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Early spring, exhausted gardener. March 20, 2012

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, homesteading.
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Happy spring, everyone! Our friend Ben read a cartoon in today’s paper with this quote from Robin Williams: “Spring is nature’s way of saying ‘Let’s party!'”

Ha. Robin Williams clearly is no gardener. Our friend Ben would put it quite differently: Spring is nature’s way of saying “Hurry up and get your lazy butt out here and start cleaning up and planting before you have weeds up to your neck, a full-on case of poison-ivy, and your visitors are all saying ‘Garden? What garden?!!'”

An early spring is certainly a beautiful thing. In our yard, the forsythia and daffodils add their cheerful sunny hues to the last of the snowdrops and crocuses, while the hellebores are in full bloom and our island bed is a sea of blue Siberian squill. Silence Dogood and I are very aware of them, and everything else that’s pushing through the soil (not to mention the budswell on the trees, shrubs and vines) as we frantically try to compress what should be a couple of months’ cleanup chores into a couple of weeks.

As everyone with a yard knows, if you wait too long to clean away last season’s debris, it takes twenty times as long to do the cleanup, since you’re desperately trying to avoid hurting the plants’ new growth. Many people take everything back to the ground in fall to avoid the spring rush, but Silence and I prefer to leave the plants up until spring to provide winter shelter and food for birds and overwintering beneficial insects.

We do clean out our veggie garden in the fall. But if your garden is like ours, you’ll know that, try as you might to eradicate them, lawn grass and weeds have an amazing way of not just sneaking back into your raised beds but coming up and spreading before you know it (and sneaking back and sneaking back and…). So in addition to clearing out all our ornamental beds, shrub and tree borders, and Cultivated Wild Meadow, we’ve been frantically weeding the veggie beds. And conditioning the soil. And sowing cold-tolerant greens, onions and radishes.

And the fun is just beginning. There’s also the little matter of what’s dead and what’s alive in terms of our rose and raspberry canes. The need to prune fruit trees and vines before the sap really starts running (good luck with that this year!). And the need to get any new fruit trees, shrubs and vines ordered and planted ASAP so they can get a decent start on the growing season.

There’s also the little matter of our 100-odd container plants. Most of them spend the winter in our greenhouse, but Silence insists on keeping a couple dozen or so in the house at all times for our visual pleasure and the oxygen they add to our indoor air. Our friend Ben and Silence have noticed that most of these plants fail to appreciate the low-light winter conditions coupled with our warm and welcoming 50-degree winter thermostat setting. (We can only sympathize.)

So now Silence is adding to the spring-gardening chaos by rushing these valiant but depleted plants out to the greenhouse and replacing them with stout, hardy specimens that will brighten the house and clean our indoor air. (Our friend Ben suspects that this is just a scheme to buy new plants, but Silence has such an eye for gorgeous container combinations, and selecting the plants makes her so happy, I figure the better part of valor is to just shut up and enjoy the results.)

We’re still facing the Herculean task of hauling all the plants that have spent the winter in our greenhouse out to the deck, but even Silence and I aren’t such optimists that we’d dare to do that in march here in USDA Plant Hardiness Zone 6! And then we’ll give the greenhouse a thorough going-over, and maybe plant some crops in its in-ground bed.

Just thinking about it all (plus several hours of early-morning yardwork) have yours truly craving a nice, long nap. But before I fall over, let me mention one of my favorite cheap, dual-purpose tips for adding spring color to your home and landscape: Buy pots of “Tete-a-Tete’ mini-daffodils (available here now for as little as $2.50 a pot). These little yellow daffs are guaranteed to brighten any winter-weary home. Once the blooms fade, plant them out where you’d enjoy their color each spring. We buy two pots each spring for our kitchen table, so our early-spring landscape display now boasts many bursts of sunny yellow blooms. It’s the best $5 investment our friend Ben can think of, since returns are guaranteed!



Get up and grow! March 18, 2012

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, homesteading.
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With gorgeous sunny blue skies and daytime temps edging into the 70s, you can bet our friend Ben and Silence Dogood have been outside getting our gardens ready to grow. We’ve been weeding our raised veggie beds and amending them with our own rich compost and composted cow manure from one of our favorite nurseries, James Weaver’s Meadowview Farm in nearby Bowers, PA. We’ve been cleaning out the greenhouse in anticipation of moving the endless container plants that spend each winter there onto our deck for the season. And of course, we’ve been checking our stash of seeds and planning what we’ll plant in each bed.

