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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.