Monday, October 26, 2020

Tucking the Garden in Against the Cold


This view from my back door three weeks ago shows two seasons. The zinnias and amaranth coloring the middle ground are remnants of summer. Autumn shows itself in the red of the sumac leaves at the edge of the woods in the back, the thinning of the tree leaves, and the robust kale in the foreground, along with the white tunnels (barely showing to the left) protecting cabbages and lettuce of the autumn/winter garden.

A few days after I took the photo, the sumac dropped its leaves and the trees were more bare. The weather, though seemed more like late spring or early summer. We were hoping for some light freezes to sweeten the kale and cabbage. We did have a couple of frosts, but not freezes. Then early last week I looked at the forecast and nearly panicked. Snow and ice today and a low of 20 degrees Fahrenheit tomorrow (Tuesday) morning were expected.

This was the scene today. One season. Winter.

The kale is now under cover, as are  other autumn/winter vegetables.
Twenty degrees is awfully cold and would damage pretty much all of my autumn/winter crops without protection, even though they are considered "cold hardy" and "frost tolerant."

I started my three days of protecting my preciouses on Thursday. Winter seemed so far away as the sunny day temp climbed into the mid- or upper-80s. In the morning I faced the day with some dread. The job ahead seemed so enormous. But I got a lot done that day, easing the pace for the following two days.

I spent those three days tearing apart hay bales, piling hay around vegetables, and covering them with a heavy row cover (frost blanket) designed to give a few degrees of protection against cold -- over many things, two layers. The rutabagas got just hay, because I'm only concerned with protecting the roots. Most root vegetables will remain good in the ground, under a heavy mulch of hay, even though their tops might be killed. You can then dig or pull them through the winter, as long as the ground does not freeze.

Once I felt that everything was safe and cozy I began to wonder just how cold hardy all those vegetables were. 

Most of the Web sites I visited had two lists that varied only slightly: one list was for vegetables damaged with a light frost (28-31 degrees Fahrenheit); and the other those damaged by a hard frost, 25 to 28 degrees.
Just a pretty picture: Pink celosia in the snow.

But being a little damaged by low temperatures is not the same as being left inedible or dead. Then I stumbled across a blog by a woman (I'm sure I saw her speak once, at a Mother Earth News Fair several years ago) who, over several years, documented the temperatures at which various vegetables were killed. Blogger and author Pam Dawlings has decades of farming experience and for 20 years was the manager of the vegetable and berry gardens at the Twin Oaks Community in central Virginia. I was happy to see her information because it eased my mind; my efforts will most certainly keep my veggies safe tonight.

Rather than repeat her information, you can read the blog yourself. Some of the vegetables she noted as remaining alive until really cold temps in the teens I grow, such as Red Russian kale and Merveille des Quatre Saisons lettuce. They'll be just fine.

In a few days, temps will warm considerably and I can remove some of the row cover and see my beautiful vegetables again. And I'll sleep better tonight.

Sunday, August 2, 2020

We Are Not Alone

One of the many tenants of our place, a wheel bug searching for a green caterpillar to munch on. These guys are numerous
this year. They are everywhere I look. They also enjoy walking along the edge of the brim of my garden hat.
Carrying a large basket filled with freshly picked collard greens I headed toward the back door. Before reaching the stone steps I paused.
"Oh shit."
I marched into the house and said, "We've got another one."
My husband knew what I meant.
I donned my work boots and we went outside to catch ourselves a snake, a venomous copperhead snake. They live on the rocky, wooded hillsides that surround our house. We know they are there, and don't worry. They are welcome there, but not in the gardens, and certainly not in the terraced flower garden that wraps around the house.
As I'd walked from the garden I'd noticed the copperhead curled on a large stone at the bottom of the terraced garden. I think it noticed me when I saw it, because it seemed to recoil slightly, but did not move away.
We had captured and relocated another copperhead just a few days early, so the snare, a board and a five-gallon bucket had been left by the back door -- just in case.

One thing you learn quickly when you live in the country, especially with woods all around is that you are not alone. This is not "your" place. It belongs to all the creatures that live there and they care nothing about your rules, your "supposed to..."

A few days earlier I had stepped out the back door to go cut some herbs for tea when I noticed a tall piece off grass sticking up out of the patch of oregano by the steps. I reached over and pulled the grass easily from the soft soil. Just after the grass came free a copperhead slid through the oregano and into a space in the stacked stone terrace wall.
I felt no shock of adrenaline, just, well, I'd call it chagrin. That's the best word I can find.
"No, no, no. You're not supposed to be here. You're supposed to stay in the woods," I said.
But what do wild creatures know of human rules? "Supposed to? What does that mean?"
A little later, the snake showed itself and we attempted to capture it, but it disappeared into the rocks again.
The next morning my husband came in and said, "Let's catch ourselves a snake."
We got it, but not without a struggle. It had come only halfway out of the rock wall and when we tried to pull, it snugged itself in tightly. I felt nothing but compassion and love for this terrified creature -- a great change since the first time we encountered copperheads here.
The snake finally went into the bucket, I clapped on the lid and we took it for a ride, to a place where the creek comes close to the road, and set it free. I blessed it as it moved away. We also were successful in relocating the second snake and have encountered no more, although I scrutinize the flower garden every time I am on that side of the house, looking for the coppery markings.

