Previous Capers

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

My Saffron Crocuses Are Blooming!

Several months ago, I planted one of the claw foot bathtubs with saffron crocuses. Silly me was thinking that they wouldn't come up until next summer, like the instructions stated. They're fall bulbs after all, blooming in late summer after the dry season. But suddenly, before I could pull out the chickweed infestation, Roland announced that my crocuses were growing. Already!? I was simply flummoxed by the whole thing. I know some crocus species come up early, but not in late fall.It's the rainy season, so having to harvest the tasty bits could be tricky. I managed to get the red threads out of the two blooms that opened up before they were completely obliterated by the pounding rain.

My current bounty of saffron threads.
I'll have to keep saffron vigilance now if I want to take advantage of the flower's tasty bounty. Or maybe the two blooms were it. I'm hoping to get enough now for a pan of paella. I hate just getting a tease of what's supposed to come next year.


Saturday, November 17, 2012

Hat's Off to an Old Friend

After a spring and summer of hard work as a faithful protector from the sun (and we had a lot of sun this summer), it's time to retire ye old straw hat. It's been a difficult decision because I just love this hat. I like the shape and the wide brim. Best of all, I loved the fact that it didn't give me hat hair. It shaded my head and face without making that sweat line around my forehead, smashing my bangs down. Because of its larger size, I could put my hair up with a clip and it fit well over that. It was the perfect hat for me. Some folk told me I looked like a bee keeper.

Now, the sun and probably the heat of my car where it spent a lot of time, did it in. It started disintegrating and just kept going to the point where the brim had a very large hole in it and started to droop. I wore it to the end though, often provoking many smirks from colleagues. I finally came to the realization that it had served its purpose and, being that fall was approaching where warmer hats would be in order, decided to give it up.

Being the big re-purposer that I am, and since it's made from natural materials such as straw and cotton, I decided to put it to good use. I could have simply thrown it in the compost pile or garbage, but instead I figure it would make an excellent fire starter for the wood stove. So, in it went; ashes to ashes, dust to dust. It was almost like putting down a pet.

Now to find another one just like it.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Welcome to the Nut House

My daughter, Shawn, inherited the same sense of humor I have. So, for my birthday she got me this sign:

I think it pretty much says it all.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Exploding Cabbage and Horned Tomatoes

I've been out and about in the garden between rain storms, quickly harvesting tomatoes, cucumbers and anything else worth gathering that is at the end of its cycle. With all of the dry weather, then the sudden and intense rain I expected some of the tomatoes to explode, but cabbage?

Roland came in this morning to inform me that one of the Filderkraut cabbages has a huge split in it. I went out to have a look and sure enough, the cabbage had cracked around the middle. It is one of the larger heads and needed harvesting anyway, but I was waiting to see how big it would get. I guess it suffered from too much water all at once. The last shower was that one thin mint that did it in (for those of you who aren't familiar with that phrase, it comes out of the last scene of the Monty Python movie, Meaning of Life, where a restaurant patron eats until he explodes from one thin mint).

On top of exploding crops, the other weirdness has been the occasional horned tomato. I'm not 100% sure as to what has caused it, but every once in a while I find a tomato with a single horn protruding out, usually near the top by the stem. I've done a little research and the closest thing I could come up with is a problem called Catfacing. This problem is from cultural conditions where the fruits are misshapen with bulges, crevices, scars or holes at the blossom ends. Catfacing is caused by anything that damages the fruit as it begins to develop within the flower. This includes heat, dry soil, excessive nitrogen, and especially, cold temperatures. We've certainly have suffered from a combination of heat, dry soil and cold temperatures. I've been careful with the nitrogen levels this year, where too much nitrogen also tends to inhibit fruit production.

Several of the heirloom varieties suffered from blossom end rot. Heirloom varieties tend to be more succeptable to that problem than many of the newer hybridized types. I gave them a shot of Epsom salts this summer, hoping to avoid that issue, but with all of the extreme dry weather, it's been difficult to keep up with a consistent watering schedule which is also a contributing factor. Unfortunately, getting irrigation to the beds in the parking strip requires dragging a long hose over, which is a bit of a bother. I did like my set up with the plastic bottles as reservoirs which avoided overhead watering that could cause a host of fungal conditions on tomatoes. Each plant got at least 2 liters of water each watering.

Tomatoes can be so picky! I need a greenhouse. Really.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Aaaahhh, It's Ark Building Season Again

I'm sitting all snug in the living room typing this post while it's just dumping outside at the moment. This is the first week in months where I won't be picking up the hose to water everything. As much as I loved the sunshine, this region could really use the rain. I heard a collective sigh coming from the plants as their stomata opened to allow transpiration to begin again in earnest. Even some of the big old western red cedars where starting to turn brown in spots in response to the extreme dry conditions. They are a tree species that prefers rich soil with even moisture.

Passed out from too much squirrel watching
Unfortunately, what comes along with the rain is the gloom. The thick grey skies tend to block out the light and with the shortening days can feel oppressive. I'm solar powered and tend to bog down when the light levels get low. I've noticed Snorky sleeping more too. He doesn't like being out in the rain and on potty walks, generally quickly lifts the leg then high tails it back inside. He prefers squirrel vigil from a cushy spot in front of the living room window.

Time to harvest the rest of the tomatoes.
Of course, the fall rain marks the beginning of the end of another tomato season. I don't have the plants under a hoop house, so they are starting to show signs of decline. Time to harvest the rest of them before the rain causes them split. It's been a really good tomato year with all the hot weather. However, now that its cooled down, my cabbages, kale and lettuce are doing a molecular happy dance.

The upside to all of this is that it hasn't gotten too terribly cold out yet. The daytime temperature has stayed in the low to mid 60's, so we haven't had to fire up the wood stove too much.

There's been 80 days of no rain and now the prediction is for one dry day this week. It's hard to predict what this fall and winter will bring, but from the squirrel activity up in the attic, I'd say insulate your own nest. And, while you're at it, get the waders ready.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Neiman Marcus is in the Backyard Chicken Business as Only NM Can

I can't believe what I just read: a prime example of the run amuck excessive decadence that is alive and well for a certain segment of this country's population. While many folk are wondering how they're going to pay their bills from month to month, Neiman Marcus is offering a hen house complete with heritage chickens and farming lessons. You're thinking, "OK, what's wrong with that?" Here's the thing; it costs $100,000!

Yep, for close to the price of a modest house for humans, your chickens could live in luxury. The Versailles inspired Heritage Hen Mini Farm is two stories of cushy luxury with a  'living room,' a broody room, a library with books, two Heritage Hen Farm pasture grazing trays, a waterer, a feeder, and a chandelier. Other furnishings and paintings aren't included, darn it, but the whole meal deal does include two private consultations with the hen house designer, Svetlana Simon. She’ll also select three to ten heritage-breed hens to suit the buyer's region and install two raised herb beds when she delivers the hen house. She’ll teach that lucky 1 percenter all they need to know about raising a flock of chickens in their back yard.

I bet real farmers that find out about this latest NM catalog addition will either roll on the floor in hysterical laughter or roll their eyes in disgust.

Now, NM does donate a whole $3,000 to the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy. Such a deal.

