the lettuce tucked under a plastic "low tunnel," with lights and black buckets full of water, and all kinds of contraptions for adding a few extra degrees of warmth. If you were around the blog last year, you read my tale of near disaster on the night before Thanksgiving. The weather this year was a bit kinder. Yet I had intended to put the plastic over my lettuce beds last week, so I wouldn't have to rush.

But, the forecast said rain on Friday. After this dry summer, I was not going to pass up a chance to get rain on the garden, so I postponed the plastic application. About an inch of rain fell Friday night, a very nice amount. I was glad the lettuces had gotten a final drink.
Rouge Grenobloise Lettuce. Don't ask me to pronounce it.
Saturday was spent preparing brussels sprouts for roasting and a tofu "turkey" (which I mangled, but it tasted good) for my family's Thanksgiving feasting on Sunday, and I cleaned the house for Saturday evening guests. Taking care of the lettuces could wait until Monday... or Tuesday, or even Wednesday.

When I saw the 17 degrees forecast for Sunday night, my heart sank. No time to do anything Saturday. No time before heading out on Sunday morning. I could look forward to hauling out the old sheets and blankets to cover the lettuce beds after getting home Sunday night. Yay.

So, after a feastful day with my family on Sunday, I arrived home after dark, put away the leftovers, changed into warm clothes and went out to the garden with a wheelbarrow full of old sheets and blankets. Frost was already forming on the grass and everything else by the time I went out. It was dark under a moonless sky. The outdoor light on the side of the garage gave marginal illumination of the garden.

Young Deerstongue Lettuce, still growing.
After a bit of wrangling with sheets and a little cursing (all right, a lot of cursing), I finally went inside for a headlamp. With the extra light, my job was easier and went more quickly. When the lettuce was tucked in I looked at the rows of kale, broccoli and brussels sprouts protected only by a thin row cover and hoped they could take the plunge in temperatures.

I went inside and immediately checked the forecast again, hoping for another change. Maybe 17 was a mistake. Good. They increased the low... to 19.

My husband asked about the brussels sprouts and other greens. Would they be OK? Should they be covered, too?

Oh, I don't know. (Big heavy sigh.) I'd have to get into the attic above the garage to get more sheets and blankets (which meant moving the cars), then go out into the cold, dark night. That's a lot of hassle.

How would you feel if you lost all of our winter greens? my husband asked.
Royal Oakleaf Lettuce. Very robust.
Not good -- Really, I would feel bad. (Another big heavy sigh.)

We moved the cars and got more sheets and blankets out of the attic, piled them in a wheelbarrow and went back out into the cold, dark night. This time I say we, which made the task easier to swallow.

Then we went to bed. The thermometer fell to 24 by the time we rose at 5:34 a.m.

I went out late Monday morning, when the thermometer had risen to the mid 30s. Shady spots still had frost on the ground, but the sun was shining and the air was calm, so it was pretty comfortable working in the garden. Later in the day, I had to take off my coat because I was sweating, although the temperature didn't get above 45.

A tiny little cauliflower head -- Finally!
Anyway, the lettuce made it. So did everything else. The still air made putting the plastic over the beds a fairly easy job. I picked some kale and collards, some more lettuce and three lovely cabbages. The heads were on the small side, but the big leaves that surrounded the heads were perfectly lovely and won't go to waste. The heads will become sauerkraut and the outer leaves will become cabbage soup.

Tonight's low is suppose to only fall to 29. Then tomorrow night it falls into the upper teens again. I guess winter has entered the stage.

I don't know whether I will bother with lights in the lettuce beds again. I did leaves some row cover scrunched to the side under the plastic tunnels, so I can easily cover the lettuces on the chillier nights. The sheets and blankets also will remain at ready for the really cold nights.

Now I will need to vent the plastic tunnels whenever the weather is warmer than 45 and sunny, so it doesn't get too hot in there. (Keep my eye on the weather forcast, whether it's up or down.) But the lettuce should keep growing for a little while, and with any luck, the radish seed I planted while the tunnels were open will sprout and give us early spring radishes. I haven't tried that before. We'll see. The garden is always an experiment.

Two Jersey Wakefield Cabbages and a romaine.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Farewell the Seed Catalog

Let's make no mistake, I am not a member of the cyber generation.
When I was growing up, cassette tapes for audio were a big deal. Eight track tapes were not quite yet passe. When I received a small cassette recorder/player, I was at the cutting edge of technology (I thought).

I don't listen to music on an iPod. I still have music on cassette tapes and even a number of movies on VHS. I don't listen or watch them, but I have them and I could play them. Most of our music is on CD and we watch movies on DVD.