Mind you, there’s plenty already going on in our two perennial vegetable and herb beds. In the allium/herb bed, the walking onions, garlic, garlic chives, chives and shallots (all perennial crops with us) are coming on strong, along with thyme, peppermint and cilantro. We’ll be adding more herbs once we feel we can trust the weather to stay mild. (Usually we wait until May, but given our mild winter, we’re very tempted to move that up to mid-April. We shall see.)

Horseradish, rhubarb and comfrey are breaking ground in our perennial vegetable bed; no sign of the asparagus yet, but we’re watching. And Silence is planning to add Jerusalem artichokes to the bed this year, maybe even today; she has some nice, fat organic tubers. (Jerusalem artichokes are in the sunflower family and produce cheerful sunflowers, but it’s their tubers that are harvested for eating raw in salads or cooked.) This is also our catnip bed; we hope the minty catnip repels (or at least confuses) pests, and even if it doesn’t, we have three cats and they thank us.

Rain has been surprisingly scarce the past two weeks, but is predicted for tomorrow, so Silence is eager to sow cold-hardy greens and the like in our biggest bed this afternoon. Because this bed is now shaded by two of our apple trees, which turned out not to be nearly as “super dwarf” as their labels claimed and somebody’s (not, of course, to mention Silence by name) optimism warranted, we’ve devoted it to the production of shade-tolerant greens, plus early-spring salad crops like radishes, bunching onions, and snow and snap peas. We love greens raw and cooked, and usually include them in at least two meals a day (in soup and/or a sandwich for lunch, and as a cooked side and a salad at supper). And many are cold-tolerant, a definite bonus when trying one’s luck by seeding them in early spring.

Before moving on to what we’ll be sowing in the shaded bed, our friend Ben would like to point up an aspect of climate change, global warming, and weather in general that is really disturbing. It also shows us that the interactions in our gardens are far from simple, and could go some way toward explaining why simplistic “solutions” to garden problems often don’t work, backfire, or work less well than expected.

So, for a minute, let’s get back to those apple trees—and our pear trees, peach tree, pluot, elderberries, blueberries, strawberries, grapes and other fruits whose buds are now swelling in preparation to bloom. Orchardists hate early bloom, since the flowers and developing fruit are subject to late frosts. If a frost hits while flowers are open, the result is frozen flowers and no fruit. If a frost hits the developing fruit, the result is usually dead fruit. And since fruit trees flower only once a year, if the flowers or fruit are killed, the whole year’s crop is lost.

This would be depressing enough for backyard gardeners like us. But what about orchardists who make their living growing fruit? Unlike vegetable gardeners, who can simply replant, the fruit grower’s harvest and income is lost for the year. (Yet another argument for diversification.) This may result in an even more horrific situation: orchards being sold off to make yet more McMansion-packed “house farms.”

And there’s another factor to consider: pollination. Unlike nuts, which are wind-pollinated, fruits are bee-pollinated. Honeybees, our chief pollinators, are already under attack from parasites and fungal disease, and their numbers have dropped dramatically. But what if unusually warm winters and springs wake up the plants before the bees?

Certainly, Silence and I haven’t seen any bees buzzing around here, yet our fruit trees are in bud and their flowers will open within a week or two. If they bloom before the bees emerge, we won’t get fruit; and if the bees emerge after bloom, they won’t get food. And what if the warmer weather favors the proliferation of the mites and fungi that attack bee colonies? This is a lose-lose situation for all concerned. Much as we love a mild winter and early spring, it’s not worth losing our bees, fruit, and many of our bee-pollinated vegetable crops. 

But let’s get back to seed-sowing. Silence and I believe in patronizing as many seed companies and local seed-selling businesses as possible, since our goal is to keep local businesses carrying seed and as many seed companies as possible in business. This particular batch, for example, includes seed packs from Baker Creek Heirloom Seed, Rohrer Seeds, Renee’s Garden, The Cook’s Garden, Burpee, The Thomas Jefferson Center for Historic Plants, Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, Botanical Interests, Seeds of Change, Agway, Shepherd’s Garden Seeds, and Happy Cat Farm.