Image courtesy of
If you're curious enough to read the article, visit inhabitat's web site.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Arborist Chips are a Gardener's Best Friend

Our pile that's being quickly disbursed.
Finally, I managed to flag down a tree service company in my neighborhood and put in a request to get a load of arborist chips. They delivered around 4 yards onto our driveway the next day. They couldn't get all the load out of the truck because the truck bed hit the sloped driveway not allowing it to be fully raised. But I got enough to accomplish some major sheet mulching around and in the beds. It's also important to note that the stuff was FREE. Sometimes the best things in life are free.

You don't have to pay $22 per yard for mulch. Many tree service companies are happy to offload their chipped up wood so they don't have to pay to dump it or store it themselves. You can call up a company who services your area and the next time they're around, they'll deliver the load. Even local utilities such as the power company will off load their chips for you.

This tree service company had a full truck and had to go to another job to work on a big leaf maple. My request was convenient for them so they wouldn't waste time and money taking the load to a dirt exchange or back to their yard to make room for the next load. They would have given me the whole shebang if they could (around 8-10 yards). Be prepared to get around 6-15 yards of the stuff, but you can always share it with neighbors and friends. In fact, several neighbors came over to get a few wheelbarrow loads for their own yards.

Twigs, leaves, bark and wood mixed together for a rich soil amendment.
I love using arborist chips as mulch for several reasons. The stuff mimics a forest floor. The first layer of soil on a forest floor is organic matter consisting of twigs, leaves, bark and wood which eventually breaks down and composts in over time. Arborist chips are made up of twigs, leaves, bark and wood which will eventually break down and compost in over time. Arborist chips retain moisture and add nutrients as the microorganisms do their thing. The chips suppress weeds. Put down a layer of corn gluten (seed germination suppressant) then the chips and you won't have much of any weed growth for the season. Any weeds that do grow are easily yanked out. Finally, some plants just grow better with some mulch around them. My poor artichoke plant just languished this summer, no matter how much water it got. The minute I put down a layer of chips, the thing perked right up and started growing like crazy.

Any plant that prefers rich, humus soil will love a layer of chips around its root system. They key is not to spread the stuff too close to the trunk or too deep. Three inches should do the trick, unless it's in a path. Any deeper, and you could suffocate a root system or, in the case of rhodies, inhibit bloom. Some plants don't like to be mulched at all such as lavender and sedums. Don't apply chips to plants that prefer dryer conditions and seemingly crappy soil.

Chips over a layer of cardboard around the beds looks nice.
Arborist chips works great as a path cover. I've been taking advantage of the nice weather to sheet mulch around the raised beds. I put several layers of cardboard down (also free from your friendly appliance store or snatch it off the curb on recycle days) then four or so inches of mulch down over that. I'm into getting rid of the grass in the yard, so sheet mulching should do the trick.

If you're concerned about spreading disease with mulch from many different sources, don't worry. Studies have shown that arborist chips do not spread plant diseases. In fact they can suppress some fungal diseases by burying the pathogen so the spores don't splash up onto the plant during a rain storm. Fungal communities found in wood chip mulches are generally decomposers, not pathogens. If you want more information on the benefits and myths around arborist chips, read this paper from the WSU Extension

Some folk don't like the look of arborist chips, preferring bark instead. I'm not a fan of 'beauty bark' myself. The raincoat of a tree is the bark, so putting bark down around your beds actually sheds water, creating drought conditions. Bark takes longer to decompose into the soil. Bark looks like poopy-doo within a a few months, so you have to keep reapplying it, which leads to a major reason not to use it: you have to buy it and it's fairly expensive. If you must use bark, put a top layer over your arborist chips (one inch of the three). You'll get the look and the benefits. And for cryin' out loud, don't use landscape fabric underneath the chips. It completely defeats the purpose of using mulch in the first place, but that's another entry.

So, now that it's fall, get that mulch down. You'll be happy with the results.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Squirrel Obsessed

Using the cat box for extra height
Our 5 pound Japanese Chin, Snorky lives to find squirrels. He spends countless hours on squirrel patrol and his favorite activity on walks is to chase squirrels to the end of the leash. His favorite squirrel park is Greenlake. Now that it's fall, the squirrels are out and about gathering food for the winter.

He's certainly been in heaven since discovering the rodents inside the house. I woke up this morning to claws clicking on the hardwood floor and sniffing noises emanating from his searching nose as he scours the house in his quest to find that squirrel. He hears them scuffling around in the attic and he strains his neck trying to sniff the ceiling. He keeps checking the spots he cornered them in before.

There's gotta be another one here
Of course we've been asking for it. Last year, Roland started to feed these critters peanuts on the front porch for Snorky entertainment while we're gone during the day, and now it's morphed into a Grade B horror flick - The Invasion of the Peanut Snatchers or a squirrel version of Willard only now called Roland. I anticipate waking up one morning, surrounded by a room full of these rodents demanding peanuts; the carcasses of seven cats and one small dog laying around. It won't end well.

A squirrel sits outside the living room window, two inches from Snorky's nose, peering into the house waiting for the peanut handout. Snorky has a mind-melt, trying to get through the glass division that is keeping him from the chase. Our new cat, Marcel has developed an interest and is stalking it and finally chases it into the camellia bush where it emits alarm calls. Snorky watches all this, shaking in desperation.

Excuse me, I hear barking in the laundry room so it looks like I have to go catch another one. . . .Yep, it's Mr. Docktail who ran out the cat door at the first opportunity.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Menagerie Mayhem

There's never a dull moment at Mog Cottage. With seven cats and one dog you'd think we'd have enough critters for one small house. But I guess we have to include the urban wildlife, since they seem to help themselves to our hospitality of cat food and warm lodgings. I've written about how the neighborhood raccoons and opossums come in through the cat door and help themselves to the cat food. The coons have even come into the kitchen and the mama's have made it a habit of showing their charges where the best and easiest pickin's are located. Roland says that the cats and urban wildlife have a joint operating agreement. We had a good relocation program going until the city caught wind and threatened to take away our birthdays. But that's another story.

Well, recently we've had what seems to be a growing brood of squirrels in the attic. I first started hearing them chewing up there last spring and with a brief quiet summer, they're back at it this fall. The neighbors admitted that they have been entertained looking out their kitchen window at twelve little rodents sunning themselves in the opening in the soffit hole where they've found their attic access.

Scared out of his wits and missing some tail!
Now they're not satisfied with the attic but have decided to expand into the house! For the last two days Snorky has been in heaven cornering three squirrels in various areas of the house. All of a sudden I hear barking and shrieking emanating from the kitchen or bedroom only to find a little terrified fury body huddled into a crevice resigned to its fate. It might have been going on for hours since I discover the mayhem when I get home late int he day. The squirrels have been youngsters and one manage to lose the end of his tail, I guess from exposing it to high out of the hiding place. Due to this distinction, I've surmised that it's been in the house twice now - not too bright but squirrels aren't known for their brains.

I've gotten quite good at taking a coffee can and a ruler to scoop them up to take them back outside. Sort of like a big spider, but cuter. Of course I have to remove the squealing dog from the premises first in order to concentrate on catching the rodent. It pretty much just huddles in the can until I take it outside where I have to dislodge it with several good shakes onto a camellia branch so it can recover from the ordeal. But there's no guarantee that it will have safe quarter in the shrub as the cats line up around the bottom and give chase when it attempts a get away. Squirrels are such fun things to chase.