Flutter, flutter.

We are not alone. I am reminded of that every day. Birds sing songs of love and competition. Vultures glide against the clear blue sky. Geese filled our little pond in early spring. Frogs sing at night. Toads hide in the damp soil of my potted porch plants. Bees hum busily at the flowers and butterflies flutter, flutter, flutter by. Rabbits dance in the clearings in the evening and dig, dig, dig in the mulched garden paths at night. Raccoons (or opossums) feast on cantaloupe the day before I plan to harvest it. Squirrels steal peaches and apples.

So I make adjustments. Chicken wire fences surround the vegetables most likely to be eaten by rabbits. A five-gallon bucket is upended over a nearly-ripe cantaloupe and weighted down with a rock (a bigger rock this time) to thwart midnight thieves. (Still haven't figured out how to thwart squirrels.) I plant flowers for the bees and butterflies. When I worked to clear away nearly finished compost and found snake eggs (most likely black rat snake; copperheads give live birth) I worked around them and left the eggs as undisturbed as possible. I hope they are still viable. Supposedly, black rat snakes help keep venomous snakes at bay, as well as catching mice and rats and baby rabbits. Life has its checks and balances.

We are not alone. Even though sometimes the critters here can be a nuisance, they are part of this land. They belong here as much as I do, maybe more so. I can't claim ownership of this place. That's a human thing, and not even all humans believe in ownership of the Land. Animals don't honor property lines.

We are not alone. I am not in charge, definitely not in control. I can only manage things.. a bit. I'm the only one who cares about my "rules." Nature has her own rules and I must abide by those, as well.

We are not alone.

And I am glad of it.

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Bees in Trees!

Peach blossoms were in bloom on this spring evening of soft air with a breeze hinting of a little chill. Late working bees buzzed in the tree as the sun sank -- honey bees and bumblebees. We might have peaches again this year. Maybe I'll get them before the squirrels do.

Over by the cabbages a bumblebees worked the sweet blossoms in a patch thick with henbit.

My leeky garden bed. Yes there is room for carrots in there, too.
I wandered to the other garden area to view the newly planted rows of leeks. A total of 270 tiny leek plants are now in the ground. By fall the tiny things will become thick white bulbs and stems topped with green. I love leeks in my soups. This is more than twice what I planted last year. We'll see if that's enough.

In another bed I discovered the purple daikon seeds had started sprouting.

Are those tiny lettuce seedlings? And arugula!

Tomorrow-frail seeming lettuce seedlings, radicchio and fennel will go into the garden. 

Then rain will come (that's what they say, anyway; we missed the last two chances) and start to fill our rain tanks. 

Yesterday I planted 11 cabbage plants to replace the ones taken out by (grrrr%$##&) cutworms. Tonight I discovered one more had succumbed. The toilet paper roll cutworm collars aren't quite as effective as the newspaper collars. They worked fine last year. I guess the cutworms weren't as populous then.

But the cabbages are growing fine otherwise. Tonight I found another cabbage had bit the dust. I've got one more plant to replace it. If anymore get taken down I'll have to head to the nursery.

The raspberry plants (black and red) are waking up. It's time to prune. But first the early planting must be done.

Everything seems to be running on schedule, or even a little ahead. The weeds certainly seem to have gotten a running start. The only certain things in life are death, taxes and weeds in the garden.

But there are bees in the trees and leeks in the garden. All is well.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Spring Keeps Popping

Forsythia in full bloom! The redbud trees can't be far behind.

Did you know that the flowers of both are edible. Make a pretty salad.

And our rain tanks are clean-ish. They've been sitting all winter with four to six inches of water in them (just can't get them fully drained) and growing algae. Today I plopped (literally) myself down inside the 1,500-gallon tanks and lifted bucketfuls of water and algae up to my husband. I'm glad he likes me because I can't get out of the tanks on my own.

For a few years I could stand on a five-gallon bucket and power myself up and out. No more. Better get back to doing P90X!

Or not. But some strength exercises wouldn't hurt.

In the meantime I'll hack at the weeds and maybe eat some forsythia blossoms on my salad.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Season's Firsts

The vultures have returned.

No, this is not a joke. The turkey buzzards have returned from their winter vacations in the south.

Before you go ewwww! and make some joke about certain members of our governing body, I love vultures. I love watching them soar and swoop and rise on thermals. I love walking down the road and having a shadow glide down the road in front of me. I love when they swoop so low overhead that I can hear their wings cutting the air.

Vultures mean Summer.

I thought I saw the first one on Saturday, but it was so high and far away that I wasn't sure. On Sunday I saw one clearly enough for a positive ID. On Monday I saw two soaring together. This evening as we sat on the porch eating dinner, eight of them swooped and soared over our homestead.