Our technique is simply to scatter the seeds randomly over the bed, with the exception of the snow and sugar snap peas, which we plant in a row along a trellis we push into the soil along one end and part of the back of the bed. Then we drag the back of a raking fork over the bed to lightly cover the seeds with soil and to make sure they’re in good contact with the soil so they don’t try to root into thin air. When the seeds come up, since all the greens are edible—even the pea shoots—if some are too close, as they inevitably will be, we thin them and use the thinnings as microgreens and, later, mesclun mix in our salads. We’ll also transplant as needed to fill any bare spots.

Ready for our seed list? It’s pretty sizeable, but remember, we’re talking about a 4-by-16-foot bed. And we do eat a lot of greens! Here you go: ‘Ruby Streaks’ mustard greens, ‘Mizuna’ mustard greens, ‘Southern Giant Curled’ mustard greens, ‘Buttercrunch’ lettuce, ‘Grand Rapids’ lettuce, ‘Royal Oak Leaf’ lettuce, ‘Salad Bowl’ lettuce, ‘Red Salad Bowl’ lettuce, ‘Ruby’ lettuce, ‘Black Seeded Simpson’ lettuce, ‘Lollo Rossa’ lettuce, ‘Troutback’ lettuce, ‘Blush Butter Cox’ lettuce, ‘Red Ruffled Oak’ lettuce, ‘Red Devil’s Tongue’ lettuce, ‘Sucrine’ lettuce,  ‘Mammoth Melting Sugar’ snow peas, ‘Super Snappy’ sugar snap peas, curly endive, arugula, wild arugula (roquette), corn salad (mache), French sorrel, ‘Merlo Nero’ spinach,’Long Standing Bloomsdale’ spinach, ‘Rossi di Verona a Palla’ (‘Dragon’) radicchio, ‘Red Verona’ radicchio, ‘Komatsuma Tendergreen’ oriental greens, ‘Tatsoi’ oriental greens, ‘China Rose’ winter radish, ‘White Icicle’ radish, ‘Cherry Belle’ radish,  ‘Crimson Forest’ bunching onion, and ‘Tokyo Long White’ bunching onion.

Wow! Our friend Ben hopes that reading that list didn’t wear you out. It’s only the beginning of our vegetable-gardening adventures this season, and, we hope, of yours! Tomorrow, we’ll share a few fun garden-resource sites we’ve found this season.

Spring has jumped the gun. February 18, 2012

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben was taking our beloved black German shepherd, Shiloh, for a walk in our backyard Monday when I saw that the snowdrops in our shrub border were up and in bud. Then I realized that our winter aconites were actually blooming, a bright yellow blaze among the clumps of snowdrops. Heading around the yard, I saw that the grape hyacinths and daffodils were also emerging through the soil.

Mind you, Silence Dogood and I live in scenic PA, not, say, Tennessee. We have never had a winter here like this one, where our little creek, Hawk Run, was seldom iced over, much less frozen to the bottom: where it rained rather than snowing except on three occasions, two of which were pretty insignificant; and where the ground never really froze.   

Doing a quick blog search, I saw that our aconites and snowdrops had reached this stage last year on March 2, and on March 7 in 2010. February 13 is three weeks earlier than last year and almost a month earlier than 2010. Needless to say, this makes us feel like spring really is here, so I’m hoping that winter doesn’t suddenly decide to put in a very tardy arrival at this point!

What happened to winter?! January 31, 2012

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, homesteading, pets.
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Our indoor-outdoor thermometer is telling our friend Ben that it is 62 degrees F. outside at 4:19 in the afternoon on January 31. For me and Silence Dogood, this is tee-shirt weather. And no, we don’t live on the Gulf Coast or, say, Saudi Arabia. We live in the precise middle of nowhere, PA, where a typical January 31st would see us buried in snow in our bitterly cold little cottage, shivering miserably and praying for an early spring.

Is this global warming at work? Or is it a little trick of Mother Nature, plotting to slam us with nonstop snow, ice, and record cold from February through April to revenge herself on us for humanity’s greed and lack of respect for natural resources and the web of life in general?

If it’s early spring, at least it’s not silent spring. Geese, crows, and our regular assortment of backyard birds have made sure of that. Hating cold as we do, looking at the still-green grass, walking on unfrozen ground, Silence and I are hoping against hope that this pseudo-spring will turn into the real thing.

If it does, it will be the first time we’ve ever experienced weather like this. But, walking blissfully in our tee-shirts through the backyard with our black German shepherd Shiloh enthusiastically lifting her snout to smell the fresh air, we have to confess, we hope it won’t be the last.