Now I like wildlife, but I draw the line when they decide the inside of the house is a good place to set up camp. If this keeps up, they'll be getting a ride to the park down the road. We haven't been able to figure out where they're coming in, but I suspect that the coons and possums may be showing them the cat door.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

A Quest for Red Threads

 We've managed to get a decent amount of potatoes this season, even though I hadn't planted any starts this year. Apparently, I missed some itsy bitsy taters when I dug them out last fall and they turned into sizable plants that gave us red and white potatoes of questionable varieties. The choices are Yukon Gold, Superior White and Red Norland. Red Norland would be the default for the red type and I'm thinking that the whites are a mish-mash between the other two. Far more red potatoes grew than white ones.

Hopefully I've thoroughly cleaned out the potatoes from the tub because this fall I've planted crocus bulbs. You're probably asking yourself why I would plant crocus bulbs instead of potatoes, but there's one simple reason: Saffron! I've planted Crocus sativus, the crocus that gives us the spice, saffron. I love to cook various Mediterranean cuisines such as paella and Persian dishes both of which call for copious amounts of saffron. Upon emptying out my tiny jar of the last of my saffron, I've decided to try and grow my own.

Spacing out the bulbs before planting.
Now saffron isn't only expensive to buy, it is THE most expensive spice on the market, and with good reason. It takes approximately 200,000 crocus stigmas to get a pound of saffron. That's 12,500 stigmas in an ounce. Now I didn't go out and purchase thousands of bulbs to plant in my yard. At around thirty-three cents a bulb at the local nursery, that would have cost around the price of a new car. Plus at 4 inches apart, that would require around 7400 square feet of garden space (at 9 bulbs per square ft.) or 616 claw foot bath tubs packed in without pathways (at 12 sq. ft each). So, I settled for 30 bulbs and spaced them between the cat proofing slats. At three stygmas per flower, I figure I'll get around 90 to 180 stigmas (with double flowers) which will probably fill up my tiny jar some. The next year I should get a greater yield because the bulbs will have multiplied, producing more flowers.

That is, if they don't rot from all of the rain we get around here. If you think about it, Saffron comes from arid climates; Spain and Iran. The PNW isn't exactly arid on this side of the Cascade Mountains, even when we haven't had much rain for the last several months. However, I've read that generous spring rains and drier summers are optimal. This year is a great example. Since this crocus variety flowers closer fall, I'm hoping that the flowers won't get beaten up by rain like tulips around here do in the spring.

Because of it's out of orbit cost, Saffron is one of the most counterfeited spices around. What is passed off as saffron by unscrupulous vendors is often really a type of marigold or safflower petal. You may see this  product coming out of Mexico on this side of the pond. Also, the Caribbean folk like to call turmeric saffron and turmeric is also passed off as saffron to unsuspecting tourists abroad. Unfortunately, even some fine restaurants try to dupe the customer by passing turmeric off as saffron. The best defense is to purchase it from a reputable specialty store, especially where folk from the Middle-East shop because they would know.

So, how do you tell if it's real? First of all, it should cost some scratch. If you think you're getting a bargain, chances are you're getting shafted. The litmus test is easy. Simply drop a few threads in a glass of warm water. If it takes a few minutes for the strands to diffuse a dark color, then it's the real thing.  If the stuff immediately colors the water yellow or a murky orange, then it's a fake. There's also a distinct flavor and scent that real saffron possesses.

So, I've decided to give it a go myself, and see what I can get. Watch for me next fall in the veg garden in the morning hours, bending over a claw foot bathtub with tweezers in hand to collect my bounty of Crocus sativus stigmas. Hmmm. Saffron, medicinal poppies and lavender. Do I detect a theme here?

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

When Cold Frames Aren't

When Roland built a cold frame out of recycled windows over one of the raised beds I was thrilled with the fact that I would have a place to harden off veg starts in early spring and germinate some more throughout the season.

I even prepared for warmer weather by cracking open the doors enough to vent out any hot air. We had beautiful starts of cucumbers, beans and other veg and even some ornamental plants coming up. Roland spent a bit of time planting and labeling the pots. Then one morning, when checking on things, the pots were bare soil!

Yep, something decided to munch down everything nestled in 4 inch nursery pots we had cultivated. Gone. This discovery prompted one of the few times that I wished I had a shotgun. But then I would have to sit up all night into dawn to catch the marauder, and I wasn't about to do that. Only gardeners who grow giant pumpkins do that. And that's on the East Coast.

You'd think our lazy, well fed mogs who love to lie around in there during the day would have been on guard, earning their keep. Of course any number of urban wildlife could have helped themselves: raccoons, opossums (highly unlikely) or squirrels. Much too much pest for a domestic feline to handle, of course. Since the doors were open just a couple of inches, I'm guessing a rodent of some sort or a herd of snails had their feast. What I should have done was close the thing up each night and then vent it during the day. What's interesting is that none of the outside crops got mowed down like that. Phooey!

So, instead I just shut the doors and ignored it all in a sort of denial that gardeners get when they know they've been outmaneuvered, sort of like that farmer in Shawn the Sheep cartoons. But that decision would also come back to bite me. After a cold, wet June we finally got some hot weather starting July 5th. Great, only that I underestimated how much heat nursery pots can take. I finally looked inside the cold frame on a hot summer day and noticed that a flat of empty nursery pots stored inside had turned into a Salvador Dali still life. I now have a flat of melty-pots. I guess you could also say that they were divinely inspired by the ghost of George Ohr. Instead of the "Mad Potter of Biloxi," I could become the "Mad Gardener of Ballard." Mad is the operative term here.

Note to self, #6 plastic melts in a cold frame turned hot house.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

There's a New Mog in Town and Nobody Likes 'It' Except Snorky

The first day we brought him home at 12 weeks.
Since we lost three of our herd in the last several years, I've been thinking about how 6 mogs is a good number. Of course the universe was listening in on my brain waves and decided that 6 must be too even a number. The other week, a gal in one of my Hort. classes asked us cohorts if anyone would like a kitten, otherwise she was thinking of taking them to a shelter. "Kitten, did you say?" as my ears perked up. I don't like the combination of kitten and shelter spoken in the same sentence. Why she didn't get her cat fixed in the first place could send me on a rant about how shelters are so overflowing with kittens right now that she'd be hard pressed to find one that had room, but I held my tongue and before I could consciously turn off the emoticon of my face, "I will" came spilling out of my mouth almost like a reflex reaction of "ouch" when someone hits you upside the head.

It's been in our history that we never have had to go looking for cats because sooner or later, cats find us. However, we have been long past due for another opportunity. I arranged a time with Antoinette to come pick one out, driving down from my house in Arlington since she lives in South Everett. Before I left, I realized that all of the cat carriers were at Roland's house, so I grabbed the next best kitten transporter; a pillowcase. When I arrived at Antoinette's, only two of the three kittens were left - a male and a female. One, fortunately, had been successfully adopted. The female was light gray with a tortoise shell face and the male was a tuxedo.