Among other firsts:

On Sunday was the first harvest of the season: nettles, chickweed, dandelion greens, and wild lettuce, yummy nutritious wild greens.

On Monday I got my first tick bite. Tick checks every night now. I am much more likely to contract a tick-borne disease than one transmitted by other humans right now.

The photos are of kale that made it through the winter beneath a little protection, and now it's going gangbusters. This is Red Russian kale, aka Ragged Jack. It's my favorite variety, as it does well in cold and heat and I love the flavor. In a week or so we'll be harvest kale along with our wild greens. The green all around the kale is mostly henbit. Yes it's a weed. It popped up as winter set in and I let it grow because I didn't have any hay, so it served as a cover crop to keep the soil covered and the beneficial microorganisms therein happy. Late last week I chopped it down, which was quicker than pulling it all. It will pop up again, but I'll deal with that then.

In the meantime, Welcome back, turkey buzzards.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Business as Usual

On Monday the planting frenzy began. Thirty four baby cabbage plants went into the ground -- just the first wave. The goal is 80.

Yes it was too wet. Don't care. The forecast gets wetter. Fortunately today's wet forecast didn't manifest -- much. So I cleared the area where another 30 or more cabbages will go, planted peas, lettuce, radishes, beets, and arugula.

And tomorrow's forecast is dry, and Thursday's. But Friday gets damp again, so the next two days are plant, plant, plant. There are all those cabbages, plus broccoli, radicchio, fennel and celery, and seeds, seeds, seeds. I love it.

And while you all were making silly memes about using the cardboard cores of toilet paper rolls as "seeds" for more toilet paper I was actually putting those cardboard tubes in the garden. I cut them in two (two short tubes) and put them around each little cabbage I put in the ground to serve as cutworm "collars." The intent is that they will keep the cutworms from snipping off the little plants at ground level. At least an inch of the collar must be below ground and at least an inch above.

Cutworms are not "worms" but the larvae of a few species of moths, one of which we always called "millers." The larvae live shallowly in the soil and tunnel through popping up at night to wrap themselves around tender stems and cut them off, usually at soil level. They may or may not eat more of the plant. The larger the plant stem, the less likely it is to be nipped off, as the cutworm must be able to wrap completely around it to do its dirty work. If you see a plant nipped off by a cutworm, dig around the ravaged plant and you might find the squishy larvae that feasted on it. Or it might be by a nearby plant, waiting to eat it when night falls. Or you might not find it. They often are camouflaged so well that they are difficult to see in the soil.

Because they have to wrap all the way around a stem to cut it off, some people will stick nails or sticks right of against the stem to prevent the wrapping around. I've tried that. The stems are never straight enough and I couldn't get the nails to stay against the stems. One other method that does work that I have used is wrapping damp strips of newspaper around the stems as I plant them. Again part of the wrap must be below soil level and part above. Wrapping the stems with damp paper is more tedious and time consuming than using the toilet paper cores, but I use it when the cardboard tube supply runs out.

Also, yes, when you have to "mud in" your plants, you still need to water them in, even though the soil is wet already. Watering them in settles the soil in place.

We had some sun this afternoon, so tomorrow the soil will be drier, although still on the mud side. We do what we have to do. Tomorrow I plant. Thursday I plant. Friday I watch it rain again.

It's all business as usual.

Sunday, March 22, 2020


On the last Friday of February I was planning to head into town for the regular Final Friday art walk, looking forward to seeing interesting art, hearing some music, and maybe running into friends. But about the time I was thinking of getting ready to go I received a call from the Fire Chief.

He wasn't warning me about a fire, but proposing to set one. He'd just mowed the fire break around our field.

"Well let me know when you are going to burn," I said.

"Tonight," was the reply. "In about an hour."

"OH! OK." My plans changed quickly.

A small red cedar tree catches fire.
So an hour later I changed into something more appropriate for viewing a fire, grabbed the camera and walked down the hill. We had been wanting to burn this field for the last two years -- last year the weather did not cooperate, the year before I waited too late to contact the fire department. Since we'd waited so long, I was not at all disappointed in the change in plans, I was ecstatic.

The firefighters went around the perimeter of the field, spraying water on the mowed fire break and setting the dried grass aflame. It was glorious.

Fire is such an exciting entity. It feels alive; it "eats," moves, multiplies, then dies. I love fire. I think pretty much everyone loves fire. It is my belief that firefighters love fire, too. They respect it and strive to understand it. We all are drawn to fire, for comfort, for warmth, for companionship. Build a campfire and you will have visitors.

The fire lasted until after dark. At one point fire burned fiercely on both sides of the driveway where I stood. It was exhilarating, but really, really smoky. So I moved to clear air as quickly as possible.

Burning a field helps suppress woody plants and encourages grass. With the field blackened, the soil warmed quickly on sunny days and the field is now covered in a green fire that will continue for many months.

Fire destroys, and transforms, renews and regenerates.