I use a computer and the Internet (obviously). In the job I had before I became a full-time gardener, I used the computer extensively. We had begun to rely more on the Internet for business.

But I don't read books from a Kindle. I like holding the paper version in my hand, smelling the pages, curling up in a chair to read. I don't like reading long articles on a computer screen. I like shopping with a real catalog that I can curl up, dog-ear the pages, circle things or mark with an X, go back to it again and again without having to boot up before I make my decision.

Then I will go to the catalog online and order. That is convenient.

However, it is only a matter of time before paper catalogs cease to arrive in the mail. A few weeks ago I received an e-mail from a seed company of which I have been a long-time customer. They were going to an online only catalog. Today I opened my e-mail and found a message from them that began

"Fellow Gardeners,
"Today we officially introduce our new Virtual Catalog for 2012
" Our newly expanded list of seeds, plants and merchandise whets the appetite for the next round of gardening. This virtual catalog offers most of the experience of a paper format, an accessible index, a place to permanently maintain notes, it's a friendly format that can be enlarged for easy reading. Best of all, no more lost catalogs, chewing dogs or loaned it and it never came back. Please take a look, have some fun with it and let us know what you think…we want to make this work for everyone."

Sigh. No more curling up in a comfy chair by the fire with their catalog to dream and ponder. Doing business online only is like... well, like doing business. There just seems something wrong about not being able to hold the catalog in my hand and curl it and toss it on the floor, bend it back to mark a page... I don't have a dog to chew up things and I never lend a catalog that I don't have a second copy of.

I certainly understand the business sense of cutting costs and paper waste. It is practical. It is wise. It is even environmentally sound. I can applaud that.

But I will miss the tactile sensation of paper in hand. The sense of luxury of curling up in the chair, a mug of tea at my side. It's just not the same experience with the laptop.

I will adapt. I must. While you in the cyber generation scratch your heads and wonder "what's the big deal?" Many of you, perhaps, have never ordered anything from a paper catalog. But I remember the excitement when the large Sears "Wishbook" arrived in the mail. So long ago.

Sigh... Farewell to the paper catalog

Friday, November 18, 2011

Good Garagekeeping

Getting organized.
For three days this week we (hubby and I) cleaned the garage!
Yay! Cheers and huzzahs! Sparklers and ticker tape!
No, wait, forget the ticker tape. I just cleaned that.
After three winters of "intending to get to" the garage and clean and organize it, we have finally done it.
Not completed, but made major headway.
New shelves. Purdy!
My husband built another set of shelves, using up a good portion of the lumber that had been piled in the center of the garage. I sorted things into "to keep," "to sell," and "to take to the landfill" piles. (Some stuff had to be pried from my hands. What? You can't see how many different ways this piece of string can be used?)

The shelves are level!
We took some stuff to a small shed at the bottom of the hill. My husband now has a workbench and workspace.

All of the tools are more or less in one location! No more searching the entire garage for a screwdriver! (This is a big deal to me.)

Tomorrow we will do more work. I will stack things on the new shelves. Maybe we'll get a sturdy box built in which to keep all of our kindling. We won't be done by the end of the day on Saturday, but we will be able to put the tractor and at least one vehicle in the garage. And we won't be embarrassed to let people into our garage.

Next week I will head to the landfill with the unsalable junk and take old antifreeze to the county's household hazardous waste disposal site. Items are gradually being posted for sale. If we lived in town, I'd throw it all out on the lawn and have a garage sale. Oh well.

Once it's done, the real trick will be to keep it organized. It is way too easy to "just set it here temporarily," then never get things put "away." I just won't let that happen. No I won't.

Stuff still to be dealt with. Only some of it is junk.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Brussels Sprouts Longing

Churchill and Catskills varieties of brussels sprouts.
Three years of growing brussels sprouts and we have yet to get a sprout. The greens from the brussels sprouts are very delicious, so the crop is not a waste.

But we want sprouts.

Falstaff brussels sprouts.
My hubby thinks maybe we shouldn't harvest leaves, that maybe removing the leaves discourages the sprouts. However, removing the lower leaves was recommended in "Astrological Gardening," by Louise Riotte, to encourage sprouts. My online research also found that commercial growers strip their plants of leaves, and then at some point "top" them (cut out the top growing tip) to encourage all sprouts to mature at once.
After all that research, I have concluded that timing is the problem for us. I harvest the leaves just when little sprout buds start to form, but I should wait until they are obviously forming sprouts. And I plant too late.
Brussels sprouts require a long growing season, at least 90 days after transplant. While I had intended to plant my homegrown transplants in the garden in July (as Mrs. Riotte recommended), I just couldn't bring myself to expose the young plants to the 100-degree highs that we had every day in July. So I waited until early August, when it had cooled into the 90s.