My friends, Nancy and Mary have been tuxedo cat enthusiasts for a long time, both owning two of them. They tell me how laid back they are. I've never owned a tuxedo, so I decided to try one myself and put their theory to the test. He has classic markings with a white chin and white paws, so I named him Marcel after the mime. Roland calls him 'morsel'. I stuffed him into the pillowcase and headed for Mog Cottage.

Assuming the usual position
He was handled a lot by kids before I adopted him, so turned out to be any easy purr and pretty much lays in any position you hold him in. I kept him in the bedroom for exactly half a day and he immediately made himself at home in the rest of the house. Unfortunately, the rest of the gang became very disgusted that I would bring that home into their house. Mamah refuses to come inside now (she pretty much schmoozes all the neighbors anyway) and Vinnie and Furbert hiss mostly when they get ambushed. They come in because neither fits through the cat door well - too fat- and they both like to eat. Deirdre growls and hisses at the mere site of Marcel, but is a perpetual house cat, so doesn't feel that she should have to leave. The others don't know he exists because they stay in the laundry room, with in and out privileges through the cat door.Marcel has been sealed off from that part of the house for now. No going outside until he's over his stupid kitten stage.

Marcel attacks toes and had produced some lovely welts on Roland's feet by chewing on them when Roland was asleep on the sofa. Being a kitten of course, Marcel makes every effort to wreck the more wrecked than it already is if that's possible.

The one beast we have that showed copious amounts of enthusiasm for our new charge has been Snorky. He immediately saw Marcel as a new dog toy and wasted no time engaging him in the chase game. They constantly play with each other, tearing around the living room and through the kitchen. Best dog entertainment next to the squirrel that sits outside the living room window.

Of course I had to brag about our latest addition to some of my friends, one of who replied that I need some grandchildren.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Invasion of the Poppy Hatchers

A sea of red in the parking strip.
We've been invaded! Not by the typical bugs or weeds but by poppies and not the typical California kind. Red and purple poppies have sprung up all over the front yard, seemingly out of nowhere. The red ones have flowers that look like a type of Oriental Poppy (Papaver orientale) and the purple ones are of the medicinal type (Papaver somniferum). Granted we had purple poppies in one tiny corner of our lavender beds last year (that also magically materialized). They really haven't been too proliferous this year but the red ones are everywhere! We can hardly see our blueberry bushes in the parking strip and these interlopers have shaded out the rhubarb.

What's interesting is that they have not invaded anyone else's yard around us. Maybe some prankster committed a guerilla gardening act for kicks and giggles. We have a lot of admirers in the area that like to walk by to see what's up in the yard. In fact, I was snipping and giving away poppy heads to anyone interested that came by.

Purple Papaver somniferum
I like poppies, so I see this invasion as a plus even though they can look messy over time. The red ones are flopping over. The purple flowers of the medicinal variety don't last too long, but they are lovely. Seductively so.

I'll be out there judiciously cutting off seed heads so they don't go nuts again next year. I want to control next year's crop. Poppy seeds, anyone?

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Yet Another Use for 2 Liter Bottles

Some bottles drained fast, others are still full after several hours
Now that the weather's warmer, I took the bottle cloches off the tomatoes. The tomato plants outgrew them anyway, becoming rather contorted in the confines of their biospheres.

Instead of storing away the bottles though, I've discovered a new use for them. I flipped them upside down and with some pressure, snugged the bottle tops into the soil enough to hold them in (like the wine bottles). I also stuck a stake through each one just to help keep them upright. Each tomato plant got a bottle planted next to it.

Now, instead of watering the whole bed, I simply fill each bottle up with water and let it slowly soak in. That does two things: it provides a steady amount of water over a longer period of time and it prevents the problems that overhead watering causes with tomatoes, i.e. fungal diseases. I know the water is going directly into the root system too. I can add some fertilizer or Epson salts to the bottle when need be. Yet another use for those plastic bottles until they are ready to be recycled or stored.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Out of the Cold Frame, But Still Out of the Cold

Roland recently - OK, recently for him - built a cold frame over half of one of our raised beds. He used old windows he salvaged off a job, built a simple frame, cat-proofed it (of course) and put knobs on the doors. Both sides swing all the way open, or I prop them open with one of the rare sticks lying around. I did a happy dance, kicked the cats out (they found a way in anyway), and put in Red Zebra tomato starts that I've raised since the seed I collected from last year's crop. Being sealed off from the weather, the trick of all this is to regularly water the contents. Several times I didn't get to that part fast enough and the tomatoes went limp, looking like a rag-tag man crawling across the desert reaching out to nowhere crying, "water." Fortunately, I did water them in time to re-inflate them back to somewhat of an upright position. I've just been testing how tough they are, ya know.

Now that it's May, I rescued them from the abuses of my cold frame care and stuck them out in the chosen bed for the season. Because the raised bed is in the parking strip, I wasn't keen on putting up a hoop house. They can look rather tacky. It's a hot, sunny location and I feel the tomatoes only need protection until they get well established. So, I did the next best thing and put bell cloches over each plant. Now, I'm not one to go out and buy glass cloches at $35 plus a pop. Instead, I re-purposed the copious amounts of 2 ltr. water bottles I've stashed after swallowing the contents.

Re-purposed water bottles over tomato starts.
I simply cut the bottom off using the conveniently placed embossed line around the circumference as a guide. Then, I just pushed them into the soil deep enough to hold them in place and, voila! free cloches and no need to worry about watering until after July 4th. Lost the lids? No problem. Use wine corks instead. I'll vent them during the day by keeping the cork off so they don't get all that tomato fungus and then to keep the heat in, I'll cork them up at night. Not too difficult to remember, right? Yeah, right.

Of course, the cat proofing had to be modified to accommodate the new configuration. That detail provides me with two more wood cat proofing grids to use as trellises for perhaps, cucumbers or some such viney veg.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Re-purposing the Re-purposed for the Peas

My quickie pea trellis tent.
Roland usually gets creative when constructing trellises for vining veg such as peas. He has dived head first into his lumber scrap stash to retrieve lengths of mahogany and white oak to create monumental structures to hold all sorts of legumes or row cover frames to keep the bugs out. A lot of thought goes into his creations.

So far this year he hasn't had time to do any garden stuff, not to mention that the weather hasn't exactly cooperated, so I devised a trellis myself re-purposing one of the already re-purposed wooden structures. I had Roland construct a cold frame over half of one of the beds, so the cat proofing was no longer needed in that area. Instead of letting it just take up space stored somewhere, I concocted an ad hoc tent for a pea trellis. I simply placed the ends of the frames onto the beds between other cat proofing and angled them over into each other. Voila! Instant pea trellis without having to lift a nail gun. To hold the top together I used the next best fix-it thing on earth to duct tape, zip-ties. I only used 3 ties, one on each end and one in the middle. Done.

In the space below, I can plant veg that can handle shadier conditions. I have some lettuce there now, but I could plant Swiss chard, spinach or radishes. With the cold weather still around, at this point, I'll be happy if the peas germinate soon. Now that I can cross this chore off the honey-do list, Roland only has to finish the tool shed roof, finish the cold frames, replace the front porch, get rid of the dead cars, paint the house, clean out the garage........You get my drift.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

It's Baaaaack!

Those darling little purple florets have just appeared.
On the way to the woodpile I passed by the raised beds and was astonished to see Purple Sprouting Broccoli florets! It's barely April and my PSB is putting forth vast amounts of edible purple yumminess. What's really surprising is the fact that it's producing those florets on close to 3 year old stalks.

Granted, this is a variety that takes around 8 months to start producing in the first place. However, I planted the seeds in late April of 2010 and the first summer I got nothing but a thicket of 6 foot tall stalks with 2 foot long leaves that took over the entire 8 ft. by 4 ft. bed. As it turns out, this is an heirloom variety that one should plant in the fall so 8 months later you can theoretically harvest something in late summer. After discovering my oops, I overwintered the bunch but only 3 stalks made to spring. PSB is supposed to be very frost hardy, but these 3 plants survived that early big freeze we had in the fall of 2010. The next spring, those plants exploded and I had so much PSB that a lot of it flowered and ended up in the compost pile because I couldn't keep up with it. I assumed that the mass production were the plants death throws to reproduce before they droop dead. How wrong I was! The plants overwintered a second time and this year, they're producing earlier than ever only this time, I'm determined to nip this in the bud before it all gets out of control. I'll probably freeze a lot of it.

This is a great time of spring for the PSB to be putting out because it's too cold for those pesky cabbage moths and the leaves are pristine. The florets and younger leaves are also very sweet. Maybe several years of the freeze/thaw cycle has increased the sweetness. Sugars are a plant's anti-freeze and there's nothing like a frost to bring out sweetness in Brassicas. I'm chopping up and steaming the smaller leaves and the florets together.

Purple Sprouting Broccoli's culinary origins happen to go way back to the Romans who first cultivated it. Marcus Gavius Apicius, a celebrity chef of the Roman Empire, created one of the earliest known recipe books that called for broccoli to be mixed with cumin, coriander seeds, chopped onions, oil and wine. Hmmm, I wonder where I can get a copy.
Although the Brits have been growing PSB for at least the last 2 centuries, it's just starting to become more common in this country. In the UK, PSB's season is January to May. Here, it appears to be late March to when you're sick of it and let it go to seed. It's definitely a space hog and you can't expect an abundance of large big-box style florets. Visualize the shrunken heads on grown bodies in the movie Beettlejuice and you'll get an idea of the proportions of the florets to the overall plant.

I'm contemplating contacting Guiness World Records when it hits year 10 to enter it as the longest living single crop of Purple Sprouting Broccoli. I'll have to see what the current record is. I could see myself getting as obsessed as those giant pumpkin growers get, sitting up all night to keep the varmints from snacking on my charges and monitoring the plants with an IV.

My guess is that some Darwinian PSB mutation is happening with mine. Or maybe I'm not so quick to whack them down after the growing season. Much to Roland's eye-rolling, I've decided to see how long I can keep these PSB anomalies going before they finally peter out. More bang for the buck that way too. My $3 packet of seeds has gone a long way and I haven't used much fertilizer either. Who knows, this region's predictive climatic transitions to warmer and wetter might just be the ticket to the development of a new cultivar. How does Brassica oleracea 'Debra's Floret Folly' sound? I just love freakish plants, don't you?

Monday, March 26, 2012

Ceramic Pots Aren't All They're Cracked Up To Be

It seems like that at the end of every winter I have broken planting containers to deal with. I like natural materials so I like glazed clay. And using glazed clay pots presents some challenges.

It's not that my pots have gotten smucked by extreme temperature swings nor has freezing moisture done its weathering job. It's the cats! At the end of the season, I often place several small pots on the edge of the front porch (which is pretty much anywhere on the porch given that it's only 4 feet deep and there's ten tons of crap on it already) and every year several of our chubby mogs go plowing through the neat lineup on the way to knocking something else over so they can nap on the spot that they shouldn't. Of course, it's always my favorite pots that get broken. You'd think I'd learn by now not to put them where they get bulldozed off the porch or front steps, but being a creature of habit, I inevitably leave them in an area that is convenient for me. Apparently, however, it's inconvenient for the cats. They're creatures of habit too, and like their established paths uninterrupted with things such as expensive ceramic pots.

A slope with newly installed pot fragments.
As one who is resigned to a cracked pot destiny, I have decided to make the most of it by, you guessed it, re-purposing these clay fragments elsewhere in the garden. Yes folks, they get morphed into a design element. I simply bury them in the slope below the bathtubs and plant something in them. It's sort of Mesopotamian looking, after the earthquake or during an anthropological dig.

In addition to looking earthy decorative, these broken pot halves act as small terraces on a relatively unstable hillside. If the sides of the pot pieces don't adequately sweep around, place some decorative rock along where fired clay meets soil to help hold the pots in place and keep the soil from eroding down the hill. The end result makes the whole thing look like you've broken your $30 pots on purpose just for this project.

Of course, it's critical you plant something in these areas right away because chances are you will have fury supervisors watching you build them new places to poop. Cats are good at re-purposing too.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Evil Twin Series: Bored with Your Garden? Try Squirting Cucumbers

It's so much fun to peruse the internet for unusual seed companies. In fact, I came across a great one from, where else, England called Plant World Seeds. Actually, I was entering search ques for old cottage varieties of perennials when I came across this site. I couldn't help myself; I ordered a bunch of seed packets for unusual varieties of different perennials and bulbs. One in particular definitely caught my eye: Ecballium Elaterium or Squirting-Cucumber. Not exactly something you would typically find at your local nursery. Although the fruit is not very edible, it has another endearing value for those of us that posses an evil twin (formerly known as the Jungian id).

According to Plant World Seeds:

Its name alone is a mouthful. And that is precisely what your curious friends will have when they touch the small plum-shaped fruits....Yellow flowers on radiating stems produce intriguing hanging fruits. Unwary inspection triggers the incredible seed distribution method. The swollen fruit breaks off and shoots downwards (remember Newton's Laws of Reaction) propelled by a high speed jet of seeds and water.

Yes folks, it's a cucumber that shoots itself and its seeds across the yard! In fact, according to one source, the record squirt is 45 feet! The fact that the propellant action is triggered by touch has a potential for some wicked fun. The fruits look like the size of kiwis attached to a very Cucurbit-like plant. I plan to place it in a strategic position where curious passer-byes will have a looksie, then ZAP! I just hope that I'm around to witness the fun. There's a couple of neighborhood walkers that I've caught having a peek at my zuccs before.

Of course, I'm assuming that the cats will provide much of the entertainment. The fruits will be just too irresistible looking not to be batted around. If I see a sproinging cat in that vicinity, I'll know what happened. Cheap entertainment for under 3 bucks, eh?

Leave it to the Brits to provide this one. Squirting-Cucumber: It's so Monty Python.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Floyd Checks Out

Floyd after his recovery
I'm afraid I have some bad news. After several weeks of steady decline, Floyd died peacefully in his sleep last night. Since getting hit by a car in July of 2010, we've kept him going with acupuncture treatments, bladder extractions, many enemas at the vets and lot's of other TLC. Perhaps we should have put him down a long time ago, but he was still Floyd and until recently, actually did have a good quality of life despite the necessary care. He would even pussy foot, head butt and purr at the vet when we brought him into the exam room.