Previous fall plantings had been done at the end of August and early September. Brussels sprouts are best when they mature in cool weather, so planting them really early in the season might get you sprouts (if you don't overcrowd them), but they don't taste as good as they do after a frost.

During a recent gathering with some friends, who also are avid gardeners, my husband turned the conversation to brussels sprouts. He always likes to get another opinion besides mine.

Could these be sprouts?!? Be still my pounding heart.
One person said she's never grown brussels sprouts because she'd always heard they were very finicky. The other one said that she gets sprouts. She plants them out in March, and she agreed, they do taste better once we've had a frost.

I know I need to plant them earlier, but do I really need to plant them in March? Or should I stick with the recommended mid-July planting date? Maybe do something in between, like May? Perhaps I should divide the crop up between all three planting dates.

And yet, it looks like maybe we will get sprouts... maybe. I saw some tiny sprouts on at least one plant today. Sprouts or no sprouts, they won't last past the point when the temperatures hit 20 degrees F. I will harvest what I can, sprouts and/or greens, when that time comes. For now, we'll harvest a few greens at a time and hope for sprouts.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Caught... Like a Rat

Caught like a rat in a trap.
The problem with woodpiles and woodsheds is that many little critters of the wild find them to be cozy nesting sites, with the wood shed being particularly attractive as winter approaches.

So we recently found ourselves setting a trap, yet again, to capture a pack rat, more officially known as the Eastern woodrat, Neotoma floridana. Lest you see the word "rat" and go "eww," these guys are actually quite cute. Their appearance is more mouse-like than rat-like, as their tails are covered in fur and they have large eyes.

Cuteness aside, their droppings make a mess and they are notorious for "collecting" things to build their nests (hence the name "pack" rat) and for chewing up rubbery stuff, like garden hoses and the insulation on automotive engines.

Apparently, they like onions, too. This summer, while my onions and garlic were curing on a rack in the garage, one of the critters snuck into said garage. One day as I opened the door between the house and garage I heard a "thump," such as our cat would make jumping down from a perch. But our kitty (named Juniper) was in the house at the time, so I became suspicious. Then I found an onion that had been partially eaten. I was certain that was not Juniper's doing. The pile of pack rat droppings confirmed all suspicions.
Pretty Juniper.
So we set the trap, baited with tasties such as raisins and walnuts. The next morning I opened the garage door to look at the trap and found the pack rat looking at me indignantly from its cage. The fact that Juniper (who spends all night and frequently much of the day in the garage) and the rat peacefully cohabited for several days caused my husband to point to it as proof that Juniper does not pull her weight around here and is pretty much worthless.
Those of you who also are not "cat people" would understand his position. Those of us who are cat people just roll our eyes and pity you for not understanding the value of cats.

So back to the rats...

Our live trap had been set up in the woodshed in anticipation of pack rats looking for winter digs. Yesterday my husband found the trap overturned and the bait stolen. So last night he set it up on the concrete floor of the porch next to the wood shed. It didn't take long for our intended victim to find itself trapped. We let it spend the night in its cage, so it could really think about its crime. This morning, I put the trap in the back of the pickup and drove to a pretty spot a couple of miles away and let it go.
The backside of the packrat running into its new home.
That's one pack rat down and a few hundred more to go.

You never have just one.
Pack rat's new home.
And, because it was pretty, the view across the road.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Pepper Passings

Your time is up, little pepper plant.
A south wind plays the chimes. The sun is out and warm. My gardening attire was a shirt and light skirt and I was, of course, barefoot.

It was a perfect day to pick plenty of pretty peppers. They were smooth and shimmery and almost all of them green. The pepper plants were a picture of health, lush and green, large-leaved with new growth. On such a beautiful day, why did I hack up the pepper plants, pull them out and toss them in the compost heap?

Because seasons turn.
While at this moment the thermometer says that it is 78 degrees F outdoors, tomorrow's temperature will peak in the mid-50s by mid morning, then fall throughout the day. The low tomorrow night -- or rather Thursday morning -- will fall just below freezing. Thursday night to Friday morning, the low will fall below freezing  again.

The forecast for the days following is not a promising one for heat-loving peppers. The cool weather wouldn't have killed them (if I'd covered them on the two nights of freezing), but it won't be enough to let them grow.

When it's time, it's time. I have conceded to winter. The last of the summer vegetables has left the garden. We do have plenty of cole crops -- I harvested a big, beautiful broccoli head yesterday and lovely lacinato kale today. And the lettuce is fabulous. Yet summer is gone and winter is on its way. The wheel turns. Just let go.

Found a couple of these stuck to bell pepper stems. It is the egg case of a
praying mantis. I put them in a nearby cedar tree for protection from winter