He started to really decline several weeks ago, after his last kitty spa visit. The vet found a lump in his stomach and was planning to monitor it. Floyd would eat like a pig, but became skin and bones. He was also drinking a lot of water. Roland and I think that his weak kidneys caused by previous trouble finally caught up to him.

We'll bury him next to Bonnie in the yard. We'll have to get a rose bush to plant over him, like we did for Bonnie. I'll have to find one with a cultivar name that suits him. I wonder if there's one called 'Problem Child' or 'Lovable Lug'. Perhaps a giant sunflower will grow out of nowhere next to him too.

I'll miss the little delinquent. We're down to 6 cats now and, of course, our dog Snorky. The house is starting to feel empty.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Yet Another Reason to Drink Wine

Shhhhh, don't tell SDOT!
If you like to have a glass of vino with dinner, like I do, you probably grace your recycling bin with many wine bottles....over time. Instead of tossing them in the bin for the weekly pickup, try re-purposing them for simple garden borders. It's easy-peasy to do and the result can be rather striking. You'll need to buy the varietal of wine that's in a bottle with a distinct neck and shoulder. The sloping shoulders of some bottles (like Chardonnay's) won't stay put as well when you plant them in the soil, nor will you get a straight, solid looking connection between each bottle.

If you wish to calculate how many bottles you'll need for your border, multiply the total running inches and divide by 3 inches which seems to be the average width of a wine bottle. So, for 10 feet, which is 120 inches, divide 120 inches by 3 inches. That equals 40 wine bottles. You'll need more than you think you do.

As you know, wine bottles come in several different colors including blue, dark amber and clear; however, green is the most common. Roland and I end up with a lot of that color because we mainly drink 3 Buck Chuck (in our area it's actually 2.50 Buck Chuck now, but that's too awkward to say). The bottles also come in different heights and some have indented bottoms that will catch rain or irrigation water in the garden. To remove the label, simply soak the bottle in hot water for a while. It should just scrape right off. Apply a little mineral spirits with a rag to remove any stubborn glue residue or just let it slowly wear off in the garden. Some bottle labels are actually etched into the glass, so just consider those bottles part of the charm.

Notice the indented bottom-ups on some bottles.
To install your bottle collection, dig a narrow trench with a garden trowel deep enough so the neck of the bottle will be buried up to the shoulder. The shoulder should be cradled on the soil surface. Unless you find or drink just one brand of wine, chances are the bottles will be different heights so you'll need to adjust the depth of the trench. Make sure the bottles are as plumb as possible and snugged next to each other. You can eyeball weather they're straight and tweak them as you go. Pack the soil firmly around the bottles to hold them in place.

If the bottles are on a slope, you might try a pole stake (like bamboo or a hardwood dowel) to hold the bottle more firmly in place. Measure the stake twice as long as the bottle, then with a rubber mallet, pound just the stake into the hole until enough is sticking up to fit well up just touching the bottom of the bottle (or is it the top now? How 'bout calling it a bottom-up). You'll need to put the stick in the bottle and mark the spot where the stake goes to get the spacing right. If you use rebar, then I suggest you pad it with an electrical tape or a rubber tip of some sort, especially where it may be in contact with the neck of the bottle and around the end of the stake or the bottle could break. This technique may also server you well if you're using bottles for raised bed borders, holding back a lot of soil.

Not only are you re-purposing a common item while adding an attractive element to your garden, the wine bottle border will help warm the soil, encouraging happy plants. Depending on the size of your project, you probably can't drink enough wine to construct your border within your lifetime. If you can, well then.... So, I suggest you become a dumpster diving recycling bin raider to collect enough for your weekend project. Ask your wine drinking cohorts to start saving bottles for you. Just make sure you pick them up in a timely manner, before the beneficiary's garage gets overrun. Be forewarned however; upon hearing about this idea your friends may get inspired enough where they'll be competition with you for a somewhat limited resource. Things could get interesting, like an old Woody Allen movie interesting.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Adventures of Bunny-Butt Chapter 1: Our Introduction

"MAAAAAAAYMER!" bellows a voice out the front door like a ship's horn. "Kitten, kitten, kitten," the voice continues. Suddenly a bellow from across the street,"MEEEEEEEEEAOUUUUUU, MEEEEEEEEEAOUUUUUU." A small gray, tailless creature streaks across the quiet neighborhood road, up the front steps and through the front door. It's Mamah, who doesn't want to be left out of whatever is going on. She's been across the street, probably schmoozing her favorite neighbors who've named her Squeaky, obviously after her dramatic, high-pitched squeal she's so generous to express.

Just a few weeks old
Mamah (pronounced May-muh, named after Mamah Borthwick, Frank Lloyd Wright's honey. It just seemed to fit.) came into our lives via a neighbor by my place in Arlington. I made the mistake of going to get my mail one day, when out of left field several tiny blobs were thrust in my face.

"Here, take one," the neighbor exclaimed, "they're wrecking my house!"

Upon one look, "Oh, alright," I reluctantly answered, "but I'll only take a female. We have too many male cats that like to mark the house." (Of course, my assumption about female cats would be eventually proven false, as female felines aren't without their complaints. Hell hath no furry like a female cat scorned.)

So, being the sucker that I am, I got the pick from a litter of adorable, evil kittens and selected the only female of the bunch that also happened to be the runt of the litter. All of the tiny fur bundles in this litter were tailless. Mama cat was a tortoise shell and dad happened to be one of several striking Manx I've seen prowling the neighborhood. I wasn't surprised that kittens materialized. People in my neighborhood are all too often adverse or slow to get their animals fixed. So, for what seemed like endless nights of sudden sleep deprivation, I heard multiple coupling events of feline drama under my bedroom window (like an omen). These things always seem to happen under the bedroom window in the middle of the night!

Mamah and Floyd - double trouble
She had to be barely 8 weeks old when I got her, but weaned. I was transporting Floyd back and Forth to my place at the time, so I had to introduce this tiny creature to the trouble maker. Since the early weeks are the impressionable ones for kittens, I definitely set her up to be a problem child with Floyd. Between Floyd's influence and her innate tendencies, Mamah would soon become a handful as she matured from kittendom. Luckily Floyd has a history of treating kittens well, so I wasn't surprised that he took to Mamah right away. He started the habit of licking her butt, as it was an easy target without a tail in the way. When he got tired of her constant attacks, he would move to higher ground, not that she was deterred by it, though.

Mamah also became attached to Vinnie. Every kitten should have an uncle Vinnie. He put up with her endless harassment and being a big, fluffy boy, she would snuggle into his fur for a nap.

Mamah with Uncle Vinnie
Mamah was a super active kitten, always clawing her way up the duvet cover to the top of the bed to play with the bird on a string that I would fling around like I was fly fishing. She would run in circles after it, leaping like a salmon swimming up stream. She had a fascination with kitty litter. I put out a small, shallow box for her tiny body to climb into to do her business, but she would spend large amounts of time simply tossing litter about. She still does at times. The box became a play pen and I went through a lot of vacuum cleaner bags.

In her early weeks, what little tail Mamah had was bent to one side, an indication of cramped quarters among her beefier brothers in the womb. As she matured into a teenager, Mamah's tail evolved into a shape similar to the Pope's nose on a plucked chicken butt; rather tear drop shaped, coming to a defined point like the top of a meringue. We nick-named her chicken butt or turkey butt, but that name eventually evolved like her tail into a more rabbit-like metaphor. Thus, the nickname Bunny-Butt. Being half Manx, her back is shorter than her tailed brethren causing her back end to stick up like a beacon to all of male catdom. She's also a flirt with the boys. We had her fixed as soon as possible, less we end up with 6 more just like her.

Very vocal, she presents a meow that sounds like the damsel in distress on the edge of the building seen in the Edward Gorey introduction to Masterpiece Mystery. And she's very liberal in her vocalizations with a lot of drama in the amplified chortles. She's now one of the gang at Mog Cottage, staying rather runt-like, but her personality more than compensates. Her teenage stage certainly proved eventful.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Why Do Gardeners Have Cats? It's That Nurturing Thing

To we gardeners, cats can be the bane of our existence. I can't tell you how many times I have gone out to weed only to find the occasional gooey lump of cat poo buried in the soil. Every time I weed a patch of soil and admire it's lovely soilness, the cats line up like kids at Disney Land just waiting to spoil the soil. They, in their feline hegemony, believe that you're cleaning out the soil for them; like your future cabbage patch is some giant outdoor cat box.

Of course, this issue around garden indiscretions is self-inflicted having adopted 9 of the little darlings (or rather having 9 adopt us as most materialized due to evil human kitten bearers thrust them in our faces proclaiming that they would rather have our house wrecked than theirs). It's the same mentality as a friend of mine having a cat live among the thousands of skeins of yarn in her yarn store. I just chalk it all up to being a certain personality type that gravitates towards a certain lifestyle that tends to incorporate potentially incompatible elements into the mix. For gardeners, it's often animals that use the great outdoors, preferably the unprotected garden spaces, to do their business. We're suckers for a cute face. It's that nurturing thing coming out.

I have listened to a many a gardener protest to me that the neighbor's cat chooses their yard above all others. It may be that their yard hasn't been claimed by a feline resident already, so it's open season for territory. It could be that all that lovely exposed soil, especially out of season is just too tempting for any feline to resist, especially after it's been cultivated to a lovely, fluffy consistency with fresh compost. Let's face it, well kept gardens are cat magnets. We're out there with the pooper scooper but, unfortunately, cats hide it all. Best to be proactive, I think.

Well, I've seen a variety of creative solutions to keep cats out of the beds. One solution is the motion sensor sprinkler head. It's automatic squirt bottle. When the cat gets too close it gets hosed. It sounds like a great solution until you forget to turn it off before working in that area. Plus, I would think you need a whole irrigation system installed for this purpose if your garden is big enough. Maybe just a heat seeking sprinkler head will do. Another solution is laying chicken wire just under the top layer of soil. Awkward! Need I say more? A thirds solution involves sticking a lot of small stakes into the soil. I suppose you could use garden art stakes if you don't like that rustic look, but you need a lot of them close together to discourage the potty behavior. Creativity can be expensive.

Having to deal with cats around our garden, we've come up with a great solution, at least for the veg. beds. Roland built a wooden grid system for each raised bed and the claw foot tubs. The slats are on 4 inch centers, attached to a frame that fits over the bed. Not only does it discourage cats, the grids act as row guides. Each 8 foot long bed has 3 removable sections. The only draw back is the inability to easily remove them if you have large crops such as cabbages, growing through the slats. Other than that, this system is almost 100% cat proof.

An attempt at breaching the defenses
That being said, sometimes our cats try to use the grids as perches. They precariously squat with one back foot on each slat. Every once in a while I see evidence of attempts like canals dug out or broken slats from our blobs trying it out. Cats like challenges, especially when they know that they're not supposed to do something. They're cunning and when your back is turned.....

As for the open garden spaces for larger crop plants, we most often use the stake method until the vegetation is well establish. By mid summer, our garden is pretty packed with plants, at which time our cats move on to the neighbor's yard.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Finally, A Veg Book That Has Everything!

OK, I'll admit it. I'm a bookaholic. My shopping list on Amazon is 5 pages long. It's so easy to do that one-click shopping thing! I've collected quite a pile of garden books from the convenience of my computer. Sometimes though, I am incredibly underwhelmed when the book arrives and it doesn't meet my expectations even though I've read the customer reviews that have mostly been favorable. Now I only hit the "buy" button if the book has the "see inside" function. That function has saved me from selecting something that will ultimately be a waste of money.

Every once in a while I find a real gem of a garden book that will end up with bent corners and dirt stains on the pages. My latest find is the newly published book, "What's Wrong With My Vegetable Garden? 100% Organic Solutions for All Your Vegetables from Artichokes to Zucchini" (why publishers have to have such long tag lines in titles is a mystery to me), co-written by Botanist David Deardorff and Garden Coach, Kathryn Wadsworth (Timber Press). This book is so well organized and cross-referenced that it requires only 249 pages, and that includes the index. It's a terse and pithy veg database in a paperback form.

The book starts out with how it is organized (like you can't figure that out yourself with this one) and the best way to use it.The introduction also contains information on recognizing cultural problems in the garden such as adverse water, soil, light and temperature conditions and how to best avoid issues from the get go. Further divided into three main sections, the first section addresses many of the common vegetable species planted in the garden. These pages are outlined in green so you know where this section starts and ends. The next section divides common plant problems by crop family. The final section guides the reader as to what general  proactive organic solutions work for common problems like wildlife helping themselves to your crops, row covers and blasting bugs with the hose.

What sets this book apart is the cross-referencing within each section. You never have to hunt for the information. Simply look up the veg you're interested in, read the general information required to grow it and, if you need help diagnosing a problem, there's a page number located under the title that directs you to that information. When you get to that page, there's a chart on symptoms, diagnosis and solutions. In addition, the solution column further directs you to detailed information.

This book was definitely written by filers (they do have their uses). The information is concisely laid out in colorful charts and even though the photos are small, they are very clear. This book offers nearly infallible means of diagnosing and treating plant problems. If you could only buy one veg garden book, then this is the one you should get. I think that the many other veg books sitting on my shelf will start gathering dust now that I've discovered this great reference.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Repurposing Antiques for the Garden

Roland and I went to a large bi-annual antique show the other weekend down in Puyallup. We didn't find much to brag about this time and in fact, we paroozed through the place in record time. However, I did run across an item that will be very useful in the garden, even though it wasn't originally intended to be used there. In fact, the vendor made it really easy to get that ah-ha moment by setting it up for it's new use. I believe that it was originally an old brass cream bottle holder, only now it contains 6 small Terra-cotta pots.

As a veg gardener, I don't relish the idea of schlepping starts back and forth from a cold frame to the house every day this spring in order to gradually harden off the tender little potentials to eventually live outdoors. Cardboard boxes get soggy and things tend to slide around. Garden products available for this purpose are often made of plastic and are awkward to lift out of a cold frame. So, when I saw this item, I naturally had to have it. For around $18, I felt is was worth the expenditure and now I have yet another reason to poke about antique malls, garage sales and thrift stores; a rather favorite, albeit costly hobby of mine (along with several other favorite, compulsive, expensive hobbies of mine).  It's much easier to put out the bucks knowing that the item has a practical use, not just something that sits on the shelf looking pretty, although I have plenty of that too; artifacts of shopping therapy.

The bottle holder allows me to carry 8 two inch pots of starts and being made out of brass, won't corrode in the great outdoors. Since this discovery, I found another metal 6-pot holder in an antique mall. This time I have to buy the pots for it, but it will hold slightly larger pots, perhaps tapered 4 inchers. Because my starts are sitting in a window sill, I don't have the luxury of watering them in place, so the handle on these wracks makes it easy to carry over to the kitchen sink for a good soaking.

I love the idea of repuposing. It goes so well with the whole organic thing and the items have a charm all their own. In this case, it will be very convenient to raise my baby Red Zebra tomatoes and other starts.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Carrots Have A Circadian Clock?

Wow, another thing to keep track of and stash in our gardening repertoire. In the Feb/March addition of Organic Gardening magazine, Michele Owens writes an interesting article on the internal clocks of veg. The premise is if our turnips or radishes aren't mature before they bolt it could be because they weren't planted at the right time of the year and consequently, the length of light they need at certain growth stages is off kilter. According to biologist Takato Imaizumi of the University of Washington who is interviewed in this article, a plant's cells have an internal clock that rhythmically produces proteins that degrade and activate genes again in 24 hours. So, what I gather is that carrots and peas have regular internal sleep/wake cycles. If planted at the wrong time, they get jet lagged.

Now, I know what some of you are thinking in between fits of laughter- "What?!" Yep, your crop failures may not be from planting seeds before the soil temperature is warm enough for germination and the seeds rot.Your bolting lettuce may have hypertension issues from too much sun light, not too much heat. This theory may have some merit though. Imaizumi divides veg into 3 different categories: long-day flowering plants, short-day flowering plants, and day-neutral plants.

Long-day plants include carrot, cilantro, lettuce, peas, radish, spinach and turnip just to list a few. In other words, these veges need longer periods of light to flower. If you live in an area that often has cold springs, like the Pacific NW, long day veg planted in the spring languish until the weather gets warmer. Warmer soil also happens to coincide with more light. Many of these root crops are biennials that need a prolonged cold snap that triggers flowering in summer the following year. This mechanism is supposed to keep them from flowering the first summer, long enough to grow a good edible bit to harvest. Our prolonged cold spring may fool them and thus, when the days get long, they bolt. The plant germinates then shoots for the flowering stage because its internal clock says that's what it's supposed to do.The result is you get underdeveloped plants that flower before they're ready to harvest. The cure? Plant the seeds after the solstice for a fall crop. They develop well because they wouldn't flower until the following summer.

You may be surprised, but tomatoes can get too much light. They're short-day flowering plants. Ever notice that many of your tomato plants finally flower in the late summer to fall when the temperature starts to drop down too much to ripen the fruit? Indeterminate tomatoes just grow and grow and grow foliage until they bust out of their supports, then flower away in mid to late August. The sunlight promotes the vegetation, but the length of light promotes the flowering. This revelation may be why we need a greenhouse to really grow good tomatoes. They need the warmth, but not the light for the fruit to mature. In fact, many of the short-day crops grow better in warmer climates such as, pineapple, black-eyed peas, okra, pomegranate, sweet potato and as mentioned, tomato. Night and day are more evenly distributed all year compared to us, but the temperature doesn't drop to low to croak them before harvest time. Blueberries, June-bearing strawberries, common beans, cucumbers and raspberries grow here, but are either hardier or are at the mercy of our climatic swings.

Day neutral plants include alpine and everbearing strawberries, apple, many of the brassica crops, peach, pear, rhubarb and some cultivars of beans, cucumbers and corn, to name a few. These plants either like it hot or cooler.

Some crops are even sensitive to where they originated latitude-wise, depending on the variety. They evolved to survive at a certain latitude and therefore, light level. Although obviously not a veg, if you think about it, chickens require 16 hours of light a day to lay eggs, thus the seasonality of there egg laying cycle. Where do chickens come from (and don't say "eggs," duh)? Certain areas of the tropics, close to the equator where days are long enough to produce the 16 hour days without the big seasonal light/dark swings that we experience in the Northwest. I know of one backyard chicken aficionado who turns on the flood lights in his hen house until 2am during the winter months so he gets year-around eggs.

Unfortunately, if your long-day plants experience SAD, supplementing their fertilizer with melatonin won't work. However, the taxonomists are developing varieties that tweak that internal clock so we gardeners can grow things that otherwise would be difficult. Not only are our day lengths a consideration, Western Washingtonians experience prolonged cloud cover that can feel oppressive. That's another dimension to consider. Choosing varieties that are not only climate conditioned to ours, but also come from a similar latitude will help to ensure a successful crop.

Unfortunately, this bit of information is just one more thing to keep track of in the art of veg gardening. I could wallpaper my house with all of the charts I'm supposed to keep track of when, what, where and how to plant my veg. In this case, I think I'll start with the Solstice thing and see how it works out.

If you do too, let me know how it works out for you.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Spring Cleaning

transplanted leeks
Now that the worst of winter has past - one can only hope - it's time to take advantage of the sunshine and get out there to start cleaning out those beds! It's best to do it now for several reasons. First, you won't feel so overwhelmed when all of the chores hit you at once when official planting season begins. Second, you can assess what you have left to harvest and harvest it while jogging your memory of what worked and didn't work. Third, the ground is wet which makes it easier to pull out weeds. Finally, you can take inventory of your seed stash and see what you have and order the cool stuff before it's out of stock. This is the perfect time to get reacquainted with your garden.

Filderkraut cabbage - in at 8.8 lbs
I've spent the last two days bending over and yanking out tons of grass, shot-weed and old vegies out of the blueberry mound in the parking strip and in the raised beds. I harvested another giant Filderkraut cabbage. This baby weighs in at 8.8 pounds of spicy, cabbagey goodness. I'll make a soup then probably try my hands at sauerkraut, which is what this variety is traditionally used for.

Today, I planted French shallots and potato onions. I know, I know, I'm a little late as they should have gone in last fall, so I'll have to see how they do. Since I let some of my leeks go to seed, I now have leeklets coming up. I transplanted those in the same bed with the purple sprouting broccoli. Yep, that's what I said. My purple sprouting broccoli is back! It's shooting up new foliage from the same root systems and old stalks from 2 seasons ago, acting like a perennial. It has survived 6 inches of snow, ice, and below freezing temperatures this year. That stuff is tough! I got a lot of bang for the buck with that one.
Purple Sprouting Broccoli is back!
For soil replenishment I'll need to get some compost, corn gluten and mulch. The onions like a layer of mulch and I also want to tamp down the weeds. Corn gluten helps keep the weeds from germinating and adds nitrogen. It's also screaming yellow-orange, so best to mix it into the top layer of soil. I would like to get a load of arborist chips to put down on the parking strip where the blueberries are, but minimum deliveries for the free stuff off of Craig's List is from 6 all the way up to 15 yards! Although I would also use it around the raised bed's pathways, that's a lot of yardage. I would have Mt. Wood Chip in the driveway for awhile. I suppose I could let the neighbors have at it as a sort of mulchapalooza. Hmmmm. This might be the trick to getting Roland to get rid of those dead vehicles in the driveway. He works better with a deadline. I think I'll get on Craig's List and see about getting a load delivered next week.